There’s no hint of the darkness in John Baker’s eyes that prompts those who hear the plot of “Flirting With Azrael,” his 2015 rock opera, to take a few steps back.
Baker, after all, is an affable mainstay of the East Tennessee music scene, a veteran of long-gone bands like The French Broads and the Westside Daredevils, frontman of Econopop and band member of The Bitter Resisters, which performs Friday night at Waynestock VIII in Knoxville. He’s laid back, charming and friendly, a cycling advocate who’s as comfortable on two wheels as he is playing guitar or making records in the studio near his house, The Arbor.
So to hear that he came up with a story about a woman in an abusive relationship who murders her husband — and then bargains with a fallen angel to resurrect him so she can do it all over again — is sometimes a cause for mild concern, he told The Daily Times.
“The first question anyone asks me is, ‘Are you and your wife doing OK?’” Baker said. “In the beginning, there wasn’t this overwhelming motivation to write this story; when I wrote that very first song, ‘The Cage,’ I’ve been writing songs long enough now to know that when one’s coming, I need to let it come out and be whatever it’s going to be. So when I wrote the words down, I thought, ‘Whoa, this is kind of a rich idea.’ I was just kind of having fun, playing with something completely different — something much darker, but it’s purely a work of fiction.”
And, as it turns out, it’s a work that’s ripe with visual potential. Douglas McDaniel and Stephen Zimmerman, two East Tennessee-based filmmakers with the media production company Storyhaus, are working to bring “Flirting With Azrael” to the big screen. To date, the two men have raised almost $60,000 from 11 investors, and filming is slated to begin in May. The goal, McDaniel said, is to raise $200,000, which will qualify the project for a state grant of an additional $50,000, and $10,000 more from the Knoxville Film Office. Such a budget, he added, will allow the filmmakers to “put East Tennesseans to work,” paying cast members and collaborators for their creativity in the fulfillment of a project that key makeup artist Erik Jackson of Scare Bear Makeup describes as “dead people in Candy Land.”
“We’re building on what John has built, and it’s very much a layer cake,” McDaniel said. “We want to elevate his music, and I think when you see it in visual form, it takes on additional layers of demons. When John handed me the disc, and I listened to it, and then listened to it again, I found it funny. It resonated with this quirky, offbeat, infectious sort of humor. I come from a family of dysfunction, and I find humor in dysfunction. I think you have to, because if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. We all wrestle with some demons, and the question becomes, how do you let go? I think our protagonist struggles with that. How does she let go of the past and this abusive husband?”
Like many local rockers, Baker can trace his early influences back to Todd Steed, leader of Smokin’ Dave and the Premo Dopes, which ruled the local college scene in the 1980s and early 1990s. He and old friend/fellow local musician Jim Rivers played in a Memphis-based band, The Martini Age, for a time, and after moving back to East Tennessee they formed The French Broads. That band recorded three albums, and around the same time, Baker began releasing a number of solo albums that trafficked in sunny-sounding alt-pop. Those influences are splashed across “Flirting With Azrael,” which also draws on his interest in ambient and experimental music, for a work that’s modeled in a roundabout way on “The Hazards of Love,” by the rock band The Decemberists.
“He (Colin Meloy, Decemberists frontman) writes these beautiful songs on that album, but his characters were just doing these awful things,” Baker said. “The protagonist is this bon vivant ladies man, but he ends up marrying a woman who gets pregnant, and all of the sudden he’s saddled with all of these kids. Then his wife dies, and he just decides he’s had enough, and he starts killing his own children. I listened to it, and I’m thinking, ‘This is unbelievably horrible stuff you’re writing about,’ but if you appreciate any of his works, it’s plain he’s just making up stories.
“That’s kind of what I was doing. If you can just write a song about the most horrible thing you can imagine, it’s just fun. I had been writing things that were really personal, and I was having to carefully craft what I said and make sure I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true to me. But with a complete work of fiction, it was like discovering a playground — I could just go play on the slides and the monkey bars, because it was completely new, and there were no consequences.”
“Flirting With Azrael” isn’t the first time Baker and McDaniel collaborated; although they wouldn’t strike up a friendship until much later, Baker recorded husband-and-wife Tim and Susan Lee, East Tennessee’ rock ‘n’ roll power couple, when they scored Stuart’s 2013 short film, “The Agenda.” McDaniel’s film work often crossed paths with the local music scene; he’d done work with the Black Cadillacs, and the roots rockers Dixieghost worked out a trade with McDaniel — if he would shoot “Clermont,” the video for the Dixieghost song of the same name (filmed at Atlanta’s famous Clermont Lounge), they would provide music for McDaniel’s 2015 documentary, “Legends of Appalachia: The Ace Miller Story.” For that film — which details the life of Golden Gloves trainer and coach Jerry “Ace” Miller, who took boxer “Big” John Tate to the 1976 Montreal Olympics and the 1979 World Heavyweight Championship fight in South Africa — Baker wrote the song for the closing credits. He also put a copy of “Flirting With Azrael” into McDaniel’s hands as simply a way of spreading his music.
It was on their way to a shoot in Virginia that McDaniel and Zimmerman popped the CD in for the first time.
“The two of us started visualizing scenes — this idea of unsatisfied revenge, but also the idea of people who have been abused who are unable to move past anger,” McDaniel said.
“Over the course of six months, we created a 60-page draft,” Zimmerman added. “Originally, it started as a project where we would do music videos to go along with the songs and stitch them together. Then we realized it would be very easy to make into a film.”
“Easy,” of course, is subjective. Since then, the project has grown to a 113-page feature length film with 22 scheduled shoot days, a “sizzle reel” to screen to potential investors and a number of willing partners who want to make it work — people like Bill and Susan Packard, the latter of whom is a co-founder and former chief executive officer of HGTV and Scripps Network Interactive.
“It was going to be a web series until he came along,” McDaniel said. “Bill dabbles in songwriting, and at some point, John recorded some vocals for Bill’s song. He also handed him a copy of ‘Flirting With Azrael,’ and Bill called and said, ‘John, I love this record. It’s incredible, and I want to be a part of this.’ Things became real when they got interested.”
The Packards’ investment provided seed money that turned McDaniel and Zimmerman into producers, and over the course of the past month, the two have hired a director of photography — Logan Myers, a Knoxville area filmmaker who helped shoot the “Flirting With Azrael” pitch video; a choreographer — Greg Wytiaz, who’s worked on a number of area stage musicals; and Jackson. They’re also working with the folks behind the Frightworks haunted house in North Knoxville on set designs and shooting locations, and they continue to seek funding from those who see the project as a boost to the East Tennessee area, its potential for film shoots and to the local music scene that spawned it.
“There are a lot of challenges, and we aren’t done yet,” McDaniel said. “It takes another level of effort to see it through, and what’s freaked me out is that we seem to be turning the idea into a business.”
For Baker, that’s a prospect that never entered his mind during the creation of “Flirting With Azrael.” It’s a story with definitive themes, but in elevating it to the visual realm, it also begs more questions, many of them much bigger than a simple plot description can begin to convey.
“Is it redemption? Is it satisfaction?” McDaniel said. “What if we flip it? What if Azrael is looking for a unicorn, a person capable of transcending anger and hatred?”
Fans of the album may think they know how it ends, but as with any work, there will be some changes to the source material — all done with Baker’s blessing and gratitude, of course.
“I was, and remain, completely floored by it,” he said. “I’ve made albums for 15 or 20 years now, and all have languished in obscurity. I’ve accepted that as my fate, so to have someone inspired by one of them like this, it blows me away. I struggled with this album for three years trying to finish it, and I about abandoned the whole thing a couple of times. I was glad to give them to story and see where they’re going with it.”