JIM WELTE. Writer. Editor.

Spindrift: The Legend of God’s Gun

By:  | published on December 3, 2008

Courtesy of spindriftwest.comIt’s 1965, and Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone wants to screen his new film, A Fistful of Dollars, in the United States. But instead of introducing the spaghetti Western in Hollywood or New York, United Artists makes the rather batty decision to screen it at the Longshoreman’s Hall along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. The venue has been hosting a series of Acid Tests held by Ken Kesey, and Leone and the studio agree that these intrepid trippers are exactly the demographic that can quell Hollywood backlash of Leone’s campy take on the Western formula.

Fact check: Leone and United Artists did no such ludicrous thing, as marrying gunslingers and LSD would seem like a debacle waiting to happen. We’ll never really know how well A Fistful of Dollars or Once Upon a Time in the West would’ve played to the likes of the Merry Pranksters. But such an improbable nexus—spaghetti Western meets Acid Test—was the light bulb that sparked musician Kirpatrick Thomas and filmmaker Mike Bruce to come up with a modern film and soundtrack that melds those two seemingly disparate worlds. The Legend of God’s Gun, out on DVD and currently making the film festival rounds, is as weird and campy as old-school spaghetti Westerns (and may be loosely based on Gianfranco Parolini’s 1978 God’s Gun, although there’s nothing official saying so), and yet is also spliced with shards of psychedelia and digital delusions. Backed by a soundtrack that Thomas wrote before the film was even an embryo, it is truly an otherworldly affair.

The film and the soundtrack have propelled both Bruce and Thomas’ band Spindrift to greater heights. Bruce has been tabbed by the Dandy Warhols as their music video director and has been holed up at the band’s Odditorium studio in Portland, Oregon. Spindrift released its latest album, The West, on the Dandys’ imprint, Beat the World Records, just last month. Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino got his hands on The Legend of God’s Gun and liked the music so much that he put the Spindrift track “Indian Ride” on the soundtrack for his forthcoming movie, Hell Ride.

For Thomas, the ride started in 2001. A native of Newark, Delaware, Thomas fronted his own post-punk outfit, Spindrift, for more than a decade, but was searching for a new sound and a fresh identity. His band had developed a loyal local following, self-released a few albums, and played gigs in a few of Delaware’s big city neighbors to the north and south. But for all the opportunities offered by those cities, New York, Philadelphia, DC, and Baltimore also stifled the smaller scenes around it, like in Newark.

“I just needed to get out of there after a while and try something else,” Thomas says.

“Something else” would originate from a screening of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and its vaunted soundtrack of trumpet blasts, surf guitar, and haunted bass by composer Ennio Morricone. “It just absolutely blew my mind, and I became obsessed with it,” Thomas says. “I wanted to find a way to incorporate those elements into what I was doing at the time, which was more of the shoegazer sound.”

Fueled by a desire to meld Morricone with My Bloody Valentine and the cinematic prose of Jim Morrison, Thomas dug in and began writing. Serendipity kicked in along the way. In the midst of a cross-country move to Los Angeles in 2001, Thomas stopped at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, which had a John Lennon exhibit at the time. As he roamed the exhibit, Thomas bumped into—literally—enigmatic Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman Anton Newcombe, who was being pushed around in a wheelchair by bandmate Frankie Emerson. Newcombe, an infamous instigator whose antics were immortalized in the 2004 documentary Dig!, had broken his foot in a melee at a gig the previous night. A BJM fan, Thomas hit it off with Emerson and they agreed to keep in touch after Thomas arrived in LA, and Emerson and his bandmates returned there after their tour. Thomas ended up joining BJM on a subsequent tour, working the merch table and later playing guitar.

By 2004, Thomas was immersed in his new sound, crafting demos and sharing them with Emerson and fellow BJM-ers Dan Allaire and Dave Koenig, among others. By all accounts, the trio loved the sound, encouraging Thomas to keep honing it and agreeing to work with him between BJM recording sessions and tours.

Thomas began to experiment with the visual side of his concept, loosely crafting a storyline of a preacher-turned-gunslinger who vanquishes his enemies. It was a soundtrack and an idea just waiting for a filmmaker, which Thomas certainly was not. Serendipity struck again at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York, when Spindrift shared a bill with Low Flying Owls, a since-defunct Northern California rock group that contained guitarist Mike Bruce, an aspiring filmmaker. The pair later connected when Bruce moved to LA after his band’s demise to pursue film work.

“KP [Thomas] and I got to talking, and he had all these crazy ideas and concepts, and I was pretty into it,” Bruce says. “Once he Courtesy of Spindriftwest.comtold me about his treatment for it, I was in.”

The pair debated whether to make an extended music video or a feature film, but knew something had to come of the “Legend of God’s Gun” concept. Once they dug in, both Bruce and Thomas wanted the desert to play a central role, seeing the Mojave as vital a piece as the plot and its characters. Thomas discovered the desert on his trip to the West Coast and fell in love with it, while Bruce, a native of Northern California, had long sought out its vast expanse.

“I started making trips out to the desert when I was a kid and I’ve always been obsessed with it,” he says. “The desert is magical to me and I fucking love it. I’ve always dreamed about using that landscape in a film.”

From then on, they made multiple trips to the desert with a motley cast and crew of untrained actors who were musicians and friends completely inexperienced on a movie set. Given that, it was clear to Bruce that dialogue and the storyline would play second fiddle to the surreal. “It became very obvious from the very first day of shooting, which included an action sequence with dialogue, that we were not going to make a serious Western,” Bruce says. “From that day on, I set to make it campy, just like most spaghetti Westerns were. But all of us really had no idea what we were doing most of the time, and if we had, we wouldn’t have done it.”

Case in point: In the film’s final showdown, set in the fictional town of Playa Diablo, the preacher kills all of his rivals. The scene was filmed at Paramount Ranch, an old movie lot in the hills just a few miles northwest of LA that was used extensively by Paramount Pictures for dozens of films in the first half of the 20th century. The National Park Service bought the set in 1980 and made it part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, and continues to manage it today. The CBS show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman was filmed there from 1992 to 1997.

Without permits or any idea what they were in for, the crew invaded the ranch, shooting the scene in full costumes, guns included. A park ranger soon showed up, flabbergasted at what he found, but “very forgiving,” Bruce says. The ranger said they could keep filming, but without guns. He went away, but Bruce, determined to get a high angle shot of the showdown, later ventured up the rickety, off-limits stairs of one of the buildings. The ranger returned, saw that his warnings on the guns a
nd trespassing upstairs had been ignored, and kicked them off the property.

“I eventually got permission to come back but we couldn’t have any guns,” Bruce says. “So, well, we brought the guns.” While again filming the final showdown, the designated lookout for the ranger was otherwise occupied, and the ranger walked in on the scene in which every character has their gun drawn.

“We were completely shut down,” Bruce says. Months went by, but Bruce was eventually able to rent out the ghost town of Silver City in Kern County for the final shoots. Once the shoots were wrapped, that’s when the heavy lifting started. Bruce did yeoman’s work in post-production, adding layers of color, camera effects, and an overall distressed look, leaving every frame seemingly scarred and charred.

As DVD Talk said in its review, “The story may appear addled, and we don’t really know what to make of the characters, but when one’s brain is overloaded with this much visual vibrancy, it doesn’t really matter.”

Courtesy of Spindriftwest.comBruce also did all of the sound in post-production, having realized that depending on untrained actors to nail every line would have kept them in the desert for months.”If I had to do sound, it would’ve been a mess,” he says. “This movie was all about post.”

The real star of The Legend of God’s Gun is Spindrift, and not just because its members served as its cast. Since it existed as a soundtrack before it became a film, Thomas’ music nails its cosmic cowboy vibe, and prevents the misguided acting and story from pushing the movie off the rails. Surf guitars, drones, and fuzzy twang ride over funeral march beats and hazy, haunting jams. The final showdown is driven by a scorched-earth instrumental that presages the devastation to come.

Thomas hopes the soundtrack will lead to more film score work, and Tarantino’s approval “was huge,” he says. The West, the band’s new 13-track album that hit stores Nov. 11th, features a vocal version of “The New West” from The Legend of God’s Gun soundtrack, and many of the instrumentals have a cinematic tone, undulating between spastic blasts and eerie interludes. There’s also blues- and booze-fueled psychedelic rock, as on the harmonica-laced “The Wind”, and a few shots from leftfield, with “The Klezmer Song” conjuring a drunken Eastern European bar, and the aptly titled “Excrete From the Collective Subconscious” rides a wave of freak-folk.

Bruce says Thomas is onto something, and hopes he continues to bend minds with the unorthodox union of gunslingers and Acid Tests. “If you have a craving for that sound, that is the only place to get it,” he says.

Watch: Trailer for The Legend of God’s Gun [at youtube.com]

Watch: Live Spindrift [at youtube.com]

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