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INTERVIEW: Billy Bragg

October 16, 2002 - permalink

Unlike many musicians, Billy Bragg does not necessarily need a product to promote and an album to tour behind. Granted, his latest album, England, Half-English, did come out earlier this year, and the traditional merch table will not be absent from his present tour. Bragg is a musician who is not afraid to sing for his supper, among other things.

I caught up with Billy Bragg at the launch of his 2002 fall tour in Ottawa, Ontario, during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq.This was the second invasion of Iraq in just over a decade, the first being Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Before the interview even began, Billy handed me a disc emblazoned with the words Spread The Word - Stop The War along with the title of his latest song, The Price Of Oil.

Billy Bragg: ...I was asked to supply a track for the Stop The War record in the United Kingdom, and I wrote this song, The Price Of Oil. And then I thought that because of the nature of what the song is about... I don’t think the Stop The War album will probably come out in North America...

EID: Really, not even as an import?

Billy Bragg: ...possibly as an import but that just takes forever, it might not come out till Christmas, probably too late. So I pressed up enough of theseCDRs. to give away about ten a night into the crowd. And hopefully they’ll get it on the Internet or they’ll burn copies for their friends and they’ll spread the word.You can watch Billy Bragg play the song around the time of this interview, at this YouTube clip. It’s like a broadside, and it can’t wait till my next Billy Bragg album; that might not be till next year or the year after.

EID: That situation is progressing so quickly....

Billy Bragg: Yeah, so I’m gonna be giving out the first few copies tonight, and sending people away, you know, to encourage them to put it on the Net, burn a copy for their friends - just get the word out.

EID: You released Life’s A Riot almost two decades ago.

Billy Bragg: Yup.

EID: Do you feel like you’ve changed politically at all in the last twenty years, or do you still hold the same beliefs you did back then?

Billy Bragg: No, I think I have changed politically since Life’s A Riot. I think if you listen to the politics on Life’s A Riot, they’re rather personal, you know Just because you’re better than me/ doesn’t mean I’m lazy. They’re not really very ideological. It took until about... it really took the miners strike in 1984 to make me more into sort of an ideological songwriter, in the sort of traditional, Woody Guthrie sense. So that really didn’t happen till 1984, but since then, really, my answer to your question would be no, I don’t think I’ve changed my politics really that much. What has happened is that the world has changed, and politics have become sort of post-ideological, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t wish back an ideological world. I have to respond to what’s happening. So I find now that I’m writing songs that are trying to address the problems in a non-ideological way.

EID: Do you find there are things that are easier for you to say when you’re in front of a crowd with a guitar strapped on?

Billy Bragg: Yeah, I think you’re much more able to respond to the way people feel in a situation like this. You know, you’re thinking much quicker ahead.

EID: Is your music vehicle for your politics, or is your politics a vehicle for your music?

Billy Bragg: I think really the music is a way of communicating to people and also I can play gigs, I can make records, I can do interviews, I can write articles for newspapers. It’s really just about trying to communicate a different perspective of the world. That’s about the most a singer-songwriter or a journalist can do.

EID: What comes first for you, the music or the words?

Billy Bragg: Oh, it’s different all the time. I mean, I had a song, a tune that I had been knocking around for ages, and it just occurred to me the other day I could use it. I had been building up to writing a song, not about September 11, 2001 but September 11, 2002, which had a strange effect on me - the anniversary. And it just occurred to me to put it with that tune. It’s not completely done, I still gotta tweak it. I think I’m gonna have to play it in America before I can really get the feel of it right.

EID: There are a lot of musicians like yourself who don’t even necessarily consider themselves musicians because their words are so important. Do you consider yourself to be more of a writer than a musician?

Billy Bragg: That’s interesting, isn’t it? That’s an interesting question.This was the first interview with anyone of note that I had ever done, and Billy Bragg in particular was a huge inspiration to me as a young, politicized person, just barely 20. The dopamine rush that I got from Billy Bragg saying my question was interesting is something I’m still reveling in today. Yeah, I suppose, you know if I was a musician I could play anything, but I can’t. To me, a musician is someone who can play the piano or can read music; I can’t do any of that. So I would think I’m more of a poet, I’m more of a words-man. I can carry a tune, but I’m more of a words-man.

EID: You actually own the copyright to your own songs...

Billy Bragg: I do.

EID: ...was that a conscious decision or a matter of necessity?

Billy Bragg: It was conscious, yeah. You sign away your rights for the life of a copyright, which is seventy years after you die. I mean, I wrote these songs to be my pension,The question of owning the rights to your masters has become mainstreamed with efforts by Taylor Swift and others to regain control of their recordings (often unsuccessfully), leading to the phenomenon of Taylor's Versions. Also, I love that Billy Bragg frames this in terms of an issue related to his pension. not some corporate pension somewhere. So I’m trying hard to keep hold of those rights as best I can.

EID: So you’re touring solo this time. Besides the obvious, between touring with a band and touring solo, what is the difference and which do you prefer?

Billy Bragg: I don’t mind either; I enjoy both of ’em. There’s the intimacy that comes about from playing solo that’s a bit more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, but equally there’s a certain danceability that comes from the audience when I play with a band.

EID: Solo or with a band, what’s your favorite Billy Bragg song to play live?

Billy Bragg: Whichever one I’ve just written, always. Like tonight it’ll be The Wolf Covers It’s Tracks, or maybe The Price Of Oil. Because when you play something you see if it works, you know. Does anyone pay attention? Does anyone get this?

EID: Before you were a musician you were a bank messenger...

Billy Bragg: Yup. A tank driver. A goat herder.

EID: ...what inspired you to pick up a guitar?

Billy Bragg: I don’t know. It was just listening to singer-songwriters, people like Bob Dylan. But really I didn’t want to go and work at the motor company, which was the main employer in our town. I had to think of a way of getting out of that, and I didn’t want a nine-to-five job, and this was the only one I thought I might be able to do, that would allow me to wake up past nine.

EID: David Suzuki recently said, Capitalism is based on the ludicrous idea that human creativity and productivity are the greatest things in the world. What do you think about that?

Billy Bragg: I think he’s slightly wrong, I think they’re based on the idea that gain and profit are the greatest things rather than creativity.

EID: I think what he was getting at was that they believe no matter how deeply shitty things get, they can always invent something to pull themselves out of it.

Billy Bragg: Then he’s speaking of wealth creation and not artistic creation.

EID: So you don’t think that applies? Then what role do artists play in terms of our survival?

Billy Bragg: Well, the main thing artists do is entertain. And some artists try to make people think. And some artists try to provoke people. And so it depends where you want to be. I mean, the majority of artists just entertain. But entertainment without meaning is just television. It has to have some sort of context.

EID: Do you think that you’ll ever stop creating?

Billy Bragg: Well, here’s an interesting story. When I was twenty-one or twenty-two, the punk band I was in, Riff Raff, broke up. Everything that I believed was going to happen with punk rock didn’t happen. I was unemployed; I went back to my mum’s house. I turned on the television and thought, This is just outrageous, I can’t do this. I was so distraught that I joined the British Army. I pressed the eject button, and I just fucking walked away from everything.

EID: And you did the most un-punk thing you could do.

Billy Bragg: It was actually very punk if you think about it.

EID: The most unpredictable thing you could do.

Billy Bragg: So I did that. And having made that emotional break and walked away from everything, I found that when I got there I started writing songs again. It was then that I realized that this wasn’t gonna go away. I’ve always had this urge, so I really should try a bit harder and not just give up ‘cause my first band broke up. So I bought my way out of the army, got myself a job at a record shop, and after a year, I started doing gigs and writing songs. The rest has just been a blur until we just came in here.Here was a small green room at Barrymore’s, a now defunct venue in Ottawa. Upon entering the small room, Billy had offered me a beer from a cooler full of cold ones, and told his tour manager that I had him for the next 15mins and not to let anyone interrupt. Whether this was sincere or something he just says, it remains one of the coolest moments in my interviewing history.

EID: Regardless of the style you play, you’ve been widely embraced by the punk community. But you also have a lot of hippie ideals. Peace and love. Do you consider yourself a punk or a hippie?

Billy Bragg: Honestly, I was never at all attracted to the hippies, and I felt very much part of punk in England in 1977. That’s what’s inspired my whole worldview, really. But I’m not just in favor of peace and love. I’m trying to agitate for peace and love. I think there’s a slight difference there. I understand that in a post-ideological world, you have to look at bigger words than just socialism, you have to use words like compassion. And that may sound a bit hippy-ish, but that’s where we are historically. There’s no point in me still going around with some Marxist gobbledygook that no one really relates to anymore. I never really related to it either.

EID: This could be biased because you’re from the United Kingdom, but The Ramones or The Sex Pistols?

Billy Bragg: The Ramones, you have to understand are like... The Vines, or more than The Vines - The Hives. You know the way The Hives dress up, and play retro music and pretend that they’re what they’re not? They’re actually a bunch of guys from Sweden, pretending to be a weird sort of mid-Sixties garage band. Well, that’s how The Ramones began. Now the fact that they had the huge effect they had is neither hither nor thither. The fact is that the logical descendants of The Ramones are The Hives and the logical descendants of The Sex Pistols are Nirvana. There’s a huge difference there. And the reason the New York punks were so different than the United Kingdom punks is because they never really had the establishment pushing against them. We had dreadful politics: the Racist National Front, the stagnation of our own culture. Bands I greatly admire like The Ramones, Television, Blondie - they never wrote a song that said No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones. We were nihilists, like everything in the bin and let’s start over. Bands like Black Flag got it from us. They weren’t inspired by Patti Smith.

EID: You started Ethical Threads this year. I saw a shirt that you’re selling, also the name of a song, NPWA (No Power Without Accountability). In the music industry there’s very little connection between artists and their merchandise and goods. How accountable should artists have to be for the records they manufacture and the t-shirts they sell?

Billy Bragg: I think they should be. You should be accountable for anything that’s got your name on it. It’s been very tough for us. The people that really set up Ethical Threads are union activists, who’ve been bugging me for ages to get my t-shirts in order. And I said, Well, you’ve got your contacts, you find me a place, find me a source and we’ll use ‘em. That’s how it came together, and it was tough even for me. But I think even bands that don’t walk it but they talk it, if you can make them understand that their t-shirts are being made off of child labour and show them here’s where you can get good shirts, I think the majority of bands will make that effort.

EID: People always say, ‘I don’t know what to stand for, but I know what to stand against.’ Do you define who you are by what you stand for or against?

Billy Bragg: I try to define myself by what I stand for. And I try my best to articulate what I stand for, and I try to find words that do it. In this present time though, it’s difficult to find a language. I’ll be trying to do it tonight. I’ll be thinking, I’m in Canada, what makes sense to these people? to try and explain how I feel and where I’m at. We’re all waiting for a big ideology to emerge from this anti-globalization movement. And interesting things are happening, not just when the big demos get together but in places like Argentina, where they did everything the IMF asked them and just got absolutely fucked by it. There is a Marxist alternative, but in some ways that’s like going back. I’m not interested in going back; I’d like to move forward, to a kind of post-capitalist thing. Trying to head towards that in song and in word.

EID: One thing you’ve consistently stood for is labour unions. Is there any place for that in the music industry?

Billy Bragg: One thing musicians should definitely do is get roadies to organize in a provident union, so that roadies have pensions and roadies have health coverage. Roadies have none of this shit. And where are you gonna end up without them? They’re gonna end up with nothing. Imagine if roadies set up a provident union and accepted money from bands as part of a pension scheme and every big festival paid 0.1 percent of their take to the union. And to get a stamp of approval from the roadies union, we all took turns doing benefits for them, and every year we bumped them up a little amount. That would be a really sensible thing to do, ‘cause those guys are totally non-organized and they really should be. Bands can more or less fend for themselves, but these guys are often our dear friends, and they deserve pensions and health care.This remains an idea that would really change the industry significantly.

EID: Can you even call it socialism anymore? Where do you see the idea of socialism ten or twenty years from now?

Billy Bragg: I think socialism needs a new definition. We have to start looking at capitalism not as actually the economy itself but a way of organizing the economy. Capitalism is a way of organizing the economy to benefit the few. Socialism is a way of organizing the economy to benefit the majority. But, but! The Marxists always said destroy capitalism and everything’s gonna be fine. But they never explain to you where, if you destroy capitalism, where are you gonna buy your Radio Shack dictaphone?I was holding a Radio Shack dictaphone. So unless socialism can provide a better dictaphone, then why should people be in favor of it? I think we need to find a way to articulate a post-capitalist socialism, rather than a non-capitalist socialism.

EID: If you don’t tell me what not to say, I won’t tell you what not to do. Two questions from that quote. Do you ever feel like you’re preaching to the converted and, if so, how do you try to bring people into this world?

Billy Bragg: Well, you know, you’re not preaching to the converted so much as you’re focusing the feelings of people who relate to how you feel. Often they might feel like they’re the only person in the world who is passionate about these issues. They come together with a big group of people at a concert or demo and it really empowers them. I was talking to so many young people who went on the Stop The War march in the United Kingdom. It was the first big demo they’ve been on; there haven’t been demos like that since the late Eighties. The sense of power and the buzz was incredible. You can’t say that the anti-war demo is just the converted with the converted. My role in that is to try to bring people together and put new ideas onto the table and challenge. But the biggest thing I can do is focus their energy and help them to feel empowered. Also, I can try to bring news from across the ocean. Because often I feel like I’m bringing news from America into this worn citadel. Because it’s like they can’t hear us, but equally we can’t hear the American anti-globalization movement either. I mean, where is the anti-war voice in the American media? We musn’t dismiss the Americans. We can’t let our anti-Bushism become anti-Americanism. That’s very dangerous.

EID: Is there anything you wouldn’t or couldn’t sing about for whatever reason? Do you feel comfortable pushing against any kind of political issue?

Billy Bragg: Well, here’s a weird thing: I was in Berlin about a month ago, and I went to the Museum of German-Jewish History. It’s an incredible building. Everything’s in English and German. It’s an incredible story for the Germans to have to deal with the history of what happened to the Jews in Germany. It starts at Roman times and it sort of works its way, and you walk around, and it’s chronological. It deals with the holocaust in an incredibly intense way, on a number of different levels. But that’s only part of the story. Obviously, it’s the most important part, but it’s only one part. And it consciously draws your attention all the time to the missing, that the Jews in Germany are basically missing. They’ve either been exterminated or have gone into exile. And there were six-hundred-thousand in Germany at the beginning of the war; two-hundred-thousand were murdered, two-hundred-thousand escaped, and two-hundred-thousand managed to survive by being married to non-Jews. Who’s the most famous German-Jew ever really, at least in the top three off the top of your head? Number one, Karl Marx. Karl Marx. He’s not in the museum, not there at all, not even mentioned in this museum. Now that is a weird thing to me. The holocaust is all about remembering. The importance of memory, the importance of fact. And they haven’t forgotten, they’ve just completely ignored Marx.

EID: What was the reasoning behind leaving him out?

Billy Bragg: I don’t know. I spoke to someone there and he didn’t know why. But for me, it put a whole big question mark over what the museum was all about. Now that would be a fucking bastard thing to write about in a song. It’s not a criticism of the museum itself, because I would encourage anyone to go there. But it is a bit weird.