Digital Resistance is making music that rages, and brilliantly so. With songs that are just as insightful and shrewd as they are indispensable, Alternative Facts illuminates the urgency of rising up.
The band is made up of anarchist, left-wing academics working across seemingly disparate disciplines, with Ana Kee on vocals and drums, Psy on guitar, and Wolf on bass. Although they’ve only been playing together since May 2019, they’re already crafting songs that push back against persistent socioeconomic inequalities, political doublespeak, racist and sexist violence, and authoritarian policies.
Mayhem and fury emanate from Ana’s voice, which enlivens the quick and potent strikes of the guitar, bass, and drums. Nobody else sings like her, and each of the tracks revels in the political power of music. The band ultimately reveals how utterly furious song-making can function as a balm for our times. Alternative Facts exposes the various ways in which our systems have failed and reveals the very dire risk that there’s no future reprieve without action. The first track, Ashes, screams out:
The rich! they tell us to calm down and take care
The seeds of intolerance have long been planted
modern fascism sells intolerance as “refreshingly candid”
never again we said before, yet we are here
Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! promises the puppeteer
they sell you the illusion of choice and teach you submission
they sell you rebellion and teach you to fake opposition
And these aren’t just problems of the present. Rather, as the third track Nest of Evil intimates, they’re a logical result of hegemonic ideologies and the perpetual marginalisation of the Other:
Distorted glorification of blood and soil
blind acceptance of hate, to the party loyal
Fighters for truth murdered for dissent
Oppression takes control when minds are bent
Ignorance opens doors to opportunism
Obscurantism drives us deeper into fascism
Blind allegiance to madness and anxiety
the nest of evil infests more of our society
Across Alternative Facts, the music gathers speed and power from punk, metal, and spoken word, but it also arises out of the band members’ intellectual backgrounds. I had a chance to talk with the band about their new album and their interplay between theory and praxis.
AG: As an academic myself, I’m curious about the ways your scholarship speaks to the music you create. Your music strikes me as a new and necessary form of cross-disciplinary engagement. Does it feel that way for you?
Ana: When I write a new song, I essentially choose a topic, for instance, Economic Conscription (as per song title) and research it using the same critical thinking skills I have obtained from my training as an academic. I’ll only start writing the lyrics once I’m satisfied with my knowledge of the material I’m writing about. It can take months or years (it’s definitely not a short project), but I’m always writing short sentences or things that I can use later. So to me, it’s a bit like each song is a short-term research project and the final song is the equivalent of an academic publication once the research is complete. Obviously, the writing process is a bit different, as it needs to be entertaining too, whereas science is just about truth and nothing more, but much like an academic journal the goal is to educate.
Psy: It’s certainly a form of cross-disciplinary expression. The music comes from my experiences as an academic, through reading about the world and taking in historical lessons but also my own experiences as a human—from triumph to crushing defeat. Even as a computer scientist, I still see myself as a student of history—we fundamentally need to understand and, more importantly, learn from our past. The development of critical narrative is so important to this, to learn to step beyond the immediate and understand the deeper complexities and truths of our world. I think this comes across in the music, the titles are a nod to these ideas.
Wolf: I’m a clinical psychologist working within the NHS. Having worked primarily in the fields of intellectual disability and mental health, I’ve been exposed to areas of society that are marginalised both historically and currently, this has had a profound impact on my world view and underlying epistemological stance—this is a stance that is consistent both academically and musically. They are inseparable really.
Through my work I seek to better understand the unique views of people who have been positioned by society as having a ‘disability’ or ‘disorder.’ For me, ‘disability’ and ‘disorder’ can often inadvertently be forms of oppression. In this sense, It is not innate inability that ‘disables’ or ‘disorders’ people, it is the hostility and naivety of society, the popularity of conservatism and reluctance to be politically adaptive or progressive that provide the real barriers for those who are marginalised. These ideas generalise many of the themes expressed within the music, so there is certainly a sense for me that everything is intertwined.
AG: Who are some of your musical influences when you write?
Ana: I think this is where the three of us having such different musical influences plays well in terms of creating something really unique. I’ve always been really into the whole DIY punk scene, whereas Wolf and Psy come from different musical backgrounds.
Weirdly [when working on Alternative Facts] I was listening to Brazilian music from around the 60s. A lot of that generation of artists were exiled for speaking up against their dictatorship, the style and language are different but the goal of educating through music is the same. And sadly that’s a country that is also slipping into fascism once again. I think that influence can just about be heard in some of the calmer vocals of the album. But I was also blasting out my usual favourites: Bad Religion, MDC, Dead Kennedys, Korn, Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Rage Against the Machine (Zach de la Rocha is one of my all-time favourite lyricists).
Psy: Influences: I grew up on a diet of metal via my older brother and punk via my older sister, so I had always been into Ozzy, Metallica, Vai, and the Sex Pistols – lots of guitars and shouting! When I was older I discovered Rage Against the Machine and my whole world changed at that point. Their self-titled album is still one of my absolute favourites. Muse are another massive influence on me and I think that translates to our style. They are anthemic and bombastic – I often try to recreate the impact of their work in ours. Radiohead are another huge influence, too, although this may be less evident in our album! The Prodigy – love their music, again try to recreate elements of it. My vocal in Fire, for instance, is a nod to their style.
Influences as a guitar player: Randy Rhoads (Ozzy), Matt Bellamy (Muse), Tom Morello (RATM), Monkey (Korn) and to some degree artists like Steve Vai and Tosin Abassi. Influences for this album: Rage Against the Machine, Muse, Korn, Marilyn Manson and a sprinkle of The Prodigy.
Wolf: Always a difficult question to answer. My general influences include a large number of cliched bass-player favourites; Primus, Red Hot Chili Peppers, RATM, Jaco Pastorius, Tower of Power, Metallica, The Brothers Johnson, Vulfpeck, Fugazi, Guns N’ Roses, Herbie Hancock, Lettuce, Mr. Big, Rush, Snarky Puppy, Tool, and Muse. For this album, I would say the biggest influences were RATM, Muse, and Primus.
AG: Who are some of your other influences? Perhaps theorists, thinkers, or activists?
Ana: Work by Etienne de La Boetie on The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude was an eye-opener to me in my teens. Also George Orwell is a big one! Oligarchical Collectivism was written in Newspeak to honour his legacy with 1984. Chomsky is obviously influential to any activist.
A lot of mathematicians I met while I was doing my PhD also really influenced me. I think that is what truly shaped the way I think and write. There’s a real link (in my mind at least) in how a theorem is proved and how a song is written. I wouldn’t see words and their connections in the way I do, or construct them in the way I do if I hadn’t gone through a mathematical apprenticeship (that’s how I see doctorates) under truly amazingly talented individuals. I was very lucky. I’m not saying the way I construct is particularly great, but it is what it is because of my mathematical and computer science background.
Psy: Orwell, AC Grayling, Chomsky, Feynman and Plato! I take a lot of influence from science in general, so others like Sagan, Einstein, Hawking, Schrodinger and Heisenberg – all philosophers in their own right.
Wolf: For me most generally, Gregory Bateson, Mikhail Bahktin, Thomas Szasz, Jay Haley, Ervin Goffman, Orwell, RD Llaing. For this album, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Viktor Frankl.
AG: What’s your songwriting process like? I’m especially interested in the way most of the songs don’t conform to – and in fact seem to push back against – songwriting tropes in both form and content.
Ana: Different songs were written in different ways, but I guess a lot of them typically start with a drumbeat chosen by Wolf or Psy and a riff or something they either randomly throw out there in a rehearsal and then the other two will go “hang on, that’s really good” and we’ll build around that. Or they’ll have a sketch for a song and we’ll just essentially have discussions, through music, until the song is born really, and we’ll agree on which “theme of oppression” we’re investigating.
But it’s not really a process, it’s all been quite organic. For example, for Ashes, Wolf and I didn’t know what Psy was going to do at the end of the song, even after we recorded our parts. It was just a “leave me some space,” and the resulting solo was just a jaw-dropping moment when I first heard it, which is really cool. And it was similar with Pale Blue Dot, whereas [with] other [songs] like Economic Conscription and Pillars of Oppression, we knew exactly what we were going to record before stepping in the studio.
Psy: I tend to start out with a drum loop and allow myself to explore ideas that naturally come out of this with my guitar and bass and perhaps keys. If I find something I like (riff/groove), I try and develop into something more—flesh it out into a full-length track. I spend some time thinking about the dynamics of the track—the progression of the song, which parts are more dramatic, and which parts are more building. I will do this in a cut and paste fashion so that I can change the structure or repeat parts more or less. If it is good enough to become something real, I will spend time practising it until I can basically play it in one take. Then I would go to Logic and make a demo of it to show the others. We tend, then, to tweak the tracks. For instance, I might write a bassline but I would always leave it up to Wolf to actually decide what this is or we might change the building parts of the track to allow more room for Ana’s VOX. Then, ideally, we would go to our studio of choice and work with our producer Steve Paine who will help engineer the tracks and shape the sound of each part.
I write tracks whenever I can—I had built up a large amount of material (and continue to do so) on SoundCloud and see how people react to it. Some of these have made it to Alternative Facts and some have not!
Wolf: My favourite method of creating music is through jamming with the other guys. I don’t think there is any particular formula for creating music like this—it’s spontaneous and ideally conversational, with space and a mutual respect where something embryonic can evolve or be forgotten, like a musical form of natural selection! That said, I spend a lot of time playing music alone or jamming with drum loops which can spawn an idea. Sometimes I’ll be doing something completely unmusical and I’ll hum or think of a bass line or guitar riff which I think sounds cool. I usually grab my phone to record a quick voice memo, then I’ll listen to it back later with a guitar in my hands and explore the idea further on the instrument.
AG: Fire feels pretty distinct from the other songs on the album. How do you see it in relation to the other tracks?
Ana: [With] that one, Psy had a riff he had written a long time ago, even before we were together that really spoke to me, so I wrote some lyrics for it and passed it onto Psy to have a play. He sent me the recording he did with his vocals, and it just sounded so cool… we just knew it was a keeper as it was really!
Psy: I was sceptical that I could deliver the vocal on this at the time. I had this track basically written which had great sonic contrast between sections. I found I could easily do the verse part but the commitment for the chorus was more difficult. In the end, I experimented with moving the mic very close so that I could naturally distort the sound. I actually had a bit of a frog in my throat which I think is evident in the recording. I was quite embarrassed with the result and insisted on distorting the entire sound. Another musician talked me out of it after listening to the track and I am glad I listened to Dan on that one. But I decided to keep the chorus distorted – I was thinking Marilyn Manson or Keith from The Prodigy.
Fire does stand out as being quite different [since] it’s the only track with my vocal on it and it has a more electronic feel to it. The album has quite a lot of range in terms of style, so although it is different, it fits in nicely with the rest of it. It offers great contrast in our overall sound.
AG: Let’s move from the making of the album to getting it out there. What’s the relationship between musicians making deeply political and civically engaged music like yours and the audience?
Ana: I think any art is a form of self-expression, and how you see the world. Then it’s a choice on whether you want to talk about things going on with you, or things affecting others – to give a voice to those who need one instead of just making your own louder. And that’s what we would like to focus on, if I had to explain why the music is the way it is. I’d say that the sadness of our lyrics is a consequence of daily indignities felt by so many, the anger in our vocals an observation of unfulfilled human potential, and the ferocity of our instruments directed at those who defend systems of hate and greed.
Wolf: My ideal is that the music creates or opens dialogue between ourselves and the audience [or] amongst the audience, rather than it being a didactic or evangelic exercise.
AG: Dialogue seems crucial. In creating that kind of engagement, the songs are at once very much of the twenty-first century, but they also call back to various histories. How do you see the album speaking to distinct political moments across both time and space?
Ana: That’s a good and hard question! Sadly history seems to rhyme time and time again, so our writing is a balancing act in when to throw in the bite-sized history lesson that questions white-washed curricula and when to stay current. Songs like Nest of Evil do both and go back and forwards a lot. It starts in fascist Italy, goes onto present times, then back to Nazi Germany, then forward to present times.
Similarly with Economic Conscription, it deals with Vietnam, more current wars in the Middle East, goes back to the Roman Empire, and it keeps intertwining. I think this sort of non-linear time construct in the lyrics helps drive the point home that atrocities don’t “finish”—they leave a stain of pain on our planet and on our species, and we need to deal with it, we need to heal, and the only way to heal is by resisting oppression in the present.
Psy: We draw on history and contextualise it in the present and when you do, you come to the realisation that nothing has changed, that awful unthinkable things are so close you can touch them. The post-truth world we live in is a dangerous [one potentially yielding] into authoritarian fascism. We might look back at the Nazis and think, ‘that could never happen again,’ but if you look close enough, it is happening in front of your eyes. This is why we went with “alternative facts”: it contains the DNA of their strategy of “fake news,” distortion and action over reason.
A terrifying time to be a citizen of the world, the neo-fascists seem to have discovered a mechanism that allows them to become democratically elected, despite the interests of those who vote for them. Hence our music is an attempt to fight against those ideas. A mixture of music and political messaging can be a powerful tool to explore the world with. If we reach just one person, it is worth it.
AG: These questions about how we reach an audience, how we make political change, seem essential both to academics teaching at the university level and to musicians. It’s a really fascinating interconnection to me. But shifting gears a bit now, how do you see the idea of “punk” at work in the album?
Ana: The punk ethos of non-conformity, anti-authoritarianism, and individual freedom really speaks to us. There’s certainly a lot of punk rock influence in what we do. But taking punk as an ideology, then I’d say our music is probably something like “alternative punk” where it might not sound like the sub-genres you’d expect, but the ideology is very much present, and there is certainly a bit of that raw aggression in our music as you’d expect in a punk rock album.
Also, as Psy and Wolf have pointed out before, the Punk movement in the ’70s and 80’s in the UK was sort of in response to ideas of conservatism and Thatcher. This is us railing against political injustices of ultra-right-wing demagogues.
AG: Speaking of punk, the sleeve design is super anti-authoritarian and urgent. Tell me more about it.
Ana: The raised fist had to be there! We passed an early design onto our label, and they came up with the cover, which we all really like. I love the cracks in the background with the neat fist up. It sort of says the systems of oppression crack and crumble when the people rise up and fight back.
When I asked Ana if there was anything else I might have forgotten, she said something that conjured, for me, words written about Joy Division and the pleasure that comes in making music: “Despite the seriousness of the issues our music exposes and deals with, we really like to have fun! The breaks during our band sessions are always filled with laughter.”