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Greg Bennick of Trial, and the 2017 Revolutionary Game Plan

GREG BENNICK alternate headshot

Supposedly, it’s a curse to live in interesting times. I don’t know much about cultural omens, but I do know that things don’t make a lot of sense lately. So, what should we do in the face of absurdity? Greg Bennick has some ideas. Best known for his work as the vocalist in Trial and Between Earth and Sky, Bennick is also a public speaker, movie-maker, and philanthropist. But when he’s not producing award-winning documentaries like ‘Flight from Death‘ or founding charities like One Hundred for Haiti, Greg maintains the website Words as Weapons showcasing the voices of people trying to change the world, and enjoys the occasional slice of vegan pizza at Seattle’s Sizzle Pie. Benneck maintains an active role in the music scene, and will be touring as a spoken word artist with Hollow Earth in March. We caught up via Skype for a conversation about music, extremism, and personal wellness.

-Jason Gilbert

I was reading your blog for some material to talk about and one of the things that jumped out at me that I particularly wanted to ask you is: What do you feel is the role social revolutionaries like yourself, for you and like-minded individuals in 2017 considering everything that set us up for this?

I wish that there were a definitive answer, like “our place is here” but living in a post-truth world means that we don’t exactly know where “here” is most of the time. We’re chasing, in reaction, statements that are made about the nature of society and articles that are written about the nature of society that then turn out to be untrue even hours later. So it’s hard to know where we are, let alone where we’re “supposed” to be. And I think that the nature, currently, of the social revolutionary, or rather the position of the social revolutionary is to constantly be in motion and constantly be moving forward with ideas and actions that we believe in. So I’m going to Mexico [on a spoken word tour] not because it’s the thing to do but because it’s a thing to do. And it’s a valid thing to do, and something that’s going to be unaffected by news reporting and Facebook posts and things like that. But rather, it will affect people directly. I think that as long as we’re affecting people directly in positive ways, we’re in the right space. If we try to figure out the exactly correct space, we’re gonna be chasing smoke for the next 4 to 8 years, I think, in this new post-truth political environment. Because it’s really hard to figure out where you are and where you’re supposed to be.

On the subject of a post-truth culture, how do you feel social media affects a social revolution? Is it a beneficial tool? A distraction? Maybe a security risk?

Yes, all of those, and a detriment as well. So it’s everything, from incredibly positive because you can rally your friends and like-minded individuals; it’s a detriment, because you might find yourself believing or reposting a post-truth statement, say for example, by the President, and then you and your friends end up furious and chasing smoke, as I said before, for hours or even days. Social media is a great distraction. It can be really fun to watch a woman smashing her face into loaves of bread — which is what I watched yesterday, and it was really entertaining for about 30 seconds to distract me from the fact that our President is hurtling us toward nuclear apocalypse — and, at the same time, it can be a distraction in a negative way: away from work that needs to be done. I think it’s time, more than ever, to be vigilant about the ways we use social media; its role, and what it can do.

For example, recently I’ve been getting a lot of mileage, for lack of a better word, by posting things that are open-ended questions for people rather than saying “here’s my statement on this, the end” or “here’s that I feel you should do, the end”. Those kinds of things just leave me feeling empty. Rather, I’ve been posting open-ended things where people can chime in and engage. I think that people are desperate for real engagement because the media is failing us and I think that certainly the powers that be are failing us and I think people want their voices to be heard and to feel like they matter, so social media can be, as you mentioned, a great tool for engagement in that way, getting people to have their voices be heard and to have them feel valid and validated and meaningful in a world which, y’know, realistically, is going to swallow us all. As the saying goes: “if it’s you against the world, bet on the world”. And I think it’s really easy to feel small and insignificant in the world we’re living in now, so social media can give people a great opportunity to communicate and to have their voices be heard and to come together.

We just have to keep a clear perspective on it at all times because, ultimately, let’s be realistic: Facebook doesn’t exist so that you and I can connect, like each other’s posts, be friends… Social media sites exist to sell us things that are advertised. Y’know, when I like Jason’s candy bar post, I’ve told advertisers that Greg Bennick likes candy bars, therefore, market candy bars to Greg Bennick and he’s more likely to buy them because he literally “likes” them. That’s what the likes are for; the likes are not to bolster our ego, they do that just to justify the means to amass information about what is to be sold to us. We have to be constantly vigilant about how we’re using social media and how it’s using us.

When I was more active and visible in the community of people moving toward social change, I used to think that a social media presence was bad, and not going to help anything, but then the Arab Spring happened and we saw how useful Twitter was for getting people together…

Totally

And getting people motivated for these causes, it’s interesting to think about how this could be used down the line.

And I agree that there’s security risks everywhere, I mean, come on… posting on facebook is not the greatest security risk in your world. I mean, existing and having an opinion already is a security risk. Thinking about it, talking about it, that’s all a security risk. And, granted, I recognize that posting posting on Facebook makes you very visible, yes, but it’s an amazing tool. And I’m with you on Arab Spring. Twitter turned that spark into a desperate flame.

Were you a performer before you studied acting and before your relationship with Mr. Larry Hunt?

Yeah, actually. Yeah, Larry Hunt, wow. I wish every human being knew his name. I started performing as a kid a juggler and entertainer. I started out when I was about 13 years old. So I was a juggler and stage performer at 13, 14, 15, 16… kinda all those years, making my living doing that, actually, because I always felt, even from a young age, that the idea of having a “job” was utterly ludicrous. I mean… the idea of trading the hours of your life for somebody’s money? That’s completely insane. So I worked on my own as an artist and a juggler; teaching juggling, teaching performance, studying performing techniques, and I met Larry Hunt when I was about 18 years old. He came to town near where I was going to college in Syracuse, and did a show. And I took a couple days and I travelled around with him and in the midst of travelling around with him he offered that if I was ever back in Connecticut and without college, I could study with him. And I did. I dropped out of school and I went and studied with him. And for those who don’t know, and most wouldn’t, Larry Hunt was a mask theater performer. He studied masks as metaphor: what they signify, what they mean to us, what masks do we wear in our day-to-day lives and… what can we learn from the theatrical mask experience about the masks that we wear day to day. And Larry died about 3 or 4 months ago on the East Coast and it’s just a tragic loss. Here’s somebody who wasn’t in the news, this isn’t Mariah Carey; he’s not being asked to perform New Year’s Eve; he’s not gonna do the Super Bowl halftime show… he’s just a simple man… I shouldn’t word it that way. At face value, he was a simple man, but he was a really complicated and awesomely intelligent individual and artist who shed a lot of light on the layers — the multi-layered quality of human beings by way of theatrical masks. So yeah, I quickly learned early on that performance had a lot of potential meaning to it. I mean, I was just doing juggling tricks, and granted there’s a lot of metaphor that can be taken from juggling; it’s a meaningful art in and of itself if you take it out of the “circus/silly” realm but Larry was doing something real onstage and he was kicking ass. And I learned a lot from him, for sure.

I’d like to get your thoughts on what happened in Montreal at the Messe de Morts festival: in the light of how serious the threat of extremism on both sides is to our future, what can we learn from this?

That’s a great question, and I did hear about that. People are going to be absolutely furious constantly for the next four years. And sometimes they’ll be absolutely furious about things that are very valid. Say, the connection of a band to National Socialism; that’s a valid concern. But also sometimes about things that aren’t necessarily valid. Meaning, like, Trump is gonna tweet something idiotic and people are gonna get inflamed and go insane and then realize that he didn’t mean that or he just did that to inflame people or that there really wasn’t reason to get as angry as we thought we should in the moment. And we run the risk of putting too much energy in the wrong places far too often in the next couple years.

We have to be able to temper our anger and keep it burning but at the same time be focused with it because there’s gonna be a lot of opportunities to be angry. That doesn’t diminish the right of the antifa people to take part in the protest they did. I’m glad they did. I don’t want anybody who’s promoting racist ideas to exist in the music community. I think if we get a show shut down and a show doesn’t happen it’s a small price to pay for the statement that’s made. But we’ve gotta be careful because we’re gonna be quick to anger. Y’know, people on the left came to a very harsh realization after the American election that the right wing is solidly in power in the United States and when your enemy is solidly in power, you’re going to be constantly looking for ways to cut them down, to stand up and empower yourself. And when your enemy is feeding off that, is feeding off the choices you make, they are intentionally positioning themselves so that you make choices that are, in fact, empowering to them. We gotta be careful. We gotta be really careful that we don’t just start spouting off and getting insane with our anger, our rage, and our protests We gotta be really calculating, because the forces that we are up against are most certainly calculating against us, there’s no denying that.

Spoken from experience as a Michigander, it’s hard to stay that focused and that angry for years at a time, and I think they know that. And they want to see if they can tire us out. Exhaust us from being outraged early on.

Yeah, you’re the man; you just nailed it. I remember years ago when we worked on — many of us — it wasn’t just me exclusively, certainly, it was many, many of us — worked in support of the Western Shoshone Nation in central Nevada. There was a land issue between the United States government, who were working in conjunction with multinational mining companies to mine gold from Shoshone land. Okay, I just spared you about 65 hours worth of description, but the reason I bring them up is because the Shoshones were largely lead by a small cadre of elderly Shoshone folks who were trying to rally support from younger people, and the government and the corporations could work very, very slowly. Because corporations are considered “human-like” in the ways that they’re considered legally, but they don’t age and they don’t die. So if the multinational mining company works in a slow and methodical way over say a hundred years to get the Shoshone land, y’know, Kerry and Mary Dan, age 70, are not gonna be age 170 and still fighting the corporation; the corporation will lose its CEO, its CFO, its HR person, they’ll all be dead and replaced with other human beings, but the concept of the corporation will still be there long after the human beings fighting it have died. And to your point, that’s what we’ve got going on now. Y’know… “shut down the Trump administration”… You can’t even put your finger on it. The Trump administration isn’t just Donald Trump, it’s his psychopath cohort Pence; it’s Steve Bannon and all the other folks he’s brought on board. It’s become a monstrosity. Multi-armed, like a 20-armed octopus. You can’t put your finger on it, you’ll just exhaust yourself as it whirls around you and smacks you with one arm and when you turn to face that it slaps you from the other side. You’ve gotta meter your energy and just remember that there’s other like-minded people fighting the fight as well, and hopefully we can find alliances among us.

One of the things I admire looking at the hardcore community as a member of the metal community is that you guys do the intersectionality thing and intersectional representation much better than we do. What do you think it is about hardcore that inspires that kind of intersectional representation and how can we emulate that?

I think — and I’m not very tied into the metal community — but I think that hardcore has done a good job, somehow, of taking all the various stratifications among the scene and making them not so important. Meaning: it would be very easy for people involved in this type of hardcore to look at people from that type of hardcore as completely different animals. And by and large, in the hardcore community, while there definitely are differences, and while there definitely needs to be more unity — to sound trite — among people, hardocre has done a pretty good job of coming together over the last couple decades and having of those divisions between us be less important that they once were. When it used to kinda be “punks vs. skins” or “straight edge kids vs punks” and sure, that still exists, but I think the divisions have become less prominent.

In the metal community, it seems like that might not be the case, and I might be dead wrong, but it seems that in the metal community there are definitely divisions between people and maybe less opportunities for people to connect about issues that are supra-musical, meaning beyond music, right? Hardcore’s filled with opportunities like that. And my sense is that if we were to go see Blood Incantation and 15 other bands, that the opportunities to talk about issues would not be as readily apparent and the divisions between the types of music that people are listening to would be more wedges than they are in hardcore. I might be dead wrong, I’m just guessing. Hopefully there’s some validity in that, but I do think that in hardocre, for years, people were talking about unity and they were talking about unity and they were talking about unity to the point where it was so goddamn boring… But I think there’s something in that. And I think the more people start talking about that in the metal community, it might very well be that the anger that people put into their metal could also be put into social issues in the same way that, to a certain degree, that happens in hardcore. I think there’s a lot of room for that to happen, and to improve in both communities.

So 2016 was really the year that metal really had to come face-to-face with its racism problem and it’s sexism problem. I think we had kind of been in denial of it before, but this past year it really came into the forefront. What do you think a music community should do about the presence of these kinds of beliefs?

You mean racism and sexism.

Yeah. Now that we openly acknowledge “this exists; racism and sexism exist in metal”, what should we do next?

So, this is long-term stuff. This is not gonna change overnight. Let’s look at hardcore and the way that hardcore addressed it. Hardcore started addressing it 30 years ago. Y’know, 7 Seconds wrote a song called “Not Just Boy’s Fun”. This is a time, when I was in high school… Girls had just started talking about how they weren’t coat racks, y’know? And granted there’s always been women involved in punk rock and hardcore… Kira was in Black Flag long before I was involved in punk and hardcore. Y’know, there’s always been powerful women in punk rock and hardcore. Hardcore is replete with examples of powerful women. But for the average show-goer we’re talking about… girls were saying “hey, we’re not just coat racks! Don’t just hand me your coat while you mosh”. That was really popular to hear back in ‘86/‘87 and these days it’s not that sexism is gone by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re not having that conversation anymore, because it’s changed, right? Now we’re talking about “how are we respecting or how are we treating other people of different genders and of different backgrounds? How is sexism being approached in the scene?” That wasn’t something that we were talking about years ago. We were literally still talking about women as coat racks for dudes moshing. That’s a huge jump, but we still have miles yet to go.

What’s kept it in forward motion, slowly over time, is the continuing conversation. And if 2016 was really the year that metal finally realized it had an issue with racism and with sexism, then I hope that 2017 is the year that conversation continues. Because sometimes it’s “one step forward and two steps back” or sometimes you get ten steps forward for eleven steps back, but sometimes you get multiple steps forward and only one step back. But what keeps it going is the conversation, and people hearing other people’s grievances, and people stating their grievances, and having their grievances be heard so that conversations and change can happen. My suggestion is: the more metal zines that come out with articles on sexism and racism, the better. And creative responses; not just “sexism is bad/stop racism”, like, sure, but rather “what is the psychological basis for racism? From where does sexism originate? How does it perpetuate itself? Why do we find ourselves empowered by pushing other people down?” Asking those questions and exploring them in metal zines and in band lyrics sheets, and on websites and continuing to do that in 2017 if the conversation was started in 2016, that’s gonna lead to some progression. But you gotta keep the conversation going.

TRIAL BURNING FIGHT PHOTO by Matt Miller

What does it mean/what do you mean when you call for establishing a “safe space” in a culture where people get hit at shows just because that’s what you do?

The idea of “safe spaces” is more specific than the general “safety from flying fists and elbows”. The idea of “safe space” is the idea of a venue where you are safe to be there; free from sexism, ableism, homophobia, so on and so forth. Where people are just simply safe to be there on the merit of their existence and the merit of their presence, and they aren’t to be diminished or to be denied the experience of the evening, or the afternoon, or of the venue, based on any aspect of themselves that could be could be singled out and faulted or slighted in any way. The idea is that access to music should be safe for everybody. It shouldn’t just be safe for Greg, who’s a white male; it should be safe for everybody regardless of their background, or their gender, their sexual orientation, and so on.

That said, you’re not too far off the mark that it’s pretty ironic that I’m talking about safe spaces in a place where we jump on each other’s heads, and kick each other, and punch each other in the face, and I say that flippantly, but it’s really true, y’know? We have to take care of one another actively, and that sounds so rudimentary, and so simple, and it’s an example of me carrying on the conversation that hardcore has been carrying on for the last couple years. Y’know, post-”hold my coat while I mosh” conversations of 30 years ago, is the modern-day conversations of: “how do we create spaces that are safe? How do we actively involve everybody in the hardocre community instead of just ‘white dudes’?” and, sometimes that includes looking out for one another, and listening to one another, and paying attention to one another, and making sure that people around you are safe, and that they feel safe, and that they have the ability — or rather — the option to share what their feelings are.

I think that it’s critically important to be listening to the people around us and paying attention to the people around us. And that’s true whether you’re moshing up a storm or stagediving, or about to say something dumb that might offend somebody. Y’know, we’ve got to take care of one another. I mean, ultimately, this is a social avenue: our music; right? And that’s true whether you listen to Deicide or you listen to Warzone. It doesn’t make a difference. This is a social avenue for us, and we we do ourselves a disservice when we allow that social avenue to create more ill in the world. I mean, the social avenues that we’ve invited ourselves into, with “extreme music” are inherently aggressive already. We don’t need to make the music representative of the life we’re living in the social scene; having the music create more anger, stress and pain. It’s like the idea of the music is to create less of that, ultimately, or to allow us to cast a new light on the aggression and pain of the world. Meaning: the music and the scene around it should not create more pain, it should soothe the pain of the world by giving us an opportunity to connect with one another. Certainly if anything is opposing that, it needs to be voiced, heard and taken care of.

Some years ago, in a conversation I had with a former black revolutionary, he told me that back in his more “active” days, he and his friends believed in an obligation, as social revolutionaries, for personal wellness; whereby they would abstain from drugs and alcohol, eat healthy, exercise and practice martial arts as a part of their “obligation” to their cause. Do you believe that as social and cultural revolutionaries, we have an obligation for personal wellness?

I absolutely think so. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to succeed at that; y’know the other night, if you had been sitting at Sizzle Pie in Seattle with me while I ate like two and a half pieces of pizza, you would have been well within your rights to’ve been like “hey, dude, where’s your revolution?” and I’d be like “I dunno, it’s halfway into my mouth!” I do think, though, that we’re at our best when we feel healthy, when we’re thinking clearly, when we’re drinking lots of water, and when we’re exercising. And I don’t mean when you’re bench pressing 600lbs; I don’t care what you can lift, I don’t care if you can do more push-ups than the next person. Y’know what? It doesn’t matter. I just mean that on your own terms, keep your body sound, keep your mind sharp. Because these are tools and weapons that can be used effectively only if they are sharp. And I think your friend was onto something. Historically, there have been a number of revolutionary organizations that have championed the cause of keeping ourselves physically fit and, y’know, being ready for battle, sure. But let’s take the drama out of it and call it “being ready for action”. And when you’re overworked, and stressed, and unhappy with your body, and you’re just not getting enough sleep, enough water, you’re not gonna be ready to think critically and think clearly about social situations when they come up. Y’know, I think it’s our responsibility to the world to be more in-shape. And that doesn’t mean ripped muscles, abs, the whole deal… It means: more in-shape, generally. Overall wellness and fitness. I think it’s a great idea and a great revolutionary tool.

How do you think we as white men, can be effective allies to the causes which champion social progress?

I think that the number one thing we can do is listen. Always, always, listen. I mean, this is a great irony for me. One: because I’m a speaker, right? And two: because I’m outspoken. But I think that as white men the more we listen, as participants in any conversation, the better. Because, ultimately, the people around us have so much to offer. It’s really good to have your voice be heard, especially as an insecure, terrified, frightened creature; which is what every human being is. So, take me, for example. As an in secure, terrified, and frightened creature, it makes me feel great to have my voice be heard. As I’m sitting here, talking to you right now, it feels great on a deep psychological level, that my voice — Greg’s voice, this creature’s voice — matters “so much” (and I say that in quotes with, like, wink-wink sarcasm attached to it), that someone would take the time to hear what I have to say and that someone else would read or experience these words somehow; it makes this insecure, frightened creature named Greg feel good about his existence in the world. Okay, neat. That said, that’s kinda empty compared to if we were in a forum where other people had other opinions to share; compared to listening to what those other people have to say, just having my voice be heard isn’t nearly as valuable. We all feel as though what we have to say is important. We all get something, psychologically, out of being insecure, frightened creatures and having our voices be heard. But when we stop for a second and listen, we have the opportunity to expand our idea base exponentially based on the number of people around us with voices as well. So I think that as individuals, white males or otherwise, the more we listen, the more we can grow as individuals and collectively. And I think we can really help empower others along the way.

When I watched your TEDx talk at one point you said that “my self doubt, my insecurity, and my fear are my potential to be alive”. As people who feel like we’re going to be facing a lot of these things coming up, how do we realize our potential to be alive in the face of what’s to come?

When you are confused, you are not defeated. When you are insecure, you are not weak. When you are terrified, you have not failed. But rather, we need to think about our experience as like a sine wave. Like any wave, it hits peaks and valleys. And when we are feeling insecure, terrified, broken, etcetera, we often think of ourselves as “at a low point”. Well, fine, but the wave continues. The crest of the wave is dependent on there being troughs in the wave and vice versa. So the feeling in that trough of frightened insecurity, if we think of ourselves as defeated and we give up, we’re dead; we drown in the wave. But if we recognize that we are at a point in a process, and whether it’s the low end of that sine wave, or the high end of that sine wave, or anywhere in between, we then run the risk of normalizing, god-forbid — and I say that in jest, but it’s true — we run the risk of normalizing our insecurity and our fear. My god! What happens when we do that? We normalize our insecurities and our fear? Well that makes it okay for you and I to be sitting here and be absolutely terrified and insane. And alive. We can’t diminish ourselves because we feel these things; we have to recognize that these are normal parts of the process, and they’re as much a part of our “feeling alive” as feeling orgasmic, or triumphant or exaltant. Y’know, feeling insecure, frightened, and terrified is part of the deal, too. And if we diminish ourselves in those moments then we’ve lost completely. And moving forward, I think it’s important to be accepting of those seemingly negative aspects of ourselves which we normally marginalize ourselves for or condemn ourselves for experiencing.

I wrote down another quote from that TEDx Talk to wrap us up: you said that “artists feel what it feels like to be alive and afraid, and they say ‘yes’ to it all. And step by step, as we go, we transform”. How do you think a Trump presidency will transform artists like yourself?

So here’s a tricky one, right? Because Propagandhi, the band, I don’t know if you’re familiar — a political hardcore punk band — they nailed it about a month ago. They tweeted — and I’m paraphrasing their tweet, but it was something like — “hey, not to pee on everybody’s campfire, but I don’t think the Saudis sit around saying ‘yeah but at least we’ve got great punk rock’.” And what their point was: we have to be careful about saying “yeah, we’re gonna have great punk rock! We’re gonna be transformed by Trump! He’s gonna make it so everybody’s so angry and we’re gonna have great artistic transformation in the next four years…” because there’s a difference between art and what it represents. Art is a representation of life, it is not life itself. And what I have to remember over the next couple years, as we think about how Trump is gonna transform art and music and whatnot, is that sure, there’s gonna be lots of punk rock, there’s gonna be lots of metal, there’s gonna be lots of angry people creating lots of angry art, but we always have to remember that attached to those concepts, those artistic concepts, are the motivations from life that are bringing them into being. Y’know, if Trump makes a list of Muslims, and someone makes a song about it, the song is art. But the people getting kicked out of the country? That’s life. That’s real life. Write a song about how much you hate the fact that he wants to build a wall? That’s a song; that’s art. But when American “patriots” line the southern border of the United States and start shooting people trying to cross the border illegally, that’s life. And we have to be willing to constantly make a differentiation between art and life. And yes: act in both realms; the artistic and the realistic one, but don’t let one lose sight of the other. Because if we just start making good art, the Trump is gonna get away with a lot of life and a lot of death that he otherwise should not. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind. He’s gonna inspire a lotta art, but unfortunately, he’s gonna bring about a lot of life and, potentially, a lot of death, too.

Greg Bennick will open for Hollow Earth on the following dates.

Mar 2 – Chicago, IL @ Cobra Lounge  *
Mar 3 – Indianapolis, IN @ The Gear  *
Mar 4 – St Louis, MO @ Worker’s Education Society *
Mar 5 – Galesburg, IL @ Glory Days *
Mar 6 – Des Moines, IA @Vaudeville Mews
Mar 7 – Minneapolis, MN @ Reverie Cafe and Bar
Mar 8 – Fargo, ND @ The Aquarium
Mar 9 – Winnipeg, MB @ The Handsome Daughter 
Mar 10 – Regina, SK @ The Club  
Mar 11 – Edmonton, AB @ The Sewing Factory  
Mar 12 – Calgary, AB @ Kensington Commons Church  
Mar 15 – Kelowna, BC @ Munnins Post  $
Mar 16 – Vancouver, BC @ 333 Clark  $ %
Mar 18 – Portland, OR @ Post 134  $ %
Mar 19 – Tacoma, WA @ Real Art $ %
Mar 22 – Seattle, WA @ Black Lodge  $ %
Mar 23 – Spokane, WA @ The Observatory  
Mar 24 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Beehive Social Club  #
Mar 25 – Pocatello, ID @ Elks Lodge  #
Mar 26 – Reno, NV @ Holland Project  #

* – w/ Great Reversals
† – w/ Withdrawal
$ – w/ Heiress
% – w/ Wake of Humanity
# – w/ Outlet

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