Q&A: Director Ben Barnes On His New Video For WHY?

L.A.-based director Ben Barnes has created exceptional music videos and promos for the likes of Peter Bjorn & John, Coheed & Cambria, and Busdriver, not to mention a handful of live clips for Dublab's Vision Version series. His style is crisp and professional, but he's got a real knack for creating atmosphere, whether it's the brimming feel-good vibe of his interpretation of PB&J's "Young Folks" (a.k.a. the whistle song), or the creeping terror he whipped up for last year's "A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under" by WHY?.

As it turns out, Barnes has created a brand new work for the Anticon band, and unsurprisingly, it's both great and a wee bit frightening. Watch his two-part short for WHY?'s "These Hands" / "January Twentysomething" (both from the excellent Eskimo Snow LP) below, then read on to discover just how Barnes does what he does.

CONTINUE ON FOR AN INTERVIEW WITH BARNES, PLUS MORE VIDEOS...

West Coast Sound: The video starts out mid-disaster. Clearly, there's been a car wreck, but seemingly from some other disaster, an older man with arrows in his back emerges. What's happened here?

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Ben Barnes: I really just got the idea that the man had arrows in his back - that they'd probably been there a while, and he'd sort of gotten used to them over time. I think the blood near the end is just some of the wounds reopening through all the exertion. Of course it doesn't have to be that explanation. It kinds just feels right.

I think he's an interesting character, and as far as the accident, I just liked the idea of him cantankerously saving someone from a wreck. That at some point, it's really the point of view of the kid, and we're seeing some monumental event unfold before him. With one curious element out of the ordinary - that being the arrows.

WCS: And just like that, we leave the scene, never to return again. What influenced your decision to leave this unexplained, or to resist developing the narrative further?

Barnes: I loved "These Hands" so much, it ended up being my favorite track off the album. I had the idea for the "These Hands" video as you see it, but a video that short would have been a little frustrating. The last video I did for WHY? was for a two-and-a-half-minute-long song, so I didn't want to go in the opposite direction in terms of length.

Also, looking at the way the two songs segue so well, I thought I could shoot a performance video and stitch the two together. A friend of mine, Rob Schroeder, did this with a Neon Neon video, starting out with one song and flipping over to another. I liked how that worked. Honestly, if I'd had the budget, I probably would have played around a little more with the world of the first video, but I'm very happy with the emotions I get from it as is.

WCS: Do you see a continuity, or a connecting principal, between this scene and the band's performance on the rooftop? They all seem to have world-weary looks on their faces.

Barnes: We shot on the roof of Indie Rentals on Sunset Boulevard in a few hours. The band was in the middle of their tour, so maybe that's part of the tiredness. We also lugged film equipment and instruments up a two-story ladder, so maybe that helped.

They saw a cut of the first video right before shooting. As far as what we were looking for in terms of connection, I really wasn't worried if they were wildly different. As it turned out, the first video feels like a foreward, or a dumbshow, or some sort of emotional intro, which feeds into the performance of the band. I started playing with lens flares with my DP Mathew Rudenberg, and we noticed how the Red Pro Prime lenses were flaring so uniquely, so we really used that a lot.

I think Yoni [Wolf]'s stoic performances both in the last video and this one are very effective. I think some people are sort of confused by it, especially in "January Twentysomething," but I think it's a matter of how the lyrics and everything else makes you feel. It really hits home with me.

WCS: That "last video" you mentioned, for Alopecia's "A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under," also has an element of mystery and terror to it. Is there something in the band's music that suggests these themes to you?

Barnes: Yoni's music has always had death in it, even back in his cLOUDDEAD and Hymie's Basement days. At the time, the line, "Looks like a good sky to die under" (from "A Sky For..."), seemed like all I needed to build an idea around. That and the amazing line, "I only played chess once in my life and I lost." I had the idea bubbling around and then about a month before we shot, my girlfriend was diagnosed with lymphoma. So this feeling of grim paranoia and helplessness really took over everything. It's over a year later and Susan is doing well.

That's my apartment in the video, too, and there are little things hidden in the set design (by Garett Zunt), glowing-eyed figures on food labels, book covers, etc. We also had the actors make some of their own weapons, really get into it (although Garett made the amazing fork paddle and lamp gun). It took 21 takes, and the last take is the one you see.

I love things where one element is breaking down, in logic or otherwise. Yoni's lyrics are intimate but also often impenetrable, which gives you tons of playing room with how you react on a personal level.

With "These Hands," a couple lines are pretty much reflected in the video, like, "I wear the customary clothes of my time," and, "Still hid under thick smoke," but the more I've thought about it, the more I think the cLOUDDEAD song "Dead Dogs Two" had a real influence, with Doseone and Yoni rapping about being in a car crash: "Everyone blank in accident awe as the car crash fiberglass dust straight up settles on your raw muscle tissue."

WCS: Do you discuss the writing with the band much? Does their input come into it, or is it your vision, through and through?

Barnes: Shaun [Koplow, label manager] over at Anticon, along with Yoni and the rest of the band, are very trusting, and they really let me try things out. For "Shoeing Horses" I had a general treatment, and I shot a test as well. I showed it to them an hour before we were going to shoot and they got it immediately. For "These Hands," I sent them a treatment and they were fine with it. With "January Twentysomething," we hashed it out right before shooting. I let the band pick their clothes, their playing style, etc, and as far as the concept, they let me run whichever way I wanted to.

WCS: You also did the verite-style, quite terrifying Coheed & Cambria promos (which gave you the odd distinction of featuring Thavius Beck in the screamo band's video). Have you thought about writing and/or directing thrillers?

Barnes: Thavius, by the way, was one of my first videos I ever did, in a thrillerish-style narrative, as well. I hadn't really thought about how often I do those kinds of things. I'm working on a feature right now that has thriller components, come to think of it. So... maybe?

WCS: Last, but not least, will we ever learn more of the story -- from either of the WHY? videos?

Barnes: What you see might be all you get. At least for now.

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