Automatic Magnetic is the culmination of the ideas and goals that led Charles Cardello, Brad Scott and Jay Holmes to form Bifocal Media in 1997. While pursuing design school and film degrees in Greenville, N.C., the three decided to pool their collective talents to launch a project-based record label. The idea would be to tout indie and punk filmmakers alongside live footage of national bands that were touring the house show circuit.
Prior to the formation of Bifocal, Cardello shot and released two BMX (bicycle motocross racing) videos featuring local pro-BMXers, set to an indie-rock soundtrack ("The town I lived in, Greenville, became a mecca for BMX pros," he says). The films were wildly successful due to the fact that Cardello was breaking new ground by filming a fringe sport and coupling it with alternative music. Alas, due to inexperience the film was taken over by a larger duplication distributor and most of the profits were lost, a mistake he was saved from making again with the help of Lumberjack distribution, a worldwide distributor with a focus on independent releases.
Bifocal's first video release, The Actuality of Thought, is still their best seller, and featured such at the time relatively unknown bands as The Promise Ring, Braid and The Get Up Kids. Cardello and Scott raised the funds to make the video by advertising their documentary services to film weddings.
"Brad and I filmed five weddings in Greenville, N.C. ... It's good money but also a lot harder than you'd think," Cardello recalls. They were able to borrow equipment from a local high-end film production company they both worked for--a job that gave the boys much of the experience needed for their future endeavors, as well as access to non-linear editing systems and pricey computer equipment.
Quips Cardello: "Before that, it was all linear systems--like two VCRs and a toaster. It was low end, but it's kind of fun to come up with your own thing on that stuff and try to get it to look the way you want."
Their next video would be geared mainly toward filmmakers, with live music interspersed throughout serving as the draw. The Whistle of the Missile featured 11 indie/punk filmmakers from around the United States, as well as a film short shot by label-owner Cardello.
Up next was a documentary on the final days of Chicago rock heavyweights Braid, which was released as the Killing the Camera video.
"We talked to the guys in Braid and found out they were breaking up and playing five more shows in the Chicago area. So we hit them with the idea of filming all five and they said 'Yeah.' So we all flew to Chicago, jumped in the van for this little mini-tour and made a documentary out of the shows," Cardello says.
The other half of the Bifocal equation has been the release of several full-length albums and compilations from local and national acts. From their video and album releases the label has formed relationships with over 100 bands nationally, but they consider only two of this group to be full-time Bifocal bands: The Ladderback (including Bifocal co-owner Jay Holmes, who sings and plays guitar) and from Tennessee, the band Serotonin.
When asked about the sound of the Bifocal bands, Holmes says, "The point, musically, of the things we want to put out and that we enjoy is something [that's] challenging. The watered-down rock sound has been done many times, and very well, but it's neat to find something that's going its own path--not just a technical idea but a progressive idea." Adds Cardello, "The live performance is a big part. The live show is a feeling; it's real."
With the experience garnered over the past five years, the help of several distributors and the success of a few key releases, the label looks to do things the way they want now.
"The big difference is that now we have the equipment to do it, we don't have to rely on our jobs and getting things done there," says Cardello. "The new film [Automatic Magnetic] has professional audio, which we've never had before. We have broadcast-quality video cameras now and people that we hire to do our audio for us. It's just now gotten to the level that we're not cringing while we're watching our videos. Though other kids may love the lo-fi look and sound, we're going to be happier in this situation. Plus, there's never been this high end of a project done at such an independent level--not to my knowledge."
Automatic Magnetic will be released periodically as a video magazine and will feature a combination of all the ideas the label has been pursuing--and then some. "Really, it's a vehicle for us to release any project we come up with and do. If we want to go out on tour with a band and make a 30-minute piece out of it, we can say,'Yeah, we'll include it with the next Automatic Magnetic.'"
Which begs the question: Why release independent music? Independent film? Hell, why even play in a band, much less score and direct your own film? Some are driven; others find it rewarding. But mostly, I think some of us are connected by the unquiet boredom of mass media and culture. To discover a relatively unknown work of art gives you needed pause and engenders hope--recharging the warmth of life around you, a feeling echoed by the members of Bifocal Media.
"I think the best part is having a finished product in your hand and knowing it's not just a product, it's an experience I've had," says Holmes, when asked about the rewards of releasing independent art.
Given the outbreak of cheaper digital audio and film equipment and the consumption of the computer generation, I ask the guys if they have any advice for folks that are hungry to produce their own work, DIY style. Cardello sums it well:
"The computer--as far as design, music, film or editing--it's just a tool, like a paintbrush. It doesn't create art, video or design. Once you learn aesthetics then you can learn the technical side and learn to use the computer as a tool. A lot of people use the computer as the main creative force.
"If you can't make a composition with a pencil and a piece of paper, then you're not going to make it with a $7,000 Macintosh, either."