Ambient, drone, and other experimental electronic music might not be what comes to mind when you think of protest music. But the world is not always just as flat as that. In the past, Shouts has covered electronic music and interviewed field recording artists who all use their talents to better the world.
Sometimes music and art can serve an additional function although the music itself is perhaps not made in protest. The latest compilation album from Toronto-based Polar Seas Recordings contains 23 tracks, all donated by the artists in support of All Creatures Rescue (which operates in the same city). This shelter is a wonderful initiative that might seem unusual to some who look through their page of animals available for adoption. Not many shelters have rats and other rodents available for adoption but the fact is that pet stores around the world sell all sorts of animals without proper responsibility or education for the buyers. So very often it happens that animals are thrown away after a few days when people understand that they don’t know how to take care of them. This is as much a fault of breeders as it is the fault of these stores.
The founder of Polar Seas Recordings, Brad Deschamps, told me that this is the second time he has released a compilation album in support of animals and rescue organisations.
“I’ve been vegan for about 5 years, vegetarian before that, have 2 cats and am an animal lover generally. So the label has been a great way to donate to a cause that’s important to me.” – Brad Deschamps
Brad’s 2 cats are also from an animal shelter in Toronto and his vegetarian friend, Clara Engel, helped organize this collaboration with the before mentioned shelter. Brad explained to me how it’s important for him to use the opportunities he is given to give back to the society:
“I think it’s great when given the opportunity to try to give back to causes that you believe in. I’ve made some great friends through the label and most of them are pretty keen to donate a piece for a good cause as well. I feel a connection somehow between this kind of music and empathy, music that’s soothing or relaxing but also engaging. I know many musicians who are environmentalists, animal lovers, etc.”
Please check out the album below and let this music sweep you away into another state of mind where hopefully you find the empathy to donate a small amount to the welfare of all creatures.
With a constantly shifting lineup of artists now split between Sweden and the U.K., Crippled Black Phoenix have long eluded an easy description. “Stoner prog,” “freak folk,” and “psych doom” approach the general flavor but fall short of encapsulating the dynamic and emotive range of sounds the band displays. There is an undeniable sense of largeness in their music, and to sit with it is to let that largeness wash over and inhabit you, with all its varied textures and impressions. Behind each album’s somberly visceral crescendos—replete with a confidently erratic admixture of industrial noise, delicate keys, and a host of strings and horns—is not just a story of deft, seeking musicianship, but, looking more deeply into the band’s repertoire, of a group of artists deeply concerned with the welfare of animals.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with the band’s ringleader, Justin Greaves, and vocalist and lyricist, Belinda Kordic. Shared below are their thoughtful responses about the intersection of music and animal activism.
Nathaniel Youmans:Can you describe how the injustices against animals, and the long work to be done to improve and ensure their welfare, figure into your music? How do your music and art provide an opportunity for you, personally, to enter into meaningful dialogues for oppressed beings?
Justin Greaves: Well, it’s simple: as a band we have a voice, so it would be wrong not to use it. Personally, I believe in animal welfare and an end to cruelty of all kinds. I didn’t go to college to learn my methods of spreading awareness, instead I learned a lot from bands and artists such as New Model Army, Crass, Subhumans, and Man Is the Bastard, amongst many. I just couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t use the band as a voice for the voiceless. We hate bullies of all kinds. CBP stands firmly against them. If what we post on social media or what we write songs about encourages a conversation, or even criticisms, about the mistreatment of animals, then we can sleep at night knowing we’re simply shining a light on a huge injustice in this world.
NY: I’d like to talk about the song “Nebulas.” It sounds, ostensibly, more on the upbeat end of your vast musical spectrum. A close reading of the lyrics, however, reveals the anguish and helplessness that come from knowing how many animals are abused and mistreated every day, as well as the seemingly insurmountable limitations of our ability as individuals to relieve the suffering of the marginalized and abused. This is a beautiful song, and the tensions between its sonic and lyrical qualities makes it a highly effective charge to pay more attention to the welfare of animals. Are the themes in this song steady and present through your music? How does animal welfare inform your writing process and collaboration efforts as musicians and citizens?
JG: The oppression of animals is always a theme we will return to as a band. It’s always been there, but now with Belinda being more of a lyricist for the past few years, she can put this theme into words better than anyone. It is one reason we work well together. As the writer of the music, I’m basically influenced by the human condition and injustices we commit and also endure as a species.
Belinda Kordic: I had had this “letter asking for forgiveness” in me for quite some time. I was struggling quite badly with this guilt trip of not being able to end the suffering, torment, and abuse of animals. I just needed to put it into words or else I would have crumbled. I have, and still am, struggling mentally with this. Flashing images of abused, neglected, and caged animals is a daily battle, and it truly hurts me to the core. Maybe I can save a few, but what about the rest? And therein lies the frustration and heartbreaking guilt. It eats at you. I guess I just wanted them to know they are never forgotten.
NY: Acknowledging that Crippled Black Phoenix is an enigmatic project with many rotating members and collaborators, where are you based right now? What is happening in those areas, beyond COVID-19 troubles, particularly in the realm of ecological crisis, animal suffering, and political strife? How does your current environment influence your songwriting and civic engagement?
JG: I guess we’re based partly in the UK and partly in Sweden, so we have very different social concerns within the band. Of course, the animal welfare subject is a worldwide issue which rings true with all of us, but here in the UK the ecological disaster is somewhat more extreme than Sweden. The UK is on a journey downwards into a dark place, politically and ecologically. The two are tied together now because our country is run by super-capitalists who have no problem raping our resources and indulging in over-development in order to gain wealth. I can’t make a difference just by writing music, but I can make myself be heard and hopefully encourage others to think more for themselves and to see more than just what the mainstream media feeds us. I guess we all can do as much as we can with the resource and abilities we have at hand.
NY: From Eurasian lynx to European bison, wolves, and bears, the UK has lost nearly all of its large wildlife. Species like pine martens—there as well as in my home state of Washington—are under threat, and sea eagles are making a promising, if slow and tenuous, recovery from the brink of extirpation. Please weigh in with your thoughts on the UK’s extinct, threatened, and endangered species, as well as efforts to protect and conserve them and their habitats.
JG: You look at Scotland, for instance, and the authorities there are starting to make a positive difference in the conservation of animals such as pine martens, otters, and various birds of prey, and also beginning talks of reintroduction of large predatory animals like wolves. Unfortunately, we still have the leftover class-system, where the farming class and the upper class get away with illegal blood sports like fox hunts, deer hunts, badger culling, mink farming, grouse shooting, pheasant shooting… The list goes on, and shows no signs of stopping. These people are stuck in a time long gone, but, crazy as it may sound, the hunting community here is largely made up of politicians, lords and ladies, wealthy land owners, corporate bosses, and the justice system’s hierarchy of judges and police commissioners. So, it is a long, tough fight to help our wildlife here in the UK. As long as there is the attitude of using animals for disgusting entertainment and eating habits, we will always have threatened species. The farming industry—dairy and meat—has a big impact on the environment, and consequentially the wildlife. There are a few very righteous people and organisations who make a small difference, but there are just not enough… Yet.
NY: Are there any particular organizations you support or want to draw attention to? How can fans share in your passion for animal activism?
JG: I support the Hunt Saboteur Association, Hounds Off, Animal Equality UK, Pennypaws Romania to UK Rescue, Arm the Animals, Sea Shepard, Cat’s Protection League, Animal Rescue Crew, Keep The Ban, International Anti-Fascist Movement, Stop Funding Hate, Sabcat, Bodhi Dog Rescue and Shelter, Pudz Animal Sanctuary, Animal Aid, The Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation… Anyone can make a difference by supporting these great causes, not only by donating, but by buying products which support them and also by simply sharing their pages and posts on social media.
BK: You can never sign enough petitions. It could make a difference. Support your local animal shelter in any way, big or small. And maybe don’t shy away from posting about animal abuse. I know a lot of people do not want to see it, but it is important to be reminded about it. There is a lot of this “if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” mentality. But it is happening and this is the sad truth. Social media can be shite, but at the same time it is a strong tool for educating people and getting the truth out there. Also, simply being vocal about being vegan can encourage conversation. For example, my workmates know I’m vegan and they have become more curious about the lifestyle. Some of them had absolutely no idea about the mistreatment of male chicks in the factory-farming industry. They were frankly quite shocked and surprised when I told them about it. Some of my workmates have now even adapted to a more plant-based diet. Small steps in a positive direction…
NY: My best friend is a chubby cat named Squirrel who acts like a dog and flops around like an elephant seal. She dozes in sunspots, chews her claws and spits them out on my bed, and lives a pretty cushy life. Would you like to tell me about the furry, scaled, or feathered friends in your lives?
JG: We have six cats now, after our beloved Nell and Tigger left this world recently. Now we have four moggies named Frank, Vitaly, Pastor, and Rubens. And two Bengals called Bear and Fangs. They’re our family! Like kids, y’know? They’re all nuts, and very special, all rescued as kittens or kittens of rescue cats. Some have also featured on CBP album covers and on our social media from time to time. I’ve always had rescue animals, also rabbits, chinchillas, small rodents, etc… It’s a long list!
BK: They are my children! May not be biological (duh) but I love them like my own blood. Life without them would not be a life worth living. When Justin calls me on Skype he gets a quick hello then “Let me speak to the kids!!!” They make me a better person. And God do they make me laugh.
NY: A question about album artwork. “The Great Escape,” “A Love of Shared Disasters,” “Horrific Honorifics,” and “Bronze” all feature animals on the album covers. Can you give some background on the album artwork choices and how they converse with the lyrical content of your music?
JG: The album artwork is, for me, as important as the music, lyrics, song titles, and themes. Everything ties in to whatever the general feeling is at the time of each album or recording. Animals always feature because they’re always our companions, and, visually, animals can convey emotions better than anything, like the bird being released from a cage on the “A Love of Shared Disasters” cover. That was all about freeing myself from a scene I didn’t want to be part of anymore and felt trapped by. That album freed me in a lot of ways.
“Bronze” is about being both strong and fragile at the same time: a bear statue representing strength that is also crumbling away ties in with the title. Bronze is a material that is both strong and malleable, used for things of beauty as well as weapons of death. All the way to “Great Escape,” the artwork reflects emotions or mental states. For “Great Escape,” the horse is yearning to leave this place for somewhere better. It is about being tired of injustice and wanting to help the helpless, such as animals, escape from cruelty and oppression. And for our end, it is about escaping from the feeling of helplessness we all have when we can’t save every animal or help every person. “Great Escape” is also about disregarding the trappings of social standard living. It is okay to have an alternative way of life; we don’t have to conform to survive. Think for yourselves and don’t blindly follow the herd.
NY: Is there anything else you’d like to comment on about animal rights and environmental activism?
JG: Join your local Hunt Saboteur organization. They need more Sabs! Don’t be afraid of standing up to bullies, and don’t shy away from voicing your feeling or opinion. However small, it does make a difference, so if you think it, do it. Also, be mindful of where you buy food and products. Some companies actively help and support animal welfare, and, of course, some use animal testing or other animal produce. So it is a case of knowing the truth in the production of such things and being prepared to not support animal usage, whilst being open-minded in finding good companies that have no connection to animal abuses.
BK: I have such huge admiration and respect for the animal rights activists out there who enter slaughterhouses to rescue animals, document the cruelty, and stop transports on the way to death camps. I just couldn’t handle it. I think I would end up in a mental hospital or end up jumping off a bridge. Witnessing the distress of these sentient beings would be enough to tip me over the edge for good. I wish I was stronger.
NY: Tell me about a particularly powerful encounter with an animal you’ve had. Wild or domestic. Floor’s yours.
JG: The most powerful encounters are the ones like helping my cats give birth, and, sadly, losing loved ones. But apart from that, a good short story would be when I visited an animal sanctuary where they rescue big cats and other predator animals. You drive through large enclosures. It was a super-hot day and my car overheated between the lions and the wolves… Even though it wasn’t technically in the wild, they were still wild animals capable of eating me, watching me put water in the engine from not so far away. I also saw an unidentified huge sea creature in the bay of Venice. That memory has stuck with me all my life! Still no idea what it was.
BK: I had just met Justin and one day I was lying in the bedroom in the fetal position (very dramatic) crying and feeling sorry for myself. Sweet Nell, whom I hardly knew at the time, was sleeping on top of a cupboard. All of a sudden, I feel a cat licking my tears away and then she settled right by me. My heart almost burst. That is a moment I will never forget.
NY: Hypothetical one, here: if your personality/soul/spirit essence could be described as a fusion of three different animals, what would it be? I’ll start: heron-whale-lynx.
JG: Panther-Shark-Wolf… and Otter. 🙂
BK: Cat-Capuchin monkey-Mama Bear
NY: Finally, what is on the horizon this year for Crippled Black Phoenix?
JG: We have a new recording coming out in a few months. It’s a mini-album with some really great “guests” doing some vocals. I’m not allowed to say any more as I write this because we are still waiting on the official release statement. I wish I could tell all now because I’m super excited to get this one out! We’ll most likely record a new full length album around September, and then we’ll hopefully be touring again early next year. We have big milestones planned out all the way into 2022, and they might include a trip over the pond to the US. We’re working on something special.
When searching the internet for contemporary protest musicians I have my techniques and keywords to filter out the real deal from the posers. With all my requirements and strategies I likely never would have found the music of Portes. She is a Guatemalan-born protest musician and activist based out of Colorado, US.
Lucky for me, her PR company contacted me after seeing what the Shouts webpage is all about and so I interviewed Portes about her brilliant latest album, the electro-pop ‘National Anthems’. She also told me about her experience fostering a child, her activism and musical inspirations and her rather unusual day job – cybersecurity and computer networking.
Halldór Kristínarson: First off, for those who are not familiar with your music and your work, who is Portes?
Portes: Portes is a Colorado-based solo indie artist creating music in all genres. As the name implies, it comes from the French, des portes, meaning doors. Each style of music represents a door to explore. Thus far, the music is primarily electro-pop, dream pop, synth, R&B, and crosses with the more aggressive industrial music that sounds like Nine Inch Nails, but stretches to ambient and even worship music.
HK: How did you first get introduced to creating music and has it always been political and protest driven?
P: I’ve been creating music since I was in elementary school coming up with song lyrics and melodies. It hasn’t always been of a political or protest nature, but I recall an early song that I wrote in high school called, “Glory?” that dealt with the Vietnam War, so maybe I had some idea early on in life that I could write music of a deeper, more thought provoking nature.
HK: Can you tell us a bit about the creative process and production behind your album National Anthems? You speak of being new to the electronic music scene, yet it sounds natural. How did the sound you have on the album come into existence?
P: It helped to write music with a producer who had the same political ideology and stance as me. There wasn’t a conflict in content or style between us. The best inspiration for me at the time of making National Anthems was to look at the music of Nine Inch Nails and that aggressive, in your face, angry vibe. It was the feeling I was feeling watching the Trump administration constantly lie to the American people and who continue to do it today, to the detriment of millions of people and the thousands who have needlessly lost their lives to COVID-19. We started with the song, “Pressure” and used that song as the base for the others. Really, the album came together effortlessly. In fact, I had “Sister” as a different type of song and I had the chorus lyrics and melody mapped out a year before I started National Anthems, so it was just a matter of turning it into this new style and revamping lyrics to address the theme of female empowerment and turn it against these high profile sexual aggressors, like Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Larry Nassar. I’m glad you think it sounds natural. I appreciate that.
HK: Being originally born in Guatemala and later growing up in the United States how has that affected your music, lyrically and melodically?
P: I lived in Guatemala as a baby for about six months before being adopted. But, you ask a good question about how that experience has informed my music. Knowing I’m from a multicultural family grounds me in being open-minded and willing to experience other people and cultures, including their music.
HK: Have you been back to Guatemala? Do you follow what is going on there or in nearby countries? Or Guatemalans coming to the states these days?
P: Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to return to Guatemala. It is something I want to do in the future, when it’s safe to do so. I do follow the news of what’s happening in Central America and issues around societal violence, cartels, and immigration. It saddens me greatly to know the people are being mistreated and displaced. It makes me realize just how blessed I am to have the opportunities I do by virtue of having been adopted and being raised in the U.S. I don’t know other Guatemalans, so I can’t speak to that issue.
HK: Some people believe that the arts and activism should be separated, that the arts should be a form of entertainment only. Other people put forth the same argument about journalism. What is your take on how artists, journalists and other people with a voice should use that power?
P: I personally know where I stand on the intersection of arts and activism. But, I won’t dictate how others should use their creative platform to promote their activism. I can only encourage others to find their passion in politics for speaking truth in a time of when untruths are the norm. Some do it to music, like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, CSNY, REM, among others. I would love for “National Anthems” to have that same gravitas as other protest albums and artists. I have something vital to say and that should manifest into something, so I do it with my music. I’m also grateful to media outlets like Shouts Music Blog who share my art and activism with its audience. So, thank you for that! Journalists have an obligation to investigate, verify, and validate facts, so it’s about truth more so than activism. However, there are journalists like Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! who are more involved in activism.
HK: Who are some of your influences, whether them being musicians, activists or anyone else?
P: Some of my music influences are Sia, Nine Inch Nails, Iron & Wine, and Thievery Corporation to name a few. In addition, I appreciate the informative documentaries by Michael Moore. I recently watched Planet of the Humans, which was eye-opening about our dependence on fossil fuels and problems surrounding renewable energy. I was a QA Engineer for a photovoltaic manufacturer.
HK: Besides the music, you are working on a computer networking and cybersecurity degree. What drew you to that field?
P: I haven’t made music and songwriting my full time career yet, though I’d love to be at a publishing house, until then my actual career is in technology. I’ve been a technical writer, IT project manager, and customer experience consultant. However, in my previous roles, I was hitting a wall in advancement since I didn’t have a background in computer networking, so I went back to school after earning a master’s degree. Turns out I’m pretty good at cybersecurity and have a 4.0 GPA and am seeking a role in my field.
HK: What about your extracurricular activities, do you partake in activism outside of the music you make?
HK: The act of taking in a child into foster care and eventually adoption, how has that changed your view of the environment around you? I can only imagine it has also affected your music?
P: It changes everything! You still have to take care of yourself first. That’s what good mental health counseling has taught me. Self-care and self-love is a necessity. He’s incredibly empathetic. He cares about the littlest bug and other people. It’s important that he knows that this planet is finite and we have to take care of Earth by cleaning our messes, recycling, reusing, and reducing our waste. He’s also so sweet, so I actually had him sing on my last single, “Human”, which is a song about global warming, climate change, and social injustice. Although “National Anthems” isn’t really for kids, he heard enough of it that we’ve talked about some of the themes and I want to empower him to have his own voice and stand bravely against injustice and uphold the values of our nation, like liberty and freedom of speech.
HK: What do you hope to achieve with your music?
P: First, I want people to hear what I have to say because I do value the truth and this album was carefully and thoughtfully put out to have an effect that motivates people into action. Second, I hope people find their own stance about the content. Maybe there’s a person who can relate to my experience of sexual assault or who want to protest against gun violence at schools. My son shouldn’t have to do lockouts and lockdowns, but that’s what we’re dealing with now. Lastly, I hope people like the music. I think it’s badass.
HK: What is on the horizon for you?
P: Once I can get back into the studio, I need to do vocals for “Sanctified”, which is a delicate, breathy worship song in the same style as “Human”. Finished songs in queue for release are, “Rocket Crown”, a female empowerment song that blends classical music and hip hop. “I’m on Fire” is an electro-pop love song. “Good Girl” is a fun, catchy EDM song. I can’t be serious all the time. I need some levity too.
HK: Thank you very much for participating and for making your music. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
P: Listeners can find the music on various streaming services, except Spotify. Other than that, saddle up! We’re going on a long ride with Donald Trump, so it’s going to be bumpy, but Portes is here for you in those moments when you feel like screaming from that rooftop, I’ll scream with you. It’ll be very therapeutic. I promise!