Founded in 1994, the Chicago-based 'zine Punk Planet, which won the Utne Reader Alternative Press award last year, has covered a music scene that's inextricably bound to a progressive political stance. The voices in this book -- musicians, political organizers, artists and filmmakers -- make for some of the most fascinating interviews you're ever likely to read. Furthermore, the deep, penetrating nature of these discussions and the keen social consciousness on display here make most mainstream acts (and the press in general) seem shallow and self-absorbed in contrast.
The fierce DIY ethic that characterizes this book also applies to Punk Planet publisher Daniel Sinker, who began publishing and editing the magazine at age 19. Choosing from among 300 interviews, which he pared down to 25 essential profiles, the articles are written in a question-and-answer format that Sinker rightly describes in the book's intro as being "a much more honest approach to interviews." He goes on to emphasize that "the 'featurized' interview format favored in more established rock rags usually lets you know a lot more about who's doing the writing than whom the writing is about."
The interviews, which are preceded by background info on each artist, begin with Ian MacKaye, whose former band, the Teen Idles, formed in 1979, was among Washington, D.C.'s first punk bands. The founder of Dischord Records, one of the earliest DIY punk labels (run from his parents' home), MacKaye, who currently plays in Fugazi, personifies the hands-on approach these artists have to doing business. In Fugazi's case, that includes doing the managing, booking, and even the taxes. In the process, the group's insistence on everything from low ticket prices to keeping down the cost of their records has, observes Sinker, "shown the world how to conduct business respectfully and honestly."
Because the artists profiled in these pages live their lives according to their own rules and ideals, they tend to urge others to do the same. Jello Biafra, best known as the singer of the Dead Kennedys (a band Sinker praises for "providing American punk with a leftist political philosophy that transcended the nihilism, ignorance and stupidity of the early hardcore scene"), is one of them. Biafra comes across as a keenly perceptive individual who encourages social activism and urges people to choose their own path rather than "clouding their future with what their parents, teachers and the mass media tell them what to do."
Though most of the interviewees here are relative unknowns, the book features a few higher-profile artists who explain how they manage to maintain their ideals after signing to a major label or experiencing unexpected success. Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, whose band signed with Geffen in the late '80s (though it continues to put out more experimental work on its own SYR label), feels his band is "using our major label connections to our advantage." That includes taking its paycheck from the Lollapalooza tour to fund the building of its own studio and sharing a bill with avant-garde artists, thus granting them wider exposure.
For Chumbawamba, staunch anarchists who titled their 1986 debut Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records (a reference to the popularity of the Live Aid charity concerts), the unexpected success of 1997's "Tubthumping" has merely provided it a wider forum in which to disseminate its revolutionary goals. An interview with guitarist Boff conducted at the height of the success of "Tubthumping" finds him pondering the equal distribution of the big-time bucks set to come the group's way and savoring the prospect of giving money to "an anti-fascist organization, social center or community group."
Because the interviewers generally avoid the standard rock-star type questions (i.e., tired tour stories or songwriting technique), what the reader gets here are thought-provoking discussions from a series of very well-informed individuals, among them collage artist Winston Smith, who utilizes images from '40s, '50s and '60s magazines as his forum for expressing his anti-capitalist ideologies and socially conscious messages. Often misinterpreted, Smith is famous for the image of a crucified Jesus set against a backdrop of dollar bills that the Dead Kennedys used on the cover of In God We Trust, Inc. The image, Smith says, provides a commentary on the "sacrilege" of making "money our god."
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A big part of We Owe You Nothing's appeal is the candid, pull-no-punches nature of these conversations. Among the most outspoken subjects is recording engineer Steve Albini (who records mostly independent acts but has worked with the likes of Nirvana, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant). A vociferous critic of the major labels, Albini questions why anyone, given the choice between a personal relationship with an independent label or a major label with its "well-deserved reputation for taking the money and running and crushing people's lives and careers if they put up any resistance" would choose the latter. Equally blunt is author Noam Chomsky (whose book of essays, the acclaimed American Power and the New Mandarins, was a forceful argument against the war in Vietnam). He offers a withering critique of the competitive capitalist system: "They can't stop exploiting people in order to make profits or they're not going to be in business anymore."
He goes on to argue that the very nature of the system "rewards antisocial behavior, or what I would regard as criminal behavior." He also discusses at length the rigors of the activist life, an undertaking that, according to him, won't get you "the kinds of rewards that you're trained to want -- material consumption and opportunity to impress people and so on." He says that "those 'rewards' though they are in fact destructive, you're unlikely to get if you decide to challenge and confront and so on."
We Owe You Nothing also contains the story that generated the most mail of any Punk Planet cover story, "The Murder of Iraq." The article, a conversation with members of the humanitarian organization Voices in the Wilderness, a group that brings medicine and supplies to Iraq in defiance of the economic embargo, is by far the most affecting piece here. Besides painting a grim picture of the death and hardship incurred by the Iraqis as a result of the sanctions, the interview is bound to move the reader with its depiction of the dedication and sense of outrage that fuels Voices' efforts.
For anyone who admires these artists' dedication to their personal ideals but wonders about the sheer feasibility of maintaining an anti-capitalist lifestyle, the book addresses that issue in its final chapter "The Failures of Punk." One of those voices belongs to Matt Wobensmith, owner of the long-standing Outpunk label and the short-lived Queercorps, who argues that "punk is in denial of how the world is." A realist at heart, Wobensmith pronounces himself "no fan of capitalism, but I know that when I don't have money in my bank account, there's no money to pay my rent and there's no money to put out your stupid records."