Brian Cross (better known as B+) is the photographer and creative mind behind many iconic photos found in music magazines, books and album covers. Together with friend and fellow photographer Eric Coleman, Cross founded the Mochilla imprint. But these guys know better than to stuff their creative minds in one little bottle. They’ve branched out into film and organized the Timeless concert series (which is now available as a great DVD box-set). TRU had a chat with B+ about his motivation, inspiration and how true magic is made.
TRU: How does a guy from Ireland get to LA and become court photographer to the local underground hip-hop/funk/jazz/good music scene?
I came here in 1990 to go to grad school, to study photography at the California Institute of Arts. I’d been listening to hiphop music since the early 80s and basically, while at Cal Arts, was commissioned to make a series of photos of the hip-hop scene in Los Angeles.
TRU: Those were the photos that turned into your book “It’s Not About A Salary”?
Yeah, totally. The guy that commissioned the photos was an editor at Verso (Verso Books, the publisher -TRU) and was like “Wow, this is amazing, you’ve made so much progress already, you should do a book” and I was like “Okay… (laughs) whatever!”. I always figured I’d find a writer to work with me on it. It’s still kind of an interesting situation here as far as, it’s really a second city. New York is always considered the first city of hip-hop, so people were like “What hip-hop scene in LA?”. I ended up doing it for myself as more of an oral history with this long photo essay. In the process of doing the book I got fired from my job and decided I didn’t want to work for anyone else and that I would start doing more commercial photo jobs to support myself. That’s nearly 20 years ago now.
TRU: So you didn’t really succeed in going commercial then?
(Laughs) Yeah, it didn’t really work out like that!
TRU: What inspired you to get into photography in the first place?
I was interested in photography as more of a vessel for ideas, the process of image-making. I didn’t even photograph people at first, I was really more interested in the world of ideas. There wasn’t a possibility to study photography in Ireland, so I studied painting in Ireland. Then when I finished undergrad I decided I wanted to do grad school and study photography, applied to Cal Arts and got in. To be honest with you, the possibility of me being a professional photographer only came out of me being in LA. I never really thought of myself as possibly being a professional photographer when I was living in Ireland. It was kind of an organic thing, it just happened.
TRU: About the way that you work, do you prefer to stage and compose a shot beforehand or do you rather follow along until opportunity arrives and a shot occurs you feel you have to record?
I generally prefer the latter although the job demands both approaches. I think Mochilla, as an entity, stands for more of an off-hand, low production kind of way of working. No that we can’t do high production stuff but we generally aim away from that. The photography we like, is more the photography of engagement really, where it’s just simply about an exchange between the subject and the photographer. But I’ve done it both ways. Even in the most contrived situations there’s still room for improvisation and in the most improvised situations there’s always some bit of contrivance. There’s no such thing as a pure practice, if you will.
TRU: Do you think it helps to personally know your subjects? For instance, the Madlib portrait that was used on the cover of the first Beat Konducta CD seems like a very intimate shot. Does your familiarity with him help to create such an image?
Yeah, in regard to Madlib it definitely helps, over the years, to get to know the guy. And most of the time it helps, for sure. Although there are times because I know the person it makes it easier for them to call me like “Man, my kid is doing this today, I don’t wanna do it, can we do it another day?”. Another thing is, it makes it easier for us to just hang out and have fun, and not do photos. But generally, it helps. Over the years, getting to know people and spending time, real time with people, has definitely helped the kind of photos that I make, or am interested in making.
TRU: Seems like you were perfectly able to sustain yourself on photography alone. But you decided to co-found Mochilla and take the hassle of becoming label boss on your shoulders. How did that decision come about?
Well, again, it was a kind of organic thing. Mochilla is a production company more than anything. That was the first step for us, to set up something that could house the kind of production that we were interested in. Around the time of Keepintime was when we decided it should actually be an imprint. What we do is kind of unique, to see it through to the end, to us it made more sense to make our own imprint. Of course we didn’t expect it to end up like 8 years later, there’s quite a few things that ended up on the label that we couldn’t have anticipated. But it didn’t seem like a huge step at the time, in retrospect I guess it is. There’s a lot of things we’ve put out that aren’t photo or film-based that I’m very proud of. It’s like a vanity label more than anything, like an art project somehow. We’re not trying to be another Stones Throw or another Alpha Pup or another… whatever label you’d like to compare us to, we’re not really trying to be that. We’re just two artists that work together, are very close friends with musicians and that have a unique perspective on the music and need a place to put out what we do. Which is a little bit different than what other labels do.
TRU: So with Mochilla being a ‘vanity label’, what project best serves your vanity?
(Laughs) Obviously, the whole Time, Timeless, Brasilintime, Keepintime, those. That’s the main reason the label was founded. Those best describe what our concerns are. But, I’m also very happy with the mix CD series that we started, maybe three or four years ago now. It’s something that I always thought would be cool to have. The notion of a mix CD not as a way to break exclusives or to sum up a certain genre of music but as things that we, people involved in music, pass amongst ourselves. That we make at the house, that are kind of, almost for internal consumption. And sometimes those things are the best, our favorite way to listen to music. The idea is to have a series of mix CD’s by people who’s music you like or who’s art you like that are purely that, that are like internal conversations. Not like you’re trying to impress anybody, it’s not like they have to be perfect, but that they are in the spirit of seeing links between music that you otherwise wouldn’t have anticipated. Or just playing the buggy stuff that you wouldn’t play at the club. I’m super happy with how that’s turned out. The Jackson Conti record to me was a huge thing, it was really awesome that we were able to make a film that was able to bring to incredible musicians that we admire a lot together, so much so that they made a record together and that they want us to put it out. I’m very proud of that. And obviously, Timeless took the whole thing to another level for me. That’s kind of what people know us for now.
TRU: What’s the biggest difference between framing a still image and filming movement?
To be honest with you there’s not a whole lot of difference, in the sense that you have to choregraph yourself a little more carefully, that’s about it. But framing is more or less the same, it’s a 2D situation and you have to be cogniscant of where your shot begins and ends but essentially… In some ways it’s easier, actually. You can get away with things when things move, more than you can with a still. With a still, a lot of times, you’re trying to make a lot of things happen in 1/60th of a second, whereas when it’s a period of time you’re capturing the lighting doesn’t have to be quite as perfect sometimes, the video can be quite forgiving. It is what it is. We’ve definitely tried to apply the style of photography that we’re interested in to the video and I think it’s worked out to varying degrees. the real problem, for me anyway, going from still to movement isn’t so much in shooting, it’s in the editing. I can edit together a story for you out of some stills that’ll make sense really pretty quickly. I can go downstairs and put all the photos out. I shoot already with a story, you know? It’s not that hard to pull it off, because you don’t need all the bits in between. Whereas to make a story out of a couple hours of footage can be very difficult and challenging and it’s not something I would do by myself. AND there’s sound, which is a whole other f*cking ballgame.
TRU: There’s a certain warmth and organic sound to all three Timeless films. Is that something you deliberately search for in Mochilla projects?
We’re certainly more attracted to that kind of thing. But anything that’s challenging like that, I’m drawn to. If someone came to me with an idea tomorrow for something that was completely electronic I’d certainly be up for it. Basically with Timeless the idea was to do something that challenged our notions of what music should look like on TV. When music hits TV it’s like, get a crane, a boom, you have a bunch of cameras, it’s overlit. It’s not so much about the music, it’s about the production values. We’re much more disposed to a kind of simpler approach. where it IS about the performance. We don’t need a boom, we don’t need fancy equipment, it can be black & white, it can be very simple and very stripped down.
TRU: Speaking about black & white, what was the major motivation behind filming Timeless in black & white?
Well, let me explain something about the way the production was done. When you come to the concert, there’s a huge movie size screen where the stage is. In front of that is the DJ set-up. while the DJs who framed the concert, whether it was J.Rocc, Madlib, Quantic, Cut Chemist, House Shoes, while they played there are photo’s being projected from the individual city. Photo’s I did in Ethiopia, photo’s I did in Detroit, photo’s me and Eric made in Brazil. Then the curtain goes up, the show starts, the first part of the show there’s also a screen above the band that’s showing these photo’s much slower. One image per song, the most iconic ones. The second part of the show, what we’re filming goes live. So you’re looking at the band in color but above it you’re seeing a live edit in black & white. So people walk away in the end and have seen what actually happened but have also experienced what’s going to happen, or rather what it’s going to en up looking like. It’s an attempt to make it timeless. It’s something very simple and straight forward in front of you. It’s in color, the lighting is in color and then you’re looking in black & white above it and you’re seeing super close-ups on the violins, or whatever, in black & white. It’s an attempt to sort of confuse you of when this was made or what era is this, you know? That was the trick, a very simple thing that we did. Mulatu was the first one and as soon as we did people were like “WOW…” (laughs). We’re like, we’ve just projected some black & white stuff on top of it, it’s okay, but they we’re like “Nah, that’s it! You guys figured it out!”. After that it was a done deal.
To be honest with you, it wasn’t a decision that was made months in advance, it was something that was made on the spot when we were setting it up. We always knew we wanted to project live above it, because when we’d done that with Brasilintime it worked best. It’s good to be able to direct people live sometimes. When you have fifty people playing at the same time, people don’t know what to look at, but if you can direct their eyes a little bit it really helps. When we were setting it up there were adjustments to be made on the switcher. So they were messing around with the switcher and at some point I asked “Hey Luke, can you desaturate it?” and he said “Yeah, I think there’s desaturation on it”. He desaturated it and everybody went “WHOA” and that was it. We tried it out, it worked incredibly well. We shot in color, but we projected in black & white. And in the end, when it became time to edit, we switched everything to black & white and started from there.
I spent a lot of time looking at jazz television from the 60s. That’s always been a big influence on me, I love jazz, I spent a lot of years of my life listening to just jazz music. There’s a British television show called ‘625 Jazz’ presented by this guy called Humphrey Littleton. The way it’s shot, to me, is something beautiful. He had all the greats on the show. He had Monk on there, Art Blakey, John Gilmore, there’s bits of it on YouTube.
TRU: The way you guys shot Timeless also more accurately resembles a real concert experience in that you sometimes focus on a detail and have longer shots in stead of quick edits and sweeping cameras. At the same time, the fact that it’s black & white also creates a certain distance from it.
That’s a good point. It has that sort of thing where you go “When was this made?” and at the same time it’s incredibly intimate.
TRU: The lighting also seems very different. There are these shots of Arthur Verocai and in Suite For Ma Dukes of Miguel Atwood Ferguson where there’s a backlight that almost creates a sort of halo around them. Was that light put there for that purpose beforehand or is it more a case of spotting the right angle while filming to create that effect?
A little bit of both, we know that was going to be possible. Eric spotted it first. When we were shooting we had headphones on and Luke, the editor, is in the booth and he’s going “Whoa, Eric is f*cking killing it right now!” and as soon as he’ll say that everybody looks up and goes “Oh, shit!” and adjusts accordingly. It was the way those shows were done back in the day. It was really old school in the sense that I wouldn’t say it was competative, but it was almost competative in that it was five of us shooting and we were all inspiring each other to do better as the night went on. Whenever somebody discovered something, within minutes everybody was figuring out how they could up it. We’re very lucky. the lighting designer was really, really good. The venue itself was ideal, it’s a beautiful venue. It’s kind of a weird venue in LA, it’s an underused live but we took a chance with it and it worked out. One of those things where all the stars aligned, basically. We like taking chances with footage, some of the guys that shoot with us will be like “Man there’s so much flare!” and we’ll go “Yeah, yeah! That’s it!”. Just finding our voice, that’s what that is.
The discovery is always an accident but you make your luck when it comes to those things, we’re looking for those things all the time. And as soon as we’ve figured it out, trust me, we’ll get the best use out of it!
TRU: Do you think your experience as a photographer helps you pick up on those things sooner than someone who works exclusively in film?
I don’t know about film, but as far as TV goes, yes. They don’t take those kind of chances with TV, it’s very safe, generally. They compensate in other ways. They put in a crane, shouldn’t we put in a crane? No, that’s not how you see music. The floating eye in the sky, that’s not it to me. The rule to us as photographers is the light that’s there has infinite possibilities, it’s a matter of putting yourself in the right place to capture it. So much of the stuff that we see is formalized and safe, they’re like “Oh my God, flare, go to another camera”. With us it’s “Flare? F*ck Yeah!”. The dust particles around Verocai, it’s like some kind of crazy space constellation around him sometimes, it so beautiful. Whereas with them, it’s “Oh, this looks dusty”. We’re photographers with ears, it’s a combination of both things. We know the music lends itself to that and so we try to explore that the best we can. I don’t know if that’s an answer but yeah, coming from a photography background means the way we shoot is slightly different.
TRU: There’s almost a storylike structure to the way the films are edited. with Suite for Ma Dukes for instance you enter the room in a first person view and there’s the part with the empty chair for Dilla and it’s almost like the POV is from Dilla himself taking a peek at his tribute, like his presence is felt through the whole affair. With the Mulatu Astatke episode you start by laying these images of him arriving over the first song and it’s like this man is traveling towards the stage from Ethiopia, to bring you his cultural heritage. Very much like your telling the story of these artists.
I’m really glad you picked up on that, that was what we were striving for. The day after the suite For Ma dukes concert for example, we took Ma Dukes to lunch. And everyone was exhausted, we stayed out late the night before and we’d all been working 20-plus hours a day and we all went to lunch. The plan was, he’s literally buried on the hill behind my house, and the plan was to take Ma Dukes there. So we went and had lunch and came back here to the house. We sat here, she was happy to be out of the hotel and she was hanging out with us, in good spirits. So I said “Shall we go up there?” and she said “You know what? I think he’s happy today, I think we should just leave him be”. And for us, it was like everybody just wanted to cry at that point, we were like “Job done“.
I definitely felt him, I felt him that night. Amongst all of us, there wasn’t a dry eye. A lot of us knew him, a lot of the production people involved knew him. Obviously his family was there, a of lot his close friends were there. It was just nice to do something of that caliber, with that many people involved and create such a beautiful night in tribute to him. And if anybody on this planet can tell whether he’s happy or not it would be his mother, for her to give us that was a beautiful thing. She’s an awesome person and I’m very happy to get to know her and to be able to call her a friend. She inspired us a lot.
I watched it with Erykah Badu, it was right around the time that her record came out. She’s an extraordinary person, she spent a lot of time with Dilla but she’s also an extraordinary person when it comes to the music. She listens very critically. It wasn’t so much about her enjoying it, it was about her critiquing it. Until the moment with the cello. She just started shaking her head and was like “Aw man, y’all just got me right now”.
It’s something you only discover by doing this. We told Ma Dukes our story and showed her the EP and she was so happy. She said “You know, Dilla used to be in an orchestra” and we were like “Really?”. I mean, I knew Dilla, you wouldn’t hear that story from him. She told us he played the cello. So somehow here comes this new piece of information and now we have an opportunity to celebrity that, in a real way. It seemed like such an important gesture, I know for Miguel it was an important gesture. There were a lot of decisions made about how we should image him, I’ve done several photoshoots with him and I have a lot photos. But we decided to make it celebratory, not mournful. Let’s keep his visual presence minimal. Then when the cello came, it was an opportunity to allow him to exist symbolically with us. It’s very powerful, really. And at the very end, the music ends and it just says “Thank You Dilla”. The only color image you see in the entire film is him. To me that was a nice way to full-stop it. It’s the only image of him you see. I’m very proud of how it worked out, it was a humongous group effort.
TRU: How did the Timeless series initially come about?
When Braslintime, the DVD, was ready to come out, we started working with Andrew Lojero, who’s an event promoter out here. A very ambitious, young, strong cat. After Brasilintime died down, he wondered what we should do next. so we just started making lists of things that would be amazing to pull off. At that time we were about to help release the DVD of David Axelrod playing live in London. My thing was, I’m happy that it happened but that needs to happen in LA. That music is from LA, it needs to be celebrated in LA and most importantly it needs to be heard in LA. We started thinking, well, there’s a lot of musicians in that set of circumstances, who’s music we’re celebrating to sampling, through digging and going back and listening, but who even back then, at the time, never had their music celebrated live. We started to make a list of people who should have their music celebrated in that way. Not just a retrospective of their music, but a retrospective of their music from the perspective of people who listen to hip-hop. That was the key to us. There are a lot of composers who are amazing in jazz, or that would be amazing to celebrate, but who are the ones that really impacted us in terms of the music we love and came up listening to? So we made a list, all it was was a list, and we used to laugh about this stuff, saying “Yeah, this ain’t never gonna happen!”.
Then by a very fortuitous situation, a sponsor that we’ve worked with a little bit, VTech, called us. The head of marketing at VTech asked us to lunch and wanted to know what we were planning for 2009. He came to us and said that what was most impressive about Brasilintime was that people came to that show and realized in the practice of seeing it that this was something that was never going to happen again. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see all these people playing together. To him, it was real legacy work, that’s what he called it. Twenty years from now you’ll still be able to say we were the ones that helped put that on. and he wanted to be able to do legacy work with this money. A lot of the time, corporate sponsors sponsor a party at SXSW or Winter Music Conference or some record release party and there’s nothing to show in the end. Maybe something magical happened, maybe it didn’t, but that wasn’t the purpose anyway. It’s a showcase for an artist, or a record coming out, but the purpose is never to create something magical, to pull off something people will talk about ten years from now. So we were like “Hey, that’s the business we’re in!” and he asked us what we had in mind.
Andrew said “Well, we’ll working on this composer/arranger series” and all the while it was nothing but a list. Of course he knew Axelrod, he didn’t know Mulatu or Verocai, he knew Dilla obviously, Dilla had even been in a VTech ad at one point. So we left the meeting and thought that was the end of it. Around 11 o’ clock that night my phone just starts going nuts! He starts texting me “How much is it going to be?”, “When can we start”, “Is there any possibility we can have this starting at the beginning of the new year?” and my head is spinning. This was around October 2008 and the first, the Mulatu concert, happened on February 1st 2009. We got the first check at the end of November and then it was off to the races, it felt like a 100 miles an hour. Like a sprint that lasted four or five months.
This was a commitment, financially for one, way above and beyond anything I’d previously seen. And secondly it was a commitment to something really memorable. For instance, we needed a glockenspiel, which is a $1200,- rental and you hear it for thirty seconds. He (Tom Bacon, head of VTech marketing -TRU) said: “Well, if you think it’ll make the whole thing better than let’s make it happen”. I’m not gonna lie to you, Mochilla almost went bankrupt from this. Now matter how you cut it, there is no way to budget for what happened. How do you make a budget for magic? The two things don’t necessarily go to together. If David Copperfield is reading this I apologize, I’m sure he’s very good at it! But we needed to do what’s right for the music, that’s first. Secondly what’s right for the film and the experience, for people who go there and for the film, after that we’ll figure everything else out.
A lot of the time you’ll go online or see ads in European magazines for festivals and you see the line-ups and just shake your head. It’s the best in American music but you’ll never see those people on the bill together here. Or have an opportunity to see them play in front of 15,000 people. Like Pharoah Saunders in front of 15,000 people, it just doesn’t happen here. We were always shaking our heads asking why can’t we have those kind of events here? Why is this country so slow to give money to the arts so that these kinds of things can happen, because people’s lives will be better for it. So it was really nice to have something like that here, and then have people from Europe asking about a Verocai show “How did you guys do it?” or “How can we get Suite For Ma Dukes to Europe?”. It’s nice to pull something off here that makes a dent everywhere, it’s good for the city.
The beautiful thing about music is that it transcends generation, it transcends national boundaries, races, creeds, everything. Whatever kind of music that you first come to, dig hard into it and let it wash over you and realize that by doing that you’re connecting to all these other things. And then follow those, that’s how it works. That’s the message of hip-hop for me, it’s that these things are linked. Hip-Hop is the most contemporary way of beginning that understanding, if you will. That to me is the message of Bam, Herc and Flash and all those cats. There’s a lot of messages but the one that I took away and the one that’s stood me right the last twenty years has been that. These things are connected and if you follow those paths, it’s a great world we live in and there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening. So, get out of the box!