“We go to the root of the problem, this is a radical band.” Edgey Pires from The Last Internationale talks politics and protest.
The Last Internationale have certainly been grabbing attention on their tour of Britain with Robert Plant. Hailing from New York City and boasting ex-Rage Against The Machine Drummer Brad Wilk in their ranks, the band released their acclaimed debut album We Will Reign earlier this year. They have been making waves with their unapologetic brand of protest- folk- rock and look set to make an even bigger impact in 2015. To cap the year, Edgey Pires was last week honoured by the Portuguese-Brazilian Awards at the United Nations Head Office in New York for his artistic contributions and political activism.
“The UN is where Che Guevara delivered an incendiary speech against US imperialism. It is where Hugo Chaves, decades later, gave a similar speech in which he condemned ‘the devil’, George W. Bush, who had spoken from the same podium the day before. It is where KRS ONE went to get Hip Hop officially recognized as an international culture. It is where the Security Council vote on which poor, innocent people in remote parts of the world will get bombs dropped on their heads. It is outside of this building that I have held many banners and shouted for human rights and seen many of my fellow Comrades get tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, beat and dragged off by police,” said Edgey. “So when I found out that I was being given the Luso-Brazilian Award at the UN for my artistic achievements and social activism, I was as much shocked as I was honored to be included on the right side of this contentious history. Since the event falls on Human Rights Day, I will also be standing outside (once again) demanding that we get some human rights right here at home. I urge everyone from around the world to head out into the streets and fight for a different world.”
It was only when guitarist Edgey Pires left after our interview, that I realised the impact his words had had on those around us. We had been sitting in the foyer of Venue Cymru ahead of the last night of the Robert Plant tour with a range of people going about the business of preparing for a large rock show. Having been so engrossed in our conversation, I hadn’t noticed that those around us had stopped what they were doing to listen to the conversation, and were keen to talk about it after he had left. That is exactly what The Last Internationale aim to do – make people stop and listen and possibly think again.
LTW – Touring with Robert Plant can’t be the worst way to spend your time, how’s the tour been going?
Edgey Pires – It’s been great! Opening up for Robert Plant, after listening to him when I was growing up, is like a dream come true. The crowd have been fantastic and people have been asking us to come back which is something we definitely want to do. I’d like to do a tour of sweaty clubs over here next year.
The Last Internationale seem to bring a range of influences together, can you tell us about your background?
Delila and I sort of discovered stuff like Howlin Wolf together. I was at Uni doing Political Science but I was totally overwhelmed by The Blues I was hearing. I finished my degree and every waking moment was dedicated to that, it took over my life completely. Delila and I were collecting records and writing protest songs together. We started to play at various protests and little coffee shops and then we took our show on the road. It all happened really quickly, it’s just a year since Brad joined and now we’re flying.
We met Brad before recording our debut album with Brendan O’Brien who’s my favourite producer. To go in with Brendan was exciting enough but exactly one year ago today, Thanksgiving Day 2013, we were at Tom Morello’s house, the guitarist from Rage Against The Machine, and we mentioned our need for a drummer. At the time we were going to hire Josh Freese, who’s just about the best session drummer in America, and that was exciting enough. Tom suggested we contact Rage Against The Machine drummer Brad Wilk but we thought there’s no way he’s going to join an unknown band, we need to make a name for ourselves first. Tom insisted however, so we sent some songs to Brad and the next day he got in touch. We got in a room together and jammed and then cut the record in just two weeks. I always wanted to make a record like that, just straight rock and roll.
Brendan O’Brien’s list of production credits are pretty impressive. He’s worked with the likes of Neil Young, Springsteen and Dylan. What influence did he bring in the studio?
He’s got a special touch and I don’t think it could have happened without him. A lot of the album was done in less than five takes and some of the songs were done in one take. I remember questioning myself after some songs that maybe we should do it again but we just trusted Brendan and his guidance. Without him we would probably have done the same song a hundred times or so and lose all perspective.
Like any other band when you’re playing you’re the worst judge of your own sound and just need an experienced pair of ears looking at things from a different perspective. I think the role of producer has been diminished in recent years but it’s vital in creating a great record. It’s very unlikely that a band can go into a studio and produce themselves, especially a debut, and come out sounding great. I just don’t think you have that distance or experience.
You cite the influence of the likes of Dylan and Woody Guthrie to your development. How important is folk to you and in America in general today?
Mainstream folk in America, possibly in Europe but I don’t want to speculate, is very watered down. It’s not even remotely close to what Dylan or Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie were doing. The most important element of folk is missing within the folk genre today and that is community. There’s none whatsoever within current folk music. I don’t want to trash any of these bands but when I hear songs by mainstream folk acts I don’t hear the community interests being reflected within the music and I don’t see members of those bands being embedded within the community. The whole definition of folk music for me is music for the community themselves by members of the community. Woody Guthrie, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Odetta are all examples of incredible folk musicians and it’s the spirit of people like them that we hope to carry on.
We’ve always had that spirit as we were involved in protest movements before we started the band. I was a campus organiser, organising student protests and rebellions. Music for me became a vehicle for transformation so the whole folk idiom just seemed very natural for me. That’s why I was shocked to see the lack of connection between these new folk bands and any sort of community. Some of them are from very wealthy backgrounds and I just don’t get it at all.
The first track on your album, Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Indian Blood, is a real attention-grabber. Can you tell us about the situation with American Indians as you see it and how much it’s discussed in the US?
It never gets discussed and members of the Indian community in America are living in total squalor. The reservations, like Pine ridge, are like a fucking prison where kids don’t even have mattresses or the basic nutrition they need and to make things worse the American Indian community is divided within itself. It’s nothing less than genocide and it’s been occurring since white people first arrived on the continent of America. But we never speak about that in America and in history books over there it’s never called a genocide, but that’s exactly what it is.
We’re not spokespeople for the American Indians, they can speak for themselves. We just want to draw attention to their plight but it’s not my job to liberate them. I don’t believe in ‘white man’s burden’ coming to save them. We’re friends with people in the American Indian community like Tiokasin Ghosthorse who lives in New York and it’s basically anything we can do to shed light on their situation.
It’s a united struggle, it’s not just American Indians, it’s Whites, Blacks, Latinos, it’s everyone; we’re all in this together and we all respect each other. But I’m not trying to preach at people because if you’re not turned on, that’s not going to do it. If you don’t like politics then you don’t have to listen to it, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m not like some other artists who think they’re fucking great because they are saying things. We grew up in these communities and understand these things and are just saying we don’t want them anymore, we want change.
The track Killing Fields has a powerful message about the misuse of power. Can you expand on your views in this song?
My specialism in college was Political Theory and we try to take some these philosophical theories and stick them into the music in a sort of non-preachy way. I want it to still be poetry to capture some of these feelings and when I wrote Killing Fields I was getting sick and tired of the same old strategy within social movements. In 2003 millions marched to strop the attack on Iraq and what happened? Nothing! It was the biggest protest in World History and it achieved nothing. In the 1960’s it took years to get people to protest the Vietnam War and here we had millions protesting before the war had even started so why couldn’t we stop it? This led me to believe our strategy is wrong. We actually had to ask the State for permission to protest, can you believe that?
Non-violence is a very over-used term and nobody can give me a working definition of what it actually means. What I’m actually asking is “ can I have a strategy that will help achieve my objective of stopping oppression, ending hunger people dying from preventable illnesses and curable disease?” All I hear is these grand theories about non-violence but what is actually going to work? I wrote Killing Fields because all power is corrupt, it doesn’t matter who has it and we live in a violent society and the poorest experience it every day. All I want is a solution to that.
Despite the protest and anger in your music, there’s also a theme of love that seems to run through your songs?
I think the personal is political, they go hand in hand and Devil’s Dust is a perfect example of that. Here’s a relationship that’s not perfect but they love each other and they want to spend retirement together but the husband is dying as a result of all the years he spent down a mine. It’s a story that many working class families can identify with. It may be a little extreme but it allows people to see a private thing like companionship and then turn to the bigger political picture, how the political reality is capable of tearing away the love that two human beings have for each other. We’ve also done a cover of The Shirelles classic, Baby it’s You, which I’d never heard before. Brendan just asked us to try it and we did it in three or four takes and it works well.
What is the situation with protest music in the US at the moment? Are there other bands that share your agenda?
There’s not much at all. We had that Ebola video that came out with Bono in it and that was the biggest piece of shit I’ve seen in my whole life. It’s degrading, even the people in it admitted it afterwards. How could you not know that was the worst thing you could do?
But that’s the nature of protest today, you just can’t call out an enemy. If a band identifies an enemy they would be slaughtered so they say things like “we want to end starvation or homelessness”. Then you get to the root of the problem and ask why people are homeless? You can’t answer that question because it makes you a communist or something and people are afraid to do it. So bands would rather say “support this cause” instead of saying “let’s eradicate this sick society that causes these things”. We try to go to the root of the problem, that’s what it means to be radical and this is a radical band.
When I’m in the UK I read the newspapers, I particularly like Robert Fisk, but in the USA we have none of this on a mainstream level. We have Democracy Now, a great news programme, but in general our news coverage compared to yours is an absolute joke. I don’t even consider it news, it’s entertainment. Sometimes I’ll watch Fox News or CNN just to laugh, and I don’t mean the subjects are funny, it’s just hilarious how that is considered to be a serious news programme.
The entire political spectrum in America is different to Europe and it’s purposely designed that way. The American Left is Obama, he’s considered a radical in our society! In Europe Obama is a Right Winger, so imagine what Bush or anyone like that would be. There’s also a problem that if you’re against Obama you’re either a racist or a Republican but I can be against Obama, Bush or Condoleeza Rice as much as I want. Why should I be cornered into the opposite end of their spectrum which is Obama- Left Wing, Bush -Right Wing? So, the mainstream debate takes place within much narrower boundaries than over here, and anyone outside that is considered a threat really.
Is there a sense of optimism in your music?
I think there’s a lot of optimism. The point of the song Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Indian Blood, is that ultimately it will be the youth who free society, whether it’s the inner child in us or the actual youth who just get so sick of this whole mess that we’re in. The American Revolution was supposed to liberate people and it just ended up oppressing many for hundreds of years after and the song is about how the youth are going to take all the risks and ultimately take over. We’re promoting total liberation and we can achieve it in our lifetime, that’s optimistic!
What plans have you got for the near future?
We’re definitely coming back to the UK as this tour has been so good. We’ve had such a good reaction and everyone tells us the same thing – they want to see us do a headlining tour so we’re looking at spring or summer for that. That will be the UK and European Festivals. After this tour we’re visiting family in Portugal then we go to LA, then Brazil then another album and more protesting and maybe getting arrested, who the fuck knows?
There’s no doubt that The Last Internationale bring a refreshing and hard-edged dose of dissent to the current music scene. They are undoubtedly serious about their intentions and determined to use the platform they have to gain attention for the causes they support. Could this be the start of a renaissance for genuine protest music? Will this hugely likeable group of New York radicals lead a sea change that sees the protest bands already out there become more widely known and others be inspired to form their own bands? Is it too much to hope that the political agenda of The Last Internationale may influence a generation in the way that the likes of Dead Kennedys, Crass, SLF and The Clash did to mine? One thing is for certain, it won’t be for the lack of effort if they don’t succeed.
Thanks to John Edwards for all Photos of The Last Internationale.