The influences of Chicago-area rebel group Agents of Change come from myriad artists and styles throughout the history of real, socially conscious music. While speaking to them, one gets the distinct feeling that this is precisely what motivates their eclectic style. After all, the same forces that exploit and segregate people all over the world do the same to our music. Bringing sounds together can often be a subversive act.
And really, that seems to be a major reason for them to never say “no” to themselves creatively. That’s something that connects the stories they recount of Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Rage Against the Machine, even themselves. These are all artists that haven’t been limited by preconceived notions of what a musician is, whether that notion comes from other artists, record labels, or the leaders of repressive regimes. If music is to play the urgent role it is meant to in a changing world, and in driving that change forward, then it needs to be able to say “yes” to itself free of these fetters.
Alexander Billet: When did the group come together?
Brian “Mr. Lantern,” vocals: Well, Agents of Change really started about January 2005, and it started more or less as a traditional hip-hop group–MC, turntables, all that. And that was with me, a DJ named DJ kZa, and then a rapper named Hoop Star. Then over the next couple years it evolved; I met Mike through Evil Empire, which Johnny plays bass in and Mike plays percussion. I was singing for them for some time. And then I met Adam through working at Whole Foods. So the band just started to gel over time and metamorphosize from a more traditional hip-hop project into a live band.
MC “Mike” Murda, drums: We were all going to College of DuPage. So we would go use their recording studio at night and then we just started sharing it with the public and people dug it. Then we started doing live shows.
AB: So was it a conscious decision to mix punk and hip-hop and all the other sounds you guys play with?
Brian: It was very conscious. I think we all come from a lot of different musical backgrounds, so just because it started with that kind of political hip-hop center-of-gravity, I think that’s how it originated. But at the same time we’ve always loved so many different kinds of music, including punk, funk, jazz, acoustic-styles, Latin, Afrobeat. All of it! You name it, you got it!
AB: So who where some of the biggest influences on all you guys?
Mike: The Roots. Definitely the Roots, man.
Brian: Rage Against the Machine…
Johnny “BMJ” Thunders, bass: Operation Ivy…
Adam “Jigga Jones,” guitar and keys: Fela Kuti.
Brian: You know, stuff with a message that’s still danceable and high-energy.
Johnny: Yeah, I played some of our new shit for someone and they just said “it sounds like Operation Ivy in 2010.”
Adam: That’s awesome!
Brian: Yeah except now we have to break up after our first album [laughter all around].
AB: You mentioned that you want it to be something with a message but danceable at the same time. There’s an image of political groups out there that it’s politics first and art second, so the music falls behind. Is that why you think it’s important for the music to actually be good?
Brian: Yeah, no one gives a shit if it’s not good music!
Adam: I feel like the message is also bigger than just what we’re saying and what notes we’re playing too. It’s how we’re going about it; what kind of shows we play and how we choose to spend our money on producing CDs. You know, we do our own screen-printing for our t-shirts and things like that. I mean, obviously if you have a song like “Life’s Short,” that’s a message. But at the same time, the overall message of the band is bigger than one song.
AB: Now you’ve also mentioned that your sound is still expanding too…
Johnny: Yeah, we’ve got a guy playing trumpet with us now, and some turntables and different types of percussion we’re reaching out to.
Brian: We’ve worked with saxophone players before. And like I said, we used to have a turntablist back in the day. So it’s an evolution but it’s also coming full circle in a way.
AB: That’s cool to hear you say that, because a lot of artists pick a “sound” and then don’t let themselves evolve.
Brian: Yeah, we’re kind of “post-genre.” And by that I mean we’re kind of this hip-hop-punk fusion thing, but really when you start breaking it down we’re a punk, hip-hop, dance, jazz, jungle, disco, acoustic, reggae… So I think we’d all get bored if we said we’re just going to play this one style of music; we’d probably hate ourselves!
Adam: I think adding to the instrumentation–like adding trumpet into the mix–we’re able to do a lot more down-tempo things that we might not otherwise be able to do.
Johnny: Yeah, another lead instrument is nice–to have something else up top sharing the words and the guitar and the keyboard. You have more to listen to.
AB: Do you think the audience would get bored to if you just played the same thing?
Brian: It depends because you want to give the people what they want but at the same time you’re up there for yourself. But any artist who says they’re only in it for themselves and that they don’t want recognition is a damn liar! Political or apolitical. It’s kind of a give-and-take. You want people to participate and to be inspired. But also part of that punk rock attitude is that sometimes you want to piss them off. You want to push their buttons and challenge them–whether it’s to challenge them with political vitriol or to challenge them to not just stand there looking like a bunch of apathetic zombies and dance. I think those are kind of part of the same thing.
Adam: I think as much as it challenges them, it challenges us too to always be evolving. Because if someone came to our show four years ago they might hear a couple of the same songs but now we have a newer twist to it. We’re trying to always be doing something new.
Johnny: Yeah, plus this guy doesn’t play the same thing on drums twice. It doesn’t fucking matter… [laughter]
AB: Is that true?
Mike: Yeah… I think Agents of Change is, well, always changing! We’re from Chicago; it’s so diverse. You can do to one corner and get some Salsa going on and then at the next you’ve got some metal and then some Indian music. There are so many things going on that we’re always picking up on something different and bringing it to the table. I think that’s what our musical message is. We’re always changing, just like the band name. It’s just bringing that diversity of the styles and the roots of those styles and fusing them together. And it goes along with the lyrics too; Brian’s got some powerful words, but he’s also running around the room, jumping on this table then that table. So we’re just trying to add that instrumentation to add the kinds of emotions that he’s expressing.
AB: On that same tip, do you think the DIY outlook adds to the artistic freedom?
Brian: If someone were to give us a big chunk of money to do the same thing that would be beautiful, but there’s a consequence of challenging the status quo with the music itself and the message. Would we love to get a $20,000 advance to make record? And feed ourselves and put a roof over our heads? Of course, but nobody’s beating down our door right now…
Johnny: Oh yeah, I’d love to get paid to do this shit. Love it!
Brian: It’s easier said than done, though!
Mike: Nowadays you have to prove to the industry that you can do it by yourself before they even give a shit. That’s what we’re doing I think. We’re stating that we are serious enough; we’re doing it by ourselves. So whenever they’re ready, we’re game!
Adam: It’s kind of backwards, though. Because once you’ve already established that fan-base by yourself you don’t need the industry. But then it’s like “oh, you have money coming your way! Okay…”
Brian: “We want some of that!”
Adam: Exactly! It used to be the other way around with radio. You heard bands that you couldn’t hear anywhere else. Now, DJs get a playlist and they’re only allowed to play these twenty songs. So…
Brian: It’s a troubling state of affairs, to be sure. I mean there’s good examples of people making it to successful points and then subverting the process. Like Chumbawamba licensing some of their music out to car companies and then pouring the money directly into anti-car campaigns! It’s a give and take. It’s easy to get corrupted and we see examples of that all over the place, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
AB: Let’s shift to talking about the new record Sucka Free. Did you guys have a set vision when you went into it?
Mike: I walked into it saying I’m going to make the best album I’ve ever made; that’s what I say every time I record…
Johnny: Well, you gotta fill in the story of when you just called me one morning and said you were gonna come over and record some shit. You and your girlfriend had just broke up, you had drank like six cups of coffee or something like that, and then you played drums to him [Brian] screaming in your ear. And those are the three best tracks on the album!
AB: So it was just these two? Before guitar or bass were added in?
Brian: Yeah, “The Only Constant,” “Discoteca Antifa” and “Beneath the Roots” were all recorded like that. I think the whole album is really a document of a time period for us. Because musically, as we’ve noted, it’s totally divergent. There’s kind of this hip-hop live band point we gravitate around. But besides that we go into metal, punk, disco, noise. Acoustic-sounding, poppier stuff to more heavy stuff, sarcastic, serious.
Adam: And we also started recording in 2007 but didn’t release it until 2010! So to say we had the end in mind when we started, I’d say no. I had a totally different expectation going into in then when I came out.
Mike: We were about to go on tour, and we had no recordings of the live band. So it’s like “okay, when I leave this state I want to leave them something so they can remember us.” At first it was just this quick, rough mix, but we really wanted something more substantial. This new album we’ve got going on though… oh my god, it’s like buttah! We’re recording it at Studio Chicago, and these tracks are the best tracks we’ve ever done. Hands down! It’s almost done, we just gotta tweak it.
AB: Is there a release date then?
Mike: This summer hopefully.
AB: Does your live experience guide you guys where to go with your songs or your recordings?
Brian: Oh yeah, definitely! When we get onstage, it’s not just like “alright, robot band! Go! You’re playing these songs the exact same way every time!” You know, there’s a huge improvisational element. The songs are the songs, but…
Adam: I feel like every show we play at least one song we haven’t played before, even if it’s just a little free jam. At least the past couple shows, we’ve been introducing new songs…
Brian: “Silent Spring,” yeah, that song about environmental justice…
Adam: Yeah and “Smile For a Change.” I feel like every show we do something we haven’t done before.
AB: Last time I saw you guys you were playing at the Socialism conference downtown, and you’ve got the Winter Peace Fest coming up on the 12th. Obviously, not every show you play is for a cause, but is there a conscious attempt to do as many of those types of shows as you can?
Brian: A lot our shows are benefits or different types of protests, or sponsored by some kind of social justice or community organization. Not all of them; we do play bar shows. I think supporting independent music culture can be a political endeavor to an extent, but it’s not like playing at the 2007 anti-war demo on the anniversary of the Afghanistan invasion.
AB: How does playing at a protest or rally differ from other kinds of shows?
Mike: Well you can get more drunk at a regular show! When we’re hanging at a bar we can just kick it, be ourselves and just make music. But yeah, when it’s for a cause we try and focus ourselves towards that and give it respect. The Peace Fest is a bit different, though…
Brian: Yeah, because at most protests you won’t be given a set. You’ll be given maybe two songs in between this big list of speakers and maybe a few other performers. Peace Fest you get a full set, even though the whole event is broadly themed toward social justice and anti-war causes.
AB: I want to talk a bit about the world in general. The economy still sucks, shit’s blowing up right now…
Brian: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco…
AB: Exactly! So do you think there’s space opening a bit wider for music with a message?
Adam: I think it’s possible. I think as we gain more information people are going to want even more, so it’s just becoming this exponential thing where people are just going to have to dive right in face first.
Brian: I think if we were in any part of the world other than America, we would probably give an affirmative response, but it’s not like we’ve gone from five people at our shows five years ago to five thousand. People are still very much in tune with mass culture. I don’t mean to say that people don’t give a shit, but we’re in the heart of the beast and the propaganda is very thick. And so whereas we might host an event that’s free, people might still go shell out for some other expensive show. People will pay 20 dollars to be degraded and objectified for a couple of hours over coming to see us. Now part of that is our fault for not making it, like, sexy enough or whatever. It’s a struggle, and maybe it will take things getting worse for people to start looking for that kind of cultural outlet to express their discontent. It seems like that’s the trajectory, but I don’t think change is necessarily inevitable. It’s a product of struggle and actually working towards it rather than just crossing our fingers or even just hoping or voting?
AB: So on the flipside of that, do you think that music can play a role in making that happen?
Brian: Once again, I think there are examples, but not in America. First one that comes to mind: Fela Kuti. Perfect example! A genre-changing musician who revolutionized the world with Afrobeat, but also was very active. In Nigeria, where he was from, his mom was assassinated, he was arrested numerous times. His house was burned down, Nigerian soldiers sexually assaulted his wives. But he organized and created a space, and helped facilitate the development of a movement of people who were really pissed at foreign oil companies and a corrupt Nigerian state. That’s one example of how music can be a real tangible force for change rather than just paying lip-service to it.
Mike: I think music’s always going to be one of the first things to the word out there. I mean, Bob Marley was a rebel fighter, and there’s a ton of other groups, even in America. Rage Against the Machine have done so much stuff where they’ve stood up for people’s rights. I think music’s always going to create that feeling and help people relate to their situation, whatever it is. It plays a strong part, especially because nobody even listens to the news anymore. I mean what do most young people listen to? They’re going online, they’re checking the blogs and they’re downloading songs! Technology in general too; I didn’t even know about the situation in Egypt until someone tweeted it to me. And then I started hearing more about it and thought “holy shit, this is huge!” So people are getting their information through other means.
AB: So why is it that all of you have stuck with music for as long as you have?
Johnny: It’s like medicine! Are you kidding me?
Adam: Yeah. Why had music stuck with us? I’m not sure…
Johnny: It’s an outlet for everything.
Mike: It’s about sharing. I think that’s why we keep making music; because we have more to share with everybody. We’re just not satisfied yet. We haven’t gotten it out there far enough so we just wake up every day wanting to push it more and more.
Brian: You know, music is a weapon, it’s a drug, it’s a therapy. It’s all of these things; it just enables you to keep meeting new people.
Adam: You’re able to express something that you can’t necessarily put into words. You can share this soundscape that makes you feel a certain way but you can’t quite explain.