London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol – these are the places that often spring to mind when talking about the great music hubs of England. But what about Oxford? Over the past 30 years the city has produced bands like Radiohead, Supergrass, Ride, Swervedriver, Foals, Talulah Gosh and many others. Film-maker Jon Spira has spent the past four years documenting the Oxford scene, finding out how this overlooked music community has spawned so many great band, for his documentary Anyone Can Play Guitar.
Bowlegs: What originally inspired you to make a documentary about the music scene in Oxford? What’s your connection to the scene?
Jon: I’ve been kicking around the scene in various capacities since I was a teenager. For the last decade, I’ve been filming gigs and making music vids for local bands and it’s basically a big chunk of my social scene. I had to make the film because I didn’t understand why nobody had ever told this story. Cities like Manchester, Sheffield and Bristol have reputations as being musical cities, but we’ve produced better, more diverse bands for a lot longer and our scene has never been talked about in a global context. So I took a shot at it.
Bowlegs: Why do you think Oxford produces so many talented bands and musicians? Is there anything in particular about the music scene there that fosters and breeds creativity?
Jon: It’s the infrastructure that was put in place almost 30 years ago. A progression route through venues, a supportive magazine and an enthusiastic live music loving crowd of punters. It’s like a little boot camp. If you want to be in a world-class band, Oxford can get you to that stage of readiness.
Bowlegs: I always think the audiences play a big part in how a band develops – are Oxford audiences a special breed of people?
Jon: Well, the audience is the scene, essentially. It’s all of the other bands and the promoters and journos and record shop guys and producers/mixers and label owners. Everyone plays their part in the scene, everyone participates and when they’re done working, they go and see local bands perform.
Bowlegs: How long did it take to put the film together? What did you film it on?
Jon: From beginning to end – about four and a half years. It was a long process, mainly drawn out because we had (and still have) no money. It was shot HD, mainly on Z1 cameras. It depended what camera I could get on the day.
Bowlegs: Which interview was the hardest to secure? And who was the most fun to interview and why?
Jon: I guess the hardest one to secure was the only one I didn’t get – The Young Knives. It drove me mental that they wouldn’t come aboard. Eventually, just before the DVD came out, they said in an interview that they regretted not having done it, so I sorted out an interview and that’s an extra on the DVD now. So they’re there in the end.
Bowlegs: I noticed that Gaz Coombes had a few of his NME Brat awards in the background during his interview – does he carry them around with him, or is his house just that full of awards?
Jon: Well, that’s his little music basement, so that stuff belongs there. If you look in the background of the shot when Radiohead’s manager is being interviewed, it’s a whole shelf of Grammys and MTV Video Awards. Gaz is a very sweet guy with no rock-star ego crap about him at all.
Bowlegs: Do you think it’s a good time to be a music documentary maker?
Jon: It’s probably a good time in terms of how cheap it is to make a film these days. But that means there’s more crap out there than ever. It’s still not easy being an indie film-maker. We were lucky to get sponsorship from Fender, which led to the film actually being released and then some great support from BBC 6Music and Radio 2. The cinemas were generally cool with us, really. We just phoned all the indie ones and told them about the film. The best ones gave us screenings.
Bowlegs: Are there any up-and-coming bands from Oxford we should looking out for?
Jon: Always! Spring Offensive, Deer Chicago, The Family Machine, Dive Dive, Alphabet Backwards, The Cellar Family, Borderville…
Bowlegs: What have you got planned next? Any new films or documentaries in the pipeline?
Jon: I want to make a doc about comedy. It’s in the pipeline already
Find out more about the film here: Anyone Can Play Guitar – The Movie
-Interview by David Standen-