The aural assault delivered by United Sons of Toil is noise in the true sense–not just a series of dissonant sounds, but sounds that so willfully defy categorization that it’s hard to not peg them as subversive. Any notion of conventional rock structure is promptly thrown into the wood-chipper by this trio; imagine Fugazi at their absolute heaviest blended with a pre-breakup Swans, and you’ve got United Sons of Toil. It’s the kind of music that shakes us alienated drones out of our inertia and sends the beautiful privileged few into conniptions.
It’s no surprise then that all three members of the Madison, Wisconsin group are themselves radicals. Their third album, When The Revolution Comes Everything Will Be Beautiful (Phratry Records) was released right on the heels of the massive labor rebellion that shook their hometown–almost as if history itself is trying to tell us something.
Now, with that uprising faded back into the recesses and everything returned to “normal,” the question of “what next” is on everyone’s mind. Questions about just about everything else—what it takes to fight, what it takes to win, and even ultimately what kind of world we want—are as urgent as ever. The members of USoT don’t claim to have all the answers to these questions (and are rightfully suspicious of anyone who does). The conversation I had with them was nonetheless illuminating; drifting between their music and beliefs, their hopes and fears, the emotional and political, an engaging glimpse into what it means to create something original in a world riven with injustice and conformity.
Alexander Billet: The quote that starts out the liner notes on your new album is one I wanted to ask you about: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Could you explain that a bit?
Russell Emerson Hall (guitar, vocals): That’s a quote from Jiddu Krishnamurthi, and the other thing in the liner notes is that it talks about how there’s no societal change without personal revolution. Because if evil people change stuff then it’s going to result in more evil! A lot of those kinds of ideas went into the record. That quote is just an encapsulation with that. Even if you can “get along” with where we are now, that’s nothing to brag about.
AB: How do you guys think that connects to your music?
Bill Borowski (bass, vocals): Well, it connects to us and we retranslate it out through the music. I mean that’s precisely how I feel about most things and how I interact with the world, the culture, the paradigm we find ourselves in. The emotion that brings out in me is probably what I bring into the music. I’m not thinking about that particular quote when I’m playing, it’s just how I feel all the time.
Jason Jensen (drums): I would say that for me, as far as it pertains to the music, I’ve learned so much from just knowing these guys; especially Russell. They’ll give me all the lyrics so I can read through them and see where they’re coming from and all that. And there are definitely parts of certain songs where that feeling is going through my head, even while we’re playing. I don’t think I consciously try to interpret it into what we play, like “here’s an angst drum-beat.” But as far as it comes across in the music it’s there.
REH: Well, I mean all the music is written as music beforehand. The vocals are normally an afterthought…
BB: Not entirely though. When we’re writing Russell’s normally screaming something. And that turns into the way the words are ultimately presented. It’s that then they have a lyrical context.
REH: Yeah, as we’re playing I’m thinking, “okay, I could probably sing here,” so I’ll just open my mouth and say something. Eventually it starts coalescing into a few phrases and words. And then I start thinking about what that could mean; what I could craft around that seed.
BB: There’s an emotive aspect to the way Russell delivers that lends itself to the chorus and the verses. It kind of feeds us.
AB: So the process is more along the lines of seeing where the music takes you? Like it’s a bit more organic?
BB: It’s very organic…
REH: Well, I guess I don’t necessarily try to match up the emotion of each song to each lyric. There’s kind of just one note emotionally—I’m fucking pissed off! But that’s the thing: I’m not “well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Right? So I’m pissed off about a lot of shit in society and I’m sick that I can’t do anything about it.
AB: There’s a stereotype out there of “political” artists: that it’s pretty much just rants over three-chords with a manifesto over it…
REH: It’s always about the music first.
BB: Yeah we’re a rock band first.
REH: To me it’s just value added, right? We’re about music but we’re trying to put this other stuff around it. For one thing it just makes the music more relevant. And two: hopefully people will hear it and think about something differently. I’m not naïve enough to think we’re going to change everyone’s mind but it’s important to have as many voices out there as possible.
JJ: One of the things we had talked about before we did this record was putting a manifesto in the liner notes for that reason. You know, so many times you listen to music and you’re asking “what are they saying?” So we put something in there that will represent the message. Hopefully people will read it and think “oh, I never realized that!” Whether it be the notes or list of genocides on the t-shirt we sell… we even experimented with a contest before the record came out: whoever can figure out what the lyrics are gets a free copy of the record. That wasn’t as successful as we had hoped! But that kind of idea—how do we get people to pay attention to what’s going on—was always there in the making of this record. Because like Russell said, we’re a rock band first, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t extremely passionate about these issues.
REH: There’s so many great bands that miss this opportunity. I know that so many artists are so passionate about these things, but there are so many vacuous bands that squander great music with stupid lyrics! Not that the lyrics are necessarily all that critical, but why waste it with something that doesn’t mean anything?
BB: You know Russell writes all the lyrics and he’s a very, very passionate individual so we don’t expect anything less…
REH: But everyone has their say. You know, when I wrote up the liner notes I made sure to give them to these guys and said “here read this. If there’s anything you’re uncomfortable with or disagree with or don’t want your name behind it then let’s talk about it.” I don’t want it to be just me screaming from my platform. I may be sort of the “prime mover,” but I’m not going to do it unless we’re all there. Same thing with the music; if anyone has a problem with a part of a song, we either change it or we move on. I’ve played in bands where I had to play stuff that I couldn’t get behind a hundred percent, and that sucks. I’m never going to ask anybody to do that.
JJ: Going back to the ideas, though, I think I see it differently than these two guys do. I am not an original member of United Sons of Toil. I am now and have been for years, but I met these guys as just a fan. I liked this music, and I was in the same boat as most of our country right now, where I have an opinion on something one way or the other. We maybe don’t have all the info, but we know we feel a certain way. For me, though, it was an eye-opener; hearing these songs it was almost like now I knew why I had these opinions. I learned these things. So for me, getting the message out there is really cool because it changed a lot of how I view things. And if it can do that for other people, then I want that to happen.
AB: The music you guys play is by no means “mainstream,” It’s challenging, it’s incredibly aggressive, it’s the kind of stuff that the music industry has no idea what to do with. Do you think that there’s a natural kind of connection between radical politics and radical sounds?
JJ: A lot of people like really generic music that’s shoved in their faces on a day-to-day basis because that’s all they know…
REH: It’s just like we said earlier. Just like people are told what their political beliefs should be because they’re sold the lie by the elite, they’re also sold a lie about what is valid music.
BB: They use every tool they’ve got; there’s all kinds of media. The seed was planted a long time ago, they’ve watered it constantly and the whole cultural paradigm has grown up in such a way that the only way we can get out of it is just to chop down the damn tree.
REH: You know the system is designed to perpetuate itself…
AB: Right, and that effects all aspects of the culture.
REH: Yeah, it’s set up so that the rich will stay rich. That plays out in music. Record companies want to sell music, so you don’t sell stuff that’s willfully obscure for one. But yeah, I think our music and our politics are equally in your face for that reason.
BB: Yeah, they’re absolutely analogous. As music listeners and music makers, we tend to not like things that you can predict. You know? And politically we like to rub against the grain. We just don’t agree that it works—I mean I just can’t find a system that does work, so maybe that struggle is always going to be there…
REH: Actually, that’s what our whole record is about—the struggle against all of that, and it fails. Is that ever going to not be the case? Maybe. But we’ve seen time and time again, the corruption wins out. And that’s the whole thing: without that personal revolution, the system crumbles, whatever the good ideas are…
JJ: You start getting compromised. I was talking to this guy on the phone, and he said “you know if we could just fire the whole Congress and replace them with blue collar workers all-around. Then maybe it could start to work.” And I was thinking, well, that was the idea when this country started…
REH: Well, no. That was the idea that was sold to us. The country was founded by rich, white, male landowners to keep themselves in power. We were told that we had equality and democracy and representation but that’s not really the case. I’m re-reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and you open it up and the first thing you see is a quote from Columbus’s log book saying “these people are going to be easy to exploit.” That’s the beginning of our country!
BB: Yeah but I think, back to what Jason said, if you do that—just replace everyone—all you’re doing is putting new cogs in an already weak and unstable infrastructure. You can’t build a house on crappy foundations. You’ve got to tear it down and build it again.
AB: That gets to what I wanted to talk about with the album in particular. All of your albums have at least a loose theme tying them together. Why did you guys decide to do an album about the corruptibility of power at this moment in time?
REH: We didn’t actually! Basically, Jason joined the band, we started writing songs, and when we got nine songs we said now we have enough to do a record. But they were done over a certain period of time, and I was thinking about the world in certain ways. And so as we were talking about how to sequence the songs on the record, Jason said “why don’t we sequence them to tell a story?” I was kind of doubtful about it, but I tried it and I thought about what the core concepts of those songs were and tried to arrange them that way. And it worked really well! And I was like “dude, we have a concept album!”
AB: Keeping with that arc, there are a lot of songs with a historical context—“Alcoholism in the Former Soviet Union,” “ILO Convention 169”—but then there’s others that pull on more current events. Like “Contrition of the Addict,” which mentions the overthrow of the Honduran president a couple years ago, or “Operation Cast Lead.” What is it that ties that content together?
JJ: The thing that pops up in my head is that, historically, there are always these kinds of things going on. You can look at 200 years ago or 50 years ago, and it’s the same story! You can piece in whichever part of the puzzle you want because they all fit! We didn’t make nine songs about one specific era, like the 1940s during World War II. We took situations from every walk of life—politics, culture, the economy—and what you see is that it’s the same situation over and over and over again.
BB: Yeah, whether you have the new boss or the old boss the exploiters are still there.
JJ: Exactly, and whether you have a boss you love or a boss you hate, the objective is the same!
BB: Not all of the protagonists in our stories are malevolent though. They can be as good as they want but they still end up corrupted.
REH: Right, like “The Shining Path,” which talks about the Maoist group in Peru. They essentially wanted to create a more “pure” communism. They had these really lofty ideals but they went about it by selling drugs, by destroying peasants’ farmers markets, and basically killing the people who should be supporting them. It failed, of course. But I guess to answer your question, it’s actually in the liner notes right there. I have that little blurb on how the story unfolds throughout the song, then as I said before, it’s back to the Jiddu Kristhnamurthi. In order for radical social change to succeed you have to have personal radical change first.
AB: What you were saying about “The Shining Path” also reminds me about that line in “The Urban Guerrilla,” “strong ideas aren’t strong enough.” In times like these I think there’s very much a question about how do you change society. Does it have to be violent or can it be peaceful? Is it through protests on the street or guerrillas up in the hills? What do you guys think is necessary for that change and what kind of planet do you want to see?
BB: Well that’s going to be different for each of us. But my personal ideal is a society composed of lots of little societies all cooperating and working within for the greater good. You know, everybody has a job and everybody has a function. You find people’s strengths and you let them realize them. Don’t force anybody into it. Maybe those little communities can cooperate with each others, but for right now we’re just too large, too centralized, too concentrated. I think that’s what causes a lot of our issues, but that’s also how the machine makes money. There has to be a complete cultural and social breakdown. Not necessarily violent, but it has to happen. Centralized governments and nation-states are the downfall of all of us.
JJ: I tend to fall between the general idea of socialism and the general idea of anarchy. I can’t quite decide because one side of me wants to see a more socially-driven economy rather than money-driven. The other side of me doesn’t want to worry about government control. The demon in my head is that I fail to see right now any form of government that can succeed at all. So until some crazy thinker comes up with a fresh idea that we haven’t heard of, I think we might just be fucked!
REH: I also have a lot of despair; I don’t see a way out politically. Like I said, I feel people are not willing to have that radical personal change. And I fear that that means we’re sort of doomed. There are a lot of things we can do to make our society by working within the system. I think we should do those–they’re obviously not enough and they should be an endgame, but I’m conflicted overall.
AB: Do you think there’s a certain process happening now—Egypt, Madison, etc—that might push people in that direction toward a radical personal change?
BB: It might push them in that direction—to do some personal reflection. I don’t know if it’s strong enough to change society the way I want to see it.
REH: This has been brought up in Madison over and over again: all these things that we enjoy—safety in the workplace and your weekends and pensions and no child labor—these are all things that organized labor put in place by saying “we’re pissed off and we’re not going to take it anymore.” So can things change? Yes, certainly they can, but is it going to be enough to change the system? With Egypt, okay now the president’s gone, but the military is in charge…
BB: Which is now starting to show it’s face…
REH: Right, and that’s exactly what we’re saying on the record. I mean in our own country we have President Obama saying “change,” and now it just seems like “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” It’s just another party, a party of the rich by which the system perpetuates itself.
JJ: You even look at the notion of “change and hope.” It was an idea that was advertised and sold to us, and we’ve seen how that’s ended up.
AB: Let’s get back to the music. In “Alcoholism in the Former Soviet Republics” there’s this hypnotic, looping, feeling. The feeling we’ve been here before; it’s also about the massive rise in social decay after the fall of the USSR. Is that the reason you ultimately ended up opening with that track?
REH: Yeah, it’s the beginning, that crossover point, that change from one system to another and it ends up being just as bad. Like all of the songs, there’s a very personal element. Like I said in the manifesto, just shouting about politics isn’t good enough. It’s got to be related back to a human story.
JJ: The thing that’s important about what Russell writes is it gives people that kind of story. It allows them to pull back and look at it and judge it.
REH: And there’s a whole additional layer of personal meaning in all of those songs for me. For example, I’m dealing with alcoholism in my own family, and the refrain of that song is a saying from Alcoholics Anonymous. In “The Shining Path” there’s a section about how, as we get older and start taking on more responsibilities, the banality of modern life, there’s a sense of guilt. I can’t be the activist I once was. And it suddenly occurred to me that raising children is the most intensely political act. Because that will have the most impact of anything in the future. So there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s not in the liner notes that is very personal for me; I’m not just going to shout about how much the world sucks.
AB: Well, I think there’s always a way in which the personal and the political are intertwined, despite what we’re told about our lives…
BB: Right, there’s always a relationship at all times!
REH: Exactly! And I think especially with so many political bands, like you said, it’s just about getting up on a soap box. I remember back in the ‘80s there were all these hardcore bands that were just like “fuck Reagan!” And that just left me flat, you know? There’s no connection to everything. Sure, we’re all pissed off. So what? It’s not that you actually have to present a solution, but try to give it some context other than just pure rage.
BB: At least for yourself…
BB: Because like we’ve said, we don’t do this for anybody but ourselves. When we’re writing we’re not writing for anybody but ourselves.
JJ: Yeah I’ve never heard us once say “what do you think people would like better?”
REH: And that goes back to your question: do the politics and the music go together in that they’re both, I don’t know, willfully obscure? Well, I don’t think we try to alienate people, but at the same time—this is another thing in the liner notes—being a career musician means you suddenly have to worry about selling records. We all have day jobs, which means we’re all relatively free to do whatever we want. We don’t have to let the slightest hint of compromise in.
AB: My last question is just about the relationship between music and social change. Even googling the reviews of When the Revolution Comes, you can see a lot of commentary about how it was released just as things were starting to explode in Madison. Do you think given everything that’s happening right now, is there a door being opened for music to play a role in social change?
BB: Well I think media in general! It’s not just music; every form of art has an impact to a certain amount of people. Folks respond to it, so I totally believe that music has role to play in social change.
REH: As dismissive as I’ve been about our music changing people’s minds, I think back to when I was younger—in college, when I got into punk rock—and I remember listening to Gang of Four and the Clash. I remember reading the lyrics and going “holy shit!” One time early on someone told me “Gang of Four are communists!” And I remember thinking “really, why would they be communists?” And then I read the lyrics to Entertainment! and just thought it was incredible. To me, that’s where that crossover between the personal and the political comes from.
JJ: I think once again I have a slightly different take. The thing with the way we write our music is that we don’t necessarily have the imagery in mind when we write it. I mean people listen to music because they like the groove, they like the beat, the like the guitar part. People who are in it just for the lyrics may not get too far with us. Gang of Four was out there and they were accessible to a lot more people. Are as many going to be influence by us? Probably not…
REH: Well no, of course now; they have a much bigger platform.
JJ: Yeah sure, but how many of our fans are in it for the politics and how many are in it just because they like to jam? You know, I think about the big rallies in front of the Capitol. There were a lot of actors and musicians who came out and supported, and for a lot of people that added something to it. Maybe some people who wouldn’t have supported it otherwise saw that and decided they would. I’m not discrediting Russell’s answer—I agree with a lot of what he said—but it’s an important question: do people get into the politics because they listen to the people playing it, or is it the other way around?
REH: It works both ways. We’re definitely trying to create something bigger than just the music. The politics, the artwork, the aesthetic, everything! That can help pull people into the music. You know, people may get into it because they like the music, but they’ll discover this other stuff.
BB: The music itself is its own entity too. People are going to biologically respond to it whether or not there’s a message. If you can write a message to go along with it, people will get it. It’s a propaganda tool like any other.