Power and Privilege: New War Interviewed
New War is a Melbourne four-piece comprising US born Chris Pugmire, Jess Shepherd (Sir), Melissa Lock and Steve Masterson (Bird Blobs). Formed several years following the dismantling of Pugmire and Lock’s previous group Shoplifting, New War have spent the last three years performing regularly in their hometown. The group’s first release came in the form of 2011’s Ghostwalking 12 inch, which is now followed by their debut self-titled LP, released last month through Sensory Projects.
In this interview, conducted over a series of emails, vocalist Pugmire discusses the influence of power dynamics on New War’s spacious and grey-shaded songs, as well as the recurring dreams and visions that have helped form the group’s distinctive sound.
To me New War is a rhythmical, intuitive project. Is the way you sound a conscious plan, or based more on the personalities involved?
Well, Mel and I took almost four years after Shoplifting to figure out what we wanted to do, if anything. We spent almost two years not playing at all, and waited until music was more or less demanding to come out. Meeting Jesse and Steve was necessary, and learning to play together as the four of us was necessary. We took our time. I was writing off and on and listening to lots of different singers and getting obsessed with really singing, not in strict technical terms, but instead paying close attention to things like tone and nuance and the emotional center of a lyric and a song – the type of expression that singers I was into were nailing like Bim Sherman, Jeanne Lee, Patty Waters, Abbey Lincoln and people like that. That’s not something I’d thought about before. We’re all really into rhythm of course, dub and hip-hop and things like the Nonesuch Explorer series, [as well as] gamelan and all kinds of great rhythm sections. We knew we didn’t want a guitar in this project and that we wanted a different palette and more space in the arrangements, with a really strong rhythm. So it was a conscious plan as far as the basic template goes, but the songs themselves could only have happened and developed with the four of us and that part’s intuitive. Real bands actually are alchemy: Jo from Huggy Bear told me that.
Are you trying to convey any specific ideas with your music? I feel that your lyrics are, although subtle, extremely affecting.
I’m not thinking of other people when I write. I learned the hard way that when I wrote for other people, or with them in my head at all, it sucked. I censored myself and wrote for “the middle”, even if it seemed radical or whatever, but it was the middle of radical and I regret it. It’s ultimately banal and not honest. To be honest, I have to be selfish. I used to think that ego was this thing that had to be subordinated to who knows what – some higher power, or even a community. It was like I was substituting that for god. It was very Soviet, ha. So I write for myself, and if that conveys anything to anyone, then that’s great. I mean that’s a writer’s task; a singer’s task. But I want people to take my words for themselves, and they will anyhow if they pay attention. What it means to me is irrelevant, and after it’s out in the world I can’t be didactic about it, unless people get it dead wrong. But one theme I always return to is power: how it works, what it does to people, how it defines the way people interact with other people, species, natural worlds, virtual worlds, etc. That’s a fascination I’ll never lose.
What inspirations do you draw on for New War that aren’t other musicians?
In that four year [down] period I was reading anarchist historians like Voline, Peter Arshinov and Paul Avrich. Books about climate change and water scarcity. Russians like Nikolai Klyuev, Anna Politkovskaya, Andrey Platonov and Nikolai Leskov. Helene Cixous and Genet and Celine, who I always return to. Malcolm X, [particularly] the way he spoke and wrote. Lydia Lunch – Paradoxia is a really underrated book. Raging Bull, the book and the movie. Pasolini, especially Salo. Fassbinder, of course. He’s the master of unravelling power dynamics. I always laugh at Lindsay Tanner’s dry wit whenever I catch him on TV. He’s pretty funny for a politician, and I guess that’s why he’s retiring. Too many to list, really.
I know you have a great interest in many Australian bands, past and present. Are there any in particular you knew about, or were excited to see perform when you moved here?
Well definitely one of the reasons I moved here was to see Rowland S Howard play, as weird as it might sound. It was hard to see him when he struggled with the guitar, but he always sang beautifully. Those were incredibly moving shows, especially his last one at the Prince: you could feel him lifted by the crowd’s love. Even when he kind of failed it was moving, he was that kind of artist. He’s like Australia’s Celine. I would never have dreamed that I’d get to see Laughing Clowns or Primitive Calculators, let alone play with them. And yeah, there’s so many good current bands too, so I came at the right time.
I admire that you’re a singer and your main instrument is your voice; your expression and technique seems to be ever evolving. How do you feel the set up of New War – being guitar free and predominantly dark, with deep rhythms and tonalities – affects your work as a vocalist?
Yes, the absence of guitar changes everything. Tonally, it’s made the vocals a lot more relaxed for lack of a better word. It’s a lot easier to sing over a rhythm section, and it doesn’t feel like a keyboard competes with space as much as guitar does, sonically. It works better for me at the moment, creatively. Also Devin [Welch], who played guitar in the last band Mel and I were in [Shoplifting] was so good, we didn’t want a guitar partially out of wanting to do something different and partially because, to us, there’s almost no point trying to have a guitar after playing with him, he’s just mindblowing.
“I’d be dead without music. I would’ve offed myself, no question, and that’s just how it is. So it’s not catharsis so much as a desperation to stay alive.”
You mention power as a thematic influence. Your lyrics also seem to express ideas of fragile beauty, revealing in some way the voices of those dispossessed or without a voice. Do you feel it is a duty for artists to reveal the contradictions of being, or in some way express what others cannot?
This question has really gotten under my skin and had me thinking the last few days. I actually wrestle with this concept of artistic responsibility a lot. I think it’s a weird Western thing to want to help the dispossessed, but [to instead] end up usurping their voice. Why not make space for those voices to be heard rather than speak for them? That’s what bugs me so much about people like Bono, or liberals in general. It just seems so self serving, despite whatever good intentions are there, but at the same time it actually makes me physically ill that so many people who have the platform to say something – anything – don’t. That’s what really fucking bugs me about “indie” music. It’s so middle class. It’s as hollow and boring and self-conscious and amoral as what it’s “independent” from, and most so-called political music has zero imagination as well, except MIA. It mirrors the failures of the left and it imitates the left’s transformation into this Clintonian kind of mush. Well, public mush, but [at the same time] privately reinforcing war and empire and, you know, the laundry list.
The other problem is that the media ghettoises “political” artists, and they end up preaching to the choir and isolating themselves. So I can see why artists are afraid to put themselves out there. But it’s shit. It’s hard to respect someone who’s basically thinking ‘career’ every time they don’t open their mouth. But yeah, who wants to hear a bunch of bad slogans? It’s a tightrope to walk.
Anyhow, I’ve probably rambled enough. To conclude: artistic responsibility: okay, but don’t be a dickhead about it. Haha.
It’s interesting you mention famous rhythm sections, as the combination of Mel and Steve forms a unique combination. Are the arrangements something that just happen, or are they something you discuss or plan out? A lot of the rhythmical arrangements – especially on bass – seem complex.
No, we don’t conceptualise too much with the music, we try to just let it happen. Most of our songs start with Mel and Steve. After the other elements happen their parts shift and they add their accents and magic and whatnot. Mel in particular does lots of weird patterns that are evolving, shapeshifting. Or sometimes she’ll play the same bit the whole way through, like a mantra, which I love too. I get lost in it. She’s a great bassist, I love her and Steve as a rhythm section, and Jesse’s great too. I love what everyone does in this band. I also think everyone’s conscious of keeping things elemental without trying too hard or thinking about it too much. Also, I’m not much of a singer beyond the elemental, so it’s better for everyone if we stick to my strengths, haha.
Is the act of creating and performing music, on a personal or public level, a cathartic experience for you?
Well, without any hyperbole or maudlin pandering or whatever, I’d be dead without music. I would’ve offed myself, no question, and that’s just how it is. So it’s not catharsis so much as a desperation to stay alive. That sounds pretty maudlin, haha. Oh well, it’s the John and Exene maxim.
I know you’ve lived in quite a few cities around the world. Is there a place that inspires you or holds your imagination more than most? Is there a certain place that remains a mystery?
Yes, definitely. There are a few spaces that I still dream of or think about constantly. One was this place called the Velvet Elvis, it was an underground theater that doubled as an all-ages venue. I grew up going to shows there and saw all the great ’90s bands there, particularly Olympia bands. It was in the oldest neighborhood in Seattle and it was haunted: I had some really weird experiences there alone. The ceiling was covered in these beautiful old lamps so the light inside was really striking and warm, a kind of light you only get from old lampshades. I dream about that light a lot. It was built above the first version of the city, which was destroyed in a fire in the late 1800s. That might be where the haunting comes from.
I dream about that underground a lot. Usually there’s a set of stairs that descends for a long time and leads to a kind of hell, or possessed place. That stairway also pops up under the basement of this house down the street where I grew up, where this old guy abused me. I was five then, and when he died his spirit tried to strangle me. It’s also in the basement of this mum ‘n’ pop grocery store I worked at when I was just out of high school. That place was haunted too. And also the basement of my grandparents’ old house. There was a door leading to it and next to the door was a mounted deer head that used to scare me so bad. I had to sleep in the hideaway bed down there but I couldn’t ever sleep, I’d just stare at the deer. So those places hold a weird part of my head because I dream about them constantly and they’re all connected by this stairway.
Also, quickly, the forests in the northwest, the Douglas firs. I miss them so much. You know in Twin Peaks, the repeating shot of the wind blowing through the trees? That’s like my salve. I love those fir trees, more than a lot of people.
You mention Fassbinder as an influence. In relation to artistic responsibility, I feel he is an example of expressing subtle yet striking social commentary - especially in Ali. Are there any films that come to mind that channel some kind of message that you feel is inexpressible in music?
Well Fassbinder’s the ideal, isn’t he? Everyone else hits you over the head with a megaphone and he’s like acid. Every time you watch one of his films there’s another layer of power, of reality, that he’s dissecting. It’s all in the microscopic detail and he’s hilarious and it’s horrible all at once. I mean, film has a big narrative advantage over music, with the visual aspect and the ability to hold an audience’s attention for up to three hours. That’s what I get out of it: the story, the visual mystery and puzzle. So any film that does that well is going to give you something music can’t, something like Salo.
Back to your role as a vocalist, how did you start out playing music? Did you ever play an instrument? How has that evolved over time?
Funnily enough I was in choir in school and took piano lessons as well, but I wasn’t invested in either. I didn’t get the bug until my friend Dave Bazan and I started playing for fun. He lived in a punk house near my parents. I played bass badly, haha. We ended up playing with Joe Plummer [Modest Mouse, The Shins], a great drummer, and Paul & Gilden D’Amour, also semi-legendary. But Dave’s other band took off [Pedro the Lion] and that was that. Then I was in this band Spores with a bunch of great people, Andy Cone and Andy Coronado, Brooks Bonstin, Jenne Patrick and Aaron Olson, Jimi Hey… even Bubba Dupree for a bit!
I mainly made an idiot out of myself and beat myself up, literally. I tried out on bass but had regressed since the other band so I got the masochist job, haha. But Shoplifting was the first time I sang. I played a bit of guitar there too, also badly. All those bands I think I was mostly in because the other people liked me, not because I was good at anything. Shoplifting was lucky because I sort of worked. And now New War, so I guess you could say I’m a slow learner, haha.
Specific to the album, it feels intuitively as if you’re recalling a series of incidents. Are there any particular events that contributed to your lyrical content, on either an obvious or more ephemeral level?
Yeah, for sure. Most of the songs have very specific clues or signals. The Russian Civil War is in there: that set a lot of the tone and template for the 20th century and beyond, in terms of how the authoritarian ‘left’ took power and eliminated the actual left. The Stalinist poet Neruda is in there. Stalin’s in there. Central and South America in the ’70s and ’80s [is in there], especially Chile and Argentina. The Congo under Belgium. What’s now called Seattle when it was first being colonised. The whole world since 9/11. “Terrorist” rituals, and the meanings of “terrorism” and “fundamentalism”. Colony collapse disorder. The birth of my son. Binh Dinh, Vietnam. Logan, Utah. Montepelier, Idaho. Fort Lewis, Washington. The songs ‘Felt Like a Memory’ and ‘Slim Dandy’ are about my uncle who was railroaded into and murdered in Vietnam when he was 19. They’re not the lightest of topics, but there’s no ghost blow jobs or goth skeleton dancing or some of the other things people have thought was in there, and ‘Game of Love’ isn’t about love. Most of the first person narration isn’t me. There’s no fantasy or escapism happening, but there are jokes! They may not be funny, but they’re in there.
Would you say the music informs the lyrics, or vice versa? Or is the relationship inherently intertwined?
They aim to match each other, that’s the best way I can put it. Sometimes one comes first and sometimes the other comes first. Then they meet in the middle and go off somewhere else. That’s probably a bit boring, but there’s no formula, it’s wherever the song decides it wants to go.
The artwork for the 12″ Single (Ghostwalking) and the LP is stylistically simple. Was there a particular reason for this?
I’ve had my fair share of shit slung my way for cover art I’ve done in the past, so I didn’t put my hand up for this band, and nor did the others. But we’re all obviously picky as hell so we called in Luke Fraser, who did a good job putting up with us. How can I put it? Simple is the best way to get four bloody-minded people to agree.
Do you feel aligned with a particular scene in Australian music? Or are you out on your own?
I think the great thing about Australian music at the moment is that most bands, the interesting bands, are following their own vision and that’s a big part of what they appreciate about the other bands or people in the scene. I don’t see much copying happening at all. I think we’re just as alone as most of the other bands we like, but that’s what we appreciate about each other and what makes things friendly, if that makes sense. I’m aligned with the Australian underground, and I love tons of different kinds of music, but I’m not super interested in scenes or sub-scenes.
A few of the band members are parents. Do you feel that parenthood changes your approach to music in any way?
It means you have to plan your time better, but other than that, not really. Unless you become a pile of saps like The Decemberists or something and start writing kids books for that horrible new breed of affluent ‘indie’ WASPs. But it’s obvious they were a bunch of dads from the beginning anyway. Having kids is not the death sentence that a lot of people seem to think it is. The best thing about it is that being completely responsible for someone else keeps your ego in check and that is good for band dynamics.
I’m curious to know about the musical backgrounds of Jesse (keyboards) and Steve (drums). Have they had any kind of classical training? They both have very distinct styles of playing.
No, they haven’t thankfully! We may be pretentious but we’re on the seething prole end of pretentious, not the classically trained end, haha. Both of them have been playing for years though, and lots of different kinds of music very different to New War. Jesse’s fronted the band Sir for years. He’s like the Gainsbourg of Melbourne and it’s very interesting to hear him purely as an instrumentalist. He’s definitely idiosyncratic in the best possible way. Steve is obviously a great drummer, and he’s been playing forever as well. He was in Bird Blobs, which Mel was also in for a spell. He reminds of me John Bonham or KK Barrett as far as power goes, but he’s tried a bunch of different hats on in this band. His playing is really musical. Just the other night at rehearsal actually, I noticed him clicking the sticks around in this weird tonal way. The important thing is they’re not wankers, they’re very tasteful. Mel’s the same, she’s been playing bass since she was 13 or 14. I think for all of them, it’s about aging the right way, getting better at your instrument but not getting stuck in a certain way of playing or in your own ego or whatever. It’s all about the song.
New War’s debut self-titled LP is available on Sensory Projects.