July 31, 2012

An Interview with Nona Hendryx

Nona Hendryx has never been one to play it safe.

In fact, the avant-garde icon has spent nearly the past half-century pushing boundaries and other people's buttons; whether as a founding member of funk/soul pioneers LaBelle (“Lady Marmalade), a backing vocalist for a host of progressive artists (Talking Heads, Yoko Ono, Alice Cooper), or an innovative singer/songwriter in her own right.

On her first solo effort in 20 years and inaugural release on Righteous Babe Records, Mutatis Mutandis (Latin for “changing those things which need to be changed), Hendryx riffs on various sociopolitical ills and issues that have weighed on her mind particularly in the post-9/11 era. Boasting old-school yet urgent rhythms and brash, edgy guitars, the album's music is as fearless as its message.

You’ve always been known for being bold in your artistry and vocal in your advocacy, but were you at all reluctant about saying what you say on this album?

No, not at all. I didn’t even think about it. I was going to say, “I didn’t think twice,” but I didn’t even think once. What came out was what I was feeling and thinking and wanting to share with other people, [from] having conversations and things I’d been reading over time, and just reflecting on [matters] from the World Trade Center, 9/11 to the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, the whole situation in the Middle East, Hurricane Katrina and how America responded to that, Barack Obama running for president, the rise of the Tea Party, the violence in America.

For all the goodwill Obama galvanized around the world and specifically in America before he was president, his election seemed to drum up the worst in some people.

He did nothing but run and campaign to be president, and that was his crime to some people, like, “How dare he have that assumption that an African American could be a leader of this country?” The racism and bigotry in America, it’s a small minority of people but they’re very vocal and very powerful. And part of their bigotry and racism is about holding onto power more so than actually hating or disliking people of color. The people who hate and dislike people of color are not the powerful. The powerful are bigots because they want to maintain control, and they use that power to stir those who have lesser power and lesser means to help support their beliefs and their bigotry.

How do you reconcile the idea that to those who share your views you’re basically speaking to the choir, but that those who don’t may not want to listen to what you have to say?

That’s part of it. That’s part of the conversation, which is why I put this out there. The conversation needs to continue; it needs to be had. I can’t change or help or try to influence change by going to the opposite corner and not coming out if there’s a disagreement. And whether they agree with me or disagree with me, the conversation needs to be had. Actions still need to be taken. We need to go back and forth and try to come to some understanding. Some of my understanding might be reshaped by engaging someone who’s coming from a different point of view. If someone is going to be so recalcitrant that they’re not going to want to hear what I have to say or what you have to say or the opposite side, then we know we have a clear problem that cannot be changed by conversation. And we’d have to find another way of doing it.

There's a song on the album called “The Ballad of Rush Limbaugh. To play devil’s advocate, one could say there’s an epidemic of people like him — you can scarcely find someone of left-leaning politics with a radio show these days — so, why did you write a song about Limbaugh in particular?

In particular, he pissed me off. What really brought that song out of me was his response to the relief effort in Haiti. I was angry and I needed to release that anger and I needed to be able to share the hypocrisy that he is with others. He is such a hypocrite, and he obviously is still addled by the drugs he’s taking that he cannot see the truth of who he is. He is so power-mad that he will do anything to maintain and even fuel his addiction for power over people who are willingly or unwillingly following him.

The thing he said about Haiti—

He equated Americans donating toward relief efforts to paying taxes, right?

Yes. It was in the wake of one of the most horrific earthquakes in a place that was already a disaster. I just thought, “How cruel and insane. He’s insane. If we lived in probably a different society he would be removed for his own protection and ours.

What was your reasoning for including “Strange Fruit” among the album’s other songs that you’d written yourself?

A couple years ago, after Barack Obama started running for president and actually won the nomination, there were these incidents of nooses being hung in different places in certain cities in America. It just brought back that painful memory of lynchings and hangings, and the students and Freedom Riders who were hung in the South. It just brought that back, and it was very painful.

There’s a synthesis of musical styles on the album, echoes of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye and Sly and the Family Stone, but also of The Who and the Rolling Stones. Did you have any objective in making the album as far as how you wanted it to sound?

Not really so thought-out. It just really is how musically I am — where my ear goes, where my feeling goes, and how that is then interpreted. The rhythm is really important to me, also that it has strength. Guitars are really, really a big part of what I do in terms of how I am able to express myself. And then there’s warmer colors that come from the harmonies and piano. Those things are the elements that I wanted to mold together.

And whether it has the influences of some of the people who I just think are some of the greatest musicians and writers from the last 50-60 years, then it’s part of my growing up and ... because of my appreciation for what it is that they do and my love of their music. It all comes through.

All things considered, how much hope do you realistically have for the future?

I always have great hope for the future. I do believe in the world that there is more positive than negative, and that’s how the world survives. If it ever becomes overruled by negative, then it goes off into another course. Where that leads, I don’t know, other than you have more war and more death and more destruction. But I believe that there is more positive and that we, really, as human beings are evolving slowly, but evolving.

July 20, 2012

New Book on Bob Dylan Examines 50 Years of Relevance and Resilience

“There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music,” President Barack Obama said of Bob Dylan earlier this year at a White House ceremony in which the music legend received the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award.

With a new album in the offing—Tempest, his 35th studio effort, is slated for a September 11th release—and a new round of North American concert dates lined up with Mark Knopfler, it’s fair to say there is arguably no other living artist as relentless in his musical pursuits as Dylan either.

Dylan’s seemingly unwavering resolve and resilience underscore journalist Jon Friedman’s forthcoming book, Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution.

Having steered clear of writing a conventional biography, Friedman instead examines his subject, according to the author’s website, with an emphasis on “understanding the factors that have made Bob Dylan so successful throughout his astounding five-decade-long career.”

Forget About Today will be published by Perigree Trade on August 7.

July 10, 2012

An Interview with Dave Wakeling of the English Beat

That a conversation with Dave Wakeling ostensibly about music soon shifts to matters of sociopolitical concern shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the man’s career, most notably his stint as the principal songwriter, singer, and guitarist for the English Beat.

Formed in Birmingham, England in 1978, the English Beat (or the Beat, as they were more commonly known outside of the States) emerged as a seminal exponent of the era’s vibrant ska-punk movement. The band, which along with Wakeling (vocals/guitar) included Andy Cox (guitar), David Steele (bass), Everett Morton (drums), Lionel Augustus Martin AKA “Saxa (saxophone), and Ranking Roger (toasting), earned both popular success and critical acclaim with hit singles like Mirror in the Bathroom, Stand Down Margaret, and Save It For Later, often chronicling and, at times, decrying some of the most contentious issues of the day.

Released on Tuesday by Shout! Factory as a five-disc boxed set, The Complete Beat collects the band's three-album discography along with two supplemental discs — one of extended and remixed tracks, and another of select live material and archival sessions recorded on legendary DJ John Peel's BBC Radio 1 program. A one-disc retrospective, Keep The Beat: The Very Best of The English Beat, is also being released.

The English Beat’s original lineup broke up in 1983 — Wakeling and Ranking Roger went on to form General Public (“Tenderness, Taking the Day Off), while Andy Cox and David Steele co-founded Fine Young Cannibals (She Drives Me Crazy, Good Thing) — though Wakeling, who for nearly the last 25 years has lived in California, keeps the old moniker alive on the road.

Like much of the music he helped create three decades ago, he remains as incisive and unflinching as ever. Says Wakeling, “You’ve got to be willing to put yourself on the line.
The music of the English Beat certainly had a political context to it. Do you think there is still a place for that in music today where it can touch a nerve in the — no pun intended — general public?

I know people are terrified over it because they think it might ruin their careers. It’s amazing how many times people are quite vociferous backstage but they won’t say “boo” to a goose in case it harms their career. I find that disappointing. For us at the time, we didn’t think we were doing anything special, frankly. We were just singing about what everybody was talking about in every bar and at every bus stop. It didn’t seem appropriate that just because you got to be in a pop group you had to stop talking about what was on everybody else’s lips.

How does your early work as a songwriter resonate with you now?

I haven’t changed my mind on much of it. Some of the painful experiences that everybody will go through over a number of decades give you a few more dimensions on it. Most of it I would still stand by. A lot of it, when you haven’t heard a song for ages… I was listening to “Cheated” and “I Am Your Flag.” I’d forgotten some of the lyrics because they’re not songs that I always sing that often. So it’s, “Oh, that’s a good one. You were on a roll there, Dave!” There’s not many places where I wince looking back on them.

What did it mean to you to have Pete Townshend cover “Save It For Later”?

Probably one of the most exciting moments in my life, really; that and having Elvis Costello sing “Stand Down Margaret” on tour. … I got to meet Pete Townshend and talk to him for a few minutes. He told me that songwriters were the luckiest people in the world; it just didn’t always seem that way. [Laughs]

Some songwriters say that songwriting can be the loneliest job in the world.

It can be terrifying, but unless you’re willing to go there by yourself and have the pen in hand, shaking with laughter or shaking with fears, pacing the room in fury and feeling the hairs up on your neck and your arms… Unless you’re willing to go there you’re not going to write a song that’s going to connect to people when you’re playing it in front of them. It has to draw out those big emotions. You have to be really moved during the process.

You can do it other ways. You can just sit there and academically write out some witty double-entendres — I could probably write 30 songs a day — but I only bother to write and sing songs that move me, that I think I’ll be able to connect directly with people when I sing them. They’ll not only understand the words but they’ll understand the emotion of where I was trying to come from.

Is that process as you describe it daunting to approach? There must be times when you think, I just can’t go there today.

Oh yes, you have to pick your moments. You’ve got to be in the right mood for it to go there. There’s no doubt about it. And you usually can’t push it; you wait ‘til it comes. It’s usually a combination of things. Either something’s been playing on your mind or something on the news joins the dots and you suddenly feel something really strongly.

Tonight, in fact, during the night — I always sleep with the television on — there was a lot of Obama and Romney to-ing and fro-ing. I must’ve kept waking up and going back to sleep, and it was sort of playing on my mind and playing in my dreams. And it occurred to me that Obama’s seeming willingness to compromise is a very honorable thing, although it’s taken as weakness, I believe. Whereas Romney’s only sense of compromise is to compromise himself about what he said in the past. There’s compromise in both of the candidates; one of them I find honorable, one of them I find dishonorable.

The problem is Obama has been willing to compromise but his opposition has not.

Yes, that’s right. Sometimes you can offer an olive branch and it comes back as a shillelagh. … I was expecting a more open approach, [however]. It seemed old politics to me to have Rahm Emanuel in there just getting in everybody’s face. It seemed to piss off the Republicans right from the kick-off. It didn’t seem like as much of a hands-across-the-aisle [spirit], which it should’ve been.

More than that it just disappointed me because I’m a big fan of America, always was when I was a kid—“e pluribus unum” and all of that. It’s a pity that Americans seem to loathe each other; it’s split right down the middle. I enjoy my Facebook debates sometimes, but sometimes people are so vitriolic. I’m like, “Are you sure you’re talking about the right country? Because how can you love America and hate 100 million Americans?” That doesn’t make sense.

As far as Obama, he needs to stand his ground more.

It reminds of something my dad used to say, which I wish Obama had said from the first year along. He’d say, “Dave, I’ll play ball with you if you’ll play ball with me, but let’s not forget whose fucking ball it is.” I wish he’d have done that, like, “Fuck you, I’m the president. Show some respect.”

I grew up in England under the Labour Party that was ostensibly a socialist government. And this ain’t nothing like it. I grew up under the British national health system. And Obamacare ain’t nothing like it. They’re just buzzwords for [people], I think. It’s understandable that people get angry. There’s a changing dynamic in America.

In certain parts of the country more than others, a certain class of white people has been in charge of things for a few hundred years. And they’ve not been very kind the way they’ve kept that power. But for them to feel that they might lose power they immediately think that they will be treated as badly as they treated people when they were in power. So you can see why they’re terrified. You can see why they’re becoming so reactive.

Some people have a very idealistic view of the past.

There is that sort of thing; people want to go back a couple of generations: “I wish it was the way things were—the good old days.” I remember the ‘50s and ‘60s. There were kids going to school walking up a hill with metal calipers on their legs because they got polio. Everybody had a friend with a clanking leg. “The good old days.” Somebody’s mum would go into hospital with cancer on a Monday and she was dead by the Wednesday. “The good old days.” I think the idealism is they just want to go back to the last time that they were the only people ever saying anything, when the likes of Obama were meant to avert their eyes if they walked by. Well, guess what? Those times are gone.


The shame about it as well, though, is even amongst some of the people whose opinions I find to be a bit shallow and spiteful there is also a great deal of common humanity. You can sit and talk in a bar or a truck stop, find whichever American you sit next to and have a pretty open conversation. You can share quite a lot of information. You can focus on what you might have in common and share stories. You don’t know what party they support; they don’t know what party you support. I’ve found that just in terms of general human kindness people are very open in America.

Florida, there’s a good example. You break down on the side of the freeway in Florida in the pouring rain, you might only sit there five or 10 minutes before a complete stranger parks his car and strolls back to you — and gets soaking wet in the process — to ask you if you need any help. We’d do that in England and it’d be like three years later somebody would phone to say, “I think there’s a skeleton sitting in a car.”

There’s something terribly open about American people that it’s a shame that the political process seems to drive them — at the moment at least — to such mean-spiritedness and hatred toward one another. That’s the bit that disappoints me most. You see a great American sports team at the Olympics, all different shapes and sizes and colors, probably different political affiliations as well. But they work as a team and they’re often the best in the world. And even though I’m not a military man myself it must be said that the American Army seems to draw from all sorts of different types of people, and when they work as a team they are capable of kicking some ass. What is it about America that makes us forget that we make a good team?