You might be surprised to read that Defiance, Ohio started life under a different name as a ‘funk post-rock’ two piece in late 2002. Will and Ryan played bass and drums respectively, in front of a video projection; it was all ‘very artistic’, Will says, sniggering, but a far cry from the singalong banjo-ripping anarchist punk that propelled them around a six week European tour this October. Four years later the funk has gone and replacing it are lyrics about Iraq, the American prison-industrial complex and skateboarding, accompanied by unexpected instruments including a cello, fiddle, harmonica and banjo.
I interviewed most of the band with a shit tape recorder after their gig at the Klondyke Bowls Club in Manchester, which was the last date of their tour. Their set that night was brilliant; the sheer depth of the sound of six people playing can’t fail to be impressive and every song made me want to dance. My favourite song was ‘I Don’t Want Solidarity…’, because I can’t hear it without remembering listening to it on repeat in my tent at Climate Camp last August, the night before a day of action which was always going to end in arrest. ‘Let’s stop this talk of action, ‘cos action comes easy, it’s the moments just before that are hard, when I’ve got to get my voice and my fists on the same page as my heart’, my chest hammering in anticipation, trying to sleep. Looking at the faces of other people watching the band at the gig, I realised that for every Defiance, Ohio song, there’s someone standing there like I was, listening with their eyes closed, the words resonating and conjuring up times, places and people. And that’s pretty much what you want music to do, isn’t it?
LH: Do you consider Defiance, Ohio a folk punk band?
Theo: I would almost say no. It’s a weird question to answer because I think that if you think about when we play a show – the amount of equipment that is required for us to play a show.
Sherry: I’m always really happy, though, when just by chance we end up having to play an acoustic show. I think it’s nice that we have the versatility to do that, even though we usually put the instruments through such small amplifications.
LH: You were saying before, Theo, about associating folk with acoustic instruments. What do you think folk music is, I mean, do you think it has an ethic underlying it or is it as superficial as relying on acoustic instruments?
T: When I think of folk music I think more of being super versatile in where you can perform and how much planning it takes for you to play. It’s a lot simpler. Acoustic instrumentation doesn’t define it at all, it’s also a matter of specifics.
Geoff: To me at least part of folk music is that the songs are kind of second to the performance, or what they document stands by itself more. The cultural time and place and the things that people are dealing with that the songs refer to. Folk music tends to have that feeling of reflecting the culture really strongly.
LH: I suppose you could see that in the way that folk songs are passed on between performers, and it doesn’t matter if the song’s a cover.
Will: I really like songs like that. Have you ever heard the song, ‘Rock Island Line’? Johnny Cash sang it, Leadbelly sang it, all these people sang it and each time it was a little bit different. Sometimes people would add something to it, but it’s really nobody’s song.
LH: Do you see a natural connection between folk music and punk music, or do you think that its taken a few creative people to push them together?
T: I definitely see a connection between the two things. I see both folk music and punk music as being more urgent and real. It’s more about making these songs and sharing them with as many people as you can, and sharing these deep thoughts in this music, as opposed to being about getting famous.
W: I think it’s about being more participatory; other people singing along and other people singing the same songs, or just the places where people play. There’s a kind of casualness. When I think of folk music I think of folk festivals, or saloons, or peoples homes or porches, I think punk music needs a little more – it happens in a little more formal spaces because of the amps and stuff, but it still has that arbitrary feel to the spaces it inhabits.
LH: I keep asking you about folk punk, even though you’ve already said you don’t consider Defiance, Ohio to be folk punk, and maybe this isn’t a fair question but then, your album is called ‘The Great Depression’ which is a very American phrase. I was wondering if you think that the folkier punk is tied more closely to the place that the music comes from. Like a lot of the Plan-It-X style bands have got really strong American themes, whereas say hardcore bands from America and Brazil can sound pretty much the same in what they talk about.
Ryan: I think that just having The Great Depression as a title and referring to that period of time – in some ways that’s as much a play on words, for something to be a depression and, ‘great’, but I think for me at least, I like it as a name not so much as a reference but because there has been this huge interest from people in old time music and folk music because of this movement in punk. I was really missing something in the punk scene, in the hardcore scene at a certain time, and it’s really good to find this directness in this music, and this positivity.
I think the reality for us playing this, and singing very positive words is that it brought us to a point where there were some bigger issues that we really felt like that we needed to face, so the record ended up coming from a much less positive place. I don’t know if the name had so much to do with history, as it fitting – maybe tongue in cheek, making reference to this music that the scene is making – how things have changed for us.
LH: All your songs are downloadable under Creative Commons. Could you explains what CC is, and why you like it?
G: The way that copyright works in the US is that anything that anybody makes is copyright, so if you want permission to use it you have to get documented consent from the person who made it. That’s not really how things go in the world of punk, people reuse imagery that they find in the media and use friends’ music for projects. What Creative Commons does is just a legal alternative to traditional copyright. Instead of saying ‘no-one can use anything without my permission’, it grants certain permissions. Like ‘you can redistribute this for free in any way that you want to’ or ‘you can use this media in other media as long as you distribute that under the same terms’.
The reason that I’m interested in it and applied that label on the website is less that I think thinking about copyright is so important, because a lot of the things that I make I just outright steal. When I make flyers I certainly don’t get permission to reuse their artwork, in performances with other bands when I use sound clips, I don’t get permission – and really, if someone wanted to take Defiance, Ohio, and use it in a big commercial and they did that, I don’t think we had the legal resources to fight that, even if we did I’m not sure if its something I’d want to waste my time with.
There’s a lot of people that are interested in the ideas of the Creative Commons who are maybe interested in music but don’t come from a punk background at all; maybe come from more of a background of say, open source software development. I think it’s just one more way of applying that label, or associating the idea of Creative Commons with the media we make. It’s one more way of engaging a different group of people with the music we make and the ideas that we talk about.
LH: You’ve spoken at gigs about the need to reduce carbon emission by 90% to stop catastrophic climate change. How do you reconcile this, and other environmental considerations, with the realities of international touring – flying, and driving between gigs, for example?
S: I feel we don’t. It’s a glaring contradiction. Such a huge part of what we sing about and what drives us, is the fact of daily existence and survival.
R: I like to think that we don’t ever tell people to do something or not. I hope that we don’t ever make claims that we will or will not do something.
G: I see so many bands that go on tour in Europe, or just in the US who dislike each other as a band and have a miserable time, even though people are giving them amazing hospitality, or people go on luxury vacations with their spouses and dislike their spouses and see a small chunk of the world and come back and complain about how everyone couldn’t speak English. I guess with all the resources that went into this tour, at least I can say that I really, really enjoyed it, and enjoyed the company that I travelled with and got to meet. So, it’s trying to make something positive out of situation that has something negative.
LH: Could you briefly explain what the Pages to Prisoners project is?
G: It’s very simple. It’s a project that collects used or unwanted books from people in the Bloomington community and they send them free of charge to people in prison throughout the US, and that’s really all it does. In terms of what’s most valuable about it, it gives anybody a chance to have a more human perspective on imprisonment in the US and it also creates an opportunity for people with different political or religious backgrounds to get together doing the same thing, maybe talk through some of those differences in a way that doesn’t necessarily exist in a lot of other places in the community – that certainly hasn’t existed for me in other activist or volunteer projects.(www.pagestoprisoners.org)
LH: There’s also a similar project in Britain (Haven Distribution, 27 Old Gloucester St., London, WC1N 3XX)
W: The prison-industrial complex in the States is a really fucked up institution. Four or five years ago there were five prisons being constructed that were private in Ohio – these are prisons that aren’t owned by the state, they’re owned by private companies, but taking state prisoners and then companies – telemarketing companies, even some apparel companies employ in these prisons for well, well below minimum wage salaries.
I think as long as it’s a big industry to build prisons, they’ll be filled, and the reality is that there’s some pretty horrible prejudices in terms of who fills them first. But I think its becoming such a big industry that imprisonment is becoming a reality that affects more and more people in the US – whether because they’re actually in jail, or because they have a family member or friend.
One of the reasons I wrote Tanks Tanks Tanks is that I read this issue of Harper’s magazine that was all about the militarisation of American culture. The thing that stuck with me the most was that there was a two page thing, just a picture of a soldier and they had these dialog boxes with arrows that pointed to every different piece of the soldier’s clothing and it would explain where each article of clothing was made and by whom, and every single piece of the soldier’s uniform, save the weapons, was manufactured in prison.
LH: What are you going to do back in America? Debrief? Sleep?
S: I’ve been collecting a list from people I meet in every country of good books and good movies, so I’ve got some Icelandic cinema to see. I also discovered the fantastic Bill Bailey, I love him and I’m going to get the entire series of Black Books.
Defiance, Ohio’s new album, The Great Depression, is out now on New Idea. Their previous album, Share What Ya Got, is ace too, as is the most recent Plan-It-X Records sampler, which they appear on. All their songs are free to download from their website at http://defianceohio.terrorware.com