Thursday, September 29, 2016

Interview with Mani Mostofi of Racetraitor

To me, Racetraitor stands out as one of the truly important bands from the 90’s hardcore scene. While I missed their early, more confrontational grind-based incarnation, when “Burn the Idol of the White Messiah” came out it definitely destroyed my ears, as well as helped rearrange a lot of my thoughts on race and social class.
I had just moved out of the dorms and into a house with a bunch of other students who I barely knew, but who were bound together by, among other things, our desire to leave the lily-white neighborhoods around our college in favor of living in the poorer, more racially diverse parts of Grand Rapids, Michigan. At the time I didn’t even have a vocabulary that included things like white privilege or race as a social construct, getting out of my comfort zone just felt right.
When I started listening to that record, and more importantly reading the lyrics and the essay, I felt like some sort of veil had been lifted. I actually had to write my final essay shortly after discovering RT, and wound up looking at how Malcolm X’s views on race changed over the course of his public life, a topic choice which was directly linked to reading the liner notes of that record.
Anyway, Racetraitor recently announced they will be playing in Chicago on October 22nd at The Cobra Lounge and just released a couple of new songs that will be surfacing as a flexi 7” by Organized Crime Records the day of the show. Also on the bill are Earthmover, Lifes, Young & Dead, and Through N Through.
I sadly can’t make the gig, but figured I’d see if Mani would let me pick his brain on both the past and future of Racetraitor.
Read on.
I always like to start things off by trying to get a somewhat more holistic view of people, so talk a little bit about your family, your childhood, your background. Are you a native Chicagoan or did you wind up there at some point later as a kid/teen?

Most of the band grew up in Chicagoland, Andy is from Milwaukee. My parents are Iranian immigrants to the US, as is Dan's father. I lived in Hyde Park, like the Obamas, for most of my early life before we moved to the suburbs. I did live in Tehran for most of 1978-1979 which was the height of the Iranian revolution. I was so young but have pretty vivid memories of it. Maybe there was something in the water because that revolutionary instinct so-to-speak seems to have always been in me.

When I moved to the suburbs where I eventually meet Dan and Brent I was ten years old but pretty taken back at how white it all was. That was the first time I personally faced bigoted teasing and stuff, which basically lasted till college. Being Iranian in the US during the 80's and the Iraq war, hell all the way to last week's presidential debates, tends to give you a different take on things, at least it did for me.

Chicago was a good place to be otherwise because, while crazy segregated it was very diverse and the people are down to Earth.

In a lot of ways we never fit into the Chicago hardcore scene, although we had great times and friends from there, but in many other ways we are a very Chicago band. Race politics are hyper-present in the city; straight ahead, in-your-face communication is really the towns approach and we fit with that. Musically we were also pretty blunt. It wasn't simple music but it was always raw even at its most technical.

What specifically stuck with you from witnessing the Revolution first hand, be it specific incidents, or just in terms of how it shaped your perspective, even as a young kid?

I was only age 3 or 4 but I have distinct memories of seeing anti-Shah protests. Family lore is that I was even tear-gassed. I am not sure to what extent the Revolution shaped my perspective directly but being the son of immigrants from a country known for a massive social change certainly made me see the world as a big dynamic place from a young age.

What sort of factors were your folks wrestling with in terms of leaving the country for the US? Was it mostly security concerns, were they more secular, or was it a combination of factors?

My family didn't leave for any one reason. Certainly not an overtly political one. I was certainly never raised with a particular political perspective regarding the Islamic Republic. My dad supported the Revolution like most others but was definitely more secular. He taught at the University of Tehran right after the Revolution and had some students that were more of the religiously branded revolutionaries. One of them basically advised my dad that if he could get a job in the US, where he studied, he should because things in the country were going to change in ways that my dad would not like.

That conversation stuck with my dad even though he didn't know what the student was talking about. By the time the hostage crisis started we were in the US already and he saw a picture of the US embassy on the cover of a newspaper and his student was standing on the embassy wall.

These were never stories I heard when I was younger but only as an adult. But I always think about what life would have been like if one or two things were different.

Dan's father is from a persecuted religious minority in Iran so I am sure that had an impact on him leaving.

Man that's crazy you guys wound up connecting. Did Hyde Park have a significant Iranian immigrant population or was it just happen-stance that you guys crossed paths?

Dan and I met in the suburbs and it was totally random. Not a lot of Iranians in the Chicago area.

Based on what you've said about your childhood and adolescence I can definitely see how punk and hardcore would have resonated with what point did you discover/were you introduced stuff? Who were some of the first bands you either listened to or saw that you clicked with?

I got into post punk/new wave bands like The Smiths and Depeche Mode in the fifth grade. Being from Chicago I also had an industrial phase with Ministry and Front 242. In high school Dan and Brent had a hardcore band called Super Fly 70. That is really how I got into hardcore.

Talk a little bit about Chicago around that time. I used to go to Chicago shows a bit in the late 90's and obviously used to hit the Fireside as well as the Odum; what were some of the other spots that shaped your experiences as you started attending and playing shows?

One of the biggest impacts on going to shows was local scenester Big Roy's basement. The first bands I saw were all in that basement and it really helped seal my views on what punk and hardcore were.

All the local and touring bands I saw there were pretty politically or socially conscious; Anger House (post-Billingsgate and pre-Dillinger four), Endpoint, Los Crudos, Prophets of Rage (lead by Dan Sinker of Punk Planet fame). I never moved beyond that initial view of punk hardcore. It was a community but a more-than-music community.

Those shows were in 1992 and 1993 and really isolated to people on the north side and north suburbs. Dan and Brent were part of all that. I think when we ran into other kids in the scene that had a different view of punk it was a bit of a surprise.

You mentioned earlier that you immediately took notice of how white things were upon your family moving to the suburbs. Trace the path that took you from those initial gut feelings as a kid to the discovery of people like Noel Ignatiev and the concept of race as something that was socially constructed, and therefore something that could be challenged and re-understood.

When I lived in the city it was sort of a University enclave stuck in the middle of the poor and working class black areas. I also went to a pretty diverse elementary school. So diversity and disparities between the people that lived near the University and a few blocks away really seeped into me at a young age. I would even add that watching a lot of late 70’s/early 80’s sitcoms with black protagonists like Good Times or Different Strokes, really helped spark questions about race at a early age. That sounds funny I know but honestly I think those shows, while very imperfect, shaped me in a positive way."

I remember distinctly understanding that there was a thing like racism and it was linked to poverty as early as age six. Like I remember these ideas crystallized in my head. And on a personal level I knew I was not exactly white but I also knew I was not exactly black which was the binary my 1981 mind thought in.

When I moved to the north shore, things were white, white, white and my Iranian-ness became an issue as well as being weird and short. It was the holy trinity of bully bait. So I don't know a time when I wasn't thinking about race and class. When I was younger it was simple like racism is wrong, classism is wrong. The Klan is evil, MLK is good. It was a political sophistication only slightly more thoughtful than a Different Strokes episode.

But anti-racism was my thing and I was in the anti-racism club in high school when the LA riots happened. I was so upset by the LA Riots that I told the head of the club, who was one of the few black staff at the school, that I thought the rioters were setting the civil rights movement back….mind you I was like 16 or 17.

He just said “Look, there is a time when a community that is abused and ignored without end will blow up. This is natural; the people in LA could only take so much."

That was the moment more radical ideas about race started to take hold. So by the time I was into punk at 17 and eventually started hanging out at the Anarchist book store, reading more radical stuff, seeing bands like Crudos and Angerhouse, going to protests;  it was prime to absorb this stuff.

Not sure when I first heard someone say "race is a social construct designed for oppression" but as soon as I did it was like a truth bomb. It's a simple idea, we all kinda know it intuitively, but having the language helps.

Being non-white in the most formal sense helped, but having a proximity to whiteness and incurring some of the benefits and harm of whiteness helped as well. Sean King, who is an activist and associated with Black Lives Matter, talked recently in a podcast (Politically Re-Active) about the proximity to whiteness that light-skinned black people have to whiteness and that radicalizes them. I in no way whatsoever have the experience of a black man in America but King's point about seeing things from the inside was real for me.

I identify as brown but consider race treason a real thing for immigrant brown and Asian people like myself who are middle class or upper-middle class but are in some ways being invited into whiteness the way Ignatiev talks about happening with the Irish. For people like me, we have a choice; face the racism or join in. I wasn't going to join in so what other choice did I have?

Of course post-9-11, anti-Middle Eastern fury and Islamophobia really limited the way people like me could join whiteness. But that was all after the bands' life cycle and maybe a reason for its rebirth.

With respect to the development of the intellectual/political side of the band, I think it's fair to say that the politics you guys were espousing were pretty different from the vast majority of what was happening in punk and hardcore at that time. Given the name of the band, it definitely seems like there was a certain level of intentionality in terms of the ideas, presentation, and approach that you took. How did that whole package begin to come together?

As far as the band as a whole, everybody had their own journey to these ideas, Brent being the clearest example. His parents were ex-hippies and would take the family to Guatemala every year to work with Mayan communities during a civil war when death squads were literally slaughtering Mayans. This was in the 1990’s. So Brent grew up directly witnessing a US sponsored genocide. That shit will radicalize you pretty fast and make you more than a little pissed at white hardcore kids saying "less talk, more rock."

So all that frustration came to a head when the band started. We were activists at that point as much as scene kids. The anti-PC backlash had already started and we were a backlash against the anti-PC backlash in a lot of ways.

I read a tweet yesterday that said, "Saying you are not politically correct is a PC way of saying I am racist." That is 100% how we felt.
We never thought we were PC, because what we said and how we said it was not all that acceptable to the scene. The correct politics in the scene was to say unity. Maybe in 1987 unity meant unity against the racist skins but once those skins were gone and people were self-satisfied with hardcore's level of anti-racism, unity to me, from my perspective, felt like white solidarity.

We thought racism was not about tolerance vs. intolerance but about power dynamics and it takes more than changing the words people use and who they think it is ok to be friends with, it was about fighting oppression and exploitation. We thought kids needed to hear this and those that were cool with being the non-bigoted beneficiaries of white power should be made to feel uncomfortable.

Another thing the band was really influenced by was Riot Grrrl and queer punk, namely friends that were riot grrrls and queer punks that Dan and I hung out with intensely in the early days. Just the way these, mostly women, were deconstructing gender or sexuality and challenging patriarchy resonated with us and exposed us to critical theory and all that stuff. The idea that one's gender is linked to subtle privileges opened our eyes. We took some of those ideas and applied them to race and class.

We however really believed that punk and hardcore kids wanted it to be something more than music. To make a change, as the song goes. And that they were punks in the Sex Pistols tradition. That many would gravitate towards a "fuck you," confrontational approach and that was true for many, but not for all. I never had the bravado and style and talent of a Jonny Rotten, but who does? Most kids that hated us in 1996 came around sometime between 1999 and 2016. So Racetraitor ages well over time.

"Burn the Idol of the White Messiah" is such a powerful and iconic title. How did you guys come up with it?

“Burn The Idol of the White Messiah” has a pretty simple set of meanings: Jesus was not white and America or Western neo-liberalism are not your savior.

Maybe I've become overly cynical or am just missing it, but as somebody who is still involved I sometimes struggle or get frustrated because it often seems like for every band that embraces a “more than music" ethos, there's like 10 who don't. From your perspective, how do we encourage or wake kids up to that spirit?

I don't know. I gave up on saving hardcore and punk kids from themselves in 2002. I think younger kids need to define the community. It belongs to them first and foremost. I loved the younger kid vs. old man war started by the CIV controversy at This Is Hardcore, even if I think some kids were a bit harsh with Civ. Here is the thing in 2016, life is more than music. You know what I mean?

The level of social consciousness and access to ideas out-strips the 1990’s in so many ways, it is more superficial in others, but still there is something in the air. The Iraq War, the 2008 crash, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, even the Sanders campaign are shifting what is possible. The threats are real; witness Trump, but so is the response. Movements are possible in 2016. So if punk and hardcore wants to remain outside of that and be irrelevant then fine, people have plenty of better outlets and access points for social justice ideas and activism. The decision is up to the kids.

Racetraitor's return is about offering the people that care something to get behind but it is also a selfish endeavor of just wanting to have an artist outlet to reflect on the times. We are not going to lead the punks to something new like we thought we might 20 years ago. We are just another example of what punk art can be. It's up to the 20-somethings to make it a revitalized culture. 

The money in the scene really lends itself to pacifism. But still you get G.L.O.S.S. and War on Women. You get La Armada from Chicago or the Dispossessed from Australia. Good bands with something to say, despite the economic intensives to play things safe. You still have the bands of my generation that make enough money to live and are still pushing for social justice and human rights. I am thinking of friends like Against Me, Refused, and Rise Against. So the kids should see them as examples of bands that take hard positions and still are super popular and successful by any material or non-material measure.

So post RT I know you did The Enemy for a bit, as well as Kill Pill, but after that as far as I know you haven't been involved in music. What have you been up to and how have your experiences through punk and hardcore shaped what you've gone on to do?

When I moved to Austin Texas in 2002 I sorta fell out of going to shows and the like. I had no punk friends really from my hardcore days. But I did do a band called The Rabbit Fighters. It was a studio thing, sorta along the lines of The Kill Pill but even more poppy. I might post the stuff online one day.

The other guys have kept doing heavy music through the years. Dan is in a band called Razor's with Brian Peterson, the author of the 90’s hardcore book Burning Fight.

Alright, so talk about the process of coming back together recently. I've read elsewhere that ongoing police brutality, the election, etc. have sort of served as the impetus to get things moving again. That said, during the Bush years we had the administration lying about war motives, torturing people all around the world, the list is endless. What makes things different in this current historical moment and what allowed the stars to align, both personally and musically?

During the Bush years we talked about getting back together for a show. We even got together and practiced once. But it just didn't happen. Fall Out Boy was blowing up and the rest of us were in transition with school or jobs. But now feels different. Partly because the rise of Black Lives Matter and Trump are closer to what Racetraitor was about or against. The public discourse is so close to where we were 20 years ago. Like you hear people say white privilege on CNN and Fox, that was not the case back in the day.

Resisting the Iraq War and rise of Islamophobia was what the band was about but it's the addition of the black/brown racial and immigrant justice movements that really spoke to the fuller concept of the band and made us feel more relevant. The Iraq war and War on Terror are still there in the form of Libya and Syria and the response to ISIS. Anti-Muslim, Arab, and Middle East sentiment is more alive in 2016 than 2003. So it is the totality of the circumstances that brought us back.

I can't tell you how many people have said to us, "I wish you were around today." When the struggle in Ferguson was going down after Michael Brown’s killing, that was when Andy, Dan and I started chatting more seriously. Originally it was a “Burn the Idol…” remix and vinyl release, that we tried earlier and aborted, and a show. When we started talking to Clint Billington from Organized Crime Records we mentioned we might write a song about the 2016 election and he really encouraged us to focus on that. So did old friends like Ryan Downey.

And with their encouragement we got things going again and what we were doing didn't feel like reliving something but just living in and responding to the moment. I think the movement aspect played a role in it. With BLM, or post-Occupy stuff like the Sanders campaign or Democracy Spring we felt inspired. Dreamers, Standing Rock, gender-queer and trans rights movement are all things that make us feel more is possible despite and the fraud, violence and hate that seem on the rise. Like we were not reacting to mounting problems but actually joining the resistance. We wrote songs about racism in the criminal justice system 20 years ago when all the momentum was for harsher punishment and policing aimed at poor black men. The good news is now there is a movement. It is a historic opportunity to address a major ill and no one should take it for granted.

I know you guys are spread out across the country a good bit...had you been writing separately and then sending pieces back and forth digitally, or did you go write and record everything all in one shot when you went out to Audiosiege this summer? How was the chemistry, both during writing and recording?

Garage Band and the internet. When we started writing we all talked about what Racetraitor was and its sound. At its purest intent we thought RT is death metal Groundwork. We didn't want to betray our musical vision or taint it with too many influences we didn't have at the time but we also didn't want to sound like old men reliving their 20’s. A new song and reunion is usually the kiss of death. Most bands write band records that end up disappointing everyone. You think about that stuff. As much as you try to do things you want to do for yourself, a band becomes bigger than its members with time. RT was never very popular but the people that liked us, usually loved us. And we love those people back.

So with all that in mind Dan and Brent, who both still live in Chicago tracked some ideas and sent them around. We all commented and Dan made tweaks and we met up in Portland at Andy's house in the hills, jammed, did more revisions for two days and then hit the studio to track. The whole process and the chemistry was better than we could have ever imagined. Everything just killed. Everyone played a role in the writing, even if Dan did most of the heavy lifting. In the studio, we tried to track as much live as possible and keep it raw with the benefits of good, but not over- produced recording.

Derek and Brad from Audiosiege were amazing and really helped us achieve our vision. Derek just got what we were doing and made it easy to get there. Still, all the musical aspects of it aside I think the music would suck if not for the intent behind it. I can honestly say recording "By the Time...' was more emotional than anything I did back in the day.

The brand new song "By the Time...." is obviously a reflection on the presidential election, and it seems pretty clear that you guys come down on the "we're totally fucked either way" side of the argument. Like so many people I've of course been watching this election with a mixture of fascination and horror as everything has been playing out. 

For me personally, while Clinton's secrecy, hawkishness, proximity to big money, and "flexibility" on any number of issues raise a lot of concerns, I have a very hard time equating any of that to the total buffoonery, hatred, and incoherence spewing from Trump. 

A friend recently conceded that while it is a lesser of two evils situation in many ways, a big part of life is making those kinds of decisions...most people would rather not go to a shitty job they hate, but it beats being unable to support yourself and your loved ones. Talk a little bit more about how you see this all playing out, and what the election says about the state of the country right now.

Well yeah, we are pretty pissed with the whole thing. It a sad state. Makes you want to burn things.
We are, however, definitely not saying we are equally fucked either way. Trump is a worse outcome no doubt and should be stopped. I agree with Chomsky’s position that this election presents a lesser of two evils scenario and voting should not be seen as a statement of principle but as a utilitarian decision.
But for me personally this band is an experiment in truth telling so we take shots at Clinton, we have to, come on. But without much effort we have taken more shots at Trump.
Yanis Varoufakis, the sexy Marxist former finance minister of Greece, likes to talk about how in the 1930’s the left failed to make even temporary alliances with liberal-democrats of the time against fascism out of a hatred of and fixation on the capitalist class. His point is that that failure empowered the fascist right to take power in Europe and basically do their worst. He made these observations most recently in the context of the Brexit vote. I think he is dead on and it applies to Trump. The winner of mass social unrest today in the US would be the hard right, not progressives or social justice warriors. The biggest losers would be Latinos, Muslims, women, LGBTQ people, immigrant, and pretty much any marginalized group. No one says these groups wouldn’t have urgent struggles under Clinton. But what Trump's rise shows is that 40% of the country is down with an with an ultra-xenophobic violent agenda. Who he empowers in society, who Trump appoints to positions in government, who he inspires are all things we need to be thinking about. It is more than him we need to fight, it is all around him. This is about mitigating harm and building a foundation for a better way.
But, sure, a big part of me is totally dis-heartened that we are forced to not-so secretly hope Clinton wins, that's how dangerous Trump is. It feels cheap. It is like we are all on candid camera. Our band was born in the 90’s because of Clintonism, the crime bill, immigration bill, the end of welfare, the Sister Souljah moment. And Hillary’s warmongering and positions on Wall Street regulation are shameful.
So we need to start thinking about the day after the election. If Trump wins the fight is obvious. If Clinton wins, this thing Trump has stirred up is not going away but we also need to make sure she doesn't have a free hand to bomb a new country every week or back economic policies that will make things worse. If you are voting for a solution you’re missing the point, democracy is a year round endeavor. This is a moment when you might want to cruel up, cry, and check out, but it’s really the moment to regroup and fight back.

So you have the show coming up in a few weeks and just the other day you guys unleashed two brand new absolute ragers on the world. I of course have to ask the million-dollar question...were there any more songs laid down during those sessions, and is there any potential for more shows beyond October 22nd?

Firstly, “Damaged” is a 20-year-old song, it's not new, that was one of the first songs we ever wrote. It was on our demo but that demo was never really sold, just given to friends. We always loved it. It was about mass incarnation so we wanted to give the song its due.

It’s really hard to say about shows beyond October 22nd. That show is timed for the election and that is why we are doing it then. Plus, Andy is in one of the biggest bands in the world plus SECT so his time is pretty limited. That said, who knows?

As far as more music, that is more likely. There were some other songs that got studio time, though unfinished, and one other new one will be played on October 22. Also, October 22nd is the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality. Dan and I even helped organize the Chicago protests one year in the late 90’s, so if we never play again I will be okay with it.

Live photos by Justin Corbett and assorted others.

Bang your head, flex your head:

1 comment:

  1. Good read. Super excited these dudes are back. It feels like there is more subject matter to address now than when they broke up (sadly). Either way stoked to hear more songs.