Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A six-year reflection on my time in Junkyard Empire, the band, and it's FIFTH record....

As the trombone player and oldest member, both in age and participation, I take special personal pride in saying that Junkyard Empire is about to record it's fifth record. Let me say it again: FIFTH record. That's really something. This one will be the second record with Steve Hogan on bass, the fourth with Graham O'Brien on drums and Bryan Berry on guitar, and the fifth with myself and Brian Lozenski a.k.a. Brihanu. In the time this band has been together in one form or another - roughly six years - I have seen a lot, experienced a lot, learned a lot. Here's my story. Just kind of felt like telling it. Maybe I'll be able to convince the other guys to give their reflections as we prepare to record.

In May of 2005, my wife Szilvia and I left the moderate weather conditions of Cotati, California, famously known as the "city of a thousand freaks," for the excruciatingly wet hot Summer in St. Paul, Minnesota. I had just graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in Political Science at the age of thirty-four, and an intense desire to do work for the common good. I was given a quasi opportunity to go do some work like that for Grassroots Campaigns, which didn't last long. It was just basically a fund raising operation, directly connected to the DNC, and it's top down numbers-generated approach was disgusting. Well, as spirit-sucking as that job was, it was the reason I ended up the Twin Cities. After all, I had to get out of California; we were paying $775 per month for an old converted garage that had holes in its uninsulated walls. Szilvia was taking the Golden Gate Transit down to San Francisco, over an hour RT every day, to a temp job at Charles Schwab. Yeah, I know, hard to believe.

Sick of all that noise, I took the job in St. Paul, arriving in June of 2005. It was that Fall when I put together a concept that would ultimately become Junkyard Empire, specifically upon the arrival of Brihanu. Looking back on it now, it is interesting how mild our expectations were at the beginning. Just having Brihanu rap heavy political theory over Freddie Hubbard tunes was cool enough, right? I mean, shit, playing jazz/funk mashups under a rapper is a kind of nirvana few of us musicians get to experience.

It was when Brihanu and our then guitar player Zacc Harris (another phenomenal musician) started bringing in their originals, along with more of mine too, that the band began to really take on a unique approach composing and a resulting sound. Don't get me wrong though, it was hard. Not only were there lots of ego clashes, bad decisions made, and artistic differences, but rarely did we have a line-up of musicians who were on the same page in regard to where they saw the project going. Ultimately, we went through three sax players, two guiar players, three bass players, and one drummer before finally settling on the current line-up, solidified right after the release of Rebellion Politik. We all learned a lot from the crazy experiences of deciding to go from being a "weekend warrior" kind of band with a message, to a band hell bent on delivering a revolutionary message to the world at large. It didn't become quite real to us how involved we were going to be in movement building until our participation in the 2008 RNC protests. Playing on a stage that was surrounded by riot police, getting gassed, seeing women and journalists pushed down and beaten, and then later finding out that the organizers of the event - our greatest supporters - are all subjects of systematic FBI repression, facing imprisonment, deeply affected the collective mind of Junkyard Empire. We frequently have reflective conversations about this point in our history as a band. We released Rise of the Wretched that same day. In fact, that protest was one of six or seven shows that week, what we called the ANTI-RNC TOUR. That was our first real direct activism as a band on the grand scale.

From there, we simply got more and more politicized, while also trying much harder to take our music to a more mainstream place, only in the sense that we wanted more access to potential audiences for what we are trying to say. The result of that re-assessment of our trajectory as a band was signing with MediaRoots Music to release Rebellion Politik. That experience changed me a lot as a musician. I had never worked with a producer before, which was a surprisingly refreshing and well, productive, experience. Rebellion Politik was also the first recording that I used my electronics pedals as a key ingredient in my own personal sound with the band, something that is now commonplace for me. I bring this up, because the musical evolution of this band is just as interesting as the increased movement participation. In our six years we have gone from being described as the "jazz version of Rage Against the Machine" in Political Affairs Magazine, to "like listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, fronted by Talib Qweli, with the rush of Rage Against the Machine when they still had something to say" in Okay Player.

Right around the time we released Rebellion Politik, I became possessed with figuring out how Junkyard Empire could go to Cuba to perform, show our solidarity with their struggle, and learn for ourselves what it is really like over there. I knew that Audioslave had done it, and that Mos Def had done it, and that others had done it, so why not Junkyard Empire? After all, we were basically unknown, so why would the powers that be even give a shit right? I'm sure they did, but whatever. The unmarked police cars outside of the house were not even undercover enough for the neighborhood 8-year olds to warn us about. We ended up, thanks to the good graces of a really radical lawyer, named Bill Martinez, getting invited on a 10-day tour and research expedition in Havana by the Cuban Ministry of Culture, and the Cuban Rap Agency. You heard me. It was a life-altering experience on a multitude of levels; just ask Graham, our drummer.

As radical as going to Cuba was, it got zero press. It was when we played at a peace festival on a huge Wisconsin farm called Pigstock 2009 that we really started to go to a new place as a band. Chris Hedges was the keynote speaker at that event, and it was through Chris that I was introduced to Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers. After emailing with them, sharing our music with them, and asking how we could help with their organizing work, we ended up planning a protest concert in New York City at Union Square Park on tax day last year. Zeese and gang organized a big B of A protest/flashmob thing that took place right after our live set in the park. That was April of 2011. Acts of Humanity was released in June of 2011. The association with Margaret and Kevin led to my participation in the October 2011 Movement Steering Committee, where they really took me under their wing and I got to see organizing big national actions from the inside out. Our organizing led to a live performance in Washington, DC on October 6th in Freedom Plaza, marking the beginning of that occupation, which is still going strong today. We were planning that action for several months before Occupy Wall Street was even a thought. It was an amazing experience to be planning an action we were referring to as an occupation and then spontaneously witness the birth of the "Occupy Movement" in New York a month before our event was to take place. I suddenly found myself, the band, and the country at a wonderful moment in history.

These kinds of convergences of interests continue to grow for Junkyard Empire, and for all of us in the band. Our FIFTH record, tentatively titled JUNKYARD EMPIRE presents: Sounds of Resistance, is going to be a kind of edited volume, for lack of a better term, that will resemble that interconnectivity. We will be not only featuring new Junkyard Empire material that is going to be extremely fresh and revolution minded, but spoken pieces from our favorite political dissidents, and some choice tracks from a few select fellow activist bands and artists. It will be released free on the Internet and we expect you share it like it's love itself. But most importantly, it will be recorded in the bitter, harsh Minnesota Winter, the reason there is so much great music coming from there, and it will be released on REBEL POLITIK RECORDS, our new cooperative activist music label.

Thanks world for letting me share my fortunate story, and to mark a milestone for Junkyard Empire, the band that has been at the center of my life since 2006. Wonder what we'll be doing on our tenth anniversary as a band. Brian, we need to decide what the official start of the band was. Get with me on that will you?

Christopher Robin Cox