Vancouver political punks tour Europe for the first time
Interview done by Allan MacInnis and published on request.
One might be forgiven for thinking punk in Vancouver an old man’s game. Most of the best known bands currently active in the city are survivors from the so-called “first wave” of punk, formed in the late 1970’s, like DOA and the Subhumans Canada. Few bands that have risen up since that time have equalled the social awareness and passionate political stance of those two, or attracted much attention outside the local scene. Of the bands that have gotten noticed outside Vancouver, in recent years – like the Pointed Sticks, the Dishrags, the Furies, and SNFU, all of whom have reactivated and toured – all are about the same age as the members of DOA and the Subhumans (within a few years, on one side or the other, of the big 5-0); and none have ever been especially political in their lyrics or committed to using punk as a vehicle for social change. In two cases, they aren’t even really punk bands proper (great as they are, the Pointed Sticks belong more to power-pop and the Furies to garage rock). Surveying the scene, one might be tempted to wonder if there are no younger bands with a hope of keeping the torch of punk idealism burning, once Joey Shithead and his peers settle into drawing a pension.
Thoughts like that had definitely passed through my mind until I heard The Rebel Spell. The band has an articulate, intelligent front man, Todd Serious, whose lyrics are among the best the form has produced, anywhere, dealing with poverty, environmentalism, the rights of indigenous people, the need for commitment and energy, and the galvanizing effects of music on the community; with anthemic choruses and memorable riffs, they make a persuasive musical argument for social justice, presented in a sincere, clear headed, and self-critiquing fashion. The band also has wicked charisma on stage; though they’re a bit shy about capitalizing on it in their press, they have an unusual and refreshing line up, gender-wise, being divided evenly between two women (guitarist Erin and drummer Stepha) and two men (Todd and new bassist Elliott), a mix that underscores their egalitarian nature and doubtlessly inspires punk girls in the audience, who normally have to content themselves watching all-male line ups.
They self-distributed their first two LP’s, Expression in Layman’s Terms (2003) and Days of Rage (2005), named after the infamous series of demonstrations by American radical movement the Weathermen; true to their ideals, they kept the prices as low as possible and toured relentlessly, including all-ages shows in backwater towns across Canada where kids seldom get to see touring bands. 2007 saw them actually signed to a label, Canada’s G7 Welcoming Committee, home to Propagandhi, for online distribution of the EP, Four Songs About Freedom, but this happened just as CDs were declining, and G7 was getting out of the “physical medium” game.
2011 finds The Rebel Spell signed to new labels: in North America, Rebel Time Records, and in Europe, Fire and Flames. Their new album, It’s a Beautiful Future, shows them expanding their repertoire with a cover of Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down,” about the history of the communist agrarian movement the Diggers; while their new video, “It Can’t Just Be Me,” uses the form of the rock video to craft a striking piece of agit/prop against the proliferation of closed circuit cameras.
2011 also sees a first for the band: they’re touring Europe, with shows planned in Ireland, France, the Netherlands and Germany. I spoke to vocalist and main lyricist Todd Serious about their plans and the new album.
Picture: Todd by Femke van Delft
How did the tour get set up?
Well, Phil (from the band’s North American label, Rebel Time Records) was kinda pushing us to go to Europe. We’ve wanted to do it for years, but it was just a matter of figuring out how, y’know? And so Phil was really keen to make it happen, and he basically did. We’re just buying the plane tickets and getting there.
What do the shows look like? Opening slots, headlining gigs, what?
It’s sort of a mixture. There’s some festival dates, and there’s also some smaller shows – we’ll end up getting sandwiched with some locals, just so there’s people there to see us, basically.
I gather you just did a tour here with (British punks) The Restarts – how did that go?
Yeah, we just did a handful of dates around BC and Alberta with them. It was actually fantastic – musically, we’re a pretty good match, and personally – it was great, man, we’re instant friends. We’ve toured with a lot of bands, and it’s never worked out as well as it did with The Restarts. We’re going to do some shows with them at the end of the tour – we’re doing four or five dates with The Restarts, which is great – they jumped in, and said, “hey, we can do this;” and it’ll help us immensely, because obviously the revenue will be a lot better, and crowds and so on.
I like that you both do folk music covers. They do “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” you guys are doing this Leon Rosselson song, “The World Turned Upside Down.” Where did the decision to cover a folk song come from, anyhow?
We were at eleven songs for the new album (It’s a Beautiful Future) and we thought, “Oh, let’s go crazy, let’s put twelve on this record” – because we’re not the most prolific band. And that’s kind of been one of my favourite songs, for like, forever. So that was a fairly obvious choice for me. We looked at some other folky tunes – we didn’t want to cover a punk tune. You don’t really get to put your own flavour or arrangement to it. So we were looking at John Lennon songs, or things like that, and it just came down to this one that we could all agree on. And when we worked it out, it sounded good, so we were pretty happy with that.
Do you know it as a Leon Rosselson song, or did you know the Billy Bragg version, or…?
No, I’m probably most familiar with the Billy Bragg version. I’m trying to think – I’ve heard a few different recordings – but Billy Bragg brought that song to the surface for just about everybody, I think.
Were you aware of the Diggers, before you heard “The World Turned Upside Down?”
No, that song would have introduced me to that little particular piece of history, for sure.
Are you doing homework on political issues in any of the countries that you’re playing?
Well, how do I say it? The label that we’re on – they’re outwardly an anti-fascist label, so we’re playing several benefits for anti-fascist causes. So we’re trying to get a handle for what’s going on there, because it’s so different, obviously, from what’s going on here, now.
Will you be tailoring your set? I mean, a song like “I am a Rifle,” depending on what’s going on in a given country at a given time, might not be in the best of taste…
Well, I don’t know. The message of that song, when you get right into it – people take what they want from things, but when you get right into that song, for example, it applies to the historical situation in Ireland quite well. The image of colonialism is what that song is exploring, and there’s not a lot of places in the world where that hasn’t had an effect on the population, on one side or the other.
I know that the Subhumans were really interested in the Red Army Faction in Germany – they mention them, I think, and Ann Hansen, in her book Direct Action (about the urban guerrilla group that Subhumans’ bassist Gerry Hannah belonged to), cites them as an inspiration. Is that stuff particularly important to you?
No, it’s not, to be honest. My historical interest in political movements is actually more centered in South and Central America. Maybe that’s just because I’m a kid of the Reagan era, but that’s the stuff that I tended to focus on as I was getting into that stuff.
You mention the Zapatistas in one of the songs on Days of Rage – you see them as a pretty positive example of people organizing?
I think people’s right as a group to choose how they live, is one thing. Within that culture, repression, oppression will develop, regardless of what you do, because people are people and they aren’t perfect. But if you look at, from the outside, what they’ve done – indigenous autonomy is the part of that that does it for me, and standing up to this accelerated capitalism that’s trying to move into Mexico? Right on: give me a gun. So…
How far would you take that? The use of violence…
Well, there’s two different ways to look at that. The first is, if I said, I believe in violence right now. Like, it just kills me when people say “pacifist.” If I burst into your door at your family reunion and start shooting people, one at a time, and start making my way through your house, and you reach over and grab Grandpa’s shotgun: if you call yourself a pacifist, what are you going to do? You’re gonna fuckin’ blow me away. Now, back up: you now are an indigenous group, and a bunch of yahoos land and start raping and pillaging. Are you going to sit down and let them do that?
Okay, what about these people, they come and they massively take over your country or your space – I don’t believe in borders per se but at some point you have to do it, “this is my space,” right? And they come in and they start destroying things, they set things up, and they just slowly destroy your culture. They erode it away by encroaching on it and polluting it until its gone. I don’t see that as any different. It’s another kind of invasion. I don’t like the idea of people being hurt for any reason, and I’d do anything to prevent that, but I think when someone – there is a line where you have to be willing to fight, because all you can do otherwise is die or be wiped out. Whether it’s the current form of cultural genocide that’s occurring to the Native people here or all around the world, so you have a group like the Zapatistas that stand up and say, “We’re going to use violence if necessary to stop what’s going on.” I totally agree with violence in that regard.
Have you guys ever played in Mexico, or areas where that sort of unrest was going on?
I’d certainly play anywhere, and if there’s something you can lend to somebody by their music, supporting them by being there, then sure, great. I personally don’t know that I can do that much. I mean, I think, part of it with the music is to raise some awareness. I mean, if I put an idea in someone’s head – they might want to learn about it. And I mean, I think – I’ve seen evidence of that, people are influenced in some way, and they learn about these things because of the music.
And in that song you’re referring to (“Rebels Sing,” off Days of Rage), I refer to a bunch of different things – the Sandinistas, I refer to the People’s Army which is referring to the ongoing revolution in Nepal… And it’s just to put that idea out there, so people are aware these things are going on, because you never hear about it in the mainstream media. You heard about it when the Nepalese – when the prince went crazy and shot a bunch of people in the palace. You didn’t hear about the revolution that’s been going on in that country for ten years, right? I just wanted to put that out there so someone would hear it.
Pictures: Elliot and Erin by Bev Davies
Music is great that way – as an educational tool, as a motivating force.
I think music’s been used for movements as long as you can remember, and every kind of movement, because it’s another way of reaching people. If you just hit people with straight rhetoric, it’s often difficult to get through. When you get some people on a more emotional angle, which is where music kind of connects the two things – if you can get your rhetoric with some emotion attached to it, I think it works differently, and people are receptive to it in a different way.
We should talk a bit more about the new album. The song “It Can’t Just Be Me,” for instance. Who directed the video for that?
Clay of (Vancouver hardcore video magazine) Eargoggles.
Did you guys come up with the ideas, or -?
The concept was something I’d been trying to put together for quite awhile, like, years actually. It seemed to fit with that video, and then once we kinda talked to Clay about it – because we needed somebody to take over the project and make it happen – he took that concept and gave his own slant on it. We couldn’t be sure what he was doing until it was done, but it worked out, so…
Yeah, it’s a great little bit of film. You want to talk a bit about the surveillance state? How concerned are you guys about being videotaped everywhere?
In general, it’s something that bothers me. It’s just another piece of the eroding of our general freedoms and rights to exist, in this country and all over the place. It’s something that was just really cranked up on the run up to the 2010 Olympics, and it’s something that we’re now living with.
I read somewhere with the album, It’s a Beautiful Future, you were trying to think ahead to what things will be like a few years from now, more than current problems… but that doesn’t seem to apply to surveillance, since there are cameras everywhere already.
It’s just that they’re getting better at this stuff all the time, right? And better at sneaking the legalities around so that it works and so that it can stay. It’s something that a lot of people object to. They don’t realize how far it’s gone already, and then when you think about the implications of where it can go, it starts to get pretty crazy. You have cameras now that are capable of – with the computers behind them – analyzing faces, putting faces with faces, putting that with financial information, and so on, and you can pretty easily track every movement of someone’s life, very simply. And that’s just with present technology. Once people start putting their minds to these things, it of course grows and expands and quickly gets much more effective and efficient.
Has the band had any problems with being videoed or watched?
No, nothing specific like that. I mean, in a way, we’ve maybe stayed off the radar. It’s hard to say what’s important to these people or not. I’ve certainly had friends who have dealt with surveillance issues, especially in the run up to the Olympics, or the run up to the G20 (Ontario summit that was a focal point for protesters and anarchists, where the Rebel Spell were scheduled to play a concert that was ultimately cancelled). I haven’t had any personal problems, no.
Can you tell me a story of one of your friends…?
Well… as soon as I start talking about it, then people will know who those people are… Let me see if I can do it delicately enough. Umm… No. Not off the top of my head. I’d have to censor too much, so it would be a really weird and lame story. But it happened in Ontario, and it happened in Vancouver, and both were personal acquaintances of mine.
Has being on a label made it easier for you guys to cross borders? Is the label doing the paperwork for you, say?
No, and we’ve decided intentionally not to use the legit route, because once you’re in the system as someone who has had a work visa, you’ll never cross a border again without serious interrogation. Like, this is again – our friend that has helped us out, playing drums in the past, he’s played with different bands that have toured both sides of the (Canada/ USA) border and done it with work permits, and now when he crosses the border, they immediately assume he’s trying to come in and do it again. And they look up the bands that he’s been in in the past, they try to connect that with other bands – they went as far as taking his computer and holding him until he gave them his email passwords, so they could search his email. His choice there was go home or give us your email password.
Was he actually trying to go into the States to play a gig, at that point?
Nope. He was just travelling to visit his girlfriend. And it had been a year and a half since he’d been in any band that was touring. They were still after him with information from five year old work visas that they had. Once that stuff is logged, it haunts you. So just using aliases in the press and not doing dumb stuff and crossing borders as tourists, you can bypass that. I certainly don’t need more hassles at the border – I get enough just for looking slightly odd.
I was reading an interview with Jello Biafra, and he was saying very similar things – that he’s grateful he didn’t have his name legally changed to Jello Biafra, so it doesn’t appear on his ID. It makes it a lot easier for him when he crosses.
But none of that applies to Europe, right?
It applies to parts of Europe. I don’t have enough experience to know. Friends that have travelled to Europe are confident that it’s not an issue – I know it’s more of an issue in England; don’t try to fly into there with a guitar in your hand. But the mainland seems to be more tolerant, more lenient. They still have those laws in place, and can make an issue if they want to, they just choose not to.
Okay. You know – I was watching this really remarkable film, Armadillo, about Danish troops in Afghanistan. I don’t actually know which European countries are in the international force that is in Afghanistan – I just know that Canada is there. And I was thinking about the new song, “No Thanks,” and thinking your lyrics applied to the situation. So how do you feel about our having troops there?
I don’t think it’s a good idea. I’m not into war in general. It’s hard to make a call on these things, even if you believe in the game of war, because knowing the actual motives behind an invasion and occupation is really difficult. Because no one tells the truth when it comes to these things, and the powers that are making these things happen almost always seem to have other motives. And it’s a region of the world where I don’t think we have insider info. It’s as foreign a country as you could get, in terms of the culture and so on. So sending people from this side of the world to fix up problems and help people, somewhere like that, is highly suspect.
The thing is, years ago, just after 9/11, I actually gave some money to RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a group fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan. And they sent me some literature, which showed just horrible things being done by the Taliban – hands of thieves chopped off, women shot for lifting a veil to see a price at a grocery store better, public executions. I mean, it turns out they’re not big fans of Karzai either, or the occupation, but, I mean – given conditions like that, at least in theory, intervening in the political affairs of a country to keep thugs like the Taliban out seems like it’s on a different moral order from, say, the invasion of Iraq…
It’s a really tough one to call. You’re going into these places – is occupying really the way to do it. I’m certainly no military strategist, and I don’t agree with the things that these people have allegedly done, but I just don’t think bringing more violence into that situation is the best answer. And certainly with the other issues that are present in that region of the world – and our interests in these things – it just makes it really suspect. And maybe there’s other ways to be doing things, than sending troops in to tell people how to live.
The song “No Thanks” – was that written in regard to any particular situation, historically?
That’s a pretty general song. I wanted to try to capture images throughout history in it. It certainly runs right up to Afghanistan and Iraq, and then backwards to Vietnam, and further back to the Crusades. All through history we’ve had these people who are going places to “help” people, whether it’s bringing new religion or bringing new economic ideology. And all they’ve ever brought (quotes song lyric) “is trouble, murder, and disease.” So I was just trying to catch all of those things, just point out the pattern.
It’s a great song. So. The tape’s almost at an end. Anything else you want to say?
Nope. I hope one day to be a guy who makes clever closing comments in an interview, but I still ain’t him.
Picture: Stepha by Bev Davies
The Rebel Spell European Tour: click here for all the tour dates