In 1998, when performing songs off of their debut album, hardcore veterans Racetraitor regularly created both controversy and critical debate with their brutally honest shows. Racism, white supremacy, sexism, the prison industry, religion, their own privilege – nothing was off the table. When ‘Burn the Idol of the White Messiah‘ came out, 20 years ago, guitar player Dan remembers that the lyrics and ideas behind the album sparked conflict. Today on the other hand he recognises more of a longing from the audience for such a political debate. I spoke with Dan and bass player Decker about the band reentering the hardcore scene (with a new album that just dropped and is a gargantuan banger) and how things are different for them as artists now, both on and off the stage.
What made you step back up onto the stage?
Decker: The climate around the 2016 elections was the motivating factor for me. Don’t get me wrong, all of the previous US presidents have been illegitimate and served the interests of the white ruling class. Obama, who was the best president we will ever have, is a fucking war criminal. There just seemed to be something else opening up in terms of outright fascist and white supremacist thought which felt different. I mean now 2 years later we see things like the immigration policies which are literally referred to as the “Muslim ban”and it is completely normalized. We have always seen punk and hardcore as cultural resistance and we wanted play our small part.
Dan: For me the most pressing piece was the continued incidents and footage of black being ruthlessly murdered by the police. This wasn’t a foreign idea having done activism with black communities in Chicago, and having heard these accounts, and worse for years. There was something about seeing it, this wave of incidents. I think if you’re not experiencing that reality, no matter how much you try to stand in solidarity etc. it is hard to grasp the brutality without seeing it. For me seeing this re-sparked a level of outrage, and we had this vehicle that gives us a voice to reach more people. It seemed wrong not to use it. Selfishly, it also served as a productive emotional outlet. Add the Trump campaign to that, the reemergence of unapologetic fascism, racism, jingoism in mainstream politics,and the liberal lefts typical weak response. It felt musically and politically relevant.
The band being active in the 90’s and then stepping back onto the stage now, because of the current political climate, must give you an interesting feel for the scene. How are people receiving your political talk on stage differently now than before? Has much changed?
Dan: We didn’t really know what to expect or how we’d be received. First time around these ideas and politics were much more unfamiliar to the scene and generated a lot of conflict. This time around people seemed to almost be looking for a rallying point for these types of politics. It’s been a warm supportive reception so far with some online trolls here and there keeping it “interesting”. We’ve been able to connect with some bands with similar politics and missions and it’s been overall a very inspiring and humbling experience.
Decker: We spend more time talking about what topics will be addressed in between songs than the actual setlist. We feel a responsibility to clearly communicate the more nuanced content of the songs. I think Mani has done a really good job of personalizing some of the issues in a way that makes it relatable for people who might be hearing these ideas for the first time.
What do you hope to achieve each time you have the stage and an audience in front of you?
Dan: If we inspire others and ourselves to look at how we can be effective instruments of change and action the mission’s accomplished. Again we want to continue to expand ours and others’ awareness of the brutal conditions oppressed communities experience and look at how we can use privilege and access to destroy systems of oppression.
Decker: We are all part of this weird hardcore/punk community, I mean I can literally connect with someone who I have never met before over the first Earth Crisis 7 inch and be friends for life. We hope to play our small part in inspiring this community to be its best self and support each other to be active in whatever way makes sense.
It seems like some people don’t understand that no matter how ‘radical’ any sort of activism can get, it always pales in comparison to how radically horrendous this world can be. How does it affect you when someone says you are ‘too radical’?
Dan: “Too Radical” is an interesting notion. I think what may seem radical to one person, is not that radical to another. We have all personally explored some pretty radical fringe stuff, so in some ways, even though our message is the same, from my perspective we’re being pretty reasonable now hahaha.
In the States I think there is a severe case of historical amnesia; segregation, slavery and lynchings weren’t very long ago. These are institutions that have long lasting effects on the Psyche of communities and huge economic repercussions that are long lasting and still effect people’s lives today. And of course these institutions still exist in different forms today.
So my opinion is we aren’t saying anything that “radical” we are talking about historical and current realities of the political and economic systems and they way the impact human beings. Nothing we’re saying can’t be empirically substantiated. Part of the problem is American society is constructed in a way to keep people practically functionally illiterate, inundated with work, sub-par public education and overwhelmed with consumerism. Add the flood of information from so many varied sources, and people haven’t learned to differentiate what are legitimate empirical sources, it is difficult for people to have a reference point or context for what is happening around them.
Do you have any bad or weird experiences with the audience’s reaction to what you have said on stage?
Decker: When we first started in the 90s there was way more weird reactions from people at the shows – to be honest we caused a lot of it. This time around we have been way more in community building mode than calling people out. I think some people have been disappointed that we aren’t calling everyone crackers.
What advice do you have for young artists who want to use their voice to spread political/activist messages through their music?
Decker: I think you just can’t listen to the cynics and their apologies for this white supremacist capitalist system within our scene. They will always have a reason why you shouldn’t do or say something. It will never look cool. It is important that you are connected to real communities and real work to inform your art or music.
Mani mentioned in a recent interview that the song Dar Al-Harb had some seriously controversial lyrics for its time. Is there anything today that makes you wonder about whether or not to tackle it in lyrics?
Decker: No, I don’t think anything is really off the table. I know Mani had to deal with that song because of his work and I have been asked about the band a few times in my “professional life” but our lyrics aren’t even that straight forward anyway. They are more in the modality of Sufi poetry than traditional protest songs. If we could write a song like Phil Ochs or Nina Simone we would be stoked but I think it just doesn’t come out that way for Mani or I when we write them. It’s these interviews that will get us in trouble haha!!!
You recently released a single, BLK XMAS, off a new LP. Can you tell us a bit about how the creative process has been different now than on for example Burn The Idol of the White Messiah (1998)?
Dan: One thing that has been amazing is re engaging with the band, in some ways feels seamless. I love that the song was fully collaborative. Everyone has a significant finger print on it. The other thing I love about it is the skeleton was completed Xmas eve.
Probably the biggest aspect that has been different on the new material (Invisible Battles…, By the time… and 2042) is technology. A lot of the “skeletons” of songs are demoed with me and Decker in Chicago, on Garage Band, then sent out, and worked over by everyone. Without that we couldn’t have done it. The current technology gives us more ability to continue the writing process in a collaborative way with Andy in Portland, Mani in NY, me and Decker in Chicago.
I think we’re all older, slightly better at communicating (haha) and appreciate each other and the process in a wholly different way then from when we were kids.
Will you revive Racetraitor again in 2042?
Decker: God no.
Are you following any current protest music?
Decker: Our collective favorite newer band is Redbait from St. Louis. If you haven’t already, you really need to check them out!
Do you feel there is a lot of bands today using their voice responsibly or not enough?
Dan: “It seems there are a lot of bands using their voice in that way. But there is also a lot of music out there, so I don’t know if proportionally it’s increased. Obviously I think protest music is important, but I think music that delves into different and all human experience is important as well.”
Outside Racetraitor, do you partake in your community or activism of any sort?
Decker: “We are involved at various levels in our personal and professional lives. If it was any other way I don’t think this band would work. They range from immigration to human rights to “criminal justice” reform to environmental to community organizing work. I specifically have been very much involved in community violence prevention in the US and Latin America, working to end mass incarceration here in the US, and have long standing work/ties to post-genocide Guatemala. I don’t think any of us in Racetraitor are under the illusion that we are doing enough. What we love about punk and hardcore is that it can be a community that supports each other to be more active in the cities/countries where we live. That’s what we are interested in. Fuck cynicism.”
What is on the horizon for the band?
Decker: “We are putting out the record 2042 on Good Fight this month (October) and will be playing a bunch of shows over the course of 2019. We are also working on a project that is going to combine the lyrical content of the band with short documentary series. The members of the band are actively involved in the issues we write songs about and are privileged enough to have access to many places and people that many do not. The project is our attempt to bridge the two and communicate the larger issues outside of a two minute hardcore/punk song. We will see if we can pull it off.”
Thank you again for participating and for the music! Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
Decker: “Thanks for the interest and I would strongly suggest that everyone takes a hour of their day and listen to Public Enemy’s ‘Fear of a Black Planet’.”
2042 is out on Good Fight Records on October 12th. Below is the second single off the new album, titled Cataclysm, featuring members of La Armada, Decline, Redbait, LIFES, Through N Through, Malinche and Turnspit. The cover photo is by Eduardo Ruiz – IG: @mylegsgavein
Halldór is the managing editor of Shouts – Music from the Rooftops!, an investigative journalist, audio engineer and an animal rights activist on a nomad journey through Europe – still without a definite destination.