‘Under the Volcano’: The Real-Life Rock & Roll History of George Martin’s AIR Studios Montserrat (Q&A with Filmmakers Gracie Otto and Cody Greenwood)

Ed RampellCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

Gracie Otto and Cody Greenwood discuss their new documentary, Under the Volcano, telling the incredible tale of Sir George Martin’s AIR Studios Montserrat.

What do you do when you’re in your fifties and have already done it all? World War II veteran and music producer Sir George Martin had such a hugely successful career signing, recording and arranging the Fab Four that he was nicknamed the “Fifth Beatle.” Among his many accolades was being Oscar-nominated for Best Music Scoring for A Hard Day’s Night in 1965, receiving a knighthood in 1996 and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Martin produced the music for two James Bond films – 1964’s Goldfinger, its theme from Shirley Bassey, and Paul McCartney and Wings’ title track for 1973’s Live and Let Die, which was shot partially on location at Jamaica.

By 1979, the London-born wealthy, world famous 53-year-old Martin moved from Abbey Road to the West Indies, where he built AIR Studios Montserrat (AIR stands for Associated Independent Recording) on a remote Caribbean Island. Soon, a procession of artists flocked to record their albums at the off-the-beaten-path recording studio established by Martin on the so-called “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean,” only 10 miles long and seven miles wide.

The talents gone tropical included: Charlie Watts and the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and many others. They are captured in still photos and home movie and video footage – including of Watts pounding the sharkskins – in the enthralling new documentary Under the Volcano, directed by Gracie Otto and produced by Cody Greenwood.

The two Australians co-wrote the 96-minute nonfiction film that combines archival material with original interviews featuring Jimmy Buffett; The Police; Black Sabbath‘s Tony Iommi, Deep Purple‘s Roger Glover; Earth Wind & Fire’s Verdine White; America’s Gerry Buckley; Ultravox’s Midge Ure, to name a few. Sir George’s son Giles Martin and widow Judy also go on the record, along with various AIR Studios Montserrat staffers and local islanders.

Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler says, “Going to Montserrat was like going into a dream.” Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes echoes the sentiment, calling recording at the diminutive verdant isle “a glorious dream.” But everyone eventually wakes from their dreams, and Hurricane Hugo provided Montserrat with a rude wakeup call in 1989, followed by the eruption of the dormant Soufrière Hills Volcano in 1995.

In 2013 Otto directed The Last Impresario, a star-studded biopic about the Scottish stage and screen producer Michael White, whose 1970s credits include Oh! Calcutta!, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. With Under the Volcano, Otto uses her vivid storytelling technique to “do the Time Warp again,” this time flashing back to remember one of popular music’s most brilliant recording producers and an all-too-brief brief moment in time when rock and roll found paradise.

Writer/director Gracie Otto was interviewed via Zoom from Sydney, Australia, while writer/ producer Cody Greenwood was in Injidup, located at the bottom corner of Western Australia.

Universal has released Under the Volcano on digital UK, DVD & Blu-ray and can be seen on platforms found at: Under The Volcano | Official Website | 26 July 2021 (underthevolcanomovie.com).

Rock Cellar: Given the news of Charlie Watts’ death, let’s start with the drummer at AIR Studios Montserrat in your great new film.

Cody Greenwood: The Rolling Stones went down to record their album Steel Wheels. So, Keith Richards had been down there with the X-Pensive Winos, I think the name of his band was, and loved it. Got along so well with the staff. He said to the staff there, “If the Stones are ever going to get back together again it’s going to have to be on Montserrat.”

They all went down there to record Steel Wheels. We’ve got amazing footage of them during the recording process in the documentary. And Charlie’s there playing the drums.

Rock Cellar: In an unfortunate way, your film coming out now is very timely.

Gracie Otto: Yeah, definitely. I think also with a lot of the bands in our film, like Elton’s band and obviously the Stones, it’s like these bands have been around for so long. And even in our documentary there’s a great clip of them in 1989 during a press interview saying, “People are asking: ‘Is this the last time you’ll see the Stones?’ No, no, no, we’re going to go on tour again.” Like, it’s their kind of big comeback. And you go, wow, that was in 1989 — and we’re in 2021 and they’re still touring.

Rock Cellar: So, it will be a great blast from the past to see Charlie once again on the big screen.

Gracie Otto: Of course.

Cody Greenwood: Absolutely.

Rock Cellar: Why is George Martin so important in the history of rock music?

Cody Greenwood: He produced a band that the readers may not have heard of, they were called the Beatles. And he produced them for many, many years. He also actually ended up having two of them on the island, Ringo and Paul McCartney. They recorded Paul McCartney’s Tug of War during the AIR Studios days. He was kind of a big deal, you might say.

Rock Cellar: There’s a history of Western artistic geniuses moving to tropical islands. Paul Gauguin went to Tahiti and the Marquesas, Robert Louis Stevenson to Samoa, Marlon Brando to Tetiaroa Atoll, French Polynesia, etc. How does George Martin fit into this tradition? What did Montserrat offer him that he couldn’t find in the West?

Cody Greenwood: Well, he’d been down there during his days as a pilot and had really loved the Caribbean. But I think why Montserrat was so special for George was that he realized that it was never going to be a hugely popular tourist island because the harbor was too shallow for cruise ships, the island was too mountainous, they couldn’t land big jet planes. There was something about the seclusion of the place that he found he was really attracted to. Also, the people of Montserrat, who are the most amazing, warm, generous, loving people. I think it was a combination of those things.

Gracie Otto: It was a place … after setting up in London, he wanted a place where artists could kind of be free to be creative and get away from all of the kind of external pressures. It was this idyllic island, but it was also a place where people could really focus on their music.

Rock Cellar: Your film mixes archival footage with original interviews. Tell us about the clips of the Beatles, presumably in England?

Gracie Otto: For us it was important to get a short, contextual history about Sir George and the Beatles, for viewers who might not have known that much about Sir George. We worked with the great archive producer Lisa Savage, it was sourced from the BBC and interviews they had done. It was really great to go through all that amazing, old footage and see them and having, yeah, some great interviews with John Lennon talking about George’s process and how they interacted together when they were working together.

Rock Cellar: The Beatles broke up before George Martin established AIR Studios Montserrat. But shortly after John Lennon was shot Paul McCartney recorded “Ebony and Ivory” with Stevie Wonder at Montserrat. Ringo Starr showed up, too. Tell us about that footage and experience?

Gracie Otto: Yeah, we were really lucky that Sir Paul McCartney had given us his home video footage that was shot down there. Which I think is a great snapshot … That was such great footage, because it was so candid and so raw and it was obviously at really an emotional time for Paul because it was not long after the [1980] assassination of John Lennon. They had been working on “Pipes of Peace” and Paul wanted to go down there and record an album and bring down different people from what he had with Wings and stuff. So he brought down Stevie Wonder and Carl Perkins and Steve Gadd and Ringo. Yeah.

He wanted to do an album that I guess people hailed that was his comeback at the time, Tug of War.

Rock Cellar: How did Montserrat impact Elton John and what did he record there?

Cody Greenwood: So, Elton did three albums down at Montserrat. He did Too Low for Zero, Breaking Hearts and –

Gracie Otto: Jump Up!

Cody Greenwood: Jump Up!, of course. So, for him, he was in a period where the band was fractured. They had been really close during the seventies. Then Elton slipped into a period of, you know, excess, and it was very much the record company that said “We need to send him down to an island.” Because they were recording in Paris at the time and just weren’t getting anything done.

So, they went done there, and Bernie Taupin came down, Elton’s writing partner, and similar to Paul McCartney, his return to form — it was much the same thing for Elton. And they did “That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing,” that was made down at Montserrat. It was very much a comeback album itself but also a bringing together of his original team. And that original team has continued to stay together to this day, and they’re the guys he still tours with. So, it was obviously a really special place for that band.

Rock Cellar: The film compares the era’s record producers to film directors. In Volcano The Police’s drummer Stewart Copeland calls George Martin “the presiding genius” of AIR Studios Montserrat. But his bandmate Sting observes George was “not in the producing mood.” How hands-on was George Martin as a record producer at Montserrat?

Gracie Otto: You know, George definitely — George did record with America down there, with other bands. But I think when he was there his whole setup was to try and get artists to come to a place that was quite isolated and allow them to make the best music they could. I mean, I wouldn’t want to compare him to someone like Andy Warhol, but I think in a way it’s like there are certain people who know how to lay out the foundations of something and bring something into it that way and preside over it. George obviously was down there quite a lot visiting, and there were times he would record with people down there. And other times where he just wanted to observe and see how things were going.

Rock Cellar: What did The Police record there?

Gracie Otto: The Police recorded two albums there – Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity. For them, it was really interesting because it was two completely different kinds of experiences they had when they were down there. For us, that’s some of our favorite parts of the film, having the three members of The Police. And also they have such great personalities, such strong personalities, all three of them are such individuals. Those were definitely some of the favorite interviews, with Andy [Summers] and Stewart [Copeland]. They obviously gave us some great home video footage and stills as well.

Rock Cellar: Tell us more about your original interviews with The Police men?

Cody Greenwood: Sting was actually the first person to come on board for an interview so we filmed Sting in April, 2018. I wrote to him and said, “We’re putting together this documentary. Would you do an interview?” He said yes straight away. Which is a real testament to Sting and I think the love that he has for Montserrat. So, we shot Sting in New York and that was a really wonderful interview, it very much informed how the narrative was going to play out for the rest of the film. Because he spoke about the importance of the people at the studio, so they played a big part in the film. And also the presence of the volcano.

And then Stewart, Gracie conducted an interview with him in L.A., in sort of the main body of interviews that we had scheduled. But Sting — when we spoke about the conflict in the band with Sting, he was a little bit, like, you know, “Yeah, it’s very documented.” But when Gracie interviewed Stewart Copeland, he was extremely forthcoming about some of the stuff that went on at Montserrat.

Rock Cellar: Jimmy Buffett has a long history vis-à-vis tropical islands – it’s believed he had an ancestor who settled at Pitcairn Island, South Pacific refuge of the HMS Bounty mutineers. Tell us about what Buffett recorded at Montserrat and your original interview with the high priest of the Parrotheads?

Gracie Otto: [Laughs] Jimmy was a great interview. We’d actually been interviewing [Ultravox’s] Midge Ure at San Francisco. The airport shut down and we had to drive through the night. By the time we got to Malibu to interview him I don’t think we’d slept for about 24 hours. But Jimmy was one of the first people to be down there in ’79. He recorded “Volcano.” I guess he was down there with [the Coral Reefer] Band. He just really embodied the spirit I think of that kind of place. It was perfectly suited to the style of music he was making.

Rock Cellar: How did AIR Studios impact the local inhabitants of Montserrat?

Cody Greenwood: I think the studio had a really positive impact on the people of Montserrat. George Martin really wanted them to be part of the family and so he found the best chef on the island and everybody ended up having such wonderful relationships with the musicians that came down to the point that when you interviewed people, that’s all they’d really talk about was the chef’s cooking, or Tommy the bartender. Lou Reed wrote a song about the bartender. On all of the backs of the Dire Straits albums all the studio staff are listed.

I think it was really a wonderful opportunity for a lot of the people of Montserrat. There was a guy named John Silcott who learned how to be an engineer at the studio and went on to continue that in his career. So, they all have really fond memories of not only Sir George, but their time working at the studio. Most of them were there for the entire 10-year period before the studio ended …

The chef was George “Tappy” Morgan. We found him in Boston and flew him out to L.A. for an interview. The bartender is Desmond Riley and we also interviewed the maintenance guy, Lloyd X, and Minetta Francis, who was the housekeeper. So, we had pretty much the whole team in our interviews, which we really love.

Rock Cellar: What’s the relationship between your documentary Under the Volcano and Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel of the same name, which John Huston adapted for the screen in 1984 [starring Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset]?

Gracie Otto: They’re both great movies. But one’s a documentary, and one’s a [feature] film. No, they’re not related, obviously. [Huston’s] Under the Volcano came out in the eighties. Our film is about music in the eighties. That’s probably about like their closest connection.

Rock Cellar: Cody, what is Rush Films?

Cody Greenwood: Rush Films is my production company. It’s been around now for about five years. Under the Volcano is the first major production out of the gate.

Rock Cellar: Australian cinema is very unique. To paraphrase the 1997 Aussie comedy The Castle, what is “the vibe” of films from Down Under? How are they different from Hollywood movies?

Cody Greenwood: I think our films Down Under are very distinctive but a lot of that has to do with the location. I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world that looks similar to Australia. We have the most incredible landscapes to shoot on. But I also think that a lot of the directors emerging out of Australia have really distinct voices and that’s definitely putting us on the map. The other thing I’ll say as well – it’s interesting that during COVID, that we all got very sentimental for Australian cinema. Something about everybody being isolated, we just wanted to be around Australian culture. It’s definitely had a resurgence during COVID which has been really, really exciting to see.

Rock Cellar: What do you have coming up?

Gracie Otto: I’ve got a show that I’ve directed out on Amazon at the moment called The Moth Effect, which is a sketch comedy show. And I’m in post-production on a narrative feature film called Seriously Red, about a Dolly Parton impersonator.

Cody Greenwood: I’ve got a documentary coming out in November called Girl Like You, which will be on the Australian Broadcasting Corp. And then I’m in development on a documentary series and financing two feature films, moving into drama, which is pretty exciting.

L.A.-based film historian Ed Rampell’s daughter, the Polynesian singer Marina Davis, lives at Brisbane, and was a contestant on the nationwide TV show “The X-Factor Australia.” [Marina Davis singing “Natural Woman” for XFACTOR Australia – YouTube]

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