English film maker and director Jim Parsons is one of those lucky, lucky buggers who has managed to earn a crust being directly involved with the one thing that unites us all here at MaF – heavy metal. I first became aware of him through his work on the film Heavy Metal – Louder than Life, an exhaustively brilliant look at ‘our kind of music’ which came out three or four years ago. Fast forward a couple of years and, through our mutual friend – my sister – Jim got to hear about a book I’m writing also, curiously, about heavy metal. Anyways, long story short, Jim made a contribution to the book and, whilst I had his attention, I decided to get him to give us a bit of a tour around his life in the business…
First off, tell us a bit about what you do, and how it relates to the exciting world of heavy metal, and its attendant ‘industry’. How hard is it to get into your line of work?
Well, in short what I do is produce and/or direct music films and videos- concert documentaries and music videos… Pretty much any filming that relates to music, really.
It’s not always metal (mores the pity) but better than working for a living.
I guess it’s pretty easy to get into, get a cheap video camera, make your final cut and off you go… making a living, or dare I say it, a career - well maybe that’s not so easy. Looking back there is a bit of luck involved, but equally a hell of a lot of hard work, thick skin, perseverance and commitment. Whatever you choose to do you have to be dedicated and work hard. That sounds so fuckin’ dull and grown up but it’s true! At some point you’ll get a chance and you have to make the best of it; again looking back you can to a big degree make your own luck. I don’t think at the time I realized that. I got the chance to work at MTV in London on Headbangers Ball for nothing to get experience, I did that for six months while doing Market Research to pay the bills and eventually they gave me a job.
These days you can do a degree in media and film, how much that helps I don’t really know. In my opinion getting a job as a runner and making contacts while making your own films of local bands (or anyone you can get to) may be as valuable as any certificate. It’s as much about who you know as what you know…
If you work on the premise that you are only ever as good as your last job then you’ll always be trying to make the best shit you can.
What’s been, in your opinion, your best work that our readers will be familiar with?
Well… Headbangers’ Ball on MTV Europe from 89 – 93 was great, it was a really good time to work at MTV. Music mattered then, and we really were able to champion a lot of bands. Recently though, the Big 4 in Sofia cinema broadcast and DVD has been amazing… I grew up with those four bands and at some point over the years all four have been my favourite band in the world, so to get to work with them (again) was very cool! Seeing them all do AM I EVIL together was about as special a moment as I think I’ve ever witnessed… I remember thinking that if the 18 year old me had been able to see what I was doing in 2010 I would have been pretty amazed! Other stuff? I did a TV special with Metallica in 2003 (or whenever St Anger came out) with them playing in a studio with 200 fans… that was pretty cool too.
AC/DC playing in a tiny studio in London for Vh1 in 1996 was another highlight. It was just them and us… again really special.
Were you set on your career from an early age? And how has the environment that you work in changed over the last twenty years?
I should say yes that I was focused and organized and driven, but not exactly ‘set’. Hearing Ritchie Blackmore and Deep Purple when I was 11 in 1977 was the catalyst to everything. I became obsessed with hard rock, heavy metal etc… I started playing the guitar when I was 17… I was and am pretty shit at that so being in a band was never more than a dream. Looking back I didn’t really put the work in, I wasn't dedicated enough. I went to University because that seemed like the thing to do, went to hundreds of gigs and had fun. When I came out I just wanted to work in music. I did a course in sound engineering and tried to get a job at any record label and studio… I wrote to them all, called them all and finally got a job in London at a place called Falconer Studios. Sadly the pay was so bad I couldn’t afford to live, so I ended up working in a guitar shop in Camden Town.
My break came when I met Kerrang! journalist Howard Johnson through a mutual friend. We went to see Manchester City a lot and to tons of gigs, and at one he introduced me to Vanessa Warwick (former wife of current Thin Lizzy front man Ricky Warwick) from MTV – she presented Headbangers Ball at the time.. I think it was at a Balaam and the Angel gig. We got on, she wanted some research done for interviews and I got a foot in the door. I worked for her for free on and off for about 9 months (I think, can’t be sure if it was that long) and eventually, as I said earlier MTV gave me a job.
It’s hard to put into a few sentences how the world of music and TV has changed, it’s been pretty seismic. I guess the advances in technology are the biggest changes. In the old days cameramen did cameras, producers produced, editors edited and that was that.Now with kit being so much cheaper anyone can get a camera, a laptop and make films… So professionally you have to be more dynamic and creative and be a master of many trades… What I make now is less TV centric and much more likely to go onto DVD or the internet. It is still though much better than working for a living…
Heavy Metal: Louder than Life seems like it was a massive undertaking. How did the documentary come about in terms of conception and execution? Was it as difficult as I imagine it to have been?
I got involved in writing the treatment for it through a colleague at the production company, I wrote one on Metal (which was pretty much straight out of my mind), one on Punk and one on Hip Hop (the internet helped there a lot!), then they called me in to produce just as it was about to go into production so I never really had time to be daunted… it was here’s the budget, here’s the delivery date now get on with it! It was difficult getting the artists as firstly, we had no money to pay them and secondly we had time for 7 days filming in the US and a week in the UK to film it all.
So pinning people down who were on tour or recording was not easy. In the end we had to set dates and get as many people on camera as we could. We probably missed as many people again because of their schedules as we actually got.
I seem to remember at the time that certain bands refused to take part in the film because they didn’t, and indeed still don’t consider themselves to be heavy metal? Is this true? And if so how exasperating was it when you were trying to present such an exhaustive overview of the genre?
That is true. The words heavy and metal when used together can really put people off. AC/DC. Def Leppard and quite a few others wouldn’t consider it because of the title. I was pretty exasperated at the time because even if you’re not a metal band you can surely see the impact you’ve had on the genre. One plugger told me Megadeth weren’t heavy metal, I then went direct to management and Dave Mustaine was, of course, happy to talk!
It was a bit exasperating, but mainly because you feel that bands you love are saying no to you personally. With a bit more time I could have used my Headbangers’ Ball connections, but by the time I was employed there had been a lot of requests sent out already so it was a case of focusing on what we could achieve. I started in on it in January and we shot in the US early February. So it was pretty intense. The other thing that affected it was bands schedules. At the time Metallica, Ozzy and Iron Maiden were all taking a year off and wouldn’t do anything… so it’s a case of getting on with it…
That said we got some great interviews… Ones that really stand out were (Twisted Sister’s) Dee Snider, Jonathan Davis from Korn and of course Ronnie James Dio… He was a hero of mine as a kid so interviewing him was a real honour and he was a true gentleman.
I think we tried too hard to make an exhaustive film, that was what the client bought into, but the budget didn’t reflect that. I’m really proud of what we did and the credit sequence with all the bands talking about Dime is one of the best pieces I have ever done. In hindsight I think that it was too big a topic to do justice to and we could have made it a little more fun and original.
Did anyone else that you wanted refuse to take part for other reasons?
Yes a few people, some because they wanted a fee and some because they appeared in Banger Films Headbangers’ Journey which was shooting at the same time, for some reason some artists felt obliged not to do ours. Can't say anymore…
When I googled you to do a bit of research I obviously found that you have the same name as someone very famous indeed (Big Bang Theory Actor Jim Parsons). I too suffer from this problem – does it annoy you It bloody does me…
I can’t say it annoys me… he doesn’t look very cool though… Actually until I read this I didn’t know who he was or what he did. I should really get my arse in gear and put my credits and stuff on the internet, then you’d have found me. It could be worse, my Dad wanted to call me Nicholas, which as a kid in the UK growing up in the 70s and 80s would have been tragic! (Nicholas Parsons, for those unlucky enough to be out of the loop here, was a very smooth UK entertainer who hosted out version of Sale of the Century in the seventies)
On Answers.com you do register and there’s a review of Heavy Metal: Louder Than Life. On the same page, however, they also tried to flog me three albums:
Iron Maiden - A Matter of Life and Death
Paradise Lost – Symbol of Life
Cannibal Corpse - Eaten Back to Life
All heavy metalalbums with Life in the title! What a coincidence! But which one would you recommend, and why?
That’s really hard. On a musical level Maiden is one of my favourite bands ever. I saw them so many times back in the early 80s because they played everywhere and for kids like me living in the middle of nowhere they came to places like Taunton and Chippenham which made us love them even more. Paradise Lost I love and was very good mates with them back in the Headbangers’ Ball days, Cannibal Corpse aren’t my thing, but I did fall asleep at a show of theirs in Las Vegas while filming them and their sound guy told the band who were very cool about it. I had been traveling and working for about 3 days non stop mind!
So I’ll go or Maiden over PL just. However I’d state that my favourite Maiden albums are Killers, Piece of Mind and Dance of Death.
Anything else you’d like to add?
That’s a big question… I dunno. I’m trying to think of stuff that might interest your readers… So…
11 of my favourite guitarists – in no particular order
Eddie Van Halen
Flicking through my ipod… and I know you love lists and charts, here are 20 obvious albums I think are criminally underrated. Ones that I come back to whenever I have a “what shall I listen to moment”.
Vio-lence – Eternal Nightmare
Blackfoot – Highway Song
Shadows Fall –Threads of Life
Armored Saint – Symbol of Salvation
Armored Saint - Revelation
Desperado – Bloodied by Unbowed
Overkill – Ironbound
Prong – Prove You Wrong
Accept – Metal Heart
Rory Gallagher – Stagestruck
Testament– The Gathering
Shadow King – Shadow King
Hardline – Double Eclipse
Q5 – Steel the Light
Everytime I Die – The Big Dirty
Exodus – Another Lesson in Violence
Montrose - Montrose
Suicidal Tendencies – Lights Camera, Revolution
Warrior Soul – Last Decade, Dead Century
Waysted – Save Your Prayers
A marvellous list. Finally, and on a more serious note, how would a young person go about following in your footsteps into the industry – or is it just down to the initiative of the individual?
These days I think you have to be focused. With the amount of information available on the web there is no excuse for not knowing how things work. Whatever it is you want to do you can find out all about it…. Initiative and hard work are the key…Yes talent is important, but it’s only half the story. When I was a kid I thought that Rock Stars had a god – given talent. A lot do, but what I now know is that hard work and dedication is a big part of it. Two of the most driven and focused individuals I’ve ever worked with are Lars Ulrich and Dave Mustaine. There’s no surprise that they have been as successful as they have. Now I have kids I tell them that if they want to achieve anything they have to work hard or it won’t happen. Keep trying, don’t take no for an answer, keep banging on doors till they open. You have to be good at what you do, and reliable.
Listen to the man, kids, he speaks good sense…