Be Part of the Solution: How ‘Safe x Sound’ documentary hopes to make a better showgoing culture
One of the most magical things about independent music is the community it fosters. The friendships that come from a shared adoration of certain bands are unparalleled, and the memories of dancing at basement shows and watching the scene grow is a point of pride.
However, with a return to live music in full swing, Safe x Sound, a new documentary by Brian Walker and Brianna Spause ask us to take a step back and reflect on consent, inclusion, and diversity in the music scene. The film was shot during Walker’s 2019 Storytellers tour and includes a collection of interviews with artists and activists. The pilot version of the documentary will premiere at a First Friday event at Monkey and the Elephant Coffee Shop in Brewerytown on November 5th — more on that here. There will also be a digital screening by Spiral Bookcase on November 14 (tickets here), at The Grape Room in Manayunk on November 28th (tickets here), and A Novel Idea on Passyunk Avenue (tickets here).
I had the opportunity to talk to Walker and Spause via Zoom about the origins of the documentary, the conversations that inspired them to create it, and how we can create safer spaces in the music scene. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and contains conversation about and description of assault and trauma.
The Key: How did you first get involved in the East Coast underground scene?
Brian Walker: I would definitely say for me it started even before I was playing as A Day Without Love. I think the very very, very beginning of me knowing different bands on the East Coast goes back to my college years when I was hosting house shows with the Penn State Songwriters Club. I booked like 65 shows in like nine months, which I know is not normal, but I was meeting touring acts from all over. I met a bunch of New York bands when I was in grad school, so when I moved back to Philly from undergrad and grad school, I just basically started a nonprofit organization called The Quarterly; XPN wrote about that eons ago. Then I started this thing called the Philadelphia DIY Collaborative, then I did SXSW, and started hitting the ground running. All of those old connections turned into new connections because you can be in a band in 2012, or 2015, or 2020, but those people are still the same. That’s kind of how I built my network and still continue to build my network.
TK: Brianna, what first sparked your interest in the underground scene?
Brianna Spause: My answer is kind of heavy, honestly. I was assaulted at a frat party my freshman year in college. Frats were never really my scene anyway, I didn’t really like them. Then that happened, and I was like, yeah, no, I need somewhere different to hang out on weekends. So my friend took me to a house show, and people were so friendly and welcoming. Nobody was touching me without my consent or putting things in my drink that didn’t belong there. Nobody frowned upon it if you showed up with your own beers in your purse. I was able to bring my own drinks, talk to people, have conversations, go down to the basement and listen to music, or go upstairs if I needed fresh air. It was just a much more welcoming place, and the people are friendly. They want to know you and what you’re interested in and stuff like that.
TK: Brian, you’ve been making music as A Day Without Love for a while. Why did you want to go into film?
BW: I think there are three primary reasons. If you look at my YouTube, there’s a lot of amateur videos of me interviewing with an Android-style phone, it’s outdated, just interviewing people about their experiences as creators, or activists, et cetera et cetera. They’re interviews with people that I’ve met along the way. I think the most Philadelphia-resonant one is when I played a house show, and it was like a music festival at St. Joseph’s campus off-campus, where everyone was eating cheesesteaks. I talked to a bunch of random people about what was it like to see me play and eat a cheesesteak. It’s really amateurly done, but it led to the birth of a podcast. Connections are a really big part of what I do as a musician and a lot of the songs that I write. I’ve always wanted to team up with a director, that director being Brianna, to make a documentary. There are other documentaries I want to make later in life about various topics around the world of music, but I thought this topic was most important and has a lot to do with what I’m doing anyway.
TK: How does it connect with some of the other stuff you’re doing?
BW: I wrote an album called Diary, which is about microaggressions in the music scene, and we address microaggressions, we address rape culture, we address consent and inclusion in the documentary. This film is pretty much an extension of something that’s much bigger than me, and that’s understanding that when you go to a DIY show, you’re here to identify with cultures that aren’t like you but might represent something that might be a part of you. That’s kind of why I wanted to get into that.
TK: Brianna, how did you get involved in making this documentary? Did Brian come to you with the idea, or was it something you came up with together?
BS: At the time, I was really, really into the band Hop Along, and I knew a photographer had just gone on tour with them. I had taken some photos of Brian at one of his shows in 2018 at Underground Arts, but it’s a smaller stage and only has like one light. Brian paid me to come to take these photos, and I’m like, “look, bro, I can make you purple, and green, and red, and black and white, but that’s all I can do for you on this stage because there’s no variety in light.” I was like, “you paid me for this, and these kind of suck, let’s do this again.”
So we went on a little road trip up to New Hope in Bucks County, and we found these abandoned trains, and we did a whole dope photoshoot there. When we were on the way home, Brian asked me, “you know, photography is cool, and all, but what do you really want to be doing?” I said, “I want to go on tour.” Brian and I planned it, and originally I was just going to take pictures and film his tour. It was going to be promo materials. But on the first day of the tour, it became very evident that we were up against forces that we hadn’t even considered talking about, those being safe spaces and consent. What came together as just something I really wanted to do, and Brian was like, “that sounds awesome! let’s make it happen,” really turned into a complex and rich storyline that we’re hoping can really help people.
TK: This was on the 2019 Storytellers tour, right?
TK: I was going to ask you about that. You said that the people you met are really what made this film possible. What about those people and conversations inspired you?
BW: Initially, when we had our pizza conversation at a Couch Tomato, I remember saying to Brianna, I’m just interested in culture and music. Philadelphia has a very rich music scene, but what about the other towns that I haven’t touched? Bouncing off Brianna, our first interview was in Lancaster, PA. It was an all non-male booking collective called Sonic Scan, and they were four friends that were trying to put marginalized voices at the forefront of Lancaster’s entertainment scene. We ended up talking about things like abuse in Lancaster and allegations in Lancaster. How can we reduce harm, how can we make people feel more safe? How can we make the spaces themselves safe? That really set the tone and kind of wrote itself for the rest of the tour because we ended up talking about other topics like inclusion, consent, diversity. How do we make people feel more included? It’s really interesting that we’re talking about that now because we did this in a pre-COVID era. So then the next topic after watching this film is, not only how do we maintain safety and consent and make people feel included, but how do we maintain this change in a current and post-COVID world? The only reason why I started to laugh is because it’s so easy to say we’re no longer in the pandemic, but we definitely are.
TK: Brianna, what do you feel was most striking about these interviews for you?
BS: The thing about journalism and documentary filmmaking is that it’s naive to walk on a set and get what you’re hoping to get. We walked into the tour with a little bit of an open mind, and we wanted to talk about community, culture, music. Safe spaces weren’t really a part of my language at that time. We had that first interview in Lancaster, and we talked a lot about safety, consent, and inclusion, and putting marginalized bodies in front of audiences. Then we went home that night, and we did our next show in West Philly, and we asked those same questions about community and culture. In some of those interviews that we did, one of them, Marcelyn, was featured in the film, she started talking about not feeling included in the classical community. We were like, okay, we’re starting to see a theme here about inclusion. Some of the other interviews and conversations we had that day just weren’t nearly as interesting to me. I’m like, okay, cool, so community is awesome, we like house shows, but I can’t make a film about that. I mean, I could but it wouldn’t be great.
BW: That’s not even what I wanted in the first place, so we were on the same page.
BS: When we were on our way to the first real stop of the tour, where we weren’t at home sleeping in our own beds, we had a conversation about how we needed to talk about consent and safe spaces. We’d had two days of interviews now, and I was very interested in this. I think the most striking thing was that everyone we talked to about safe spaces had some kind of negative experience that encouraged them to create a safe space. You don’t hear those experiences in the film because that’s intimate, and it’s vulnerable, and it doesn’t always feel like it’s us for us to share. But those next steps, those what do we do now? How do we make these safe spaces now? That’s what was so striking to me.
Something Brian and I have in common is both being survivors of different and similar types of abuse. We just felt really connected over that. It’s not just me, it’s not just Brian, it’s not just somebody in Virginia or Oxford, Mississippi. It’s everywhere. People take advantage and hurt people everywhere. These small local DIY scenes are our place to feel empowered and comfortable and be vulnerable in. Even when something so intimate has been taken away from us, no matter what your experience is. So that was that was really striking to me.
TK: Do you feel like conversations about topics like consent and inclusion are overlooked within the DIY scene?
BW: I feel like the conversation happens as quickly as it resolves. What I mean by that is it’s not that those conversations don’t happen, but there’s a lack of action. It’s easy to Tweet, “so and so is an abuser,” or it’s easy to tweet, “we have a problem.” It’s not so easy to have two years’ worth of Zoom meetings and project plans or administration plans on what can be done. Outside of music, I’m a change management consultant, and using my change management brain, I think is a lot of people are bought into the idea of keeping people safe, but a lot of us don’t do the work to make that happen.
I’m not saying that this documentary is the work, and we’re done. What we’re saying is the exact opposite. Watch the documentary and think about what work do you need to do? What work do I need to do? Brianna needs to do? Samantha needs to do? To make your community a little bit safer and a little bit more understanding, a little bit more inclusive? We’re all advocates for change and doing better, and I think the scene, so to speak, needs to think about not how can we get on Spotify playlists, not how can we get on Pitchfork, but how can we be a little bit more understanding of each other? How can we use our art to make people feel a little bit more at home? It’s easy to be on a label or get status, but once you have that status, what are you doing to help people have a home, recover, and things like that.
TK: Brianna, what conversations do you hope that this film creates?
BS: I hope that people ask each other what their pronouns are and that people start holding other people accountable. There’s a section in the film about bystander intervention, we talked about how there’s the three Ds to bystander intervention: it’s distract, delegate, and direct. So, if you’re in a store, you’re at a show, you’re at work you’re anywhere, and you see someone who’s being put in an unsafe situation by another person, there are lots of things you can do. The three safest things you can do is to create a distraction, which would be maybe asking the person who is being victimized if they need to go to the bathroom or purposefully bump into the aggressor in the situation. Create a distraction, give the person who is being victimized, this space to walk away to back away, or to catch their breath, or something. The next would be to delegate. So that would be maybe in the grocery store example, getting a manager or saying, “hey, there’s something going on in aisle four, and it’s not cool you should step in.” You don’t have to be the person that steps in and breaks things up to help other people feel safe and to be involved in creating that safe space for everyone.
The third — which can be a little intimidating, and which is why there’s multiple options — is to be direct. To directly address the situation and say, “hey, what’s going on here is not okay, and you need to back off.” That’s the biggest thing that I hope people take away. I mean, you’ve heard it all over if you see something, you need to say something. When you’re actively being victimized in a situation, the power dynamic is skewed, you might not have the opportunity to catch your breath or take your power back. Even Jane Jacobs as far back as the early 1900s talks about the idea of the eyes on the street with that classic New York example of a woman who was stabbed to death and bled out on a New York sidewalk after screaming for hours for someone to come help her, and no one did anything because they assumed someone else would. That’s pervasive in our society as a whole, and it’s not okay. My biggest hope is that people who watch this film will start to recognize, this isn’t okay I need to do something. The reality is you need to do something whether you’re involved or not, and that’s how we’re going to make a change. If you just sit by and are complacent, people are going to continue to be abused and be hurt. When you’re a survivor that’s something you want to advocate against, at least that’s how I feel personally.
TK: Is there anything that you’d like to add about what you hope people take away from this film?
BW: Every space has a different issue, and that’s what I love about this documentary. We had similar discussions, but everyone had a different thing that they were doing in their community. I really just hope that this documentary inspires action, as opposed to just awareness, and then you forget about it. I want to see people do things. I want to see people that look like me and don’t look like me play shows. I want to see different communities bonding together to create events, I want to see people teaching each other. I want to see workshops occurring, not just in my city, but everywhere around this world. As a creator with many different hats, [I know] rape culture isn’t just unique to DIY. It happens everywhere, all the time. People are getting harassed, and people are getting hurt. People are feeling discouraged because of things that happened to them. I want this documentary to inspire people to know that it’s okay to speak up, it’s okay to make a change and make a difference. You speaking up is helping yourself feel more safe, and it’s helping other people feel more safe.
TK: Everything you cover in this documentary are huge issues in the DIY scene, yet there’s a lot of hope for change in it as well. Why do you want to tackle these problems, and how do you envision a safer future?
BW: I think initially it started with how I experienced the DIY scene. My first show in Philadelphia, I was almost shot, literally, by someone in South Philly. It was very triggering for me. My second show, someone called me the N-word and spit at me. I’ve also played shows where I’ve had to intervene, where people were about to get assaulted, whether it meant sexually assaulted or just an actual fight. I didn’t like that being the status quo. Growing up in Philly, a lot of traumatic events have occurred in my life. Even in college, when I threw shows, I had to be the booker and the bouncer at the same time, like kicking men out because of rude things that they did. There was something in me that just told me I have to do something or speak up about this.
What I’ve always found interesting about DIY, and this isn’t every space, but it is some spaces is, a lot of times in college environments, the punk houses are considered alternative to the frat houses because they’re less bro. [But] in non-safe spaces, they’re almost as bro or as toxic as a frat house, so then it leaves that sample of people feeling very conflicted and confused and traumatized. Whether it’s my race or my trauma or my mental illness that has caused me to feel this way, I know I’m not alone. I’m not the only person that’s felt this way or has experienced these things.
Whether it’s this documentary, the next documentary, the next album, the next podcast episode, I want to create a platform that allows people to have those hard conversations and then think about what they can do about it. Whether that means an intervention program, hosting a workshop, collaborating, and things like that. I think, not to sound cliche, it all started with being traumatized. I can’t believe I just said that, but it started with being traumatized in the most literal sense. I don’t want to share every event just not to trigger anyone, but after years of therapy, rehab, and things like that, I had to think to myself, I can’t be a statistic, and I don’t want other people be a statistic. So, how can I help him do my part, to help other people know that they have a voice and their voice actually matters?
TK: Absolutely. Brianna, is there anything you would like to add?
BS: Yeah, and you know what, Samantha, it’s a great question. Why would we want to change things? And I hate it, because why wouldn’t you? You’re participating in something so intimate and so vulnerable that if you see problems and don’t do anything about it, you are a part of the problem. I don’t want to be a part of the problem. I want to be a part of the solution.