Behind The Camera: Catching Up With Danny Clinch
Danny Clinch has been a part of the Bonnaroo family since the beginning, capturing some of the festival’s most memorable moments on and offstage. We caught up with Danny as he wrapped up his Walls of Sound show at New York’s Milk Gallery to talk about his photography, filmmaking and how he may have unintentionally caused one of the greatest collaborations in Bonnaroo history.
Why don't we go back to the beginning? How did you get involved with Superfly?
Jonathan Mayers (Superfly Co-founder) reached out to me. The way I recall it, he saw some of my work with the Tibetan Freedom Concerts the Beastie Boys put on. He saw the portraits I was doing backstage and knew that I had good relationships with the musicians and said “Hey! Do you feel like photographing the festival and creating a portrait area backstage?”
It’s funny, I’ve been looking at how my set has developed over the years, going back to the first year when it was just two flats in a corner. Now we’ve got a tent set up with an area where Russ Bennett helps me build out a cool little portrait room. It’s super cool. A lot different than what it was!
You’ve done big events and things like this before, but what was your first impression of Bonnaroo?
You know, it felt like it was a great community. I remember having conversations about how even the security people were super chill and helpful. The music was great and I had free reign to do whatever I want, so it was pretty cool. (laughs)
That atmosphere has to affect your work…
The first year, I was running around trying to get people to get to my portrait studio all day and shooting the shows at night. I’m a big fan of the document, so it was cool to be documenting this huge gathering of people in the middle of nowhere. The second year I ended up making a film called 270 Miles to Graceland. That was a whole different vibe, shot on 16mm film and at Super 8. I saw it as an opportunity to do my own Monterey Pop film.
When you’re doing photography, you want to capture a moment. How does shooting a documentary film differ?
Filmmaking is storytelling as well. It’s team-oriented, so you need to have a team you trust. We had a bunch of people out in the field covering events, meetings with the Superfly team to find out what’s going to be cool, and sending the right people out to film.
It’s daunting. Editing is really tough, but hopefully you’ve covered your bases and put together a good team.
Since you’ve been working with Roo since the beginning, what’s it been like to watch the festival grow over the years?
Man, it’s been great. The diversity of the lineups has grown so much and I think that makes it exciting for a fan like me who likes all kinds of music. If I want to see Billy Joel and Kendrick Lamar and some smaller band in one of the tents, I’m able to have that experience.
It sounds like you’ve been able to catch a few sets over the years. What have been some of your highlights as a fan and as a photographer?
The first couple of years, a band like My Morning Jacket or Kings of Leon would play to a few hundred people during the noon slot when everyone’s sleeping in. It feels crazy to do a portrait and, five years later, see these guys headlining the festival.
As a photographer, one of my coolest moments came when I was just standing outside of my portrait studio. I saw Neil Young come walking out of the catering area, holding a paper plate in his hand. I said “Neil! I’d love to get a photograph of you for Bonnaroo if you don’t mind.” Then I sarcastically added, “I know how much you love having your photo taken.” He laughed and came in so I could shoot a few frames. Then he held the paper plate up and it had that night’s setlist written on it.
I was also the only one allowed to photograph Bob Dylan at Roo. They told me “You’re the only guy who’s gonna shoot the set, but Bob wants to talk to you before they go onstage.” So I stood outside of his tour bus and he walked out and had a conversation about where I was going to be, where I could go, and it was super cool.
Afterwards he came up to me and was like “Hey, how’d we do? What’d you think?” Everybody was back there to see Bob walk to his tour bus – Dave Matthews, Jeff Tweedy, Warren Haynes – and he walks right up to me! Tweedy leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You have to get a picture of me and Bob together.” (laughs)
So you became infinitely cooler when Bob Dylan chose to talk to you?
My cool factor rose tenfold in a matter of minutes! (laughs)
What sets Bonnaroo apart from the other festivals and events you’ve worked?
The beauty of Bonnaroo is the collaborations. The Superjams are a great example of that, seeing guys like Dr. John and Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys running through songs before they go onstage. Now, I was back in Jack Johnson’s dressing room when Eddie Vedder came in and got to be a fly on the wall when they started figuring out what songs they were going to play. Just to be in the room when those two are collaborating was super cool.
I had a hand in when Springsteen played with Phish, too. I was talking to Bruce and he said “Yeah, I’m gonna stick around and catch some of these other sets.” So I asked if he’d seen Phish before and told him, “I tell you what, those boys can play anything.” I explained how they do these Halloween shows where they cover records by Talking Heads or the Rolling Stones and the next thing I know, Bruce is knocking on their door and wants to rehearse with the guys!
You probably made some dreams come true that night…
I mean, Trey’s from New Jersey, so you know he loves the Boss. But it was certainly one of mine!
Danny is currently promoting Motor Drive, a collection of photos that captures iconic musicians like Willie Nelson, Neil Young and James Hetfield with their cars, motorcycles and other vehicles. Limited to 340 copies, the book is bound with vinyl from vintage car seats and features a foreword from guitarist Tom Morello. His other main project is a documentary on the late Shannon Hoon, whose home movies captured everything from studio sessions to tour bus hijinks during his years with Blind Melon.