Filmstrip singer Dave Taha follows the fabled tradition of the singing storyteller, but not in the same way folkies do. Growing up listening to a range of sounds from Bob Dylan to Nirvana, Taha decided to pursue the lyrical middle ground between folk’s ramblin’ man rhymes and grunge’s self-absorbed obscurity. But rather than tell his own story, Taha is far more interested in tales of geographies, circumstances and time periods foreign to him.
“Even if it’s not my story, I just want to tell a story,” Taha says over a beer at the Mexican restaurant Barrio. “Almost like writing a novel or writing a poem, some of the elements might be autobiographical, but some of them are just totally random. Putting it in a framework that people can relate to in a historical way, instead of saying, ‘This is my story, here it is.’ To me that just seems, I don’t know, narcissistic.”
For example, Taha jumps back more than 100 years in the song “Two Bullets,” which he wrote from the perspective of a wounded Civil War soldier. Since the soldier’s home is in Ohio, listeners might speculate that the character is a proxy for Taha, but aside from that single similarity, the song (and others by the band) requires a unique degree of empathy with the experiences of the subjects.
Taha’s first electric guitar was a 1960s Teisco Del Ray given to his brother Matt by a homeless man. He began relying on “a kid down the street” to show him his first chords before he joined the Cleveland DIY scene, frequenting historic venues such as Speak in Tongues and Fort Totally Awesome.
“The DIY scene is legendary in Cleveland, and I think that stems from the fact that there was no alternative,” he says. “You had the mainstream venues. In the ’90s, payola was still a big thing. With the age of the internet, now a garage band has just as good of a chance as a signed band to play the Grog Shop or the Beachland, but it wasn’t always like that. When I was coming up, the DIY scene was literally the only alternative, you had to go underground, you had to play basements or backyards or weird abandoned storefronts because there was no other way to do it.”
Though Taha had been playing backyard shows for years before he set foot in these DIY hangouts, it still took him a long time to feel comfortable even approaching the residents of the houses, let alone sharing their stages. Those early backyard shows took place under band names such as Comfort of Misery and Red Shift, both of which involved the original three members of Filmstrip: guitarist/lead vocalist Dave, his bassist/backing vocalist brother Matt, and their drummer friend Nick Riley. Uncertain as Taha may have felt finding his place in the DIY scene, he quickly became an integral part of it. Filmstrip’s first practice and debut show took place in 2009 at yet another DIY spot called the Tower, where the trio would eventually rise to the role of dedicated house band.
At the time, Filmstrip was playing regularly at the Tower, and a filmmaker approached Riley, then the house’s primary booking agent, about shooting a documentary there. The resulting film, Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam
centers on a group of Muslim Americans inspired to create a punk community in Buffalo after reading Michael Muhammad Knight’s prophetic book The Taqwacores.
“Half of the people involved in the making of the film weren’t Muslim. I’m not Muslim, but it’s about community and punk rock is the common theme that ties it all together and trying to find your identity in a world where not all the odds are in your favor. These kids are outcasts in their own country, especially now [after 9/11],” says Taha. Although he may not use the same religious vocabulary to describe it, Taha fully appreciates the connection between music and spirituality that the Taqwacores embody. “Music is my connection to spirituality in a lot of ways. Every time I get on stage or sit down to play the guitar, it’s engrossing and I feel like there’s something greater than myself that’s guiding this experience,” he says.
Shortly before filming Taqwacore, Filmstrip released its first album, 2010’s Everything Can Change
. Although the album was self-released, the band worked with the then-local imprint Exit Stencil to record it, partly due to Riley’s partnership with studio owner Ryan Weitzel in another band called Mystery of Two. The album is a hybrid of straight rock and new wave punk interlaced with bits of swirling Beatle-like harmonies, and also includes a home-state anthem simply entitled “Ohio” that could easily double as a camp song.
When the time came to record their next set of songs, the band explored a different route.
“The songs we were writing at the time were a little more open and down-tempo and could have benefitted from more production: more instrumentation, some different approaches that we hadn’t taken yet,” says Taha.
Filmstrip reached out to their first choice studio, Echo Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina, and received an immediate invitation to come down. Exit Stencil visited during recording and offered the band an official label release. Last year’s Moments of Matter
included fewer than half of the songs the band recorded at Echo Mountain. Some of the excluded tracks, such as “Skip a Stone to Canada,” the band now incorporates into its live show. Others, however, will have to wait until something compels Taha to pull them out and dust them off.
In late 2014, Matt Taha quit the band, and Taha and Nick Riley pulled bassist Nick Licata aboard to keep Filmstrip alive as a touring entity. The band arranged an extensive 2015 tour of the eastern half of the United States, hitting cities from Orlando and Charleston to Fort Wayne and Brooklyn. In September 2015, Matt Taha suffered a stroke but made a remarkable recovery; as a result, he decided to rejoin the band earlier this month. Licata will remain a member, sharing bass and keys duties with Matt Taha while also helping Dave Taha on guitars. “I’m extremely grateful to have him alive, let alone playing with us again,” Taha says of his brother’s return.
The next step for the now four-piece Filmstrip is definitely a new album, but money is a prohibitive factor. The band would like to record locally again, this time working with multiple producers on a few tracks each.
“I would like to do stuff that’s more influenced by noisier stuff, or maybe throw some beats in there or something, synths, I’m very open to that shit. I play in another band, Hiram-Maxim, that is very experimental and kind of avant-garde, we improvise largely. Not that that’s the direction Filmstrip would go in naturally, but it’s good to get out of your shell and not stagnate and keep growing as an artist,” says Taha.
It seems that he is not only a lyrical storyteller, but a stylistic one as well. Rather than defining himself by a single genre, he’s more interested in writing himself into a variety of different sounds.
Filmstrip, All Dinosaurs, Harlem Airshaft and Joshua Jesty, 9 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 26, Mahall’s 20 Lanes, 13200 Madison Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-3280. Free, mahalls20lanes.com