March 25th, 2011 | Interviews

The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry is the result of seven years of Lee Perry digging by directors Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough, who speak now about Lee’s true spirit and his love for burning things and National Enquirer’s brand of gossip—especially when it involves Britney Spears. This interview by Lainna Fader.

I know you screened several different versions of the film before settling on the version screening at the Downtown Independent. How did you know when you had something that truly captured Lee’s spirit?
Ethan Higbee: I think we knew when we finally screened the last version. It ends on such a funny note and everybody was laughing in the theater and that last scene really encapsulates Lee. We had to put it in because it shows what a magician he is with words. In the last scene, he’s in San Francisco, and this drunk Canadian dude is like, “Who the fuck are you?” and Lee fools him with words.  That wasn’t in the original cut, but that was the cherry on the top for me. You got to see in a present-day context Lee interacting with an adversary. That was thrilling to film too—that was nerve-racking. Adam and I were filming it and we decided to keep rolling camera but it was a little scary. We thought we might have to physically get involved and my heart was racing. It was really strange. This guy’s belligerent and talking shit to Lee.  He totally reeked of booze but luckily Lee sent this guy packing with his tail between his legs.
Adam Bhala Lough: I think even the first rough-cut captured Lee’s spirit. He was really infused in every facet of the film because the film is just him telling his story through his own voice. For us, it was more about getting it perfect and right and then we added in Benicio Del Torro’s voiceover.
Why did Benicio Del Torro do the voiceover? What’s his connection to Lee?
ABL: He’s just a huge fan. He has been for a long time. He got into Lee Perry through the Clash when he was a teenager.
What was Lee’s reaction to the final cut?
EH: Oh, he loved it! He loved it. I went to Switzerland and showed it to him. We watched it with his family in his living room and it was hilarious.  He made his kids come and sit down and watch it with him. His kids are teenagers. He loved seeing that old footage of himself—you know when he was younger, his shirt off—‘Look how good I look! I was lookin’ good, man!’ He loves seeing pictures of him. And some of the tracks we used, he probably hadn’t heard some of them in thirty, forty years. We dug up old tracks—‘Hey man, where did you get that? You got that on a CD? Did you buy that? Give that to me, man!’ He wanted a copy. Sharing that with him was cool. He was chuckling. All of his songs have stories behind them so he liked remembering all the old stories of old Jamaica and his life at the time.
Keith Richards said, ‘You could never put your finger on Lee Perry—he’s the Salvador Dali of music. He’s a mystery. The world is his instrument. You just have to listen.’ After spending seven years on this project, is Lee still a mystery to you?
EH: For sure, absolutely. We got stories, man. He’s the most original dude and he likes to have his secrets. You know, he’s communicating to other—what would you call it?—I guess communicating to God. He’s talking to and hearing something—somebody—some energy—and he doesn’t want everything out there, you know? He doesn’t want everything exposed. He’s got a lot of secrets.
ABL: Yeah, very much so. He’s still an enigma. I feel like I know him as a person and as an artist now but he still remains a great mystery and there’s something great about that—he’s just that complex of a person.
The film talks about how after he burned down the Black Ark, he started painting obsessively, but his art wasn’t really highlighted in the film. Why is he so much better known as a musician than a visual artist?
ABL: Probably just ‘cuz he’s got fifty years of music history behind him. He hasn’t exactly been brought into the world yet as a visual artist. But it seems like that’s gonna change soon.
EH: His visual stuff is very private. He’s been painting for forty years, on walls wherever he’s been living—you can see it in the film—but it’s always been a private thing for him. A release. Some people have been sleeping on that side of his work but I don’t know if he ever thought to put it out. He just had an art show here though. I own a small gallery in West Hollywood and we had the first ever Lee Perry art exhibit with fourteen canvasses of his. It was called ‘Secret Education’ and we felt like these were some of his secrets that he was letting out on canvas. But sometimes he doesn’t want them out. He’ll paint something and he’ll burn it.
I heard that Lee has no interest in preserving his work—Why? Why does he like burning his work?
EH: Sometimes he’ll think, ‘You know what, I don’t actually want that to go out in the world.’ He’s very protective of his beliefs and his art. He’s not thinking, ‘Okay, time to go to the studio and paint some paintings.’ He’s really living it. Like right now, it’s 4AM in Switzerland, and he’s gluing a piece of paper that he just cut out from National Geographic to the wall. He’s doing that regardless of some German photographer photographing him doing that or not. He’s just the truest, realest dude I’ve ever met. The realest artist I’ve ever met. He is on par with Salvador Dali—not just in music but in all his art—his writing—everything. He’s a magician, really. He’s an amazing man.
ABL: I think he just likes to burn stuff—it doesn’t matter what it is. It could be his work or it could be anything. He just likes setting stuff on fire. I don’t know why he is interested in destroying his work. Sometimes I got the feeling he wanted to destroy his work because he wanted to keep it away from people and not let people monetize it. And other times I would maybe think he was destroying his work quite simply to let it go back Heaven. To turn into ash and let it disappear into Heaven.
What’s something that you were surprised to learn about Lee when you were working on The Upsetter? What’s something about his life or a facet or his personality that most people aren’t aware of?
EH: Nothing surprises me now! But at the time, his knowledge of current events. What’s going on in the world. He’s really paying attention to everything that’s happen. The funniest stuff is he loves tabloids—gossip—National Enquirer—that type of shit. He’s always asking me what’s going on with Britney Spears. What’s going on with Lil Wayne. He’s definitely got his finger on the pulse. And he’s got kids that are teenagers so he’s definitely very tied in. You can tell from his fashion sense too. He’s an amazing fashion designer as well. He’s always been ahead of the curve.
ABL: I was really surprised at how much of a family man he is. When we went to visit him in Switzerland, he was there with his family. He’d be at home having dinner and watching TV with his family. Eating spaghetti and just acting like a real dad. He’s still this real at-home family guy.
I read an interview you guys did for the film and Adam said Lee became a grandfather type figure to you guys. What’s the most useful, grandfather-y piece of advice he ever gave you?
ABL: He told us a lot about reading the Bible and studying the words of Jesus. That’s really important to him. He taught us how a lot of his greatest songs—like his classic reggae songs he did with Bob Marley—were based on Bible verses and stuff. He would stress to us the importance of—the power of—the words of Jesus and the Bible.
EH: To make babies! Ha ha!