Getting Lost on Purpose

Paul Williams on Tony Conrad and Burning Bridges

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Tony ConradPaul Williams

Paul Williams, co-producer of Tyler Hubby's documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, talks about his time with "drone pioneer" Tony Conrad and his own work with his consulting agency, Burning Bridges.

 

Getting Lost on Purpose

Paul Williams, one of the producers of the Tyler Hubby documentary film Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, and I are sitting at Café Praha watching Pátí na světě (Fifth in the World), the band that will play after the film’s Brno premiere. As we half-try to gauge what they’re going to sound like, Williams tells me his story and how he became involved with Tony Conrad.

In 2007, Williams was helping run “The Fishmarket,"  a large art space in Northampton, about 100 km north of London. Williams became involved with the “crazy gun-shaped space,” after its founder, Jane West, asked him to manage the music being played there.  One day Williams received an email from Tony Conrad’s booking agent. Conrad was coming to London to perform and wanted to play an extra show in the UK.  His booking fee was £1,000, way over The Fishmarket’s budget. As coincidence, or perhaps, as fate would have it, the day after Williams received the email, he and West were meeting with Will Pearson, a local ‘cultural’ entrepreneur who had the funds at his disposal for jumpstarting his activities in Northampton. At the meeting, Pearson asked Williams and West if they had anything “significant” he could fund with the money. When Williams  mentioned Tony Conrad, Pearson’s “jaw dropped.” He knew exactly who Conrad was and was thrilled to fund the Northampton performance.  

Two months later, Williams found himself waiting for Conrad at Heathrow Airport, who was set to stay at his home. On the way there, Conrad made a strange “demand.” Conrad wanted Williams to take a route from the airport to Northampton which he had never taken before, because this allowed for the possibility for them to get lost. Paul, intrigued, did so, thinking, “Who is this guy, and what’s this all about?”

Conrad stayed with Williams for three days. During this time Conrad “talked at” Williams, making him promise to only continue working on something so long as he was “completely out of his depth,” and to stop as soon as he wasn’t, and then do something else.

Tyler Hubby, Jeff Hunt, and the Documentary that Had Been About Someone Else

Tyler Hubby had started recording Conrad in 1994 while Jeff Hunt, the founder of the Table of the Elements label, was living in Hubby’s apartment in San Francisco. Hunt, who is responsible for “presenting  Conrad to the world as an important and crucial moment in music history,” was presenting a number of groundbreaking events at that time, the first of which was Conrad’s reunion with the band Faust after 20 years. Hubby took his camera to film the event, and became fascinated by Conrad, leading to over two decades of recordings that would eventually be edited down into Completely in the Present. The first film Williams had been involved with was about the Italian motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi. By chance, Williams received funding for this film from a source in Los Angeles and ended up having to travel there. Two weeks before leaving for the United States, Williams saw a clip that Hubby had put up of Conrad, and decided to contact him as someone just getting their feet wet in film and a person who himself had had a profound experience of Conrad. Hubby and Williams met and hit it off immediately, becoming partners in the documentary whose original subject had been the band Faust.  

After ten years of filming, Hubby had become increasingly well known as a skilled editor of documentaries. “He’d go and shoot these things and then take the shots and edit them up into these little vignettes. He’d take those shots down into one concise little story.” In 2013, Paul was invited to propose a project for Frequency Festival, a digital arts festival in England. For the occasion, he proposed an installation using the vignettes Hubby had made for Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present. The installation was received well, proving to Williams and Hubby that audiences appreciated Tony Conrad.

Not long after the installation, Christine Beebe also became a producer of the documentary.  Beebe quickly became “the mother” of the project, keeping, as Williams put it, “us silly boys in check, saying let’s just get this done.” He notes that for himself and Hubby the project had seemed never-ending: “We just kind of thought that we’d keep shooting until Tony wasn’t with us anymore, and that felt like that would never happen, so we just had this wonderful project that would never end and also never be shown.” Sadly, within two days of Hubby announcing the film complete, Conrad passed away. Williams, who was in charge of distribution, made the decision to use a “very Tony Conrad method,” of going on tour with the film and finding independent venues, big and small, to screen it.

Before and After Tony

Before working at The Fishmarket, Williams had been a tour manager for a number of bands, most notably U.S. Maple. The experience of touring with them changed Williams’ understanding of “what it means to be an artist and perform on stage, to screw with people’s minds, not only from a music perspective but also from the side of performance.” Other bands that Williams was involved with include The Flying Luttenbachers and Bobby Conn. “Everyone was always brilliant at their stage show, and then Tony added a whole other level to how to present yourself.”

Conrad told Williams to “always take on the cultural icons.” This bit of wisdom led Williams to start Burning Bridges in 2014. Burning Bridges is a consultancy and production company “specializing in the arts and film, interested in quality collaboration to solve difficult problems in fundraising, promotion and production.” Although the company’s name may seem antagonistic, Burning Bridges is about making “alliances from the desire to find fresh ways of going about creating and exhibiting, engaging and financing.” Burning Bridges boasts a host of eclectic and broad-ranging “alliances” featuring, to name just a few, The British artist Stanza the Romanian writer Andrei Codrescu, and the artist, musician, and curator Joshua Thomson, born in England but based in Hong Kong. Unsurprisingly, Burning Bridges also collaborates with a number of musicians and continues to be involved in film projects that focus on music and musicians.  Currently Burning Bridges is working on the film The Ballad of Shirley Collins and has established Fire Films with the leading London based indie label, Fire Records.

by Ewelina Chiu

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