Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Since forming in 2007, New York City garage rockers The Electric Mess have stood out in the genre through a combination of effortless cool, clever, playful songwriting, wild-eyed openness to other pop, rock, and punk sounds, and a marvelous and mighty lineup. Another thing that has made the band distinct: deliciously fun, often star-studded, music videos that have helped boost the group’s fanbase and open new opportunities.
Bassist Derek Davidson, a film school graduate, movie photo archivist, and all-around film fanatic, is responsible for bringing the videos – including most recently a 17-minute video EP (“Beneath the Yellow Moon”) – to life.
We talked to Derek recently about his movie background, favorite music videos, creative process, and much more:
I know a few things about your background, but can you explain how some of your creative and work experiences and your love of movies played into your being the band’s “video director?” Well, one of the main things that helped lead me to take the role and gave me the edge was that I graduated from film school and had production experience. Once we started making music videos, I was more than happy to be able to put those skills to use again. In my college years, and then all through the 90s, I worked in a couple of excellent video stores, one for about 10 years. It was still all VHS then; DVD was just getting popular when we closed. Between the free rentals and watching movies basically all day in the store, I got to see all kinds of films. The owner was French and a cinephile and took pride in the store, so we had a great collection. I learned a lot working there, memorizing director names and filmographies, and genres. Being it was New York City, on the Upper West Side, we had many regular celebrity customers, like Joel Coen, Paul Schrader, Nora Ephron, Bob Balaban, Eli Wallach, Stiller and Meara... Alan Arkin, I could go on! It was a great place to work, as the video store was quite the popular and sociable place back in the day. I still have recurring dreams working there, and it’s been over twenty years, so it must have had some effect on me. I also met my wife working there.
After that I started working in a movie photo archive, called Photofest, which has also been a fun and inspiring place to work. We also have lots of music photos, TV, and general performing arts. We’ve contributed to thousands of film books over the years, like Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, comes to mind. Many, many more. Also documentaries, film calendars for revival houses, like Film Forum in NYC, TCM channel, some late night TV shows, Criterion Collection, Hollywood Reporter, things like that. I’ve only been there twenty years! It can be helpful to turn to the stills for reference sometimes. For “The Girl With the Exploding Dress” video, for example, which has girls sort of posing in colorful dresses and has a mod feel, I looked at photos from Antonioni’s Blow-Up to see how they posed the models and brought copies to the set as storyboards. For the “Mystery Girl” video I looked at film noir stills. Our video for “Better To Be Lucky Than Good” was even shot there.
These days I consider myself the band’s “technical director,” because unless I also wrote the song, it has generally been a collaborative effort with other members of the band, depending on whose song it is. This is especially true with “Beneath the Yellow Moon,” our 4 song video EP, where each songwriter had a strong vision for their particular song’s video going in. Very early on we worked with some outside people, like "You've Become a Witch" was made by David Horowitz of The Above, and "She Has a Funny Walk" and "He Looks Like a Psycho," where Jeff Lewonczyk had the concepts and designs, and I shot and edited them. But since then, I have also handled all the technical stuff, including shooting it and editing, lighting, knowing where to point the camera, now green screen wrangling, etc. So I’m physically directing it, but the songwriter has the final say and the answers to the big questions, and tells the actors what they want. It can be a lot of responsibility dealing with all of the technical issues, and editing a ton of work, especially four videos at once, but I still enjoy it. Also, the band saves a ton of money by not having to hire and pay outside people to produce our videos, or rely on others. And another reason I think we’ve been able to be so productive over the years.
From your viewpoint, what makes a music video worth watching? What are some of your favorite music videos or influences? I probably tend to favor videos with either a story or loose plot, rather than just purely visual. And humor always helps! I like the Beastie Boys videos a lot, Van Halen, Duran Duran, “Subdivisions” by Rush is a classic to me. I love The Rolling Stones “Waiting on a Friend.” I do prefer to incorporate some story elements into our videos, as it gives me a chance to shoot coverage and edit it like I’m making short narrative film, which is what interests me as a frustrated filmmaker, ha, and I feel more comfortable. Though with “City Sun,” which had more thematic elements than actual story, I feel I got to stretch out a bit more visually, with Esther’s encouragement. She had her own clear video references for it, like 80s Simple Minds and Bow Wow Wow videos, which helped.
Obviously, there are people whose first experience with the Electric Mess is through finding your video on YouTube or somewhere else online. What reaction have you gotten from fans and non-fans? How do you think the videos work to frame what the band is about? I don’t think it’s an understatement to say our videos put the band on the map, starting with “You’ve Become a Witch” in 2010, which set the template. From that video, a UK label called Rowed Out Records released a 7” of “Witch,” and Groovie Records out of Portugal released our 2nd record, “Falling Off the Face of the Earth” (2012). It’s not like we ever played there up to that point, though we did get to play Portugal after the record came out, but that video is what got their attention, far away from NYC. And our videos are definitely what got us on our current label, Soundflat Records. One day, end of 2013, I received a random email from Marco Traxel, who runs Soundlfat, just to say how much he enjoyed our videos, particularly “She Has a Funny Walk,” I believe. The timing was right as we were just about to start recording our 3rd record and he said he’d be interested in putting it out. And now it’s four records later with them, including the vinyl reissue of our debut record. Without YouTube and the videos we would never have been able to extend our reach like we have, especially with a European fan base. I think the videos do a good job of showing that we have a sense of humor and don’t take ourselves too seriously, and hopefully they have been showing some growth, from the quality of songs themselves, to more ambitious visuals. It’s definitely gratifying to see our videos pop up or get shared and liked by random people, people not our friends. Sometimes someone will tweet one of our videos and say they’re digging it or something. It’s a simple gesture, but of course good to see.
Many members of the New York City music scene (Suke from the Candy Snatchers and Born Loose, Andrea Sicco from Twin Guns, Eric Davidson, Jonny Couch, Lisa Lush, and others) have appeared in your videos, and it’s fun to spot them as you view the videos. Are you hoping to document the scene in some way by using them? Has it been difficult to bring them in to participate or to explain the concept of your video? Again, it started with “Witch” which had many of our friends in it. It’s definitely easier and more fun to cast amongst our pool of friends, many of whom are all naturals anyway. And yes, to me it has become a way to document the scene and our friends, some, as you said, over multiple videos. I think they will be something special to have one day to look back on when we’re all old and gray! Most of them are into it when we ask, and it helps we have a good track record. Most aren’t professional enough to be method actors or divas on the set, or ask too many questions, and just go with the flow. Often they just need to look cool, and that isn’t hard for most of them! We try to turn it into a fun experience. For example, with “Speed of Light,” which was all green screen, we had a small party at Esther and Dan’s one Saturday night and shot a few scenes for it. One part of the apartment was party central, while in the living room I set up the green screen and lights and took people one or two at a time to shoot their stuff, including the pool scene on the spaceship, and people were mostly cool enough with it to change from their party clothes into their bathing suits and cabana wear. It was a really fun way to work.
What was your most difficult video to shoot? Conversely, have you had any specific ideas you had to scrap because they proved too hard to pull off? The EP no question, both from a technical standpoint, lots of green screen stuff, which I was basically still learning as we went along, and also scheduling wise, as we decided to shoot five videos at the same time. It was a lot to bang out, but we mostly succeeded. There was a bit of a time issue as we had outdoor shooting to do along with the indoor green screen scenes, and it would have been really unpleasant to shoot outside in colder winter weather, so we did need to set some dates to get it done. We shot them all basically over two long weekends in Oct. and early Nov. The EP was originally going to be five videos, including a video for “Laserbrain,” but as we did bite off a little more than we could chew, we decided to cut it as it was not going to be up to snuff with the other four. It was for the best anyway, as the EP would have topped twenty minutes, I think too long for even our most dedicated fan.
What prompted you to release a series of videos before releasing your most recent album, The Electric Mess V? Early on in the songwriting process we considered just releasing a video EP, and a 10” EP to go along with it, but then the new songs started coming rather quickly, so we abandoned that idea and decided to just do another full record, and again Soundflat was interested in releasing it. But we still liked the video EP concept and had enough ideas for it to move ahead, and we also wanted it to be a bigger statement than just individual videos. Originally the plan was to have a big video release party ahead of the record release. We were actually scheduled to pick up the LPs in Germany while on tour in Europe a week later, but with the pandemic the tour of course was cancelled, and also our video party. So we just had a premiere on YouTube for it, which wasn’t nearly as much fun as a party would have been, but couldn’t be helped.
Finally, how does it feel to have completed 14 videos and a video EP? That’s impressive! Do you have a favorite one? Thanks, it’s very satisfying. Both as a member of a band with a body of work now, with songs and videos from five records, and also personally, with work I can be proud of. Of course I did have ambitions at one point to do feature films, and I’ve done some shorts, also with our friends, but the videos have been a nice way to still be creative and do production work, and learn new skills. One of my favorite videos, that’s not my own song, is “Better to Be Lucky Than Good,” since it gave me a chance to tell a whole story, no band shots in it, and just make it like a little film noir. Dan, whose song it is, pretty much gave me free rein, and it also had lots of friends in it, still maybe the most. There are some things I would do differently now, but I’m happy with the scope of it. Of my own songs, I’d say “Speed of Light” is my favorite now, since I feel I pulled off all the technical challenges with the green screen and was upbeat and fun. It serves the song well, has lots of humor, and really feels like we’re all on a spaceship. And the band looks cool rocking out! I’m proud of the whole EP, actually.
Go to the Electric Mess website for more about their music and to access their entire music video collection.