May 20th, 2008 5:33 pm | by NILINA MASON-CAMPBELL Music | Posted In: Columns, Columns

Big Q&A: Portland Musicians Get Political on Election Day

ObamaWaterfront_NilinaMason-Campbell_IMG_2333With the Barack the Vote concert last Thursday at Bebati's Pan, and the Decemberists stumping for Obama by way of a performance at the candidate's rally on the waterfront Sunday, I got to thinking of Portland's myriad of other bands and their take on politics.

It's election day: What better time to accost bands about politics? In the sea of people that was Obama's 75,000 strong rally, I was only able to corner Colin Meloy (though I know Dhani Rosa of Eskimo & Sons was also there, probably alongside much more of Portland's rocking contingent). Stepping outside the Obama box of hope, I posed three questions to a handful of local musicians. Tune in below for thoughts on politics in music from members of the punky pair Magic Johnson, metal-tastic Black Elk, acoustic act Almost Nearly, ready-to-rumble rock outfit White Fang and more. Among the fruits of my labor: NWA and Devo appear twice each.

By the way, have you voted yet? You have until 8 pm tonight to make your vote count! Ballot drop-off locations come afterwards for those of you with the intention of voting, but didn't mail it in last week.

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Erik Gage, White Fang:

What's your favorite political song ever?
Probably "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival because it was the first song I ever heard where somebody other than my parents were bitching about being poor.

Have you ever delved into politics in your own songs or do you think you ever will?
I think it's hard to distinguish between what I think is political and what isn't. Most of our songs, at least lyrically, are more involved in sensory perception and thought patterns, but lately we've been getting at least more vocal about actually destroying things. I think that this whole world of politics/social norms/drug laws/religion affects us in the deepest way, whether or not the songs appear to react to it.

What do you think of musicians who publicly come out for a candidate and/or talk politics in the press?
It depends. If it was like John Candy coming back from the dead to tell us who to vote for, then I think I'd listen. Other than that I don't even pay attention.

White FangSpace

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Ana Rodriguez, Magic Johnson:

What's your favorite political song ever? Why?
Favorite song, hard to say, but I'd have to say my favorite band to deal with politics is definitely DEVO. They are eloquent and artful, and they said it all just with their band name.

Have you ever delved into politics in your own songs or do you think you ever will?
We had a band before MJ where I wrote a bunch of lyrics about going bankrupt and corporations because I worked at a mortgage office at the time. That's pretty much the most into politics we've gotten 'cause it was really starting to make sense to us then why the government is filthy. It might come up again in songs, but really I think we both like to voice our opinions in actions more than lyrics these days.

What do you think of musicians who publicly come out for a candidate and/or talk politics in the press?
Everyone has the right to their opinion, and good for them if they have the opportunity to voice it. Ultimately--musician, press, or audience, everyone is biased and that should be kept in mind.

Magic JohnsonSpace

Picture 101

Benjamin Johnson, The Rainy States:

What's your favorite political song ever? Why?

That's a hard question to answer. There are a few socially conscious songs concerning class structure by The Kinks ("Victoria," "Dead End Street") and The Jam ("In The Street Today," "Town Called Malice") which continue to feel relevant to me. "Oliver's Army" by Elvis Costello, although from 1979, feels familiar from the vantage point of war for profit, as well as using economic disadvantage to create a makeshift draft and inspire false patriotism. When the few dictate the direction of the many it produces situations that make for good songs.

Have you ever delved into politics in your own songs or do you think you ever will?
We currently have two songs which I would consider political, however we generally don't explain our lyrics, electing instead to leave the words up for interpretation. "Suddenly Electric" off our debut "In Basement Air" could be read as a political song:

we woke up breathless
and all the blocks of brick assembled us
then it set on the machinery
altering photographs
you portray the jury

suddenly electric

lightning bolts broke through his teeth
electric and hot
buildings stood, then fell
bricks and wires, smoke and fire
the sky retires on the ruins

There's also our yet to be released track "New Castle" which is more about Betsy and my own heritage and the influence of industry on our family. That being said, fighting in wars has been a part of our families biography, starting with our great grandfather who was a member of the Scottish Army's Black Watch, which inspired the words to the song:

it fit together like a watch
when the guns of august froze
there you were lying on a beach
there you were attractive and young

lay down your rifles boys
i want to go home to pennsylvania

the night before detroit
bathed in light
from our fathers
from our fathers

What do you think of musicians who publicly come out for a candidate and/or talk politics in the press?
It's fine. I generally don't like to talk about politics myself, however if someone feels compelled to take on politics in the press I don't see why they shouldn't.

The Rainy StatesSpace

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Erik Trammell, Black Elk:

My favorite political song of all time is "Holiday In Cambodia" by Dead Kennedys. I remember seeing them play this sometime between 1982 and 1984 at The Mabuhay Gardens when I was 8, 9 or 10 years old. They were the band that made me go crazy for music.

I have no desire to use music to give my views on politics and I don't see it happening until someone agrees to pay me a large sum of money for my ill-informed opinions.

I don't care what musicians or really anyone has to say about politics, except for my friend Abbey Castle because he always reads about that shit and he's funny.

I don't know who I'm going to vote for but I hope they start a war with Canada so we can see the Royal Canadian Mounted Police attack from horseback. Then Governator Schwarzenegger can fight them all by himself like in Conan the Barbarian.

Black ElkSpace

Picture 98

Dhani Rosa; Eskimo & Sons, Double Dutch:

My favorite political song series is "Law Library" by Papoose. There're three or four parts now I think, and they're all awesome. I only like political music done by rappers. They have no problem talking about killing cops and punching the president in the face. I love it. I feel like most rappers come from a position where political concerns affect them most directly: poverty, racism, oppression, etc. So when something political comes out of them it's always very real and always passionate. Big L had some wonderful political stuff. Public Enemy and KRS-One of course. Crooked I is smashing hard on the political tip lately too.

I try to stay away from things political in my songs. I used to write some political shit, but I never liked any of it too much. And I just get annoyed when musicians sing political songs really... I don't know why. It's so passionless and cheap even. It's not hard to sing "Fuck Bush" and get a reaction out of your audience all like "Yeah, brother! Rock on, daddy!" Because, no shit, fuck Bush. Duh. It's too obvious. That whole idea has been explored so extensively already, and I think positive results and ideas can be reached far easier in a different medium. I'd way rather see a musician use their talent to explain something that is exclusively inside of them and try to relate it to their audience. "Fuck the War" doesn't really come from one's soul, that's everyone's soul, we're born with that knowledge, dog. I know you're tired of innocent people dying and having these dickweeds tumble around Washington, me too, dog. We all are. You're preaching to the choir. I don't mean to sound like an ass, there are exceptions I'm sure. But I haven't really heard any of them.

I'd much rather hear a musician say "Fuck Bush" than hear them sing it. So fuck Bush, haha! Just kidding, he's cute. JK, he's sucks. I don't think the Decemberists were helping anyone's cause but their own at the Obama thing. I smelled what Barack was cooking long before they "endorsed" him and so did everyone else at that rally. How many people do you think were like "Gee wiz, I really love Hillary, but darn, Pitchfork Media Blog gave the Crane Wife like 8.5 points and boy, do they like this Obama guy! I think I'll check him out." No, dude. I just hope that Barack contacted them and they looked at it like it was a cool opportunity to play for 75,000 people. It'd be kind of silly if they contacted him and saw themselves as some kind of shepherd for the blind into the light of this wonderful man. Whatever, I hope I can say that the first black president opened for my band one day... what a tight opportunity. Sidenote though, this Obama/Meloy ticket is really confusing. I can't tell if every beautiful girl/woman in Portland is just a Decemberists fan, or is actually voting for the People's Champ. Hot mommies be all up on the Barack train.

Eskimo & Sons

Picture 96

Sare Eastman, Shakespeake:

What's your favorite political song ever? Why?
I'm having a hard time with this one, there are so many good songs. I'm going to go with 'Imagine' by John Lennon, because just yesterday most of us were sitting around after practice listening to 'shaved fish' and talking but when 'imagine' came on the room fell silent. That to me, is the mark of a powerful song.

Have you ever delved into politics in your own songs or do you think you ever will?
As far as Shakespeake goes, I don't think we have any political songs as of now, they're mainly personal. Maybe we will someday.

What do you think of musicians who publicly come out for a candidate and/or talk politics in the press?
Personally, I respect people that use their notoriety to bring attention to something they're passionate about, something bigger than themselves. We don't have to agree with them in order to like their music and visa versa, though I realize that a lot of people can't separate the two.


Picture 99

Christian Carmine, Fist Fite:

What's your favorite political song ever?
First off I hate picking favorites... Secondly I tend to prefer subtlety to an obvious message, and "political song" just sounds so overt and boring to me... However I do really appreciate social commentary in lyrics and dark humor, and two bands I can think of that nailed both those things were gang of four and Devo. Grandaddy also had a great tragic sense of humor with their lyrics, but I'm not sure if any of those count as being political.

Have you ever delved into politics in your own songs or do you think you ever will?

Well, I don't write the lyrics.

What do you think of musicians who publicly come out for a candidate and/or talk politics in the press?
Well, on the one hand I don't see why they shouldn't make their voice heard if so inclined... On the other, it's kind of a shame that someone hearing that might lend extra weight to a musician's opinion because of a sentimental attachment to their music.

So who are you endorsing and why?
I'm not sure if I'm qualified to be an 'endorser', but I'm voting for Obama...for a lot of reasons, but really all you've got to say is he didn't vote for the war. I mean, I was 23, you know, a kid, when that started, and I knew all the WMD and Al-qaeda shit was Hillary's "if I Knew then" line either makes her either a sucker or a liar, that's that.

Fist FiteSpace

Picture 100

Nicole Perry, Almost Nearly:

What's your favorite political song ever?
Generally I don't like overtly political songs, lots of things can be preached in a political way that lack facts and thats usually a songs content when some one is singing about a war or patriotism and all that jazz; but with out too much deliberation maybe "Fuck tha Police" by N.W.A. It doesn't matter who you are, that song is just good.

Do you have any political songs? Will you?
I can't say I have ever felt like expressing my opinion of the political sense through song. It may be that that's just not how I operate when it comes to writing lyrics. I have half not-so-seriously written a few political satire songs for fun, [but] beyond that it's not something I have ever seriously explored for no other reason than I just never feel inspired by politics, they just make me angry.

What do you think of musicians who publicly come out for a candidate and/or talk politics in the press?
I think that musicians can get a lot of judgment for supporting one or another political party so I think when they do for whom ever they do it for its pretty brave. People or "their fans" take what they think and make it their own so it's also a lot of responsibility.

Almost NearlySpace

Picture 105

Ricci Swift, Patterns:

What's your favorite political song ever?
"Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday. No matter how many times I hear this song I'm always drawn in by it. It's just as compelling today as it was seventy years ago. The stark arrangement coupled with Ms. Holiday's chilling delivery comprise a hauntingly beautiful and extremely powerful song.

Do you have any political songs? Will you?
I've written about social issues on a few occasions but never in a flagrant air. I tend to shy away from overtly political writing, not for lack of conviction but because I've never enjoyed listening to blunt, in-your-face political songs. I prefer to subtly champion what I believe in.

Picture 104
Shoki, also of Patterns

What do you think of musicians who publicly come out for a candidate and/or talk politics in the press?
It is completely incumbent upon circumstance, as with most political proceedings, for an individual to express any sort of opinion to the media without certain inevitable jeopardy. However, if the artist feels driven toward some political expression then let it happen. Why not? There's no such thing as politics without conflict.


Picture 106
Casey Laney, Emily Laney, Jesse Laney and Brandon Anderson of World's Greatest Ghosts:

What's your favorite political song? Why?
Casey: "The Queen is Dead" by The Smiths because its funny. It takes a jab at the ridiculous institution of monarchy.

Brandon: "Fortunate Son" by Creedance. The lyrics seem just as fitting now as when the song was written in 1968. "Some folks are born made to wave the flag, Ooh, they're red, white and blue. And when the band plays hail to the chief, Ooh, they point the cannon at you, lord,"

Have you ever delved into politics in your own songs or do you think you ever will?
Jesse: Politics find there way into a lot of what I write. The lyrics in "Butterscotch Sunday" are a description of how i see our modern societies approaching the brink of disaster. "The Royal Court", a song from our next recording, is a take on American fascism and consumerism. "Our powers flow down rivers made from all the people's tears, whose cries are lost upon our snake-constricted i-pod ears."

What do you think of musicians who publicly come out for a candidate and/or talk politics in the press?
Emily: We think its a good thing. Musicians have a way of bringing to light certain issues that people can connect to and understand, as where people can often be apathetic to what politicians have to say.

Jesse: Besides, the last thing we need is more political analysts on cable news and radio telling Americans what to think and who to vote for. I think we need more artists involved in communicating the important issues in our society.

So who are you supporting candidate wise and/or what issues are important to you?
Casey: If we had to pick a presidential candidate, I think we're all pretty much for Obama here.

Brandon: At least the man can address an audience intelligently.

WGG: Issues that are important to us: climate change, human rights, preserving ecosystems, clean and sustainable energy, better education...especially in science, tolerance in society, the spread of democracy... real democracy which demands truth.


World's Greatest GhostsSpace

Oh - and I said I cornered Colin right? Well, here he is and those big block letters adherent to his chest make clear his backing of US Senate candidate Steve Novick:


Drop-off locations:

Multnomah County:
1040 SE Morrison St.
Portland, OR 97214-2495
(503) 988-3720

Washington County:
Elections Division
3700 SW Murray Blvd. Ste. 101
Beaverton, OR 97005
(503) 846-5800 / TTY (503) 846-4598

Visit Oregon Secretary of State's Election Division site for more locations State wide.

Get out and rock the vote!

Photos of Almost Nearly's Nicole Perry, Fist Fite's Christian Carmine, DoubleDutch's Dhani Rosa by Nilina Mason-Campbell. Magic Johnson photo by Misha. All other photos care of MySpace.
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