Interview by Gerard Dia
Remember when you first heard the term ‘folk-punk’ and you imagined what that would be like in your head, and when you finally heard it it wasn’t like that at all? This is the band that you were imagining.
Blackbird Raum’s fast tempos, epic chord progressions, and oddly poetic lyrics have won them a dedicated following worldwide, but not much attention from the music press- maybe because people aren’t exactly sure where to put them. They’re all- acoustic, and play their instruments with the ease of people who know folk traditions, but they’re sketchy anarcho- punks that would look more at home at an Amebix concert than a bluegrass festival. This year Blackbird Raum exploded back onto the scene with a new album, False Weavers, and a five- month tour after a semi-hiatus for a few years. I spoke to them last week after a free show at the Albany Bulb squatter community where they played in the pitch black to a wild crowd of hip Oakland punks awkwardly rubbing shoulders with deadheads, crust lords, and old folkies. Even though none of them probably felt like they fit in, they all did, perfectly.
It seemed like nothing was happening with you guys for a couple of years, then False Weavers comes out and you’re touring for five months all over the planet. Where did this new energy come from?
Mars: I think our new energy came from anger, darkness, and hate- but in more of a “darkness of the womb” kind of way. Our lives were pretty difficult, our band dynamics were difficult, and we put a lot of work into keeping it all together. Our shadows needed space to exist on their own, and that’s a pretty fertile place for creative endeavors. The music and energy just rose up out of that. When we made that record, we fought like crazy. We tried weird new things, we argued, we yelled, we cried, and then when it was time to mix it all, we got along great. It’s really powerful to take something dark and instead of denying it or hiding it, giving it space and embracing it.
I’ve always felt that you guys were doing something truly unique, but how is that reflected in your audience? When you go out on tour who do you play with and who comes to your shows?
CPN: Last year I tie-dyed some shirts for us, and I realized that we’re probably the only band that would sell tie- dyes to Olympia punks as this ironic thing and also to actual hippies, who you know, wear tie-dye on purpose. It made me really happy. It’s always been important for me to do things that weren’t just for über-hip clued in people, but that were respected by people who are into art as such. It doesn’t really always work out… I have people come up to me and complain about the audience, like there are too many “hipsters” or “oogles” or “hippies” or some other type of person here, as if I sent out personal invitations! As far as other bands are concerned, we try not to play with other bands too much. I think it just confuses the audience. We played with Sangre de Muerdago in Leipzig, though. They’re incredible.
Zack: When punks bring their parents or their children (or both!), or their piano teachers, we are feeling cool. We play with punk bands, and folk bands (or more often, folk dudes). We always try to play with Lynched, from Ireland. They are the best band to be around.
So are you guys hippies or what?
CPN: Like other derogatory terms, hippie is fine when we use it on ourselves, but it’s not ok for others outside of our community to call us that. I can spend all day eating salads, smoking weed and then kissing girls with armpit hair, but don’t call ME a hippie.
Mars: We’re not not hippies.
Zack: Hippy has become synonymous with vapid new-age positive-vibes-merchant. In this respect we are not hippies, because of the purely negative nature of our message. In the past, hippies were just confused but disaffected youth who dressed weird, hated capitalism, shot guns, listened to rock and roll, did drugs and believed in dolphins. I don’t think we believe in dolphin power.
False Weavers almost has a psychedelic feel at times. How are the fans liking the new sound?
CPN: it seems sort of galvanizing. So far there have been only two responses, this is great and what the fuck are you doing. It’s such a weird thing to write music that people already have a built up expectation about. People talking about new directions and all that crap, there is no new direction, other than this is what we thought was cool the week we were in the studio and this is the level we were able to pull that off at that time.
What’s the most pretentious way you could describe your music?
CPN: All- acoustic pseudo-medieval anarcho- punk, a Max Ernst collage that juxtaposes post-modern absurdist horror with re-constituted images from the past, albeit stripped of their sentimentality. Almost as if nothing musical happened in the west between Memphis in 1925 and London in 1982.
Zack: I play accordion.
What’s the least?
Zack: I play accordion.
CPN: Folk punk…folk punk band.
Punk music today has a really different feel than it did during the Fugazi- era. What is the shape of politics in underground music? Is sincerity dead?
CPN:I always think of punk has having these two faces. You’ve got this Ramones gum chewing leather jacket wearing sarcastic trip. It’s all about this kind of ironical fuck you cult of youth thing, and then you have this sort of Crass- derived all black pissed off about the state of the world paranoid trip. There’s sort of a trap built into each of those things. Are you going to be this zippy little shit that only cares about yourself, or are you going to be some self- righteous lunatic with lentils in your beard? It seems things have swung back towards the Ramones side of the pendulum, and even crust bands aren’t singing about politics anymore. I miss politics in music, because I’m still pissed and I’ve read enough to know what I’m pissed about…but I don’t really miss going to shows where everyone is scowling and handing out badly photocopied pamphlets. I also don’t miss the soup.
Zack: No, it’s just moved on. I got into anarchism through punk rock, and there are still bands out there doing that, which is great, but there’s a ton of people who are interested in expanding musically, so you also have politically radical cumbia, hip-hop, zydeco, pop-music, etc, and of course people continuing the older tradition of radical politics in folk music. When musicians take their own music and imbue a radical message into it, that is beautiful and inspiring, but when political people try to take up instruments to make their message more palatable, it usually fails.
CPN: Which one are we again?
Do people think political music is boring now?
Mars: It’s pretty hard to take something heavy and complex like politics and mix it with music without being preachy or boring. Add to that the fact that probably 90% of most genres suck in general. I don’t know what people think is boring, some people like shit that I think is hella boring, like sitting on Facebook all day and eating Cheetos. I think a lot of people feel like something is wrong in the world, even if it doesn’t directly affect them. It’s not a secret that our band is disgusted by things like people locked up in prisons, and the destruction of the planet for profit. Some people relate to that. And if anyone thinks it’s boring, there’s always Taylor Swift.
CPN: It’s a trip going to Europe, because political punk is a major thing over there still. In the states sometimes we goof it up a little, we don’t want to come off as converts right? But a lot of places in Europe it was like “you better take this shit seriously; it’s war man!” In Germany people call the cops to report fake accidents and then just beat the living daylights out of them when they show up. So you know, different context.
You guys recently toured Poland. Can you tell me a little about your gigs there?
Zack: At two different shows we met people who claimed to be ‘our biggest fan in Poland.’ In Warsaw I stayed up with three totally wasted punks who just sang polish folk songs as long as they could sit upright, and in Lublin our hosts took a couple of us on a tour of abandoned buildings in the historic area, including one with a piano. Nothing quite like trying to stay awake as the sun is coming up in some fucking ruins while Dorothy from Gembrokers plays a waltz on an out-of-tune piano and some songbirds join in; it’s like crimethinc.
Needless to say, I completely slept through Krakow the next day.
CPN: We played at this squat in downtown Lublin, like right in the historic district, and It’s got these huge banners, really nicely printed, with pictures of the mayor, the local bishop, the chief of police and the quotes under say “This guy embezzled money from a children’s program” or “The chief of police has such and such connections with Neo Nazis.” It was awesome. You know those guys have to walk under those banners on their way to work! When the shows are over everyone gets drunk and starts singing these old polish songs and there is always some asshole who’s like “shut up! I’ve heard that one a thousand times!” and then he turns around and cranks up the ska.
What music is on heavy rotation in the tour van?
Zack: Pallbearer, Arctic Flowers, Chumbawamba, Planxty, Gucci Mane.
CPN: Zounds, Lee Perry and other old reggae sides, The Smiths, and when we’re in a bad mood we listen to Imogen Heap.
Zack: …Or if it’s raining.
Mars: For reals though, I don’t have that many cd’s or ipods. It sucks. Oh, Tuvan throat singing.
Zack and CPN: Ulver.
You often have a sort of criminal air about your music, what is “shot coplifting” all about?
Mars: We were squatters. We scammed the bus. We stole most of the things we needed, or found them in the trash. It was easy to go days without using money. We had a game and you lost if you paid for something. Our band came out of a scene of people like that. In retrospect, I think I was doing a kinda normal thing, which is trying something to an extreme to figure out where the balance was. As an anarchist, I had to learn for myself how to relate to money and the law in a way that honors my values and isn’t reactionary, disrespectful to people around me, or just plain risky and labor intensive.
Zack: I’m just mad I got busted waahhh…
CPN: When we started, almost everything we had was ripped off, found laying around or whatever. This includes accordions. The CDs our demos were on, whatever. Sometimes we would dress up nice to go out and steal stuff; it was called “khakiflouge.” It’s fun to talk about crime like it’s all in the past.
Zack: We’re really into spoonerisms, and sometimes when we’re about to play that song, I try to spoonerize the name. Never works.
CPN: I’m just mad I got busted waahhh..
I’ve heard that you guys play music for squaredances sometimes? What’s that like?
Mars: It’s great. Talk about different than a Blackbird Raum show. You play super fast for like 3 hours. One time I got tendonitis from playing a dance right before a tour, and I could hardly move my hand. I had to play the first couple of shows with a pick taped to my fingers. It was sick.
Zack: Actually, we have thrown squaredances AT Blackbird Raum shows, which is always fun and always a mess, and we also have had them outside of that completely. When we have played (or called, which is actually what I do) at more traditional square-or-contra-dances, there is notably less chaos. I don’t want to say there is less fun at a more traditional-style dance, but it’s hard to beat a bunch of filthy punks do-si-doing their partners all around the hall.
CPN: I really encourage people not to squaredance anymore.
Purchase False Weavers here:
Blackbird Raum Tour Dates:
2/13/2014 Santa Cruz, CA @ Crepe Place
4/1/2014 Las Vegas, NV @ Hellpop Comics
4/3/2014 Denver, CO @ Seventh Circle
4/8/2014 New Orleans, LA @ Siberia w/ Lynched
4/11/2014 Austin, TX @ Spiderhouse
4/15/2014 Flagstaff, AZ @ Taala Hooghan
4/18/2014 Pomona, CA @ VLHS
4/19/2014 Los Angeles, CA @ CHURCH OF F.U.N
8/18/2014 Machais. ME @ Blackfly Ball
8/29/2014 Cookeville TN @ Muddy Roots Music Fest