The Blunt Politics of Truth
At the close of 2006, rock, especially of the American indie variety, has been mostly stripped of its founding principles. It can certainly be debated whether railing against big recording budgets and the record business as a whole was ever a worthwhile cause, but at least it gave the movement’s artists something to live by, a guiding light. In the new millennium, mostly empty genre tags remain, leaving big ideas to find safe harbor in other artistic mediums.
Blacklist, an unusually focused four-piece based in New York City, isn’t looking to revive any of the specific beliefs that fueled musical eras past. But it would be fair to say that like many trailblazing artists before them, they seek to create music that serves as more than mere lifestyle soundtrack—songs that willingly and none-too-subtly challenge the status quo. “Music was originally about three chords and the truth, and that’s what made people so excited about the Beatles and U2,” explains Josh Strawn, who both fronts and plays guitar for Blacklist. “But I think we’re currently in a situation where people have been told so often that there is no correct truth, or that the truth is different for each person, that they wouldn’t even recognize [the truth set to] music anymore. Our band believes you have to search for and articulate the truth as best you can, because that’s where the passion [in great music] comes from.”
It would be easy to dismiss Strawn as a starry-eyed idealist for taking such a stand, but the truth as communicated through Blacklist’s music is decidedly grounded, informed by a gritty realism that bears the mark of dashed expectations. The sound is fitting, since Blacklist itself was inadvertently spawned by Strawn’s own failures and frustrations, in pursuits both musical and personal. For six years, Strawn toiled in local bands near his hometown in southwest Virginia. “Finding an audience was nearly impossible,” he says. “Any time anyone tried to get something going there, you might have gotten support for a short amount of time, but everyone was always leaving—moving to North Carolina or New York.” Fed up with the futility of creating music in rural Virginia, and finding himself increasingly drawn to politics and activism, Strawn decided to make a move himself. He joined an activist group in Philadelphia, where he took up the cause of organizing and fighting for low income families.
But there, his efforts were also met with disappointment. “I got disillusioned with what I experienced in the field,” he says. “There were a lot of contradictions and hypocrisy, and I reached a point where I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.” Figuring that his interests in political and social movements might be put to better use in an academic setting, Strawn decided to pursue a philosophy degree in New York City. What he hadn’t anticipated was how the move to New York would impact his music career, which had remained dormant for the better part of three years. “I got to New York and all the stuff I had been listening to around then—a lot of baroque pop—didn’t fit the ambience of my lifestyle. One of the first things I picked up was a reissue of the Comsat Angels’ first three records, and it was like everything from my old, dark, post-punk past immediately came washing back.”
Strawn found that he was not alone. An entire local community had sprung up around the music of the Angels and other artists that trafficked in an even more icily synth-laden sound—bands like Joy Division, Clan of Xymox, and Modern Eon. “It all centered around Pieter [Schoolwerth] and his DJ night, [which drew] this core community of people who are into rare, off the beaten path European records. The amount of trouble they’ll go to to find an obscure Polish 7-inch by God-knows-who from 1981 is astounding to me, but it was fantastic because you got to go to the DJ nights and hear the most amazing music.”
Blacklist was mostly formed by the time Strawn and the rest of the band—guitarist James Minor, bassist Ryan Rayhill, and drummer Glenn Maryanski—began partaking in Schollwerth’s DJ nights; however, Strawn claims that the band members’ shared affinity for the so-called “Coldwave” artists they heard set Blacklist on a new course. But the truth is, despite Strawn’s obvious infatuation with this bygone era, Blacklist only uses “Coldwave” as a starting point. Songs like “Dawn of the Idols” and “Julie Speaks”, with their quaking, ominous rhythms, obliterate any claims to minimalism. And Strawn’s vocals, alternately detached and dismissive, project a commanding tone far removed from the wavering paranoia of their supposed forebears. Loathe as Strawn might be to admit, there’s a metal sensibility to Blacklist’s hard-charging brand of post-punk.
But even when employing the full sonic arsenal, as the band often does, Blacklist never obscures the message, which Strawn lays down with brutal frankness on songs like the aforementioned “Julie Speaks” and “Ghost Ritual”. He is also perfectly happy to elaborate on the lyrical content, as some have misinterpreted his political leanings. More than anything, Strawn claims to be more alienated from the modern left as opposed to genuinely attracted to the right. “I think what’s gone on on the left in recent years is very strange—fascinating, disturbing, and sometimes downright sickening. There is a real lack of historical depth to much of the critique, and I find much of it difficult to swallow. The unbearable fact of the matter is that a once internationalist left now makes arguments for isolationism and realpolitik. I suppose I speak more [harshly] about the left because for most [people] it’s a foregone conclusion that the right behaves this way, but there is a common illusion that the left does not.”
Despite his very real convictions and unflinching appraisal of the modern political landscape, Strawn still wants Blacklist’s songs to function as musical compositions as well as they do polemic. “If people decide to go read Orwell or Arendt because of us, great, but overly theoretical isn’t the name of the game. I want our songs to do the work.” For a band so enamored of ideas, this may be their most truly radical notion.