Sleep When Dead: A Conversation with John Valley

by Nick Hanover

John Valley

Austin has had a music video renaissance over the past few years, with a number of directors emerging as notable talents. Chief among them is John Valley, who has directed clips for A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit, Whiskey Shivers and more and whose keen aesthetic sense and lush framing has made his work easily distinguishable. 

Just before the Austin Music Video Festival, where a number of Valley’s work will be shown this year, we spoke to John about his own music as the Valley Forge, the challenges of working with rowdy musicians, his obsessive interest in allegorical imagery and much more.

Nick Hanover for Ovrld: My first introduction to you was through your band the Valley Forge and a video you did for “New Times” that we premiered at Ovrld. But your film history goes back pretty far; you went to film school in Iowa (alongside Adam Protextor) and had previously done videos for Whiskey Shivers. 

Lately it seems like you’re more focused on film than music, has it been difficult decide where to focus your energy? What were some of the challenges unique to directing videos for your own band?

John Valley: Shifting back to filmmaking wasn’t hard because it became clear that my music wasn’t landing with people. The hard part of writing the songs and making the videos for my band was that I was trying to please my best friends (the band). Once I blew the brains out of The Valley Forge it became easy. Now, I honestly don’t care if the bands I work with don’t like my videos.

Low budget filmmaking is pretty unpredictable so you gotta be okay with what you get in the end so long as you put an honest effort into its preparation and execution.

Ovrld: Were you drawn to Austin from Iowa over somewhere like LA because it offered more potential for connecting your film and music interests? What were your first music video forays in Austin like?

JV: No, I moved to Austin because I was afraid L.A. would require me to have a full time job that would in turn take away time needed to develop my work. I spend a shit load of time studying and producing so I have to be somewhere cheap. Also I like Terrence Malick’s work quite a bit. So I figured Austin would be fine for the time being.

My music interest only came after I moved here. I’ve always loved rock and roll so I figured what the Hell— better try it out now when there’s nothing to lose. I had never made a music video until I moved here. I had been doing feature and short films back in Iowa. I took a break from that to spend more time writing so music videos seemed like a good way to test things out and stay sharp.

My first videos were for this Minnesota rock band called New Medicine and for Whiskey Shivers here in town. They were very demanding projects as budgets were quite low but they were both very rewarding in the end. The Whiskey Shivers actually helped my band get our first show. Those dudes are cool.

Ovrld: On the subject of Whiskey Shivers, the video you did for them, “Jealous Heart,” is interesting to me because I think it has a completely different aesthetic and tone from your more recent work. Its pacing and heavy use of allegorical imagery is reminiscent of silent film-era auteurs like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, but it has the bleak tone of a Robert Mitchum noir, like Out from the Past or even Cape Fear

What was the origin of the concept? You sent it to me recently to show how it connected to some recent black and white videos you’ve done, because I’ve always associated you with a certain kind of glammy color palette, what appeals to you about working in black and white instead?

JV: The band and I came up with the idea before they went on for a house show. Somehow we all agreed on snakes and the Pentecostal church. I had been watching a lot of [Sam] Peckinpah’s work then and wanted to make a Western about a helpless old man. The choice for black & white came from the character. He saw things in a very two dimensional way. So as the filmmaker you do what you can to visually enhance that idea.

There is allegorical imagery in nearly everything I do. Some more overt than others, of course. I take a lot of time considering how I can communicate ideas and images to as many people as possible. Religious imagery is one of the biggest shared lunacies we have as a species. So I almost inevitably inject it into every story, almost to a religious degree.

Black and white appeals to me for its effect on the characters and the production. Black and white is a huge friend to low budget production. It helps everything match visually so you don’t need to spend too much on maintaining a consistent color pallet.

Ovrld: From my perspective, you first started to really get your name out there as a director with your collaborations with Sweet Spirit and A Giant Dog. In particular, your video for Sweet Spirit’s “Baby Doll” stood out to me and a lot of other people in Austin as the best of the year, in part because of your incredible lead performance in it. How did you get involved with Sabrina Ellis and company? Was “Baby Doll” as fun to put together as it looks?

JV: I got involved with Sabrina by sending her my previous work and pitching my idea. I didn’t know her before. They were on the road so they didn’t have to plan anything or be involved.

Coming up with the idea was exciting for sure. I felt like the character was really genuine. Making it was quite difficult. No one got paid so I tried to get people in and out as fast as possible. Most of the shots were the only take. The vast majority of the time, it was only the cameraman and myself. Every shot was choreographed with the piece of music it’s over. So I had the song diced up into little bits.

The shot where I come out of the bathroom and flop on the bed took multiple hours to light appropriately and sync the camera movement with my action. I kept knocking shit over in the process and we’d have to reset. That shot is maybe a second long in the final cut. And I knew that while we were shooting. So it was hard to convince myself and the cameraman to spend all that time for a second of footage.

Editing is always really rewarding but “Baby Doll” was tough because I experienced a good deal of doubt during the process. Finally seeing it played back made me nervous as hell. I started wondering if I was going to make a total fool of myself. It was my first project post-band. So I was not in a good place in terms of confidence.

Ovrld: “Baby Doll” was ambitious yet extremely focused and reined in, but your next video for Sweet Spirit was “Baby When I Close My Eyes,” which struck me as reminiscent of Magnolia, except with puppets. 

Was it a conscious move on your part to aim even higher with this video? And to go in an even more narrative direction? Sabrina’s comments to the Chronicle about the casting of her uncle were fascinating to me too, what did he think of the idea when it was presented?

JV: There wasn’t a conscious effort to make the scope bigger or aim higher. I actually thought working with puppets would have made it easier, which turned out not to be the case. There were a lot more images/shots I was trying to cover than with “Baby Doll.” So in that regard I knew it was going to be a bigger mountain to climb.

I never quite figured out the function of the gold man-butterfly character that was played by Sabrina’s uncle Rocky. I actually welcomed the confusion it brought to the narrative. I was more concerned with creating striking imagery/tableaus. Unfortunately I had a super limited amount of time with Rocky so I didn’t get to talk about the concept with him. He was there for Sabrina. That was pretty much it. He recognized the rare opportunity to make art with family. That was certainly enough for me to move forward. So we quickly shot everything and he hopped back in his car and took off for Houston. It was pretty simple.

Ovrld: The next pair of videos you made actually featured the band, with “Sex and Drugs” showing them doing a Velvet Goldmine-esque performance in a snow globe while “Sleep When Dead” showcases a dance competition that you steal. Did AGD feature in them just because your schedules worked out? How did that experience differ from doing videos that they did not star in?

JV: I’ll only try to get the bands in their own videos if I think it will add to the piece. Music videos are interesting in that you always have to consider the persona of the band into the final piece. Where as with feature filmmaking it’s not as close to the surface. When Gene Hackman is in a film it’s not necessarily imperative that the role or entire piece reflects who audiences think Gene Hackman is in real life, whereas a music video is supposed to reflect who you think the band is, even if the band’s persona is a total facade. The character of the band should always be present in the video to some extent even if it results in a contrast to their character. At least that’s something I factor in with my work.

That said, I guess I do care about what the bands think of the work in the end. What I should have said earlier was that I’m very aware that the bands may not like the end result and I have to be okay with that and not let that determine the worth of the piece. But I do think about them a lot when I’m writing or planning these things.

When bands aren’t physically in the video, it’s typically easier on the production. It’s less people to wrangle and they more often than not end up being the rowdier people on set, resulting in added stress. I think A Giant Dog are in all their videos at this point. There were two before mine that used the band [“Cleveland Steven” and “Pins and Needles”]. They were directed by Ryan Darbonne.

Ovrld: “Sex and Drugs” is more focused on the band but “Sleep When Dead” has them taking on more supporting roles to your lead performance as an Elephant Man-like character. Your videos usually involve a lot of interesting make-up and wardrobe decisions but “Sleep When Dead” is likely your most epic work on this front, with the make up prosthetics completely transforming you while the Dazed and Confused costuming seems to function as meta-commentary on Austin’s ’70s “freak scene” and the connection to the current Keep It Weird homogenization. 

How intense was the preparation for this production? Did the make-up and larger cast make it feel like a more pressured shoot? What themes were you trying to communicate with the video and do you think audiences understood them?

JV: “Sleep When Dead” was a pretty tough one. We began prepping pretty far out. The location changed multiple times and I didn’t really know who was going to show up on the day of the shoot. So the cameramen and I had to be ready with a few backup plans. Chase McDaniel and Jimmy Lee Zuniga shot it. I was astounded by their patience with how jacked up the day got.

The make-up process was all around great. Yeah, the application and removal sorta sucked but big deal, you know? Trying to get people to respond to an email is a hell of a lot harder. Plus four hours in the chair gave me some time to think about the day in front of me. Jason Vines did the makeup. He’s a pro. He asked the right questions and seemed to really care about his work. Which is rare in the low budget world.

For me the video was about a no-talent man/woman trying to find friends. I think people got it. It’s tough, though. We tried to cram a lot into a short song.

Ovrld: You’ve been picking up a lot of other collaborations recently too. One of the most beautiful recent videos you’ve done, in my opinion, is Darkbird’s “All There Is,” which mixes technicolor melodramas with Cronenbergian body horror and dark fantasy. There’s a balletic quality to the video too, like a sinister flip of “Sleep When Dead.” Were you channeling classic Hollywood directors like King Vidor here? Is it meant to be a criticism of the claustrophobia of domesticity?

JV: Whoa King Vidor! I didn’t channel him consciously but I do have a huge affection for The Wizard Of Oz. Maybe my video is a modern domestic version of Oz. I really really love “All There Is.” Darkbird is such a cool band. The concept came to me upon the first listen of the song and we never looked back. So it gave me a really clear starting point from the get go. I think your idea of the song is pretty spot on but the final product is a result of many people’s perspectives.

Ovrld: Even though the video is set in a pretty confined location, it seems like it must have been a challenge to orchestrate. The look of the spider transformation is beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Can you tell me more about what went into that and why you went in a sort of black metal direction rather than something more, say, Universal horror?

JV: The tough part in orchestrating for me is in prep. You have to shoot completely out of order to minimize the amount of change over. I broke the song up into six parts and would shoot all six levels of progression for one member of the band. Then if there’s someone who can stay the whole day, you pepper them into the background of other members’ shots to sort of tie it all together. If that makes sense. Once you have it prepped like that, you just follow those steps on the day of and make sure nothing goes too long and that you keep your eye open for potential mistakes or new ideas.

I didn’t go with a more universal horror look for two reasons: budget and experimentation. We had a very low budget on this and I wanted to make something that was intentional as opposed to an imitation of “the real thing.” I had just done the more traditional monster makeup approach with “Sleep When Dead” and wanted to try something a little closer to my theater roots for Darkbird’s video.

Ovrld: Your other most recent video is for the Dirty Heat and that one is more simplistic but still has a big concept to it, and also serves as a callback to your Whiskey Shivers video in terms of how it’s shot and its use of black and white. Were you eager to get “back to basics” in a sense here? As a filmmaker working primarily in digital, are you especially interested in the ways people are connected to devices these days and what that means for art and culture?

JV: I was eager to use black and white because I think the video really called for it, as opposed to just using it for novelty sake. The split screen aspect really depended on the two sides matching as much as possible without using the same sets or costumes. Minimizing the color pallet and utilizing heavy contrast with line work really helped get the job done technically.

Conceptually, the lack of color showed the loss of life or spirit in the characters. I am vastly intrigued by our relationship to the digital world. I love it as much as I fear it, though. The cautionary aspect to this particular video comes from a fear I have of myself. The videos my character is watching in the beginning are actually my videos from the past (including the Whiskey Shivers one). However, my working in digital is just a product of practicality. If money wasn’t an issue I’d probably use film. Not that I think it’s inherently better, though. I just think film would probably serve the type of work I do a little better.

Ovrld: What’s on the horizon for you? Any upcoming video projects you’re especially excited for? Any bands you’ve been hoping to work with that you haven’t had the chance to yet? Do you have plans to do more narrative film work?

JV: I’m currently working with four bands. I should have them all complete within the next two months. I just finished one for The Blind Pets. It’s pretty wild. The front-man, Josh Logan, stars in it. He’s a funny dude.

I don’t have any bands I’m looking to work with actually. Only because I don’t have much of a gauge on which bands would work for me or not. Each video is a new animal, you know? I’ve got about five feature film scripts on the stove right now. I’m tinkering with them all with a bunch of writing partners. Once one of them blossoms I’m gonna try to get it produced. Who knows, though. I also have a web series, a children’s book, a graphic novel and an albums worth of new songs in the works (all at various stages). So…I have no idea what’s on the horizon for me.

John Valley has multiple works screening at this year’s Austin Music Video Festival, which starts tonight and runs until the 10th. You can buy passes here. He will also be speaking tomorrow, September 8th, on an Austin Music Foundation panel about the value of music videos. You can RSVP here.

Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at  Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover