“The Dead Hand of Tradition” (Taken By Surprise Records, Deranged Records), the latest offering from influential US punk rock act RED DONS (members of THE OBSERVERS, CLOROX GIRLS, THE STOPS), was of the most excellent examples of smart, melancholic and visionary punk rock salute from a band that clearly have an idea how to grow. Despite the great physical distance between members of the band (resided in Portland, Chicago, and London), they’ve managed to tour regularly in North America and Europe and team up in earlyb 2015 to record an impressive set of tunes of their signature dark, driving, melodic punk rock sound. The formula of their distinctive songwriting hasn’t changed, but has matured as a result of having five more nomadic years under their belts. These new experiences have only added to the themes of alienation, emigration, and loss present in their music. IDIOTEQ is very proud to present you an exclusive interview with the band, digging deep into “The Dead Hand of Tradition”, its lyrical content, the band’s evolution within the ever growwing punk rock movement, touring and world politics. Read the full interview below.
The band is named after a group of highly respected Cambridge professors who were later revealed to be spies. Little is known about the original RedDons (a.k.a. the Cambridge Five), but it is suggested that during World War II they were responsible for passing information to the Soviets and misinformation to the Nazis. Despite having close ties to the Queen and the British government they eventually defected to the Soviet Union adding more intrigue and mystery to their story.
Anwers by DB = (Douglas Burns), DH (Daniel Hajji Husayn), RJ (Richard Joachim), and RS (Ruby Sparks).
Hi guys! So, you’re back with a new offering, your first album in 5 years! How does it feel to be back? Tell us a bit about what and when to expect and what is your personal take on what’s to come for the band?
DB – Yes, we have a new album. In each of the past five years we’ve released a new 7”. That in itself was no small feat because over that time we’ve been a band with members spread out between Portland, Chicago, and London. 7”s are great but an album felt long over due. So, rather than touring last year, we meet up in Portland with the goal of completing an entire full length. We’re very excited about the new release. It’s called The Dead Hand of Tradition.
DH- Personally, I feel we have all grown musically over the past five years. Writing and recording all those 7″s has helped us play together more as a band. I also think this album is the best sounding record we’ve made. That’s thanks to Stan Wright at Buzz or Howl Studios in Portland. So much thought and care has been invested in the sound aesthetics. We wanted to make a record that you play loud not just because it’s punk but because it sounds better and better the more you turn it up.
What makes putting out another full record important to you?
DH – Between Fake Meets Failure and The Dead Hand of Tradition, each of the 7″s we released could be considered a paragraph in a story. To release an LP is to write a chapter. Our music is a dialogue we are having with the world around us. It was important to us to release another record, especially an LP, as so much has happened to us over the past five years.
What changes and development have RED DONS been gone through since 2010?
DH – I suppose a band is the sum total of its parts. That being said, each of us has had a lot of changes and development in our personal lives. Over these five years, I have been heavily involved with mastering and other audio engineering work. I even opened a mastering studio called North London Bomb Factory.
DB – Yes, there have been big changes in each of our personal lives. Cross-country moves, relocations, the passing of loved ones, marriages; add in grad school, art shows, the North London Bomb Factory, and it’s a lot to consider. I guess I’d say that most important development for the band during this time has simply been that we’ve found a way to continue being active through all these shifts in our lives. I guess when it comes to developments that are strictly band related, the biggest changes center around our rotating line up.
DH – We’ve had the distinct pleasure of touring with many accomplished musicians and songwriters such as Justin Maurer, Zach Brooks, Will Kinser, Andy Foote and of course our most recent member Ruby Sparks. In addition to working with different people in RED DONS, each of us has had other music projects too. Playing with other people has always helped to bring fresh perspectives the band.
Considering your goals and desired outcomes, has the ever-changing lineup ever been a problem for the band?
DH – The structure of the band from the outset was designed to be flexible in this regard. From the beginning Doug and I knew there would be issues with members moving away or simply moving on. We also always had the desire to collaborate with people outside the band. Over the course of our releases each member of the band has bowed out of a recording session and allowed someone else to take their place. Some could see this as a weakness, especially in the amount of time it takes us to release records, but we see this as a strength. It has allowed us to collaborate with the likes of TV Smith (Adverts), Jesse Michaels (OPERATION IVY) and many more amazingly talented musicians.
DB – It’s certainly challenging to work with so many different people, but the pros have always outweighed the cons. Our only goal is to make the best records we can. Sometimes you need to seek outside help in order to make that happen. For example, there were songs for the new album that I was having a hard time writing. I turned to David Wolf from Daylight Robbery for help. We play in Endless Column together and I really admire his songwriting. David helped me work out those songs, so we asked him to join us in Portland for the recording. He plays on a number of the songs featured on The Dead Hand of Tradition and his contribution makes a big difference. Jesse Michaels helped out in a similar way by writing lyrics. Although he does not appear on the recordings for The Dead Hand of Tradition, Jesse’s contribution was invaluable as well.
In a more traditional band structure, this sort of collaboration might not be possible. I’ve never understood why so many punks and punk bands get hung up on line-ups. Having things less defined seems to be more challenging to the overall rules and expectations of a pop/rock group. I’d rather be part of a band that’s more like THE BEACH BOYS as opposed to THE BEATLES. The Beatles were positioned as “The Fab Four”, John, Paul, George and Ringo. It’s a very easy structure to quantify and commodity. The Beach Boys on the other hand are slightly more mysterious. It’s more difficult to name all the members or to know exactly who does what on each song. Because of that, you have to approach the music first. You have to take it all in as one complex entity. And because that entity is hard to define, it has fewer rules attached to it. Perhaps a better comparison than the BEACH BOYS is CRASS or maybe the MISFITS actually?
Haha, sure thing.
Can you share some views on the lyrical content and the meaning of the album? How is the tradition oppressive or discouraging for you and why?
DB – I think self-implication is a very important thing to focus on when critiquing other things. For example, when writing Pyrrhic Pyrrhic, I started off thinking about the perspective of a dictator, or billionaire CEO. I wondered about their lust for power and especially their need for accolades. Why do they need to have the largest empire? What is fulfilled by having statues built in their honor? I figure it has something to do with legacy and immortality. A Pyrrhic Victory is a victory that inflicts such devastating losses that it ultimately leads to the victor’s demise. Simply put, it’s winning the battle in spite of the war. As I wrote the lyrics for the song, I found myself equally the subject of the criique. I mean hey, I don’t wanna die either. I want to be remembered. So, in my own need for validation, what transgressions am I guilty of? Traditional values can be oppressive because they make us feel like failures if we don’t win. But ultimately these victories are meaningless. Someday the sun will burn out and even icons like Caesar, Beethoven, Jesus Christ and Mohammad will all be forgotten. It’s all pointless. Yet we continue to destroy one another, not to mention the earth, so that we might somehow finish our lives on top, so that we might someday be remembered.
DH – Tradition is a dead entity that reaches into the future to manipulate our lives. You can see it everywhere from religion to political institutions and indeed in Punk. It’s important to know where you come from but why should it control so much of what we do when it is not an active participant. Punk was a reaction to institutions both musical and political. Over time, rules have formed within the Punk community that map out the acceptable ways to rebel against these traditional entities. Unfortunately, in this way, punk has become the every thing it sought to oppose. Punk has it’s own traditional values and status quo.
How much do you value tradition in music?
DB – I suppose we value it to a degree. I mean we play punk, and punk is a pretty conventional style of music at this point. For whatever reason, we all love and relate to punk more than anything else. However, even though the RED DONS sound is somewhat traditional, we are not interested in nostalgia for a bygone era. Instead, we try to use this convention as a starting point, something to push off of in order to communicate clearly. If you can easily define the structure of the music, then hopefully you can identify the ways we try to rebel against it. Maybe that will give you a better idea of how we think? It’s like how blues musicians can develop unique personalities despite, or by virtue of, playing the same exact twelve bar structure as each other. Hopefully this is a way of starting a conversation with other punks about how to progress the music, ideas, and values of our community.
The element of tradition in punk rock legacy has been very strong. Do you feel it needs to be emphasized these days? How would comment on the evolution of punk rock over the years?
DB – Well this ties into the thought I was just trying to express. I don’t think tradition needs to be emphasized these days, but now that you bring it up, maybe we felt a need acknowledge it within our own band. I mean, I feel like we play a pretty traditional brand of punk. That’s kind of interesting because it allows us to play with bands from all of the countless sub-genres of Punk, Post-Punk, Hardcore and Garage. I think that is probably because all these sub-genres still capture some aspect of the ever elusive “definition of Punk”. Genres like Grunge or Indie have roots in punk but evolved to a point where they exist outside of the canon and can’t be described as punk. Which is interesting in its own right. I guess we are just interested in how our band can evolve within this particular traditional punk framework.
Considering the logics and current expansion of digital media, what changes do you see in the communication forms being used and the whole self-management process?
DH – Social media has played a key role in helping people communicate and organize without government or corporate mediation. It was instrumental in igniting the Arab spring movement. It has raised awareness about police violence, racism, gay rights, and other social issues in the United States. For a punk band it’s a great resource. It helps eliminate the “middle-man.” You can post your albums for download, book tours, promote shows and share your ideas directly with others much faster and easier than before. At every show on this tour, I’ve met someone from a band that I‘ve mastered records for. I wouldn’t be able work with so many bands from so many countries if we couldn’t connect through digital media. Internet is not the issue. It’s just the grease on the wheels. Like a telephone, the actual device is not the problem. It’s all about how you use it. If the internet remains uncensored, it can be a very important tool for change.
Photos by HC – PUNK photography by Pere G. Ejby.
Ok guys, you’ve just hit the road in support of the new effort. What places are you visiting this time? How many times has the band toured Europe so far and how is the tour going?
DB – Tour has been amazing. We started in Germany. Then we went to Scandinavia and number of Eastern European countries. Eventually we crossed over to Spain and France. We make our way back to Germany before finishing the trip. This is the third time we have toured Europe since 2007 and it’s been a whirlwind. At one moment we were driving through the arctic and before we knew it we were on the beach in Spain. It’s definitely been one of those “where are we, what day is it” kind of adventures.
That said, it’s also been a very encouraging tour. Turnouts have been outstanding every night. Our regular stops like Hamburg, Munich and Budapest feel like homes away from home now. New places to us like Oulu and Bratislava feel the same. This was the first time RED DONS played in Finland, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy, and Switzerland. At all those shows, people danced and sung along to our songs just as they have in the places we’ve played three or even four times in the past. That’s really exciting for us.
How is European punk rock received in your area and what major differences do you notice between touring here and in the States?
DH – I think this question may be difficult for me to answer with some perspective. I can say though that here in London European punk rock is totally embraced even though Britain may feel somewhat disconnected from what is going on, on the continent. As for touring I feel like in Europe there is more emphasis on the artist and taking care of them. A show isn’t just a concert, it’s a gathering of friends and a place to make contact with new people from all over the world. It is funny but the ritual of making food for a band and then eating with them is one of the most bonding experiences you can have with people you have never met. In the states you’re basically left to your own devices. Maybe that is why Americans tend to have a “take no prisoners” approach to making music.
DB – Well, as someone who still lives in the US, I feel like European bands are certainly well received in The States. Not to go back to an earlier question, but with social media and everything we’re connected to the rest of the world in ways we never were before. This makes touring a little easier and it seems like more American bands tour Europe and vice versa. I feel like Americans are looking to Europe for new bands or trends or whatever, just as much as Europeans may look to the US. What European bands may find discouraging about touring the U.S. is what Daniel just mentioned. Expectations for how bands are treated are very different and there tends to be less community because of it. What’s encouraging is that because more bands are going overseas, more people are adopting the Euro standard when they return to the US and book shows. It’s true for me anyway. Every show I’ve booked since my first Euro tour always includes dinner, breakfast, ect.
How would you characterize European punk rock with respect to storytelling? Do you have your own favorite artists with such extraordinary skills?
DB – I think currently THE LOVE TRIANGLE do a great job at storytelling. “Clever Clever” is a wonderful LP and I think the lyrics are a big reason why. Louie does a fantastic job of giving just enough information to set a mood and make it feel like he’s writing from a very personal place, but without making things too prescriptive. There’s plenty of room to related the lyrics to my own life and write my own story that relates to me. That’s a difficult balance and he does it very well.
DH – I think it’s hard to necessarily say that one place is better than another in this style of writing music. In Europe there is a grand tradition of storytelling in popular music probably best represented by THE KINKS. In the context of punk, I think Americans have amazing skills, such as the DEAD KENNEDYS. I feel like in Europe there is more often a political edge to punk. Yes, on the CLASH’s London Calling there are many a great tales being told but so often I feel like there is a message behind the story.
Speaking of Europe and given how the mainstream media news has been in the US, I’m really curious if and how the discussion of the conflicts and world politics has been taking shape in your national media outlets. Do Americans care about such issues like Syrian or Ukrainian crisis? Do YOU care?
DB – Of course we care. Americans are very concerned about what’s happening around the world. Remember, we live in a country where going to war is a very real possibility. Perhaps that’s one reason why Americans stay focused on the actions of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram. Maybe that’s also why we take notice when conflicts occur in places like The Ukraine. Ignore the stereotype of American’s that you’re sold in Europe by your national media outlets. We aren’t stupid. Older generations are really the only ones who still watch network TV for news. Everyone else is well aware of the biases and agendas present in media and tend seek outside sources for accurate reporting.
I’ve been really encouraged by the immediate public backlash that has occurred anytime news outlets or politicians have said or done something Xenophobic or Islamophobic. Actually, if you want insight on the average American’s feelings towards current events, just look at what happened a couple weeks ago in the National Football League. Football is the most popular sport in the country and nothing is more mainstream than the NFL. During a Green Bay Packers game, they observed a moment of silence in the stadium for those who died in the terrorist attacks in Paris. During that moment of silence, over 60,000 people stood quiet but one man shouted something Islamophobic. In the press conference after the game, Aaron Rodgers (the star player of the Packers and one of the most famous players in all of football), went out of his way to condemn this person and condemn his remarks. Rodgers was lauded for his comments. Public opinion supported him for speaking out.
Americans are fatigued. Try to remember that the United States of America is a giant world power like China or Russia. In many ways we live under the same type of oppressive, militarized systems as those countries. Our political system has been manipulated to benefit a few extremely wealthy people. Poverty is rising. Corruption is rampant. White police are murdering African Americans at an alarming rate. Mass shootings have reached epidemic proportions. Include fear of terrorist attacks and you’ve got a nation of people who are sick of the bullshit. The only problem is that most people feel powerless. In the end, Americans want peace just like anyone else does.
Would you say the same thing about your leaders, the ones that decide to intervene in Iraq, Syria and “protect”, or rather “secure” US interests there?
DB – I can’t say. I guess you’d just have to ask them yourself. Personally, I feel like it’s wise to remain skeptical of anyone in power. I also think it’s important that Europeans disassociate the will of the American people from the motives of our government.
Ok guys, so let’s finish off with some good reads recommendations and expectations for 2016.
DH – One book I thoroughly enjoyed was Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust by Ken Scott. It is a very revealing portrait of the people involved in some amazing records. Bob Katz’s Mastering Audio 3rd Edition is phenomenal, well worth the read even if you already read the last two editions. I am sorry to get technical but it seems like most of the reading I’ve been doing lately has been work related. Charles Bukowski’s Post Office is next in the queue for me as far as leisure reading. As for 2016, I think it is still wide open. 2015 was an intense year and I have a feeling 2016 will be more so.
DB – I’m not sure what to expect for 2016 either. The Dead Hand of Tradition will finally be available on vinyl in North America. I imagine we’ll try to put together a tour to support that. Our guitarist Ruby just moved to Berlin, so it’s business as usual for the RED DONS on that front too. Members are moving across the globe, our lives remain in flux, and we have no way to know how this year will shape up. Every other year has turned out to be pretty interesting so far, so I guess I expect the same from 2016.
As far as reading recommendations go, let’s see. I know it’s a monster of a read, but last year I completed Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I’d highly recommend it. It’s become one of my all time favorite books. Some other good books I read last year were Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood and American Pastoral by Philip Roth. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz and A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami were entertaining too.
Thanks a lot! Cheers for your time and good luck in your future endevours! It’s been a pleasure. Feel free to add your final words and take care!
DB – Thanks again for taking the time to interview us. We’re looking forward to coming back to Europe as soon as possible.
DH – Thank you! The pleasure has been all ours.