How Can I be Down? is a documentary that tells the story of Don Busweiler. After starting up the infamous streetwear brand Pervert in the early nineties, Don decided to ditch the world of printed t-shirts in favour of beards and the bible by joining a Christian cult known as the Brethren. The film has been in production for a while now, but thanks to a new Kickstarter campaign, it might be nearly finished. I shot the breeze with film-maker and all-round fountain of knowledge Louis Loizou to find out more.
How are you today?
I’m OK thanks.
From what you were saying when you were in last week, the subject is obviously fairly close to your heart. What made you want to make this documentary?
Well, I was in Miami in 1995 and ended up hanging out at Don Busweiler’s clothing store, Animal Farm. Back then I skated a little, DJed and wore ‘streetwear’. This is all fairly usual now, but then it was different. You were instant friends. Two brothers worked in Animal Farm, Danny and Javier. Javier lived with Don and we start hanging out.
During the time I was there Don joined the Brethren. It was very odd, his life was sort of everything I aspired to and he was turning his back on it. It made a huge impression. Years later I was watching the documentary Dark Days. I knew this great subject in terms of Don and Pervert, so I just saved some money, borrowed a mini-DV camera and started it.
For those wondering, can you explain just what exactly the Brethren, or the Robert’s Group, is?
They are basically an ultra-orthodox Christian group/cult. People use the word cult because of the negative connotations the word now has, but the early Christians would definitely have been thought of as a cult. The Brethren aim to follow what they believe are the true teachings of Christ and the early church, before the cult became a mainstream organized religion and lost its roots, so to speak.
The Brethren are famous for eating out of bins, riding on bikes and cutting contact with their families. Whilst I’ve been known to indulge in the first two, I still answer my mum’s phone calls. Why do you think they distance themselves from the people they were close too?
The family thing is complicated and relates to words Jesus said. He clearly saw his disciples as his family. Understandably most families have a hard time accepting their son/daughter is living this extremely religious life, which has its own risks.
Of course the less you talk to your family and friends, the more they think you are being controlled within the group. Don told me it became necessary to distance themselves, as families would call the police. It’s basically the group against the world to a large degree, which is unfortunate and causes a great deal of pain to loved ones.
You met Don around the time he first joined the Brethren in 1995. How did that come about? What was he like?
I was given a credit card, so I bought a ticket to Miami. I was supposed to hang out in Key West where my brother’s friend ran the Youth Hostel. I thought Key West was some kind of Bohemian hang-out, but it wasn’t, so I headed back to Miami. I got to know most of the people who worked at Pervert and Animal Farm. Pervert had a shipping warehouse and offices, it was clear it was heading for big things. I did meet Don briefly, although he was avoiding speaking to his friends at that time. He gave me some Stussy cargo shorts and some Pervert corduroy shorts — he clearly felt I was lacking in the shorts department.
I also met the two Brethren guys who recruited him. They looked like they had just stepped out of the Old Testament. Not many were rocking full on beards back then. I remember them having this political edge, against consumerism, capitalism and the empire. I wanted to speak more with Don, but it wasn’t possible — he just left. It’s funny how 1995 was like the end game for a lot of things, whether you were in Manchester or Miami, you felt it.
What do you mean by that?
Being young in the late 80’s early 90’s you had the feeling that there was something bigger going on than just the music — we created the culture — it’s what the 60’s must have felt like. People blame the end of that movement on drugs and criminality taking over, like they did in the 60’s — but it came from the very top down.
Don ducked out just around the time when Pervert was getting big. Do you think it had become something he didn’t want it to be?
That’s true, but just part of it. He was conflicted in regard to what makes money and what he would like to do with Pervert, and what his partners wanted — instead of having more freedom there was less.
Pervert was meant to be a positive thing, to look at things differently, to pervert the norm. It wasn’t really sexual, but then you do a basketball jersey with Pervert 69 on it and it’s your best seller. You still have Pharrell wearing a variation of that in that Happy video.
I’m sure he started to think of Pervert’s impact on the wider culture and what God would think about it — the lifestyle and the money. Visually, streetwear has had a massive impact on world youth culture, but that’s the problem, it’s now just clothes, a look.
He now goes by the name of Micaiah. Have you tried to get in touch with him?
I met Don properly in 2007 in Ashville North Carolina, he wouldn’t appear on camera, but I have an audio recording of our conversation. He isn’t like, “Call me Micaiah.” Don in many ways is the same Don from back in 1995. How much can any person change the fundamentals of who they are? But then if you speak about the bible with him, that’s a whole other story.
Many parents make the mistake of trying to challenge their son or daughter through quoting the bible and I made that mistake when I met Don. It’s not a good idea. Brethren members study the bible for hours every day. It’s not the way to communicate with them unless you know the bible inside out and back to front. I challenged Don about isolating his mother and he was like “I’m not going anywhere if she wants to see me.” It needs to be clear that Don isn’t some elusive enigma — the enigma for me is in thinking about how we should live our lives as human beings.
The Brethren seem like quite a nice bunch — often offering to clean or mow the lawn in return for somewhere to stay. Why do you think they get such bad press?
Yeah, they will often find a rundown property and offer to repair it if they are allowed to stay there. They make their own clothes, build their own bikes. There is a lot to respect about the way they live, they make you question how we all live, in regard to the waste and inequality in the world.
The Brethren believe that the only solution to the sin of the world is to remove yourself from the world. Many religions have similar teachings in regard to spirituality and discovering God. They still live within capitalism — it’s impossible not to in America, but they try to use money and technology as little as possible. They stay within the culture to preach to others.
You already mentioned the family thing — a lot of bad press is because of that. Maybe on a deeper level, you have these people wandering around saying that many people calling themselves ‘Christian’ are absolutely not living a true Christian life — that’s not going to go down too well.
Who have you interviewed for the film so far?
Mainly Don’s friends and family, but also others who maybe did not know Don, but relate to the Brethren or streetwear. For instance, I interviewed Shepard Fairey, he did not know Don, but all those early streetwear labels influenced Obey. I interviewed Jim Guerra who was in the Brethren for ten years. Scott Nelson from Brandblack and Brendan Babenzian from Supreme have been key. Many of the early streetwear pioneers appear. Another interview was with Ray Cappo, who was in a band called Youth of Today. The first T-shirt Don ever silk-screened (before Pervert) had Ray Cappo on the front with the caption, “If anger is what you feel.”
You also talked to Ian MacKaye. What was he like?
I’ve always admired Ian and meeting him was no let down. I couldn’t believe it — he picks me up from the tube station and is then making me tea in the Dischord House. It’s the house that Minor Threat are all sat outside in the iconic photo on the Salad Days EP. He says “You’ll like this,” wanders off and brings out ‘that’ skateboard with the black sheep on it — that’s like a religious object to me. I wanted to tap into how massively some things can influence you as a kid. Don was a bit of a straight edge skater/BMX kid. Those things really shape you when growing up.
Who’s next on your list of interviewees?
The main guy is Shawn Stussy — he’s a must. If I can get out there, then Andy Howell of New Deal would be good also. From New York I would like to interview an artist called Jose Parla, who knew Don back in Miami, and revisit Geoff Heath who was key to Pervert and went on to work for Supreme. Geoff and Dino Cerillo did a lot of the early Pervert graphics. The main thing is that this gets finished.
Your film is called How Can I Be Down? Where does this come from?
Well, firstly it was the name of a streetwear trade show that happened back in the 90s. Streetwear was becoming its own thing — it had more scope than just being skate or surf or hip-hop or whatever — it tied into anything cool really.
Secondly, RUN-D.M.C did the track Down with the King — “If G.O.D be in me, then a king I be.”
Third, there is a Pervert T-shirt that said “You weren’t down when we was riddin the bus.”
Clearly we are all trying to be down with something or other, its human nature, it’s how far individually or as part of a group you take that — what you’re prepared to invest in a particular thing. When something is accepted and popular it’s much easier to be down — it’s the question you should never ask. The question really is, “Why do I want to be down?”
You mentioned Dark Days. What other films were you influenced by?
I saw another documentary called Paradise Lost around the same time and that had a similar impact on me. Something resonated — these were important documentaries made by people who really cared about what they were doing. To me, ‘The Media’, was something other people you never met were involved in, but around that time was the start of how technology could change that with the launch of semi pro mini-dv cameras such as the VX2000 and the PD150. It meant ‘non-professionals’ could have a voice.
How far is the film from being finished?
It’s frustratingly close in many ways – but having said that I need to get back to America to do a few interviews and sort out professional postproduction. Those things are not small details, which is the reason for Kickstarter. It would be nice to think that if this does get finished then at least one kid will see it and feel that they also have something important to express. Hopefully they’ll go, “I can do better than that.”
Have you got anything else in the pipeline?
Yeah, I’ve been doing this cycling thing for a while. I’m always trying to be creative, you have to. It’s just difficult as video projects often require money and resources and I’m this one-man band. There is little help out there.
What do you get up to outside of film-making?
Well, I don’t do much film making. So work wise, I have been teaching on and off for over seven years. Down time is spent taking photos and getting out on my bike into the never-ending rain and traffic of Manchester.
Anything else you’d like to add?
If you can support this through Kickstarter that would be appreciated and I’d consider you ‘down.’
Here’s the extended trailer…