From beginning to end, this road called Saddle Creek is an unsightly urban necessity, a dense, fast-food-dotted thoroughfare slicing midtown Omaha in half with little purpose but to connect one major avenue to another.
That this road has somehow come to say something in the world, to register as a kind of musical landmark, isn't much thought about here in Omaha. Lately, to most Omahans, "Saddle Creek Road" probably registers as the place where middle-aged midtowners are bitching about the impending closure of their beloved Target store.
Here's how important Saddle Creek Road is to the cultural fabric of Omaha: A midtown hospital has proposed an expansion plan that would require the city to literally lift up and move the street a couple of blocks away. It could very well happen.
Like the street itself, this is all a long, winding way of getting to a documentary about Saddle Creek Records that transition representing all the creativity of a roadside Panera Bread but there is a point here: Of the various topics covered in Spend an Evening With Saddle Creek (Plexifilm), the label's name is the most vexing. I grew up here, and still I remain vexed.
That Saddle Creek Records was not long ago a fledgling operation born of an even more fledgling operation called Lumberjack Records, and that both operations were really just friends peddling each other's amateur recordings ... well, that much is clear. How those friends, many of them students of a private high school for boys, came to identify themselves with an ugly midtown road is a little murky. How others began to derisively call them "Saddle Creekers," a name that would stick, breaks into a territory I can't fully navigate. Were it not for the breakout popularity of Conor Oberst, I may never have known that during the early 1990s, I was living in the movie Breaking Away.
But Oberst knew, and in the process Saddle Creek Records grew into the sort of international entity that celebrates ten years of business with a self-made documentary.
Though relatively small at just 11 bands (and even smaller when you factor in the musician crossover among groups), Saddle Creek's roster claims three indie heavyweights (Cursive, the Faint, and Oberst's Bright Eyes) and one graduate to a major label (Rilo Kiley). This past January, the label landed two Bright Eyes albums on the Billboard Top 20. To handle overseas business, it now runs a London office. Last year, after an Omaha neighborhood group derailed the label's plans to build a $1.5 million rock venue along Saddle Creek Road, the city of Omaha went out of its way to make the company an anchor for a new, mixed-use entertainment district near downtown.
All of this resulted from the sort of teenage camaraderie that happens everywhere but usually fizzles as soon as Dylan or Paul or Caitlin leaves for college.
The question then becomes this: How does a homespun music label built entirely from "close relationships" maintain its utopia in the face of big-money success and English area codes?
The short answer is it doesn't, though Spend an Evening only touches on internal discontent at Saddle Creek. The film, made by label co-head Jason Kulbel and fellow Omahan Rob Walters, instead focuses on how a group of friends single-handedly forged one of the biggest labels in the indie era, and in godforsaken Omaha, of all places.
"Everyone we talked to had known Rob and I for years, so it was pretty comfortable," Kulbel says of the filming. "There were some varying opinions once we started passing cuts of the movie around. That's somewhat natural to me. It's hard to get 20 people to agree on anything."
A gold mine for the label's hardcore fans, Spend an Evening overwhelms with its old footage of Saddle Creek stars in their formative (i.e., less stylish) years. We see a high-school-thin, smartass Tim Kasher (Cursive, the Good Life) shamelessly mocking the host of a now-defunct public-access show about local music. A bespectacled, puberty-riddled Oberst screeches everything's broken, nothing works into a microphone. We see pre-Maybelline members of the Faint.
Interspersed with recent interviews, the musical snippets are short, loud, jarring and ... not particularly good. With the exception of Lullaby for the Working Class and Slowdown Virginia, the cassette-era Creekers sounded none too impressive.
But as Spend an Evening demonstrates to an almost depressing degree, the musicians just kept playing and playing. Old bands ended. New ones formed. Side projects became main projects. Main projects were wisely discarded. Whereas other communities would have died off with time (and common sense), the Saddle Creek crew just kept mutating.
Of course, the rise of Saddle Creek ultimately shared its trajectory with the rise of Oberst, who appears in the film wrapped in a blanket. But history proves what Spend an Evening so dramatically (perhaps accidentally) shows: Bright Eyes might have been Saddle Creek's bread and butter, but the Faint loaded the hoagie.
After so many guitar-based, scream-laden bands, the Faint's new-wave revival pumps into the film the same shockingly fresh air it breathed into the label with its 1999 surprise, Blank Wave Arcade, and 2001 follow-up, Danse Macabre.
And for all the brooding, apocalyptic, robot-sexual drama that feeds its music, the group provides what little humor the documentary offers, including drummer Clark Baechle's drab assessment of its debut album, Media ("a sucky mix tape"), and the story behind keyboardist Jacob Thiele's hilariously pompous entry into the band, which had the upstart actually demanding that the band turn over its keyboard to his possession.
Even more than Oberst, the Faint exemplifies the hippieish ideal beneath Saddle Creek's success story. After Danse Macabre, the band became the subject of an intense major-label bidding war that would have lined its pockets, the documentary insists, with "millions of dollars." But after entertaining a host of such offers, the group agreed not to mess with its good thing: its substantially less lucrative but friendly relationship with Saddle Creek Records.
"It was never the point to get people on the major labels," explains label co-founder Robb Nansel in the film. "That was never really the goal. It was always to try and see how far we could take the label, doing what we're going to do on all of our own terms."