He didn’t need to be involved with it; he just wanted it to happen.
That was the primary motivating factor when in 2004 Lee Tesche fired off a lengthy email to director Christoph Green and producer/Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty to try and convince them to shoot a Burn To Shine in Atlanta. Tesche had watched the first two installments of the legendary underground films series — the first one shot in Washington, DC and the second in Chicago — and had become enamored of the concept. The premise was simple: capture a snapshot of a music scene and city in flux by filming a curated group of local bands performing in a house that was set to be razed. Footage of the home being torn down and demolished would be shown at the end, lending an air of permanence and finality to the documentary.
Like many kids who grew up listening to punk and underground music in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Tesche romanticized the Washington, DC punk scene. He was also a big supporter of the seminal record label Touch and Go and many of the artists the appeared on the Chicago installment of the series. At the time, he was wishful and maybe a bit envious of the culture that helped nurture and grow the two scenes, and he hoped something like that would develop in his home city.
“Around then, I was going to a lot of shows,” Tesche reflects, “and I thought there were a lot of interesting bands here. But at that point in time, Atlanta wasn’t on people’s radar the way it would be a couple years later and the way it is now. It was very much always in the shadow of Athens. I remember, even throughout the late ‘90s when I was in high school, a lot of times I would have to go to Athens to see shows, because the bands that I liked would skip Atlanta and play Athens before going on somewhere else. And that was kind of the climate. So, I was always going to shows, and seeing interesting bands, and I just thought they should do one here. I remember watching the DC and Chicago one and thinking there are bands here that are just as good.”
To his surprise, Canty wrote back the next day agreeing to pursue the project if Tesche could get it set up and organized. Once he received a response, Tesche began writing regularly, asking for advice and keeping Canty and Green in the loop on new developments.
Later, in September of 2005, Canty came through Atlanta while playing drums for Bob Mould. The two met up at Elmyr and began to discuss logistics for the documentary and what artists they should pursue. For Tesche, who describes himself as a “huge worshipper of Fugazi,” it was a surreal experience to be chatting music with one of his idols, but it was also the moment when he began to realize this was something that could actually happen. Despite not figuring prominently in the national conversation, Atlanta could get its own Burn To Shine.
Still, he didn’t feel comfortable curating the documentary. He was in the middle of a break from playing music and he didn’t think he had the connections to be involved. For over a year he tried to get several people, including Rob Del Bueno of Man or Astro-Man? and Henry Owings of Chunklet, to take over and spearhead the effort, but they were either too busy with other projects or didn’t share his vision. By the time he decided to pursue things himself, many of the bands he had originally envisioned for the documentary — groups like SIDS, Blame Game, and the Orphins — had broken up, forcing him to revisit what artists he wanted to include in the project.
But more so than the bands, a much bigger challenge loomed over Tesche: he needed to find a house to demolish. “I was so focused on trying to find the right bands,” says Tesche, “I didn’t consider how hard it would be to find a home that was getting ready to be razed. With the exception of the first Burn To Shine, where the availability of the house presented the opportunity that established the concept, each other one had the challenge of finding a house for that specific purpose. And I think every single one has had a crazy story involving the house.”
As Canty explains, finding the home has always been the wrench in the system, preventing perhaps more Burn To Shine installments from being produced. “We always hoped to do more of them,” Canty admits, “but they are actually kind hard to do. It may not seem like it, but when you’re trying to get somebody to give you a house that’s going to be demolished, you really have to talk your way in. It takes a minute. I’ve spent so much time talking to fire departments and demolition people. I’m not dissuaded by the hard work, but it is the kind of thing where I felt it needed to have a place, it needed to have a home, it needed a reason for being done.”
Faced with the difficult prospect of not only finding a property, but also getting permission to film, Tesche had a moment of inspiration which almost led to the ideal location for the shoot. Shortly before he began his search, the old Lenny’s Bar on Memorial Drive had closed. Developers were supposed to knock it down and build on the property. He met with the Boulevard Group who controlled the building and pitched his cause. “They were not interested AT ALL,” laughs Tesche. “They were concerned it would turn into a Save Lenny’s campaign. I tried to beg and plead with them, but they wouldn’t hear it. So that became the biggest hurdle because I didn’t know anything about finding buildings. How do you find properties that were getting ready to be demolished? And that you could film in?”
For a time, Tesche worked with the Atlanta Film Society to secure a location, but nothing turned up. For over a year he contacted realtors and property managers, scouring the city for even the slightest clue of where they might be able to film. But then, one day, purely by chance, he came across the dilapidated green house on 54 Moreland Avenue. “I just happened to drive by it one day,” Tesche recalls. “I lived near it on Edgewood. I saw the windows boarded up and a sign in front. So I ended up researching, getting in touch with the property managers, and everything just fell in place. It was a learning process, for sure.”
Once they had secured a house, everything moved quickly. It was only three weeks from finding the property until Green and his crew started filming. As Tesche describes it, the shoot was a “perfect storm” of finding a location, reaching out to all the different bands, some of which were already significant touring acts at the time, and getting everything scheduled. To help build the lineup, Tesche turned to his friend Tom Cheshire of All Night Drug Prowling Wolves, who was friends with most of the bands selected and something of a social butterfly. (“A lot of it was Tom’s good will,” Tesche admits.) Considering all the factors involved, it’s a minor miracle that all the artists just happened to be in town at the same time.
While he wasn’t able to get every artist on his wish list — in particular Tesche wanted to include some ex-pats like Cat Power, and he spent some time trying to get Chuck D involved — he was well pleased with the final list of performers. He was especially happy to get the Mighty Hannibal and his wife, Delia Gartrell, involved. For Tesche, it was critical that he involve some of the city’s old soul contingent and getting the couple to come down from New York became a personal mission for him. But as the day of filming approached, it began to dawn on him just how notable the film’s lineup could potentially be.
“It was a weird summer,” Tesche reminisces. “Even though I had reached out to them to help shine a light on Atlanta a few years before, all of a sudden there was a buzz and a hype surrounding Mastodon and Black Lips. Mastodon was already quite big, they were already on Warner Bros at that point, and Black Lips had signed to Vice and were touring a lot and were already doing well, but that was the year Deerhunter took off on this crazy trajectory. Cryptograms has just come out and they were Pitchfork darlings and there was so much hype back then. MTV had done some five-minute thing on Atlanta, and I just remember it was this weird summer where all eyes were on the city.”
Of course, no one at the time could have foreseen just how prescient the selections would be. The Coathangers had formed shortly before the start of filming and were virtually unknown in the city. Not surprisingly, the decision to include them came with some detractors who questioned their involvement, which seems laughable given present history. To think that after three years of delays, Burn To Shine 6 would include virtually every major player in the Atlanta garage rock explosion that followed seems more than a stroke of good fortune. There was a little bit of magic at play as well.
“It’s funny,” Tesche says, “because two years before it would have been an entirely different crop of bands. And two years after, it would have been another set. So that’s what I think is really cool about these kind of time capsule things: scenes are always in a state of fluidity, and it’s interesting to capture a moment of time.”
For Canty, this sense of foresight is part of what makes this Burn To Shine so special. Unlike previous installments, which were released shortly after filming, the Atlanta documentary has the benefit of time both illuminating and contributing to the weight of its historical significance. “I love the aspect of the nature of time and its relationship to this one — it’s very real,” Canty says. “It’s not like some hypothetical thing that we would bring up to somebody as we were making it: ‘you know, someday, in ten years we’ll look back on this group of people and it will be interesting.’ That was always the hook for me about this project. Someday these will sit on a shelf and these projects will be mired in their own specific time and won’t that be weird. But this one is so totally, actually from a different time at this point. But Atlanta is amazing because a lot of these bands are still cranking!”
But according to Tesche and Canty, there are other factors the help separate Atlanta from the rest of the series, the most important one being the crowds of onlookers and revelers that found their way to the house. Despite the torrid heat and humidity that made filming nearly unbearable, and that fact that it was supposed to be a closed set featuring intimate performances, by early afternoon there was a full-blown party going on outside the house. People were barbecuing and coolers of beer had been brought in. As the bands played inside, onlookers could be seen peering through the windows, trying to catch a glimpse of the action. At one point, college rock luminary Calvin Johnson of K Records showed up at the doorstep wanting to see what was going on. It was an overall festive atmosphere, and as you watch the film, you can feel that energy bleeding into the performances.
“I do think there is a feeling in this one that people are performing for their friends or for each other,” says Canty. “And that insular nature of Atlanta is that everybody seems grateful and comfortable to be around each other. I think that’s really in there. Without getting too gushy about it, I think it’s definitely a feeling that you’re not just watching the band, but you are watching the bands communicate to one another, which is different from a lot of the other ones. Ultimately, if we were to do any more of these, I would like to incorporate more interaction with the community. I think it gives it more life if we can see the crowd and feel like we are not the only people watching this thing.”
By the time the filmmakers completed shooting that evening, they felt they had captured something uniquely compelling. But as time would come to reveal, not only did they film a string of energetic and emotional performances, they also managed to capture Mastodon’s first-ever acoustic performance (their drummer was traveling at the time), as well as the Mighty Hannibal’s last-ever filmed performance, lending further historical significance to the documentary. Even as they shut down production for the day, Tesche was filled with the sense that something important had just happened, and he was determined to get it released as soon as possible. All that remained to complete filming was the final tearing down of the house.
But while it seemed the universe had conspired to bring together the perfect lineup of artists, it also had its own ideas about when the film would be released. As a curated group of bands were making history at 54 Moreland, the housing bubble was finally bursting in Atlanta, a little later than the rest of the country. As a result, the house, which was scheduled to be torn down a week after filming, remained standing. It would be over two years before Green and his crew would get the final shots to complete the documentary.
Meanwhile, Touch and Go, who were the distributor of the films, went under, leaving the filmmakers without an outlet to sell and spread their works. At the same time, YouTube exploded and suddenly the internet video landscape changed with vlogs and media outlets like Pitchfork producing videos of bands playing in marginalized spaces.
While Burn To Shine was always a labor of love, Canty and Green had moved on to produce bigger films for other artists including Wilco, Bob Mould, and Pearl Jam. And when DVDs stopped selling, it felt like the end of a potential avenue for these types of projects. The time had past. Now, it seemed there were a million different places to put content like theirs. To top it off, Tesche himself had found musical success, first with post-punk outfit Lyonnais and then with Algiers, which occupied the majority of his time. As a result, everything ground to a halt.
But still, Canty and Green continued to tinker with the film. In 2009, they filmed the tearing down of 54 Moreland. Two years later, Green came back to film some additional shots of Atlanta. There were no definitive plans for its release, but the passion for the project remained. They tried pitching the series to a few cable networks, but their overtures drew little interest. “Christoph and I were just looking for a project like this to work together filming bands,” says Canty. “We really wanted to do something besides the shitty political ads that everyone does here in DC. So it was a great project, a great learning experience for us, and it led us to do a lot of other great work together. But we talked to a bunch of people in television about it and nobody was really interested in it. The model didn’t necessarily work for them. It wasn’t time for that kind of stuff. That may have changed now, somebody might put it on TV, but back then nobody was really interested.”
In the past year, however, the duo found themselves with some downtime and turned their attention back to the film. The pair knew they had a lot of footage they loved and they felt it was important they complete their work. It also didn’t hurt they thought this was the most exciting and interesting film in the series.
Following the death of the Mighty Hannibal in 2014, Tesche also felt an increased desire to make sure the documentary would see the light of day and reached out to see if there was anything he could do to help the process along. Everyone involved understood there was no avenue to finance the project, but they agreed it was important to work out a plan for screening and distributing the film. They eventually settled on a short string of screenings — Atlanta; Carrboro, NC; Washington, DC; and New York — with Algiers playing in support. In addition, they will soon make the film available online on a pay what you want scale. Viewers will be available to download the movie for free or donate as much as they’d like. All proceeds will go to Lost-n-Found Youth, an Atlanta-based non-profit that helps LGBT homeless youth get off the streets.
It may not be the most glorious end for a project that took up over a decade of his life, but Tesche is proud of the work he, Canty, and Green have accomplished, and he’s excited to see what sort of reactions the documentary will draw from the music world. But none of it would have been possible without his passion and tenacity. “I think it was always one of those things where I was determined to see it through,” Tesche reflects. “But you can never really control these things. It’s interesting because I was so determined to see it come out in 2007, but it’s more interesting and relevant now. It captured a time and place and a period, and that’s what’s interesting, you know? It’s just this day in the scene, which is what they all are to a certain extent.”
As for Canty and Green, the burning question, both from themselves and music community at large, is whether this will be the final Burn To Shine. When I take the opportunity to ask, Canty doesn’t hesitate for a second.
“The model is there,” he says excitedly. “I’d love to do them. I think people are really enthusiastic about them. When you put something like this out and people start giving you some feedback, people are generally pretty psyched about it, which is really nice. It’s sort of like getting a band back together. People are like ‘Oh yeah, that was such a cool project!’ Everybody has a lot of fondness for it, and I know Christoph and I have a lot of fondness for it. It gives you a great chance to actually get to know not just the big bands in the town; you get to learn about all these young, really up-and-coming bands that people are really psyched to share with you. So it’s a win-win for us. I love being out there.”
If more Burn To Shine installments appear in the future, you can give a large part of the credit to Tesche for doing his part to keep the series alive and fighting to make the sixth installment a reality. But Tesche isn’t the type to take the glory; he’s always been one to put the scene ahead of himself. Before parting ways with, I ask him what he’s learned most from this experience. He takes a bit of a pause, then finally answers:
“If I were to take anything away from this, it’s from growing up worshipping certain scenes like DC or Manchester or some other music scenes that I thought were amazing and thinking ‘why can’t we have a scene like that here?’ But the reality of it is that there are always people making interesting music and there is always stuff going on, it’s just a matter of finding it.”
Burn To Shine 6: Atlanta premieres tomorrow night at the EARL and will be hosted by Brendan Canty and Christoph Green. Algiers and Moon Diagrams (Moses Archuleta of Deerhunter) will perform. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $12 in advance of $15 DOS.