Interview: Anvil! The Story of Anvil's Lips, Robb Reiner, and Director Sacha Gervasi
"The thing about a film is that it's like a really, really bad, extreme cocaine habit that's out of control--the cost is like, a small house, every few weeks."
Robb Reiner and Steve "Lips" Kudlow
The rockumentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil has been called a "30-year overnight success story"--and that's exactly right. A Canadian thrash band that formed in the late '70s, Anvil toured with Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, and the Scorpions, but never reached their early peers' level of riches, superstardom, or Ozzy-ant-snorting hagiography. Yet the band's co-founders--Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner--kept Anvil going for three decades. Despite wives and kids. Despite shit-job existences. Despite bald spots and hemorrhoids. Despite how absolutely impossible the idea of "making it" then seemed for hesher dudes in their 50s.
Anvil would have kept on toiling away in relative obscurity if Sacha Gervasi, the band's former teenaged roadie who'd grown up to become a screenwriter, hadn't discovered Lips and Robb 20 years later still rocking together in Toronto and decided to make this film. The result is one of the best rock docs ever--a Hoop Dreams for heshers, if you will--and now "the real-life Spinal Tap" is finally engulfed in a flood of attention. VH1 has acquired the exclusive rights to air Anvil! The Story of Anvil this summer. Random House will release the Anvil book. Rock Band will soon have Anvil tracks. Whitesnake and Judas Priest just added Anvil to open shows this summer; meanwhile, Gervasi is directing a film about Herve Villechaize's last week alive starring Peter Dinklage.
I sat down with Lips, Robb, and Sacha recently during a press day at the Bowery Hotel for this piece. The night before, approximately 100 people, including WWE superstar Chris Jericho, had packed the SoHo Apple Store just to screen the Anvil! trailer, and Lips was spotted quietly filming the crowd with his Flip Cam. "I just thought it was really weird thing last night," Lips explained later. "We got an audience to watch a trailer. I thought, 'Isn't that when you go to the washroom at the movies or when you go get popcorn?'"
So the film's been called a "real-life Spinal Tap." Last night at the Apple Store, Sacha, you talked about how This Is Spinal Tap was the film's Trojan Horse--so were you conscious of the two films' similarities the whole time?
Sacha: Yes. I mean, right out of the gate, we're done. It's over. Guys in their 50s, a rock band from some time ago, going for it one last time, the drummer's called Robb Reiner, they wrote a song called "Thumb Hang," Lips plays his guitar with a dildo. We're dead, like, 11 times. So [I'd thought was] 'What we may as well do is use it to our advantage.'
Lips: We love that movie. It's us, in fake.
Sacha: We've already been asked by one movie house in LA to do a double feature of Spinal Tap and Anvil. And I'm sure that will happen a lot in movie theaters.
Lips: We want to do some gigs with them.
Were there other models besides Spinal Tap?
Sacha: Withnail and I, that portrait of male friendship in abject circumstances. That was a huge influence. The film references a whole bunch of films, from Heavy Metal Parking Lot to Some Kind of Monster. But really, it's crazy, funny, is-it-even-real rock-doc meets hopefully inspirational fable.
There's a lot of vulnerability shown in the film--Lips even cries. How much say did Lips and Robb have over the final cut? Were there things that either one of you didn't want onscreen?
Sacha: I said from the beginning, the only way this is going to work is if you're completely, 100% open. If you're 96% open, people will feel it. If you're 98% open, people will feel it. It has to work at 100%. So they were just completely like, "Fuck it."
Robb: He just said to me, "Robb-o, just be yourself." Nothing else. And that's easy to do, isn't it? Be yourself. And they rolled the cameras. And it's magic.
Sacha: There's only one thing in the movie that [Lips] doesn't like. And that's the naked photo of himself. He doesn't like that. That's the only thing he doesn't like.
Lips: My wife likes it because she says it makes me look so BIG. Especially on the big screen.
Robb: [chuckling, hahaha]
Lips: Come on, the only way I got talked into it--the producer, Rebecca [Yeldham, who also produced The Kite Runner]--"I'm going, you gotta put something over it, anything, or don't use it." She's going, "Lips, you got nothing to be ashamed of, dude."
Also last night, Lips recited the lyrics to "Backwaxed" ("Put it in and pull it out/Slap it on your back and watch it spout") and mentioned the song "Pussy Poison," but there wasn't much of the band's tawdrier side in the film. You show Lips playing the guitar with a dildo, and there's that naked picture, but that's mostly it. So how conscious were you to leave out the more unsavory aspects of Anvil, to keep Robb and Lips sympathetic characters?
Sacha: [Lips] doesn't use the dildo anymore in his stage act, so that's one thing--it's not like I had to edit that out. He stopped using it 14 years ago. And they don't go around reciting their lyrics. So there wasn't really much I had to edit. And anyone who explores the movie, they're gonna go on the web site, and they're gonna see the lyrics to "Five-Knuckle Shuffle" or "Hair Pie" or whatever. So I say, "Let that be a little gem of discovery for the avid fan." But it's not like they're going around reciting these lyrics--it's part of the Anvil schtick.
It's bizarre--Anvil has a song called "Show Me Your Tits," but I feel like I could show this movie to my mom.
Lips: You know what, you might be shocked to find out that your mother might get a good chuckle. To a great degree, these things--the lyrics are meant to be comical. And they are. It's not like it's outright, vulgar, nasty, unreadable, gross-sounding. It's not like gross--it's vulgar with comedy. It's tongue-and-cheek.
Sacha: Tongue and cheek--or other places.
Lips: That kind of style of comedy.
Sacha, you talked last night about how easy it was to film these guys, how you just kept thanking God because so many perfect moments happened during filming. What was the most difficult part?
Sacha: The most difficult part, honestly, was the financial burden. Paying for your own feature film is pretty intense. That was the biggest stress--it's not over yet--but at some point, everything in life costs.
The thing about a film is that it's like a really, really bad, extreme cocaine habit that's out of control--the cost is like, a small house, every few weeks.
Lips: Every few weeks [laughing].
Sacha: If you actually looked at my bank accounts, you'd think I was just doing crack for the last three years, every day, all day long. It's that bad--[my bank account] was hemorrhaging. But what're you gonna do? Once you make a decision--once these guys made a commitment to the band, they made a commitment. You're all in, man. All your cards are in. You can't just put two cards in, because the rest of your hand's meaningless. You have to go everything--and the band's always had the attitude of going everything. So I just thought I betta go in with everything too.
Lips: We bet our lives.
What has changed in the last year and a half since this was first shown at Sundance?
Robb: Everything around us has changed. We're still the same guys.
Lips: We have real gigs.
Sacha: Rick Sayles--who manages Slayer, Mastodon, and Bullet for My Valentine--is managing them. They got Scott Sokol--who books Heaven and Hell and Oasis-- booking them in the States. Steve Strange, who books Coldplay, is booking them in the UK. Record companies want them. We're doing a soundtrack deal with two huge labels and they've also got offers for the album.
Robb: There's a Random House book--and we plan on touring and doing what we've always wanted to do, so that's what's really changed. And we're having all this wonderful year-and-a-half of publicity. This is the most famous we've ever been, ever. In our whole 30 year history. So it's changed a lot of things.
What are some of your other highlights from the past year?
Lips: The Traverse City Film Festival [co-founded by Michael Moore] seems to resonate with me the loudest. It was two shows and there were a 1000 people at each show and I have never seen such pandemonium in my life. They watch the film first and the people don't really know we're gonna play. I come out from behind the screen and stuff and the room goes black and then the lights come up and I run up the aisle. I'm playing my guitar. Everybody in the place is going insane. The screaming was so loud. I'm seeing everyone, from little kids to 80 year old men, with their arms in the air, yelling at the top of their lungs. I go like that to Robb, like, "Okay, start the song." And he's hitting the hi-hat to count it in and I can't hear it. It's just "AAAAAAAAAAHHHHH." I go, "I think there's something good going on here."
Robb: I call it metal Beatlemania.
Sacha: People have gone crazy. It's not metal fans, it's not just music fans, it's anyone who has a dream.
Robb: They're doing this [throws up devil horns] and they're like, "I don't even like metal, but I love metal now."
Lips: We're getting letters from people who're so excited, they're like, "I forgot that I hate heavy metal."
Robb: And there're people who're also becoming metal fans. It's converting people.
Lips: We did the Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco and this elderly Jewish lady comes up and she's like, "I'm gonna buy a CD, I'm never going to listen to it, but I tell you, you guys, I love you."
Sacha: I'm standing here in this very room last August, the band's playing there, about there is David Byrne of the Talking Heads headbanging there. Literally, Pearl Jam, Weezer, Fall Out Boy, Trent Reznor--
Sacha: Matt Dillion. They all love the film.
But with all these people suddenly paying attention, I'm surprised you're not bitter for having been ignored for so long.
Sacha: Think about it. Imagine you think you're knocked out, you've been in a prizefight, and it's over, everyone's left. But then suddenly the referee comes up to you and says, "By the way, you won." [Laughs] You already think it's over, so by the time you're told the news that you won, it's so great!
Robb: I'd always believed that we would be discovered eventually. We've always believed that.
Lips: I don't think we would have kept going if we didn't somewhere deep inside believe.
Robb: We've had success. We've made 13 albums, we've been touring for years, we have a cult, underground following. That is a measurable amount of success for us.
Robb and Lips
Sacha, what are some of your goals for this film?
Sacha: I just want as many people see it as a possible. And that as many people see it in the context of the band playing afterwards.
It's already sort of achieved a lot of its goals for me: the whole point of it was to have the band to become successful. I think it's kind of done all the things I wanted it to do--and more. It's inspiring people. Obviously, I want it to be really successful, but it kind of really is. It's never gonna take $100 million dollars, but it was never really designed to. It was designed more to be a statement and those who hear it hear it.
My mission is really to spread as much love and hope as possible. That's really what I do. Like this Herve Villechaize movie that I'm working on, it's all about reminding people that we're really not tremendously different, really. We may have long hair and like different music, but really, we're all humans with sisters and families and dreams. It's so much better for people to focus on the similarities. So I don't have a specific goal, like, "Oh, I hope it makes this specific amount of money." My goal was really to get it into cinemas--and that's what's happening. Also, I had an objective, like, I really wanted to go back home [to the UK] with a film I felt good about. And the response there was amazing.
Speaking of missions, Robb compared the band to his "mission." So now that Anvil is having some success, if this all stopped right now, would the mission be completed?
Robb: The mission is nowhere near being completed. We're just on our way.
Lips: The mission isn't completed until you can't do it anymore. You know what I mean, if you're healthy or wealthy.
Sacha: When they were kids and they said they were gonna rock together forever, I think that meant forever. Clearly, here we are 40 years later and they weren't kidding. So presumably, as long as they're alive.
Lips: That's what we mean by mission, that you've done it for your whole life.
Robb: The goal here is to keep rocking.
Lips: In a world where everything is disposable, this is not. And for all the things in life that do end up not lasting forever, at least we have something that we have that can last forever--at least our own lives. And what we leave behind will be a legacy that will last far beyond our years. So it is forever.
Okay, last question. Hypothetically speaking, if Anvil was to play its last show ever, the very last one, who would you want on the bill and where would the show be held?
Lips: That's a pretty morbid question. [Horrified, as if I just killed his cat.] I don't know here to go with that.
Sacha: [laughing] It's never occurred to them. [To Lips] What would your fantasy band to play with be?
And where would you play?
Lips: My own funeral? I don't know. [Long pause] I never really think about those kinds of things.