Ex Senators- an interview with Chicago based Springsteen fused band who have something to say
Joe Strummer knew that one when the Clash made their definitive London’s Calling album. This is a clue to where we are coming from here.
I’m sat in a restaurant in London with two members of the Chicago band, the Ex Senators who look like two wise guys out of a Scorcese movie, all creaking leather and larger than life creaking bad guy faces that belay their social consciousness.
This is a band who deal the political, talk social issues and back it up with an impressive list of session playing credits in two decade careers that merged together perfectly when they came together a coupla years ago.
The Ex Senators are busy breaking a lot of rules.
In a music business obsessed with youth and fresh faces these are a bunch of guys who have been around the block; session players and really top musicians who have got together to make one of the year’s best political records with a lightness of touch and energy that lays waste to any preconceptions.
There’s a lot of space in music for big hearts and stadium filling emotions and Ex Senators have this in full. They come with a lyrical clarity and a sharp eye on what’s going down in their home country of the USA with the sort of heart on sleeve honesty that Bruce Springsteen is dealing out.
These are songs with big themes, great playing and a real, genuine passion.
This is the sound of blue collar America waking up to the task at hand and staring at the abyss and trying to grapple with the problems of a nation hijacked by the elite and trying to its soul back and using the only thing left that anyone can trust, rock n roll.
It’s big stuff but the Ex Senators are big guys with a big message but they also like to have a good time, which is important in these situations.
The band have recorded an album that is due out in August, an album of big songs with big subjects that have the big sound that could go right into the mainstream in the American election year.
The band grew up through the eighties and were touched by punk; the Clash is a touchstone here as well as Billy Bragg and the big rock of pre punk that was so key to the rustbelt of the south side of Chicago where the band came together.
This is the south side of decayed industry and broken dreams, the same south side that Barrack Obama came out of with his dream of hope that has been tarnished but still remains the best bet of an America faced with the machine of multi millionaire Mitt Romney in the autumn elections.
Unusually for a socially orientated band they seem to operate in a very democratic manner.
”ËWe respect eachother. We listen to each other,’ intones frontman Dmac.
”ËWe are not all competing for the same space musically, we all compliment eachother,’ nods guitarist Van adding, ”Ëit’s great because we all bring in different ideas, coming from different places and not stepping on eachother’s toes.’
Dmac is very much the group frontman- big, garrulous and opinionated, he is all black leather and tough guy quiff- an affable bear of man and the perfect front man for this operation, perfectly understanding his role in the machine.
We are sat in a London restaurant where the band are over on a promo trip.
Dmac, I detect a bit of the Clash in your style.
”ËOf course it’s in there. Like I’m not a lead guitarist, I play the six strings all at once rhythm; make a lot of noise- I’m from Joe Strummer school of guitar. You know, it makes some noise!
I focus on lyrics and melody and bang the chords out. I’m more focussed on chords and rhythm guitar, kinda like Pete Townshend rhythm guitar playing in Pinball Wizard- it’s all rhythm and beating the shit out of the guitar to get a sound out of it.
Neil Young is another great example of rhythm with little pulls for colour and he played one not solos and I can do that! ”Ë
Before the Ex Senators came together they were session players, which must have been frustrating when you are actually independent thinkers.
Dmac ”ËWe were already recording ideas for the name Ex Senators for some time. The name itself is not political really but a joke, if you look it up on the internet you will find former senators with 90 000 dollars hidden in the fridge or a guy getting a blow job. The name is meant to be irreverent really.
When we were working on the record certain lyrical themes came up like how we drug ourselves into oblivion, or watching the police in America, or how things were changing for the worse and no-one was talking about these things of substance. It came out as a reaction. There was a political theme to the songs that everyone agreed with. We thought. Lets throw that out there, see what people think. When we were putting the video together everyone was like do we need a lawyer to go though this! So I hired a lawyer and made sure that we were ready to defend it and it still makes a point.’
How has the reaction been to what you are doing in America so far?
Dmac ”ËIt’s been 95 power cent good so far, we have waves of hits. If there is an article in the press we get loads of hits. We have had a quarter of a million views in 8 weeks which is cool when it’s not just a naked woman and hip hop dude who has got some gold teeth rapping at the end, not that I have got anything against naked women and hip hop!
We have steadily seen people saying ”Ëright on’ and seeking us out. We got another big hit when the UK remix of the single came out get and people stated watching the original video. We have also had some hate mail as well and that’s to be expected- people will be uptight with what we are trying to say!’
These are strange times in America. Strange and dangerous times where the lizards are threatening to take control and the good men are running scared.
Dmac ”ËThere is a polarisation in America at the moment. One side of the electorate hate the other side and they do this on purpose to keep people away from the middle where the moderates are also fiscally conservative and socially liberal people who don’t want the government to give people everything but believe in a safety net. These people believe that you still have a job if you can and try and stand on your own two feet- these are the blue-collar people I grew up with.
The powers that be try and push people to extremes so they can have control. In America, at the last election only 48 per cent voted, and that’s a pity. People not voting is bad. Don’t bitch about what’s going on and then don’t vote, that makes no sense.’
Can Rock n roll change this?
”ËI think rock n roll is one voice and hip hop is another. There is still protest music out there, a social commentary. I’m not sure we are even protest really, more of a ”Ëwhat the fuck is going on! wake up!’ voice. The situation forces you to react.
It’s natural for me to do this and end up in that space where the greats like Dylan, Guthrie, John Mellancamp and Springsteen led the way. You know have the voice to say something about what is happening. A social commentary. But if you think rock will change anything then that’s delusional but if you can get people to have a conversation after the gig and come together and try and change something then that’s more accurate. If you can get people to have a reaction that’s cool but beyond that it’s up to people to say that they will do something about things. If we can get people to listen to politics and the news and take it from there and form their own opinion then we are getting things right!’
Music as a catalyst?
Dmac ”ËDuring a gig you are sharing what you have done creatively with people and after the gig you talk about issues but not during the gig. People have paid their money to hear you play your music and shut up and then afterwards talk about things.’
Is it more important to dance or think?
DMac ”ËBoth. It’s important to shake you ass and feel something before you even engage your mind. I saw Jimmy Cliff on David Letterman the other night and he is 74 and he was fucking awesome! He was wearing a snakeskin suit and doing his thing and I was dancing and thinking. He’s making a musical documentary on what’s going on out there but you can dance to it. Music is visceral and reacting to it right now is important. There have been so many great musical moments that are political in their own way like James Brown, Elvis on TV in the fifties- these were big gains but the battle is far from won, I think racism is still happening in America. I’m amazed Obama is president. He deserved it and worked for it and he has been a good president. He has had battles and its not been easy.’
Also he can sing!
Dmac’ Damn right! He can sing like a motherfucker, he’s a cool motherfucker, great singer and great mover.’
Dmac is no lightweight. He came from the blue-collar south side of Chicago. What used to be an industrial area and was brought up at the school of hard knocks. He is not your cosseted usual musician; in his first job he shot people and lived a tough life.
Dmac ”ËI used to work for a private investigator, bounty hunting. It was a weird way to do earn a living when you are 19. In the line of work I shot two people. It ain’t fun, it’s not like in the movies. It’s messy. I got sued by one guy because I blew out his hip after he got up. He was in the wrong and there was no choice in the matter.
Interestingly Barack worked for a law firm in Chicago at the same time. I remember him from then. His wife was really hot, she still is! At the time he was just that guy working in the south side of Chicago, in the neighbourhood and a political organiser trying to do things for the neighbourhood in the shitty part of Chicago with one of the highest murder rates in the USA.
He was out there organising, trying to help the community and create jobs. He was real. He did a lot of good work and people washed over that, they say what experience has he had when he first appeared. He formed a decent political machine to get him there and as he went along he learned to become a great talker. He learned from the mistakes in his early days when he could put his foot in his mouth.’
The south side of Chicago is key to this story. It provides the backdrop to the story and the basis to the band.
Van ”ËI’m from Indiana, just beyond the south side of Chicago. It was at the other end of the steel mills that came from Chicago- a continuation of that. We were blue collar working in the steel mills. The town I grew up in was next to Gary, Indiana, famous for being the murder capital of the USA for years. It was run down with no money, no economy. The first music I liked was rock n roll. The first song I learned on guitar was a Danzig song, then the Sex Pistols. I then put the punk stuff away and got more into the Rolling Stones and bands like that but I’ve recently gone back to that stuff realising how cool it was.
Dmac ”ËIn my neighbourhood the steel mills all shut down. People lost everything. People moved away. You work 20 years and you got shit. We watched that happen. It happened over the 70s and 80s, when I was a kid in the 80s you could see what was going on. Reagan didn’t do anybody any favours at the time. He also decimated the farming community in America and sold all that off and let the big corporations take over farming. He also changed industry and we watched the steel industry in Chicago go. Van grew up on the other side of the steel mills which ran for 75 mills, one after another- I grew up on the north end of that. At night all the mills lights were on and they looked like a big city. All gone now.’
Van ”ËWhen I grew up all my friend’s dads were working in the mills.’
Dmac ”ËMy dad got out in time. H told me flat out they had cut the wages and that he didn’t want to be stuck in the mills all his life. My parents got divorced when I was a kid but he lived in the neighbourhood.
The smartest thing he ever did was getting out of that world. He was cop on the south side, he’s out in the suburbs now, he runs security for a beverage company.
I’m Irish and Montenegrin mix- both sides of my family know how to fight! I can tell you that! When I was growing up my cousin Sean showed me how to headbutt someone properly!’
It was into this tough and decaying environment that music entered.
Van ”ËI remember the first time I heard Anarchy In The UK and I thought, wow that’s awesome. I was 14 and it had a big affect on me. I was already in my school band and I just kept playing and waiting. The other guys in this band did session stuff but I was in this band and also Dmac and me were working on songs and projects for years. The last few years I got these egits together and made a proper band! I don’t think our age really maters because no 22 year old on the planet could say what I could because I have been around longer and I can put that into a song.
We are starting to get on the road in America but I’m not sure if endless touring is the way we will do this. It’s bizarre how fast this has all happened with the youtube clip though..’
How did you start in rock n roll?
Dmac ”ËI started playing piano when I was young then I started to play guitar. My dad liked the Clash and Aerosmith at the time. It was the late 70s, my mum liked songwriter music like Carole King and I grew up with both those things. I guess I have a musical background; my sister is a DJ in Seattle. She wrote biographies for the Martin Scorsese blues collection. We grew up being told we could be artists if we wanted so I had my first band at 14 and first record deal at 18 in a band called Coven Of Thieves. We made that record with Al Jorgensen of Ministry- he leant me amps and studio time. I would work at his Chicago Trax studio and he would let us in the studio at 4 in morning to use the dead time and let me have it till 12 in morning as long as we didn’t break anything and we would record ideas.
My buddy, Rich played guitar for 9 inch Nails and left to form this band called Filter who had a couple of huge hits. Rich and I were in that scene at that time.
I did music for films, a studio to me is another instrument and I used it well. I bought my house with a song I sold to Corona beer for an ad and it got me out of my deal on Mercury. When I sold my song to Corona I bought my house. Where I come from it’s, fuck it I will take the money, in a musician’s life it’s living from pay cheque to pay cheque so if I get the chance I will take the money!
There’s a couple of companies I wouldn’t take money from but I steal from the rich and stay alive. ”Ë
The 21st century is full of tough choices like this. There is no money left in music now and even a politically concerned musician has to take big decisions. Robin Hood had to pay for his next meal before he could raid the sheriff.
Ex Senators survive on their abilities and have started to answer back to the machine.
They have no choice, what was once home is now boarded up. What was once a career for life for their contemporaries is now no longer. In modern America there are no certainties, only survival but the frontier instinct remains, that work ethic and those big optimistic hearts that still believe.
And believing is a big part of the Ex Senators story- believing in the power of rock n roll and the goodness of humanity luckily they also have the songs to match this big emotion”Â¦