We’re big believers in synchronicity at Raconteur, the idea that when you’re open to the opportunities that life brings, magical things naturally happen. Such was the case when we met the absolutely magical Dilly Gent through Jeremy Barrett and Jonathon Ker, our clients at Paydirt Pictures. Talking to Dilly those months ago we immediately knew she was meant to be the subject of our next STORYTELLERS interview. And so she was!
As luck – and synchronicity – would have it, since we shot our interview with Dilly, we’ve started working with her, and we feel fortunate that she brought us on to help with the creation of her newest project, Off Main St., a long format music show. The debut episode features fabulous bass virtuoso Thundercat taking us on a tour of his Los Angeles hometown, which, not coincidentally and incredibly synchronistically, also happens to be the hometown of four of the five of us Raconteurs (excluding the Parisienne).
So we invite you to check out both our interview with Dilly, some months before the launch of her new show, Off Main St., and the first episode of the series, which debuted June 25.
DILLY GENT | THE DEN MOTHER
Let’s start off by trying to define what it is that you do. So. What is it that you do?
I am a curator, a fixer, a consultant, a TV producer, and some people who don’t know me very well call me a tastemaker. But that sounds very arrogant coming out of my own mouth – I wouldn’t call myself a tastemaker!
How did you get into the business?
My English teacher gave me the movie Great Expectations by David Lean to watch because she knew I would never get around to finishing the book. At the end of the movie, that I absolutely loved, all these credits came up – the biggest one always being director. So at age 15, I thought, I’m going to be a director.
Then I realized what a director did. So I decided I wanted to be a producer, and I was kind of badly producing these tiny music commercials; this was back when they would pay to promote an album on TV through ads. There was this guy, God love him, who kept giving me these jobs, and he suggested I interview for a commissioner job he’d heard about at Parlophone Records. I got the job.
Explain the process of being a music commissioner.
The way I work is to think about the idea and the direction we should be going in first, before I actually speak to the directors. I never do a written brief because if you do a written brief then you just get six of that written brief back.
I talk to about six directors, rattling off the images that inspired me when listening to the track and knowing what the artists want. When the treatments come back, the artists, the label and I decide together which is the one we go for. As long as it comes in on budget, we confirm. Then the shooting process starts.
How much do you intervene on the director’s work?
Very, very little. If I have to intervene, we are in a state of emergency. It’s essential that the commissioner does not get involved. I only send tracks to directors that I know have the potential to do a great job and once we’ve picked them, that’s it, I let it go.
How closely do you collaborate with the artists?
Every artist is totally different, but again, usually very little. Some want to collaborate a lot, but it’s rare that an artist gets that involved. I do talk to them about what they want, if they want something that’s more of a homemade feel, or if they want something glossy. When I worked with Radiohead, Thom Yorke said, “I had a really vivid dream about this.” And the video that became “Pyramid Song” was very much his dream – actually drowning in death. (laughs)
Let’s talk about Radiohead. How did you and Thom Yorke cross paths?
The day I started at Parlophone was the day Radiohead was signed. I got a call the Friday before I started saying I had to go to Oxford to film a gig for a video shoot. At that point, I didn’t even know what a video commissioner did, but I drove up to this gig in Oxford and the band walked in with the management. And none of us knew what to do.
I remember the director was insisting Thom wear glasses, and I remember thinking, “He shouldn’t be wearing sunglasses, that’s so crap!” And then I thought, “Oh! I think that might be my job!” So I said, “No sunglasses,” and that was my first ever decision as a video commissioner. I felt very powerful after that.
And would Thom Yorke listen to you often?
Yeah, Thom and me had a really good relationship. He is obviously really creative and he had ideas for his videos.
We did start off with a little bump. One was for a song called “ Poppa’s Dead,” and another one called “Anyone Can Play Guitar.” But then something clicked for the next album and all the pieces came together. Radiohead had taken off by that point, and I had this amazing boss at the time, Tony Wordsworth, who trusted everyone at the label to work with directors even if they hadn’t done anything but a short film. He was a really inspiring guy that allowed us to go off and let us make magical things happen.
Then I commissioned the video “Just” where everyone lies down, and that video was huge in London. Then everyone wanted to make a Radiohead video. People saw them as groundbreaking and we would allow directors to take risks.
And then you became Radiohead’s creative director.
It was ’92 when I met Thom, and by ’99 I was still in-house at Parlophone, and I had about 48 bands that I had to do videos for, some of which didn’t want to work with me either. The R&B artists just take one look at me and go “geez,” you know?
I thought, I’d rather do more with bands like Radiohead. So we made Meeting People Is Easy, a documentary about them being on the road during OK Computer. And even though it was hard, I got a taste for more, but I couldn’t do anything while I had a full time job at the label making videos. It felt like a natural time to leave, and I ended up doing a lot of different stuff with Radiohead, which was fantastic.
With a band like Radiohead, is there always bigger picture thinking about their overall image, or is it them trying to express their creative vision? As their creative director, did you help them filter that or did it happen organically?
Certainly with Radiohead, it was all very organic, and that really is the way the creative process should happen. There wasn’t any thought, no great plan. Radiohead’s music obviously came first and that came from Thom’s head and where Thom was at.
The ideas always just rolled on continuously, “Lets do this, how about this,” or it would trigger something in my mind, or something would come from Dan Rickwood (Stanley Donwood), a brilliant painter who creates all of Radiohead’s artwork. It was a collaboration in a way I haven’t had with any other band. Thom and me got along very well creatively – he pushed me in a technical way because I’m a bit of a technophobe and I pushed him in a filmic way.
But of course it can’t always happen like that, certainly not when a label has got a hundred artists and marketing directors looking after twenty each. And you have an in-house video commissioner and a separate person doing artwork. No one has the time and no one really knows the artist as well anymore, and that is really key.
How do you think bands can stand out today? With a label, much is based upon brand and promotion, so how much of the image of the band is controlled by the label?
When I get asked to commission videos, I don’t ever really get to meet the artist. There is absolutely no conversation happening about the ideas the artists themselves are having, which is unfortunate because that’s where a lot of great ideas come from, even if it’s just a trigger of an idea that just spurs something to inspire me to suggest something back.
But it is impossibly hard. Labels have shrunk in size, all the people in there are hanging on for dear life. They’ve got double the amount of artists, less time, and less money – so the creative process is the first thing to go, unless you’ve got someone at the label high up who is prioritizing the visual. Otherwise it’s secondary, to virtually nothing. They don’t commission a video until it’s a guaranteed hit, and then they’ve got to just put something out, which is why there’s so much rubbish out there. The fact that it can get up on YouTube doesn’t mean it’s any good.
You have a great love for what you call the “baby bands.” When you’re thinking about putting videos together for these new bands and pushing them out into the world, are you thinking about the overall image?
I always think about the image of the band, for sure, because if you push the image of the band in a direction that isn’t a natural fit for them, then its going to come unstuck at some point. It’s absolutely essential that they remain true to who they are.
You have a production company, dillygent&son. What does dillygent&son do?
Yes! It’s called a production company, but I think when you hear “production company,” you think of a roster of directors that I’m out there schlepping, you know, trying to get working. I never wanted that, to be responsible for someone else’s mortgage and that kind of pressure. So it’s a director-neutral company, which basically means, it’s just me!
And my wonderful partners who keep me and things on track. Being director-neutral means that anyone can come to me and ask me to put on a variety of things, not just film-related. The company is hired for my taste and that people totally trust me to run a production. Once I’ve got the job they know everything will go well. I’ll bring in the best crew; we’ll deliver on time, on budget. No matter how creative you want to be, you’ve still got to check those boxes or there’s no point.
Who is the “son” in dillygent&son?
That’s Aloka, my eight-year old son, my junior partner! The first thing he said when I told him what I was calling the company was, ”Why is it called dillygent&son, why is it not called alockergent&mum?” So cheeky.
He’s my conscience and I genuinely turn to him for stuff – he has an opinion on everything with great ideas. On From The Basement, he sat in on the edit with Vern (director Vern Moen) and made comments like, “I think it should be faster.” Yeah, he’s got good taste.
Let’s talk about your music show, “From The Basement.”
“From The Basement” was founded in 2005 by Nigel Godrich and myself. During my time at Parlophone, I’d see so many bands having to go on a chat show where they were the filler, as the only way to promote their record on TV. So they’d go and do an amazing performance and look cool and everything’s great! And then they’re wheeled off that platform to be sat down on a sofa and expected to be comedians. And it’s excruciating. I thought, God, the things that bands have to go through – why can’t they just go up and perform? And that’s it – no interviews, no nothing.
For “From the Basement” we would bring in two or three bands in one day, and they would just perform. Nigel recorded the audio so it sounds absolutely amazing and I’d hire brilliant directors to shoot the episodes, directors like Sophie Miller, Vern Moen, and David Bannard. We shot with film lighting, with 5 to 7 cameras rolling continuously. The last season we shot in 3-D, with Sony Pictures coming on board. That was a challenge and a huge learning curve, but amazing to see 3-D shot like that. Very immersive, with the viewer going into the screen, rather than things flying at you for no reason.
What you’ve always had at heart were the musician’s interests. Would you agree with that?
Yes. I do, I do. I always have the musician’s interests first, 100%. For no other reason than that it makes total sense to me. It’s their career, it’s their image, it’s their music; but I do also strongly believe that the musicians should take advice from people around them if they’ve got the right team on board, like A&R and Creative they can really trust.
What would your quest be, then?
My quest really is to inspire and educate people through the marriage of music and film. Obviously there are music videos, but it could be environmental films, it could be a music show. I think music is so powerful because it triggers you emotionally and physically and I don’t know what else can do that. You listen to a piece of music and you get goose bumps and it can make you super happy, super sad. You can be so inspired.
Tell us a bit about your new music show, “Off Main Street.” How will it differ with “From The Basement?”
We only ended up shooting three seasons of From the Basement from 2005 to 2012. It’s a slow-moving, expensive show. I was frustrated with it because every distribution partner we’ve ever had always wanted the triple headliner and it always became a massive scheduling problem. We’d have to have a headliner in order to shoot an episode, but I couldn’t book a smaller band until we locked in the headliner, and all these amazing smaller bands would just be going by the wayside.
So that’s where the idea started for my new show, Off Main Street. We go to wherever a band is doing a hometown show and film the gig. It’s shot in more of an artful way, like how we shot Meeting People Is Easy – very documentary-style, fly on the wall. Half the show is the band performing live onstage, and the other half of the show is the band showing us their hometown, hanging out, where they eat, guitar shops, pottery shops, wherever they tend to go. It’s part documentary, part gig.
And Off Main St. will be all be up and coming bands? That is especially important to you?
I’m just so excited by a lot of the new bands out there, and I never want to be trapped in a format where you can’t actually book them. There’s so much incredible talent and it’s hard for them to get noticed. It’s like white noise, there isn’t one single curated place. Back in my day, we had 120 minutes on MTV, and if I knew The Cure were going to release their video that night, I would sit there and wait for it to come on. I remember finding out about The The and Talk Talk, during that time because I just had to sit there and watch until The Cure video came on.
I don’t know where you find out about new bands these days. Maybe if you’re 18 you’re sharing and linking with social media, but there’s nowhere that’s curated and diving deep. You’re relying on your mates to send you something. You just have to hope and pray that your mates have really good taste because that’s the only way you can find about great new music. I want Off Main Street to be the showcase for the best new talent out there.