Band of Brothers
They're not actually brothers and they never did a stretch in California's maximum-security Soledad Prison, but they are kindred spirits interested in America's musical, progressive and political traditions. In other words, guitarist/singer Johnny Wirick (also known as Johnny Walker), percussionist Ben Smith (also known as Ben Swank) and multi-instrumentalist Oliver Henry (who does not go by O. Henry) are cut from the same roots-rock revival cloth as their Detroit pals Jack White and MC5 manager John Sinclair, both of whom helped get the fledgling retro-blues outfit on the map early in their career.
More importantly, The Soledad Brothers run toward, rather than away (like so many of their Generation X-Box peers), from culture and history, intent on fortifying the connections between their sonic past and wide open future. Because they know that without informed knowledge of the former, there is no telling where the latter may lead you.
"I don't like to hear bands that are just into jazz or garage rock or have every single Zeppelin bootleg in existence," explains Johnny Walker. "Because they generally are purists or elitists that aren't usually open to something new. Sure, there are a lot of old influences in our music, but we also try to incorporate different things. Because blues and soul aren't static musical genres; they're very dynamic. If you go back through the years, you can see how both have evolved. I would hope that people would consider us as part of that progression."
But that's not the only progress the trio is interested in. If that were the case, they probably wouldn't have taken their band name from three convicted Soledad inmates – John Cluchette, Fleeta Drumgo and George Jackson – who took the law into their own hands when overzealous guards slew three black activists at Soledad Prison back in 1970. Nor would the politically aware outfit name their third release, albeit their first for the major label Sanctuary, 'Voice of Treason,' an obvious swipe at the Bush administration in a highly charged election year. That alone was a move that cost them no small amount of support in the music industry.
"It was very unpopular with the record labels in the United States," Walker confides, "and a lot of people backed away from us. When it was recorded and then released last August, no one really wanted to talk to us, because it was a very unpopular point of view at the time. We had just gone to war and everybody was waving their little flags, spouting off platitudes like, 'These colors don't run,' or whatever else they put on bumper stickers today."
But lucky for them, anti-war sentiment is not as much of a taboo overseas as it is in President Bush's unilaterally inclined United States. Sure enough, they found a willing taker in the aptly named Sanctuary Records Group, who picked up the band's unpopular release and gave it a new life.
"They're not based out of the United States and they're not afraid to take chances," Walker adds. "More importantly, they don't care if there's some sort of marketing fallout because of our political views. It's a record label run by music lovers; they don't give a shit about marketing or any of that crap. They just want to put out good records. I realized that when I looked at their rei-ssue catalog, a lot of which was stuff that wasn't going to sell a million copies. But they like the music, so they put it out. They have an indie mentality within their major label mind, and I think it's going to be a nice fit for us."
What is exceedingly odd about America's hands-off approach to the Soledad Brothers is the fact that, although their latest title may be politically motivated, their songs are almost anything but. Sure, there's a broken-down oil pump on the cover, but other than that 'Treason' shows off old-school jams like "Cage That Tiger," "Ain't It Funny" or the Gary Davis traditional "Lay Down This World" – tried-and-true blues-rock tunes featuring stripped-down arrangements and conventional structures. The songs sound as if they could have wandered right off of The Rolling Stones 'Beggars Banquet' rather than Steve Earle's 'The Revolution Starts Now.' Like The White Stripes' 'Elephant,' a much more forward-looking retro-rock release, 'Voice of Treason' is a determined analog effort in a world mired in casually constructed digital environments. Because as Walker explains, human interaction, not Pro Tools wankery, is the name of the Brothers' throwback game. To mangle Shakespeare, the jam session is the thing.
"We play music because we have to," Walker says, "not because we want to. We don't have rehearsals and we don't practice together. We just come together and play, which is a rarity today. We practice when we're by ourselves. Because the music we make is pretty intuitive; if we got together and played it all the time, I think it might get a bit stale."
The Brothers open mike night approach to their songcraft is unique in this day and age of highly scripted music and gimmicks, and runs closer to a blues tradition that found its finest practitioners carting off to parts unknown to trade licks with new musicians every night. In fact, what makes blues-rock such an attractive affair to bands like the Soledad Brothers is the genre's democratic structure. That is, the blues is based on simple chord progressions that can be tweaked in tuning and key perhaps, but not much further.
"It's deceptively simple," explains Walker. "You have to pay attention really, because with a lot of our songs, there's no real structure or arrangement. We just listen for cues and watch each other. I remember once playing a show in Spain where the stage became flooded with smoke, and we couldn't see each other. It was a total train wreck, and I had to stop the song and tell the lighting man – and this is at a festival, mind you – 'Look, no more smoke!' If we can't see each other we can't play off of each other."
Which is ultimately a sign of just how democratic and interactive the band can be, aside from splitting all the profits and credits for everything they produce right down the middle (which they do as well). The fact that the U.S. is still too nervous to get behind a band steeped in musical tradition and invested with a real desire to remember their forebears just shows how far away it is from rewarding those artists that do their best to keep exalted American abstracts like truth, justice and fairness in the public realm. But the band realizes that regime change begins at home, and is looking to a possibly brighter day after the November election.
"Just look at what's going on around you. The Republicans – like Ohio's Ken Blackwell, who wanted to throw out all voter registrations that weren't on a certain cardstock – are trying to limit people from registering to vote, while the Democrats are going out and trying to register as many people as they can. Which is the way it should be, really."
Let's hope Generation X-Box is paying attention.