Oftentimes, comedy is the best way to get an important message across. Film director, comedy improviser and Austin, Texas native Ryan Darbonne knows this to be absolutely true, especially when crafting his short film, I AM TX. Starring Audrey Campbell (Pleasure Venom), Jonathan Horstmann (BLXPLTN, Urban Heat) and Greg Williams (Chief And TheDoomsdayDevice), the plot examines the life of a Black punk band on the road. The group encounter microaggressions from music fans and a music journalist to blatant racist remarks from club staff.
Inspired by real-life experiences, these interactions are interlaced with dry jokes and laugh-out-loud awkward silences. It’s not your typical early 2000s feel-good comedy, and that’s what makes it so great and effective, similar to pieces from The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight. Each pause and ironic moment forces viewers to reckon with preconceived notions about what it means to be alternative and urges them to focus on artists for their art.
🎬🎥SHORT FILM PREMIERE🎥🎬Back in 2017 I starred in a comedy film called @iamtxfilm alongside fellow ATX musicians @ChiefDoomsday
and Jonathan Horstmann about a Black Punk Band coming home 4rm tour playing in ATX!🎤Avail to watch today! Link in bio!⏫⚡💥 ⏫
📸 by Bonica Ayala⚡ pic.twitter.com/cMn9rEY7nJ
— Pleasure Venom (@PleasureVenom) June 24, 2021
I AM TX has had a long run, first recording in 2017, making its way to film festivals across the globe in 2018 and 2019 and finally premiering for all audiences June 24. Alternative Press had the chance to talk to Darbonne and Campbell about the filming process, how the script came to life, why comedy was the best fit for the message and much more. Plus, you can view the whole short film below.
So Ryan, can you tell me where you were when this idea arrived? What sparked that?
Ryan Darbonne: I used to rap a lot. And then in high school and college, I played in a metal band. I grew up in a time where there wasn’t the internet. There wasn’t a space for people to connect.
And so, in high school and middle school, everything I listened to [and] everything I did was all very centered around whiteness. You know, things like skating. Now, skating is really diverse, and everyone does it. I feel like you would get called out if you were Black and you were skating back in the day, back in the ’90s, or listening to punk or metal or whatever. I feel like it’s just been in the back of my mind since I was [in] seventh grade to do something about this. And I think there wasn’t any particular thing that spurred it. I think it was just like, “I want to do a short film. What am I passionate about?” I love music. I love being alternative and Black. How do I combine these things?
In 2017, I was doing a lot of improv, [and] I was doing a lot of live comedy. I was directing a lot of live shows. I had my improv group, Sugar, Water, Purple, one of the two all-Black improv troops in Austin. And so I was just really, really in it and heavy in it. But my passion, first and foremost, is always film—above music, above comedy, it’s just film. But I’ve always done comedy. And so anything I do, I feel like comedy just comes into it. So we were doing improv, and then I had this idea. The original idea just started out as an interview between a musician and an interviewer, which you can see part of in the film.
Audrey Campbell: That scene was a riot to shoot. I was just like, “I know I’m supposed to be like mad, but he’s cracking me up, dude.”
Darbonne: Michael [the journalist character] and I talked about it separately from when we were rehearsing with the three leads, about microaggressions and about him not ever really looking at Audrey, the only woman, or just cutting her off. I was really in it, and so it started out as just an interview, and then it expanded from that because I was like, “Well, it’d be cool to see a band go through this night of literal microaggression.” And then some not so micro. And then I took the idea from improv, this idea of game. What are repeat patterns? And what is the thing that keeps happening, and how do we heighten the thing that keeps happening? And so that comes across in the film. The interactions are built around improv theory, how you do a scene in an improv game.
I think with punk, because punk has such a jagged, abrasive aesthetic, we wanted to do something different. Combining comedy and not make it so serious but still using comedy as a way to be like, “Hey, this is fucked up.” And also, the way we shot it was very calm, very slow, intentionally slow, as opposed to having a kinetic energy or whatever. Kind of the opposite of a punk.
Campbell: That was attractive to me just because [with Pleasure Venom], I feel like there’s humor in it, but I feel like sometimes it gets lost. I welcome the opportunity to do something like comedy but also addressing something that’s serious. [With] the character Otis, she’s like me a lot on the surface, [but] you were talking about me wearing a “Cosby” sweater. He’s really hung up on that. And I was like, “I would never wear that!” But I just had to own that. I love the swag, the way it was put together and stuff. But it’s like, I’m wearing black. That’s all I have in my wardrobe.
Darbonne: You bring up a good point, Audrey. The idea that we all have these different microaggressions that are exclusive to us, but then the shared experience of being a marginalized group or being “the other.” Basically, not being a straight white guy.
Campbell: I’m literally the only Black person on most of these bills that I’m playing. Not even just like one other. I’m literally the only one. And I’m fronting this band.
What was it like trying to find the humor in that reality?
Campbell: I have a sunnier disposition. I laugh a lot. So these experiences would happen, and it would be like that scene backstage where this weird dude came up to me and said this really weird shit that was totally microaggressive, but you end up laughing about it.
To me, it’s like, maybe both of our senses of humor are dark, but [those are] the kind of things that I am attracted to—darker things and more subversive parts of art that scare me or make me nervous. I would rather make you think about something a little bit.
Darbonne: And I think for me personally, I feel like exploring those traumas, be it racial or whatever, I think it’s important. I think the way film is done, it shapes us as a society. We can always pinpoint where we’re at as a society in the hopes that 100 years from now, we won’t have movies like this. But I also think that comedy is great.
Going back to the original question—because not everything has to be 12 Years A Slave—you can still do these things, but you can do it in a way with comedy that’s a little bit more digestible to people. And again, I’m all about the very intense, in-your-face stuff. I love it. But at the same time, I don’t know if I have the emotional maturity to do something like that.
Campbell: For me, I throw all of that into [Pleasure Venom]. I know it’s an intense pill to swallow, but that’s the point—to jar you awake with [the] music that we make. But that’s why I can be a calm, chiller person. People meet [me] and are like, “You’re actually really, really chill and shit.” I’m like, “It’s because I get to make this kind of music. I get to get it out that way.”
It’s definitely me. It’s just a different side of me. I’ve always felt like Pleasure Venom is taking over this whole other thing, where it’s not really something that I want to do. It’s something I need to do to just be a functioning person in society as a Black woman in this world, walking in this skin. This is what I need to do to not lose my shit at the grocery store or at a show if somebody weird comes up to me. I’m just like, “Save it for the stage, baby.”
There’s a lot of attention to detail. There are so many callouts and pieces of merch that add to the message of the story, even Audrey’s nails. What detail did you include that you found to be the most effective?
Darbonne: So one of the original drafts of the script, there was a lot more digging at Bad Brains and this homophobia in punk. It was like, “Look, it just feels weird when it’s white people digging at a Black group. If that’s the case, we’re going to have to give them a taste of their own medicine.” And that’s how the John Lennon [scene] came up.
Campbell: No one talks about it whenever we talk about Zeppelin. Nobody brings those things up. These guys somehow have these unscathed [reputations] and still love their art. We’re all human. We’re artists. We’re probably more fucked up than most normal people.
To expect your artist to be completely perfect people, we would miss out on Bowie, James Brown, all these amazing fucking artists. [With] Bad Brains, that was just something specifically for me because my family’s Jamaican, and my dad was Rastafarian, and I saw that [Bad Brains] apologized. I didn’t know that they apologized for that. But it was something that was popping up on Facebook a lot, [that] they’re homophobic. I went and looked it up, and they all apologized. They said they got older, and they met more people and gay people. And I think that’s different because they owned up to it.
Audrey, you are so dynamic in all of your performances on screen and onstage. What do Pleasure Venom have in store for fans next?
Campbell: Currently, the album title is Pink Pony. I’ll go into detail about that as we get closer. So far, it feels like a culmination of everything that’s been going on since COVID. Since it’s going to be our first full-length and our first full body of work, I want to take my time with it. I can pump out an EP really quick. We will be releasing singles this year, too. But the album may be [out at] the end of this year or 2022, for sure. We’re playing Aug. 7 in Austin at the Far Out Lounge, and Oct. 29, we’ll be in Dallas at Three Links. There are other shows that we are doing, but we’re just getting ready [and] hopefully announcing a tour– definitely in 2022.