An Interview With Punk Rock Band 1905

by Matt Dineen


Upside Down World

Happy Fourth of July! It’s a beautiful day. The big parade will be strolling through downtown this morning then we’ll go home and have a red white and blue barbeque. This is all in anticipation for the big fireworks show later. We’ll lay out the blanket and stare in awe as we think about all the sacrifices that our heroic Founding Fathers made for us. Then we’ll just wait until next year…

Hmmm…How about seeing one the greatest, most passionate bands around today play their hearts out in someone’s basement? That’s what happened this summer in Madison, Wisconsin. As leftover frat boys got drunk and lit off homemade fireworks from their front yard, I experienced this show that helped renew my faith in the potential of punk. On a summer tour from Washington DC, 1905 blew us away that night with their sincere, powerful songs. The perfect antidote to Independence Day nausea.

After the show was over I walked down the street with vocalist Jess and bassist Brian. We settled down in an empty laundry mat a block away where we talked about music, social change, DIY and the dilemma of work as the fireworks exploded outside. It went like this…

Let’s start by talking about your sound. It’s definitely unique. Tonight you just played the harder songs, but on your album you have acoustic songs and classical instrumentals in addition to the hardcore punk. How did you come to employ these different styles?

Brian: Well, as far as the sound goes, all of us have an attitude in coming to the band and writing songs of not necessarily trying to pin ourselves down to anything. We’re just playing things that we want to play and if any of us have an idea we try our best to work with it. And all of us are really into different kinds of music. We all got really, really into punk rock but we also listen to jazz and folk, classical and…

Jess: Metal! (laughs)

B: Metal. As long as we feel what we’re playing and are into it then we’re gonna continue this process of learning about ourselves and what we can do. We’ve all gotten a lot better at our instruments since we started playing together. And we all have a tendency to push ourselves to do new things. With Jess and her piano piece—I never knew she played piano until one day she sat down and started tinkering around on it and my jaw just hit the floor. I was like, “Can we put that on our album?!” Since then I’ve been picking her brain for things and trying to get all these other ideas in. Nick has gotten progressively better at the guitar. He’s really into doing all this different sort of stuff.

J: I guess we just play whatever music we are feeling at any given moment. I think that we try not to get ourselves boxed in too much. We do consider ourselves a punk rock band and are very much involved in punk rock and DIY and the community. But I don’t think that should be something that’s limiting. I think that punk rock should be something that’s the opposite of that—more liberating, where you can express yourself in different ways with different styles. I listen to all sorts of stuff, and why not get everything in there that you can and try to blend it?

B: For me, punk rock has always been this thing of trying to challenge yourself and challenging everything. When I first heard punk music it blew my mind and I was really into it and there was all this limit-pushing of what is music. And over the years there’s been a lot of diehard people who are like, “No, punk is this. Punk is that.” For me punk is more of an attitude and a way of looking at things and having a fierce sense of independence to it. One of the things I’m really interested in communicating to anybody is that: you don’t have to necessarily play a certain kind of music to be a punk. I think you’re a whole lot more of a punk if you’re out there trying to do something new and get an idea across.

In terms of ideas, you guys are definitely a political band. I’m interested in the role of music in creating social change. There’s a debate about whether singing about political issues can have any effect on things. Some people say that protest music has been around for so long but it has never actually changed anything. What is your band’s role in expressing a political message and affecting change?

J: Well, I think that everybody sits around and argues about what’s going to actually create some sort of change. Music is just one of many ways to express how you’re feeling politically. I think music is one of the most powerful ways to communicate a message, especially with punk rock, because you put everything into it. That’s what makes it punk rock. That’s where you can put all your anger and frustration and just let it all out through music. I don’t think I write about politics just so I convert people or get them to rise up or something like that. It’s just that I think about that stuff all the time. And maybe not obsessively, but enough that it’s on my mind and I need to get it out and I need to say something. I don’t expect people to pick up a 1905 record and be like, “Oh my god they are so right!” It would be really cool if people could pick up what we’re putting down, to expose people to ideas through music that they wouldn’t have ordinarily been exposed to. And also as a means to bring people together that have those beliefs or are thinking about things like we are. I think it’s important to maintain your sense of self and then just take what you want from what we say and make it your own or think about it. And not just to be like, “Oh, they’re right. I’ll do that.” Punk launched me into politics and political thinking and that would be really cool if our record did that for somebody.

B: Music is basically a huge form of communication. Music is a language in itself that can communicate a hell of a lot. It’s definitely a way of learning about things you’re not familiar with. Music has always played a big part in my life; it’s what turned me on to having the political appetite that I have. We’ve played a lot of, not just shows but political events. We played this thing called “The Sorry Ass State of the Union,” which was an amazing multimedia event. While Bush was giving his state of the union address two years ago we were all out at the Capitol basically telling him why we didn’t agree with anything he was saying. There were speeches by politicians and activists. Independent Media Center had a lot of stuff going on and all these bands were playing to get people motivated about this. Music is a way of getting out there and saying what you need to say and a way of meeting people. It’s why DIY is such an important part of my life. It’s getting out there and talking to people and realizing that you have these ideas in your head but you’re not alone because there’s all these other people all over the country and the world that are very similar to you and are interested in engaging you in conversation. As a band on tour for the past 7 weeks, beyond just going and playing shows, we’ve met amazing people and learned so much about places we’ve been. From the people we’ve stayed with and from crowds just coming up and talking to us and turning us on to new things.

Let’s talk about the politics of performance spaces. That event at the Capitol was an overtly political setting since it was basically a demonstration. Do you see the spaces you play as an extension of your band’s politics? Do you only play non-commercial venues, strictly within the DIY circuit?

J: We lean towards DIY. We hope for DIY. Sometimes when you’re touring you take what you can get. If we think a show is too expensive we won’t play it. I think we have played a not-all ages show before, but only because we didn’t know it at the time. That’s a major problem. I don’t want to play those kinds of shows. Any show that people can’t go to I don’t really want to play or put people in that position.

B: Also, I do a lot of booking for stuff with Nick and we have a certain criteria that we work with people on. Basically, we want to play DIY spaces. In a lot of towns there are clubs where the people who own them are super cool and it’s kind of an extension of a DIY place with a bar inside. And sometimes that’s the only place where you can play in the town. There’s more character in playing in someone’s house, a basement show or a community center or activist space. But at the same time, as a band that’s touring you have to go where stuff’s available. There’s a lot of things I keep in mind in booking shows, like Clear Channel-owned venues aren’t a place that I ever want to play. I’m also active in micro-radio, pirate radio stuff and Clear Channel is eating up a lot of that. Clear Channel is making life extremely hard for musicians or people who are trying to get any kind of message across because they’re trying to control everything. I don’t want to contribute to that at all.

They own six radio stations in Madison and are sponsoring the fireworks show here tomorrow night.

J: In addition to wanting to be part of DIY for those reasons, I think it’s also just way more fun. Big clubs totally weird me out. You don’t have that same feeling. At clubs with big stages you feel separate from everyone else. I hate putting bands on a pedestal and feeling really far away from people that are watching us. I don’t like being under lights looking out at people and not being able to see them. That separation is really bizarre. When you play a basement and you’re just hanging out, that’s where it’s the most fun. That’s where it’s punk rock.

B: It’s also about meeting the people. So when you go to a different place, like someone’s house or something, you learn a lot about the community that’s there. Beyond just, “Cool, this band’s gonna be playing at this club soon.” A club is also more of a sterile environment than playing in someone’s basement or an infoshop. You get more of a pulse of where you are and what else happens in that space, whether there’s a Food Not Bombs or a Prisoner Support Network that also runs out of there. You can learn about that. And it’s a space where you can have a conversation with the crowd. It’s not as impersonal. That’s one of the really great things about DIY. Doing it yourself means meeting everybody and learning a lot.

J: And building a community. I think the community is one of the most important things about punk rock. Without it there would be no difference between punk and any other genre of music where people just share that common interest. What makes punk rock awesome, in addition to the music, is the people involved in that community and building a stronger one hopefully.

B: We were just talking about other folks we know who are in bands who’ve been at it for a long time. When they talk to us about being around for 3 or 4 years and this is the third time we’ve toured the US and doing all this stuff, they’re like, “How the hell can you do this?” They are amazing musicians that play in bands but they’re not tapped into this community. We’re not necessarily the most amazing musicians, but at the same time there’s this whole community behind it that’s willing to support us. Right now you can be in a band and just travel and meet people. It’s an amazing thing. And there’s more and more people getting involved in this. Getting involved in DIY and making it possible to go to towns that you’ve never even heard of or can find on a map and go there, play a show and meet people. The one thing we need to work on is to sustain that and make sure that kids aren’t just in it for a couple years and then go off and do something else. That it’s this thing that they have an investment in and we can build this community. Then we’ll get to the point where we’re getting closer to our 30’s and having children and people can still do this. And this isn’t gonna simply be just a subculture. It’s gonna be more of a movement.

What about the challenges of operating as DIY band, despite this strong network, within the larger capitalist system? You can’t just survive off your music. Can you talk about making ends meet while still having the time and energy for your true passions?

B: This is something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. Going on tour and booking shows you meet the kids who are so unbelievably positive and optimistic about stuff but don’t necessarily know what goes into doing a show. They’re just psyched to have your band playing. You’re at the show and having an amazing time but you play and then realize that there was no one collecting money at the door or something.

J: And you need gas money.

B: Yeah, you need to get to the next place and gas prices aren’t getting any lower. It’s a situation where, we’re an anti-capitalist band and punk rock in itself is very anti-capitalist, but there’s sort of a vacuum on what that means. If we’re anti-capitalist then what are we? What is this? Some people think, “Oh it’s DIY. We just get together and it’s free!”

J: But that’s not sustainable.

B: It’s a big challenge that people are facing. Because right now there is so much stuff going on and so many bands getting out there, so many people that want to go on tour and who want to see shows. But in terms of sustainability, like a space that has trouble staying open because they’re having problems at shows, we need to think about it. It needs to be thought about as a community. We’re not capitalists but we live in this system where there’s money exchanged and we need to go do these things. I’ve been reading a lot about Participatory Economics and trying to work on viable solutions to this.

J: Yeah, we might be an anti-capitalist band but we live in a capitalist society. You can fight for change. You can try to support your local supermarkets or whatever. You can do the small things and they’re really important small things to do, but you can’t expect to operate outside of capitalism. And especially in DIY—to think that you can maintain some sort of network without money, when everything involves money, would be ridiculous and unsustainable. Not only do you need gas money but you need to eat. Eating and gas are very important when you’re on tour. I think a lot of people don’t think about that or don’t want to pay at shows and say, “If you’re anti-capitalist then why do you want money?” Well, it’s not like I’m taking the money and buying a Mercedes with it. I’m trying to get from Point A to Point B.

B: And going on a DIY tour where you’re just making gas money if you’re lucky, you’re still gonna go home and have bills to pay and rent to pay. It gets a lot harder to tour when you know you’re coming back and you know you have to do all this stuff and bust your ass at your job. You have to make money that you didn’t have when you left. Keeping that in mind when we talk about changing the face of punk rock and trying to make it more inclusive to other people. We need to build this community where it’s possible for people of less privileged backgrounds who are talented and have amazing ideas to also come in and play a part in this and have them be able to go on tour too. Touring is a huge financial strain. I know that when I go home I’m gonna have rent and bills and I’ll open all those and be like, I haven’t been working the past 7 weeks because I’ve been on tour but I’ve had an amazing time. There’s a lot of sacrifices you have to make to do that and I come from a background where I’m privileged enough to be able to make those choices to do that. And a lot of other people aren’t and in building a community we have to keep that in mind.

J: As far as when we’re at home is concerned—we all have to work. Somehow you have to make money. I think the band just sucks away our social life more than anything else because that’s the only thing you can really give up…and it’s worth it.

B: It’s like being in a relationship with everyone in your band.

J: And I love you! (laughs and hugs)

So, are the jobs that you have totally separate from your true interests and just to pay the bills?

B: It depends. I’ve had other jobs that are very related to my interests, except those jobs were also 9-5, 40 hours a week and didn’t give me enough time to do touring. I ended up getting laid off from the last one that I had which opened up a lot of doors of thinking about how to do things. I also went to graduate school and worked on that stuff. I walk dogs for a living now. It’s amazingly flexible, it’s a great time but I have my parents being like, “You went to grad school and you walk dogs.” (laughs) So I make enough money to get by but at the same time there are other financial stresses. I’m basically going back and looking for other jobs to do. It’s just a matter of trying to find a balance between doing the band I love that takes a lot of time to do and being able to pay my bills and having some sort of comfort zone in life.

J: My ultimate goal is to be a teacher. Right now I’m not anywhere close to being a teacher and don’t really know what I’m gonna be doing for a job when I get back. I think I’m gonna be cleaning houses, but right now the band is more of a priority. We think about jobs in terms of: Can we tour? How is this gonna work? Does this enable us to have band practice when we want to practice? And of course we’re not gonna just get the shittiest job ever and hate life. But it’s just a job. Jobs don’t mean anything. You work and you do what you can and it would be nice to have a job where you could do something that is also important to you but a job is such a small, tiny little portion of what’s important in life. You’ve got this whole other world that’s not between 9-5 that is equally as important. And when people ask the question, “What do you do?”—everybody answers with their job. Whereas for me I answer with the band. Because what’s more important to me? Clearly it’s the band.

That brings up the question of whether you guys have thought about surviving off the band. Could you make 1905 your job or would that compromise your values?

J: We speculate and think about it but everybody’s drastically different on that. No one has a clear-cut idea of how to do it. Ideally we’d all love to play music and have that be it and have that sustain us, but then it gets tricky. How do you do that? Can DIY do that? For me it’s, do I want to put that sort of money pressure on the one thing that I know is just gonna be okay in my life no matter what. But we’d all love that to be our lives.

B: It would be amazing if we could do this band at the rate we’re comfortable with and make a living off it. That would be great, but you have to keep in mind that when the thing you love becomes your bread and butter and it’s what you do to pay your bills then you have to start doing it a lot more. It can become really stressful and cause a lot strains

J: And you don’t want to strain your passion.

B: If there was a way that we could all be happy and all meet our needs and find a way of doing this band on our terms then I don’t think we’d have a problem. But as long as we can keep it a hobby and be fulfilled in a lot of other ways we’ll be fine.

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For more information:

The1905 Collective
PO Box 15116
Washington DC 20003

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"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" ---Eduardo Galeano