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The Power of Music | The Nation

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The Power of Music

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Boots, the Coup has been on major and independent labels. Any difference?

About the Author

Ann Powers
Ann Powers is a senior curator at Experience Music Project in Seattle. The author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America...

Riley:

My main principle is getting the idea out there. Because of my politics, I don't necessarily think that the independent capitalist is that much better than the multinational capitalist; it's just that the independent capitalist hasn't grown as big yet. I've been on an indie label, and the only difference was they had less money to work with. But there is a different line that I won't go across--opportunities put in front of our faces to make a lot of money.

Like what?

Riley:

Interview magazine had this thing going on. I didn't find out what the figure was but it involved money. They'd do a whole editorial on us and they'd have this thing with Levi's where on the other side of the page we'd wear Levi's. That was just this past year. Those types of things are even extra weird for me because I'm like, "Why do they want us?" The only reason is to say, "We got them all now!" [Editor's Note: Interview acknowledges approaching the Coup for a Levi's ad but denies any editorial component.]

Vedder:

I know that when I heard the Buzzcocks on a Toyota ad, I wasn't particularly upset. I mean, the initial reaction was shock; at the same time, it's a good song and I know they haven't sold a million records. But I feel like maybe a band like the Counting Crows in a Coke commercial, they should know that Coke's been marketing to children and striking deals with the schools to get pop machines and advertising in the schools. I just wouldn't want to participate in anything like that.

Brownstein:

There are ways of being savvy about dealing with corporations and about making decisions that you feel good about. Homegrocer.com asked Sam [Coomes, who plays in the duo Quasi with Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss] for a song he wrote ["Would You Like to Have Something to Eat?"]. He did give them the song and they were going to pay him a large sum of money and he said, "OK, but you have to match that and I'm donating it to a food bank in Portland."

I did a Priceline commercial, you know.

Right, right, with William Shatner, I remember it.

Brownstein:

It was just me. I was like, "Yeah, I'll do that commercial, just for fun." I would not have had the band do it and we would not have given a song to them. There's definitely kind of a line in my head that artistically, in terms of the band and our music, I just would not cross. I would rather sign to a major label than ever do an ad for McDonald's.

Rock and roll is all about lifestyle, in many people's minds. Do you believe lifestyle can be a form of activism?

Brownstein:

A lot of the political choices I make are in my personal life--in the way that I vote or live or consume or not consume. And I think for us the music has always come first, and activism comes second, at least as a band. We use our music as our activism, you know. If those can somehow be tied together, all the better for us.

Ray:

As a musician, there's the way you run your organization. How many women do you hire? Do you hire people who are of different colors and different sexualities? Do you use recycled paper, do you talk the record label into using recycled paper? Dave Matthews has that ticket service now where you can get tickets online instead of using Ticketmaster. And he's offering it to other artists and we go through that too. Believe me, there's not many people that could talk promoters into offering up a certain number of seats in their venues that were not Ticketmaster seats. He had that power and he did it, and that's killer.

What would you say to critics who say you're preaching to the converted?

Riley:

How I normally work is, I assume that you agree with me. I don't think the problem starts with you. I think that makes my music less preachy and it also allows me to just talk about the regular things I go through.

Ray:

The Indigo Girls' audience is not necessarily all left, that's the thing. We have a lot of conservative people in our audience that are socially liberal, open to tolerance for different religions or different sexuality but they're not necessarily voting Democrat or Green. We still get mail from people who are mad about our stance on abortion. When we started we had so many of what appeared to be Christian references in our music and they really weren't. And so there's still people, the abortion thing really bugs them. I'm glad that we have that community that's willing to come and maybe their minds get opened up in some way.

You're all young enough to have missed the counterculture of the 1960s. Is it a shadow over you? How do you view that time now? How are you connected or disconnected to it?

Vedder:

The soundtrack for peace has definitely fallen into the hands of--it's just become the Beatles and John Lennon and Dylan, which is quite a legacy on top of everything else they did musically. That's why it's nice to hear a song like Patti Smith's "People Have the Power," to keep it more current. But you know, at the same time, I was trying to write a little something for Ralph Nader when I played at a few different rallies and I was coming up with a few things and then I stumbled upon "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and it really was as relevant today as it had ever been.

Ray:

Actually, our peers have been more like the old guard: Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby. It's been because the style of activism we're doing is more the style that they do. It's very hands on. You know, Jackson, when he worked on Central American issues he was down in Central America.

What about the rest of you? Who are your peers?

Morello:

I think that Living Colour doesn't get nearly the credit that is due to them as an all-black commercially successful hard-rock band. I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude, cause until them you had to play Jimi Hendrix cover songs at kegger parties, and that was sort of the ceiling, the black ceiling, for a guy like me. And metal kids who were all white could never like hip-hop. Those walls have definitely tumbled. Which paved the way for a band like Rage Against the Machine, which has a multiethnic audience and delivers a political message to fans of Metallica and fans of A Tribe Called Quest.

Brownstein:

Mr. Lady, the Butchies' label, is a women-run and very overtly feminist label that has made a large effort not only to put out interesting, good, political music but also embodies and disseminates many leftist and radical and feminist ideas as a label. And the artists are different and don't follow one kind of political platform. Le Tigre we certainly feel akin to, and Sara Dougher. And then Pearl Jam, specifically I mean Eddie Vedder, who we know. In terms of some of our goals, to use music as a means of really communicating and connecting with people, I definitely feel a kinship with him. And then the Coup--I have only been listening to them for the last year, but it totally floored me when I heard their record.

Vedder:

For me it's more people like Medea Benjamin [the founder of Global Exchange]. I did see Bruce Springsteen in Chicago, and he really eloquently mentioned a couple things at the end of the show about not forgetting that civil rights is still an issue and that as American citizens we have a right to them as well, and we have a right to participate in an open and honest debate about whether or not we're going to send Americans overseas to fight a war.

What's necessary for the politically aware musician now?

Brownstein:

Maybe we need to step outside our houses and go talk to our neighbors and see what they're doing. Go to meetings or actually take a little bit more of a role in our city and state politics. I at least feel that way. It's not just about the personal choices I make; they might make me feel better but may not necessarily be enough right now. That same philosophy makes me want to team up with other like-minded bands that aren't necessarily from the independent community, may not even necessarily be in Portland. I've talked to members of the Coup about playing a show with them and Steve Earle. We've talked about doing some touring with Pearl Jam next year. Establishing connections with people that you feel akin to is really important right now.

Here's the million-dollar question. If you could get one message out to your fans right now, what would it be?

Brownstein:

Oh my God, that's so much responsibility! One message to the people. It just makes you want to quote something horrible. Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow, people! No, Clinton already used that. I guess I would say that your imagination is a vital tool, and so many things in our culture are there to take the place of your imagination. So have faith in new ideas.

Ray:

What I would say is, there is a connection between nuclear waste, the war in Iraq, and the fact that people need to drive cars that get better mileage. And I hope everybody's going to get really active about this war.

Morello:

You are a historical agent. History is not something that has happened in the past and that is made up of names and dates and places of kings and generals, history is what you make in your home, in your place of work, in the streets, in your community and in the world and your actions--your actions or your inaction is directly affecting the fate of the world that you live in and should be treated with that gravity.

Vedder:

I think everyone should feel that there's power in gathering together and being out in the street. On the day of the Westlake Center peace protest in Seattle, I was out of town. I talked to Tim Robbins, and he and Susan had been down to Central Park that morning and he said it was beautiful, maybe 40,000 people out there. I saw about three seconds of that on CNN. It was Sunday morning, and I'd watched This Week and Face the Nation and I was about ready to take a hammer to my head. So it's such a positive thing to be out there and feel active. It's like Christmas in a way. It feels good.

Riley:

My message? You can do it too.

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