David Rovics (interview)

David Rovics’ life has been political since the day he picked up a guitar. Listening to his songs one can hear that storming from his guitar and lyrics. His latest album, Ballad of a Wobbly, covers topics such as the recent Grenfell tower fire in London, the Rojava conflict, the FBI’s Palmer Raids of 1919, the attack in Charlottsville, as well as general pleas of love and understanding for the people, creatures and nature all around us. The first and title track of the album focuses on the so called Wobblies, or the International Workers of the World (IWW), a union formed in 1906 and still operating today is some way. From there David takes us on a journey around the world and back and forth in time. I contacted David and asked him a few questions about his career, the educational part of his music and about an upcoming Facebook Live Event that he is hosting in a few days.

 

As a veteran protest singer and songwriter, many people know your work, but for those still in the dark, who is David Rovics?

Well, that’s a very existential question to begin with…!  I grew up in a woodsy suburb of New York City and I was raised by musicians, one of whom is a lifelong union member (the other of whom would have been, given the opportunity).  I haven’t really fallen too far from the tree (not that I would have admitted that when I was younger).

Has your music been political since the day you picked up the guitar?

I guess I have been political since I first picked up a guitar, but whether the music has been has varied.  I’ve gone through phases of playing a lot of bluegrass, Irish traditional music, and other kinds of things.  There are political elements everywhere, but in terms of writing songs about current and historical events, I got into that pretty early, but not right away.

Political music has not been known to go hand in hand with popularity. How do you feel people are accepting your activist music these days? Has it changed since when you were starting out?

I’ve never had any kind of mainstream success, I would say to put it simply.  Whether that’s because the music is political or not is hard to say, because most artists never have mainstream success, whether they’re political or not.  But I have a good base within the left in many countries.  In Europe this has been a brilliantly consistent thing ever since I started touring there almost 20 years ago.  In the US it’s been much less consistent.  I used to mainly tour in the US, but now I mainly tour in Europe, as a result of these changes, out of necessity.

What do you hope to achieve with your music?

Hopefully it functions on many different levels.  My hope is to educate people about current and historical events they’ve never heard about, or to help them think about events they have heard about in different ways.  In addition to the education aspect there’s the very important aspect of community-building — for that, people need to get together physically in physical spaces and do things together, like talk, sing, eat, drink, tell stories, listen to stories.  As a musician I give people an excuse to get together, which is important.  So basically there’s education and there’s inspiration, I suppose, those are the two main elements.

Do you think you will ever run out of subjects to write and sing songs about?

No, as long as the universe continues to constantly be in flux, there will be things to write about — as long as the Earth turns on its axis.  If the universe became completely static, that would be a problem, but it shows no signs of stopping. 

If all of a sudden all people on the planet were simply patient and kind to one and another, as well as to all creatures and the nature, what would you like to write about then?

There would be many beautiful stories within all of that patience and kindness.  That’s also true when kind people save others from being massacred, for example, but then there’s also death involved with such a song.  But it could be a great song with nobody dying in it, too.  In some of my favorite songs, nobody dies…

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Outside the music, do you partake in any activism?

Well, I’m currently organizing a gig for someone else — a Nigerian actor/singer named Tayo Aluko, so I don’t know if that counts…?  But basically no.  I found a long time ago that for me it’s best to specialize.  I sing at a lot of protests and do a lot of fundraisers for activist groups, but my only role within the unions, left parties, squats, etc., is to sing for them.  I know a lot of really good musicians and a lot of really good organizers, and I know very few who do both really well.  Which makes sense to me, because just between writing songs, recording albums, organizing tours, doing the tours, and raising kids, there’s no time left for anything else as far as I can tell.

Do you follow other active protest musicians? Do you have any favorites, current or old

Oh yes.  Favorites include Jim Page (Seattle), Robb Johnson (England), Christy Moore (Ireland), Silvio Rodriguez (Cuba).

You have a Facebook live event coming up on the 4th of August. Can you tell us about that? What else is on the horizon for you?

One of my main projects over the past year has been writing and organizing a section of my website that teaches people about history and current events through music and prose, at www.davidrovics.com/history.  As part of that project, I’m doing monthly internet broadcasts where I talk about this month in history, and any other subjects people want to discuss.  I’ve been moving from one platform to another to do these broadcasts because I can’t decide which to use, and I was banned from Facebook for a long time.  But this time I’ll use Facebook (I know it sucks, but I want to broadcast to people rather than to crickets).  Oh and as for what else is on the horizon, I have tours coming up in various parts of North America and Europe from August through November, and my first vinyl album coming out in December.  I’m going to the studio in a couple hours to record some songs for it…

Lastly, thank you very much for participating and for the music you make. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

I love the image of shouting from rooftops.  It makes me think of the art of Eric Drooker of New York City, which has the world’s best rooftops.  And it makes me think of my friend Brad Will, with whom I smoked joints on many rooftops, whether or not we shouted from them.  So yeah — go to www.drooker.com and look at some of my favorite paintings of my favorite rooftops…

Morgan Hendry (interview)

Mechanical engineering and its effects on music are not a familiar topic to me. I would most likely never have even thought of the connections there between if I had not discovered the work of drummer, field recording artist and engineer Morgan Hendry. Morgan recently released the album ‘Longcove’ which in his own words is “an empathetic call to fight climate change”. The album is composed with sounds Morgan collected through an 8 year period during which time the world climate changed drastically as Morgan told me via email:

“I conceived of Longcove 18 years ago in 2000, while I was still in high school. At that time, it was still very expensive to record remotely, and so the idea sat dormant until I returned to Long Cove in 2010. By then, I was armed with a field recorder and a decade’s worth of experience in writing and performing music. The record was completed in February 2018.

From a climate change perspective, nine out of those 18 years have been the hottest on record since we started tracking our climate. Five of those occurred since 2010 when I began recording the source material for this record.

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Photo from a climatecentral.org article from January 18th, 2018.

For the Earth, this is a change of staggering speed. For human beings, it appears slow, playing out over decades. Our perception of human-scale time (80-100 years) vs. geologic time was one early concept for Longcove, and it’s one of the big reasons why establishing consensus on climate change is so difficult. If something isn’t an immediate problem, we tend to ignore it. The thing is, we are seeing the effects of climate change every day – we just have to recognize them for what they are. From the time Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement to the release of the record, I had to evacuate my family from Hurricane Irma while visiting my mother in Florida and watch my son cough on the acrid smoke that drought-induced wildfires pumped into the skies of Los Angeles. Climate change is very real, and making events like this more and more destructive.

The withdrawal from the Paris Accord shifted the direction of this piece of music from an abstract study of time to a statement on why we need to fight back against this global threat. The other events (Irma, the wildfires) justified my decision to speak out on this through my art.”

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Photo by Robert Hendry

Before delving further into politics I asked Morgan to tell me a bit more about his background in music and, interestingly, in engineering. Since the 4th grade Morgan was introduced to both the drums as well as mechanical engineering and before making activist field recording compositions he toured both the US and internationally with his band.

“I’ve been involved in music since I took up drums and percussion in the fourth grade. I’ve been in a number of projects throughout my music career, most notably the instrumental rock band Beware of Safety, where I played drums and keyboards for over a decade. Our reach far exceeded our humble beginnings, and our music took us all over the US and parts of Europe between 2005 and 2016. During my time with the band, I did a number of smaller projects under my own name and the moniker The Laterite Road.

When Beware of Safety went on hiatus in 2016, I started thinking about what my new musical direction would be. That’s something I’m still working on, but while I’m doing it, I didn’t want to pen myself in with an identity that might not fit my future work. As such, I moved forward performing and releasing music under my own name. It feels honest, transparent, and uncluttered, which is what I think I need at this stage of my musical journey. 

Some recent work includes several live outdoor modular synthesis performances with LA’s Modular on the Spot and my latest release, titled Longcove.”

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Photo by Robert Hendry

“I’ll first say that I receive no compensation or endorsement from my employer for my artistic work, and my opinions are my own. A lot of musicians lament not being able to live off their art, but, honestly, I think you can gain a huge amount of inspiration from non-musical activities. Engineering and music are truly two halves of myself, both of which began in the fourth grade. My grandfather was a drummer in the Navy Band during WWII, student of jazz great Cozy Cole, and my first drum teacher. My father is a mechanical engineer, and his work inspired me to go down a technical path. Both people played heavily into who I became as a person. That said, it took a misguided attempt to “get serious about engineering” and cut music from my life in the sophomore year of college to understand how critical music was to me. 

Engineering affects my art both aesthetically and in how I practice it. Sonically, I’m drawn towards, harsher sounds, polyrhythms, and phasing, which I think comes from my mathematical background and my lifetime exposure to rooms full of machinery operating out of sync. I love to bring these types of influences into my music, either through sampling, composition, or synthesis. I’ve always enjoyed exploring “perfect imperfection” – beautiful sounds out of time, or broken sounds perfectly in time.

Engineering is a way of logically attacking problems, and it has a way of getting into all parts of your life. I was deeply involved in flight projects, spacecraft that had been approved for development and launch, during the time Beware of Safety was actively writing and touring nationally and internationally. The former activity demanded a lot of time, and the latter required me to play drums at my peak. I did a very deep dive into the practice of drumming, and created ways that I could prioritize the maintenance of certain techniques while pushing my drumming vocabulary during the band’s writing process. It was a very focused way to keep music alive in my life during a time that it might have fallen by the wayside.”

Although not all of Morgan’s music has been politically driven from the start, he watched one of his compositions grow more political as the recording location turned to dust in the 2017 wildfires that wrecked parts of California. Now, all that is left besides memories of the cabin where Morgan proposed to his wife and where countless people visited to experience the peaceful nature outside Los Angeles, are Morgan’s recordings from his 2016 album Ojai Drones.

“I worry constantly that Longcove will become something similar – a sonic record of a lost place. Much like photography, I think that field recording can serve as a way to comment on what a place is, was, or will be. I remember one vivid example of this, as told by Douglas Adams. While the story of the recording process is absolutely hilarious, the outcome is tragic: the freshwater dolphins Adams described are now presumed to be functionally extinct, or, at minimum, extremely endangered.”

 

Field recordings and experimental compositions are perhaps not the most commercially viable way of getting one’s message out. Furthermore, it seems that protest music as such is not something all audiences want to hear. What protest music does not have is the numbing factor. Or at least that is what I imagine the reason to be. If music is to obviously political or to ‘radical’ then it seems like the attention fades. Some artists of course manage to grow to such a level that they can at one point make a very popular political song as recently seen in the case of Childish Bambino’s This Is America music video. Morgan is completely aware of these and more barriers he faces with an album such as Longcove.

“The democratization of music technology has enabled anyone to make brilliant art today, but will anyone actually hear it amongst the plethora of music released every day? If heard, will they actually listen to it? Understand it? Act on it? There are huge barriers on all fronts.

Longcove faced an uphill battle from the start. While instrumental music has grown in popularity, it is still nowhere near as recognized as lyrical compositions. Furthermore, someone listening to Longcove without context on its composition or intent would have no idea what it was “about”. That isn’t bad from a pure music standpoint, but from a political one, compositions like Longcove might not be the most effective means to get a specific message across on their own. Finally, when you bill a composition as “political”, you immediately attract those who agree with you and dispel those that don’t. The trick is bringing everyone together in a safe environment to have a productive dialogue. The best art will accomplish that on its own, but I think Longcove fails in that regard.

I know artists and institutions who are merging data with music to get it out to a broader audience. I applaud the effort, but believe that you are, at best, just drawing in the undecideds. Don’t get me wrong – that is both really important and really challenging to do. For Longcove, however, I was more interested in creating something to approach climate change deniers. I am appalled at the anti-fact culture that has taken root in the US, but I also realize that you cannot change the playing field you’re on. As such, I was very clear to keep data out of Longcove (the composition). As an engineer who has worked on Earth Science missions, that was a challenge. My hope is that someone will be drawn in first by the composition and then want to learn more about it. If I did my job right, that curiosity will lead them to the facts about climate change, an understanding of how it plays into their life, and inspire them to take action.

While I avoided data in the composition, the promotional campaign for Longcove didn’t shy away from my stance on the issue. I’m not trying to bait and switch anyone with my approach: my position on climate change is that it is real and that we must act on it. Time will tell if Longcove-like approaches are successful. If not, back to the drawing board.”

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Photo by Skyler King

When I asked Morgan about his activism outside the music he replied that his job as an engineer has always been his way of activism. He has chosen to put his talents towards issues that “better humanity as a whole” rather than going into the defence sector, as so many of his peers. “The aerospace industry is dominated by defense work… I have many friends and colleagues that choose to work on defense projects, and I don’t begrudge them that at all. As long as human nature exists, that work will never disappear entirely. That said, when you choose to engage in creating tools of war, you empower those who look to exploit other people and countries, even if your goal is purely national defense. Technology is neutral, but technology applied is not. As scientists and engineers, we can take that power away, or at least diminish it so that diplomacy reins over force.

This is something that Norbert Wiener talked about in his letter “A Scientist Rebels” (1947), which was extremely inspiring to me as an undergraduate engineer:

“In the past, the comity of scholars has made it a custom to furnish scientific information to any person seriously seeking it. However, we must face these facts: the policy of the government itself during and after the war, say in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has made it clear that to provide scientific information is not a necessarily innocent act, and may entail the gravest consequ­ences. One therefore cannot escape reconsidering the estab­lished custom of the scientist to give information to every person who may enquire of him. The interchange of ideas which is one of the great traditions of science must of course receive certain limitations when the scientist becomes an arbiter of life and death…The experience of the scientists who have worked on the atomic bomb has indicated that in any investigation of this kind the scientist ends by putting unlimited powers in the hands of the people whom he is least inclined to trust with their use…”

-Norbert Wiener

In regards to climate change, I thought that it was enough to work diligently in the background towards a better understanding of our Earth, and to trust that those who dictate policy would do right by our findings. Unfortunately that is no longer enough. Facts and logic are being forcibly suppressed by our government as we talk about climate change. I really struggled to formulate a response to what is happening in the US right now, and Longcove is really my first foray into “active” activism. It’s hard for me to get too deeply involved, however. My institution prides itself on being non-political, and I’m proud of that fact. As scientific observers of the universe, we need to be objective in our quest for truth and understanding. We need to be willing to reevaluate our beliefs based on new facts every day. That objectiveness is used by deniers to suggest that there is no consensus on climate change, which is categorically false: ~97% of scientists believe that it is fact. So, as an individual who has worked very hard to help scientists illuminate truth in the Earth Sciences, I have limits on my ability to stand by while lies and misdirection are used to formulate policy that will affect every person on the planet. 

So what is more important in the long run? Do I keep working in the background to support missions that uncover our place in the universe, our impact on Earth, and increase our ability to survive as a species? Or, should I give up that (very rare) job to advocate directly for an increase in science literacy and for policies that benefit the Earth? I’ll be working that out for the rest of my life, but I’m fortunate to be in a position that is pushing in the right direction regardless of the the specific path I choose.

If one can wander far enough outside the noise of cities and towns then it is possible to hear the wonders that this world holds. It is astonishing. We humans tend to take it for granted though. Journalism has gained a new member of the team in normal citizens who now have a fully equipped journalist tool at hand everywhere they go. The smart phone captures photos, video and sound; one can edit, write and create on the spot and then upload to some of the world’s largest media companies such as Facebook and YouTube. These recordings of the world we live in today are snapshots that years from now will help historians understand the past. Just as the cave paintings of ancients times. Sound has often been forgotten though in safekeeping of places. A photograph speaks louder than a thousand words and even if a sound file can do the same it simply has not been as popular. I imagine it has to do with humans’ attention span. I asked Morgan what the rest of us can do to start protecting the places dear to them, as he has, to save a memory of them for they might all get lost in noise one day.

“I would start by understanding the facts about climate change. Skeptical Science is a great resource for learning and talking about the topic. Next, learn how climate change affects the places that you want to protect. The Weather Channel did a fantastic set of stories called The United States of Climate Change while I was promoting this record. It takes the global issue of climate change and reframes it on a local level for every state in the US. Today, direct connection and relevance is critical for discussing these kinds of complex issues with people. Start small: your family, your friends, your associates, people who trust you. Listen to them above all else and strive for dialogue. Try to understand why they don’t believe what you do, and craft your argument based on that. Don’t just spout facts. When it’s your turn, present your argument calmly. Don’t try to solve it all in one sitting. 

The usual “call your representatives” still applies, but climate change denial is a systemic problem. We have to work from the ground up to build consensus, and then, hopefully, permanent change will come. If our governments fail us in taking action, then we must enact change at the local level.

I thank Morgan for participating and allowing us to spread his message and music. As always I ask if there is anything else he’d like to shout from the rooftops.

“There is a simultaneous and unrelenting attack on the rights of many people around the world. The goal of these attacks is to push us towards chaos, then inaction, then complacency. After weeks like this past one in the US, it’s easy to want to give up. But we can’t. We have to continue to do something. Even if it is as simple as maintaining the lines of communication with people who disagree with your views fights what those in power are currently trying to do.

Halldór, thank you so much for your excellent questions! You are doing a real service by helping artists with a message get their work out to the masses.”

Artists and social activists in India fight a global corporation with music

Kodaikanal is a small city in India that sits 2000 m above sea level in forest hills. In 2001 a Unilever thermometer factory shut down after it became clear they were dumping broken thermometers filled with mercury within Kodaikanal.

After years of struggle between activists and Unilever a young artist by the name of Sofia Ashraf wrote lyrics to a music video that called Unilever out on there lack of actions and furthermore would go on to gather over 4 million views.

Unfortunately, to this day, the factory ground is still contaminated with mercury so activists have gathered to make a new video which states that they still care, they are still there and they still won’t step down until Unilever cleans the the mess they left behind. For this sequel T M Krishna and Amrit Rao joined the production of the highly catchy fusion music video.

The campaign asks you to participate by asking Unilever CEO Paul Polman to commit to a world-class cleanup of Kodaikanal – http://bit.ly/2tEfT51 or give a missed call on +91 7338730702 . In another video Sofia Ashraf explains the case thoroughly and highlights some of the errors Polman has made in defending Unilever’s actions, or rather, inactions.


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