I was having a drink with a good friend of mine recently, and that all important subject of the season came up – our favourite albums of 2010. The general consensus was it has been a great year for punk platters, with one of the big standouts being the latest offering from the transcontinental collective known as Red Dons. Rising from the ashes of Portland, Oregon’s The Observers, the Red Dons have truly come in to their own with second album ‘Fake Meets Failure‘, a collection of incredibly well structured and passionate songs, spiked with intelligent lyrics, all played out to super catchy music. Razorcake Magazine recently went as far as to consider the Red Dons “could very well be the best punk rock band on Earth”. I’m in total agreement.
This interview was conducted for Crossfire by Pete Craven with Hajji Husayn (Bass / Vocal), Douglas Burns (Lead Vocals / Guitar) and Will Kinser (Guitar).
Photos by Mateus Mondini
Your band name is inspired by the infamous Cambridge University professors (inc. Kim Philby, Antony Blunt and Guy Burgess) who it transpired had been Communist spies. The discovery of what they had been up to, and their eventual defection to Soviet Russia caused uproar in Britain at the time, and dragged on through the Cold War. What so interested you in these men, and their motives.
HH: Paradox I suppose.
DB: They tried to do something they thought was noble, but by doing so they completely alienated themselves. Giving the Soviets secret information helped defeat Hitler and end World War II. They helped save England from Nazi occupation but still lost their homeland because no Englishman could trust ever trust them again. Who could trust a spy? In the end they still lost. That lose lose proposition is something that we draw many parallels to in our own lives.
I’m just reading the excellent book ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’ (by Barbara Demick) and it’s fascinating how the propaganda machine that dominates the people in this hard line Communist outpost, is often not so different to the mass-media and ‘entertainment’ broadcasts that we have in our (free) Western Countries..
HH: I agree. It’s the same thing but delivered in a different way. It impels you rather than forces you, make it sweet and appealing, soft power. It is essentially what is being discussed under the rubric of cultural imperialism; applied to your own populace. Rather than take over a country outright you sell them a lifestyle that influences them and puts them on your side, influences their social institutions. Coca Cola, Levi’s jeans, the American Dream, a car, are much easier to promote values and structures than the end of a rifle. In that way you start to export goods, educate their elite at your universities, make them desire your life, and in the course of it make them your allies or even try to outright control them. It informs your worldview, your discourse and sets the framework through which you interpret things. Not only is America a purveyor of cultural imperialism to the world but to its own people. Its very easy to let anything go if you’ve got just enough to make you placid.
What’s the fascination you have with The Middle-East, a theme initiated in your first EP (‘Escaping Amman’) Hey, Hilary’s banging the heads of the Palestinian and Israeli Prime Ministers together again. Peace is surely around the corner!
HH: Having grown up around it and realizing as I got older that nobody in the US had the faintest clue about it nor any kind of educational opportunities. I mean I had US history all through school and absolutely no international history. Once I started university I immediately went into history. The more I studied the more I saw the dire need for people in the USA to understand the region or they would continue to treat it the way they have. Having played music my whole life it was natural to start to incorporate it into a band.
Ok, it’s been almost 3 years between the last album ‘Death to Idealism’ and ‘Fake Meets Failure’. I read (and saw some footage of a Brazilian tour) but what else were you up to in that time?
DB: The last three years have been pretty crazy. Hajji moved to London, I moved to Chicago, Richie is still holding down the fort in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve also played with a number of guitarists. Justin Maurer, who played on ‘Death to Idealism’, left the band when he moved to Spain in 2007. In 2008 Andy Foote joined the group. That year we toured the US with The Estranged. Andy had to stop playing us because he was no longer able to tour. So Zach Brooks began playing with us. In 2009 we toured Brazil. After that we met in Portland and recorded ‘Fake Meets Failure’ and the ‘Pariah’ 7″. Like Andy, Zach wasn’t able to continue touring with us. So, about six months ago Will joined the band. Since then we did another US tour and recorded some new 7″s.
And Will is from BORN/DEAD. Doesn’t he live in Germany right now?
WK: Yes, I live in Hamburg Germany these days. I moved about a year ago away from the SF Bay Area. I don’t really think living in another country has much of an effect on my ability to be a contributing member of the band since I am just one of many who lives far from the rest. I have a recorder so that I can send everybody ideas and I have Skype for any other problems that should arise. It’s not a traditional band setup but we make it work.
DB: At first it seemed strange to ask someone in Germany to join the band. But like he just said, we were already spread out all over so it didn’t really matter. Now the Red Dons live in three different countries on two different continents. Richie and I live in the same country, but there is still 2,000 miles between us. I don’t think that three years ago this would have been possible. Now with high-speed internet and digital recorders it is easier to be in touch and exchange ideas.
WK: “Welcome to the age of computer technology, but still you’ve got your brain psychology.” -One Way System
How did the Brazil tour come together? The footage I saw looked amazing!
DB: Brazil was mind blowing. The whole thing came together thanks to our friend Mateus Mondini of Nada Nada Discos and Fodido e Xerocado. He and all his friends organized the tour. They did an amazing job.
HH: We met Mateus through Justin. He came with the Clorox Girls to take photos when I was touring with them in Europe. He had set up the Clorox tour in Brazil and asked the Red Dons to do the same. He also came with us on our most recent US tour.
DB: Yeah, Mateus is basically a part of the band now. If you think about it, he’s done more tours with us than several of our members. Haha! But back to the Brazilian tour. The shows there were incredible. The people were a lot of fun. I expected to get to Brazil and not really play for anyone. It was unfathomable for me to think that people that far away would be familiar with the band. I was just excited to see South America and hang out with some fun people. I don’t understand how Mateus got our stuff all around the country, but the shows were really well attended. People knew our songs and sang along. It was totally unexpected. There is an outstanding punk scene in Brazil. The people are genuine, motivated, and hungry for good music. They also dance and have fun at shows, which once again seems to be on the decline here in the States.
So, back to ‘Fake Meets Failure’. when did you have enough material to feel confident to record a new album?
HH: Oddly enough we always had plenty of material, in fact once we started working on the record we ended up writing a bunch more. The problem is we have a lot of older stuff that still needs to get recorded. It was a matter of putting things together the right way to give the album a cohesiveness that was lacking on the first album.
DB: Like he said, we have a ton of material. We have at least two albums worth of songs at the moment and are constantly writing new ones. What took so long to record Fake Meets Failure was logistics obviously, but also that we waited until we had ten songs that sonically and lyrically formed a cohesive narrative. Some of what I’d consider to be our best songs haven’t been recorded yet because they haven’t fit well with other songs to make it on a record. If we all lived in the same town we would have so many EPs out by now. We also have two Revisions LP’s that need to get recorded.
There are a lot of musicians on the album, including various guitarists, and a few backing vocalists! How quick was the recording process itself, did you get everything down on one hit?
HH: The recording process in the studio took about a month? Not including the time it took to polish the material. At the same time we recorded some old songs and tracked another LP for a band we were doing with Johnny Cat on vocals called the Chemicals. It took about 10 days to track both LP’s and extra songs and maybe another 10 days for mixing and other odd overdub experiments. The core tracking was done all in one go with drums bass and rhythm guitars. After that it was overdubs and vox, and then some experimentation. All the while we had people coming in. It was a revolving door of sorts. Having lots of people contribute helped to stimulate creativity and to refine the recording.
DB: Collaboration is important to this band. We try to have a Collective type atmosphere around the project. We definitely don’t want the Red Dons to be an exclusive unit comprised of four dudes. The more people that work with us the better it gets so we tried to include as many people as possible. Some instances like the strings were planned well in advance but others we completely spontaneous. A lot of the people included in the back ups just happened to be hanging around the studio at the moment we were tracking. Keith Testerman (The Estranged, Hellshock, Warcry, ect) owns a record shop that is connected to Stan Wright’s studio so there was often someone around that we could get involved in the project. A.I. from Japan is on the Chemicals album singing “Chemical Burn” thanks to that scenario.
And I couldn’t help but notice (Operation Ivy/Common Ride/Classics of Love vocalist) Jesse Michaels getting lyrical credits. How did he come to be hooking up with the ‘Dons?
DB: Jesse and I did an art show together two years ago in San Francisco. We hit it off and have stayed in touch ever since. One night we were talking about song writing and how I sometimes struggle with writing lyrics. As we all know, Jesse is an amazing lyricist. I had no idea how prolific he is. Sometime after our conversation he sent me a big stack of lyrics. These he had written over the years and had never put to music. Jesse told me to use anything I found in there. It’s pretty remarkable how so many of his lyrics coincided with what Hajji and I were writing. “Land of Reason” is an example of the three of us writing separately, with different motivations, and amalgamating them to form one thought. That was one reason for putting the song first on the album. Everyone associated with the band added something to that song. Each person’s contribution is featured, but as a finished song those components form one cogent expression. That is what we enjoy about collaborating with different people, all the similarities that pop up. I hope we are able to work with Jesse more in the future.
Doug, your artwork has covered the sleeves of Observers and Red Dons records… and I saw you have also had some public exhibitions of your work… Is this a full time gig? Who are you inspirations? And what’s the story with the cover for Fake Meets Failure cover?
DB: At the moment art is pretty much a full time gig, but that’s only because I’m in art school full time and work part time at a gallery called Corbett vs. Dempsey. I have been showing my work pretty steadily though. This year alone I had work in seven different exhibitions in Chicago, Madison, and Richmond, Virginia. I’ve sold an ok amount of paintings but nothing that I could really live off of. Like music, I’m pretty much influenced by everything. If it’s good art, I’m a fan. Artists that I’ve been looking at recently are Arturo Herrera, Vernon Fisher, Thomas Hirschhorn, Albert Oehlen, Christopher Wool, Julie Mehretu, Ray Yoshida, Mark Bradford, Ghada Amer, and Ralph Arnold. I could continue making a list of stuff I like so I’ll try to stop there before it gets too much longer. Believe me, there is more. It’s like if I were to start listing bands I like. We’d be here all day and I’d still feel like I forgot a bunch.
The “Fake Meets Failure” painting focuses on the life altering decisions we are forced to make. Each of us in the band have made serious choices about our lives in recent years, but for people in their late 20’s and 30’s that is pretty typical. One of the choices we’ve all been confronted with has been whether to take a more conventional path with our lives or continue living a more “bohemian” existence. I don’t see either as a right or wrong option. People have to do what is right for their unique situations. The problem is that both choices engender negative connotations. Those choosing the conventional route of a steady job, a house, and health care are labeled as fakes for selling out or compromising their dreams. The artist who continues living outside popular society is label a failure, because in most cases they are completely dependent financially on other people. The cover art depicts the meeting of these two schools of thought. The model for those paintings is a friend of mine. He was in the best band to come out of Chicago. Next time you look at it see if you can tell who it is.
Do I sense a certain amount of cynicism at American Paranoia in the likes of ‘Secret Agent’ and ‘Enemy Ears’?
HH: I would go further than cynicism. A large part of Secret Agent is the embassy warden messages I received while living in Amman intermixed with inspiration from Conrad’s Secret Agent which was the most quoted/referred to book in American media after 9/11, not to mention the Unabomber’s favorite book. I myself have avoided bombings by turns of fate (West Bank) and have been the subject of bomb threats (Land of Reason). In Amman there were several bombings while I was living there and in Lebanon right after I left. But really it deals with alienation. As we continue to define the other and push them away, they become alienated and lash out. We then push further and the cycle continues and deteriorates not only on a macro scale but also in our personal lives. I often feel alienated from the punk scene. I look to it as an alternative to society and because of that I tend to put it on a pedestal. A home from home for people who had not encountered success and don’t expect it. In reality it is more like a high school click. If you don’t wear the right clothes or listen to the right music or go to the right show or know the right people you’re not cool. There are so many scene parasites that push to occupy key positions in coolness that it’s very easy to be locked out if you don’t do all the things that make you cool. Enemy ears is really a calling out to all the people to reject everything and follow us into uncoolness, into oblivion, into true anti establishment. It’s the paradox of failure that can truly lead to some success. The choice between hell or disgrace.
DB: That all goes back to why we are interested in the Red Dons/Cambridge 5. When putting together all the parts for “Enemy Ears” we were thinking about the moment that Philby, Blunt and Burgess were crossing over the border to the Soviet Union. They must have known there was no going back. They would disappear into obscurity. Their history would be written by those who felt they were traitors. Yet, they still did it.
One additional track “It’s Your Right” was included on the “Pariah” single, is there any other non-album material to come out this time around?
HH: Two more 7″s are in the works at the moment.
DB: Yes, we’re in the process of finishing up some songs we recorded this summer in Chicago with Mike Lust. As for more songs recorded during the “Fake Meets Failure” recording session, there is that Chemicals album that has yet to be released. I just need to finish the art for it and it should be ready to see the light of day.
To me, your music manages to capture a multitude of influences from across the decades, and then compact these sounds in to your own highly distinctive songs . I’m thinking classic melodic Southern California, dark and heavy Portland. grim up North UK (early Eighties). and even a a splash of Sydney, Australia (yeah hup!) Would you care to share some of the key bands that helped shape your Punk development, and subsequently the musical direction of the Red Dons.
DB: You basically nailed it. Everything is an influence. What I’ve noticed is that a lot of the first punk I was exposed to like the Adolescents, Misfits, Adverts, and Wipers still dictated how I write songs today. I feel our core punk influences are pretty transparent. The influences that are more difficult to place are the non-punk ones. Bach, Erkin Koray, Fela Kuti, and Dave Brubeck are a few that might not be as apparent to the average listener. It all blends together anyway. Sometimes we’ll try to reference one influence and it comes off sounding like another. In the song “Enemy Ears” we tried to do a Fela Kuti breakdown but it came off as sounding like the Dead Kennedy’s. That’s ok though, DK is a huge influence too. Who knows, maybe they were listen to Fela too?
HH: You know, as Doug said, all the standard stuff is an influence. Dead Kennedys, The Who, The Clash, the Wipers. I think more importantly it’s the different types of music and the bands they had to offer. That did the most to influence me. Anarcho punk of the early 80’s, hardcore in the states when I was a kid, ’77 punk, Portland punk bands, jazz, classical, fela kuti.
You took to the road this summer to tour North American; how did that go? Didn’t (bassist) Hajji injure his shoulder badly?
WK: Except for Hajji injuring himself the tour was a success. For me it was like being on the road again for the first time, playing smaller gigs to a more intimate crowd. I think that is a good thing, you cut out most of the scenesters and hangers on. I like to play for new audiences that are interested, not a bunch of people who think they have seen it all. I had a great time with the band and I think the next time will be even better because we know what to expect from each other. The best moments for me were whenever we nailed a live set, that, and when the whole band shared an experience that we all enjoyed like the City Museum in St. Louis, inner tubing in Austin, or hanging out in the train yard next to the Mississippi River. I had a great time recording in Chicago for the upcoming records and can’t wait to record more with the band in the Spring. The drives are long in the US so I look forward to our first European tour together.
HH: The tour was great, the first half went well and we had easy drives. The second half was the most difficult/easiest tour I’ve ever been on. In Raleigh, North Carolina I fell off the stage and got injured quite badly. I had a separated Acromioclavicular Joint in my shoulder, a sprain neck, and a separated Sternoclavicular Joint in my chest (which took months to diagnose properly). This has left my collarbone out of whack sitting pushed down and into my sternum and may remain dislocated for life. Of course this meant I couldn’t use my left arm at all and I was stuck in a sling and heavily medicated. Thanks to the love of my band members, or out of necessity, they helped me change my clothes, tie my shoes, all the mundane stuff you take for granted. They also set up all my gear, plugged me in, wrapped my arm to my chest so I could immobilized my shoulder to play, carried everything, and gave me the best spots to sleep every night. In that sense it was easy, nothing to do just show up and play. On the other hand it was hell to be in so much pain on the road, the guilt of not pulling my own weight, and feeling guilty for hurting myself made it the most difficult tour I’ve ever been on.
We have been reading a bit about (American) The Tea Party over here recently… I’m guessing these are not free thinking people sitting around drinking Earl Grey…
WK: I think that a lot of the Tea Party movement has to do with a majority of Americans’ ineptitude at grasping domestic politics in a broader sense. People looking to go back to a (not so) quaint time when problems weren’t so massive, to a cozy time when America had an upper hand on industry as well as foreign policy. The entire world is faced with the problems of today due to the global economy built by liberal and conservatives alike in our government and the west. From what I can tell the tea party is the infiltration of fear into an overtly white demographic who feel the carpet is being ripped from under their feet. They think they are being progressive but really are being taken advantage of by fear mongering, would-be politicians with unproven credentials or at best flimsy libertarian platforms who once in office mainly side with mainstream republican values. The problem with the Tea Party movement is that it has no platform that can be surmised, it can easily be manipulated. Well, that and the fact that it is overwhelmingly populated by bigots, anti-abortionists, religious zealots, and self-proclaimed patriots. Rebels without a clue.
DB: I think it is hilarious that they originally called themselves the Tea Baggers. I wish they had were never been clued in to the sexual innuendo. Wouldn’t you love to hear people like Glenn Beck say, “I’m pleased to report that the conservative senator and his fellow tea baggers sit firmly atop the polls”?
HH: I think I’m in accordance with the British, utterly perplexed to what the fuck is going on with these people.
It’s been 3 years since we last saw you in Europe. Any plans to return?
HH: Yes, this spring we have a European tour planned with dates for the UK.
Crossfire actively promotes skateboarding. Is skating an influence at all on the lives of any Red Dons?
HH: If it weren’t for skating I wouldn’t be into punk. My uncle owned a surf shop when I was kid. He gave me a skateboard and that was all I did. I saw that picture of Darby Crash holding his skateboard with the Germs written all over it and over night I was into Punk and had a Darby haircut. For me, in the early ’80’s punk and skating were synonymous.
DB: Skateboarding was the first counter culture thing I got involved in. Unfortunately, I was a lousy skater. I took to snowboarding much better. Eventually I got into surfing too. I still do those activities whenever I get the chance, but not skating. Early on I road Ventures trucks but my favorite band in Portland call National Guard had a song about the superiority of Independent trucks so I switched. That might be the moment I realized that music was more important to me. It would be nice if I still skated now that I live in Chicago. There is a skate park by my house and no mountains or oceans for thousands of miles. Either way I’m probably better suited behind a guitar.
WK: Skating caused me to break my leg in half, haven’t done much of it since other than commuting once in a long while. My old band got interviewed in Thrasher magazine and that was the highlight of my skateboarding career.
DB: Hajji has a pretty epic story about being a little boy in Czechoslovakia and having his skateboard stolen by a Skinhead.
HH: Not just a skinhead, it was a skinhead who looked like Mr. Clean; the biggest and the baddest of the bunch. Everybody knew his name. Golas. Maybe 20 of us had been skating at the square where the Lenin statue was. It was the spot where all the skaters would meet. One thing the Soviets did was create great skate spots. A massive square completely made of granite with curbs all around. The middle platform for the statue that was about knee height and perfect to wax up. During the course of the day ambulances and police cars started showing up and parking around the square. This did not seem odd, as it was a busy area of town. Round dusk talk started spreading of a fight that happened nearby. Some of the punks and skaters had caught some skinheads and had done them for revenge over some other fight. This in itself was not a big deal as this kind of shit was going on all the time, especially since there were a lot of Nazi and Nazi sympathizing skins around. After communism fell everybody went Right, as it was the opposite of Left. In fact České Budějovice even hosted a Neo-Nazi rally at one point that the mayor of the town spoke at. It was fucking crazy because all these Austrians and Germans came. They can’t really do it in their own country, so the Czech Republic became a sort of Neo-Nazi resort; a place where you can take your top off so to speak. Anyway, this kind of stuff was going on all the time, more like tribal war with feuds and truces, especially since some of the skinheads were drug dealers and we all know how uniting drugs can be. The talk continued and rumors started to spread that something was going to happen. What my cousin and I didn’t realize, but the Skins got jumped on their way to a hockey game on a few blocks away. As the square and surrounding roads started to fill with traffic and pedestrians leaving the game, we noticed a din coming from the direction of the stadium. It was about 50 skins running and screaming, the sound of boots and battle cries.
Holy shit! At first we thought the numbers were even, as more skaters had shown up and the group mentality decided to stand firm. How these things get decided I don’t know, I guess the military calls it esprit d’corps. Unfortunately, as soon as the human wave struck all bets were off. Everybody started running in fear, especially since the Skins were a hell of a lot tougher than us, had a score to settle, and were boozed from the hockey game. At first I was ready to fight and stood my ground as the vast majority ran past me. Right in the middle of the hurricane I realized that most of the skaters and punks were running past me. As I turned around I realize I was deep behind enemy lines. I took to my skate and tried to push off full speed. That is when Golas got me. He pushed me from behind and I fell but held my balance. As I turned he had picked up my skateboard and took a swing at me with it. I ran about 10 paces off and turned and yelled at him to give it back to me. He just laughed. If you can imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger in a flight jacket and boots with a Czech accent, there he was saying “come and get it”.
Naturally, I ran for my life and collected my cousin along the way. The entire square had broken out into fighting. It wasn’t just us vs. them. Everybody was having a go. Away fans, home fans, punks, skins, skaters, normals all having a fight. I now understood why all the police cars and ambulances had assembled around the square. Snap, that’s right police cars. My cousin and I ran for a parked police car, not to get them to save my board mind you, but for protection. We were on the verge of getting the snot kicked out of us at every turn. We ran up and pounded on the window. Two coppers were inside and both slowly turned their heads to look in the opposite direction. Shit we were running again and everywhere I saw people crawling under cars for protection or running down alleys. We ran past an ambulance. Someone I knew was hiding underneath. Then we shot down a side street. People were chasing and being chased everywhere we went. Eventually we met up with some friends. A few of our skaters friends were Roma (gypsies, as is said in a more derogatory fashion). They told us to stay with them and they would take us somewhere safe. We followed them into the Roma section of town. Out of the doorways a whole pack of older boys materialized; some of them were our friends brothers. We explained to them what was going on. They already knew and told us not to worry. Then one of the boys proceeded to pull a fucking katana (or some kind of Japanese sword) out of his fucking shirt. I still remember the moment in slow motion. He reached into the neck of his shirt, grabbed something, and pulled out. It just kept coming and coming until his arm was fully extended over his head. I remember thinking fuck it’s huge! And how did he walk with that thing hidden? It must have gone down his pant leg as well as the front of his shirt? They told us to go into the stairwell of a building and wait. Down the road they went with a drawn sword.
We waited there a long long time. Eventually we summoned enough pluck to look outside, and decided to walk to get the bus back to Hluboká. The streets were dead silent and it was a frightful walk. Needless to say we made it home. From that day forward and for as long as I lived in the Czech, Golas would send messages asking me if I wanted my skateboard back or asking me when I was going to come and get it. He and his crew would even come down to the square with it and stand there watching us, taunting all the skaters, he was after all to scary to fight. To this day he still has it. Yes skating is an influence on my life. My skateboard hanging over Golas’ fireplace like a trophy will forever be an influence on my life.