In 1989, four years after the death-driven disbandment of San Pedro, Calif., punk rock heroes the Minutemen, a couple of teenagers named Keith Schieron and Tim Irwin heard the band’s music for the first time and fell in love with it.
“My older brother was subscribing to Spin magazine,” says Schieron in a recent phone interview from his Seattle home. “So I went through [some old copies] and there were a couple of articles on the Minutemen.”
Schieron says that he was intrigued by photographs depicting drummer George Hurley’s once -monstrous hair, bassist Mike Watt’s lumberjack duds and the substantial physical presence of guitarist D. Boone. He ran down to the record store and bought their 1981 album The Punch Line.
“I can remember that day like it was yesterday,” Schieron says. “I put that record on and I called Tim just to see what he was doing but he wasn’t home so I talked to his mom. And how long, in high school, do you talk to your friend’s mom? Two minutes max? I hang up the phone with her and I’m on the fifth song…I’m like, ‘Oh my god!’ The brevity of the songs is just shocking.” The next day Schieron walked in to his high school film production class and found Irwin watching the skate video Streets of Fire.
“There was this song playing on the video,” says Schieron, “and I go, ‘Dude, this sounds like the Minutemen.’ And he goes, ‘Dude, it is! They’re the best songs I’ve ever heard in my life.’”
Years later, after growing up and falling out of touch with each other, Schieron and Irwin reunited to fulfill what may as well be termed their destiny: a documentary on their favorite band titled We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen. It’s a story that’s essentially narrated by Watt as he shuttles Schieron and Irwin in a van through the streets of San Pedro. The bassist talks about the trio’s attempts to learn their instruments, and mostly he talks about Boone, who, when both were 13, toppled from a tree onto Watt, sealing their friendship. Mixed in with candid, personal reflections from Watt is live performance footage and a host of interviews done with those who knew the band best, including members of fellow punk groups like Black Flag and Saccharine Trust.
Weighing heavy on the narration is Boone’s 1985 death in an auto accident, which ended the Minutemen’s run after only five years, and smack in the middle of the band’s prime. It also clearly cut short an iron-clad friendship; one of the film’s more heartbreaking moments is when Watt points out the tree where he met Boone and recalls, “I was quite smitten with him.”
But We Jam Econo is also about the music, about how different it was for a band born in the shadow of ’70s arena rock to play songs of under a minute and tweak the guitar (as Boone did) by turning the midrange and bass to zero with the treble knob cranked to 10 in pursuit of bright, cutting chords.
Plus, “With Hurley playing the drums, you’ve got incredible jazz tempos,” Schieron says. “Of course, what could be said about Watt’s bass playing? I mean, the man basically re-invented how the bass guitar operates in music.”
While personal enthusiasm is what spurred the filmmakers to make We Jam Econo, it took a serendipitous encounter for Schieron and Irwin to set out on their filmmaking path. The two hadn’t spoken for nine years, but on a road trip from California to Boston, Schieron, working in business development in radio, stopped in to see Irwin.
“Tim had become a filmmaker and I had no idea,” he says, “and the day I was leaving his house, I wrote him a note [that read] ‘Minute by Minute: The Story of the Minutemen, directed by Tim Irwin. Do this!’ And I left this note on his kitchen counter.”
A few weeks later Irwin called him and said, “We should do it.”
“We?” Schieron remembers responding. “I haven’t held a camera or done any editing since we were in high school.” Irwin proposed that Schieron focus on the business end as producer while Irwin manned the camera, but ultimately, the project became a completely collaborative effort.
We Jam Econo started production in 2002 and was released in February 2005. It was a self-financed, part-time job done with limited equipment, and Schieron sees a parallel between the DIY approach and the Minutemen’s DIY style. Though Schieron describes the filming process as “incredible,” since they got to make a tribute and be a momentary part of the Minutemen’s world, he had no idea what the reception for the documentary would be.
The site of the premiere was the 1,500-seat Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro. The filmmakers expected a couple of hundred people, and so the owners closed down the balcony to make the space appear smaller and, according to Schieron, lessen the embarrassment of a sea of unsold seats. But on premiere day, a line started to form, stretching down the street.
“It was just like when I was a kid going to see The Empire Strikes Back on opening day, how the line went around the block,” Schieron says. “We actually had to delay the opening of the screening because people were still in line waiting to get in. We sold out a 1,500-seat theater—it was completely mind-boggling.”
Without a distributor, Schieron says We Jam Econo hasn’t been played in some cities monopolized by chain theaters, and 99 percent of the film’s screenings, nationally and internationally, have been requested in true DIY style by music fans. Even so, the film’s buzz has included mention in Entertainment Weekly and an op-ed piece in The New York Times.
“The Minutemen are just this really personal thing for me [and] because of that I was really in a sense naive about the film,” Schieron says. “Some people thought I was bullshitting, but I had no idea how popular this would or wouldn’t be.”
We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen debuts in Missoula Friday, Dec. 9, at 7 PM at the Roxy Theater. Depending on demand, a 9 PM show may be added. Tickets are available for $5 in advance from Ear Candy Music.