There’s something about being a rock and roller in your youth that is hard to let go. The adrenaline of being on stage, the groupies, the fame - even when there isn’t much fame - is hard to forget while you work each day in your cubicle. The Incoherents is a comedy about a guy named Bruce Flansburgh who gets the itch to return to rock and roll years after breaking up his band.
In recent years, there’s been something of a new genre of ‘Peter Pan’ type films revolving around middle aged men trying to relive their golden days as rockers. What makes this one a bit different is that it revolves around the indie rock world of New York and New Jersey. It includes actual clubs and musicians from the area and provides a hard look as to whether fairytales can actually come true.
Bruce Flansburgh is a bored, 40-something paralegal who slogs through an increasingly unbearable day to day existence. When he sees bands like The Pixies, Soundgarden, and other indie rock bands from the 90s reunite he gets the urge to bring back The Incoherents. Unfortunately, he chose stability over fame and disbanded the group at the height of their success. And now he has to convince his bandmates that he’s willing to go the distance this time.
The film, written and starring New Jersey native Jeff Auer, was acquired by Gravitas Ventures and released on Video on Demand platforms. This follows a festival run that included wins for the director, actors, screenplay, and feature at several film festivals including the Best Homegrown Feature at the 2019 Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park.
It was shot in New York City and various locations across New Jersey including Jersey City, Waldwick, Princeton, Edgewater, Ridgewood, Wayne, and Hoboken - including a band competition night at Maxwell’s. In addition to Auer (who was raised in Island Heights), The Incoherents was directed by a fellow Jersey native Jared Barel (from Wayne). Producers Jorden Barel (Wayne) and Charles Kirby (Princeton) add to the Garden State background.
Jared Barel was a 90’s band musician himself during the CBGB’s punk rock era who wondered, “Why must we set aside those things that are such an integral part of who we are? It posits the notion that maybe, just maybe, we can be grown ups and still be dreamers.”
The Incoherents band includes Alex Emanuel (who was also a producer and music supervisor on the film), Walter Hoffman, Casey Clark, and Auer. The excellent cast includes Amy Carlson, Annette O’Toole, Vincent Lamberti, Kate Arrington, Margaret Anne Florence, Christine Change, and Robert McKay.
Emanuel wrote the music and Auer wrote the lyrics for the original songs performed in the film, which also features lots of musicians from the NY/NJ music scene. Some of the artists who make cameos in the film include Chris Barron from Spin Doctors, Joe Hurley, Jack McKeever, and Richard Barone. Guitarist Sean Eden (Luna) and Kevin March (Guided by Voices) also perform on the band’s tracks while the film includes musical performances by Stew (Tony Winner for Passing Strange), Jimmy Gnecco (NJ’s Ours), Fiona Silver, Gentlemen Brawlers, and 60/40.
New Jersey Stage spoke with Jeff Auer about the film.
I saw you and Alex in a video interview in which you called yourself a fake musician, did you ever have a band?
No, but the film is based on an experience I had with some college friends of mine. Actually my buddy Tim Cawley (originally from Lincroft) is in advertising and is a singer-songwriter. He was working in Minneapolis in the early 2000s. I visited him and he had a music room set up in the basement. Next thing you know, one guy decided to learn bass, another decided to learn guitar, and I could sort of carry a tune. We knew each other for 15 years and out of nowhere we started writing songs over email. Then we recorded some songs in Chicago with this engineer who had worked with John Lennon and Cher. He was on the last legs of his career, I think, because he recorded us! We just went there to have a few beers, record a couple of songs, and have a laugh. It was probably one of the worst days of the engineer’s career, but it was a lot of fun for us. We continued to record in New York and Boston.
That was the only band experience I ever had. We basically just wrote songs over email. Tim would put them all together, we’d go to a studio, have some drinks, and record the songs. But with The Incoherents, Alex had played in bands in New York since the late 80s and Jared and Jordan Barel grew up playing in bands. They used to play in the New Brunswick punk scene back in the early to mid 2000s. So all those guys were very versed in the rock and roll world. I was just always a huge fan, so I kind of faked my way into it.
Were they the ones that brought in the other musicians in the film - guys like Chris Barron and Richard Barone?
Well Chris was a friend of Charles Kirby from Princeton. Charles knew the guys in Spin Doctors and John Popper of Blues Traveler. He used to play with those guys in high school. Chris had a gig on the lower side of Manhattan one night and we coordinated a shoot that night so when he was done with his gig he’d just walk down the street and do a cameo.
Richard Barone was a guy who was a friend of Alex’s from the music scene. Alex is a guy who knows everybody in that downtown New York music world. That’s how we also brought in a couple of the musicians to record the songs. Joe Hurley is another friend of Alex’s. We had this part we were looking to cast and Alex wanted as many musicians as possible in the film. So Joe had the right vibe and he was available that night. He came in and did a great job for us.
What was it like to write lyrics for a band that was supposed to have a back story (songs from the 90s) and have some new songs as well?
Well, it was kind of fun. At the time, my kids were younger and I would just sit while they were in the playroom and write lyrics. So the lyrics came from either the point of view of my character where he was at that point in his life or just lyrics about some contemporary stuff that I thought would fit in with what those guys were feeling. Whatever I wrote was somewhere in The Incoherents context.
I thought one of the funniest lines in the film was “next time you write lyrics stop watching the Disney Channel.”
You know it’s funny, I cut that out and Alex was like, “Put that back in” and people seem to like it!
The film includes several nightmare scenarios for musicians, including kicking off a show by playing the wrong song. Were these actual things your musician friends went through or were they mostly imagined?
Most were imagined, but Alex was our authenticity police. The entire time spent in pre-production he was very adamant that this be as true to the lifestyle as possible. So when he showed it to fellow musicians they would believe it. They were his most important audience. Whenever there was anything in the script that went out of the bounds of what he thought was possible in that rock and roll world, we got rid of it. Most of our scenarios were imagined, but they were informed by experiences I knew other guys had in the music world and those Alex, Jared, and Jordan knew as well.
I thought you had a nice inside joke for somebody raised in Springsteen Country to have people chant “Bruce” after a gig.
Yeah, I was wondering if anyone would pick up on that.
Who were some of your favorite bands growing up?
Two bands really sparked it for me when I was 13 and that was U2 and R.E.M. That was the new wave / post punk world taking over. In my high school (Monsignor Donovan High School in Toms River, now known as Donovan Catholic High School), you were in three camps in terms of music. You were either in the Saturday Night Fever dance camp, the Deliverance / Allman Brothers / Marshall Tucker Band world, or you were in the Fast Times at Ridgemont High new wave world and that’s where I hit my stride. I remember the first time I heard “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” by U2 and the first time I heard “So. Central Rain” by R.E.M and having a tingle run up my spine.
On the school bus the driver would always have WMMR from Philadelphia on and you’d hear The Stones, The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, The Doors, and all the other classic rock bands. I was a Beatles fan, but it wasn’t the music of my era and once I heard U2 and R.E.M. my life literally changed. It’s that feeling you get when you hear a song by a band you love. Then it expanded into The Smiths, The Cure and then into the indie rock world of post college where The Incoherents came out of - or the scene they supposedly came out of.
In your bio it mentions you were a paralegal once, just like your character Bruce. Was your experience anything like his in the film? Did you have a crazy boss like that?
No, I didn’t have a boss like that, but the mundane aspect of the job - the feeling of “what the hell am I doing here?” kind of thing was there. I worked as a paralegal before I was acting. When I first moved to New York, I was just figuring things out and that was one of the jobs I had. It is a real corporate soul sucking job; there’s no skill involved. You basically show up and you’re a glorified clerk. There’s definitely a feeling of “I’m going to lose my mind if this is the only thing going on with my life.” I thought it was a good occupation for this guy to have because the two lifestyles could not be more different. The boring, talentless corporate drone trying to get into this exciting world of rock and roll. The dichotomy of what he was doing and what he wanted to do made the film.
I thought the film had a terrific cast and was shot very well. What are you most proud of?
I’d have to say the acting. First and foremost, I am an actor and I love our cast. The best compliment you can give an actor is to say there’s no acting going on - you’re just being a person. That definitely helped the authenticity of the film and we’ve heard that from audience feedback. It’s easier to connect to a story when you believe the people and can connect to them on a human level. When you’re pushing the envelope too much you’re not going to connect. I think our cast is terrific and it’s a testament to our director Jared as well. He had a real facile, nice touch with the actors.
I know you’ve worked in tv and films; what was it like to be part of the entire process from raising the funds to winning an award at a film festival?
I realize as we were doing this that I now know what it’s like to be a small business owner. I had a friend of mine in college who started working for his family’s tree business. The guy is working 6 days a week for almost 30 years and I never understood why. “Why can’t you not work on Saturday? Why can’t you just hang out?” But after doing this film, I realized when you build something from the ground up it’s your baby. All of us are very close to it and you can’t not think about it. Everything is always on your mind. You’re involved in every single detail. It’s incredibly gratifying and other than having children it was the greatest experience of my life. But it was super hard too. We made this on a shoestring. We were constantly begging, borrowing, stealing money. A lot of my high school buddies pitched in and helped get a lot of the initial money off of the ground. A lot of my relatives in Jersey did too and we had a big crowdfunding campaign.
I tell people making movies is harder than raising kids because the unknowns are just constant and problems pop up that you never expect. We shot the film in four blocks over five months and the first day of the third block we’re all ready to go. It’s like 5 in the morning at this bar. We had a new sound guy because our sound guy moved out of the area and the new guy never showed up. We just spent hours corralling some random sound guy to come and instead of having a nice little day where we could take our time, we had to barnstorm to get these shots. Things like that pop up that you never expect. When you think you have everything taken care of something is going to come and throw a wrench into the works.
Could you imagine shooting a film right when the lockdown hit?
I was involved in the shooting of a short film. They were shooting the weekend right before the shutdown and the next schedule was the weekend after. I was only doing a day on it. We were shooting it on Bleeker Street in the downtown (actually a block away from the first apartment I ever had in New York) in this loft - one of those classic 80s lofts with art on the wall. It was right out of films like Fatal Attraction or Wall Street. We’re up on the 5th floor and looking down at these bay windows and there’s nobody on the streets. Nobody. I mean to see New York like that on a beautiful Sunday afternoon was completely strange. So they did their weekend and were going to shoot the next weekend and then the world shut down. They’re sitting there with half of their movie made. This is a movie where the director and lead actress had just poured their heart and their minds into and now it’s sitting for months. If the schedule had just been moved up a week they could be sitting there working on editing the movie, but just for two days work they’re going to be waiting months. It would have killed us. If this had happened to our production, I don’t know if it could have survived because it was already spread out over 5 months.
In New York at 7 o’clock each night we all go out and clap for our healthcare workers. And, as horrible as this has been, it’s been an incredibly inspiring time for me to see the humanity of it all and people coming together. What the healthcare workers are doing is extraordinary. They literally are putting their lives on the line for us every day. They are our army. They’re the people on Normandy Beach. It’s unbelievable what they’ve done for us. I’m hoping that society takes a good hard look when this is all over at what’s important and who should be honored in our society. It’s these essential workers who keep things going for us. I’m hoping there’s some sort of change and celebrity becomes less important and people who are doing the real work take on a greater emphasis. It feels like there’s a huge opportunity for a societal reset.
What do you miss the most right now?
Just connecting with people! I think that’s what we’ve all realized - how important people are. Life is not that complicated. Life is simple. We just want to be happy, want to have connections with people, and want to have good experiences. We want our family and friends to be healthy and safe.
I miss people. I miss being able to go out with my friends. My parents live down in Ocean County and I can’t go down there. They’re all alone with no contact and that’s got to be difficult. In New York, my neighborhood is not super crowded but you do see people. It’s just that human connection that we all miss.
“The Incoherents is a film about life choices as much as it is about music and musicians. It uses a fictitious band from the particularly fertile NYC music scene of the mid-90s as an excellent example. We all know it ain’t easy to have a successful band, no matter how easy it looks from the audience. The odds of making it are slim at best. And the odds of coming back after years of dormancy are even slimmer. Way slimmer. Why go through the struggle? The answer of course is: the love of the music. The passion. Regardless of your calling, it’s all about the passion. Ultimately, that’s the message of the film for me.
I really loved the script because all of the characters are multidimensional and real. You get to know them early on in the film, and you stick with them. You can feel their struggles and conflicts, and you want them to succeed. The fact that this is all done with so much humor and great songs is icing on the cake!” -- Richard Barone
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at email@example.com.