All posts by Halldór H Bjarnason

Journalist. Traveler. Activist. Audio engineer. Music maker.

A protest music interview: Pleasure Venom

It might sound tricky to be a band in one of the most musically active cities in the US but socially conscious dance-y punk group Pleasure Venom seem to be enjoying the ride.

I caught up with singer Audrey Campbell and asked her a few questions about the band, the music and how 360°music videos are the future.

First off, for those not already familiar with your music, who are Pleasure Venom?  

I like to call Pleasure Venom a 5 piece  experimental punk project based in Austin, TX. I’m Audrey Campbell, I sing and write the lyrics. Current lineup has Fern Rojas on bass. Thomas Valles on Drums. Brendan Morris and Scott Riegel both on guitar. A collaboration, collective and solo project focused on myself collaborating with other musicians. It’s all about the collaboration and we play with a revolving door even though I wish every lineup will last forever. PV is like a train that just keeps on jugging. The collaboration with this lineup is just so great. I get really excited to play and write with them for sure.

How is it to be a working band in as a vibrant of a music community as Austin, Texas, (sometimes referred to as the Live Music Capital of The World)?   

Everyone you meet is basically in a band or has played music before so that’s probably different than most cities. There’s so many great bands making very interesting music that it really pushes and inspires us to work as hard as they do or harder. It can be competitive but we stand out and not just because “oh we have a black front woman” but because I can’t think of a band in town that sounds like us.

Sometimes it feels we are too loud for the garage rock scene then too dance-y for the heavier noise punk rock hardcore scene so I’ve felt a bit isolated in the past. It just became really important to stick to my vision of the band because I felt some woman or little black girl, I don’t know, somewhere would be into it. Now I’m here talking with you, a music blog in Iceland. Like this is really wild for me and the band. 

How do you feel musicians and artists are using their voices responsibly today?   

I think it’s really important to be honest. So if politics is generally not an interest of yours it’ll feel contrived if you force it trying to be a “woke” person. Just be honest. I really try not to overthink when I write. I have my notebooks on notebooks of poems and lyrics but I also try to just be avail to what kind of a day I’m having, or news, events etc.

The music industry doesn’t seem to want to address much. All the popular artist particularly in popular music feel like they are just rich kids that are disconnected. I question why half of them got a deal because it seems so bad. The who you know thing just irks me because that’s probably the only excuse for it not talent. If you’re rich and talented dope but it doesn’t feel that way per the radio.

I basically just don’t listen to alot of it. There’s really good pop and hip hop and rock music, etc you just have to hunt for it unfortunately. None of its dead. But yes, I wish there were more artist that are more vocal because I do feel it’s a responsibility. We are late for another Beyonce “Formation” global moment I think. For me it’s like word vomit, like I can’t help myself but that just me. I can only speak for myself. 

Has your music been political since day one?

Definitely not. I just write about my experience. That’s all I can do. It’s been interesting venturing into music videos because I don’t think anyone thought we were doing anything political until there were visuals. Music videos like “Seize” or “Deth” are undeniably our takes on black or poc, queer lives and how there’s definitely room for progress.

It’s unfortunate we have the alt right and white supremacists in the US up to the white house that feel the killing of black life, queer life, female reproductive rights etc is a non issue. It’s really important for me to say it is thru the music. Or someway thru my filmmaking address the things I find hard to say or problematic. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be as direct as even saying it like you as a person living your life the way you do as you see fit can be a form of protest. That’s incredibly inspiring to me. 

How do you feel people are receiving your more political music these days?   

So far it’s fine. No death threats yet! I don’t scare easily though. Overall I think because the songs are dancey, hopefully there’s a more even if it’s a tough issue we are addressing, hopefully there’s a “let’s dance about it” vibe. Or so I hope. Our shows have been these mosh-y lovefest lately where folks aren’t afraid to dance which is great. It’s pretty cathartic especially when the news on TV or the internet can be so bleak and divisive. It’s the reason I need to do this. To exercise these feelings so when I look out into a crowd doing the same, it’s great! 

What do you hope to achieve with your music?  

To keep experimenting. To be honest even if it scares me. That’s really important to me. Folks, myself included, can smell bullshit a mile away. 

Photo by Allie Mouret

Do you follow other conscious bands or musicians active today? Any protest musicians out there you want to shout out to?  

Blxptn is an ATX based band and are really great and very vocal about issues I care about or feel like aren’t spoken about enough. Overall I just listen to music I like not like oh this is politically conscious so I like it or vice versa. I honestly am into a lot of classical but from punk to hip hop it’s literally about the way it moves me. 

The music video for These Days, off of the last EP, is brilliant. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Thank you!! Well I directed this one (as well as “Seize” and current single Deth””) and got the opportunity to shoot in 360 as well. When I wrote the song I was coming out of some really dark shit but I was also falling in love and I think I kinda wanted to translate that into visuals. I really like how multilayered the song is so I wanted to kind of play that up. The traditional cut I really wanted to focus on the visuals. We towed a car to the outskirts of Leander which is quite a bit out of Austin. It was May last year and so hot even at night and I’m dancing on this car and trying to look calm in the heaviest fur coat and the band in suits. It was an experience for sure. Plus having to hop off the car to direct. It was grueling and we shot into my birthday til 4 am.

For the 360 shoot, I really wanted to focus on the band and loved the idea of being able to watch whichever member you like the most, however long you wanted to. You can look up at the sky or look at the ground that’s covered with a bed of roses. It’s up to you. 360 is definitely the future of music videos. It’s incredibly immersive as experiencing music should be. It’s the natural next step as far music and film.  

You’re new EP dropped on the 24th of November 2018. Can you tell us a bit about the creative process this time around? What has changed since the last EP? 

The revolving door. We have new members on this EP. It’s the first time writing and going in the studio with Scott Medmier, Fern Rojas and Brendan Morris. They are all so talented. Fern has a background in classical music and can play the cello so that’s featured on this EP.  Scott plays some piano. There was a time when that kind of stuff scared me but I’ve been leaning into like if it makes me nervous it’s probably right or at least interesting or new.

We are just way more open now I think. I’m not as afraid to take more chances. Thomas Valles, drummer, is the only other original member and it’s been like 4 or 5 years playing with him and I’m just blown away by how good he’s  gotten over the years from when we first played together. So overall being the OGs of the band, we feel tighter and more practiced than ever and the new members are so inspiring, great songwriters too that I really want to bring them quality interesting lyrics and vocals to match the music they bring.

A song like “Untitled” I’m really pushing my vocals and I had to learn how to sing that chorus line: “Lying to your face” that way. So it’s learning and just a true collaboration. We are writing more this month so hopefully a new EP isn’t too far away because it’s just so fun to write with this lineup. I love you dudes!!!   

What are some of the issues you confront on the new album?

Can only speak for myself.  Probably the most devastating thing I kind of came out and survived a hell of a year that I wasn’t sure how things were going to end up or if I was going to be ok. It’s a quasi celebration or middle finger in the air to all the bs that may have tried to get me or us down. I just really wanted this record to sound like it was going to explode if that makes sense. I think we all wanted it to.

It’s easily the biggest and loudest we’ve ever sounded. My “give a shit” meter is at its lowest ever I think. I jus wanted to own what I’ve learned the years of playing live and recording so this is where we are at now. I’m ok…I think.  

What about activities outside the music? Do you partake in any activism in your free time?  

Music takes up pretty much all my time outside of the day job. But for that reason, I try to stay active by doing benefits or turning shows into benefits. We did one recently and it was really great. At the moment I try to focus locally and make sure whatever benefit or non profit I work with proceeds are going directly to folks that need it. Not like being sat on or a percentage of bs. That’s like really important to me.

I’m also in a Stereolab cover band called The Groop that’s awesome and challenging in its own right because it couldn’t be more polar opposite of what I do in Pleasure Venom. From pushing my vocals literally against the wall to trying to sing soft and low and channel my best french girl. It’s honestly so much fun to be honest. But it’s a really left brain/ right brain thing being in both of these projects.

We all have other projects as well. Our bassist Fern is in a band called Sheverb. Thomas Valles also plays in Caleb De Casper.  Scott Riegal has a new band called Friday Boys and Brendan new project is Boom Gang. So we all are pretty busy music wise between Pleasure Venom and our various projects.

What else is on the horizon for the band?   

Tour, tour, tour and I can’t wait. There’s some fun announcements happening that I’m not even allowed to talk about but want to very badly so I’m jus going to skip to next question. We also want to write a new EP soon as well. I’ll be directing another music video in March. So more singles from new EP to come soon.   

Thank you very much for participating and for the music! Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?  

Hmm at the moment we are looking for a label or vinyl pressing company that may be interested in helping us reissue the latest Pleasure Venom EP to vinyl. The album art by Dawn Okoro alone just screams this should be made into vinyl.

Can’t wait to get on the road and if you’d like to follow, subscribe we are Pleasure Venom on all platforms(YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc) Merch and album sales help us to tour at pleasurevenom.bandcamp.com   

Thanks so much for chatting with me Shouts! -Audrey Campbell  

Cover photo by Allie Mouret.


A Protest Music Interview: Laetitia A’zou

The impact of Joan Baez has long been known to reach far and deep. Her shining voice and lyrics of protest, whether those being her own or one of her perfect covers, have resonated with several generations by now.

One musician from Paris, France, felt that impact in an empowering manner. Laetitia A’zou used this power to create her own songs of protest. Two albums into her career and she is now slowly working on her third effort. She explained to me via email how this newest piece of work will out scale her previous efforts, production wise. As a side note she also explained how there is an often overlooked amount of protest in Disney songs.

First of all, for those not familiar with your work, who is Laetitia A’zou?

I’m a folk/opera/swing singer (Laetitia A’Zou, The Andrews Sisters Revival). I am inspired by all the great pop-folk artists from the 60’s to the 80’s. I perform American Music on stage, aiming to share feelings, emotions and music. 

When and how did you get into making music?

I started music at a very young age, entering the Conservatoire at 6, where I studied violin, music theory, choir singing and orchestra. What triggered it was my parent’s listening to a lot of classical music, and I fell in love with one of Mozart pieces, hearing the violin. It was the beginning of a great adventure. 

Folk music has always been there, my father listening to a lot of french ballads and american folk music (Joan Baez most of all). I started my folk career in 2010, playing covers during open mic’s, while starting composition and song writing. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger… were my main source of inspiration. 

Has your music always been political or protest driven?

Yes and no. My folk music is what I like to call mainly protest songs, my aim being to heighten awareness to subjects like poverty, social injustice, war, overworking… This being said, there is another side to my music : I also write ballads

I read that when you heard Joan Baez the wheels started turning for you. Can you tell me a bit more about the influence Baez had on you and your music making?

What I love about Joan Baez is how powerful her voice is, without needing much more instruments than her guitar. Her compositions are both simple when it comes to the melody of the voice, and incredible picking. All the songs she covered are perfectly chosen and very delicate. I love how she both sings ballads and protest songs, without going up to political driven. This is, for me, the perfect balance.

You’ve released two albums so far, your sophomore album being ‘Protest Songs’ (2015). Your second album sounds considerably more subtle, almost like a live version with a very close, personal sound to it. What was the main difference for you in creating these two albums? And do you have a new album in the making?

The first album, The Girl on the Bench, consists mainly in ballads, with only 4 protest songs. More than anything, I worked on the melodies, the lyrics, also writing about History, which is also a passion of mine. To do that, I invested a lot in production, hiring professional singers, percussions, violin and guitar players. In Protest Songs, however, I have decided to focus more on writing less poetic and more protest driven lyrics. Inspired by the work of Pete Seeger (called the pioneer of folk) who wrote very catchy and simple protest music. I thus decided to record mainly guitar/voice, but added a small choir (10 teens) to give it, indeed, a sound of live performance. At the time, music was often played during diners (people REALLY listened) and people used to sing in a good-natured atmosphere.

There is indeed a real difference between the two albums. I do have a new album in the making. I am taking my time for this one, which I also want a bit different from the first 2. I want to make it bigger, more orchestral, and twice as impactful as the other albums. Two songs have already been recorded.

How is the Paris protest music scene in your opinion? Are there many artists using their voice responsibly?

Unfortunately I am an old soul. I live by the music from the 50’s to the 80’s/90’s and am not quite aware of today’s protest scene. We used to have incredible protest singers, with George Brassens, Yves Montand, Maxime le Forestier, Léo Ferré… Today, the one great singer I can think of is Melissmel. She has an incredible power when she sings, and is political driven, with one of her most powerful song: “Aux Armes“. 

Photo by Taline Maras

What do you hope to achieve when you play your songs for people? How do you feel people are receiving songs of protest these days?

What I hope for is to people to listen and to think. We are all triggered by different subjects, especially today when everything is getting harder in almost every way. My protest songs are hard and really sad. The ones that usually get people stop and listen are The Village and the Prisoner’s song. Both are about destruction : war and death penalty. When people listen to something that triggers their interest, they start thinking and get more aware. And then they listen more when the subject comes around. I do not believe in politicians listening to us, but I do believe in the power of people coming together against injustice. 

Are you following other active, socially conscious musicians? What contemporary music inspires you?

Melissmel, whom I was referring to, is an artist I regularly listen to, and of course still Joan Baez. Paul McCartney has some very interesting protest songs worth listening. Other than that, I am today focusing on my opera career and listening to a lot of opera music. I am also very interested in the evolution of the themes of the songs in Disney music, a lot of them being about the status of women, loss, colonisation, songs too often overlooked because they are Disney songs. 

Do you partake in any activism outside the music?

It depends on what you call activism. I am completely into the respect of nature and ecology. I try as much as possible to help homeless people, whether it is by giving them a meal, or just talk. The french people has recently signed a petition (now 2 073 767 signatures) to sue the government and make it hold its promises for the climate. Other than that, I am not actively involved

If you could form a band with 4 people, living or dead, who would you choose?

I would go for those I consider as geniuses : Paul McCartney, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and John Moukarzel

What’s on the horizon for you?

To keep working on the album, on my opera singing and on my thesis in Egyptology. Keep it simple but powerful.

You can check follow Laetitia on Facebook and the previously mentioned Bandcamp page for the full sonic experience. Cover photo by Taline Maras


A Protest Music Interview: Lee Reed

Cover photo by Tony Hoang

“This microphone kills fascists”. That’s how Lee Reed blasts off on his song This Microphone from his 2015 album The Butcher, The Banker, The Bitumen Tanker. It’s been three years since the Hamilton, Ontario native, hip hop veteran released a full length and the resistance has been waiting.

For 23 years Lee Reed has been making militant boom bap radically raising his fist on tape and video and shouting messages of anti-capitalism, anti-police and equality. After touring with Sage Francis of Strange Famous Records he signed with the label for his newest release called Before & Aftermath.

Still militant, still relevant, Lee rips the society apart exploring its faults and looks for ways to puzzle it back together again.

“military grade shit/cops play war with certain populations/state sponsored it, racism faceted/blood and honour and ku klux closeted” Lee raps on ACAB which, unfortunately, is bound to never hit mainstream radio stations.

I contacted Lee via email and asked him about his new album, what set it apart from some of his more independent productions, his activism and organising and his dream roster of politician bandmates for a fiery bus crashing super group.

First of all, for those not familiar with your work, who is Lee Reed?

I’m an MC from Hamilton Ontario Canada, that makes far-left radical HipHop. I’m an outspoken supporter of organizers and organizations fighting for social and environmental justice. And I’m 23 years in the HipHop game in 2019. 

How did you get into making music?

I started messing around with music and song writing in my teens. I played guitar and I did rock and blues type jams with pals.  We would do covers and write some original material.  Nothing serious though really. 

And then, I started writing rhymes and rap in my 20’s. Inspired by other cats around me doing it.  I’d always listened to and loved HipHop but, didn’t really try writing and performing it myself until I was a bit older.  

Has your music always been political?

Yeah. Even when I was I was just getting started, I was always trying to ‘say something’ with music.  I was young and didn’t have the greatest grasp on politics and articulating big ideas but, there was a serious anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist streak in my writing and thinking, right from the jump. Music with an expressly revolutionary message or that celebrated working class struggles and power. had always inspired and drawn me in. Public Enemy, BDP, KRS, later on into Rage Against the Machine, The Coup, Dead Prez. Or punk bands like the Dead Kennedy’s, Minor Threat, And was always was drawn to the underlying politics of HipHop and Punk in that era. Even bands that weren’t expressly radical, had decent politics woven through their songwriting. Or would have some ‘message based’ songs on their records. That really inspired me, and definitely shaped me as a songwriter.

You just released a new album, Before and Aftermath (Strange Famous 2018), but you’ve been making music for quite a while. Did you experience something new during the creative and production process of the new album?

Well, truthfully, this was the first time since my old band Warsawpack (1999-2004, G7 Welcome Committee Records) where I knew, going in, that a label would be carrying the work. I had been talking with Sage Francis about releasing it on Strange Famous Digital (SFDigi), and I knew if I crafted a great record that they would run with it. So, that kinda forced me to take the project a lot more seriously.  To get a lot more perfectionist about it. I spent way more time scrutinizing the process. I cut more songs, changed more songs, and did a lot more fussing about this record than anything I’ve ever worked on. 

Do you consider yourself a musician only or an activist or both? Do you find it hard to draw the line between the two or should there not be any line there in the first place?

Well, there’s a couple of layers to that.  First, if you mean is my music itself, on its own, a form of activism? I would say maybe, but in a very sideways and hard to quantify way. The song itself can act in the way a pamphlet or zine might, spreading radical info and awareness about something. There is that. But, I think, for me, the true crossover of music into real activism/organizing comes when artists give and use their music for the material benefit of a struggle.  Use their performances and recordings to bolster the work of frontline resistance and sites of struggle. Like, running fundraisers for organizations. Selling recordings where the proceeds go to radical organizations and campaigns.  Donating music or songwriting for a campaign site or video.  Using music as a spectacle for blockades and occupations. Using music and concerts to help refuel and invigorate organizers in the trenches. That sort of thing. I think when you can use your music to support struggle, in meaningful and material ways – you are properly using your art AS activism. And I’ve always worked hard to do that. 

Photo by Robbie J. – still from ‘This Microphone’ video

When it comes to your lyrics, do you ever find it hard to balance between the right, smooth flow and the precise political point you want to get across?

Definitely. And that’s something I fuss over continuously. The message is important but, you gotta sound smooth saying it. Or folk aren’t going to listen. 

What is wrong with this world and how can artists be a part of the change?

I think the problem is capitalism, and the way life is organized to put the needs of business over human beings. I think art can definitely help people see through that, and help articulate/envision something better. I think that approach is different for every artist.  And there are an infinite number of ways that art can make meaningful change. I guess I would just say, artists need to think about their relationship to the world and how their art affects and interacts with it. Is their art just a commodity, or is there a deeper significance to it, culturally, politically or socially? What does their art ultimately stand for?  Realize all art has a ‘politics’. Often that politics is ignorance, it’s a celebration of opulence or drugged up abandon or hate or something.  It might not have an overt ‘message’ like we think of with protest music. But it still stands for something. It still has a message.. it’s just getting whispered.  

Do you partake in activism outside the music?

Yes, as much as I can. Most years that’s just playing a supporting role for campaigns, organizers and organizations that I know. Attending rallies and actions. Helping run or promote events. Playing shows or events. Turning up and being present mostly. But some years I get deeper into the organizing work. This past year has been the busiest ever for me, in that regard. I belong to a tenant solidarity organization, here in Hamilton, and we have spent most of this past year working with a tenant committee in the city’s east end, supporting a rent strike. Its been over 8 months of regular meetings, door knocking, hearings, actions, events, fundraising, etc. Was often 4-5 nights of my week spent on it, at its peak. It’s definitely the most involved I’ve ever been in that ‘real work’.  It’s been one of the best experiences of my life. And I’m constantly inspired by my comrades in the struggle.   

How is the protest music scene where you are from? Are people using their voices and talents in protest?

Well, if you look at Canada as a whole.. and across genres.. there is lots of great protest/radical music, or artists that are pushing the political boundaries in a good direction. We have a lot of great rap and punk that talks good politics. My comrades Test Their Logik, Kay the Aquanaut, Mother Tareka, Praxis Life (who are part of a collective I work with called RHYMETHiNK), other talented rap pals I know like Emay, Kimmortal, Cheko Salaam, Micros Armes, garbageface, Jesse Dangerously.. OG electro soul hop pals Lal.. punk acts like Propagandhi, Action Sedition, Union Thugs. 

One big thing of note.. there’s been a surge in great Indigenous artists that have brought a strong voice for Indigenous issues, at a deeply divisive point in Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people. Canada’s colonization is ongoing. Genocide is ongoing. The rush to develop and sell tar sand bitumen.. sinking so much of our country’s economy into that venture.. and trying to force tankers and pipelines over Indigenous lands and waterways without proper consent. has brought the colonial legacy to the forefront of a lot of Canadians’ minds.  And I think artists like A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Mob Bounce, JB The First Lady, Ostwelve, Quantum Tangle (to name a few), are helping to articulate the Indigenous struggle and share its story. It’s inspiring.

How about your own influences, whether they are protest musicians or not? And are you following any socially conscious contemporary artists you want to recommend?  

Well, I’m always looking for good revolutionary music. I follow all the names I’d mentioned above in Canada.  But, outside of that.. some HipHop favourites of recent years would be.. Savage Fam, Ant-Loc, Bambu, Sole, Sima Lee, Mic Crenshaw, Skipp Coon. On the more mainstream side.. I’m into Vince Stapes, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick, Run the Jewels. There’s some good, inventive HipHop coming out these days.

What advice do you have for young musicians who want to use their voices in protest?

I would tell them to get involved with some real organizing. Find a group that’s doing work on an issue that concerns them or their community, and get involved in the fight back. They’ll be inspired in a way that reading and theorizing just never could.  They’ll understand, and be able to articulate the fight in a way that watching, reading and thinking about it just can’t. Get down.  

If you could invite 4 politicians, living or dead, to form a band with you who would you choose?  Haha. I guess Trump, Justin Trudeau, Doug Ford (our Province’s Premier) and Putin. We could die in a fiery tour bus crash.    

Image automatically generated by the Shouts machine 

What is on the horizon for you?

I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. Old timey boom bap hip hop, with a batshit radical leftist lean. I’m going to hit the road again in the spring. In Canada, and then Europe. And I’ve got some new writing on the go. Should be a pretty productive year.  

Thank you for participating and for your music. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

Naw, I think we covered it! …easiest way to find all my music, videos, shows and new is to hit my website.. www.leereedrevolt.com 

Thank you for the thoughtful questions, and fist up!