These are some responses I wrote to a person who wanted to interview me about Defiance, Ohio for a university thesis.Â I decided to post them on my blog because I feel like I don’t always get to say the things I want to say or have time to think ideas through in traditional interviews and that they also don’t afford a follow-up dialog or room for critical but non-adversarial response that I think is so important when anyone gets to express their ideas.Â Hopefully this blog might afford a better space for this.
Vasco Gamboni: your new record, The Fear The Fear The Fear, is coming only a year after your last one (The Great Depression). Do you think having only a year between each records has changed something for you (and the band)?
Me: We have always recorded songs when they were ready, and in this case, we ended up having some songs that we were happy with and were able to record only a year after the last record. There are no obligations or pressures to make new songs from anyone but us.
To me, in a personal sense, maybe the songs seem less iconic because they I don’t know if I’m in that different of a place from when we wrote and recorded the songs on “The Great Depression”. On the other hand, the lengthy gap between “Share What You Got” and the “The Great Depression” marked many changes in terms of both geography and life priorities, and even the world as a whole.
VG: In this record, which Iâ€š have already heard (don’t worry, I will buy it later on), I get the feeling the strings are more arranged (I get this “classical” feeling) and the record seems more accessible, easier for people foreign to your music to get into. Am I right or is that just an impression ? Are you trying to bring new people to your music ?
Me: I think one thing that is easy for even me to forget is that we have been a band for five years and that we have gotten better, or more accurately, more comfortable, playing our instruments and also better at playing together, so I think that could account for the newest recording sounding more polished. BZ, who plays violin, and Sherri who plays cello, learned those instruments playing classical music, and I think that has always influenced the way that they write and play parts, even on Defiance, Ohio songs. I think that the strings have always sounded more like “classical” music than traditional American fiddle playing.
A friend recently told me that the new recording sounded more produced than other ones and that she felt that the songs didn’t have the same life to them on record that they did when we played them at shows. I think that making recordings that sound good but that also are lively or convey something more than just the bare sounds of the instruments or voices is something we are still learning to do. We now have six people in the band (as opposed to 3 people on some of the songs that were recorded for Share What Ya’ Got) and it is a delicate balance to make a recording where all of us playing parts doesn’t just end up being a muddy mess, but that also doesn’t sound too lifeless.
I think that it is always our hope to bring new people to our music, but that we never make intentional aesthetic choices to do this. Fundamentally, we make melodic music that has discernible lyrics. This is a way, we saw, through music, to communicate really clearly between people. It’s not the only way to do this, of course – there is lots of music with no words that is incredibly evocative – but it’s the way that felt most natural to me. We certainly didn’t change the way we made songs on the new recording to try to get people to respond to it in a particular way. I think that’s a really dangerous thing to do. Even if you do land on some magic formula for songwriting or recording that attracts people to the music, what they’re ultimately attracted to is something that is contrived, not quite truthful, and somehow hollow for all of that. I like music that has a sincerity to it and that seems to convey something very true. I would like it if that is what brings people to the music that Defiance, Ohio makes.
Finally, I think that the idea of trying to be consciously “accessible” is a dangerous one because if you try to appeal to one group of people, you may be closing the things that you make to others, or vice-versa. I heard a story on the radio yesterday that made me think of this question. A person who wrote book reviews for the leading newspaper in Los Angeles, California wrote a book review for a recent translation of a book by an author who was hugely influential to Mexican literature and culture but who was virtually unknown in the US. He was criticized by his editors for taking up so much space in the paper to review a book by an author that no one knew about or cared about. However, when the article was published, the paper received an outpouring of positive response from the Spanish-speaking readers of the paper, to whom the work of the author was important, newsworthy, and even nostalgic. The moral of this, to me, I guess, is that by doing something that you find significant personally, you can create an incredible response from or connection to other people, even if that wasn’t your intention.
VG: You’ve released lots of EPs (including splits) these last years. How important is it for you to work together with artists, including off the road, and release these couple of shorter albums (EPs) instead of, say, put them together in one LP?
Me: As I mentioned in one of the previous questions, we tend to record songs when they’re ready. Sometimes this can be a whole record’s worth of songs, and sometimes it’s just one or two. I think the splits we have done are mostly the result of having only a few songs ready and being asked to release something with other bands who are our friends.
VG: You’re now seen as one of the leading bands in the “folk-punk” movement, along with, I guess, Ghost Mice. How do feel about being put into such a category and also being put in such a leading role ?
Me: I don’t like being categorized in terms of something that seems as arbitrary as a label like “folk-punk”. I would rather people think of the music that Defiance, Ohio makes by the things that our lyrics talk about, the actions we take as a band, or the experience that people have seeing us play. When I hear a label like “folk-punk” or even “punk” it doesn’t convey any of that. More and more, I am frustrated that labels like “punk” or “folk punk” just give us easy identities that we can subscribe to rather than thinking very hard about what our values are and doing or making things that follow from that examination. General labels also allow people to be critical or supportive of things without having to think too hard, and allow people or bands to be grouped together who, when examined, have very different values, aesthetics, and ways of doing things. I worry that relying on these labels will make us all into lazy thinkers.
5) Folk-punk has long been known for its independence towards the music industry. Plan-it-x sells its records for 5$, No Idea (not a strictly folk-punk label, I know…) for a bit more. Does your tradition of letting people download your records for free off your website have anything to do with any ideological or political ideas, or is it just a way for you guys to get people to hear your music ?
Making our music available as a free download on the web is absolutely not a promotional tool. I think that if people have the ability to make things free or cheap that they should. Not everyone can do this, I understand, but with our songs, we had the ability to give them away for free, so I’ve always posted them to the web for download. There are so many things in this world that are made inaccessible to people because of their costs. It is a small thing, perhaps an insignificant thing, to make Defiance, Ohio songs freely available, but it feels nice, at least for the things that I make, to not make them another one of those things made exclusive by their cost.
VG: With Against Me! pretty much dropping the folk off their sound in their last two records, what do you think of the state of punk’s relationship with folk ? Lots of leading punk artists have started going accoustic (Chuck Ragan, Dustin Kensrue, Sundowner, etc) and the folk-punk and riot-folk movement is gaining momentum. What do you think of that ? How do you feel about being in the middle of a (pretty young) genre getting the attention it deserves?
I have a really hard time thinking of folk-punk as a genre because really, other than people living in Bloomington who make music that some would call folk-punk, I don’t listen to a lot of music that people would consider folk-punk. For instance, I’m not very familiar with any of the people you mentioned in your question. This isn’t a criticism of any type of music, I just don’t feel like I have very much to say about folk punk as a musical genre.
I recently read an essay in an issue of a ‘zine called “Even if your voice shakes” that is put out by some of the people who identify with the Riot Folk collective and I wish I could find it to quote it directly, but what it said essentially was that even though they are primarily interested in making mostly acoustic music, with pretty explicit politics, usually performed by a single singer-songwriter, it is important to think of folk music less as a style and to think of it as people’s music. I agree with this idea. To me folk music is music made to tell people’s real stories, histories, and experiences. So folk music could be a singer-songwriter, or a hip-hop MC, or a blues singer, or a punk band.
I think that the real difference between “folk” music and “pop” music is the authenticity of the experience conveyed in the music. To me, a lot of the ideas I hear in pop songs seem really generic, contrived, or not very heartfelt. This isn’t to say that real experiences or political or other human insights don’t exist in mainstream popular music, they’re just filtered through an industry that is very intent on exploiting this any connectivity found in the music for financial gain and a cultural mythology that seems more interested in creating icons than reflecting on ideas and feelings.
An example of this that came to mind is a story that I heard on a really great radio show that is broadcast on public radio here in the US called This American Life (you can listen to all their shows for free on their website http://www.thislife.org. This particular story is at http://thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=339). In the story, the reporter interviewed the pop artist Phil Collins about his song “Against All Odds”. Collins talked about how he had written the song while going through a painful divorce. The pain and concern and thought that he described when he talked about the song seemed very real, very universal, and it seemed very helpful to people who might be going through similarly painful times. I would have never thought of that without hearing him talk about his experiences, however. I always thought of the song as being over-the-top, but now I can see why the song would be important to people.
VG: Music has often helped people get a political or sociological idea out into the world. Did you start playing music just for fun or was there actually and idea of getting some of your views over ? And nowadays ? With tons of artists jumping on the political bandwagon lately (rock against bush, etc..), how do you feel when you’re part of a genre largely leaning to the left (or at least more so than other genres) ? Is it time to be more apolitical or actually take even more part of this movement to actually bring change ?
Me: I can only speak personally, but I think that it is never time to be more apolitical. Whether someone is actively involved in politics whether it is through the political process, like voting, or through more direct community activism, or whether someone does none of those things, we are all affected by, and either through our action or inaction, participate in politics. I think that I have always played music both for fun and to express ideas, simultaneously, and this continues to be what I do. The songs I write talk about ideas, not because I see those topics as being a requirement for being in a punk band, but because they are the things that I think about and the things that matter to me.
VG: How did you come to the genre of music you play ? Mixing folk music with punk isn’t that often seen, so what were your influences ? What bands pushed you towards this kind of music ?
Me: I think the style of music that we play came about as an happy accident. The band was originally going to be a pop-punk band, but I didn’t own a very good electric guitar but I could borrow a decent acoustic guitar from my brother. Ryan had an old upright bass that he used to use in a ska band and to play some jazz, and after playing in a metal band for a while, he was interested in playing around with the upright bass again. I think that instrumentation just led to things sounding a certain way, but I still think we’re essentially a pop-punk band with different instrumentation.
VG: Can you live off your music ? If you can’t, how hard (or not) is it to play music you love, know people love, and yet have to have a job on the side to be able to pay rent, food, etc.. ? How does the fact that you can’t live of what you love (or can) affect your relationship with the music you play ?
Me: I can’t live off my music, if by “live off” you mean being able to support myself financially (pay rent, buy food, give money to causes that I think are important, go out for a drink every once in a while). I don’t think that’s the point. Those things are a part of my life, yes, and a part of many people’s lives, and I think it’s silly to say that they aren’t real concerns, but I don’t think any of those things are how I ultimately define my life and if being able to own a house, even if it’s something I hope to do some day, was all I had to look back on when I am old, I would be disappointed with myself.
Being involved with music, and in particular, playing music with people serves a much more important purpose in my life. I like the way it makes me think, I like how it makes me condense a lot of different ideas or experiences into a 2 -minute song. I like how it makes me work with other people, connect with them, feel them in a way that can be difficult otherwise, compromise with them. I will play music whether or not I make any money from it. I will play music whether or not I get to go on tour or release records. All those things are fine, they’re great, but they’re not the point.
I don’t think that playing music is by any means the only thing that’s important to me. I like to volunteer or help out community groups in Bloomington. I like to know and try to understand what’s happening in my world. I’ve always been really fascinated with technology and trying to combine that with all the other things that I’ve mentioned is constantly exciting and terribly frustrating.
I make money to support myself by working as a webmaster and a programmer for the part of a university that supports research with computing technology. Just as I think it’s really exciting to know people who I feel are doing impressive, challenging things with their music or art, I think it’s exciting to work amidst a culture where people are trying to push boundaries with their scientific or technological research. Although the end products of my job are often unsatisfying, I really enjoy the things that I learn and the state of mind that I enter when I have to write computer software. Ultimately, I wish that this mindset with technology, a way of supporting myself and the people and pursuits I care about, my creative projects, and political and community involvement could all converge. Still, I feel like I’ve worked hard enough and have been lucky enough, that the paid work that I do is, in at least a few ways, something that I love. Music continues to be another thing that I love and my ultimate goal is not to figure out a way to exploit one of the things that I love in order to live comfortably, but to live comfortably while doing all the things that I love.