Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Birds X Of A Feather: The Past The Present

One of the bands that inspires me the most at the moment is without a doubt Birds Of A Feather. Come on how can you not be inspired by a youth crew band consisting of members who are in their thirties and forties and are still as dedicated now as they were ages ago? It's not only their long lasting 'career' in hardcore that makes this band interesting, they actually have a thing or two to say about punk, religion and growing up as well. Doing this interview are Birds bassplayer JP, guitarist Marc and vocalist Bigma.

I always thought Birds Of A Feather started out as a one-off thing, when and why did that change and did you decide to become a real band?

JP: Let me clear up one thing. I've approached Bigma to start a 30+ edge band right before he headed into the studio with Jonas and Pepijn to record the Our Aim 7" that came out with the first issue of Voice Of A Generation fanzine. Bigma was into doing the band and so were Pepijn and Jonas. So even before the Our Aim 7” got released we were a real band and not just a project. Ever since we went through 2 line up changes. The first one was when Pepijn couldn’t combine the band any longer with his job. And the second line up change was when Jonas threw in the towel. Too bad, but it couldn’t stop Marc, Bigma and myself to continue the band.

For some reason I always thought the band was going to stick with Crucial Response Records. Why did you choose to release records on different labels and how did you come in contact with Refuse Records.

Marc: Well, we offered all our upcoming records to Peter of Crucial Response. First we had the idea of releasing the vinyl in the USA, Europe and Asia as a 14 song LP with 13 of the same songs everywhere and a changing song on each continent. Peter wasn’t interested in doing “license”-records elsewhere and since some other record labels had already approached us and showed interest in us it was no big deal to move on to new record labels.

We found four people who have their hearts in the right place and that really wanted to work with us. Short and simple. We feel honoured that Refuse, Commitment, Crucial Times and Seven Eight Life Records all put their efforts into us.

Releasing three different records in three continents turned out to be just too hard to realize, so when we were working on the LP we decided to release one and the same album worldwide. We realized that we had three or four songs too much for the album. During the recording session we decided to use the extra songs for a 7". That we ended up releasing a 7" on Commitment was actually a sort of coincidence because we asked Robert Voogt to do backing vocals on our recordings. Strangely enough we were sort of shy to ask Robert if he was interested, and it was the same the other way around. He was also a bit to shy to ask us directly. I think one way or another Bigma and Robert discovered that, so being on Commitment with its past and status, we felt like coming home. We really like how the Chapter 5 7" turned out, the music, lyrics and artwork, it all turned out great.

Robert Matusiak of Refuse asked us to come to play on his 2006 open air festival, and he is just a really nice guy. He knew about our past, was really interested in us and when we emailed him to ask if he wanted to work with us he was enthusiastic from the beginning and really supportive about our "ridiculous" idea with book. The CD is done and released, so we played a "release show" in Warsaw at the 15 years Refuse Records fest. That was pretty awesome, the atmosphere was great with bands like Regres, Tangled Lines and Seein Red, and since some people already knew our new stuff we had a great response. Besides that Robert had arranged everything perfect, we had a good ride from the airport, a great all-you-can-eat-vegan-breakfast at Tofu Attack, and a great sight seeing tour through Warsaw set up by our American friend Ken. So props to Robert!

'The Past The Present' is supposed to come with a book, can you tell me a bit more about that?

Marc: When we started to work on the album we felt that we shouldn't glorify the old days nor that we should rely on "previous results" from our mutual past. So instead of looking back we thought that we should use our experience to look ahead, to the future, and emphasize "development", personally, as a band and as part of the scene. It made us realize that we should put our energy in "being the scene", hence we also started to book some shows for other bands, etcetera etcetera. One thing lead to another, and seeing straight edge where it is today I firstly realized how the European straight edge scene differs from its American counterpart, secondly that it basically started 25 years ago and thirdly that I am becoming really old (41) and that the past is slowly slipping away from our common "shared memories".

Other people documented parts of our hardcore and punkrock history in books. But most books that are published nowadays focus either on hardcore in the USA or on punk in Great Britain and mostly deals about "the beginning" and how cool/hard it all was. Which is okay, but the limited timeframe ("the early years") as well as the limited geography of those books really annoyed me, as well as sometimes the manner of writing like for instance in "Please Kill Me", which is basically one quote after another and that really bugged me whilst reading that book. But I also see the strength of the "eye witness concept", so I decided that it was good to document the first 25 years of straight edge in its origin and development somewhere in between the style of writing of "Our Band Could Be Your Life" and "Please Kill Me", so a story with quotes.

Besides that, the Dutch influence on the European straight edge has been pretty big, so I focused on bands like Larm, Manliftingbanner and Mainstrike as the thread throughout the story. Besides those three bands we interviewed about 40 people through email or skype, and tried to make a balanced story. In which I didn't succeed (laughter), some people and bands refused to answer or to cooperate, so some countries and bands are underexposed. Nevertheless, we tried.

However I feel really sorry for not including some people like for instance Kokie from Belgium, or Lecky from the UK, of whom I couldn't get a hold of. Also I found that writing is really hard (42.000 words is something different then 800...) so I learned to be humble to anyone who delivered great books like Michael Azzerad and John Joseph, and I also discovered that my English is pretty crappy.

On a different note it is also interesting that some stories of for instance bands like X Acto and New Winds - whose stories were unknown to me - are very interesting whilst others (I will not name and shame here, because they didn't make into the book anyhow) don't have anything more to say then "we started a band, we made a record and then we split up".

What I found really interesting is the struggle of the early straight edge and the conscious decision it was to turn straight edge for a lot of people. I included a chapter "thoughts on straight edge" which contains personal ideas of a lot of the interviewed people, which turned out a "must-read" for anyone interested in straight edge. Anyway, it will be a book like those Dead Kennedys books that I love so much, 12" by 12" and inserted in one side of the gatefold sleeve (the other side will contain the record).

The Eastern percussion at the beginning of the full length might give listeners the idea they're dealing with a Krishna band, but is that the case?

JP: Yes! The bells and percussion are krsna related. Altough it doesn't have any personal meaning to me - at all - I'm really into the beginning of the record tough, and aside from that I know it's important for both Big and Paul. I see the 20 seconds of Eastern percussion as a perfect kick off for the 22 minutes of pissed off youth x crew tunes that follow...

Marc: As far as I know it is done with drums and bells that are used by krishna's. Personally I am not spiritual nor religious at all, I am actually quite the opposite. Bigma is an IRM-devotee, and both Paul and Jeff are krishna conscious. That is their choice, they really inspire me how they are dealing with that choice on a day to day basis. So we are not a krishna band, but it is obvious that with 3 out of the 5 members that some ideas/imagery from their krishna philosophy gets a place within the band. Bigma writes all the lyrics, and I find his lyrics very inspirational too, although I really believe that I will never transcend (as is sung in "Appreciate"). Anyway about the beginning as well as the ending of our record, if it pisses some people off, that is fine with me. Goal accomplished, we are punk, aren't we?

Is the song 'Behind These Walls' about BOAF not being allowed to play a show because some of its members are devotees? What do you think about that in a day and age where religion in hardcore seems to be more accepted than in the eighties and nineties. And do you understand that people still get 'itchy' when hardcore gets involved with religion?

Big: Actually this song is about the fact that most of the people in the hardcore/punk scene are a bunch of hypocrites. Who are you to tell me that I am brainwashed, who are you to tell me that I cannot think for myself? Tell me where your ideas are coming from. Is it really your own opinion or did it shaped overtime by your favourite bands and the people you hang out with?

If we are not alowed to follow any written word, then why put so much stress in having your band lyrics print in the cd booklet? Then why is it so important that bands speak out on stage. I won’t listen and I won’t read it because I have to think for myself. Luckily it is not this black and white, but isn’t it weird that you are only allowed to have an opinion that fits what is hot at the moment? People seem to forget that if you follow a certain path in life you do it because of some decisions you made in life. The decision for me from more than 20 years of punkrock and hardcore is a path of self-realization.

I don’t think that religion is more accepted today than it was in the eighties and nineties. I think it is more a matter of that people don’t care anymore. The tendency today is more like “oh if you are happy that way than it’s o.k. with me”. Of course I understand that people get “itchy” when I comes down to god consciousness that is because the Dead Kennedys told them to, just kidding (laughter).

I think it is because people really think you get brainwashed and have to surrender to some master who is about to exploit you. But that is ignorance by not knowing the facts and understanding the philosophy. I understand that people are against organised religion and dogmatic cults, I am against that too, but we've to realise that has nothing to do with the philosophy.

On the other hand I totally do not understand why people put so much stress on the word “organised”, do you stop going to shows because it is “organised”? And that is exactly what this song is about; people are so caught up in their opinion that they are unwilling to see the other side. I still struggle for injustice, for freedom, a world without racism, sexism or any other form of oppressive “ism”. But I came to another conclusion and see the solution in another form of revolution. Not a political one but a spiritual one.

Marc: That song was actually written before this incident happened. We were not banned because some of our members are devotees, but because on beforehand we had to promise not to distribute any flyers concerning Hare Krishna, since the promoter had nothing against religion, but against "organised religion". So I reckoned - since it really pissed me off - who the hell is he telling other people like Bigma - who is an active member and contributor to our scene for over 20 years - how to behave?

So we were not really banned, but on those conditions we refused to play. Like Bigma is going to brainwash some innocent teenagers and lure them into the cruel krishna movement. Come on, going to that show you get more brainwashed by all the commercial ads you will see on bus stops and posters then Bigma will ever accomplish.

Coming to the second part of your question, personally I still do get itchy about religion. But instead of banning it out of my sight I try to see what people moves to act the way they do, and see if I can use that knowledge in my own personal growth (oops there we go, you see, I am already brainwashed too). It is interesting though, since I don't know what I would do if we were asked to play a Krishna festival...

JP: I would play the Krishna fest, if for the food only :)

Big you once started Mainstrike because there weren't any full on youth crew bands around any more. Now ten years later the situation is much the same as then, how do you look back on the Mainstrike period and the downfall of straight edge in The Netherlands after Mainstrike and Reaching Forward broke up? Can you tell me where did we go wrong?

Big: Back then the hardcore scene was ready for that type of music and attitude because there was a lot of negativity and a lot of bad metal bands. I guess you cannot compare today with 14 years ago because the scene back then was a lot smaller and not so divided in all the sub-scenes we have today, but it was the beginning of the youth crew revival I think and probably we are a part of the problem because we created our own scene which was a breeding ground for a lot of ignorance. So where did we go wrong? I think it goes wrong when you adopt a certain lifestyle for the wrong reason. Back then it was a “cool thing” to be straight edge and almost not done to be different from that. So the problem is/was that people don’t give it a real thought why they are straight edge and if they have a clear mind. Besides, what are you gonna do with it? And that has nothing to do with any style of music or any dress code, it’s a matter of sincerity and determination.

Marc you have lived in the US for some years. What did you think about the dutch and european hardcore scene when you came back?

Marc: I lived in the USA basically three times, but the last time was in 2006 with my family, so that had a different impact, with my kids going to school there. First of all, at that time I lived in Minneapolis/St Paul, in the mid-west, which is something different then both of the coasts. I found a very tight knit scene in the Twin Cities, where people really stuck together. I mean in the Memory Lanes bowling alley they have punk rock bowling each Monday, with punks bowling and one or two bands performing. Bands work really hard, drive long distances to play for no money and "no service" (no sleeping places, no food, no drinks and so on). What I noticed in the Twin Cities that the scene was less separated in "subscenes" and that a lot of people just went to "shows". When I came back I thought that - compared to the USA - the scene over here was less "punk", less "DIY" and that there are a helluva lot of shows. Also I think that a lot of USA bands have more "personality" then a lot of the Dutch bands.

What do you mean with "personality"?

Marc: With that I mean that American bands seem to have more authenticity. I saw a hardcore punkrock country singer at a show, I saw bands dressed up as nurses, naked women on high heels in the pit, bands made up out of five totally different insane guys.

People in the hardcore scene justaren't as moulded in their subscene-standard-form. At the St Paul PunxFest there were 400 to 500 people, and obviously they were punk andhardcore people, but there was so much diversity, you know from commie-hating skinheads to crusties to just weird looking people. In the midwest the straight edge people don't look like "youth-crew straight edge" people. They look like punkrockers. People just express themselves in crazy ways, there is so much more individual expression without the idea "look at me I am oh so cool", and instead of being judged by others people get respected for that. And also I think, but maybe that is a Midwestern thing because of the long, cold and dreadful winters, people
also work harder to have a good time and some fun as well. Hence the punkrock bowling. As someone said to me "after all, hardcore starts with ha".

Most of you are old enough to have seen bands like Youth Of Today and Gorilla Biscuits in their prime. What do you think about their reunion shows?

JP: Seeing YOT play some reunion shows was a disaster. The GB reunion, on the other hand, was awesome! I even went to see them play in the US in 2006 just because I'm way too much into their music. I was happy enough to see their final two shows of that tour. The one at CBGB's that wasn't easy to get in to. Lucky enough a friend of mine was able to hook up a group of 4 euro's. I'll never forget that show as it was one of the final CBGB's shows ever.

Nowadays, too many bands from back in the days are reuniting should no longer be allowed to do so. I keep on telling myself over and over again not to go see any bands play reunion shows, but at the same time I've caught myself numerous times ending up going to these shows. I enjoyed the Underdog and Gorilla Biscuits shows best. And let me tell you this, if Inside Out are ever going to play another show, I'll go out to see them play, no matter where that show is going to be... Other than that, I hope the entire 'reunion shows saga' will be over soon.

Marc: Besides YOT and GB I have also seen Judge, Chain of Strength and Inside Out amongst others in the late 80's. Which is just a matter of age, nothing more, nothing less. Reunion shows suck. They should be forbidden. Just when I decided not to go to any reunion shows anymore Bigma was playing with Manliftingbanner. So I went to see them out of curiosity and again I was disappointed since it never ever lives up to the original performances.

To most people hardcore and straight edge is a passing phase. How do you keep yourself committed and have there been times when you were so fed up with hardcore you wanted to leave the scene and never come back? If so what made you come back eventually? Do you notice that people look up to you because you've been in the scene for a long time?

Marc: I can't do anything else, laughter. Music wise a lot of the things that I hear nowadays I have heard before, and I couldn't care less. But the energy of hardcore, the complete DIY mentality, the worldwide "brother/sisterhood" to me that is unique. And I really like to see bands such as Gewapend Beton, Tenement Kids and Bratpack. So musically my horizons are wider then ever before. Because I drifted away to 'alternative rock' and 'intellectual music', started a family and so on, I missed out on the '98 youth crew revival. That is sorta funny, I don't think I have ever seen Mainstrike play, maybe once in their early years, but I can't recall (although being straight edge since 1985 I can't recall a lot of things, like Bigma always points out to me: "remember when we went to see..." "eeh no?"). And if people look up to us, I have never noticed that, I think they rather pity us...

JP: To me hardcore and the edge are no passing phase. You pretty much gave the answer to this question yourself. I've never been fed up with hardcore and you know why? Because I don't care about what other people do, how other people dress and how other people interpret hardcore. I'm just doing this for myself and it's just awesome to have a bunch of great friends around me that I'm doing this band with. Should I get credits for being around so long? Nah, just have everybody do their own thing and not idolise certain bands and/or people. To answer your last question, the only thing I notice is that kids don't really pick up my band Birds Of A Feather, which is a pity because we're damn good! :)

Myspace: Birds X Of A Feather
Label: Refuse Records


Mike said...

I really need to check these guys out!

xroldx said...

If I were you I'd wait for the vinyl version of the full length with the book and all, should be great!

saha said...

one of the best interviews i've read, inspiring words!

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