Cue the music: it’s been a while.Don’t be shy, you can sing along if you like.
Every few years, I think about doing this again. What I mean by this is hard to define.
You can read a skeleton outline of the history of this site over at the about page, and I don’t really want to belabour any of that in another post. But as I prepare to give this whole having an active website thing another spin, I can’t help but think about why I have this compulsion at all.
Why do I think about doing this again so often? What is it that I’m reaching for?
I guess you could say that I miss the Old Internet.
That statement has become so overused in the past few years, almost to the point of cliché — in certain circles, it’s already well past that point. And I can see why: the New Internet or the Now Internet is a machine that creates bad feelings and horrific thought patterns from deep within its code, covered brilliantly by the veneer of being a dopamine dispenser. How did we let it get to this point? How did we drift so far off of the path?
I can’t pretend that the Internet was ever a truly utopian project, or a utopian place. I’m far too aware nowThough I’ve long been aware of the military origins of the Internet and the related concerns that are inherent to something like that, I owe a recent debt of gratitude to Surveillance Valley by Yasha Levine, a book that really clarifies the depth of and breadth of the Internet as an all-encompassing project of empire. Highly recommended. of just how much the Internet was always intended to appear as one thing while being something completely different. How can I miss something that was never what I thought it was?
Everything exists within certain bounds of reality, and pretty much every thing hangs in a cradle of contradictions. I’ve become comfortable with that concept over the years, and I’ve learned to revel in some of the tensions that a good contradiction can create. Sometimes the tension of a contradiction is one of the most exciting aspects of a given thing; I think I feel that way about the Internet.
Sure, the entire thing was something that was borne out of government desires for total surveillance and security awareness. Sure, it was a place where anonymity reigned and where you had to be on yr toes. Sure, it was difficult, slow, and at times annoying to use. But, in spite of all of that, it felt like a place that was mine and ours, a blank slate, a huge chunk of marble that could be carved into some new and fantastic shape.
The Old Internet was exciting because it existed largely out of the view of mainstream society. For much of the 90s, most people thought the online world was a fad, and that it was the province of nerds, freaks, and shut-ins... and to be honest, I think most online denizens preferred it that way. While there’s certainly a kind of thrill that comes from getting millions of hits on a website, the presence of that number of eyeballs starts to beget other problems. I’m not someone who bemoans all of this as a Long September,Ernie Smith wrote a great blog about gatekeeping and the Internet that really put this into perspective for me. and I am a proponent of DIY in virtually every aspect of my life. But I think part of the thrill of DIY is having a degree of difficulty. What happened during the 00s is that being online went from being a little too difficult to a little too easy. To properly commercialize the Internet, companies needed to make it like driving a car: something that was relatively easy to learn how to do, even if you had absolutely zero clue about how the machine itself worked. And once you learned how to use it, you still didn’t need to know how it worked... in fact, it was probably better if you didn’t.
I, too, was wooed by these tools that improved the Internet’s ease of use. I drifted away from coding things and understanding how every bit of my own website worked to using WYSIWYG,What You See Is What You Get drag-and-drop editors that made things significantly more convenient. I did this despite my better judgement — in my day-to-day work, whenever I get asked about some new convenient Internet thing, I always remind anyone who will listen: convenience is balanced against security and autonomy, and you decide the balance.
The convenience of the commercial Internet was and remains alluring. For pretty much anything you desire, there’s an app for that. There’s a service you can rent. It’s intoxicating. But in the same way that you can wake up with a mean hangover after a night of overindulgence, I keep waking up with a pounding headache and the nagging sense that I’ve drifted much too far from shore. This thing that used to bring me great joy and a deep sense of satisfaction has become a dopamine machine that no longer dispenses any, and anything I build with a drag-and-drop editor feels vacant and vapid.
I suppose this is my way of saying that this is a reboot. This is a confirmation of a commitment to the old ways, to reconnecting with code and to finding joy in the task because of its holistic and DIY nature. I may not save anytime, but this is one of the only ways I’ve ever saved my soul.
In the aftermath of 9/11, that great cataclysm of Western culture, there was deep trauma; for many (mostly white) people, it was the first time that “the war had been brought home,” in a way. It was a bucket of ice wake-up call: “we” were no longer immune to a very particular kind of threat.
The knee-jerk response to the trauma was frightening: U.S. flags, already ubiquitous, became even more visible; hanging from every front porch, even creeping up into Canada. From the wellspring of this trauma came a rallying cry that would become the official narrative of why this happened. It was coined during a speech by George W. Bush just one week after the attacks:
The terrorists did this because they hate our freedom: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.Watching the infamous they hate our freedom speech now, it’s easy to marvel at just how cold it is. And of course, you have to actively ignore / forget that Osama Bin Laden was actually really clear that the attacks were enacted as retaliation for the U.S. using Afghanistan in a proxy war against Russia in the 80s.
George W. Bush (henceforth referenced as GWB), a born-again Christian Republican, was the president at the time, though he was largely seen as an inept boob — everyone seemed to tacitly acknowledge that Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were the real architects of the administration’s foreign policy. Cheney and Rumsfeld were members of the Project for a New American CenturyPNAC ceased to function in 2006, and its successor, Foreign Policy Initiative, was formed in 2009 and dissolved until 2017. PNAC alumni remain throroughly diffused at various high levels of goverment, intelligence, military, and advisory positions. think tank. In fact, it seemed like Bush’s entire cabinet consisted of former PNAC goons. Considering that PNAC had been advocating for regime change in Iraq since at least 1998, they were well-positioned to be exactly where they were.
With that kind of pedigree, it’s no surprise that the drums of war began to beat almost immediately after the towers fell, with alarming volume and with great urgency. If you remember that time, you remember the rhythm. In the speech quoted above, just one week after 9/11, GWB telegraphed the plan: the public should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success. He underlined his point just a moment later: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.
The most immediate effects of the 9/11 attacks — apart from the loss of life and the toxic cloud of building dust that hung over NYC for weeks — were economic. The stock market, which closed for about a week, lost $1.4 trillion dollars in valuation across the board. It was a financial bloodbath.The closure of the stock market in the immediate aftermath of the attacks seemed to serve as a bit of a "mission accomplished" — if one considers the motive of the attacks to align with the official narrative. However, the high volume of airline stock trading (specifically put options) in the days prior to 9/11 seem to lend credence to an alternative narrative in which the stock market crash was a desired outcome.
From that economic loss, the definition of freedom that the U.S. was fighting for became more expansive. A month to the day after the attacks, GWB articulated it more clearly:
Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t — where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop. That’s their intention. Their intention was not only to kill and maim and destroy.You can still see the full press conference (as well as a transcript) over at C-SPAN.
The American economy was bleeding out, and it seemed like no amount of American flags could act as a tourniquet. The people needed to be encouraged to shop... and they were, loudly and often.There’s a good summation of the must-go-shopping mind war here. It worked. By the end of the year, both personal consumption levels and GDP had returned to normal, and even risenCheck out these gains. above the levels from 2000 year-over-year.
Less than a month after the attacks, the War On Terror began in earnest with a shock and awe campaign of bombing. The invasion and eventual occupation of Afghanistan was christened Operation Enduring Freedom. Dark green and white night-vision video from embedded journalists showed Kabul and various other cities being motherfucking walloped. It was brutal and garish.Though the term shock and awe was coined in the 90s, something about the spectacle really underscored just how brutal Operation Eduring Freedom really was.
Just days after the invasion, the U.S. Senate passed a massive new law called the USA PATRIOT Act… which, believe it or not, was an acronym: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. (Sheesh.) It was passed in the middle of the night, with most of the senators admitting they hadn’t even read it.You can read all 132 pages of it here. GWB signed it into law 45 days after the attacks.
While the “target” of the USA PATRIOT Act was ostensibly terrorists, it was to be applied mainly within the borders of the U.S., and against its own citizens. And applied it was.One of the most insidious aspects of the PATRIOT Act was the issuing of National Security Letters, issued by FBI agents without a judge’s approval, and allowing for the gathering of a variety of specific personal information which would usually need a warrant. Between 2003 and 2006 alone, the FBI issued nearly 200,000 NSLs across the country. It was arguably one of the most repressive eras in U.S. history, as the government used and abused this law to clamp down on anti-globalization protestors, anti-war protestors, animal rights activists, and more — while generally leaving the homegrown threat of white nationalists alone. It also arguably paved the way for mass surveillance policies, like those revealed in the Snowden leaks, with a law that justified all of it in advance.
Concurrent to the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act was what would largely be considered the second-wave of 9/11 terrorism: the anthrax attacksAlso known by the much cooler name, Amerithrax. through the U.S. postal system. Plenty was fishy about it,Of course, despite a wealth of sketchiness to dig into, the media often derided those who questioned the narrative as skeptics and conspicacy theorists. The best analysis of Amerithrax that I’ve found can be accessed by subscribing to Media Roots Radio on Patreon. not the least of which was that the most significant attacks went to the media, notably American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer. Anthrax, while extremely dangerous, can be treated with a heavy antibiotic called Cipro. By the end of October of 2001, GWB was negotiating hardOkay fine, it wasn’t really GWB negotiating, but Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health & Human Services. Still, I enjoy thinking about GWB being the negotiator. with pharma companies to get enough Cipro for every American, at a good price to boot.
The investigationThe DOJ report can be read online, but keep an eye out for the glaring inconsistencies and plot holes. into the anthrax scare was a weird one: the U.S. began to build a case against Bruce Edwards Ivins, a government biodefence researcher who worked with anthrax. It was never brought to trial because just before the Justice Department was set to spring their case on him, he committed suicide. Meanwhile, the government archive of anthrax samples that could have been tested and shown to be linked to the anthrax used in the attacks had been destroyed immediately after the first infection was detected.
Around the same time — October of 2001 — many in the Bush administration were talking about smallpox.Talkin’ About Anthrax would be a great and cheesy name for a podcast series about this. Anyhoo, here’s some support material for this claim. In fact, they had been talking about it months before: in June of 2001, senior administration officials took part in a war games exercise called Dark WinterThese kinds of war game scenarios are played out all the time at various levels of governments, but despite their ubiquity, their existence is one of those things that sets off lizard brain conspiracists. — a fictional scenario involving a purposeful outbreak of smallpox in Oklahoma by an unknown assailant.
Smallpox is a very deadly disease (around 30% mortality) that has been officially eradicated in the wild since 1980,It’s kind of wild to think about any disease being completely eradicated — especially after existing for thousands of years — and not even found in the wild anymore, but that’s the power of an effective vaccine, I guess. — a fact that can be attributed to mass vaccination campaigns in the preceding decades. To this day, there are only two remaining stocksEvery once in a while, there is a debate over whether these remaining stocks should be destroyed or not, but considering their potential to help geopolitical superpowers develop bioweapons, it seems highly unlikely this will ever happen. of smallpox in the world: one in the U.S. and one in the northern wilds of Russia.
The thinking in 2001 was that, because Russian scientists were so poorly paid,Astute readers will notice the echoes between this narrative, and the narrative that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source of the COVID-19 outbreak due to a lack of funding (with motive being unclear). it was possible that one or more of them may have sold a portion of Russia’s smallpox cache to terrorists. Though the smallpox fire had already been burning, 9/11 accelerated everything and likely contributed to the phantom panic. There was no evidence of an imminent threat (unleashing smallpox would be a scorched earth move, likely to kill as much of “their side”), but the speculation alone was enough for GWB and the administration to begin considering a mandatory vaccination plan to get every U.S. citizen inoculated. They went so far as to earmark over a billion dollars with the eventual goal of securing 300 million doses.It’s not clear from the public record whether these doses were ever produced or delivered, and if so, how many were actually administered.
Still, the stakes were high all around. The vaccine for smallpox is one of the roughest out there: in people who had never received the smallpox vaccine (a large part of the population), the severe adverse reaction rate was 10%.That’s a very bad rate. But, considering that smallpox has been eradicated for so long that most of the public has no immnunity to it, estimated mortality could be as high (or higher) than 25%. That’s also very bad. Nevertheless, the U.S. right wing was very much in favour of a vaccine mandate at the time that would make today’s covid vaccine mandates seem like nothing — even though the threat itself was imaginary to non-existent.
It’s probably worth mentioning that the Dark Winter exercise ended in failure,The various failures of the Dark Winter exercise would serve as a prologue for future pandemic war games failures, notably those of Event 201 in 2019. aka complete societal collapse, in a relatively quick timespan. The exercise was characterized by:
...leaders hampered by an inability to address a crisis they hadn’t foreseen; […] management options limited by the swift and unpredictable spread of the disease (and a limited stockpile of vaccines); a health care system that lacked the surge capacity to deal with mass casualties; increased tensions between state and federal authorities; the rapid spread of misinformation on cures and treatments for the outbreak; the difficulty of controlling unpredicted flights of civilians from infected areas; domestic turmoil sparked by political uncertainty (with sporadic rioting-quelled by National Guard units-in large urban areas as grocery stores are shuttered); and an increasing reliance on the willingness (and unwillingness) of individual citizens to self-quarantine to stop the spread of the contagion.
Guantanamo Bay is located at the southern tip of Cuba, on a military base that has been under U.S. control for over 100 years.It’s worth doing a quick dig into story of Gitmo, a place which the Cuban Government has considered illegal since 1959... but what’re ya gonna do, am I right? In January of 2002, it was repurposed as a prison camp for enemy combatants who had been captured as part of the War On Terror and Operation Enduring Freedom. The camp was strategically located off of U.S. soil for the simple reason that, so long as it was there, the legal rights and obligations that the state normally has to those charged with crimes would not apply.And the abuses started almost immediately, and have been well-documented by the ACLU among many others.
Guantanamo inmates often languished for years and years without charges and without trial, facing various methods of torture, repeated interrogations, and other horrific treatment driving some to suicide. The enemy combatants included virtually anyone that the U.S. captured abroad and suspected of being terrorists.This included juveniles as young as 13 at the time of capture. They were captured, put on a plane, shipped off to Cuba, and left there indefinitely until the military could figure out what to do with them.
With Afghanistan firmly under the boot of the U.S.’s plan to export freedom around the world, in 2002 the Bush administration, ever faithful to its PNAC roots, began to shift its focus. Iraq, long on the list for regime change, was in the crosshairs, but unlike the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. had no pretext this time… so they had to make one up. The basic story was that Iraq had been serving as a friendly staging ground for global terrorist groups, and also, was a terrorist state itself. They labeled Saddam Hussein a terrorist, too.Saddam would eventually be found in a spider hole, and then executed by hanging in a poorly lit room him after a rather farcical show-trial that would last about a month and a half.
In October of 2002, the U.S. Congress gave its approval to President Bush to invade Iraq unilaterally. America had been engaged in a pressure campaign against the U.N. to “allow” it to invade Iraq in a pre-emptive strike for its own interests. The U.N., for its part, disagreed, and the Security Council did what it could to veto any attempt the U.S. made through official channels. As this went on, the U.S. gathered together a Coalition of the Willing which mostly included military superpowers such as Macedonia and Lithuania, among a couple heavy hitters like the United Kingdom.The actual Coalition Of The Willing was mostly a joke to anyone who had half a brain. As a side note, the goofy coalition did lead to one of my favourite moments of GWB’s career, the mildly infamous You Forgot Poland quote.
The U.S.’s public relations campaign culminated in a speech at the U.N. by Colin Powell on February 5th, 2003, where he outlined in stunning detail just how dangerous Iraq was. It’s worth watching back today, if only to reflect on its litany of falsehoods: Iraq has nuclear weapons (they did not), Iraq has anthrax and smallpox (they did not — but that didn’t stop Colin Powell from holding up a fake vial in a truly magical piece of political theatre); Iraq materially aided the 9/11 attackers (they did not)… etc.
The U.N. didn’t buy it. People around the world didn’t buy it either: the push by the U.S. resulted in the biggest anti-war protests ever and since. Millions upon millions of people around the world protested to try to stop it. I was part of the protests in Ottawa at the time, and my favourite sign to this day said simply: Tanks For Nothing.
Despite the disapproval of the U.N. and seeming most of the rest of the world, in mid-March of 2003 the U.S. invaded anyway, and called it Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Of course, much like today, the right wing was never one to waste a good opportunity for culture war. While the Coalition Of The Willing was laughable in many ways, the right quickly took the list of countries that weren’t on it, and began focusing on them as enemies of freedom. France, who had been especially vocal against the war and who had vetoed U.S. attempts to get approval for the invasion in the U.N., became a special target.
The result? Freedom Fries.The whole Freedom Fries thing really feels like it presages the total idiocy of the present day, doesn’t it?
France’s opposition to unilateral U.S. military action had been so offensive that restaurants began to rename their french fries to freedom fries. It became a symbolic marker, much like the American flag, of whether you were with us or against us. Oddly enough, this had some precedent: the town of Germania, Iowa renamed sauerkraut to liberty cabbageFor some reason, reading about this over 100 years removed from the actual event makes it seem charming, even kind of sweet. during the First World War, as the residents tried to do their part to stoke patriotism and boost morale.
Anyhoo, it seems like a funny aside, and in hindsight everyone recognizes its ridiculousness. But it’s worth stressing that, at the time, there were right-wing American politicians who were dead serious (or at least straight-faced) about this. They were so serious that, in March of 2003, two Republicans directed the cafeterias on Capitol Hill to change all referencesSeriously, the news stories about this are so hilariously sad. An actual journalist had to file a story about this. to french fries and french toast on menus, and replace them with freedom fries and freedom toast, as restaurants around the country did the same. On Capitol Hill, the politicized names would remain in place until 2006 (!), when they would be quietly changed back.
I wish I could tell you that the U.S.’s War On Terror and various campaigns for freedom had been successful in their supposed aims of eradicating terror and exporting freedom — but that would require assuming that they were ever meant to succeed in those aims in the first place.
I’m in no position to comment on the quality of life in Afghanistan or Iraq — but I can imagine that the power vacuum in Iraq that was eventually filled by ISIS was no fucking picnic. I also imagine that the recent resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan after the U.S. finally left gives the whole thing a sickening, cyclical feel that makes the people there wonder what it was all about.
Meanwhile, Guantanamo Bay remains open, and still contains prisoners — people who have essentially been warehoused there in brutal conditions, some without charge or trial, for the past 20 years.The nearly 40 prisoners that remain at Guantanamo a mix of peopleaccused of crimes both related and unrelated to 9/11. I put accused in quotes here because many of the remaining prisoners have still never been given any formal charges. I would imagine that many of them have given up on any idea of freedom altogether.
Interestingly, the remaining majority of elements of the USA PATRIOT Act finally expired in 2019, and were not pushed to be extended/renewed. Those expirations have likely had no effect on the mass surveillance programs that were exposed in the early 2010s, however, as they existed in an extralegal capacity to begin with. The beat goes on.
History doesn’t always repeat itself. But it does rhyme.
This present moment we’re in isn’t the first time (nor will it be the last) that right-wing elements have employed the idea of freedom as a sledgehammer. In many ways, the use of the discourse of freedom is brilliant, because it’s a lizard brain trigger word that steamrolls nuance. It’s a word like “unique”: just like something can’t be “rather unique,” you can’t be “somewhat free.” You are either free or you are not. It’s a word that encourages — and, in many ways, necessitates — a high-contrast mentality.
But it’s worth underlining that virtually no one believes in an unmitigated idea of freedom. Every application of it has limits and bounds, and it’s worth interrogating what those bounds are, especially when the most traditionally reactionary and regressive voices begin loudly aligning themselves in the direction of demanding FREEDOM in all caps. What freedoms are they trying to gain? What freedoms do they think have been taken away? Freedom for whom? Freedom from what? And who is leading that charge?
Freedom is a very complicated idea. But it’s also a word that activates people like Manchurian Candidates in a basic, lowest common denominator direction, frothing at the mouth while moving headlong towards logical incoherence. Freedom is not a cudgel, and we should beware of any motherfucker who wields the word or idea as a blunt object — history shows us that their agendas often have very little to do with freedom, except the freedom to fight in wars, consume, and die.
Why? is a question that should be posed on a regular basis. Yoni Wolf, coming from Oakland by way of Cincinnati and repping Anticon,Anticon was a record label founded by Wolf and a coterie of friends, including Jel, Doseone, Sole, Alias, and more, in the late 90s. It began as a bombastically avant garde rap label (music for the advancement of hip hop was an early slogan), but slowly devolved into putting out rather bland and boring electronica, with some exceptions (namely Young Fathers). With the death of Alias, the label has officially shuttered, and even their website no longer exists. weaves unforgettable images through inquisitive music that is personal and anonymous all at the same time. On the new Sanddollars EP, Why? blends the homemade hip-hop and bedroom rock of Oaklandazulasylum with a new-found songwriting strength and the result is sublime. I caught up with Yoni Wolf at the Horseshoe Tavern, as he and his band passed through Toronto on a chilly May night.
everyoneisdoomed: When you’re starting a new project, how do the acoustic and electronic elements of your music interact with each other during the songwriting process?
WHY?: When you say acoustic what do you mean?
EID: I mean performed as opposed to programmed.
WHY?: Well, everything I do is performed, even on record. I don’t program anything. Even if it’s sampled stuff, it’s generally played somehow as sounds. I don’t get into the whole computer thing really. I use a computer for tracking a lot, but I dont know programs that allow you to do sequencing and stuff like that.
EID: I was glad I heard your soundcheck, because the songs sound really different from the way they do on record. How does that sort of metamorphosis happen? Is it a necessity of the people you’re playing with?
WHY?: Part of it has to do with the people I’m playing with and how they play, but part of it also has to do with the nature of playing live. When you record, you can have 90 tracks and keep layering stuff. When you’re playing live, you have to pare it down. We have four guys in the band, so we can only do four things at once. Well, with Doug,Doug McDiarmid, multi-instrumentalist who has been with the band since 2004 and remains there to present day. he seems to be able to do three things at once, so I guess we can do seven things at once. [laughs] Sometimes we just change stuff live for the sake of it. Someone will try something different that sounds cool and we’ll just play it like that for a while.
EID: At your soundcheck you played a new song from the Sanddollars EP. Do the new songs also undergo that kind of a change when you’re playing them live?
WHY?: No, the new ones change less so, especially because these other guys were involved in recording more this time around. If there’s a part that MattMatt Meldon, multi-instrumentalist with a more on-again, off-again history with the band. played on the record, he can recreate it live. When I was making stuff by myself, we’d listen to the song and then making a live arrangement was a different discipline.
EID: Are the new guys involved more in the songwriting process now?
WHY?: They are involved somewhat in the songwriting process. Definitely.
EID: I wanted to ask you about your involvment with Anticon, something you’ve been involved with since the beginning. It’s a label that’s comprised of many different styles and artists, but it’s generally known as a hip hop label. There are some elements of hip hop in your music but it’s not always the focus. I’m wondering if you consider your music to be an extension of hip hop in some way, or is it an extension of folk... where exactly does it fit in with that kind of lineage?
WHY?: I don’t know. I think it’s homemade music. That’s what it definitely is. It’s part of this honest thing that’s been going around. [laughs] I don’t really think about genre, especially if I’m in the process of making music. I used to think about it as being an extension of hip hop and I would try to be held back as little as possible by that word. Now I just kind of do it. Maybe I think about it as being more pop songs, but what does that mean, you know? It’s not popular.
EID: Generally, when people say the word pop and they’re not talking about top 40 stuff, they mean that it sounds pleasant: It’s not too noisy and it’s got some nice hooks.
WHY?: Exactly. I try to make stuff that sounds pleasant but still has that homemade quality to it.
EID: ...and why is that homemade quality important to you?
WHY?: That’s just kind of how it’s always been. I think when music starts to sound godlike or too slick, it separates from you and it’s harder for it to touch you, you know?
EID: Yeah, definitely. I wanted to try something different for the last half of the interview. I find your lyrics to be very picturesque, very thick with images. I wanted to mention a few of my favourite lines, and maybe ask some questions that those lines have triggered in my head. The first is ChallengerReferring to the Challenger space shuttle, which exploded on live television on January 28, 1986. commemorative button pinned to the chest of my brown down vest. I was wondering if you could tell me about an historical event where you can remember exactly where you were when it happened.
WHY?: Well when the Challenger blew up, I think I was in the basement of my elementary school in the library sitting in front of a TV that they had brought in. I don’t think that was right when it blew up, but it was the day of, and they had us come down and watch it.
EID: You mean they had you watch it after the fact? Like, it had already blown up and they wanted all the kids to see it?
WHY?: Yeah. Or maybe I’m getting that confused with some other taking off of a space shuttle. Maybe my wires are crossing here. I remember watching the OJ trial in eleventh grade in American history class. Obviously there’s 9/11. I was sleeping in Queens at a hotel and my friend JeffJeffery Jel Logan, MPC wizard, Anticon collective co-founder and one half of the excellent rap duo Themselves. ran into the room and said shit is happening. I thought the world was ending and we turned on the TV and we looked outside and there was smoke everywhere.
EID: Wow. You mention place names a lot. Fairmount, Whitney, etc... And you also mention wanting to make homemade music. How important is place to the music you’re making?
WHY?: It’s very important. I’ve pretty much only been able to do one record and an accompanying EP in each place that I’ve lived at. It’s weird, but it seems like I have to move to a new place before I can actually do something else. I’m not very settled as a person, I don’t think, so that just seems to be the way it works. Not only that, but the recording process totally changes depending on where I am, the setup I have, what I’m recording on, and the people I’m working with. It’s different every time and I think that keeps it fresh. The place also affects what I’m doing each day, like where I go to have coffee or eat breakfast or whatever.
EID:There are very few microwaves in the third world. What are some strange places that you’ve traveled to, either on tour or on your own? What are some of the most interesting places you’ve seen, or what was the biggest culture shock for you?
WHY?: Eastern Europe was pretty strange. We were in Sylvania and Croatia on tour and we were in this town called Murska Sobota, in Sylvania. We played a show, and there were about 40 people there. They were all drunk when we arrived at 5 in the afternoon.
EID: Did they know your music or did they just show up?
WHY?: No, no. No one knew our music. The promoter did, this guy named Ivor. He was the only one that knew the music. We played at this sort of community centre and these kids were all hanging around. There were fourty people in the room when we started playing and within about two minutes there were like five people left. Everybody else was standing outside drinking. It was weird, just really strange. Japan was really weird. Tokyo was very strange in a very different way. It’s all neon and just crazy.
EID: maybe you shouldn’t call him that until he ropes one. That line about a cowboy kid got me wondering about what kind of games you might have played when you were a kid.
WHY?: My brother’sJosiah Wolf, drummer, has been with the band since the beginning. He also released a solo record and EP and did some touring on his own in around 2010. here too, and he plays drums. There were two really weird games that we would play when we were younger. One of them was called suffocation. Basically we would take every comforter we could find in the house, every blanket and every sheet, and we would lay them out on the floor all nice, you know? Then, one person would curl up in a ball in the middle of it and the other person would fold up each blanket and sheet and kind of weave it, and weave the next one and weave the next one, until you had about fifteen covers over you. Then the person on the outside would say go! and would time how long it takes you to get out. If you were really struggling and you felt like you were about to die you could yell out suffocation! and the other person would pull you out of it.
Another game we played was called sleeping bag revenge. We’d usually play it when we had a friend over. One person would leave the room, and the other two people would set up all these traps: a bucket on the door full of legos, all kinds of toys to trip over and other little traps. The person in the other room who was singled out would have to put a sleeping bag over their head upside down like a ghost so that they couldn’t see anything. They would get called into the room and basically just wander around getting caught in all of the traps, tripping over things, having stuff fall on their head.
We also had lego fights. We had these glow in the dark legos and we’d hold them up to the light for like twenty minutes to get them really charged up. We’d pour them out into a pile in the middle of the room, turn out all of the lights, grab handfuls of them and start throwing them at each other and running around. By the end the whole room would look like stars.
EID:if an ape can take an interest in his hairstyle. There’s two places where that line shows up: once on Themselves’ album and once on your own. It made me wonder what aspects of human behaviour you find the strangest. What do people do that is strange to you?
WHY?: Oh man, there’s just so much. [laughs] I don’t think I could pick just one thing. We do tonnes of strange stuff. Most of it has to do with sex. The mating rituals we have are just bizarre. I mean, I try to be conscious of what I do when I’m doing it. Even then I’m sure that 80% of what I do, I don’t know why I’m doing it. Other animals are so uninhibited that they’ll just run up and try to hump each other. And you know, I’ve been there and it just doesn’t work. It never works. I get bucked. [laughs]
EID:something about this is clowns with knives. Do you have any outstanding phobias?
WHY?: I’m getting better. When I was a kid I was rife with phobias and crazy shit, OCD kind of shit. I was scared of crayons...
EID: ...do you remember why you were scared of crayons?
WHY?: I don’t know. I got sent to a psychologist, but I still don’t know what that crayon thing had to do with, quite honestly. It was really serious though. I would freak out. I’m getting a lot better, though. I still don’t really like dirty things. I don’t like to touch something if I know it’s been touched by a lot of people but there’s nothing too outstanding anymore.
EID: One last one for you but it’ not really a lyric. On Oaklandazulasylum there are two parts where you take a big breath like you’re about to say a line, but you don’t say it. When I first heard that sound I thought, why would he leave that in there, that’s a mistake? The more I listened to it, the more I thought it might have been more than even intentional...
WHY?: Well, the one on the song Bad Entropy just implies that I’m holding my breath, or it can imply that I’m about to say something but I don’t know what to say. Sometimes, I leave stuff like that in because it sounds cool, because it’s a happy accident. I might accidentally cut the vocals off and it sounds cool like that and I’ll just leave it. These days, barely anything is a happy accident. I just get too involved and I think about the music too much, and I hope you can’t hear that.
[conucted in Winter 2002, originally published in Winter 2003.]
Hamilton, Ontario’s Warsawpack, one of Canada’s best-loved conscious hip-hop acts, fused funk, punk, old-school and Karl Marx into one big melting pot of music. Now sadly defunct, Warsawpack had a reputation for tremendous live shows with 50% less lecturing, and their act brought a new perspective to any crowd they faced. Let this interview, done in the winter of 2002 with Lee Raback, lyricist and MC, serve as an epitaph...
EID: You celebrated the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th by releasing Gross Domestic Product on G7.G7 Welcoming Committee Records is a now-defunct record label started by a couple of folks from the hardcore band Propagandhi. Do you think 9/11 will eventually become an annual day of resistance? What do you think of that possibility?
WARSAWPACK: Sounds good to me... better a day of resistance than a day of flag-waving anniversary benefits and commemorative New York Fire Department dinner plates. This first year anniversary seemed like it was being used to rattle sabers for the next theatre of war (Iraq – I suppose). But that will all change... I think as the Bush DoctrineThe Bush Doctrine, in the simplest terms was the U.S. foreign policy position that the United States should act pre-emptively to deal with threats to its national security, rather than waiting to be attacked before retaliating. makes itself more apparent people will begin to resist... or I should say I hope they begin to resist.
EID: Do you remember where you were when the towers were attacked?
WARSAWPACK: Yes – I had just arrived to work, and I figured there was some big sporting event on or something... everyone was gathered around the TV. Looked like a tense World Cup match. Then I heard. I couldn’t really believe it. I got sucked into the on-going news broadcast – and just stood around dazed, shaking my head all day like everyone else was.
EID: Speaking of 9/11, the bottom tray of your album holds a flow-chart that maps the post 9/11 U.S. reaction. Are you ever worried about a backlash, or do you have to just stick to your guns and hope listeners get it?
WARSAWPACK: I think we deal with a little of the ol’ backlash from time to time. We’re definitely not for everyone. I see people leave our shows all the time with that disgruntled sneer of the truly offended... that quick snatch of the jacket, an icy stare at the stage and a proud stride out the door. Happens all the time. Nothing too crazy so far though... but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes as we start to get some more exposure...
The biggest backlash I face these days is at family functions – weddings – and holiday dinners and what not. People know how I am – get 5 beer in them and they all want a piece of the commie who refuses to eat turkey ye know? ... I can be such an easy punching bag for conservatives on a beer buzz. I think they feel safe – knowing that I would never truly ‘get into it’ with them in front of grandmothers and aunts and stuff. I must say though - I’m getting pretty good at the PG version of my politics... drunk uncles beware.
EID: I’ve followed much of the canadian political music scene for a while, and I find that one of it’s shortfalls is that it is incestuous in the way that concerts are filled with the so-called “converted”. How do you try to attract people who have not been exposed to certain ideas to your shows?
WARSAWPACK: I think we just have a reputation as a good live band. We put a lot of energy into our live show, and I think people sense that. Even if they can’t agree with the politics they still want to jump around and get down. And I think that can help to bridge the gap.
EID: What can the unconverted expect from warsawpack live?
WARSAWPACK: I think they can count on a wiggly posterior... a little bobbing of the head... and perhaps some alteration of their world-view.
EID: If Warsawpack was a country, it would be_________________
WARSAWPACK: I’d like to say Sweden - they’re like Canada when it was still cool. But really, we’d probably be one of those impoverished colonial remnants – labeled a rogue and waiting to endure freedom, or infinite justice or whatever the Americans are calling their murderous foreign policy at the time.
EID: Who do you cite as musical influences?
WARSAWPACK: Each of us would tell you something different... we span many years in the band – 20 to 32 - so there’s a lot of different influences going around. I myself come from a primarily hip-hop background. I mean, I listened to all kinds of music growing up, but hip-hop affected me in a way that no other music could. It’s such a direct form of communication. It doesn’t disguise or obscure the message... no hiding it in poetic imagery or what have you. It just comes out and says it. I’ve always loved that about it. I would have to say the big ones for me were Chuck D., KRS-ONE, tribe, de la soul, that late eighties/early nineties golden era of hip-hop. When your credibility wasn’t dependant on the budget of your video... the good ol’ days.
EID: Does the whole band share similar views?
WARSAWPACK: For the most part, I would say yeah we do... we’re all pretty left of centre. There are differences of course... but I think its just varying degrees of the same kind of thinking. I’m a paranoid fruitcake,Though there are certaini nuances that have borne themselves out over time, Lee’s ideology has remained remarkably stable from his work in Warsawpack to the present day. and Adam is a well-groomed chemistry student ... but we both see the world on a path to self-destruction. Where I see conspiracies and networks of fat businessmen, Adam sees emissions and chemical reactions and whatever else science people see when they look at things... but in the end we are both breathing the same fouled air, and in agreement that things have got to change if we’re to survive...
EID: Do you often find yourself arguing more over politics than songs (a la rage against the machine)?
WARSAWPACK: No... never really. I think the guys might get a little sick of the interviews... with us being a conscious outfit... all the political questioning, the where do you stand on this, what do you think of that, etc. Things they don’t really care to discuss at length with complete strangers and the general public... but when it comes to actually making the tunes – we’ve never had a disagreement over politics.
EID: What was the last news broadcast you remember seeing?
WARSAWPACK: There’s a TV at my work that sits on CNN headline news all the time. I see the craziest shit on that channel. My recent favourite is this commercial they were running for some big special they were going to air on ‘the situation with Iraq’. I swear it looked like an ad for war itself... like some kind of movie trailer... with grainy clips of dangerous looking Iraqi’s waving AK’s cut with shots of F-16’s screeching through the sky... all timed to marching triumphant drum roll music... with the words SHOWDOWN IRAQI am about 90% sure that Lee is referring to promos for the CNN Special Showdown In Iraq, sometimes shortened to Showdown Iraq. You can see what he means with the old-ass low-res video here. emerging in bold, framed in stars and stripes, at the end. Crazy shit - Josef Goebbels would be proud.
EID: What was the last movie/album you saw/heard that you really enjoyed, and why did you enjoy it?
WARSAWPACK: Mr.Lif’s new album I Phantom. So good – end to end. Lif is an MC out of Boston on the Definitive Jux label. He just continually reminds me of why I love hip-hop.
EID: Do you think it’s important for instrumentation in hip-hop to be live?
WARSAWPACK: I think it adds a fresh new dimension to hip-hop... but I don’t think its important or that it gives a band any more credibility. The producer (the beat constructor) is god in hip-hop, and making beats will always be essential to hip-hop culture. Using live instruments takes things in a different direction – but I don’t think it’s necessarily better.
EID: What kind of an element does having a live band lend to the experience of seeing warsawpack?
WARSAWPACK: I think the live instrumentation we bring makes for a pretty exciting live show. We’re a seven-piece... which really clutters a stage. There’s just so much going on... tons to take in. People dig the rhymes, but the music is the soul of it all. People don’t dance to lyrics. People don’t sway to lyrics. The music holds them captive in a way that lyrics just never could...
EID: Who would win in a no-holds-barred streetfight between Jean Chretien and George Bush?
WARSAWPACK: Bush got a black eye from a pretzel for god’s sake. I’d have to put my money on Chretien.Honestly, I should have had my card pulled for some of these HORRIBLE questions. Yeesh.
EID: If you could be one political leader, past or present, who would it be and why?
WARSAWPACK: That’s tough – I guess I’d say Ghandi – because he defied British Imperialism, AND sewed his own clothing (!) how cool is that (?)
EID: On Gross Domestic Product, you tackle everything from ADD to the automobile industry to weekend mentalities and capitalism in general. are there subjects for you that are sacred or untouchable?
WARSAWPACK: I don’t know if they are ‘sacred’ per se, but there are definitely things that we end up steering away from. I’ve written things about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that we’ve thought might be a bit touchy. Religion – another biggie I’d prefer to stay away from. I think that I may someday get the words right and feel comfortable presenting my opinion on these things but, I haven’t felt comfortable with what I’ve come up with thus far... so I leave it alone. And grandmothers. I would never belittle a gramma. Or wait - is Martha Stewart a gramma? Sorry, I take that back – some grammas have it coming.
EID: How is political consciousness important to hip-hop?
WARSAWPACK: I think political consciousness could save hip-hop. Could steal it back from the suits that have it all locked up for their pocket books. Hip-hop is so young, relatively speaking... and I like to think right now, this phase we are living in, this is the ‘confused pre-teen’ phase... that soon hip-hop will grow up and start acting like a man – instead of a teenie-bopper boy band... ye know?
But I don’t blame hip-hop culture. I think left alone, in its natural state, hip-hop reeks of politics. Can’t help but be politicized, due to race and class issues that are so inherent to the genre. Nope- it took the hard work of hundreds of rich fat white guys to bring hip-hop down to the level its at now... all hopped-up on dance beats and made commodity for the kiddies – I don’t blame hip-hop for that.
EID: How is art in general related to political consciousness?
WARSAWPACK: I think of art as a creative outlet for dissent (... for those of us that are really just gigantic wussies that couldn’t last 2 minutes in a modern day protest scenario... complete with its bats, rubber bullets, and tear gas...). Art can articulate things that people may think, but can’t word themselves, or see as a picture, or sculpture, or whatever. Artists can manifest what people feel. They deal in the human spirit. And if that spirit is threatened, art can lash out, react, or defy, just as a person might. Art is a strong component of social change – has been throughout history. Wherever people struggle – there will be art made that opposes that struggle.
EID: What is your favorite Warsawpack song at the moment and why?
WARSAWPACK: My favourite these days is a song we do called Rogue Nation. It hasn’t gone to recording yet – so you would only know it from the live show. I like it because it addresses a lot of the issues we’re faced with these days – namely one giant rogue nation calling other little impoverished nations ‘rogues’ and waging an unending war on them for unfettered access to their oil resources... I mean for freedom, an unending war for freedom.
Unlike many musicians, Billy Bragg does not necessarily need a product to promote and an album to tour behind. Granted, his latest album, England, Half-English, did come out earlier this year, and the traditional merch table will not be absent from his present tour. Bragg is a musician who is not afraid to sing for his supper, among other things.
I caught up with Billy Bragg at the launch of his 2002 fall tour in Ottawa, Ontario, during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq.This was the second invasion of Iraq in just over a decade, the first being Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Before the interview even began, Billy handed me a disc emblazoned with the words Spread The Word - Stop The War along with the title of his latest song, The Price Of Oil.
Billy Bragg: ...I was asked to supply a track for the Stop The War record in the United Kingdom, and I wrote this song, The Price Of Oil. And then I thought that because of the nature of what the song is about... I don’t think the Stop The War album will probably come out in North America...
EID: Really, not even as an import?
Billy Bragg: ...possibly as an import but that just takes forever, it might not come out till Christmas, probably too late. So I pressed up enough of theseCDRs. to give away about ten a night into the crowd. And hopefully they’ll get it on the Internet or they’ll burn copies for their friends and they’ll spread the word.You can watch Billy Bragg play the song around the time of this interview, at this YouTube clip. It’s like a broadside, and it can’t wait till my next Billy Bragg album; that might not be till next year or the year after.
EID: That situation is progressing so quickly....
Billy Bragg: Yeah, so I’m gonna be giving out the first few copies tonight, and sending people away, you know, to encourage them to put it on the Net, burn a copy for their friends - just get the word out.
EID: You released Life’s A Riot almost two decades ago.
Billy Bragg: Yup.
EID: Do you feel like you’ve changed politically at all in the last twenty years, or do you still hold the same beliefs you did back then?
Billy Bragg: No, I think I have changed politically since Life’s A Riot. I think if you listen to the politics on Life’s A Riot, they’re rather personal, you know Just because you’re better than me/ doesn’t mean I’m lazy. They’re not really very ideological. It took until about... it really took the miners strike in 1984 to make me more into sort of an ideological songwriter, in the sort of traditional, Woody Guthrie sense. So that really didn’t happen till 1984, but since then, really, my answer to your question would be no, I don’t think I’ve changed my politics really that much. What has happened is that the world has changed, and politics have become sort of post-ideological, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t wish back an ideological world. I have to respond to what’s happening. So I find now that I’m writing songs that are trying to address the problems in a non-ideological way.
EID: Do you find there are things that are easier for you to say when you’re in front of a crowd with a guitar strapped on?
Billy Bragg: Yeah, I think you’re much more able to respond to the way people feel in a situation like this. You know, you’re thinking much quicker ahead.
EID: Is your music vehicle for your politics, or is your politics a vehicle for your music?
Billy Bragg: I think really the music is a way of communicating to people and also I can play gigs, I can make records, I can do interviews, I can write articles for newspapers. It’s really just about trying to communicate a different perspective of the world. That’s about the most a singer-songwriter or a journalist can do.
EID: What comes first for you, the music or the words?
Billy Bragg: Oh, it’s different all the time. I mean, I had a song, a tune that I had been knocking around for ages, and it just occurred to me the other day I could use it. I had been building up to writing a song, not about September 11, 2001 but September 11, 2002, which had a strange effect on me - the anniversary. And it just occurred to me to put it with that tune. It’s not completely done, I still gotta tweak it. I think I’m gonna have to play it in America before I can really get the feel of it right.
EID: There are a lot of musicians like yourself who don’t even necessarily consider themselves musicians because their words are so important. Do you consider yourself to be more of a writer than a musician?
Billy Bragg: That’s interesting, isn’t it? That’s an interesting question.This was the first interview with anyone of note that I had ever done, and Billy Bragg in particular was a huge inspiration to me as a young, politicized person, just barely 20. The dopamine rush that I got from Billy Bragg saying my question was interesting is something I’m still reveling in today. Yeah, I suppose, you know if I was a musician I could play anything, but I can’t. To me, a musician is someone who can play the piano or can read music; I can’t do any of that. So I would think I’m more of a poet, I’m more of a words-man. I can carry a tune, but I’m more of a words-man.
EID: You actually own the copyright to your own songs...
Billy Bragg: I do.
EID: ...was that a conscious decision or a matter of necessity?
Billy Bragg: It was conscious, yeah. You sign away your rights for the life of a copyright, which is seventy years after you die. I mean, I wrote these songs to be my pension,The question of owning the rights to your masters has become mainstreamed with efforts by Taylor Swift and others to regain control of their recordings (often unsuccessfully), leading to the phenomenon of Taylor’s Versions. Also, I love that Billy Bragg frames this in terms of an issue related to his pension. not some corporate pension somewhere. So I’m trying hard to keep hold of those rights as best I can.
EID: So you’re touring solo this time. Besides the obvious, between touring with a band and touring solo, what is the difference and which do you prefer?
Billy Bragg: I don’t mind either; I enjoy both of ’em. There’s the intimacy that comes about from playing solo that’s a bit more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, but equally there’s a certain danceability that comes from the audience when I play with a band.
EID: Solo or with a band, what’s your favorite Billy Bragg song to play live?
Billy Bragg: Whichever one I’ve just written, always. Like tonight it’ll be The Wolf Covers It’s Tracks, or maybe The Price Of Oil. Because when you play something you see if it works, you know. Does anyone pay attention? Does anyone get this?
EID: Before you were a musician you were a bank messenger...
Billy Bragg: Yup. A tank driver. A goat herder.
EID: ...what inspired you to pick up a guitar?
Billy Bragg: I don’t know. It was just listening to singer-songwriters, people like Bob Dylan. But really I didn’t want to go and work at the motor company, which was the main employer in our town. I had to think of a way of getting out of that, and I didn’t want a nine-to-five job, and this was the only one I thought I might be able to do, that would allow me to wake up past nine.
EID: David Suzuki recently said, Capitalism is based on the ludicrous idea that human creativity and productivity are the greatest things in the world. What do you think about that?
Billy Bragg: I think he’s slightly wrong, I think they’re based on the idea that gain and profit are the greatest things rather than creativity.
EID: I think what he was getting at was that they believe no matter how deeply shitty things get, they can always invent something to pull themselves out of it.
Billy Bragg: Then he’s speaking of wealth creation and not artistic creation.
EID: So you don’t think that applies? Then what role do artists play in terms of our survival?
Billy Bragg: Well, the main thing artists do is entertain. And some artists try to make people think. And some artists try to provoke people. And so it depends where you want to be. I mean, the majority of artists just entertain. But entertainment without meaning is just television. It has to have some sort of context.
EID: Do you think that you’ll ever stop creating?
Billy Bragg: Well, here’s an interesting story. When I was twenty-one or twenty-two, the punk band I was in, Riff Raff, broke up. Everything that I believed was going to happen with punk rock didn’t happen. I was unemployed; I went back to my mum’s house. I turned on the television and thought, This is just outrageous, I can’t do this. I was so distraught that I joined the British Army. I pressed the eject button, and I just fucking walked away from everything.
EID: And you did the most un-punk thing you could do.
Billy Bragg: It was actually very punk if you think about it.
EID: The most unpredictable thing you could do.
Billy Bragg: So I did that. And having made that emotional break and walked away from everything, I found that when I got there I started writing songs again. It was then that I realized that this wasn’t gonna go away. I’ve always had this urge, so I really should try a bit harder and not just give up ‘cause my first band broke up. So I bought my way out of the army, got myself a job at a record shop, and after a year, I started doing gigs and writing songs. The rest has just been a blur until we just came in here.Here was a small green room at Barrymore’s, a now defunct venue in Ottawa. Upon entering the small room, Billy had offered me a beer from a cooler full of cold ones, and told his tour manager that I had him for the next 15mins and not to let anyone interrupt. Whether this was sincere or something he just says, it remains one of the coolest moments in my interviewing history.
EID: Regardless of the style you play, you’ve been widely embraced by the punk community. But you also have a lot of hippie ideals. Peace and love. Do you consider yourself a punk or a hippie?
Billy Bragg: Honestly, I was never at all attracted to the hippies, and I felt very much part of punk in England in 1977. That’s what’s inspired my whole worldview, really. But I’m not just in favor of peace and love. I’m trying to agitate for peace and love. I think there’s a slight difference there. I understand that in a post-ideological world, you have to look at bigger words than just socialism, you have to use words like compassion. And that may sound a bit hippy-ish, but that’s where we are historically. There’s no point in me still going around with some Marxist gobbledygook that no one really relates to anymore. I never really related to it either.
EID: This could be biased because you’re from the United Kingdom, but The Ramones or The Sex Pistols?
Billy Bragg: The Ramones, you have to understand are like... The Vines, or more than The Vines - The Hives. You know the way The Hives dress up, and play retro music and pretend that they’re what they’re not? They’re actually a bunch of guys from Sweden, pretending to be a weird sort of mid-Sixties garage band. Well, that’s how The Ramones began. Now the fact that they had the huge effect they had is neither hither nor thither. The fact is that the logical descendants of The Ramones are The Hives and the logical descendants of The Sex Pistols are Nirvana. There’s a huge difference there. And the reason the New York punks were so different than the United Kingdom punks is because they never really had the establishment pushing against them. We had dreadful politics: the Racist National Front, the stagnation of our own culture. Bands I greatly admire like The Ramones, Television, Blondie - they never wrote a song that said No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones. We were nihilists, like everything in the bin and let’s start over. Bands like Black Flag got it from us. They weren’t inspired by Patti Smith.
EID: You started Ethical Threads this year. I saw a shirt that you’re selling, also the name of a song, NPWA (No Power Without Accountability). In the music industry there’s very little connection between artists and their merchandise and goods. How accountable should artists have to be for the records they manufacture and the t-shirts they sell?
Billy Bragg: I think they should be. You should be accountable for anything that’s got your name on it. It’s been very tough for us. The people that really set up Ethical Threads are union activists, who’ve been bugging me for ages to get my t-shirts in order. And I said, Well, you’ve got your contacts, you find me a place, find me a source and we’ll use ‘em. That’s how it came together, and it was tough even for me. But I think even bands that don’t walk it but they talk it, if you can make them understand that their t-shirts are being made off of child labour and show them here’s where you can get good shirts, I think the majority of bands will make that effort.
EID: People always say, ‘I don’t know what to stand for, but I know what to stand against.’ Do you define who you are by what you stand for or against?
Billy Bragg: I try to define myself by what I stand for. And I try my best to articulate what I stand for, and I try to find words that do it. In this present time though, it’s difficult to find a language. I’ll be trying to do it tonight. I’ll be thinking, I’m in Canada, what makes sense to these people? to try and explain how I feel and where I’m at. We’re all waiting for a big ideology to emerge from this anti-globalization movement. And interesting things are happening, not just when the big demos get together but in places like Argentina, where they did everything the IMF asked them and just got absolutely fucked by it. There is a Marxist alternative, but in some ways that’s like going back. I’m not interested in going back; I’d like to move forward, to a kind of post-capitalist thing. Trying to head towards that in song and in word.
EID: One thing you’ve consistently stood for is labour unions. Is there any place for that in the music industry?
Billy Bragg: One thing musicians should definitely do is get roadies to organize in a provident union, so that roadies have pensions and roadies have health coverage. Roadies have none of this shit. And where are you gonna end up without them? They’re gonna end up with nothing. Imagine if roadies set up a provident union and accepted money from bands as part of a pension scheme and every big festival paid 0.1 percent of their take to the union. And to get a stamp of approval from the roadies union, we all took turns doing benefits for them, and every year we bumped them up a little amount. That would be a really sensible thing to do, ‘cause those guys are totally non-organized and they really should be. Bands can more or less fend for themselves, but these guys are often our dear friends, and they deserve pensions and health care.This remains an idea that would really change the industry significantly.
EID: Can you even call it socialism anymore? Where do you see the idea of socialism ten or twenty years from now?
Billy Bragg: I think socialism needs a new definition. We have to start looking at capitalism not as actually the economy itself but a way of organizing the economy. Capitalism is a way of organizing the economy to benefit the few. Socialism is a way of organizing the economy to benefit the majority. But, but! The Marxists always said destroy capitalism and everything’s gonna be fine. But they never explain to you where, if you destroy capitalism, where are you gonna buy your Radio Shack dictaphone?I was holding a Radio Shack dictaphone. So unless socialism can provide a better dictaphone, then why should people be in favor of it? I think we need to find a way to articulate a post-capitalist socialism, rather than a non-capitalist socialism.
EID:If you don’t tell me what not to say, I won’t tell you what not to do. Two questions from that quote. Do you ever feel like you’re preaching to the converted and, if so, how do you try to bring people into this world?
Billy Bragg: Well, you know, you’re not preaching to the converted so much as you’re focusing the feelings of people who relate to how you feel. Often they might feel like they’re the only person in the world who is passionate about these issues. They come together with a big group of people at a concert or demo and it really empowers them. I was talking to so many young people who went on the Stop The War march in the United Kingdom. It was the first big demo they’ve been on; there haven’t been demos like that since the late Eighties. The sense of power and the buzz was incredible. You can’t say that the anti-war demo is just the converted with the converted. My role in that is to try to bring people together and put new ideas onto the table and challenge. But the biggest thing I can do is focus their energy and help them to feel empowered. Also, I can try to bring news from across the ocean. Because often I feel like I’m bringing news from America into this worn citadel. Because it’s like they can’t hear us, but equally we can’t hear the American anti-globalization movement either. I mean, where is the anti-war voice in the American media? We musn’t dismiss the Americans. We can’t let our anti-Bushism become anti-Americanism. That’s very dangerous.
EID: Is there anything you wouldn’t or couldn’t sing about for whatever reason? Do you feel comfortable pushing against any kind of political issue?
Billy Bragg: Well, here’s a weird thing: I was in Berlin about a month ago, and I went to the Museum of German-Jewish History. It’s an incredible building. Everything’s in English and German. It’s an incredible story for the Germans to have to deal with the history of what happened to the Jews in Germany. It starts at Roman times and it sort of works its way, and you walk around, and it’s chronological. It deals with the holocaust in an incredibly intense way, on a number of different levels. But that’s only part of the story. Obviously, it’s the most important part, but it’s only one part. And it consciously draws your attention all the time to the missing, that the Jews in Germany are basically missing. They’ve either been exterminated or have gone into exile. And there were six-hundred-thousand in Germany at the beginning of the war; two-hundred-thousand were murdered, two-hundred-thousand escaped, and two-hundred-thousand managed to survive by being married to non-Jews. Who’s the most famous German-Jew ever really, at least in the top three off the top of your head? Number one, Karl Marx. Karl Marx. He’s not in the museum, not there at all, not even mentioned in this museum. Now that is a weird thing to me. The holocaust is all about remembering. The importance of memory, the importance of fact. And they haven’t forgotten, they’ve just completely ignored Marx.
EID: What was the reasoning behind leaving him out?
Billy Bragg: I don’t know. I spoke to someone there and he didn’t know why. But for me, it put a whole big question mark over what the museum was all about. Now that would be a fucking bastard thing to write about in a song. It’s not a criticism of the museum itself, because I would encourage anyone to go there. But it is a bit weird.