Music video director, filmmaker, photographer, musician: Shawheen Keyani has a finger in a lot of pies. Keyani, best known to indie fans as the director of Still Woozy’s music videos, is a prolific, playful creator, based in the arts communities of Santa Cruz and L.A. He called me from the West Coast to give me an insight into his creative origins, process, and thoughts about a career in the arts.
When he was fifteen years old, Keyani moved from his home in Iran to California to attend boarding school. As a late bloomer, he was intimidated by the other kids at his school, who already seemed to be adults. The move to a new country and new school was transformative for him; “It was traumatic, not in a bad way, but traumatic in the sense of what such great change can do to you,” says Keyani.
This experience of being uprooted at a young age, thankfully, wasn’t all bad. The drastic transition led him to discover his artistic identity: “The idea of image-making or looking at things with the curiosity of a foreigner lent itself really well to filmmaking.” The camera was a great way, he says, “to process new surroundings. To take your own view and to take your own agency over the experience and not let it just be happening to you.” However, what cemented Keyani’s interest in film was the first art form he ever fell head-over-heels in love with: skateboarding.
“Cameras and skateboarding have always been best friends,” explains Keyani. Skateboarders are constantly filming, hoping to catch the first time a new trick is landed and all of the weird and hilarious moments in between those successes. “I was never the best skater in the group, so I ended up filming a lot of people. Then, the camera started wanting to move to other things, and I went from filming skateboarding to making films in general.” His amateur interest in film turned into a film degree from UC Santa Cruz, where he met a community of other artists and musicians, including his friend Sven Gamsky—also known as Still Woozy.
Still Woozy makes funky, off-center bops filled with relatable and clever lyrics (“Well If she had to choose/Me or her mom/I know I wouldn’t last long, yeah/No problem with the truth“), recorded in his Oakland garage. Two of his most-viewed music videos, for the songs “Goodie Bag” and “Lava,” were directed by Keyani in an unconventionally effective manner. To prevent the videos from feeling contrived, Gamsky and Keyani decided on a more relaxed, off-the-cuff strategy. “The first music video ended up being like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna come up for five days with a camera and no crew. It’s just going to be me and you…We’re going to organically let things happen.’ There was nothing in the “Goodie Bag” video that was conceived beforehand.”
With that camera and a group of friends, they screwed around in Oakland, letting their whims carry them and capturing it on film, similar to Keyani’s initial skateboarding style. The result is a warm, intimate, quirky video, set on picturesque California streets and featuring an incredible ’80s-inspired wardrobe. Watching it makes you feel like you’re hanging out with your friends on a summer evening.
Shooting the second video, for “Lava,” went pretty much the same way. “It was a lot of fun, very informal… definitely the antithesis of what most music videos and productions run like. No real call time, no actual lunch time.” Keyani considers this chill, spontaneous style to be his M.O. “We put emphasis on getting friends and people that we know and like involved… With each project, you realize that you’re building the family. If you take that standpoint with filmmaking, I think you’re in a really good place because people are going to enjoy being a part of that.”
As Keyani cites a list of influences, it’s easy to see where he gets his unorthodox inspiration. He’s a fan of directors like Jim Jarmusch, who makes idiosyncratic films that often lack a traditional plot, well-known surrealist David Lynch, and the prolific Iranian playwright/director Bahrām Beyzai, whose beautifully-written films explore history and Iranian culture. Keyani actually acted in one of Beyzai’s plays at Stanford—”Just because I wanted to be near this legend.” As for photography, he loves Toiletpaper Magazine, a surreal, Dadaist publication by two Italian artists.
A common thread woven through these various influences is a sense of humor. “One of the most important things… is the ability to, whether you’re exploring something light or something really dark, to have a certain sense of humor. Even with David Lynch’s darkest works, there’s the tiniest tinge of humor going on underneath, which is what keeps you there,” says Keyani. For him, a touch of irony, levity, or just straight-up laughter is a necessity for art—and for our existence in general. “I think humor is the most human thing… humor is our human response to those things, and the better we are at humor the better we are at dealing with life.”
Keyani uses more than just filmmaking to highlight his lighthearted, people-focused approach to art. These qualities are also evident in his photography (including a portrait series that features the subjects’ current moods alongside their breakfast choices) and his music, released under the name ClockCatcher. After taking piano lessons for years as a kid (and actually enjoying them), Keyani started to produce his own material in California. His albums Disposable Beatteries and On/Off feature short, psychedelic, electronic instrumentals, inspired by musicians like the experimental hip-hop artist Flying Lotus and film score composer Yann Tiersen. At this point, though, music is taking a backseat while Keyani works on his videography. “It’s definitely on the back burner, simmering gently… but still alive,” he says.
With projects in all these different mediums, it might be hard to see how Keyani stays motivated and inspired enough to make so much art. His explanation is the same as the advice he would give to aspiring creators. “It’s kind of like being in a very powerful marriage where some days it’s very tough, and you’ve got to keep falling in love every day and know that there’s going to be days when you’re completely uninspired and out of love. Just realize that that’s a part of it, and that doesn’t mean it’s not what you’re meant to be doing.” From his childhood musical talent to his uniquely fun style, it’s clear that Shawheen Keyani is meant to be making art.