Thrash Lab documents the band Foster the People on tour in Mexico.
Backstage at a show in Guadalajara, Mexico, in March, Foster the People did vocal warm-ups and yoga stretches before crafting a set list. Then, just before the Los Angeles indie-pop band headed out to the stage, they touched one another's shoulders lightly and said, "Bless."
"There's a small moment before every show where we bless each other — we've done that since Day One," says frontman Mark Foster, 28, over the phone. "That's a superstitious ritual — it's the one thing we can't go on stage without."
Fans are privy to that ritual now thanks to a documentary short that chronicles the moment and has garnered more than 100,000 views on YouTube since being posted a little over a month ago.
The film is part of a new series of shorts called "Rituals" produced by Ashton Kutcher's production company, Katalyst, for its YouTube channel, Thrash Lab. The goal of the series is to let viewers in on the intimate moments artists have before going on stage — the routines, and idiosyncratic superstitions that fuel the performance the fans will see.
"Rituals" creator Kashy Khaledi calls the films his "love letter to rock journalism for the digital era."
Katalyst president and Thrash Lab co-founder Anthony Batt adds, "The Thrash Lab team is all about creating intimate experiences that celebrate the creative community including artists of all types. With Rituals, we offer an organic back-stage pass to their worlds. Thrash Lab aims to put culture back into pop culture with shows like Rituals, The Factuary, Subculture Club and many more to come."
To date, Katalyst has made six "Rituals," ranging from five to nine minutes, and featuring up-close-and-personal footage of legendary bassist Mike Watt, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros just before heading out on stage. Shorts have also been made of pop-culture curiosities like the controversial street artist Mr. Brainwash and of the comedian Patton Oswalt.
"From the beginning I tell people, 'Let's be clear. This is documentary, not reality television,'" says Khaledi, sitting with the prolific music video and commercial director Ace Norton and director Brinton Bryan in Norton's Venice living room.
Norton directed the piece on Mr. Brainwash, and Bryan directed the ones on Foster the People and Edward Sharpe. Khaledi, who founded the edgy arts and entertainment magazine Mean when he was 22, has long had a knack for recruiting savvy talent for his projects. He has also secured directors Julien Nitzberg, Tony Kaye and Christopher Storer to work on "Rituals."
All are directors whom Khaledi chose for their devotion to the art of storytelling. And all are fast workers — they have only one day with their subjects to gather as much material as possible.
"It's all about getting in touch with the humanity of the artist," says Bryan. "The unglamorous side of being a rock star is not something you get to see very often."
Last year Katalyst became one of nearly 30 companies to enter into a partnership with YouTube, which invested $100 million to help these companies create premium content channels for the site. The idea is to launch YouTube into competition with traditional cable and sites like Hulu. Since YouTube gained superstar status on the Web via its user-generated content, the move was considered risky and was not received too kindly by the site's community. However, the channels are slowly picking up viewership and Khaledi hopes that "Rituals" will help attract subscribers to Thrash Lab.
"Rituals" shorts generally end when the band begins playing its first song. It's an interesting choice, one that makes the viewer feel privileged for having hung out with the band backstage. There are dozens of shaky smartphone videos of those live performances, but only one showing Foster standing alone in the dark at the side of the stage — a look of intense concentration on his face as he psychs himself up to play.
" 'Rituals' approaches the whole thing from the underside," says Foster. "I think it captured a part of this band that hasn't been put in front of the public before."
That's certainly the case of the segment on Watt, the deeply unconventional co-founder of the seminal SoCal hard-core punk band the Minutemen who now plays with the Stooges. Directed by Kaye, Watt's story transports us to Watt's hometown of San Pedro, where Watt engages in the activities of his typical day: Kayaking in a yellow sweatshirt; eating a breakfast burrito; reading lyrics from one of his rock operas and nearly tearing up about the accidental death of his dear friend and Minuteman frontman D. Boon.
"That piece started off as a 'Rituals' but it ended up being about how the death of D. Boon affected Mike Watt forever," says Khaledi. "We want to tell a great story without letting the rituals part dictate the form it wants to take."