Empty Houses, Empty Towns | Review

UPDATE: You can now watch the full documentary “Empty Houses, Empty Towns” below.

When last we met with Alt Rising Act Western Jaguar, we reviewed his 2015 sophomore album Wayfarer. The album puts listeners in songwriter Jeffrey Trainor’s mindset, on a troubadour journey through nature complete with cerebral atmospherics. As we noted, “this is an album of intense sentiments that demands to be felt, going from an aching displacement to yearning heartbreak to a haunting melancholy.” The same emotional and grinning tone takes place in a new documentary following the band on a Canadian tour with fellow IndieBeat featured artists The Sylvia Platters.

Produced by Kier-Christer Junos, a participant-observer both playing on stage and the narrator documentarian capturing tour life, Empty Houses, Empty Towns takes viewers on a similar troubadour journey—except this time the intense and conflicting feeling of displacement and melancholia exhibit themselves in the ambiguity of the contemporary state of independent artistry.

Empty Houses, Empty Towns reads like a Behind The Music episode, except this 23-minute documentary is not just the story of Western Jaguar’s (and The Sylvia Platters’) Vancouver Island Tour; it is the grand narrative depicting the touring grind that independent artists face in the uncertainty of the digital age. It is constantly perpetuated that concert attendance is up despite record sales continually falling, but this is only the truth for major venues with promoter backing and for bands who already have notoriety and a steady following. What is more typical for indie artists such as Western Jaguar is playing empty rooms in hole-in-the-wall locales, often for little money, if any—if not for a pay-for-play situation. It is clear that these college-aged folks are not doing this for the money or for the fame. There must be something more intrinsic and more cultural in it for them. It is an artform that demands everything of the artist, a true dedication to their craft.

As both groups are staring down the barrels of their looming expiration dates, being that the members will soon go their separate ways since they’re “obliged to fill these other expectations that are much more appropriate to society than to risk it by being in a band,” the film captures the anxiety and the necessity of performance for these yearning artists—it’s an escape from the tribulations of quotidian life, giving these guys a sense of creative and therapeutic purpose, but also it’s something that requires sacrifice and dedication to make happen. Empty Houses, Empty Towns does not try to play to the tired myth of glamorous tour life, but puts a nail in the coffin for the trope by showing the laborious and uncomforting conditions, despite the tour only lasting a few days. The documentary characterizes touring as a road-trip, putting introverted and somewhat nerdy people in a cramped car full of gear, facing anxiety attacks and unexpected dilemmas away from home, and just a continual sense of “rough”-ness without proper rest. Jeffrey puts it best: “No, it’s gonna be good, it’s fine. I’m minorly freaking out, but it’s gonna be fine.” Tour is the feeling of being fine and freaking out, an understandable paradox for anyone who has ever pursued their dreams.

So, is tour life really worth it, considering these guys are “likely to be playing empty rooms and no money?” As Jeffrey Trainor answers “That’s the million-dollar question.” For these guys, and the many touring musicians, bands, and solo-artists, it is. Performance is their escape, leaving behind their routines to finally having the change to express themselves viscerally. For today’s indie artist, performing is not a career but a passion project they have to pursue because something in their DNA demands it of them. The bittersweet nature of indie life seen in films such as Frank and this year’s Sing Street, is not just relegated to fiction—there’s a relentless drive that it takes to make music at any cost, and it’s simultaneously invigorating yet isolating, communal yet intimate, and exciting yet nerve-wracking. Empty Houses, Empty Towns reveals that though the room may be empty, the artist’s soul becomes full upon playing—performing music is a state of existence for these artists that cannot be gained by any other means. Is it worth it? Only if they want to survive and existentially cope.

We highly recommend you watch Kier-Christer Junos’ phenomenal debut as a music documentarian. It’s a stunning and well-crafted view into the world of independent culture, a call to action for fans to support local venues and artists so that innovative music can continue to be made by genuine and brilliant people. The film is out digitally now.