Free as a (black) bird

Free as a (black) bird

Blackbird Raum

Blackbird Raum

The connection between folk music and protest songs goes back a long way, with the folk tradition often providing the most convenient (though not the only) platform for songs addressing popular lament and struggle.

Many protest singers have embraced and adopted this potent combination as their weapon of choice throughout the years, and American band Blackbird Raum is one of them.

Formed out of a squatter community in California, this is a band with various concerns on its mind and no qualms about addressing them openly and directly. It is also a band that adamantly refuses to be labelled, rejecting any effort to associate it with gypsy, pirate or any other genre for that matter.

Instead, Blackbird Raum, whose array of instruments includes accordion, washtub bass, washboard, saw and mandolin, prefer to simply list their influences and let everyone come to their own conclusions.

Bearing in mind that list includes anything from metal to punk to folk, with anything and everything in between, it is probably better to just let the various elements at play in their music do their thing and simply enjoy the upbeat vibe their songs radiate.

Zack, Caspian and Mars, three of the band’s five members speak here about the band’s history, its influences and aspirations ahead of their live performance with local bands Plato’s Dream Machine and Rage against Society in Paceville on Friday.

You learnt to play while living in a squatter community, but what prompted the proper formation of the band?

Caspian: We wanted to take what a lot of people in the American punk/travelling subculture were doing at the time, which was basically some kind of neo-skiffle pan-folk music, and take it to a completely different level instrumentally and lyrically. We wanted a relevance that went beyond this noir/old-time movie aesthetic and stay true to the kind of things we grew up caring about.

Of course, for the first bit we had very little clue as to how to do that. Coal, a song that I sometimes think of as our thesis statement, was the first song I ever played on the banjo; I wrote it to teach myself how to play.

Zack: The first song I ever played accordion on was Honey in the Hair, which is a crowd favourite. Like Caspian, I wrote it to teach myself how to play.

Where did the name Blackbird Raum come from?

Zack: Raum is the name of a demon from Hermetic Mysticism. Seventeenth-century magicians had a book called Lemegeton or The Lesser Key of King Solomon, which was about the art of summoning demons and binding them to the summoner’s will.

It included a compendium of the 72 major demons of hell and their attributes, among them Raum, who, when summoned, appears in the form of a crow or a blackbird to either destroy a city, tarnish the dignity of a great man, rob a king, reconcile friends or foes, or invoke love.

With little love for cities and kings, but much affection for love and friendship, we decided Raum was the appropriate demon for us.

Your list of influences is quite eclectic – from Dragonforce and Venom to Crass and Leonard Cohen – all distinctly different from the music you play. Can you elaborate how they figure in the big picture that is Blackbird Raum?

Caspian: We wanted to create something ‘blackbird raum’, and to do that we aren’t afraid to butcher other people’s notions of what music is supposed to be.

At this point we have been around long enough to even start butchering other peoples’ notions of what ‘blackbird raum’ is supposed to sound like.

As far those influences go, the reason I cite them so often is to give people some reference points for our music because for most people it seems to come out of nowhere.

Mars: We all have pretty different musical backgrounds, but over the years our tastes have rubbed off on each other and we end up having more similarities when it comes to music we appreciate and feel influenced by. That said, everyone brings something different to the song-writing process and sometimes I assume I know where my bandmates are coming from when they actually have a totally different influence in mind.

Having grown up with punk and indie music, what was it that prompted you to pursue traditional/folk music, and further to that, what inspired the unusual choice of instruments you play?

Zack: Punk and traditional music have a similar essence. They are the basis of subcultures dedicated to the music they make and the people within.

Neither have any love for the culture at large, at least in America, where ‘culture’ is dictated by MTV, fast food chains or The Backstreet Boys. Punk has its own traditions anyway.

As for the instruments we play, the choice is mostly pragmatic. We didn’t have electricity, so traditional punk instruments such as electric guitars were not available to us. Accordion, banjo and mandolin were the instruments we found or could afford… a washtub bass costs less than $15 (€10.50) to build.

Mars: I wouldn’t say I grew up with punk or indie, but the DIY aspect of those scenes played an important role for me as far as choice of instruments. Working with limited resources, I learnt to make music with what was available. If there is a mandolin, then I will learn that; had there been some other instrument around, I would have learned that instead.

Your lyrics are blatantly critical of the way modern ‘civilisation’ has affected (for better or worse) the way we live and the world around us. Tell us a few words to underline your position/views on such issues…

Mars: It feels good to talk about what is important to me in music, and it’s been rewarding to use our music to talk about indigenous issues, colonisation, prison uprisings and all sorts of other things that don’t get talked about in mainstream discourse.

As far as positions on these things, I would say I think people need to re-examine any culture where human suffering and the destruction of the natural world are just considered necessary collateral damage. That said, I don’t believe there is one right answer or one right way to live. We need to figure that out for ourselves.

Caspian: It’s clear that if industrial/consumer civilisation continues on its current course we will eradicate life on the planet. The sea is filled with plastic bags and there is more dioxin in the breast milk of American mothers than the amount legally acceptable for cows. Past attempts to redress the ills of capitalism have led to even worse horrors.

We’d all rather live in Sweden than North Korea, but the Scandinavians produce trash and toxic waste like any other country. Change is confusing and dangerous, but it’s a dire necessity. One thing is clear: the answer will come from people, not power.

You said you dislike being pigeonholed, so how would you describe your music?

Caspian: It’s cathartic, punky acoustic music – simultaneously frantic and sorrowful. Our shows tend to be giant dance parties with everyone screaming along, whether they know the words or not.

In the music industry, even the cottage industry of DIY music, there is often the necessity to create cute labels to define what you’re doing. Of course, anybody who is doing something really good usually completely defies these rigid categories.

Unfortunately most people’s first references for the instruments we use are cartoonish associations from American pop culture, such as ‘pirates’ or something ridiculous. Eventually this got extremely annoying, and now my song and dance is ranting about it in interviews. I’m sure we’re not the first artists to suffer from being stereotyped by media.

Anything in particular you’re looking forward to in Malta besides the gig?

Caspian: First of all, it’s pretty amazing for us to realise we had some fans in Malta. I’ve looked up Malta on Wikipedia along with some articles on the plight of migrants. I also read that Caravaggio used to hang out here, and he’s a personal favourite of mine… and we’re definitely going to try some pastizzi.

A word as to what we should expect from Blackbird Raum?

Caspian: Expect a rapturous, life-changing experience and make sure you are wearing dancing shoes.

Blackbird Raum will be performing live on Friday at V-Gen in Paceville, with Plato’s Dream Machine and Rage against Society. Doors open at 9 p.m. Tickets cost €7 and are available at the door.

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