Jason Kolkey Fights Liar With Fire
“At least the music will be good."
Regardless where you fall on the political spectrum, you probably got sick of this tired refrain in November. The correlation between quality heavy music and conservative administrations is an easy enough leap of logic, especially given metal and hardcore’s heyday during the Reagan/Thatcher 1980s. However it’s also a lazy assumption that ignores the work that goes into making good art. Hard times don’t make good music, good musicians make good music.
It would be equally silly to pretend the results of the election, and the actions of the government since, would have no impact on the world of music. On the contrary, we’ve already seen responses from artists of a multitude of genres on the Our First 100 Days compilation and closer to home in the heavy music community on the Grind Against Trump tape, and now on the Fight Liar With Fire multi-split, released June 23rd.
Fight Liar With Fire features tracks ranging from punk covers of folk songs to avant-garde lo-fi acts. The compilation, whose proceeds go to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, was organized in part by Jason Kolkey, the singer of Chicago metallic hardcore band Nequient (who are also featured on the album), and a contributor at Toilet Ov Hell. We spoke to Kolkey over coffee about the origins of the compilation, metal’s political history, and his own band’s new material.
How soon after the election did you have the idea to put this comp together?
I believe it was the next morning. I woke up and just felt shell-shocked. I think everyone did. As I recall it, the next day at my day job I had to sit through a meeting where our CEO came by and basically explained to us why we should be, you know, really happy about our current situation, which was not particularly good in terms of salary and benefits and things like that. Dealing with that level of corporate bullshit the day after this horrible, frustrating defeat really made me start to think, I need to do something to feel less powerless, less like I have no influence on the world around me. Being a guy who has done DIY music for many years now, the first thing that comes to mind is of course, “hey let's put out a record and maybe put together at some benefits shows or something." Because at least then you know I feel like I'm saying something about it and I'm maybe raising some money that will go somewhere useful.
Obviously it's never gonna raise much. I know that. It's a very limited thing but at least it's a step in that direction. Also there was the thought that maybe this will get other people to do the same thing and maybe altogether we ultimately make some sort of dent, fighting the various civil rights abuses that we already knew coming down the pike.
That’s a pretty long time from November to now. How do you feel about the response from other artists so far since the election?
I mean, I think we've definitely seen some really positive things. There was another compilation that I think might already be out I'm not sure, but it actually sort of stole our thunder as far as the title goes, Grind against Trump, which I have to admit is better because it has a nice sort of pun in it. Ours was originally gonna be titled "Riffs Against Trump," and then we switched it once we found out about the title of that one. But yeah, something like that is very cool. You're seeing a lot of things coming from different sectors; you just see some things coming out of the hip-hop community, you see things coming out of the punk rock community, and I'm glad that we were able to take mostly more metal-oriented artists and give them a place in that whole discourse.
As far as the time factor goes, a lot of that was because we didn't just ask people to contribute tracks that they already had. We asked them to, in the wake of the election and in the wake of all the things that they were feeling in that moment to come up with new material. That ended up leading to all sorts of delays along the way. But I think it was worth it because it ends up being something that's very fresh, very strong with that DIY ethic, where everyone contacted the person that they know that has a stripped-down setup and recorded maybe slightly above demo quality stuff and sent it off.
One of the things I was taken with is how many clips of protests or pieces of news there were on the record. It's processing that immediate reaction.
Yeah I thought it was really cool that the band, Phallus Uber Alles, who are out of Portland, Maine, actually took field recordings of a women's march and used that in their track. We also have some really cool ones I think on on the Closet Witch tracks, which they're just such a brutal vicious band to begin with. You can really feel that frustration coming through in those tracks, and I think that's really cool.
It's an interesting blend of emotions because it's also an interesting blend of different bands. Like the Phallus Uber Alles track is much more of a classic punk song in a way, much more melodic compared to Closet Witch, which you said is just a straight ahead, brutal grindcore. Then there's some really slow sludgy shit too.
Yeah. The Phallus Uber Alles thing, they also took this old protest song and then they used this very welcoming message towards immigrants, which stands in contrast to the rest of the album, I think, in a fun way. I love albums and compilations, and even mixes, that have lots of interesting contrasts and jump from one thing to another. That was something I was very conscious of when I was ordering everything. So it starts off with my own band, who are a metallic hardcore kind of thing. We're mostly pretty fast. Then, it slows way down with the second track, which is Tovarish out of Providence who are just this like bleak, punishing experimental doomsday. We've got a lot of peaks and valleys, and that was something that I was really happy to do with these selection of tracks that I was given.
How did you determine who you wanted on the compilation? Was it just a matter of who you knew or did you seek out specific artists?
I mean a little bit of both. Obviously again I'm not a real label, we're not a well-known band, we're very small time, very DIY, so the people that I know are largely bands like that, but I do know which ones of those have that sort of cynical orientation and would be likely to respond positively to this kind of project. There's been a couple I approached who I thought might be into it who I would have really loved to have, but ultimately didn't feel comfortable making that kind of really explicit political statement. I respect that. It's not my feeling about things.
I feel like it's really important for artists to express whatever it is is going on within themselves and around them in the world even if that means that maybe some of your fans jump off board. But then again maybe that's why I'm not in a very big band, so that's fine. But yeah, some of the bands that got involved were not ones that I knew. One that came in really late it was Hell Thrasher out of Memphis, who are a really great band who plays blackened thrash and have a guy who used to be in His Hero Is Gone. I was really excited to have them on board. They sorta came out on through Tong Po out of the Quad Cities, who are a band that we’ve been friends with for a couple years and who are really great as well. I think what we ended up having was a baseline in music that fits in with our own music, which is to say, punk-influenced metal of various stripes, and then it takes weird left turns along the way.
There's stuff like Bone Machine which is very much a one-man improvisational thing where he's sitting in a room doing whatever crazy shit comes into his head. Those Darn Gnomes, who are fuckin' bizarre obviously and just went all sorts of crazy avant-garde stuff, with a Sylvia Plath poem as the lyrics, which I think fits in really well with the themes of the album, because, it's all about patriarchy, all about how to respond to being dominated.
It's cool that you have various artists taking different angles, because I feel like part of the problem. Everyone has something to be disappointed about here, but it also makes it hard to get everyone on the same page too.
There's definitely a fair amount of ideological disagreement, I think, among the people who have contributed. It's not something that I've like had them all sit down and debate or anything because I don't really see any reason. A problem that I see left right now is that it's just, way too many people obsessed with you know, ideological purity making sure that everyone is totally on board with whatever it is, intersectional feminism or if you believe only economic things matter, etc. And then you shut out people who have different sets of concerns, and that to me is stupid. It's pointless. What you should do is find the people with whom you have enough common ground to cooperate with, find the places where you can work together and where you disagree you know, part ways, do your own thing. This is obviously a perennial problem with the left whether you're looking at the situation as in the sixties or whatever it is, they always split off into factions and that's why they have problems accomplishing lasting change often times.
You mentioned earlier how you've seen other artists from other genres taking similar stances against this administration. Why did you think it was important to have specifically a heavy metal response?
A couple reasons. One, just very simple, this is my community. This is where I've spent my time since I was 16, playing shows, recording, and I know that there are people out there who feel the same way that I do. Another thing is that there are a lot of people in the metal community who do not get on board with these ideas and I think it's important to not let those be the loudest voices all the time, because they tend to be pretty obnoxious. We hear all the time about you know different bands where they like go off on stage about safe spaces or whatever the current bee in their bonnet is, and that's fine, they can say whatever they want. But I want there to be voices out there that are also saying, “hey we should have compassion and care about each other and do positive things in the world too." It shouldn't always be nihilism and, you know, nationalism and all these other toxic ideas that can be very fun in music but are not very useful in my opinion, in terms of building a better world.
Do you feel like there's a real tradition of sort of leftist politics in metal?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, of course a lot of it comes out of the sort of cross-pollination with punk especially, looking back at how the punk scene informed early grindcore, which in turn informed early death metal, and all that, but I think there's also always sort of been a subversive strain running through even the new-wave British heavy metal, where like maybe they weren't necessarily going to expressly come out and say anything political, but you look at the positions that a guy like Lemmy took, and obviously he was a man's man, but he had some positions that I think would very much fit in with the kinds of things that I believe in or you might believe in.
Rob Halford was, as much as he was keeping his sexuality under wraps early-on, also introducing people to a lot of strange ideas for the time and getting them to start thinking about what it means to be masculine. Just by aligning yourself against the status quo you inevitably end up being political even if you don't expressly come out and say things the way that eventually you know Napalm Death or Carcass would.
How do you feel about the type of metal audience that doesn't believe politics and music should mix?
I think you're sort of delusional if you ever tried to pretend that you can separate anything entirely from politics. As soon you say something is apolitical you are clearly taking a stand in favor of whatever the privileged status is, right? Because you're saying, “oh, we don't need to think about these concerns that you're raising," and that in itself is a deeply, deeply political act. So, if people don't want to listen to music where it makes these explicit statements, that's totally within their rights. But the people that I'm mainly interested in connecting with when I perform or when I create music are people who care about things and want to make the world a better place.
That doesn't even necessarily have to make you a super niche act. Lamb Of God used to talk about the Bush administration left and right in their glory days. That never seemed to stop them from rising to tour on Ozzfest and becoming a really big deal. So I think there's definitely a lot of room there for people to take on these ideas if they are willing to do so and willing to take that risk that some people are not going to like it.
I want to talk specifically about the two tracks that you did with Nequient. You're the lead singer and also the main lyricist I would assume?
Yeah. Sole lyricist.
Describe what you were aiming for with those particular songs.
Sure, so the first track that is called “Kakistocracy." The term kakistocracy is something that came back into currency recently but it stems from the work of Thomas Love Peacock, the great romantic satirist. I'm actually an expert, like academically speaking, in the romantics.
Is that something you went to school for?
It's what I studied in graduate school. So I love making references back to different 19th Century ideas and I could always find lots of parallels between the political situations of the 19th Century and the whole situation of today.
So that's one thing, another is just that the term I think is fun. It's a pun on shit and it's defined as, “ruled by the worst people". The song could have been called kleptocracy and it would have been just as accurate, but this is more fun I think. Lyrically it's basically targeted at the idea that Trump is bringing in all of these wealthy players in different fields in order to dismantle the very departments that they are being placed in charge of. They are just going to tear everything apart and reap the spoils.
Then the other one, “Two Degrees Celsius," is based around global warming and the idea that we are going to hit this tipping point when we're going to see catastrophic damage that we can't really go back from. When I wrote that he had not yet pulled out of the Paris Accord, but it was clear that he was at least thinking about it and now that he has it's even more of a concern that we're not working on real problems that could ultimately be destructive to the future of the world, of the human race, because we're too busy trying to clean up this crazy fucker's mess.
Has politics always been a part of Nequient?
Definitely. Not necessarily every single song, but my general perspectives tends to come through a lot. We wrote one on EP that came out a couple years ago called “Misandrist," that was just like me taking a piss on men's right's activists. We got a few others. “Obsidian Order" is one that's was going after the surveillance states. I always try to thread that in there. We started as a very d-beat-oriented crust band. We've drifted from that little bit stylistically through, lineup changes and just wanting to do different things musically, but I think something that I've always loved about that kind of music is the very strong political will behind it. These are guys who, if you look at Tragedy or Amibex or whatever, there's a lot of really strong ideas behind the music, and that's always appealed to me and what I continually wanted to tap into.
You also have a new record kind of in the works?
I think at this point I can say that it's all written. So, it's a question of when do we get into the studio, actually record it, and where is it going to come out. Those are the questions we're working on right now, but I'm pretty excited about the material. It's definitely taking it off in some new directions. The compilation was actually the sort of debut of our current bass player Keenan, who I'm really excited about. He adds a lot of interesting dimensions to the songs not just in terms of what he's doing on the bass, because he's not always just sort of playing along on the root note or anything like that. So I'm really happy to have him on board for this recording and generally excited about some of the left turns that it's going to take in terms of style.
As a singer do you also contribute to the musical ideas?
Worthless. I’m worthless on the guitar. Just absolutely abysmal, so like right now Patrick, our guitar player, is the primary song writer. I think going forward, Keenan, who plays the bass, is still relatively new to the band. I think that he's gonna be taking a more active role in terms of you know, putting in a riff here and there. Every once in awhile, our drummer Chris will grab a guitar and finger something out. He's definitely not a guitar player but he wrote the main riffs for a song off our old EP called “Eschatology" that I think is one of the best songs we’ve ever done. It's a simple riff, but it's really cool and evocative and like really gets the energy going. Everything he does is very rhythmically oriented obviously, so that sort of adds a fun element to it.
How did you decide where to donate the money from the compilation to?
The one that we ended up with, which was the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, were kind of the first things I thought of because we're trying to set this up as a clear opposition to what we see as an encroachment on civil liberties that's going to come through Trump's stances on Muslims, his stances on Mexican immigrants, his stances on women's rights or lack thereof, and so on. The ACLU is gonna be on the front lines at every step of fighting that. The ACLU doesn't always defend things that I necessarily love, right? But, we know that they are going to be in every fight, where they see civil liberties of America being compromised, and that's something that we really need right now. So, even though I know that whatever we can contribute is sort of a drop in the bucket in terms of what they need to carry on those legal defenses, I'm just glad to contribute whatever we can.
In terms of Planned Parenthood, they're constantly under threat of the Republicans and the Federal Government, and all sorts of local regulations and are constantly having to fight that so that they can continue to provide health services to lots of low-income women -- and yes, providing abortion services, which are women's rights. So, anything you can do to help them out as they are constantly contending with that I think is very useful. I threw out some other ideas to the people who are involved, and let them vote. Things like the Southern Poverty Law Center and different groups supporting reporters or refugees, things like that. All of which are great causes and I wish that I could have split up money between all of them, but I'm not gonna have that much money. We have to pick our battles here and we ended up deciding that these are things that we knew could use more money all the time and will definitely in the fight taking these policies head on.
On a personal level, how have you been since November?
You know, not happy. I'm 32 now, so I was active and conscious during the George W. Bush administration and I remember at the time I thought that this is as bad as you could get in terms of a chief executive. You know, that knno-nothing guy who had all sorts of positions that I thought were terrible and led the country into a war that was completely unjustified. So, to find out that actually it could get much worse was a bit of a shock to the system. I think, I was definitely one of those people who was in denial, I think going into the election who thought it's awful that he got this far but that he's shot himself in the foot so many times, there's no way that this could actually happen. I thought that when that tape came out, I was like, “okay, this is what we were waiting for." He said he grabbed women by the pussy, that's it. We knew something like that was going to happen because he's a lewd, terrible person and he talks shit constantly. I thought that was it. I was wrong.
Realizing how wrong I was, and how fucked we might be, has been a little difficult. I'm in a position where I feel the effects of a lot of the cultural and economic changes that have happened to the country over the past couple of years in a certain way, which is that I was trying to sort of set out on a career in academia. I have a doctorate in English and found out, there are not gonna be any professor jobs any more right? Or you were really not gonna be able to get work teaching in the humanities. There's a few jobs, not many, and certainly very few where it's actually a tenured-track job that you will have for life. That's not something that exists so much any more, and I feel like that made me very aware of the movement against intellectualism, against that sort of life of the mind and all that corny shit, you know? It's a sense that, why bother to pursue anything unless it has a very clear outcome and achieving material gain, right?
That shift is very disheartening to me because I'm someone who cares deeply about literature, philosophy, and thinking deeply about the world around you and trying to figure out how you fit into it. All that high-falutin’ nonsense. That to me fits in with the cultural moment in a lot of ways. It’s something that I think that most people don't really think about or care about, and I understand they've got more immediate concerns, but I think it's a sign of the turn that the culture has taken that no one values having experts who do research and teach their kids anymore. They don't even know that full-time teaching positions don’t really exist anymore, and most courses are taught by overworked part-timers who have usually just a master’s, not a doctorate. I think that it is part and parcel of a general tendency to not care about these kinds of intellectual things any more.
How have you stayed sane?
Oh, I don't know that I have, but, I think much like in those Bush years the retreat into culture is very helpful. People might scoff at escapism and the idea that you can get away from the world for a little while, but it's actually very useful, right? I'm someone who, in addition to all the other pursuits that I've mentioned loves things like reading comics and watching horror movies, and listening to metal, even if it is apolitical or opposed to my ideas. That sort of thing I think is an important outlet. Also just doing this compilation is to me a largely a means of maintaining my sanity. I knew that I was deeply frustrated with things that were going on personally in terms of the career issues I've mentioned before and then also with this whole political situation and that the only way I was gonna feel any better about it, at least for a little while, was by screaming my ass off. That's always been very useful for me, ever since I was 15 or 16 years old in my first couple bands. I've always found that very cathartic, very therapeutic.
Read more about Fight Liar With Fire and download it on Bandcamp.