An Interview with Soul Side’s Bobby Sullivan by David Ensminger

Nov 09, 2015


For thirty years, Bobby Sullivan has remained an ardent underground messenger of punk conscience. Inspired partly by the progressive playbook of Dischord Records and action-oriented community group Positive Force, whose street demonstrations swept through the nation’s capital from the mid-‘80s onward, Sullivan became a leading light of underground music.

Now reunited for a series of shows, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, Soul Side defied simple genre categories by combining insurgent punk restlessness with neo-Third World rhythms. Sullivan helped steer the lyrical themes towards global social justice, the abolition of hate and racism, and the quest for dignity and self-determination. As his bandmates mutated into Girls Against Boys, Sullivan co-helmed Rain Like The Sound Of Trains, whose sinewy style, jolting syncopation, and humanistic themes were equally mesmerizing.

Sullivan has continued his basic idealism ever since. Based in Asheville, N.C., for years, he has advocated for prison reform, remains a firm believer in natural foods, and is a longtime promoter of sustainable farm-to-market practices, including the importance of co-ops.

David: If I recall, you said you are drawn to spiritual people. Does that stem from your early involvement—by way of Lunch Meat—in D.C. punk, including figures like HR of Bad Brains and Tomas of Beefeater, from other music sources, or from a sense of your own spiritual quest?

Bobby: A bit of both. I was a very introspective kid and was definitely looking for direction in life outside my family life, even from an early age. A big part of it was carrying around a feeling of not fitting in, which I think a lot of people from that scene can identify with. I tried at one time to be part of what I perceived as the “popular crowd,” but it just wasn’t me. The complex part was that the D.C. punk scene was what my older brother Mark (of Slinkees, Kingface) was into, so it wasn’t an automatic fit. Also, I had gotten into reggae as an alternative form of music and a link to culture, rather than punk. The turning point for me was when I realized I liked The Clash’s version of “Police and Thieves” better than the original by Junior Murvin.

That’s why people like HR and Tomas were so influential to me—Ian MacKaye too, in a big way—when I finally started going to shows. I found that I was not alone in appreciating various forms of non-mainstream music and more importantly, looking for ways to have a positive impact on the world. The sense of mission these big brothers had was so inspiring. These guys walked their talk, and that’s how I still want to be. Faith is nothing without works, and life is about keeping on moving. To stick with what’s just placed in front of you is a cop-out. I am inspired by innovators and risk takers, especially when they are rooted in something bigger than themselves. I saw the punk scene as something that could change the world, and in a lot of ways, I think it did.

Spirituality was never a thing for me that was about withdrawing from society or just how one acts on Sundays. It’s about how interconnected we all are, no matter how different we perceive ourselves to be. And our actions are like pebbles thrown into a pond. As small as the splash may be, their effect ripples out in expanding circles, which eventually reach the shore. I’ve always felt that there is a responsibility to do good, which goes along with being an artist, especially if you are broadcasting your art from a massive sound system or distributing it around the world in the form of commodities. Of course, we all may differ on what “good” is, but that’s part of the fun!

David: On stage in Tulsa, Okla., in September you sang with Scream. What appeals to you most about their legacy—is it a personal connection, their sense of blurring and fusing genres, or their commitment to a sense of punk conscience?

Bobby: Scream is a band that has always had melody and heart. I was never into music that has monotonous screaming. Intensity? Yes, but it has to have melody. Like the Bad Brains, Scream typified what Bob Marley sang about in “Punky Reggae Party” and what happened when The Clash played with Steel Pulse at the Rock Against Racism shows in England. Punk and reggae grew up together, which was how it was for me. It’s strange now to see the disconnect between the two genres. Even fans of both seem to have no idea of the connection. It wasn’t lost on Poland, though. When we went there in 1989, their punk scene had just as many reggae bands as punk bands, even though they were behind the Iron Curtain.

I think it was fitting that I got to sing a Jacob Miller cover with Scream in Tulsa, because like Scream, the Bad Brains, and The Clash, most of the punk bands I ended up loving had at least one reggae song in their set—as did Lunch Meat, the first incarnation of Soul Side. I’m talking about bands like DOA, Operation Ivy, and British bands like the Ruts, the Slits, Stiff Little Fingers, and Generation X, who had a dub version of one of their songs. Don Letts in the British scene was someone who really got it. He ended up in Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones from The Clash, but earlier on he had filmed one of Bob Marley’s videos and had been the DJ that played reggae songs in between sets at punk shows in London.

David: I believe you mentioned that, in some ways, Rage Against The Machine seemed to embody what you envisioned Soul Side might have been. I always felt as if Rains Like The Sound Of Trains came close to that heavy, syncopated riffage, like the 1993 single “Bad Man’s Grave.”

Bobby: It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but in the way that we were blending genres and broadcasting ideas, I think Rage Against The Machine blew the roof off of it. In the mid-‘80s, punk music was evolving from the earlier template forged by Black Flag and Minor Threat, among many others. A conversation that really typifies this happened at a show in Ann Arbor, where we were opening up for DOA. After our set, I went back to the T-shirt booth and continued hanging out with the singer from the Beatnigs, the opening band—yes, it was Michael Franti (Beatnigs, The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy). He said, “You guys remind me of a band from the West Coast called Jane’s Addiction.” It was the first time I had heard of them, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t have anything out yet. It wasn’t that we sounded so much alike, but rather that the blend of grooves with the intensity of punk was a new thing. I think Rage did it better than anyone.

David: You manage a co-op in Asheville and have been a long-time supporter of the movement. Did this, by chance, originate from your experience with Dischord or Positive Force—the concept that people can voluntarily organize businesses and outreach groups with an alternative game plan?

Bobby: Working for co-ops is very much a continuation of what I felt like I was participating in with the punk scene. It’s a right livelihood, just like being in the kind of band we were in. The way co-ops support the communities they are in is fundamentally different than what a Whole Foods does. The corporate stores just pretend to be community-oriented, which is just like the difference between Dischord and a major label. In fact, the way Dischord is run is a major influence for how I run the co-op I now manage.

It just so happened that the first co-op I worked for was near Dischord House and Positive Force House. Ian MacKaye was a big supporter and regular shopper, as were many folks from Positive Force. In fact, most of the co-op’s staff members were part of Positive Force, as well as our chapter of Food Not Bombs. So, there was a real continuity there. Even today, the co-op I manage works hard to have authentic relationships with the owners, shoppers, and local activists who are involved in issues around food.

In my mind, there are many similarities between co-ops and the punk scene we were part of because both settings empower leadership, education, and freedom of expression. They also incubate local businesses and encourage working with others toward a common end, which, like Dischord, has a really profound effect on the community they serve. And both encourage innovation instead of just copying what has come before, or what’s in the mainstream. It’s my solid belief that co-ops are the answer for the world’s economic and social woes. Small local companies are cool, but too often sell out once they get a chance. Co-ops are structurally so different, that if a decision is made to sell out, it is because a majority of stake holders have decided that is the best way to go, rather than just a single entrepreneur. Those stake holders—workers, community members, et cetera—all benefit as well, instead of just that one person who started the business.

David: For me, your more recent songs like “70’s Heroes,” though lush, layered, and acoustic, seem to expand where songs from Trigger left off—especially the re-imagining of “War”—or tunes from Rain Like The Sounds Of Trains, including “Branching Out.” How have you sustained a faith in that sense of social justice, underground revolutionary spirit, and music as a way to narrate neglected history?

Bobby: I just can’t leave the approach behind. I’m possessed with getting crucial information out there. It used to be that alternative histories were just suppressed. Today, with the internet, there is so much misinformation going on, it’s going to take people who have an actual connection to the facts to speak their truths. And unfortunately, the loudest voices are generally the most extreme ones, so the authentic stories get drowned out. They need to be shared as much as possible, and we really need to rekindle our personal connections, for this modern age makes everyone feel more connected while they really become more isolated.

Take, for instance, Rastafari. That was a movement that if you wanted to know about it, you really had to talk to someone. You had to find an elder, if possible, and reach outside of your immediate comfort zone to sit, reason, and receive. You could also find a small bookstore where you would likely be called out for your interests and challenged on what you might know and what more you’re looking to find out. It was and is a culture of exchange between people who are face-to-face. I used to seek this kind of interaction out in every city I went to, and there were some great spots and great people to learn from in D.C. It wasn’t always easy, but it was authentic and challenging, in a good way.

Today, you can just go online and get all kinds of weird shit coming at you while you just sit, isolated at your computer—homophobia, patriarchal nonsense, insane biblical fallacies, race-based extremism, et cetera. Sure, some of that would come out in the past, but the experience I had with it was more inclusive and personal. People couldn’t just hurl insults around and then block you to keep you from responding. We are truly social beings that thrive on a give and take, so our history and culture is really related to others within our proximity, which is more honest when it is shared. Ideas are powerful and yet very dangerous when we harbor ones that haven’t been vetted by a community of real people, rather by internet personas.

In fact I have a book, which will hopefully be coming out, that takes the subject matter of my songs to a new level. Each chapter is based on a song and provides the background information I used to write the song. My intention is to provide a trail of authors and sources that are mostly hard to find, or at least not as common as what we all have in our faces. This way, if the subject matter is intriguing, further research can be done by the reader. It’s like a lyric sheet on steroids.

David: Hot Bodi-Gram seemed to move towards more abstract, emotive, and purely poetic lyrics (“Punch the geek / ego speaks”), almost foreshadowing the direction of other bands like Jawbox. Was the songwriting process different? What inspired those pieces—the catacombs in Paris, visions of a deceased friend, a soured D.C. scene?

Bobby: We wrote that album while on tour, so it was very collaborative, and we were able to get audience feedback, rather than just going to a studio and recording a bunch of new songs. The tour was six months long—two months in the U.S. and four in Europe—so we worked on the music at sound checks and introduced new songs as they got close enough to being finished, which helped us refine them night after night. We took all that energy from the tour right into the studio with us, as the final show was basically our recording session in a studio outside of Amsterdam. Henry Rollins’s European sound guy was the engineer, and Eli, our sound guy who had been on the whole tour, was the producer. This was our first time not having Ian MacKaye as the producer. Previously, he had produced everything we recorded.

Part of the reason the lyrics were a bit different than before was because the band was just evolving. I was interested in crafting messages in a more poetic way and some members of the band were sick of doing interviews about our political and/or social beliefs, so it was a good opportunity to try something a little different. I’m all about the message, but it’s my feeling that sometimes you can have a greater effect when you are not so blatant about what you are trying to say, which I think can give the messages a bit more traction. Realization comes later, rather than just when you first hear the song. Messages can eke out in a progressive way.

David: You helped start the D.C. chapter of the Anarchist Black Cross, helped stir the Foods Not Bombs chapter, and have worked with prisoners as part of a Rastafarian outreach program in North and South Carolina (Rastafarian UniverSoul Order Prison Ministry). Musicians from Johnny Cash to Jail Guitar Doors have also reached out to inmates. What makes this work so fulfilling? Even when you worked at RAS Records, you were sending home-taped music to inmates, correct?

Bobby: Working at RAS Records was where I got my first introduction to some of the challenges inmates in the U.S. experience. Johnny (the bass player of Soul Side) and I both worked there and we did the mail order, which meant we were responding to tons of letters from people ordering reggae albums—this included inmates. Johnny and I engaged in extended correspondence with many of them, and as we learned about their financial challenges, we actively taped albums from our own collections to send them so they wouldn’t have to pay for every album they were interested in.

Later, the work I did in the Anarchist Black Cross put me in touch with revolutionaries from the ‘60s and ‘70s who were behind bars, and some who had gotten out. This was different because these were political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, not folks incarcerated for crimes—although many times there isn’t much of a difference between to the two. Marilyn Buck was one person who I corresponded with for years. I ended up putting one of her poems to music, and she critiqued an early version of my book. The dialogue I had with her over that period of time was priceless, and it was bittersweet to see her get out of prison just to die two weeks later of cancer. She had only been released so she could die with her relatives. I highly recommend looking into her story, as she was a white person who effectively worked with the Black Liberation Movement.

All this led to my work with the RUO. When Ras Marley moved to where I live in North Carolina, I was highly motivated to get involved. Ras Marley is an ordained minister, so he is able to represent Rastafari in an official capacity according to the prison guidelines. Rastafari is a recognized religion within the U.S. prison system, so Rastas have the same rights of worship as any other recognized religion. Members of the RUO, including myself, are able to visit prisons ranging from minimum to maximum security in the South, conducting “religious services” for the brethren. That means we can bring in drums and have a whole day with them, chanting, reasoning, and showing videos.

The prisoners have told us that our “services” are the only ones that draw people from multiple religions. At our events, we have Jewish, Nation of Islam, Muslim, Moorish Science, Christian, Native American brothers, and more. Many are inspired by the example of Haile Selassie’s inclusiveness. One of my more challenging speaking engagements at a maximum security facility was following a rousing speech by a Nation of Islam brother on the history of Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey.

Mass incarceration is a huge problem in this country, especially for people of color—The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander is a must read!—but inmates, stigmatized as they are, are just everyday people. The fact that they usually experience extreme difficulty finding work and housing after their release, makes the problem even more insane; it’s too easy to go right back to prison, especially if you follow the example set by corporate America: to lie, cheat, and steal.

Recidivism for street criminals is a serious concern because of the lack of opportunity they face. The crazy part is that corporate criminals don’t even face the same risk of incarceration as those who participate in street crime, even though corporate crime hurts so many more people. It turns out that the U.S. government actually defunded the pursuit of white collar crime when they embarked on the so-called drug war.

Working with inmates is so fulfilling because the need is so great. I’ve never experienced so much appreciation as when I’ve worked with inmates and even with the prison chaplains. The lack of connection between prisoners and the outside world is a huge part of recidivism and the desperation one can feel inside there—even for the people working there. One of the huge victories was when one of the inmates we worked with made it out and joined the board of the co-op I work for. Yes, he became my boss!

David: If you could shape prison reforms, what might they be? And can music, like in your case bringing in drums or bands like Niyorah and Bamboo Station, help pave a cultural rejuvenation behind bars?

Bobby: Prisons need to be converted from literal hellholes and training camps for criminals to being incubators for creative innovation. There are so many quality people behind bars; with the right direction, these inmates could easily be our next leaders. And by creative innovation, I mean vocational and recreational, as both endeavors complement one another. Prisons should become farms, job training facilities for entrepreneurship, music schools, technical colleges, craft schools, yoga centers, et cetera. And instead of making pennies on the dollar, inmates should be able to make real wages. How else will those who don’t know yet, learn the real value of an honest day’s work?

David: While in college in Boston, you saw speeches by Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale, plus took a class by Noam Chomsky, not long after he had a split 7” with Bad Religion (New World Order: War #1), I assume. What were your impressions of Chomsky, and what learning moments stand out?

Bobby: Actually, I took a class with Howard Zinn, and Chomsky was one of the speakers I saw, although I got to see him a few times. Those two were very different. You definitely needed some caffeine to make it through a Chomsky speech, but he was so eloquent when it came to giving a historical context to current events. He could cut through the bullshit like no other academic I’ve ever witnessed.

Howard Zinn, on the other hand, had so much energy. The class I took of his was on Socrates and Plato, and Zinn was a master of keeping it interesting. I think it could have easily gone the other way with just about any other professor at that school. He was so animated and excited about teaching, it was really infectious. And it wasn’t lost on the other students. The class was packed! With the conservative administration at BU at the time—1988 or ‘89—Zinn was kind of a celebrity. He was a staunch adherent of the regular, albeit small, free speech rallies that were held on the quad, which Abbie Hoffman had come to. He was also probably the reason Bobby Seale came there.

David: When most people think of MOVE, they might recall the huge 1985 police assault that killed members in Philadelphia or the song “Operation: MOVE” by Leftöver Crack. Knowing your own personal connection to the movement, how would you explain the group’s philosophy to the uninformed, in terms of what inspires you?

Bobby: To me, they were like an American version of Rastafari—only without the Bible, the focus on Haile Selassie, and without the herb. Most of the same ideas and approach were there: Ital (natural lifestyle); a focus on Africa as the birthplace of us all—members took the surname Africa, no matter their color; and being an active member of one’s community, even though the approach might not have been “normal.” MOVE’s focus on stopping pollution and animal cruelty was way ahead of its time.

MOVE also had a very innovative approach—the strategy of John Africa—to taking on the criminal justice system. After members started getting locked up on a frequent basis, they came up with an idea that really worked. They had already been using “strategic profanity” as they called it—like it, or not—and would explain that it was the system that was profane, not the words people use. What was new was that they started deciding who would get arrested at each protest. Then at the hearing for their member who was charged, they would have ten or so members disrupt it. That meant the case got suspended, and then ten people were charged with contempt. So, one case would turn into eleven. They did this over and over until the city had to drop all their cases against MOVE because they just couldn’t keep up.

Unfortunately, when the feds got involved, things got really ugly. And MOVE’s intense radicalism was ramped up when a police officer trampled one of their newborn babies at a scuffle that occurred outside their residence. After the standoff in the Powelton Village, Philadelphia in 1978, they became international news because of the beating of Delbert Africa on TV. This was when the MOVE 9 was incarcerated—and they’re still in there! Because their cases were so insanely skewed and the charges very likely false, MOVE was reborn in the ‘80s at a row house in West Philly. The result of their confrontation there was the famous bombing, and Ramona Africa was the only adult survivor. She was then incarcerated for rioting, if I remember correctly. She’s the member I got to know in the ‘90s.

After she got out, we had something called the Beehive Collective in D.C., and we were running a free store, chapters of Food Not Bombs, the Anarchist Black Cross, and a punk record and zine store. We were also going to Mumia demonstrations regularly up in Philadelphia. This is how we met Ramona. It was striking how different she was than the idea you got from the mainstream media. You can go online right now, look at a Youtube video interview, and see how friendly and down-to-earth she is. And the demonstrations were so inclusive. Rather than controlling things, MOVE made it an open mic affair. Anyone could step up and speak.

Because of our relationship, we then set up speaking engagements for Ramona in D.C. and Baltimore, hosting her for half a week. At this time in my life, she and other MOVE members were such a big influence on me. By example, they taught me that you don’t have to change yourself and suddenly try to conform to society if you want to have a family. In fact, it may be the most revolutionary thing you can do, to raise a family with activist values that include a respect for all life, as MOVE professed. I would say MOVE shepherded me into adulthood.

David: In 1989, Soul Side was the first American band to play East Berlin and parts of Poland (UK Subs played there in 1983, Youth Brigade and DOA in 1984/1985) when the Berlin Wall was still intact. Did you feel like ambassadors of underground America? I understand Soul Side might have inspired Solidarity Movement’s push for independent media.

Bobby: It was the folks in the punk scene there who brought us to Poland and who had taught the Solidarity Movement about techniques in indie media, specifically a fanzine called Antena Krzyku. Here’s a quote from their Facebook page:

“Back in 1980’s Antena Krzyku was one of the best known and the most important Polish underground zines created by our mutual friend Arek Marczynski. It was totally independent (which in late communist Poland also meant illegal) publication covering some aspects of independent music, counter culture and punk community on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

“Under Antena Krzyku umbrella Arek had developed also some other projects including: RED tapes label, Protekcja distro and booking agency, which became some sort of nucleus of Polish DIY community in the exciting era of changes in Central and Eastern Europe.”

Our time there definitely upped the ante on what one could hope to experience on tour with a band. Going behind the Iron Curtain at that time meant you were walking into a completely different society from Western Europe and America. All they had there was traded only with the East—so no bananas in the markets, for example—and there were World War II-era bullet holes everywhere. In Poland, we played in cultural centers that looked like museums. At one outdoor venue, it was like the whole town came out to see us. We arrived a couple of weeks before the first free parliament election, which eventually brought the Solidarity movement to power, so it was a very pivotal time for them.

On the way to Poland, we played a totally illegal show in a Protestant church in East Berlin. It was something really special, as I was told, because punk rock was totally forbidden at that time in East Germany and a lot of punk kids suffered a lot under the Honecker regime. All in all, it was an experience I will never forget. It taught me the power of culture and connection, way before the internet. A similar circumstance was when Rain Like The Sound Of Trains played in a bomb shelter in Slovenia just after the war that split Yugoslavia apart. It was amazing to learn that it was a Food Not Bombs chapter over there that was feeding the refugees from the war.

David: I am sure the reunion shows will re-introduce the band to a wholly changed music scene in which money, technology, and networking tend to reign supreme—do you feel connected to the “now,” or do you feel like you are fighting the good fight, but apart from the bustle of the music gristle?
Bobby: Great question! To me, at this point, the only thing that feels different is that we are playing clubs instead of VFW halls or YMCAs. For that reason, it’s harder to get an all-ages show going, but the feeling is very much the same. There’s not that much money involved, and there’s no big PR machine. It’s people connecting around culture that they love and share. Even though the songs are at least twenty-five years old, the lyrics are still creepily relevant today, which I think is too bad. All the issues we were passionate about addressing that long ago are still around, if not worse. For that reason, it all feels very “now,” but I will say it’s been a long time since I’ve had an attentive crowd to talk about these issues with. I’m just pleased to be able to talk about their current context like Black Lives Matter and cooperative economics in between these hopefully not too timeless songs.