There are few things as rewarding as stepping onto a Big Muff and instantly becoming the loudest person on stage. There's something to be said for just letting a power chord ring out. Hearing how the overtones build upon each other until they scream together in harmony is like sirens singing my eardrums to their ecstatic death.
It isn’t real news that people having been enjoying heavily distorted instruments for some time. And yet, it has taken half of a century for someone to make a movie about one of the most famous sounds in rock 'n roll, the Electro–Harmonix Big Muff Pi. But now the wait is over.
A French-Canadian film company, La Générale de Cinéma, began putting together Le Big Muff last year. Director Pierre H. describes the documentary as a "fictional reenactment of the Big Muff’s history” featuring musicians talking about and playing the pedal. The crew came up with the idea while working on another film about Glenn Gould, during a scene in which they were imagining the famous Canadian pianist experimenting with a Big Muff pedal.
"We were doing some research to find out exactly which Big Muff model was on the market circa 1976, and we came across an article about Mike Matthews. We really liked the story behind it, and we decided to go into development with the idea," Pierre said.
The Mike Matthews story he's talking about goes something like this. Mike Matthews was a young musician studying electrical engineering at Cornell University in the early '60s, playing in bands and putting on shows for artists passing through New York. At Cornell, he met groups like the Isley Brothers and The Coasters.
In the summers, Matthews promoted shows for artists like The Byrds, Young Rascals, and Chuck Berry. He even met and became close friends with Jimi Hendrix, who was playing with Curtis Knight and the Squires at the time and went by the name Jimmy James.
When Matthews graduated from Cornell in 1965, fuzz pedals were becoming more and more popular in North American and British music. After Mosrite (who had been manufacturing a version of its Fuzzrite pedal for Guild called the Foxey Lady) went bankrupt a few years later, Guild contracted Mike Matthews to take over production of the Foxey Lady fuzz pedal.
In 1968, he started his own company called Electro-Harmonix and began selling the Foxey Lady pedals himself, changing the name to the Axis and revamping its graphic design.
Then in 1969, production of the first versions of the newly designed Big Muff Pi would begin, and they'd hit the market by the following year. The Big Muff would go on to be one of Electro–Harmonix's most successful pedals, spurring a host of variations offered by the company.
The film is part of a series of eight films that La Générale is putting together, called simply The Rock 'N' Roll Series, with a release set for March 2018. The project at large focuses on "telling the past, present, and future of the essential elements of rock music."
In the midst of a busy shooting schedule for the film, Pierre was gracious enough to take the time to answer our questions about the highly anticipated Le Big Muff.
What inspired you to make this film? What about this story made you want to share it with the world?
When I was in college in the ‘80s, I used to play in this really bad band – a kind of hybrid between The Jesus and Mary Chain and Michel Pagliaro. I had a broken Traynor amp I would break up with a Big Muff. It was my first decent pedal.
When we were filming the Glenn Gould documentary, we imagined a young Gould born in the 1960s experimenting with guitar pedal sounds, so I took out my old Big Muff. I also read some article about Mike Matthews, and he is an interesting character. There aren't a lot of interesting characters in the world.
Electro-Harmonix was cool with the project, so that was a big plus to go ahead with it. We like working with cool people.
Could you summarize the basic plot of the film?
It's part documentary, part fiction, part experimental, part art movie. We are funny that way.
Who makes up the cast of the movie?
There's this guy named Daniel Trudel who plays a very bad music salesman who can’t figure out why the hell people want to use guitar pedals. We are basically working with friends of friends.
“Dear out-of-work actor, remember me? I'm the guy with the beard you threw up on at the party. Would you like to work with us on this thing? Yes, there's food! Yes, there’s beer! No, no drugs, sorry about that, but would you come anyway?” But we’re still looking for a Mike Matthew look a like.
Who are some of the artists you've spoken with? What are some of the things they've told you about the Big Muff? Are there any common themes to what they say?
That, I won't say – I want to keep that as a surprise for the movie premiere. I can say Les Gouines Audio because they don't care about anything, and they're so underground that nobody gives a damn. We really like to take jazz musicians or classically trained ones and say, "Hey, let's try this harp with a Big Muff.” Usually, they like it.
What excites you the most about this film?
Learning new things as we go along. That's always the way it goes with us. We like to work on a subject we don't really know about just to learn things and stay honest. In that way, the Emile Berliner Museum in Montreal showed us a lot – technically and historically.
But let’s be frank, the most exciting thing is that now I have an autographed picture of Mike Matthews.
What effect do you think the Big Muff has had on music?
You can say what you want, but nothing can beat a Big Muff. It sounds like the end of the ‘60s and the beginning of the ‘70s. It's the perfect pedal, reliable and affordable. It's especially great when you drink too much and take yourself for Jack White or David Gilmour.
How long have you been working on the film?
Almost one year with pre-production starting in early 2016. We are a little team without a lot of money, so everything must be perfect when we start shooting. For us, production is a lot like going to the factory: we know exactly what we are going to do, the time it will take, and how it is going to come out. We have no time for improvisation. There's not a lot of Québec production houses who can say that.
Do you have a release date?
The shooting of the Rock 'N' Roll Series will last until the end of December of this year. In March 2018, the film will be released in both French and English. It has to stay on track because we’re starting work on another documentary in April of 2018, so we’ll be in big trouble if it’s not out on time.
Where will the film be screened? Will it be available in theatres or at any festivals?
We have two versions of Le Big Muff, one aimed at movie festivals and another one for television. Like always, we don't know where the hell we are going with this. We'll see, but documentary channels are the ultimate goal, especially with the Rock 'N' Roll Series.
First, Canadian television and then maybe American. And then, if we’re lucky, the Republic of Nauri National Television. [Laughs] We don't know why we like that joke so much, it's not even a good one. Of course, it will be at one of the La Générale De Cinema movie tour stops, but we don't know which one yet.The World of Big Muff