Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires: interview and live review, Manchester Soup Kitchen – 9 May 2015
We talk to the frontman of the blistering Alabama rockers Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires about the holy trinity: politics, religion and, of course, music.
Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires have certainly been grabbing attention since their blistering second album Dereconstructed (one of Louder Than War’s writers’ albums of the year) was released in 2014. Full-on, uncompromising live shows are matched by the political and social ferocity of lyrics that gladden the heart of those who fear for the future of protest rock.
Lee Bains took time out during his recent British tour, which included a stop in Manchester, to chat to Louder Than War about Dereconstructed and some of the issues connected to the songs.
Before we jump into the interview though the band have a brand new single Sweet Disorder due out on July 24th, check out the A side here:
Louder Than War: It’s getting on for a year since Dereconstructed was released, how do you feel about the album now it’s ‘out there’ and what do you think about the reception it received?
Lee Bains: Typically, once I’ve finished mixing and mastering a record, I quit listening to it, seeing as I guess I feel like I’ve said what I’d wanted to say, and turn my attention to what’s next. That being said, I worked really hard on the songs and mixes on Dereconstructed, and – the few times lately that we’ve done an in-store, for instance, and they play the record over the P.A. – I have felt satisfied in how the record turned out. It sounds a lot like what I had in my head at the time. I have been very appreciative and flattered that people have written about our record at all, but, to be honest, I spend the better part of my time trying not to think about how the stuff is received; I try to focus instead on the work, itself.
Musically, the sound is full-on, who would be your influences on your sound?
I, and we as a group, have a ton of pretty disparate influences (from Guided by Voices to Buzzcocks to Sly and the Family Stone, from Big Star to Sleater-Kinney to Ike & Tina), but, on Dereconstructed, I was referring back to the Stooges’ Raw Power, Husker Du’s New Day Rising, Oblivians’ Popular Favorites, MC5’s Kick Out the Jams, Dead Boys’ Young Loud and Snotty, Quadrajets’ WFO, stuff by Poison13, L7 and Transistor Transistor – records that kind-of terrorize your eardrums through abrasive, live-sounding guitars. As few sound-people will let us forget, we are a loud, guitar-centric band that values playing fast-and-loose, and that’s why we asked Tim Kerr to produce the record. He loves records for their spontaneities, their idiosyncracies, their moments of rawness, and is unparalleled in his ability to pull those sorts of performances from bands. I love playing rock-and-roll and going to shows for the element of catharsis; something about thrashing around and hollering to a blaring, blazing band has helped to relieve me of anxiety and stress and depression since I was a kid. Amazingly, it still does. For that reason, it doesn’t matter if there are 10 people at a show. If we’re able to crank the amps and get after it, I’m getting my daily shot of life, and am thankful for it.
The track Company Man is a hard-hitting start to the album which combines religious imagery, an infamous character from Birmingham history and social comment on corporate greed. Can you expand a little on your inspirations for the song?
The song grew out of time spent reflecting on the ways in which financial interests are served and protected through the State’s policies, and how, at least in the South, this process is often buttressed (bizarrely) with religious rhetoric. By my understanding of Scripture, as well as the spirit underlying the U.S. Constitution, this process is completely antithetical to the fundamental religious and political views of the average Southerner, but has been presented by the organized right-wing in such a way that it strikes a lot of folks as being simpatico. The character you reference – Bull Conner – was a sort of municipal tyrant in Birmingham for decades, having essentially created offices for himself so that he could hold more power than even a mayor. As the man who ordered that the firehoses and police-dogs be released on peaceful protestors, he is the clearest and most easily reviled figure in Birmingham’s segregationist forces, but this song tries to consider the fact that, as much as we’d like to, it is dishonest to frame Bull Conner as some sort of mythically evil being. He was a man who lived in the same town as our grandparents. He had friends and coworkers and fellow church-members, all of whom made decisions to interact with and at least tacitly approve of his behaviors, which were responsible for some of the greatest human-rights atrocities of the 20th Century Western world.
In Dereconstructed, you sing “they wanted meth labs and mobile homes/moonlight and magnolias…….we gave them songs about taking your own damn stand/in spite of those who’d define and control you”. This seems to say a lot about how you see yourself and what expectations maybe record labels have of you? This is a really interesting lyric which seems to capture a lot of what you are about, could you expand on it?
That’s an interesting take on the lyric, and I appreciate your thinking about it. I think in a general sense, I was trying to address identity and the way in which cultural identity can become oversimplified and distorted through commodification and media representation. In my estimation, the American mind (and often, most unfortunately, the Southern mind, as well) allows room for only a dualistic set of Southern identities (roughly outlined in those lines that you quoted), both of which are very far out-of-step with the diverse peoples and places that I collectively call home.
Burnpiles and Swimming Holes suggests you are not overly impressed with our dependence on modern technology?
Well, I find so much of our technology as being used as a means of escape, a means of avoidance. The reason I see that tendency is that I see it within myself. At the moment, I’m in the back of a van typing these responses and listening to Fugazi (a clear instance of my dependence on technology). The song that just finished was “Waiting Room,” a song that resonated with me a great deal when I first got into Fugazi in college. As somebody who obsesses over being productive, over doing, over moving, over being in control, the waiting room always presented itself as a sort of nightmarish hellscape to me, but one in which I could potentially learn a lesson: that, sometimes, there is nothing I can do but to accept the point in space and time that I am presently occupying. Sometimes, you just have to sit there and stare at a bare, white, sheetrocked wall. Well, now, I don’t do that. When I’m in a waiting room, I have, in my pocket, a small black plastic portal through which I can deny my ineffectuality, my mortality, my emotions, and pretend that I can know anything and be anywhere. It is a false comfort, and this song is, in some sense, about confronting myself and my circumstances by unplugging and meditating on the stark limits of my human will, and celebrating them by going swimming in a river and burning shit.
The lyrics and thoughts expressed in Kudzu and Concrete and Weeds Downtown, two songs from Dereconstructed, seem to suggest contradictory feelings about your hometown of Birmingham, Alabama?
Much like a familial relationship, my relationship to Birmingham is a thoroughly nuanced one, but one that is ultimately defined by love and loyalty. So, in that sense, I don’t really see my feelings about my hometown as being contradictory, necessarily, but rather as being deep, abiding and complicated. Many aspects of Birmingham’s political and social landscape bother me, but often those aspects are difficult to cleave from the aspects that I love about Birmingham. I am drawn to writing about ambiguities, ironies, borderlands—and Birmingham (like a lot of places, I’d reckon, if one takes the time to know them well enough) is full of them.
‘Southern Rock’ is a label that means many things to many people and it is one that is sometimes associated with The Glory Fires. How do you feel about the term and is there a danger that it could be used to categorise you in a way you would prefer to avoid?
You know, I decided some years ago not to shrink from being a “Southern” writer or musician. In fact, since I am committed to making art that engages my geographical and cultural context, I think I’d be remiss to bitch about being referred to as “Southern.” At the same time, “Southern rock” has a meaning beyond the sum of its parts, and that can chafe at us a good bit of the time, since, while we do love Lynyrd Skynyrd and the like, we are of a very different school and time (and South) than those bands. Still, chafing at the limitations of others’ perceptions is kind-of at the heart of rock-and-roll, isn’t it? So, yeah, the more misunderstanding we encounter, the louder we’ll just have to turn it up!
The lyrics to Flags are as hard hitting politically as anything for years. You consider issues such as slavery, fundamentalist terrorism by Christians and Muslims and use the analogy of what the flag means to Americans. Was it difficult for you to write?
That’s a good question, man. To be honest, it was difficult. I found myself getting really nervous a few times as I was writing, and would comfort myself by saying, “Nobody is going to hear this until you decide you’re done with it.” When I was e-mailing it to a friend of mine who is always my first reader/listener, I was hesitant to hit “send.” It was a nervy process.
There seems to be a lot of racial unrest in various cities across the US at the moment. How big an issue do you feel this is, what are the underlying causes and what solutions do you see?
Though I am woefully undereducated in these matters, I would say that the causes are multiplicitous and interconnected. The most obvious cause for the demonstrations and public outrage is the draconian, unjust, violent way in which black people and other people of color are policed in the United States. But, to me, that is a symptom of a larger system, described by Angela Davis as the prison-industrial complex, that essentially uses the legal and penal system as a means of providing free and cheap labor to government contractors and prodigious amounts of tax-payer-funded profits to private prisons. People of colour, in particular, are targeted by this system from an early age in what is called the “school-to-prison pipeline,” by which police (complete with body-scanners and police dogs) are present in the halls of schools, and by which misbehaving students are sent to the police instead of the principal’s office. In party with that system is the so-called “war on drugs,” which really serves as a war on poor people (and especially poor black people) by sentencing those small-time drug-dealers and drug-users who can’t afford well-connected attorneys to extended lengths of time. The discrepancies in sentencing between black and white, poor and rich, are gaping. While poor communities are being targeted by the penal system, service and education budgets are being slashed by a lot of governments, and neighborhoods are being rapidly gentrified, real-estate developers trying to hustle out poor residents in order to build expensive housing and retail spaces near the centers of cities. Meanwhile, poor folks have to move to the suburbs, where they have less political power, fewer employment opportunities, far inferior transportation, and a dearth of services. As a white child of privilege who grew up on the fringe of the city, I have no idea what it would be like to live under the conditions of Freddie Gray’s Baltimore, or Michael Brown’s Ferguson, but, from what the facts say, it makes a lot of damn sense that multitudes are in the streets, and – as sad as it is – that a handful of them feel their only way to be seen or heard is to throw a brick through a window.
You’re a religious man but don’t force it down people’s throats, is that a fair description?
You know, I honestly don’t even talk about it unless I know somebody pretty well and they want to talk about it. I really have no desire to change anybody’s mind. I believe what I believe because it works well for me. Whatever works for you is great.
What sort of plans do you have for the next few months?
After getting back from Europe, we are going to be home a good bit this summer working on new songs. We’ll be getting back into U.S. touring this fall, and will hopefully be able to get into the studio not too long thereafter.
Manchester Soup Kitchen – May 9 2015 – by Steve Swift.
Knowing a little about the motivations and background to Lee Bains (expanded on at length in the interview, above) I was as eager to hear what he said IN BETWEEN songs as the songs themselves. In 45 frenetic minutes, however, it was all about the energy and the ear-shredding exuberance with which he and the Glory Fires pummelled the 50 or so curious punters.
Opener The Company Man was like being hit by a sledgehammer, with Bains as much off the stage as on it. “Don’t ever bite the fingers that feed you/ said Pilate, as he washed the invisible hand” – the casual gig goer would have missed the subtleties in the frenzy – “And, lest you forget it/ don’t ever trust the Company Man”. This and others seemed to be played at twice the pace as the recorded versions and carried an elemental power that put me in mind of Stiv Bators circa 1977; a ragged glory held together by nerve and energy.
Bains finds time to set the context for Mississippi Bottomland, about a community that has allowed its values of tolerance and inclusion to buck the trend of bible-belt dogmatism to offer a safe haven for a “rebel son” to “make his peace”. The overt Catholicism of the song’s imagery is gone in a blast of Stooges mayhem, with any weight of ‘southern rock’ expectations and baggage that come with it. Such is the energy I fear for the structural integrity of the building during this song.
A feedback-soaked and extended Dirt Track with its exhilarating climactic modulations just gets us to 45 minutes but I’m not sure anyone in this basement venue (including the sweat-drenched and beaming Glory Fires) can take any more.
It’s a paradoxical statement and one embraced by a few in the past – God, music as the focus for change, living in the moment – but I doubt it’s been delivered with such full-tilt conviction as Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires.
Manchester pic by David Thompson.