Who: Taylor Morden is the filmmaker behind the new documentary “Pick it Up! Ska in the 90s,” about the explosion in popularity — and abrupt drop-off — of third-wave ska. A trumpet player himself, Morden played in a number of ’90s ska bands before studying digital design and becoming a filmmaker. In addition to rolling out and promoting his independent ska doc, Morden is working to complete “The Last Blockbuster,” a documentary about Bend’s Blockbuster store, aka the only Blockbuster store left on Earth. In the meantime, you can catch the Northwest premiere of “Pick It Up!” at 8 p.m. Thursday at McMenamins Old St. Francis School, followed by a Q&A with Morden. Contact: skamovie.com.
Q: (I’ve) thought to myself over the years, “What happened to ska in the ’90s?” And now we have an answer. … I’m curious how you got interested in making this doc.
A: I started out as a musician. I’ve been a trumpet player since I was maybe 8 or 9. Playing trumpet in the ’90s, obviously as soon as I discovered ska music, it was about the coolest thing you could do with a school band instrument, play in a punk rock band with five of your friends. I started doing that in the ’90s, and we opened for Reel Big Fish, Save Ferris, Mighty Mighty Bosstones … all the greats, pretty much. And then I went on to play in some more ska bands, because horn players get around a little bit.
Q: I watched the film trailer and (Mad Caddies’ Chuck Robertson) said it went away overnight. Did you really get that sense, like ska just tanked?
A: Yeah, I got that sense. It wasn’t as pronounced maybe in Eugene, because in Eugene, yeah, we could headline a show and there would be 300 or 400 people … but it never got really much bigger than that. … To some of these bands that were playing to 1,500 people every night, and all of a sudden it 150 or 200 people, there was a huge drop-off. In Eugene, it went from 300 to 200, and it was more like the band fizzled out because we were a college town. As people move away, it’s hard enough to keep a ska band together, but when the music isn’t popular anymore, it’s hard to get new people to join.
Q: Did you get into filmmaking after all of that?
A: I got into filmmaking about 10 years ago, through doing music videos. … I went to school at the U of O for I think they called it digital arts. It was multi-media; they didn’t really have a filmmaking program at the time. And then I was a Flash animator for a decade until Flash died. Apple killed Flash when the iPhone got popular enough. I switched to video. That transitioned into documentary filmmaking.
Q: I saw you participated in the BendFilm 72-Hour Filmmaker Challenge. Have you done that often?
A: I’ve done a few of those. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do it last year because I was busy on the ska documentary. But two years ago, I did the Bend one, and we actually won that one and we were in the BendFilm Festival. In Washington, D.C., before I moved back to Oregon about four years ago. Over there, they’re about 48 hours, so they’re a little bit more stressful.
Q: Everything’s faster back East.
A: Yeah. I love doing the short film in just a few days and seeing everybody getting creative and getting together and making something under a crazy tight deadline.
Q: Those are short narratives instead of docs, obviously. Do you prefer documentary making to narrative film, or do you like both?
A: I would really love to do a narrative feature because I’m at the tail end of my third feature doc, which is the Blockbuster doc, about the one in Bend. … I’ve basically been full time making documentaries since 2015, and it will be 2020 before I see the end of it. Not that I don’t love documentary filmmaking. I really, really do, but I would love to do something scripted as well. … With documentaries, you really never know what you’re going to get. You try. You hope. You call in favors. You do your best.
Q: Yeah, you got (Rancid frontman) Tim Armstrong as narrator?
A: Yeah. I sure did.
Q: Was that difficult? Did you have connections?
A: That was a fluke. The way the ska movie started, it was really independent. It was me and a former bandmate (who) decided to do this. … He had a couple of connections, and I had a couple of connections, just from playing in bands for so long. I think I still had Aaron Barrett from Reel Big Fish’s email address. Unfortunately it wasn’t the same one from the ’90s. … But we started with who we knew, and it grew exponentially from that. … I just got a call one day out of the blue from Tim Armstrong. It just said “unknown number.” When you make documentaries, you have to answer all of those junk calls, because you never know who it’s going to be. Ninety-nine times out of 100, it’s “The IRS says you owe them $5,000.” … The other one time, it’s Tim Armstrong, and he’s heard about your movie. He doesn’t really do interviews anymore, but he’s wondering if we’d hired a narrator. … We actually had a deal in place with a known actor, but it just seemed like too good of a fit, and too serendipitous. He really wanted to do it, and he’s got such a distinctive voice. In the music world, he’s very respected, especially in the ska community. He’s the punk rocker who never turned his back on ska music. And Operation Ivy (Armstrong’s pre-Rancid band) were at the forefront of all of this.
Q: You’ve got some pretty big names involved in “The Last Blockbuster.” When you tell people you’re doing a documentary on Blockbuster, does everyone jump at it?
A: You know, I’ve been learning a lot about celebrity outreach, both in music and in TV and movies. It’s a little harder with movies. Movie stars have crazier schedules, and there’s many layers of managers and agents you have to get through. … We’re making indie documentaries, so we don’t have a lot of money to pay them for their time. Which the actors don’t care about, but the agents do. Because 10% of nothing is nothing. So why would they even bother? But we’ve found that the story itself of just this one Blockbuster is intriguing enough that when we can get through to people, they are usually excited about it, so that’s been really fun.
Q: Why — you’ve probably found out why — has this one has stayed alive while all the others have gone under?
A: That’s kind of our thesis statement. That’s our opening question. I could tell you right now why, but then who would want to watch the movie. … Just like I could tell you what happened to ska music. Instead I made a movie.
— David Jasper, The Bulletin