What does it mean to have "made it" in the Pittsburgh music scene? And what comes next?
JK: I really struggled with where to begin this interview because you have such a large body of work out there, and it spans across so many different types of media. But I think I want to start with your most recent work in film. Last night you actually had a screening for your feature length film called Food Systems, Chapter 1: A Night Out. Can you tell us a little bit about the event that was last night and also the documentary series?
DB: Sure. Well the documentary series is a three film series with two feature length films and one short film. The first film in the series is A Night Out, and that is about restaurant history in Pittsburgh. So the screening we did last night was at Root 174 in Regent Square. It’s a restaurant that holds about 38 seats. It’s kind of a smaller restaurant, and we had 20 people show up… We did a really intimate screening just with a projector. So that was the first screening.
JK: Oh that was the first screening?
DB: Yes, that was the first screening and there are three more planned for September and the first of October. And then some other ones down the road.
JK: And is this all in Pittsburgh so far?
DB: All in Pittsburgh so far, working on a Brooklyn screening. I had a film last year that I took it to Columbus, Chicago, and Louisville.
JK: And about the series itself, it’s three parts, but this one is specifically about restaurant history. Do you want to talk about what that means exactly?
DB: Sure. The project started as a movie about restaurants, and as I interviewed some folks they said, “you have to talk to the food bank” because if you are talking about food and restaurants, you should talk about the food bank and about how a large percentage of Pittsburgh actually eats not just at high end restaurants. So that conversation led to, “Oh I should look at the whole food cycle”, and now the series is the first one about restaurants, the second about farm dinners kind of bridging the gap into the third film, which is farms, distribution, supply, access, and education.
So when we talk about restaurant history… I worked at the Primadonna in McKees Rocks for one summer, but really off and on through my early college years, washing dishes. And I liked the culture, so when I started working with video work … it seemed like an interesting topic to dive into. I had some idea of restaurant history in the 70’s but really I did not know about La Normande which was arguably one of the best restaurants in Pittsburgh, definitely one of the best French restaurants. I had no knowledge of it at all. And I mistakenly corrected Bill Fuller when he mentioned it. So I made some mistakes along the way but it was just diving in and figuring out what a good story would be. I’d like to say it’s “a history”... This history is French restaurants, late 70’s, and how the trends in high end dining kind of changed from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, into Big Burrito, and then into the people you see now with Legume, and Kevin Sousa. And then branching out into different ethnic restaurants… and it kind of gets into different issues that exist today. So a bit of history, a bit of today.
JK: Has there been anything else that has led you to pursue these other [artistic] facets?
DB: I think one thing, and it’s a criticism of Pittsburgh, is that there are a lot of local ceilings in the arts. So with music, Box Step (that was the band that I joined, my friends band) I joined that band, and they were on a Chicago record label. The Frames and Iron and Wine were on the label too. We did a six week tour, and it was kind of big. We played with some bigger folks. Folks that would later go on to be in Band of Horses and stuff like that. And that was kind of like the top of the Pittsburgh scene. We opened for Wilco...
JK: So you had “made it”?
DB: Yes, we “Pittsburgh made it.” But you have to keep a consistent level of activity and you have to maintain that. And if you dip a bit, you kind of have to start over again. So with Box Step we hit that ceiling and more because it was more national. And my subsequent band Vale and Year, we definitely hit that ceiling. You play in the Mattress Factory garden party, and you play a couple of other benefits, and you actually get paid for those. And then you dip down again. So I think that constant bumping against the ceiling in music led me to want to say “well this ceiling can’t exist in the art world, so let me try some art”... Seeing limitations due to a limited audience for different things in Pittsburgh and limited funding, and this grant based culture where you need to get a grant because art isn’t sustainable in itself. You can’t fund anything with art. So I think all that led me to say, “well why not try art? Why not try painting? Why not try making more sculptural work for a show at Space next year? Why not try film and dance?”
So I think that condition of Pittsburgh, don’t get me wrong Pittsburgh is great because you can do anything you want to do and there’s some audience for it. But there’s not a huge audience for anything. So I think that helped me try different things. And it’s encouraging because I was accepted in those different art forms to some extent...
I’ve never directly gotten a grant. So nothing has ever been funded except self funded. Which is great because then I have to learn color correction, for example. I have to teach myself these things, and I enjoy that. I think that process is fun, getting new skills and experimenting with technique.
JK: Going back to your video work for a moment. In your artist statement you cite this responsibility to the community as an important part of your documentary series. Is there something specific that accounts for that change in your work?
DB: Yes because I think when I am making music or a painting or a dance piece, you are not necessarily documenting someone else’s life, and their passions and their work. With the documentary, whether it’s the one about food or the one I did about artist process last year, you’re representing what someone is trying to do. So there is definitely more of a responsibility to that person, to try to represent what they’re doing honestly. So what I try to do is I try to not make it a promotion for that person but to show what they are trying to do. If it’s a certain chef and they have certain ideas, I try to leave it as a longer edit so that they can get their full idea out and not chop it up for my own agenda. And let the story develop itself.