• Charlie Vogelsang

Chelsea Christer Q&A: Bleeding Audio, #SaveOurStages and More

Chelsea Christer
Credit: Chelsea Christer

Based in San Francisco, award-winning filmmaker Chelsea Christer has already directed two well-received shorts, We’re Just Like You and Sierra. Now her first feature film, Bleeding Audio, has been chosen for Official Selection at the Slamdance Film Festival.

The documentary recounts the story of how The Matches went from up-and-coming to broken-up to rebirthed. It provides an insight into how the musical industry has changed and how this has prevented many talented artists from becoming successful.

IndieVisible speaks to Christer about her filmmaking process, the challenges of working with musicians, and what’s next for this talented director.

What drew you to The Matches and their unique story?

I first learned of The Matches when they exploded on stage opening for Motion City Soundtrack in 2005. Since then I’ve been a fan, and ultimately became a friend years later after working on some video projects with them locally in San Francisco.

It always kind of baffled me that this band that had so much to say and was so embracing of their community wasn’t skyrocketing to fame. While I was cognizant of the changing industry, seeing them constantly on the road and appearing on magazine covers felt like signals that the big break was imminent. While working on the video projects with the band, I saw some of the weariness and burnout in everyone. So when they broke up - I understood why.

So when the guys let it slip to me that they were going to reunite, I knew it was going to be a massive success. Their fanbase is so passionately supportive of them - but The Matches had absolutely no idea how big it would be. The single San Francisco show turning into a sold out North American tour (and eventually a tour in Australia) to me felt like a heartwarming redemption story that needed to be told.

What did you think were the most important bits to showcase in Bleeding Audio?

It was really important to me to make sure to dispel the illusion of outward success vs. financial success we as consumers see in our artists. In constructing the narrative for Bleeding Audio, I wanted to ensure we were telling The Matches unique story - but also making sure it was universally accessible to all artists who are trying to make it today.

I wanted to completely break that down and pull back the curtain, so fans can better understand the hard work and actual finances taking place behind the scenes. I’ll never forget this time where Motion City Soundtrack’s longtime merchandise sales person got into a horrible accident.

They held a huge fundraiser for her and a show with higher priced tickets that were donated to her medical bills. I saw this comment on social media and it said “Why are they even doing this, I’m sure the lead singer could just pay off her bills in one go.” That kind of disconnect encapsulated the problem I wanted to solve with what I chose to feature in this film.

I also wanted to show the sense of community that permeated The Matches ethos. While we were editing, we realized we were juggling several themes and needed to whittle it down to one. That theme was community - it’s what gave The Matches their start and revival.

It’s quite a distinctive documentary with interesting visuals, how did The Matches inspire the creative visuals in Bleeding Audio?

Another thing about The Matches is not only did they have a very clear evolution in their music—but also visually with their artwork. It was important for me to tell this additional layer to their story because it was very unique to them, but it was also a huge part of what fans loved about them.

The Matches themselves never addressed their artwork in interviews, even when prompted: it was such a part of them that they didn’t really have much to say. Other interviews with friends or fans, all they could talk about was the intersection of their music and visual style, and so we did our best to honor it throughout the film.

The fact both Shawn and Justin are incredibly talented artists as well as musicians gave the band a totally different texture and tool from their early DIY beginnings. Shawn really spearheaded the creative vision and visual identity for the band as a whole, and ultimately got additional creative support from an artist named Emilee Seymour in their later records.

We were able to utilize and revitalize some of that album art in the animations throughout the film. I similarly wanted the animations in the film to evolve alongside the narrative. So, Act One was stylized to match the E. Von Dahl Killed the Locals era artwork, Act Two used elements from the Decomposer album art, and Act Three featured texture and design from the A Band in Hope era.

What did you learn about yourself coming away from this project?

I get a little bit of shit for this slightly bleak outlook, but the biggest thing I learned out of this project was I totally get why people quit. This shit is hard, and it can make a person wildly unhappy at times. What I learned about myself is that even through the tears or the lowest points in making this movie - I loved making this film.

The good days were some of the greatest moments for me personally, and outweighed the bad days on this project. This film taught me that I’m doing exactly what I was meant to do - and that I won’t quit. When I started back in 2014, I was a very different filmmaker. You learn to forgive yourself when you’re editing footage that’s 5 years old. The biggest thing I learned was my own resilience. That you should never be ashamed to ask for help, and to trust your gut.

How have the fans of The Matches reacted to the film?

The fan response to Bleeding Audio has been overwhelming. I’ve gotten many personal messages about how much seeing this story in time preserved meant to those who were impacted by The Matches. Also, many Matches fans had no idea why the band broke up, and so since this film answers that in full for the first time. I’ve received a lot of messages about how shocked they were to see the truth.

What challenges did you face during production?

The shorter question here would be what challenges didn’t you face during production. The first and foremost answer to this is scheduling musicians. Don’t get me wrong - I love artists. But my goodness - it is like wrangling cats. Between dropped emails, changing managers, tour schedules - it took four years just to get all the interviews we needed and wanted for the film.

Another challenge we faced was when to stop filming the story, which is definitely a unique challenge for the documentary filmmaker. Things were changing for The Matches, and they actually recorded a couple new songs. I thought this was the pinnacle of our resolution for the film.

It was four months of filming and delaying the rest of our interviews till after I was done capturing the recording and not a FRAME of that footage wound up in our cut. Once we got into post, it just didn’t feel like the place to end this story. I’m glad I have those sessions recorded but it’s always a hard call for documentary filmmakers to know exactly when the story stops.

US Congress passed a bill offering $15 billion in relief for struggling art venues through the help of the campaign #Saveourstages, what does this mean to musicians and struggling artists?

THIS. IS. SO. IMPORTANT. I’m so thrilled that this bill actually passed. A point that is made in the film is that it’s no secret musicians are no longer able to live off of their music alone. Touring is the primary income for musicians now that streaming only offers fractions of pennies as compensation to their artists.

But it’s not only the artists who are affected, it’s the venues and the event staff that help make shows possible that are struggling. A lot of bands around The Matches size rely on independent music venues to be around to promote their art. If those venues don’t survive the pandemic, then those artists don’t have a venue to play once we’re able to gather safely again.

It’s all connected. I’m not sure how the bill will be dispersed and if it will reach musicians in the end, but this economic relief means that there is hope for artists to have a space to return to once they can tour again. Given touring is where they are able to make their living, this will keep that door open.

And tangentially from that, I would argue that my personal origin story and path to discovering who I was came from live music. Going to packed and sweaty shows as a teenager gave me a space to learn about myself and connect with friends who I am still closest to today.

Music is a community connector and a piece of our culture that must be protected and preserved. The thought of someone like me being deprived of live music at such a formative time because there was nothing protecting our artists or venues during this pandemic breaks my heart.

Bleeding Audio has won multiple awards from Cinequest Film Festival to SF Doc Fest, and now has been chosen as the Official Selection of Slamdance Film Festival. How does this success make you feel?

I’ve been living with this film for so long, it’s still kind of baffling to me that people are finally seeing it. But to have it receive awards - It’s blowing my mind. It feels really amazing and validating. I had been told so many times that I couldn’t make a film that would be embraced by audiences about a band no one has heard of - so it feels pretty good to have audiences embrace it by voting for it to win awards.

But, I also worked with an incredible team of people who really supported my vision and helped craft this story. The audience reaction to date makes me feel like the care and consideration we put into every second of that film is coming across. I am incredibly humbled and grateful.

What’s next for you in the future? Are there any exciting new projects we should be on the lookout for?

There are a few things I’m developing! I have a couple feature scripts I’ve written between my time spent finishing Bleeding Audio that I would love to get made. One in particular carries forward the story of the music industry's mental health impact on musicians, and the other is a crazy mindf*ck of a story that wrestles with identity.

It’s been fun to write these in the background, and I’m so ready for what’s next. I love Bleeding Audio, but after over 6 years of dedication to this project, I’m very eager to create something new.