According to some, electronic music used to be political but now it has ‘lost its edge‘. Mat Ward is fully aware of this and now does his utmost best to make his music sit just right, dangling the feet over the edge with the headphones blasting.
His latest album is self described as ‘a chill trap album about surveillance’ and it features titles such as ‘The Value of Metadata’, ‘Undersea Cable’ and ‘Holed Up In The Ecuadorian Embassy’.
The album subtly flows on, at one moment you almost forget yourself until you realise you have been swept away by the music and it has become an echoing, cool soundtrack in your brain. A bit like surveillance. You might know it is there, but it does more than you think while you loose your mind to other things.
Mat’s new album, due out in January, is a new concept and his current 9-5 profession: the media. For Mat is a journalist by day and a trap music maker by night. We have been listening to the unreleased album and it is stellar. It opens with much more of a bang in comparison to the more chill, previous album. Which fits well, for the media screams much louder than surveillance. Both concepts are large and complicated but Mat gives them structure and builds sonic landscapes that easily sweep you away.
We contacted Mat and asked him a few questions about his concept music. In addition we have a special 3-song preview off the upcoming album which Mat made exclusively for the Shouts project. Check out the new music below as well as the interview with Mat.
Has your music always been political?
“Yes, my music was political from the start, most probably because my two obsessions are music and politics.
I felt Provocalz was such a great poet that he should reach a far wider audience. But his music was not on any of the big music platforms because he always rapped over unlicensed music, as many underground rappers do. So I started making original music for him just in the hope that he could upload it onto the big platforms – Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and the rest – to reach the audience I felt he deserved. I made about 40 songs in his style – dark, emotional, piano-driven hip-hop – but after he’d laid down vocals on four of them, he got pissed off with the whole rap scene and gave up rapping. That was in 2016, but the four-track EP came out only this year. It’s my favourite thing I’ve done, music-wise.”
Why did you choose surveillance as the concept for ‘Five Eyes’? Why is it an issue you care about?
“Well, the funny thing about that album is it was the best of all the leftover songs that I’d done for Provocalz. I didn’t want anyone else to rap on them as I’d made them for him, so it’s just an instrumental album, but it needed a theme. I always prefer music with a message, even if it’s only in the song titles. Provocalz had actually used one of the songs for “Behind Enemy Lines” on the EP, in which he raps about Aboriginal kids being abused in jail. I really liked the intricate bassline I’d come up with on that one, so I thought it stood up as an interesting instrumental on its own, without any rapping.
On the Five Eyes album, that song became “Holed Up In The Ecuadorian Embassy“, to highlight another Australian injustice, that of Australian citizen Julian Assange being abandoned by his government and incarcerated. That’s the link between the EP and the album. I’d read a lot of books both by Assange and about Assange, a lot of which touch on surveillance, so a lot of the rest of the song titles came from the information in those books.”
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming album and the new concept?
“Yep, I’m actually a journalist – that’s my day job. I started a music fanzine in my teens, did my school work experience on my local paper, earned a postgraduate in journalism, became a reporter and features writer on national newspapers, then became a subeditor and I’m now an online editor.
I think everyone should think critically about the job they do – especially journalists, who are supposed to be critical thinkers. Anyone who looks at journalism critically can see there’s a lot to be criticised. If you’re interested in seeking out the truth, as all journalists should be, you’ll consume the news from as many different sources as possible and you’ll quickly see there’s a huge difference in the way the news is reported by the corporate media and non-corporate media. (If any readers are not familiar with those terms, by corporate media I mean mass media or mainstream media run by corporations, and by non-corporate media I mean not-for-profit media, usually run by political activists.) All news is biased. If you’re only reading the corporate media – or only reading the non-corporate media – you’re missing half the story.
It’s for this reason that, 10 years ago, I started doing voluntary work for the non-corporate media. This kind of pro bono work is common in other professions, but unknown in journalism and even seen as heresy. For the past few years I’ve been writing a monthly political music column for the non-corporate media that always gets thousands of views and has been shared by the likes of Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, Ministry’s Al Jourgensen and drag star Ru Paul. I think that’s how you found me. There’s a huge hunger out there for music with a message, as you’ve no doubt seen with this great blog of yours.
So, in an age when the president of the United States dismisses any news report he dislikes as “fake news”, this new album of mine, Filter Bubble, takes a look at the criticisms that can legitimately be levelled at the corporate media. Although nowhere near as sensational as Donald Trump’s tweets, these quiet truths are often just as disturbing.
Below, you can stream and download a three-track sampler of the album for free, which I put together for this blog. You can click through to Soundcloud for more details on what each song means. Stylistically, this album’s a cross between future bass and jungle – call it “future jungle” or “future drum n bass” – which I don’t think has been done before.
“There is no such thing as a-political art. There is art that challenges the status quo, and art that doesn’t.”
– Evan Greer
This time we got somewhat of a legend here at Shouts. Evan Greer has been moving around both the music business and the activist world for quite some time now and she recently released a new album titled she/her/they/them .
Out of Make Shift Boston, a co-working space, she works as the deputy director of the nonprofit Fight for the Future, she is a friend and active supporter of Chelsea Manning as well as a hard working independent musician who has spent 300 plus days on tour in a year and more recently while parenting along the way.
It’s been 10 years since her last album and now, through Don Giovanni Records, a new piece has finally come to light. I contacted Evan to learn about her new album as well as her thoughts on music and activism and how the two are as she puts it “inextricably linked”.
10 years between albums is quite some time. Can you tell us why the long time between the albums and what you’ve been up to in that time?
I wish I could claim that I was just toiling away in the studio for all those years trying to nail the perfect guitar sound. But the truth is that I just got really busy! I’ve always balanced my music with my activist work, and for many years when I was working as a full time artist, I had to tour about 300 days a year to make ends meet.
Even after I had a kid I kept touring pretty relentlessly, but eventually I had to slow down a bit and so I put more focus into my activist work, becoming a campaigner at Fight for the Future, an activist group focused on Internet freedom and opposing government surveillance.
I’ve also been organizing a monthly queer dance party in Boston, providing a landing pad for other touring trans and queer artists. Getting into the studio and recording an album just never quite made it to the top of the list for years, but I’m so glad that I finally did.
In a recent interview you said that for you “music and activism have always been inextricably linked”. Many people believe the two should be separated, that the arts shouldn’t be political. Shouts is about exploring these two things just as well as the idea of journalism and activism being linked. What’s your take on all of this?
The whole “just stick to music” narrative is based in a false concept of “neutrality.” There is no such thing as a-political art. There is art that challenges the status quo, and art that doesn’t. We’re living in a deeply unjust world with ongoing and active state violence, growing white supremacy, and we’re on the verge of a climate catastrophe.
The choices we make about what type of art to make in this moment in history are political choices, whether we like it or not. That doesn’t mean that every single piece of art needs to be an overt form of protest — it just means that we shouldn’t pretend that art is somehow detached from society or our collective human experiences.
Six Strings is very straight forward, deeply honest and uncomfortably sad. Do you play this song live and if so what kind of emotions does it bring out on stage?
“Uncomfortably sad,” is the review I was looking for with this tune 😉 I do occasionally play it live. When I do I actually introduce it as a bit of a comedic song. It’s a snapshot of one of those moments when you just feel so, so down, when everything feels pointless and you can’t see your way out of the hole.
I don’t feel that way most of the time, so it’s kind of neat as a songwriter to have been able to create this piece of art that captures how I felt in one of those moments. It’s a good way to remind myself and others that when we get to that place, it will pass. In some ways it’s a song about resilience, because in the end, we move past it.
The song also made me think of the guitar as a living creature – do you have a special guitar, the one you’d bring out of a burning house and if so, why that one?
I have a trusty Taylor that I’ve dragged all over the world, played at hundreds of shows, and that I’ve had to rescue from teargas filled streets at a protest at least once. I love that guitar, but honestly I’m pretty utilitarian about musical instruments.
I’ve never really been a gear head. I’ve done a lot of touring in both the US and Europe by bus and train, and I often don’t bring my own guitar with me — I’ll work with the show organizer to borrow a guitar in each city, playing a different one every night. Sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re pretty beat up. I kind of like the challenge of finding each guitar’s voice.
For me the focus at a show is always about the connection with the audience, not about creating the exact same sound every night.
Children’s Song is a humorous, yet very powerful song, and it could just as well have been called ACAB. Why do you think there is such a problem with the police state today in your country?
Modern policing in the United States is an extension of hundreds of years of structural white supremacy dating back to slavery. The primary role that the prison system and police violence plays in our society isn’t public safety, it’s social control. I try to teach my kid that this is not about individual police or whether they’re good people or bad people, it’s about the system itself, which is designed to uphold unjust power structures.
Going back a bit, your tour diary from 2015 is an absolutely brilliant read and hugely inspiring. How important was it to tour Europe with your friends and kids? Is this the new standard for future tours?
Parenting is punk rock. There are lots of musicians out there raising kids. But often this isn’t really visible. Our pop culture conception of touring artists is that they’re all in their 20s and party hard after every show. Touring with our kids, and documenting it so other parents can see, was a cool way to push for more visibility.
Can you tell me how the creative process was different while making/recording this album from 2009’s Never Surrender? What did Taina Asili and Gaetano Vaccaro bring to the process?
I’m totally not a studio musician and I never really have been. But when I write songs I hear them with full instrumentation and studio polish. My live versions are my best attempts to approximate that with just myself and a guitar. Going into the studio has always been stressful for me — something about the permanence of recording music makes me feel like I’m never going to get it good enough to match that thing that I heard in my head when I first wrote the song.
But Taina and Gaetano’s expertise helped so much. They’re brilliant musicians and amazing friends. Sometimes the role they played was very concrete: adding harmony vocals, electric guitars, and bass.
Other times it was more like therapy — helping me figure out what I wanted when even I wasn’t sure. In the end, the album is special because it’s different from what I heard in my head when I wrote the songs. It’s a living breathing project that evolved over the course of a few years, with help from an awesome array of guest artists that shaped the sound.
A question I often ask political rappers is how they balance between the message and the flow. Do you ever experience a conflict between the words you want to use and how they fit into the song?
Yes this can happen. One thing that’s been helpful for me is to realize that not everything I want to express politically needs to be a song. I’ve started writing a lot more opinion pieces for outlets like The Guardian or Washington Post, or scripts for short videos, or infographics and other types of creative projects.
If you could have any artist, living or dead, featured on your next album who’d be your top 3 picks?
Hah. Tough one. Honestly it was a huge deal for me having Chris #2 from Anti-Flag and legendary riot-grrrrl cellist Bonfire Madigan play on she/her/they/them. Let’s go with: guest feature from Janelle Monae, guitar shredding from Sister Loretta Tharpe, and Keith Moon on the drums.
When you need someone else’s music to inspire your fighting spirit, what do you listen to? Any active, contemporary protest musicians, or not, that you want to throw a shout out?
The future is always unwritten. For the foreseeable future I’ll likely continue to balance my music with full time activist work, so I’ll probably still put out new songs here and there and do some occasional shows and short tours, but I’m not likely to be back on the road 300+ days a year anytime soon. And I’m okay with that.
For me music has always been an outlet for work that I wanted to do. The longer I make music and do the work, the more I see how the pieces fit together.
Ryan Harvey has been writing and performing protest music since the turn of the century. But as he explains in this interview he considers himself an activist and an organizer first and musician second. Furthermore, Ryan is also journalist, so naturally I was thoroughly excited about picking his brain about activism, journalism and music and the blurred lines between them as that is what the Shouts project is all about.
For those not familiar with your work, who is Ryan Harvey?
I am a song-writer, folk-musician, activist, and journalist from Baltimore, MD, USA. I have been a carpenter/builder for over a decade to subsidize my music and touring life, and I recently launched a small, politically-radical “label” with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine et al called Firebrand Records. I say “label” because we aren’t exactly just a label, we’re also evolving as we venture further into the modern music industry and try to find a way to play a positive role for the artists we work with. It’s certainly a challenge and we’ve made mistakes for sure, but, again, we’re a pretty tiny thing right now.
How did you get into making music?
I first got into punk through a neighbor from childhood, thankfully, the Dead Kennedys was one of my earliest bands that I got into. That led to many good things, including Rancid. It was actually through Rancid that I first heard of Billy Bragg, from their song “The War’s End.” I then got into Billy Bragg, and through him I heard the name Phil Ochs. Once I heard Phil Ochs, I bought a guitar (literally, that week) and began writing political folk music. I had played bass as a kid, trying to be in a punk band, but was new to the guitar. That was in 2000 and was really involved in the anti-capitalist wing of the “anti-globalization” or “global justice” movement.
I’m still very much a punk and punk-listener, but I can be found listening to hiphop, Arabic instrumentals, first-wave Ska and Calypso, or Latin American leftist folk-music just as easily. Politics-in-song really speaks to me, but any musical form that grows from a cultural struggle or serves as a foundation for survival amidst hardship tends to find my ears.
Have your political and social surroundings always been a driving force for your music?
Yes. I was pretty young when I got politicized by the world around me. It was 1999 and the world was on fire with rebellions against neoliberal capitalist institutions and trade agreements. My early songs were all from that movement, and George W. Bush soon got elected. So I was writing songs in the aftermath of 9/11, the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and then from within the anti-war movement. I worked really closely with a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War and founded a group called The Civilian-Soldier Alliance that tried, together with the veterans, to organize active-duty soldiers to resist the wars. I wrote a lot about that (my albums “The Violence of War” and web-release “Soldier By Soldier”). I have tended to see myself as an activist/organizer first and a musician second (or third).
More recently, I have been writing a lot about the post-2011 world, the Arab Spring revolts, the refugee crisis, etc. My trio with Kareem Samara and Shireen Lilith grew from these songs. Kareem is Palestinian and has more immediate family roots in Egypt (they were refugees from 48, driven out by the earliest Israeli terror-gangs). Shireen’s from the Netherlands with roots there and in Turkey, and back when I was writing a lot of the songs we sing together she was one of many Dutch squatters helping Iraqi refugees with public square protests. I was traveling through Europe (including a stop in Iceland) to learn about the recent protests and uprisings and to share my songs when we all started making music together. We all were acutely aware of the situation both in our regions and in the world at large, and we were inspired and injured by many of the social uprisings taking place. So, we wanted to try to capture this new world political situation and its spirit in song.
How willingly do you feel people are receiving political music these days? Especially if you perform at non-protest venues?
It’s strange. The world is extremely political right now, especially certain places where I’ve performed (like Egypt and Greece). Other places (especially parts of the US) are sadly quite contained. But honestly, I think so much music today is political, because the generation that is listening to so much of the new music is political. Performing in Europe, for instance, and singing about the refugee crisis, is something that almost everyone understands, because the situation is simply impossible to ignore. Here in the US, those songs don’t carry the same weight. Singing songs about the US outside of the US is already interesting to the listener, because I’m bringing stories they aren’t always really aware of.
Compared to me singing my songs ten years ago, the soil is a lot healthier, let’s just say. But, with the new leftist-surge has also been the far-right. So, healthy soil can grow different plants…
What do you hope to achieve with your music?
I have always written songs to change the world, and I intend to continue doing that. Changing the world isn’t one big goal, it’s a million little goals. It can be an individual, a behavior, an emotion. I have changed people’s lives as my life has been changed by the music of other people, friends and people I’ll never meet alike.
I also aim to educate, to use my performances as a professor uses the classroom, but without all the grading and homework, but for real, I learned about the Vietnam war through Phil Ochs, the depression through Woody Guthrie, and the Falklands War through CRASS. I learned a lot about post-colonial struggles through Zeca Afonso, Victor Jara, Bob Marley, and so many others.
Education, like music, ignites my heart, and I want to pass that flame on. If you can write a song that makes the listener want to learn more about the subject, you’re doing a good job, and that’s what these artists did for me.
What advice do you have for young protest musicians who want to get their voice and message out into the cosmos?
First off, just start writing and singing. I sucked when I started, and I’m really not a very good singer. I’m not even a very good guitarist honestly, I just have like two styles really that I sort of coined, and that’s what I’m good at. But I wrote like 5 albums before I was even half-decent at holding a note.
Looking back, I write a lot as an observer, like a journalist passing through a significant area and feeling that burning need to attempt to make sense of their snapshots to other people. If you have 10 people that will listen to you, then write for those 10 people. Think about your audience, who do you want to be singing to? Who are you singing to? Be aware of these questions. I have always written songs with an audience in mind, and that has changed my songs. When I was singing acoustic a lot with no microphone and often at protests, I was writing louder, faster songs. Recently, I’ve been able to tap into some softer, more vulnerable parts of my voice and emotions because I’ve been performing in venues with better sound systems. This has allowed me to write different songs on different subjects as well.
Also, innovate! Do some new shit. I see a lot of young dudes who really try hard to look the part of the “folk singer” and sing songs about their “hard travels.” In the folk-punk world, it’s even more monotonous. To be real, we don’t need another Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie. We need new folks with new songs, singing about the life they are actually living. Be honest. If you are just an observer of other peoples’ struggles, that’s ok. Sing a song as an observer. Be yourself and be honest. Bring new musical influences to the genre, expand it, re-define it. Of course, it’s also ok to play the old styles and enjoy them, but don’t become trapped by them.
The world is changing rapidly right now, our job is help those we come in touch with to understand those changes, deal with them emotionally, and prepare themselves to fight to ensure those changes happen in a way that radically alters power and improves the lives of the majority of the world’s population. That’s a big job, but it happens in small parts. If you have ten folks in a basement, that’s your job tonight, to bring those ten people to a different place than they were when they came down the stairs. Tomorrow, repeat.
And remember, there’s a lot of us out there doing the work, so be humble, but don’t ever think you’re the only one out there.
One main focus of the Shouts project is the research into journalism vs. activism and the objectivity line between them that often gets blurred. Seeing how you are a journalist involved in political activism, can you tell us your take on the subject?
Oh, what a subject! I mean, I could write a book about this (if my ADD allowed such focus). I have done journalism since 2006 or so, and was first published I think in 2008. I have written about political music, I’ve done investigative journalism, I’ve done many interviews, photography, and I’ve made some videos.
I also use music as journalism. And as activism. I think the lines between art and journalism have increasingly blurred both with technology but also with this generation’s ways of processing information. We have perhaps returned to the days of the traveling music bringing news from town to town, or the Calypso artists using the theatrics of performance to spread subversive ideas among the people. Only, it’s happening through the internet really, really fast.
In recent years, the political space has opened so much, to where mainstream artists are kind of looked upon as uncool if they don’t have some edgy political track. That’s got its downsides too (like really watered down ideas often passing as political radicalism, or folks thinking there is not protest-music until a big artist does something), but, all-in-all, we want to change culture and pop culture is an indicator of where we’re at.
Besides the music, journalism and activism, you co-manage a record company. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yeah, it’s a weird thing to go from being a very “anti-label” artist to suddenly coming out with a record-label with a really famous musician. But that’s just a sign of the times isn’t it? We need to do big things and small things, and I’m doing both.
Firebrand hasn’t been a big success story as a label, which in a way is a good thing. We haven’t seen the numbers we’d like to see to be able to really offer radical artists a fast-lane to getting bigger, which sucks. At the same time, we’ve been real about what we’re doing. We don’t like big labels and we don’t really like how they’ve operated in relation to artists. Tom and I are both artists, so we see the music world differently. Over our first few years we’ve signed contracts, we’ve scrapped contracts with artists that wanted to pursue either new labels or wanted to go back to being indy. That’s fine, we see no problem here honestly, though I wish we could be a better home for folks. The truth is, we haven’t gotten there yet. We’re still an experiment, and we’re still regularly discussing how to take a better shape.
This year we’ve got some new music coming out from my trio, Son of Nun, and Built for the Sea, some fresh ideas and really, really good tunes.
What would you sing about if all of a sudden everyone just got along and was kind to each other?
I don’t think that will happen but, I don’t know if I would sing nearly as much as I do. I like singing, but I don’t just like, sing for no reason. The political intentions of a song are usually my motivation. But there’s beautiful songs about life, love, loss, growing, and the general complications of life that I am drawn to. Life will never be a simple story, so there will always be songs about living.
To flip an old Bertolt Brecht quote, in the good times, we’ll sing about the good times. And we’ll probably sing old songs to remind ourselves of the harder moments and how we survived them.
What is on the horizon for you?
My trio with Kareem Samara and Shireen Lilith is my main focus right now. We’re combining Arabic and American-style protest folk music together over international political themes for our first album(s), of which we’ve already released the first part (“Thin Blue Border – Vol. 1”).
Volume 2 is already finished and is getting mastered soon, then it’ll come out too. Part 2 is a real departure from what I have been producing, it’s got a lot of different instrumentation on it. Our friend Carl Restivo produced both Eps in LA, and we recorded with friends in London and Amsterdam too. So we gathered some flavors from different places in that process. Kareem and Shireen have added such distinctions to the songs, I think we’ve really developed something new. And we’re hoping to take our music to totally new places for whatever we do after that.
I’m also hoping to do a more folk-punky album again soon solo, with a bunch anti-fascist songs on it I’ve been writing. We’ll see what I do with those…
Thank you very much for participating and for the music! Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
I think that’s all! Thanks for reading and thanks to Shouts – Music from the Rooftops! for giving me and many other radical artists a platform to speak about what we do.