Back in 2006, Parisian indie filmmaker Vincent Moon (born Mathieu Saura) launched La Blogothèque, a website dedicated to exposing indie rock's elite with intimate music videos. The site has since built a sizable cult following, thanks in large part to the popular Les Concerts à Emporter (Take-Away Shows), a catalog of stylish off-the-cuff productions featuring such bands as Vampire Weekend, REM, Arcade Fire, Sigur Rós, Animal Collective and Tom Jones (oh, the irony) performing primarily acoustic versions of their songs inside vans, alleys and on rooftops, among other inconspicuous locations. Similar websites have sprung up, with decidedly regional and local bents, in New York, Seattle and now Detroit.
Motown's version is an anthropological evolution of sorts. Dubbed Single Barrel Detroit (singlebarreldetroit.com), the site is dedicated to exposing Detroit's landscapes and architecture as much as it is the musicians performing in it.
"We're reinventing the concept of what a stage is," says Jared Groth, who co-produces SBD with Andy Martin. "Taking these musicians off the stage, away from the lights and monitors, makes for something very unique, and with one shot at recording a song, they really let their guard down."
In the first batch of episodes, rediscovered soul rocker Rodriguez performs solo at the Diego Rivera fresco at the Detroit Institute of Arts. "We were so excited to have him and to have it cleared by the DIA," Groth says. "But he was very shy, especially when the flash from the camera was going off. He did one song then started packing up his guitar. It was a great take, but how do you ask the guy for a few more? Rodriguez said if he was going to do more songs he'd have to do some ballads; he said we have to remind people that Detroiters can still do ballads. That's the stuff right there."
With seven episodes in the can (the two unfinished segments I've seen were visually engaging and sounded beautiful), SBD is set to go live Friday, June 26. Groth and Martin surrounded themselves with a crew of skilled young creatives, including director Katie Barkel and director of photography Mike Berlucchi, to ensure style and professionalism aren't jeopardized. "I think the one thing to avoid is compromise," Groth says. "Essentially we're creating art; the minute we try to appease anyone specific who might be watching is the point where we've derailed."
And, in the face of compromise, the SBD folks are well aware they won't please everyone. "We have a lot to prove to a city that takes its image and its music über-seriously," Martin adds. "We need to avoid being discouraged by the undercurrent of naysayers who might question the viability or the integrity of this project. But Single Barrel isn't a gated community; we're inviting people in."
With such an emphasis on Detroit and its community, Groth goes on to point out that SBD isn't trying to represent Detroit culture so much as to reflect it and project it to the rest of the world. "We have a camera and what we choose to film or 'portray' is always different. Yes, sometimes it might be about the blight and abandonment common to Detroit, but most often it's about the beautiful architecture and unique history of this city. It's more what's in our own backyard."
Barkel adds: "It's not about trying to act like everything's OK in Detroit by only shooting at places like the DIA, and it's not about trying to cash in on the visual richness of dilapidated gems, either. We've shot inside the swanky Opera House and in the crumbling shell of Lee Plaza apartments with the goal of making each location look and sound as intriguing as possible. This city makes an impression on people; I feel really lucky to live in such a visually unbelievable place."
Her sentiment is shared among the Single Barrel gang, an affable mélange of talented sound engineers, editors, writers, web designers and more. Martin simply considers the group "a collective of urban explorers, filmmakers, musicians and music lovers that gather periodically and capture the experiences."
Groth hopes the urban exploration aspect of what SBD is doing is as exciting for visitors to the site as it has been for him. "I've already discovered so many things about Detroit that I didn't know existed just by being a part of this project," he enthuses. "That's an element of our website that will keep things fresh."
In addition to photo galleries and a written narrative focusing on that day's location and recording process, the site intends to offer visitors free digital MP3 downloads, a boon to local music lovers and to those who dig Detroit culture in general.
For Martin, on the cultural tip, the site "not only taps into our passion for music and love for architecture, but our desires to feel a greater sense of community through art in a city that is sometimes overwhelmed with segregation and overly obsessed with sports teams."
For Groth, it's about finding out if all elements can fit together. Will locations inspire performances? "It's about equal passion for the music and the city," Groth says, "but we want national and international acts to participate too. We want to surprise them and the world in terms of how beautiful Detroit is. We want to show them the city they really don't get to see when they're just rolling through town on tour."
In the meantime, SBD will continue to feature some of Detroit's most eclectic musical artists. Aside from Rodriguez at the DIA, the SBD shot Prussia inside the Russell Industrial Center, Charlene Kaye at the top of the dilapidated Lee Plaza apartments, Daniel Zott in Woodbridge, Aran Ruth at the Detroit Opera House, the Codgers in and around Corktown during the St. Patty's Day parade and Alan Scheurman on Fourth Street.
Martin says, "We're still trying to figure out how to convince Aretha to do a shoot on the duck boats at Belle Isle."
Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]