Talkin’ About These Days with Vic Bondi, Interview by David Ensminger
Punks for decades have deeply admired the ferocious, yet well-crafted musicality and heavy-duty politics of Articles Of Faith, led by the sandpapery voice of Vic Bondi. They bloomed upon the hardcore scene of the early 1980s in the wake of the potent polemics of the Dead Kennedys and the brazen physicality of Bad Brains, yet they were not mere pretenders. They avoided copycat style as well as commonplace left wing sloganeering too.
The band’s range – from savage speed and fury (“Up Against the Wall,” “Buy This War”) and soaring, anthemic pleas (“What We Want is Free”) to jarring percussive onslaughts (“Street Fight”) and even nods to Husker Du style sentiments (“Remain in Memory” sounds akin to moments of Zen Arcade) highlight the band’s overall nerve, ethos, chops, and commitment to making hardcore agile and aggressive — more than a cookie cutter hard’n’fast genre.
Bondi’s career—teaching college history in Boston to working in the behemoth known as Microsoft industries—might cause some to pause, but his prolific output in well-received bands like Jones Very, Alloy, Report Suspicious Activity, featuring members of Jawbox and Kerosene 454, and Dead Ending, with members of Alkaline Trio and Rise Against, still resonates with integrity, as his newest foray proves.
Instead of retreating into his autumn years, Bondi channeled his frustration into an album that combines the thick, rhythmic pounding of Jones Very with the fiercely articulated dissent of Articles Of Faith. In doing so, Bondi remains gripping, timely, and barbed as ever. Plus, his voice is still the cornerstone Midwest punk growl, while his acute intelligence flies the flag of freedom, not free dumbness.
David: Between discovering the 1960s revisionist historians like William Appleman Williams at Northern Illinois University and practicing your first punk power chords with Direct Drive in small town, farm field-surrounded Dekalb and Sycamore in the late 1970s, does your newest album embody those same passions and sense of possibilities?
Vic: The passions, probably. I’m not sure about the sense of possibilities. They were a lot broader thirty years ago. I think I had a sure sense of the possible twice in my life. The first was at the end of the ’70s. I had a belief that if we took the best of the ’60s and dropped the rest—purged and renewed that basic utopian, progressive outlook, the way punk was purging and renewing rock—we’d have a broad, bright future. Reagan crushed a fair amount of that optimism, but I think many of us thought if we stuck to our guns, we’d work our way out of Reaganism, which was why hardcore flourished under him.
The second time was in the ’90s, when I joined the software revolution. I thought, as Marc Andreessen (web entrepreneur who helped co-create Netscape and sits on the corporate boards of Facebook and eBay) said, software would eat the world, and predatory capitalism would be replaced by progressive meritocracy. Microsoft was a progressive meritocracy when I joined. So was Yahoo and Google. But Robert Rubin and the hedge fund managers on Wall Street killed that. The minute software companies started responding to Wall Street more than their customers, they were forced to implement the same destructive management policies Wall Street forced on the rest of American business. When Microsoft hired a COO from Wal-Mart, it was all over. Ultimately, software didn’t eat the world. Financial capitalism did. So, I’m not sure I feel a great sense of the possible. What I feel is a lot of dread, and a sense my life is just a sophisticated version of medieval peasantry, and we are all tithed and tethered to rich capitalists who have absolutely none of our values.
David: Who or what propelled you, musically, as you wrote this album? I know at the time of some Dead Ending recordings, you had been listening to historical black music…
Vic: Well, no. Not historical. I’ve been listening to black music since I was twelve and got a C in my English class and my Dad grounded me. I would listen to this little transistor radio that got a great soul station in Baltimore—WEBB I think, but maybe I remember wrong—and the music was great: Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Temptations, Four Tops, Spinners, Sly Stone, James Brown. It was the first pop music I ever heard, and I’ve been listening to soul and black music ever since.
But I can’t play like that or sing like that, and I’ve never tried. I can’t rap either. When I was recording with Morello, he and all his friends would throw down in the van—I mean freestyle like unbelievable motherfuckers—and I could not keep up and wouldn’t even try. I can’t say I really listen to a lot of contemporary rap or soul music, though. Every so often I’ll stumble onto something terrific and I’ll roll with it. Thundercat, most recently. But that’s actually true of all styles of music—I don’t consume it like I used to.
So, anyway, whatever the influence of those styles of music, they don’t show up in my stuff—well, I do loop a lot of classic funk in the Sandoz Zardoz tracks. But for the new album I mostly wanted to make a record that was about guitars and kind of assert myself as a guitarist—maybe I felt I don’t get enough credit as a guitarist. So if there was one thing I was trying to do with the record musically, it’s that. And I wanted it to crush.
David: You have mentioned your own homophobia, which was normalized in both of our eras, even in punk subculture, and how Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü helped you overcome. In an earlier interview you told me, “I don’t even remember when Bob told me he was gay. But it was pretty important to me in terms of helping me get past my own anxieties about sexuality.” What do you think has driven the current youth—despite the last reactionary vestiges of homophobic policies—towards a different understanding of LBGTQ issues?
Vic: Well, fucking it’s pretty great, whether you’re gay or straight or somewhere in between or beyond. It’s pretty hard to get people to stop fucking. So the anti-gay agenda always was working against the strong current of desire. I’m not even sure the homophobia of my grandparents/parents generation was about stopping gay sex. There was plenty of gay sex then. It was more about distorting desire and putting it in the service of work discipline and war. You probably have even heard people of that generation say that they had no issue with homosexuality; they had an issue with “out” homosexuality. Roy Cohen or J. Edgar Hoover were fine by them.
If I were looking for a cause for a shifting in attitudes, I’d probably argue it is consumer culture generally that has opened receptivity to multiple approaches to sexuality. Sex is a commodity—and has been since the 1950s—in more and more explicit forms and in wider varieties. It sells. So it makes sense younger people are fine with most variants of sexual practice. What’s less clear to me is that the new generation has a progressive sense of intimacy, and that society at large is any more embracing of intimacy than they were in the 1950s. If anything, the technology revolution of the last twenty-five years has cut against this, and you have an almost pyrrhic victory for sexuality: lonely, alienated people comfortable with all sorts of sexual expression, but completely unacquainted with love and intimacy. How loving will the future be when you can casually dump your partner and swipe to find another in Tinder?
David: After re-uniting AOF, you told me, “We wanted to kill bad music and crap culture, and that clearly has not happened.” Does that speak to the limits of punk and hardcore communities? And how would you define crap music and culture today— perhaps just endless “Batman-style adolescent, messianic fantasies” that keep the lower/working classes deluded and distracted?
Vic: The promise and problem with the internet is that it reduces all culture to a singular, undifferentiated level. The promise of the internet was to make all information available at all times to everyone, which it has done, more or less, and that’s a great thing. But it has made everything available as the same type of super-flat, context-free information. So culture as an expression of class ceases to exist. All that twentieth century conflict over legitimate working class culture and its role in resisting the culture of the ruling class becomes irrelevant. In the internet there’s no distinction between rock and opera, and low and high. It’s the same thing. Or, more alarmingly, there is no distinction between a fact and a fiction or a truth and a lie. People can’t make sense of the world anymore because the “facts” of a conspiracy theory are the same as the facts of a political theory or the facts of a history. You could even borrow a page from Marshall McLuhan (twentieth century media theory philosopher) and insist the Internet collapses epistemology. We all know the same way now from the internet.
The problem is that the internet doesn’t collapse ontology, and the world is still structured hierarchically, more or less the way it was in the twentieth century. The rich are still—increasingly—calling the shots. They are still amassing wealth and resources even as information is freely distributed. They’re not bothering to control information anymore because their control of resources is actually facilitated and enabled by the democratized, undifferentiated web. They’re giving up on the culture war because they don’t need it. They are flourishing in chaos. As long as slacktivism and Facebook are viable expressions of activism, as long as Kanye is rock’n’roll, culture is not a meaningful place for political enlightenment and resistance. It’s another pyrrhic victory.
David: “Gaza, Missouri” seems to trace the legacy of colonial catastrophe from the rape of slaves, to the rape of the West, and to Black Lives Matter issues in our contemporary era, like two recent deaths in Baton Rouge and St. Paul. Can a million viral videos cause change? Does this generation have tools others longed for?
Vic: Gaza came from listening to the rhetoric around Ferguson. It was so reminiscent of the rhetoric of the Army in the Sioux Wars—“Put the Indians down.” There was the same demonization of the Other as you rob them of their livelihood, and it was also reminiscent of what you hear out of the Middle East. So, yes, this concept goes back a ways.
As far as tools go, in my generation and before, knowledge was power. The more you knew, the less you could be used and abused. But if we were being completely honest, knowledge alone could be a refuge for the powerless. Especially in the ’70s and ’80s, as the revolutionary fires of the ’60s burned out, knowledge became a refuge for revolutionaries and radicals. We had lost. So colleges were filled with radicals who focused their attention on deconstructing texts and arguing identity, to no real avail. It was no substitute for what had actually been the driving force in the ’60s (and ’30s): organization.
Whenever we talk about the civil rights movement, we always seem to underestimate the way in which Southern churches drove that movement. It provided the logistical support for it. But it also provided the social context, the feeling of inclusion and belonging, that was crucial to it. The same is true of unions. We always laud their role in driving up wages, but we forget just how important they were as places where families would play bingo on Saturday night or assemble for weddings. They were foci for communities. And out of those communities you could organize.
In theory, social technology tools should provide an organizational framework for activism. It should advance it. And with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movement, you saw something like that. But you also saw its limits. In both cases. Those tools were no match for the actual organization of power. A phone is not a gun.
David: As a father, witnessing Hillary Clinton’s nomination by the Democrats as their candidate for the presidency, and one who claims she will choose women for fifty percent of cabinet positions, do you think a gender revolution has occurred, even though the candidate may be flawed?
Vic: I think if Hillary becomes president, you’ll have right-wing domestic terrorism on an unprecedented scale. Misogyny is already rising, the same way racism did when Obama became president. For that army of impotent white men who listen to Fox, the only thing worse than a black president is a female one.
David: You’ve also told me, “If I were seventeen now, I would probably do a lot more musically with computers,” yet this album is another thrasher that seems to combine the heavy sonic density of Jones Very with the speed and politics of AOF at times. Why haven’t you done more with digital programming, perhaps like Atari Teenage Riot or Consolidated? Is it out of your comfort zone?
Vic: It’s not out of my comfort zone. I do experimental stuff with machines. I did some Bandcamp recordings as a project called Sandoz Zardoz with a Seattle poet, Jeff Chavez. They aren’t electronica, but they are loops and edits and some tricky instrumentation. But I don’t know how interesting they are to people who knew me from my other bands.
I’m perfectly comfortable with the fact that my main musical muse is heavy, intense, and political. It’s what I do best. I’ve been pissed off since Ferguson. I marched with BLM. I donated time and tech to a school in a disadvantaged community. And I made another record. That’s generally what I do when I’m angry. We worked hard on it. I played all the guitars and tried some stuff on it. It feels pretty natural to me.
David: “Ocean on Fire” directly aims at the industrial war on the planet—from fracking to drilling anywhere, anytime, including vulnerable seas. Yet you acknowledged to me previously, “broad swaths of Americans today would welcome environmental collapse.” How do we overcome both a culture of cynicism and a culture of denial?
Vic: I’m not sure. I find myself in denial sometimes, because it is so terrifying. Last summer as I was flying back from Europe over Greenland, you could see melt pools the entire length of the continental glacier. It’s real.
That, I think, is my strategy: It’s real. To insist on that. The election and global warming are both events over which it feels that reality is contested. The world doesn’t revolve around Chinese conspiracies and Hillary’s “crimes.” Those guys who took over the wildlife refuge in Oregon are delusional. Are so are people who insist that there is no global warming or that Hillary murdered Vince Foster. I’m going to cast my vote and raise my voice for the real. The right wing is almost living on another planet, one of perception and ideology instead of reality. Thirty years of propaganda is distorting to the point of delusion.
Probably, more than anything else, that’s why I did the record. That’s reality. Because heavy music isn’t just about how tough you are.
David: Both of us readily use Spotify (I pay the monthly fee), a streaming service under fire from some artists. You’ve spent an entire life working with various underground/indie labels and have witnessed the transformation of music technology firsthand. Is streaming the way forward—with some artist-friendly changes perhaps—or do you foresee other platforms taking shape?
Vic: No—most of what tech will do to the music business it already has, and what it has done, fundamentally, is make it impossible to be a professional musician. The economics are deadly. The lifespan of a professional musician today is incredibly short and incredibly poor. So what you will have moving forward is more crowdfunding, and more semi-pro, part-time musicians. Because you can’t stop playing music. It’s life. And what is happening will continue to happen: audiences will fragment and circulate around smaller and smaller subcultures. You’re seeing technology facilitate the triumph of folk music, in that no one will be able to make a living with music in the future, so musicianship will consist of small communities of musicians who make music for each other in their spare time.
David: No doubt, hardcore punk thrived in the era of Ronald Reagan—from songs like DOA’s “Fucked Up Ronnie” to flyers strewn with Reagan caricatures. You end “Stockholm Syndrome” with “ … fuck your Ronald Reagan.” Over the years, smirking listeners laughed about the “dated” Reagan punk name-dropping in punk, but punk has always explored the issues of the day. On the album, was balancing the specific and the metaphoric difficult?
Vic: I thought a lot about that line. AOF never had a song like that where we explicitly cussed out the political leadership. I don’t really like songs like that. I don’t like protest songs. I like protests that are the song. So AOF deliberately left the overt proselytizing to others, and focused on the more gut reactions to living in Reagan’s America.
So it took me thirty-five years to write a song with Reagan in it. I don’t think I would have done it if he were current. And I did it because at this point I would have expected us to have learned from history and have seen Reagan as the top of the slippery slope with Trump at the bottom, in the mud and sewage. Which is what the song is about. But the GOP has this huge propaganda engine designed to prop up Reagan as some sort of saint, instead of what he was: an actor hired by reactionaries to defend their tax brackets. So yeah—Fuck your Ronald Reagan.
There. I finally said it.
David: As someone who has taught history, and woven history into your lyrics, how do we as Americans bridge the race gap, which many think is evident in punk as well…?
Vic: Punk has gotten a lot better about this, actually. But the answer is simple: Stop treating black history as separate from American history. Black history is American history.
David: Earlier you mentioned the dread and cynicism you feel, but as someone linked to the tech revolution, do you see some light ahead—the sharing economy, ubiquitous computing (microchips in “smart” roadways and clothing), more collective intelligence like Wikipedia, real-time personal broadcasting via Periscope? Or are these the “technical distortion / full of sound and motion” you mention in “Shallow”?
Vic: I don’t know. I’m kind of pessimistic about it. I’ve been in some huge server farms. They are massive, windowless complexes with all sorts of sophisticated engineering around weight and load, temperature control, energy management, fire suppression, redundancy and, above all, security. Aisles of cold, sterile machines with the deafening whirl of fans and circuits. And they log everything. Your ISP, your browser, your machine profile. They can hold incredibly huge amounts of data—much more than is generated today. Technically, there is no privacy. The only way you keep from getting tracked now is to go off-grid. So it’s pretty scary. The only thing separating us from a full-bore surveillance state is the culture of the past. That, and the fact that most of what happens online isn’t that interesting. The boring character of your daily life is the only thing separating you from an NSA listening agent.
David: On “Stockholm Syndrome,” you seem to peg the generation gap between you—an “antique”—and the young—teenagers stoned on and drugs—yet you march with the young in Black Lives Matter and sincerely seek permanent changes regarding social justice. Has punk rock lost itself, though—is it no longer the soundtrack?
Vic: Every generation has to do this for themselves. I doubt punk rock has lost itself. I don’t hear a lot that excites me anymore. But, seriously, I’m old, so I don’t know how dialed into it I am. There is always someone with a pissed-off attitude and rhythm. But I am looking for something besides two guitars, bass, and drums—even though that’s exactly what I put out. Because that’s what I do. But that’s not all that can be done.
It would be great if young people saw the type of music I’ve been doing for thirty-five years as part of a continuum of resistance and cultural protest. Many won’t. Because they are young and so fucking what. When I was twenty, Wayne Kramer of MC5 opened a show we played and I totally disrespected him because I was ultrapunk and the new breed and who gave a damn about old hippies like Wayne Kramer? And I couldn’t have been so wrong. And I really regret it. So I hit him up on Facebook and apologized. And so, there you go: technology is good for something.