03 July 2009

Boots Riley: taking the power to the people [Interview]

Interview with
10:20am, 3 July 2009 

Street Sweeper Social Club (SSSC) is the creation of Tom Morello and ‘Boots’ Riley. Of course, most people have heard of Morello due to his involvement in Rage Against the Machine, one of the foremost activist bands of the last 20 years. Audioslave is another band you might remember him from, and his solo project, The Nightwatchman. Boots Riley, however, is a different story.

Not many people in Australia may have heard of his band The Coup, however it has been pumping out incredibly empowering anthems for around 16 years. Boots (can’t refer to him as Riley, just doesn’t fit) has an amazing ability to inspire people with his lyrics...and shock them. The reactions he has garnered from conservatives in the US means he’s certainly agitating the right people. In SSSC, he raps about the economic, political, and business environments creating hard times for citizens of his country, and the hypocrisy that seems to go hand in hand with extreme corporate wealth. His lyrics and gutsy vocal delivery, combined with Morello’s ever brilliant Hendrix reincarnations on guitar, create an invigorating soundtrack to the current state of the world, providing a welcome change from the limp pop-pap flooding the top 10 list in many countries.

While I’d normally write up an interview as a story with partial quotes, Boots was so eloquent and such an interesting interviewee that I’ve decided to give you the interview verbatim. I believe that allowing people to speak about their passions without editing them for ‘catchy’ quotes provides a context that lends an interview a special feel. So, I’d like to introduce you to one Mr Boots Riley.

MAF: Congratulations on releasing such an amazing album. I’m sure everyone says that to you, but for me, it surpassed expectations.

Boots: See, I could take that as a compliment, or I could take that as an insult. That’s like saying, “You’re so much better than I thought you’d be”.

MAF: I mean that when I first heard that SSSC had formed and was going to release an album, I wasn’t sure what style to expect: The Nightwatchman, The Coup. I was pleasantly surprised to hear your styles meld together so well. While researching for this interview, I was astounded to read of the bad luck and unfortunate timing which befell The Coup: tour bus crashes, inappropriate language charges, ‘Party Music’s cover art depicting the destruction of the World Trade Centre buildings immediately prior to 9/11 etc. How has your experience with Tom been different to the past 17 years or so in the business?

Boots: Let’s see, we go on a tour bus instead of me driving a van. We have a tour manager instead of me being the tour manager. We have hotels instead of sleeping in the van. Those things are very different. We’re also, instead of playing small clubs, playing amphitheatres. The other thing that’s different is that Tom is someone who was a friend before we were working on music together, so it’s a lot of fun.

MAF: How did you and Tom first meet?

Boots: He kind of hit me out of the blue to be on the ‘Tell us the Truth’ tour that was basically against media monopoly and against the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement. Through that tour, which was about five weeks long, we became friends. Over the years, as he did The Nightwatchman, I’d come on to his set and we’d do acoustic versions of Coup songs. The friendship kept going on and one day, after Audioslave broke up, he basically said “We’re in a band called Street Sweeper Social Club; here’s a cassette tape, start writing it”, and here we are.

MAF: Do you have any goals you’d like to achieve with your music? Are you trying to stop people from being apathetic, trying to inform people and get them motivated?

Boots: Vaguely that would be the case. I don’t think people are apathetic. I think people feel powerless; they want things to change, but they feel like they can’t do anything about it. So I want to let people know that, when they say “It’s only me by myself, what can I do?”, I want to give them the answer. And the answer is to get a whole bunch of other people who are by themselves, and then you’re not by yourself: you’re an organisation. Then choose a campaign through which you can get other folks to join you, and force your hand. I’m talking about radical unions which, at least in the United States, we don’t have. And this whole economic crisis, the actual thing that is being covered up is the crisis of capitalism, where they pay the workers less and less and take more and more for themselves. Then the workers have less and less to spend, so they want to cut wages even more. So how do we stop that? We don’t let them give us less, that’s the first step. Second step: once we force our hand at that, we’re going to shut down your factories, we’re going to shut down your institutions until you pay us more. Once you do that, then you’re going for a bigger piece of the pie than what you’ve got now. So yeah, it’s not just to stop people from being apathetic, because I don’t think most people are apathetic. It’s just to let people know that they have to join organisations with people who are in the same situation they are so that they can change their own situation.

MAF: In an interview with Bill Maher, you apparently called yourself a communist, and his retort was “Communists don’t sell records”. Do you still relate to communist beliefs and, if so, how do you navigate the commercial aspects of the music industry?

Boots: I think he’s confusing ‘communists’ with ‘communalists’. I don’t think we’re going to change the world by opting out of capitalism, because you can’t opt out of capitalism. I don’t want to stop capitalism just for myself, I want to stop exploitation. The only way to stop exploitation is by using the means that are out there. If my song plays on the radio right before or after a Coke ad, then it’s going to be like that because that’s the radio station that everyone’s listening to. I’m not going to do a Coke endorsement, but our music will still play on those stations. If I have to use the music industry to get my art out there, then that’s what I have to do. 

MAF: There seems to be a bit more of an undercurrent of McCarthyism in the US; that’s the way some of us perceive it over here. I was reading that a conservative columnist once cited The Coup’s song ‘5 million ways to kill a CEO’ as “a stomach turning example of anti-Americanism disguised as high-brow intellectual expression”. How do you respond to those types of comments about your lyrics?

Boots: Well, coming from someone like her, that was a compliment. The people who would say that are not the people I am aiming at in the first place; I’m aiming for the people that are effected the worst by it, that are actually going to do something about it. Really, they don’t care what you call it. What they want is food on the table and a roof over their heads, and things like health care and education; that’s what I want for everybody. So you could call it ‘communist’, you could call it ‘socialist’, you could call it whatever, I don’t care. But I want the people to democratically control the wealth that they create, and everybody’s down with that. So I’m not going to argue with someone who wants to call it anti-Americanism; whatever you want to label it, just get it right what I’m asking for.

MAF: People in Australia who speak their minds are often labelled un-Australian, so it seems to be a global phenomenon that people who speak out are called unpatriotic.

Boots: It’s just a way to not talk about what the issue is.

MAF: It’s been great to see footage of you guys performing as part of the NIN|JA tour line-up. What was that experience like, and what was the audience’ response to SSSC’s music, because you hadn’t released your album yet?

Boots: I expected to see a lot of blank stares and, because it was mainly a NIN crowd, I expected there to be lots of people just staring at the stage, annoyed that Trent Reznor wasn’t on stage yet. That wasn’t the case at all; everyone reacted well to the music and if there were a few people who were like that in the crowd at first, we won them over.

MAF: Your live performance is so vibrant and energetic, you’d have to be made of plastic not to react in some way.

Boots: Thank you. We want our live shows to embody the emotion that we’re playing. We’re not just up there standing still, where you can hear what we’re saying; you can see and FEEL what we’re saying too. 

MAF: How did you choose the tour line-up? You and Tom had already written the music, so how did you decide on the musicians who would tour with you on the NIN|JA tour?

Boots: Well, on the album, the drummer is Stanton Moore, and he plays with so many other bands there was no way we were going to be able to have him as our regular drummer. With the tour line-up, we wanted people who were friends and were great at their instrument.

MAF: Do you have any plans to tour Australia eventually?

Boots: Yes, I believe so, but they kind of keep me in the dark about everything...but I know we do, I know for sure we do. I came and did a few shows in Australia last year with Galactic, and that was a lot of fun, so I can’t wait to get back. I think they’re trying to get us out to see you guys in summertime.

MAF: Before you go, I’d like to let you know that my favourite songs from the album are ‘Somewhere in the world it’s midnight’, ‘Shock you again’, and ‘Nobody moves (til we say go)’...

Boots: I want to do a video for ‘Shock you Again’ that takes it to a different place so it’s more macabre; a Rocky Horror Picture Show kind of thing. Hopefully we’ll get to do that.
Street Sweeper Social Club's album is now available in record stores throughout Australia. You can find out more about the band on Street Sweeper Social Club's: 
Official website 

This interview was conducted for The Dwarf.

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