Mark Thomas – The Elbow Connection
What is music video if not the trusting of two artists. Following this thought Soup Co‘s very own Mark Thomas and Elbow have shown us exactly what real trust can create. Having worked together since 1998 the team have gone from strength to strength which brings us to 2014 wherein they created a series of four mini-doc style music videos that both broaden the mind whilst entertaining the heart.
Stand alone these promos are great but it’s when you judge them as a whole you realise the depth to their vision. Artists have dropped music video albums before but this is different. Acting almost as a selfless act the videos are tied together only by the brilliance of their subjects with Elbow’s music becoming the theme to these people’s lives. The music takes on the positivity of the visuals providing positive connotations to an already beautiful set of songs. With this synergy in mind we were fortunate enough to catch up with Mark and find out how the project started, what it’s been like working with Elbow for close to 20 years and what could be next.
Word Is Cheap: New York Morning is a truly unique story, are Dennis and Lois as sweet in real life as they come across on screen?
Mark Thomas: They are amaaazing in real life, and a big concern was if we could get that to come across in the time frame. Two of us from Soup – Mat Norman and myself have spent a lot of time with them over the years, often staying on at theirs for a few days to film when we were over in New York filming with bands.
Never quite felt the pressure so much on a project as this, knowing that it had to work for the band, for a wide audience and for Dennis and Lois.
I remember ringing Lois to see if they’d watched the link I’d sent them. The first thing Lois said on the phone was ‘It’s not good…’ After a few moments panic I grasped that it wasn’t about the video but about the fact that their ‘Gnome Roses’ had turned up in the post with a broken Reni..
They did like the video a lot.. I’ve got some lovely answerphone messages from Denlo saying how chuffed they are with the video that means an awful lot.
How long have you been working with Elbow and how has it changed?
I first met the band in 1998. While studying at Manchester Met, Andy Seaton (Andy Soup) and myself set up Soup (Loops at the time) as an output for our work we were doing in clubs and venues with projections. Collaged, printed on 16mm and slide film was the order of the day, raiding educational services for projectors to use over the weekends.
Pete from Elbow came down to one of the events we did and asked if we would do the visuals for their launch gig. We had a budget which – as students – we were thrilled about, I think we splashed out on three rolls of 16mm and made a series of loops for them for the full set. Shot on a Bolex before being worked into, those loops formed the basis for our travels with the band doing visuals and set the tone for some of the early videos (Any Day Now). When they played Wembley Arena a few years back, a definite highlight was seeing some of those scratched 16mm loops playing out on a wall of LEDS.
There’s a lot of trust and mutual respect which was there from very early on and this has grown over the years. From creating video sketches of early demos to pretty much living with the band during the recording of their third studio album, Leaders of the Free World, to create an album-length film version – collaboration has been a key factor in the relationship. This also extends to encompass working with other visual artists, with Elbow always being welcoming of illustrators, animators and other film-makers that I’ve involved on different projects. Leaders of the Free World was a good example of this, bringing in a team of six artists to draw, photograph and animate the band over the making of the album.
Having worked with them for so long do you feel you know Elbow’s visual persona better than the band themselves?
Hehe, I don’t know about that. I do know that having spent so much time together over the years we know each others tastes pretty well, and I don’t doubt that their music has influenced how my visual style has developed over the years with it being such as a constant input. The band come forward with a lot of interesting ideas and are always willing to hear my thoughts. It always makes for a good dialogue and a chance to crack open the tea and biscuits.
My Sad Captains is the only promo to not feature subtitles, was this preplanned?
I really embraced the observational doc format with My Sad Captains. We brought in a guy called Bernie Steer to mic up the whole room with a network of about 12 mics all over the place. I left it quite open as to what we may get but there were threads between the kids and the parents that I was hoping to bring back into the video. Annie Woodall from Soup spent an inordinate amount of time going through the audio and we had a few threads from the transcriptions, but everything we tried made the piece feel too weighted. The text seemed to pin things down that shouldn’t be pinned down, it’s such a light film and in the end it felt a stronger piece without.
How did a project like this come about? Who’s idea was it? How long were you working on it?
One of the things that’s lovely about working with Elbow is having time to develop things, something that’s pretty rare when it comes to music video. I was filming with them at Real World studios while they were writing and recording, so it was a chance to listen to some of the songs in an early form and start thinking on possible themes. The idea for characters as a focus came quite early on, it’s something that I’d never tackled before with Elbow – always weighing heavy on performance or environment but never character. I think the initial reference was with New York Morning, the idea being to create a multi-character thread for the first single, this developing into other songs.
It’s always a dialogue. The band are keen on being involved and things get ping-ponged around until it reaches a point that everyone’s happy with. Dance was a theme that came up quite a bit in conversations and, while it’s there literally with My Sad Captains, it also feels present across some of the other songs with movement and flow being central to the films.
Do you see this work as a whole or as stand alone projects?
It grew into a whole project really. The ambition was there to treat it as one body of work but it was still a commissioning process for each video, with a few ideas put forward for each song.
I’ve not yet watched them all back to back as they all still feel quite close, but it’ll be interesting to see how they work as a full run. There are threads that seem to run through all the films. Movement is what propels the four films and what, for me is a joy to work with, looking at ways of choreographing the movement within each scenario. Loss is also something that seems present throughout, not something I set out to achieve but definitely seems present across the four films.
Performance is perhaps the key factor, all of the four films look at either an interest in performance and the performer (New York Morning) or reflect being in that state, that moment of performance within the character’s respective fields, breaking out of the everyday for a few brief moments.
Did you or any of your crew pluck up the courage and swim in any lakes?
Viv made sure we did! Percy Dean, our DoP completely embraced it and even when we’d got the shots we needed he seemed to want to get back in there just to be sure!
The promos themselves tie together perfectly visuals, track, subtitles. Was there a point where you were worried subtitles would distract from the tracks?
It was definitely an issue and still a bit of a marmite thing, I think I learned a lot with New York Morning. Initially we were trying to tell the whole story as we know it, which is pretty extensive given that we had filmed Dennis and Lois over 5 years and had extensive rushes to work from. It eventually became a case of simmering it down, creating a scaffold of what we wanted to tell and then stripping bits out to see if what you’re left with still tells a story, or maybe more importantly creates a mood and a sense of character.
Did you know who you wanted to document when pitching the idea? How did you find these incredible stories?
It was a bit of a wish-list in a way. I have a stash of scrapbooks of articles and images built up from over the years and they’re stacked with a lot of swimming, dance and local heritage stuff, so there was a clear starting point of what I’d like to look at. Dennis and Lois had been an ongoing project of sorts for some years, for My Sad Captains my daughters ballet class was the starting point, Viv, Craig and Chris (Real Life and Charge) were fortunately very welcoming after research led me to them.
It helped having the backing of Elbow. It was something of a privileged position to be in to be able to approach people about making a film knowing that it is for the next Elbow video.
Were you tempted to put any money down on the Craig while shooting?
Too superstitious for that, would have felt I was meddling somehow – breaks that observational line!
This is a great representation of the relationship and trust that you and Elbow have. Are there any ideas for what to do next? Is there a pressure to top this?
I always get excited for new Elbow projects and never tire of hearing new material. No idea what would be next, it’s not something that feels pressured, it’s always a joy to respond to new songs. It’d be lovely to start with a film and work from there one time. A long-form doc soundtracked by Elbow, that’d be pretty special.