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Exclusive Interview: Ryan McIntire (Black Pussy)

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If you Google Black Pussy, you will find news articles about the Portland-based stoner rock outfit interspersed with an avalanche of pornography. That the band’s done something noteworthy enough to share top-billing with America’s real favorite pastime is significant. It’s also controversial.

Last week, a petition was released on Change.org, asking the band to change their name on the grounds that it is sexist and racist, or face a venue boycott. The story was picked up by The Daily Dot, and several metal-related news outlets shortly thereafter.

Since then, the band has been at the center of a widespread and often quite ugly discussion about race, sex and art. Detractors say the band name is ignorant, if not outright racist and sexist. Defenders counter that this is an example of extremist call-out culture in a volatile social landscape that is becoming quick to form lynch mobs.

I got on the phone with guitarist Ryan McIntire to discuss the band’s name and situation pursuant to the controversy surrounding their name.

—Joseph Schafer

This interview was conducted on Saturday, March 14. On Sunday, March 15, the band’s concert in Raleigh, North Carolina, was cancelled following threats of violence and vandalism. Regarding the cancellation, the band had this to say:

Chomsky said “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” While our message has continually been that of inclusion and tolerance we believe in others’ right to have a negative opinion about the band and its music. People have the right to call and write venues telling them that they don’t want us. But when zealots resort to violent tactics like vandalism and physical threats they ultimately undermine their own objectives. Don’t like us? Don’t support us. But we’re not going anywhere. And petty arrogant behavior will only embolden the momentum of our music and its message.

Considering all of the hullabaloo that’s currently going on around your name, how’s the tour going?

The tour’s going amazing. We just had a sold-out show in Amarillo, Texas. We’re big fans of Texas people. They know how to get down here.

Sold out? The petition is having no effect?

Well, I think it’s creating dialog amongst all kinds of people. It’s not prohibiting us from doing what we want to do—playing rock and roll, making art. But It’s definitely stirring up the pot a little bit.

In the last couple days I’ve been poking around the internet looking at comment threads about this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen people on the internet get so embattled as they have over this issue about your band name. I’m going to be honest, that took me by surprise. [Editor’s note: In retrospect, twitter threads over #gamergate were worse, but this is probably the nastiest music-related discussion I’ve witnessed.]

Yeah, us as well, especially considering that the idea for this band goes back 8 years. It’s taken a couple different forms, but when Margo Goldstein created the petition to have us change our name it really lit some spark on both sides, on all kinds of ideas on what art is allowed to do and what is socially acceptable. It definitely brought out a lot of trolls.

That’s accurate. I’m wondering, why is this conversation about the name starting now in March of 2015 as opposed to any other time?

I can’t say. I don’t have an answer for that. Our band name has nothing to do with race or genitalia. Being that it’s an ambiguous band name—which was the whole purpose of it, so that people could read into it whatever they wanted to read into it—I think that’s being reflected in the discussion right now. I feel that the band name is sort of a mirror of the individual that looks at it. They can look into it and see love and beauty and positivity and maybe even sexuality. Other people can look into it and see hate and repression and misogyny. People get out of it what they want.

I looked through some old interviews, and I found a few conflicting stories as to how the band name came about. I was hoping you could clarify.

We can definitely clarify that. Dustin Hill has been a musical and art partner of mine for almost 10 years. I met him and we started this pretty amazing project and then he kind of had the rug pulled out from under him. A 10-year relationship with a woman ended, and a 14-year relationship with another musical partner ended. he was in a pretty heavy spiritual place and he was thinking about quitting music. He was going to move to Turkey, but these songs started coming to him. He was in this meditative place thinking about his childhood and his childhood was the ’70s. He’s a kid of the ’70s. He wasn’t trying to filter the songs. The name just sort of came to him without any kind of intention and he thought it was amazing, he really loved it. After that he thought he should do some research to see if anybody had the band name. Nobody had the band name, but that’s where he found the story about the Rolling Stones song “Brown Sugar.” The band name is not named after the Rolling Stones song, that was just an interesting coincidence. It should be noted, that’s a great song, but it’s also a satirical song. It’s an anti-rape anti-racist song. The lyrics, if you read them at face value, are kind-of heavy lyrics. Without the right context it can be confusing, but that’s like someone thinking The Colbert Report is for-real and not a joke. I’m not saying that song is a joke, but without the right context you can be confused.

You’re talking about jokes. I can see what you’re saying, but I can also see, in regard to your band, there’s friction. Your lyrics aren’t overtly funny. You don’t present yourselves as a joke band.

We’re not trying to be comedic. Sorry if that was a bad analogy. I was talking about context. We aren’t trying to be funny. We’re trying to make psychedelic art. That’s this band’s intention in terms of the style of what we want to play.

I was in a conversation about your band name, which I wound up bowing out of because it got pretty heated, but in that conversation this was my thought, and I want to float it by you: There’s so much more to your music other than the band name that people could be talking about but now that this has happened, the conversation about the name overshadows everything else.

It’s doing both. I agree the negativity with trolling gets gross and it gets to the point where you don’t want to be around it. I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. We’re all free beings, everyone’s allowed to say whatever they want. It is a bummer that people aren’t talking about the music, but it’s drawing attention to the music. More people are hearing about the music, and they listen to a couple songs and get stoked about it. To me, the irony of all of this, is that I feel the petition, while its intention was to sort of bring us down is actually bringing in more love. We get messages all day, man. “Don’t change the band name. Don’t cave in.” It’s interesting. It’s taking on something bigger than the music.

Are any of these people who are telling you not to change the band name black women?

Yes. It should be noted that we are a pro-feminist band. We are a pro-human rights band. We want nothing but peace, love and partying. We get messages from black feminists saying “I am not offended. This is ridiculous. You’re just playing rock and roll.” It’s only rock and roll but I like it, you know what I mean? People of all cultural backgrounds dig what we do, and that’s what we want. We don’t want to discriminate against anybody. Kids, grandparents, anybody that wants to take a ride with us is welcome to.

But can you see where somebody who is upset is coming from?

Yes. I can see where people are coming from, but no, we’ve never said we should change it. People have really different experiences in life. Some people have been hurt and abused. That’s a shitty thing. People’s experiences color how they see the world. It’s not up to us to try to change a person’s mind. That’s the wonderful thing about free will, everyone can think what they want to.

But nobody in the band has ever said: “We’re a group of white dudes from Portland, and maybe this is not appropriate.” Nobody has ever said that?

No. Not like that. That’s not how we’re looking at things. I think we have a broader vision than that. We’re not trying to see colors, we’re trying to see people, us included. I think it does a disservice to put people in such simple boxes, like us being “white dudes.” Dustin has Native American blood, Spanish blood. Some of us are Irish. We’re all mutts and immigrants like everybody else.

I think there’s an argument to be made that in America in particular, the history that we have with African Americans is unique. And it is uniquely dark. There’s people who are going to see that and not be dissuaded by your argument. Look, I’m of mixed race, but neither of those races is African. I cannot confront that in the way that you’re describing.

You’re right about the history. We have a very sordid history. And race is such a big deal in this country, I think, because we haven’t dealt with it. People throw around words like post-racial society. I don’t think that’s real. I think a lot of us are really hung up on our past and should still have conversations about that.

Maybe part of the reason this conversation is happening now is because this moment in history is unique, both in terms of what’s going on with the police post-Trayvon Martin, post-Ferguson. And also our first black president’s reign is nearly over, and things are this contested, still. I think a lot of people are worried we’re going to have a hard swing away from talking about race. Maybe we as a society will fall backward, maybe it’s going to get worse. I think people are afraid of that, and I think it’s an understandable fear.

Mmm hmm. So you bring up the police thing. And that’s crushing. Three people dying a day from police is awful. I wish more people were talking about that than our band name. I saw recently a collage of people dying from police, and the photos were 80-90% people of color. That’s awful. We want to live in a society where you can express yourself and not be afraid of . . . I don’t know. We don’t want to live in a fascist police state. It seems like America has this tendency to want to move in that direction.

This is not a point I am making, this is a point that I have seen people defending your name make—do you think this petition is in any way a move toward that controlled state you mentioned? Do you feel that they’re related?

Well, I’ve pondered that. I’ve wondered if there is a parallel and I don’t know. Fascism is sort of the antithesis of being able to freely express yourself, and those who wish to try to control the expression of others . . . I’m not going to say that they’re fascist, but it’s sort of the same tendency. I don’t know how much they are related, honestly. The only horse that we have in this race is just to write good songs and be able to share them with people.

I will say one thing. When I saw the Facebook status post regarding the petition which you sent out on March 9, a word stuck out to me. That word was “amused.” The quote was “While we find it amusing.” When I thought of amused, I looked at your Facebook, and there was a link to the comedian Doug Stanhope talking about people being offended, and while I love him as a comedian, I’ve seen him live several times, I think there is an argument to be made that calling something like this “amusing” and linking to a comedian are not the most respectful responses one could have had. In your position I would not have done that. Maybe you don’t feel that was in bad taste?

Well, taste is a very subjective thing. The reason why we put up the Stanhope clip was to say, ‘If you’re offended by words maybe you should think about that. Why are you?’ He puts it in a very, perhaps, crass way. I don’t know man. [long pause] When I saw the petition that was my first impression. I thought it was funny. That a woman would go out of her way to do that, I kind of thought that was a waste of her and everybody else’s time.

Alright.

There are just such bigger things to focus our energies on that have more affect on bettering people’s lives. Same old story, man. Art has been subjugated since the beginning. it’s been banned and praised and the whole gamut. And that’s important for humans. Artists are important for humans to try to progress forward.

That is unquestionably true.

We can’t be apologetic for it. while we’re all very empathetic and sensitive human beings we’re not going to ask permission to make this art. Look at what Banksy does and other great controversial artists. They don’t ask anybody’s permission to do it. I think that’s important.

Have you ever seen the movie Oldboy?

Remind me?

It’s a Korean thriller film, very philosophical, very dark. Someone locks a man up for 15 years and never tells him why.

That sounds familiar.

You should watch it. It’s excellent. It’s full of little snippets of dialog that you can take and apply to life. In the scene I’m thinking of, the man who has been locked up gets to confront his torturer, and asks him why. He can’t understand why anyone would lock him in a room; in his mind he’s done nothing wrong. The man who imprisoned him says, “Be it a grain of sand or a boulder, in water they both sink.”

[laughs]

I’ve thought about that point many times, and what I’ve come to is this: if you’ve done something wrong to this man, it doesn’t matter to him how bad what you’ve done is. He doesn’t care if it’s a big or small thing, that it’s wrong to him is enough. So that’s one way for society to move forward, to say if you’ve done something wrong at all, that is enough to merit a reaction.

I think that’s relevant across the board. If you look at the Palestinians and Israel, I think that’s related to this concept. You hurt me, I hurt you, and it becomes this endless cycle of drama and negativity. I don’t know man. I don’t know what I can do to make people feel better.

Well, Thank you for your time.

Can I say one more thing?

Sure.

If anybody is unsure of us or unsure of our motivation or hurt by our band name, I encourage them to come to a show and hang out and see what we do.

Black Pussy’s album, Magic Mustache, is available from their Bandcamp. Follow them on Facebook.

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