The Coup is basically a riot masquerading as a party. Lead by emcee Boots Riley, the band blends hip hop with funk with rock with punk to make music that is driving yet smooth, aggressive but poppin', all the while Riley spits out rhymes about socialist revolutionaries, anarchism, and guillotines. Five years after releasing Pick a Bigger Weapon, The Coup is releasing Sorry to Bother You the soundtrack to an upcoming film written by Riley, which finds the group expanding their sound into something more than the sum of its parts while Riley uses his unique poetry to describe revolution and revelry. Plus, there are kazoos.
In Track by Track Punknews sits down with an artist and has that artist talk about each track off an upcoming album. In this episode, Punknews staff writer John Gentile sat down with Riley to talk about the new LP.
Sorry to Bother You can be streamed at The A.V. Club.
"Magic Clap" Is "Magic Clap" about the moment right before a clash or revolution?
Not right before a revolution. It's about where thought turns into action. When talking quantitatively, it could be before a movement turns revolutionary, or before a person chooses to act. Where a mass of opinions and ideas where all these things keep coming around, but at some point with all those things, people choose to take action. That is the point. That's what it talking about. That action may be a change from whatever you were doing, because you may have already been taking action. It is the thing that makes people take action, the moment before people fight back.
This is a song that me and my girlfriend wrote together the day that we met each other, so we actually were working in the studio on this song. The idea was kind of something with a punk feel to it, but like, we kind of heated up, to the Motown group effect. I think I told you on another interview, I told you about a three hour drive with Jello Biafra. He gave me an oral history of punk from his standpoint. Part of it was him talking about these pop bands in the 80's and that was what was called punk and they started putting various soul elements into it. I didn't think about that, but as I was constructing the music with that energy, with the drive of some punk songs. I started really seeing that Motown connection and influence. I already have some Motown influence so I quickly adapted them.
My whole point with this song, if you really want to educate someone, you have to educate them about how this system works, because otherwise, all things are distorted- it is a distortion of the truth. It's separated from the context of being in the system. If you are not teaching people that they will have to fight the system to survive, you are doing a disservice. The education system at this time is set up to create obedient workers, but at the same time, the song is an ode to many teachers that I've had. Many teachers are progressive and revolutionary. They become teachers because they know the truth and they want to do something.
However, for instance, you cannot be a teacher in California and talk about communism without saying it wouldn't work. That's a law. You can't advocate the overthrowing of the government. If you're going to teach people about how the world works and leave out the fact that they'll have to create a new system then you're leaving out an important part. It's intended to get teachers hyped. I hope teachers listen to it when they are going into work and encouraging folks.
"Your Parent's Cocaine" The song has a lot of crazy and interesting sounds. With the kazoos, it almost reminds of me of Frank Zappa, sonically.
I think with every album, that is part of the fun for me. Doing crazy sounds and trying to figure out how to do interesting stuff. I've tried kazoos on every album and it just felt right. I may have even had some tracks with kazoo come out.
We throw anything on the track. To see what feels good. It just started with me, messing around on a keyboard and the keyboard sound actually sounded like a kazoo. I was like, "fuck it, let's do a kazoo!" It had this whimsical thing to it. Musically, the thing that inspired this song, was Billy Joel. That is what it felt like to me was one of those 70s singer-songwriter periods where he's acting like he knows it all. So I kind of took that feeling and decided it would be cool talking to some multimillionaire's kid at their coming out party.
"Gods of Science"
This is just about how the scientific process is distorted. The studies that can be done and the direction is controlled by folks with the money, so the gods of science are the ruling class in this case. Often, what we look as our body of scientific knowledge is controlled by funding. Let's talk in the field of pharmaceuticals. There is a body of scientific knowledge that has been shaped by what studies are funded. All this stuff came out recently that showed pharm companies were paying for content in scientific journals and distorting the information.
"My murder, my Love"
It's about a relationship, but it's about the fact that what you do is actually the tale of what you believe. It's not just what you think you believe, but it's what you choose to do. If you are a revolutionary but you've taken a job as an executioner at a prison, then you're someone that thinks things should be better, but for you, "it's okay." You're exempt from how things should be better.
A lot of these songs are me talking to myself. A lot of times they are mantras for me to stay on course. To make sure your actions hold true to what you believe, because in the action, is the thought. It is a love song. Those ideas come up in relationships, they just say the words but don't act like it.
Do you feel like you are doing enough to promote or achieve your own beliefs?
I don't know. That is something that I'm always addressing. It's hard to do both music and organizing. I'm dealing with that right now. The truth is, right now although these songs are from my heart and I love doing hem, I probably would be spending more time organizing if this wasn't my day job. I know that there is definitely a need for music in movements, I just wish someone else would do it so I could organize. I do it because there is a need for it, and because itâs my only viable job option.
When Occupy Oakland happened, I had been working on this album and just stopped everything because it was time for me to be doing that and I wasn't doing the stuff that I needed to do to generate an income. Doing this, takes a lot of time, during the creation and promotion of it, and I think that is the truth for everyone in their job. You don't have time to go to all these extra meetings, the alienation that capitalism causes is that instead of being a full human you become person that generates a profit or helps an organization keep going.
By organization, I mean corporation. So with myself, I have to have periods where, "Now I'm just working on music," "Now I'm doing something with this campaign." It's hard for me to switch back and forth within one day or one week. That takes an incredible amount of organization-and if you end up doing both, it's a constant struggle from day one- and an ideological struggle from within, so I can figure out how to do both. I've definitely gone through periods of being real depressed and being, "Fuck, I'm just out here doing music and not engaging in helping to make a movement."
I think this past year definitely has changed that idea, because it has helped me worry a little less and so many people came up to me that were involved in Occupy and said the Coup's music was part of their development and me seeing that part played in someone's development and seeing a movement, that inspired me and rejuvenated me to some degree
"You are not a riot (An RSVP from David Siquieros to Any Warhol)" Why did you choose to have these two radically different artists meet in your song?
Part of it is, that, I had an idea that I wanted to get out. The idea had to do with present time, in which a lot of time people take the aesthetic of rebellion without the meaning and it's not just corporations that do that. There are artists that take the aesthetic of rebellion as being dangerous and then make art that totally endorsees the status quo and oppression. But they like that aesthetic of rebellion.
The reason people like that aesthetic is because it is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do, to want to change the world. To simulate that aesthetic, that plays on some on very natural feelings that folks have- that has to do with wanting a world where there is justice.
But, the assimilation of that aesthetic goes for certain parts of history and culture as well, where everything is kind of a product- the dumbing down to this neat choice. It's almost like, "Do you like a pink polka dot or a striped shirt? Do you like this ideology or that ideology?" I don't think it's the people themselves that identify with the simplification, but it's the same thing that capitalism does to everything. It envelops it and makes it part of the machine. As an artist, it takes a special sort of awareness to purposefully allow that assimilation.
To talk about these ideas, I picked someone who was totally down for capitalism and really had a certain idea of art that purposefully did not challenge the status quo and was trying to make the status quo cute. What better antithesis to Andy Warhol than David Siquieros? He was one of the Mexican muralists. He actually was in the Mexican revolution and fought alongside of Zapata and he was an artist. He was not only politically revolutionary, he was an artistic revolutionary.
He was credited with putting paint in the fire extinguisher to make murals. Technically, he had a great style. He also kind of went off the deep end sometimes. He was a host of the big art show that happens every year and he started accusing folks that were doing abstract art of being funded by the CIA. His whole thing, I think it took a lot of gall to say, that artistically their work is not talking about anything and "you're funded by the CIA." His point was, "There is revolution all over the world, and you're choosing to make splotches on the wall. You're wasting our time!" Later, we find out there was all sort of evidence that Pollock was getting funded by the FBI who wanted to create an apolitical art movement. So there was some truth at least at least.
So I just imagined a situation in which Andy Warhol gave David Siquieros an invitation and Siquieros replied.
The song has a reference to "upper-crusty punks." Are you a fan of crust punk?
No, I just like the fact that it was upper crusty punk. I know what crust punk is, but, I dunno if I'm a fan, or whatever. I'm not a crust punk. My point is that, I'm talking about someone from the upper echelons of society, that is trying to see punk or rebellion and likes the aesthetic, but you have to do more than that to change things.
"Land of Seven Billion of Dances" Is this title a reference to the famous song "Land of a thousand dances"?
It is a reference to the song. But, it's "Land of seven billion dances." There's seven billion people on the planet. We're all doing our dance individually, so when we dance together, we make a movement.
The music video starts out in front of a low income area, but ends in an expensive looking hall. Was this contrast planned?
Not really. The filmmakers had a location. The expensive hall is the Rotunda building. The Rotunda building is where the department store was that started the 1949 general strike. You see pictures of Rosie the Riveter. That was a woman from the bay area, and all these woman were working and were told they can work, this and that, "We need you." The war ended and there were a lot of women that needed to work, so they used to run the department stores like a day labor center. In the basement, there would be a bunch of women and the manger would come down and point people out and you had to wait from 8 til noon to see if you could work. So, that's how the general strike happened. It started in that building.
How did you get permission to use that building?
The owner of that building is a scary anti-occupy, Anti-Oakland guy. He's this developer, Phil Tagami, and during Occupy, he is seen as wielding a shotgun, saying that he's trying to keep people out of his building. We were able to get into the building because that was the day there was a festival happening.
"Violet" There is a theme in your music coming from the perspective of prostitutes, namely "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a 79 Granada last night." Why did you choose to go there again?
I don't know. I should think about that! I dunno. It's a part of the world. I think that has to do with it. I want to talk about a character that just had some hope come into their life for a short period of time. I don't know where the decision happened. It felt right. It was a beautiful story. The person telling the story is a prostitute. So, it's about that bittersweet hope that sometimes you get in a certain situation that doesn't necessary work out.
I originally wrote that song, because when I met Tom Morello, who I am in Street Sweeper Social Club with, on the road, we did a tour together, me, him, Billy Bragg, and Steve Earl. They were just starting Audio Slave. He asked if I had any songs I might want to write that Chris Cornell could sing. I wrote those lyrics and sent them to him. Those were the lyrics. I don't know why it got turned down, but it got turned down. But the next time, I demoed it with Silk-E, before Pick a Bigger Weapon came out, it was for a Mavis Staples album, by Ry Cooder didn't want it, so here it is.
"We've got a lot to teach you, Cassius Green"
This song is supposed to be nightmare that the main character in the movie is having. The main character is Cassius Green. There's a part where he is worried about selling out. I don't want to tell too much. It's a dream he has. The end of this song, the end of "My Murder, My Love" are two of my favorite parts. The end of this song is Silk-E over the band.
People usually think of The Coup as a group, with you as the leader, Pam, and maybe Silk-E. But you keep referring to the group as a "we". Is The Coup more of a collective than a group or band?
Well, I'm still the director. I come up with the lyrics, but the truth is, it is a collective, and it always has been, from day one. It has been live instruments since 1998. We've been performing with a live band for a long time. It's more recently that we've kind of become- every label that wanted to put out our albums wanted to portray The Coup as just me. This is the first time I've been like, "It's a band. Even with sampling, the musicians add their own mark."
"Long Island Iced Tea, Neat"
I was trying sound like Chuck D or Ice Cube. Ice Cube is one of my favorite story tellers.
You also give Ice Cube a shout out on this song.
Why on that song? I don't know. It is the inspiration that hit. This is a song that I did with Japanter. We're actually going to tour with Japanther.
This album seems to feature a lot of collaboration. Why have you chosen to work with so many artists, lately?
Well, I did an album with Jeff Beck in 2003, it's called Ursa Minor. Me and M1 from Dead Prez and Jeff Beck and Jef Lee Johnson.
That means you have TWO connections to Mick Jagger!
Well there is the Jeff Beck connection.
You recorded with Jeff Beck, who was on Mick Jagger's first solo album and with Vernon Reid, who is on Sorry to Bother You who was produced by Mick Jagger on Living Color's first album! [Interviewer pats self on back.]
"The Guillotine" Are you drawing a comparison between the French Revolution and Occupy?
In the sense that we have to get rid of the ruling class. At the time it was a bourgeoisie. It's similar in that it's transformative change. One smaller group to another group, to a larger group now. It's people waking up to the fact that they can change the world.
"WAVIP (We're All VIPs)"
It's about going to the club. I've been in the VIP areas. It's stupid. Why do you want to be in the cordoned off areas that has velvet rope and people feeling like they're special, and everybody else is outside. Itâs analogous to the concepts of the whole album.
Overall, I feel that this album is the most varied and most experimental Coup album to date. It certainly has an extremely wide range of sounds. Though, it does feel very punk to me as well. It reminds me of mid-period or even late period Clash.
You know, I think that the Clash were like that too. Their songs were definitely different. They have songs like "Train in Vain," "Should I Stay or Should I Go." It has a range of emotions, and I think that all good music does. Bob Dylan- there's a large range of emotions. What I have to say is this album is really influenced more lyrically by poets, like Michael Ondaatje, Pablo Neruda, and literary folks like Salmon Rushdie.
For instance, I would think that "My Murder, My Love" is very kind of an ode to Michael Ondaatje, who is right now one of my favorites. He wrote the English Patient, but you know, he has a book of collected poems, called The Cinnamon Peeler, and a book called Coming Through the Slaughter, which is written as narrative fiction, but it is complete poetry.
There's another guy that I've been reading called Nathaniel Mackey who wrote a book called From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume still Emanate. He has a debate with the angel of death about music. He's writing about this debate, but is actually talking about records and reviewing records throughout the book, but doing it in a real poetic way. Those writing styles really sparked ideas for me.
And I think on "My Murder, My Love" it comes through. Probably the most, I think. That is what you're getting at. It's not all angry. I always let myself be influenced by many things, sometimes when people get into one form of music, they are influenced by just a few things.
At first I wanted to be just like Ice Cube. But, I was terrible at imitating Ice Cube and wasn't able to do that, so I had to do my own thing. I heard similar things about Bob Marley who would ask his friends, "Doesn't it sound like Curtis Mayfield" and they would be like, "What are you talking about?"
Other times people are really good imitating their heroes, then after a while it gets boring. I've just been having a lot of heroes, and having a lot of influences, just as the years go on. I'm getting confident in that new combination of art and life and that will be its own monster.