Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Interview with Antibalas' Martín Perna

I had the privilege of interviewing Martín Perna, the founder of Antibalas and icon of the modern day afrobeat movement, for the forth time last week.  As always, he provided a multitude of interesting, thought-provoking insights into his music, his politics and life in general.  If you're a fan of Antibalas, but you're not familiar with Martín's work outside of the group, definitely check out all that he's done.  Antibalas may be that for which what he's best known, but he's played a lot of music in a lot of groups over the years (similar to the rest of the members of Antibalas):

Marc Gabriel Amigone: The last time we spoke, you were in grad school at UT-Austin.  Are you still in school? How do you spend your time when you're not touring or recording with Antibalas?

Martín Perna: I'm done. I earned an M.Ed in Educational Technology from University of Texas-Brownsville. It was all online, and taught by regular members of the UTB faculty with courses mirroring what's taught in the classroom. I wanted to have the experience of being an online student and experiencing good online teaching and I definitely got it. I have been involved in educational projects since I was in high school, working at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and facilitating learning has always been important to me. Touring makes it difficult, but now I've been working with Dubspot (an electronic music institute in NYC) to help build a division of their online school, as well as design curriculum for their NYC-based classroom courses.  That's taken up a lot of time in the past two years but it is a valuable investment of time in a few ways. First and foremost, it is our job as musicians to educate as well as entertain. If we don't educate people about how to understand music, its history, and its historical context, very few people will really appreciate the music and what it takes to make it. Second, I am following in the path of a lot of my elders as far as continuing to be creative while planting roots in some type of educational institution. Things are changing so fast that all of us, whatever we do, have to be crafty and wear lots of hats in order to make ends meet.

Outside of that, and all the travel, that doesn't leave too much time. I spend the rest with family, and working on other songs and figuring out what best works for Antibalas, Ocote Soul Sounds or other collaborations.

I'm just getting acclimated to Houston--I'll be here on and off for the next two years but still with roots in Austin and NYC (for work). Houston is fascinating. Very diverse and multilayered, and enormous. It's now apparently bigger than Chicago.

MGA: You mentioned onstage in Brooklyn a couple weeks ago that when you guys started out playing in New York, there sometimes were more people on stage than there were in the audience.  How did it feel to play in front of such a big crowd in the city where the band was born?

MP: It was definitely gratifying. It was a privilege to share the music with a lot of people, but I was more wrapped up in the good energy of the family reunion happening backstage.

To play for an audience of 7000 people was great, but we've had copies of our albums that barely broke 7000 legal sales. It would be great if all the people that dug our music pitched in to help sustain us like they might have with a band they liked in 1992, pre-download era. 

MGA: It's been 14 years since Antibalas was founded.  How would you describe the evolution of the band in that time both in terms of sound and personnel?

MP: There are definitely different historical eras, defined by where we were playing, clusters of musicians in the band, etc. There were times when we were sloppier, but a lot more spontaneous. I would say our current state is very precise and measured, but since we're going on tour and playing night after night for the next 3 months, we'll be able to develop and re-establish a lot more spontaneity. The music is elastic and after we play it awhile, it will inevitably stretch out in different ways.

Personnel wise, the core of about 7-8 musicians has been solid for 8-10 years now. In the past 2 years, we got a new bassist, Nikhil Yerawadekar, who began playing with the group as a rhythm guitarist, as well as drummer Miles Arntzen. They play well together and we have a lot of momentum with them. 

MGA: How does it feel to be garnering attention from mainstream media outlets like late night TV shows?

MP: It's too early to tell. The ultimate reason why we did it was so people would come out to see us live and check out the recordings that we've made. It was a crazy privilege to be on the show, but it was just a tiny sip of what it is we really do. It would be nice if there were more national shows like Soul Train, Old Grey Whistle Test, Austin City Limits, etc. that had more of a focus on live performance and getting to the work of different bands.

MGA: How did recording Antibalas at Daptone Studios in Brooklyn affect the creative process and execution of the record?

MP: It was hard work, but a lot of fun. It was demanding in that we recorded to tape and there was little room for error and no computerized cut-and-pasting to make things sound right. As such, there are a few imperfect stitches in the musical tapestry that we hope make it more unique and sincere. It was great to get to spend so much time with the band, all thinking with a common mind and purpose. Gabe Roth helped us make some hard decisions about song choice and arrangements, as well as some compositional and harmonic suggestions that really opened up the songs for us.

MGA: What's the song writing process like for the band?  Does one person generally start with an idea and then invite collaboration, or do people generally have a song written in their head from start to finish before bringing it to the group?

MP: It really depends on the song. More and more we're seeing them come from one or two people. Jamming and creating collaboratively takes a lot of time and space and unfortunately we haven't had that luxury in a while. 

MGA: Why did you go with a Self-titled approach for the fifth full-length LP?

MP: As I've said in quite a few interviews, we feel like this is the album that best represents the group. We thought of some other titles but this one stuck.

MGA: It sounds on the record, and felt when watching you guys perform, like you're channelling Fela's afrobeat more on this album than you have on others, particularly Security (your last full-length).  The structure of some of the songs (Dirty Money, The Ratcatcher, Sare Kon Kon) the direct political messages, the call and response lyrics are all very typical (to my ears at least) of Afrika 70 song structures and formats.  Was that something intentional, to simplify things?

MP: I don't know if channelling is the right word. Afrobeat, as a musical form is perfect and balanced, just like an arch is in architecture. Does every architect who uses the arch in a building channel the inventor of the arch? Maybe, maybe not. Aesthetically, The difference between "Antibalas" and "Security" had a lot to do with the producer, as well as the studio facilities. McEntire was the first and only engineer we've made an album with that's used digital, as well as synthesizers. We experimented with those things, as well as a lot of odd, non-Afrobeat sounds and textures on quite a few songs. Gabe Roth is coming from much more of a classical place than John McEntire, as far as looking at afrobeat as a form with lots of structural elements that should fit together in a certain way, and sound best with a certain type of presentation. I think the album reflects that. However, there were a few b-sides that we recorded that are quite different from Fela's classical models of afrobeat. 

MGA: As the country gets ready to elect a president, what is your outlook on the social and political spectrum of the United States today?

MP: I am really weary in a lot of ways, but not losing focus. A lot of very ugly politics have re-emerged in the past four years, particularly racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. These have been used to stoke fears, create scapegoats, and often times make millions of people vote against their own best interests as well as the best interests of the country. Fundamentalism here is pushing to be as bad as it is in Islamic countries, as far as blending patriarchy with state authority and selective interpretations of holy scripture by often hypocritical, out of touch men. In addition, we're seeing a huge transfer of wealth from the lower and middle classes to the rich and super rich, who in turn use this to continue rigging political and financial systems in their favor. In short all of us need to be paying attention, voting, organizing, and having sincere conversations about what the consequences of economic and social policies are, and how they can be inclusive and more sustainable.

MGA: I remember you telling me you campaigned for candidate Obama in 2008.  How did you get involved last time around and what is your opinion of Obama's first four years as president?

MP: I was going to pick up some free tickets to see him at a speaking appearance in Austin, and the guy in charge saw that I spoke Spanish and recruited me to canvas door-to-door around Austin, particularly in bi-lingual neighborhoods. The best part about it was the group camaraderie, and getting to have sincere discussions with total strangers in the greater Austin area. While I was out canvassing in a rowdier part of Austin, I was chased by two stray pit bulls and crashed my scooter into a utility pole. My bike was wrecked. My head was bleeding, my ribs were stinging, and I had to go to the emergency room to get x-rays. The scooter repairs cost more than the small stipend that I got for helping the campaign, and I still don't have proper health care, and this contributes in no small way to me feeling bittersweet about the past four years. Obama is brilliant in a lot of ways, and I guess he had to do his due diligence by trying to include everyone across the spectrum in discussions, but he didn't really have a grip on how easily people are manipulated, and how many racist folks really don't want to have a Black president, period.  People also overlook the fact that he's deported more people than George Bush, and other things that are more typical of a right-wing president. The drone wars, foreign prisons, Guantanamo--that is all shameful and he's done nothing to address that in any substantial. Instead, he gets the Nobel Peace Prize. Part of our job is getting organized so that there is a broad base of support and strategy for an America that's not hell-bent on empire, but it's not anywhere near that yet.

MGA: Do you notice a big change in the energy and enthusiasm surrounding his campaign from 2008 to 2012?

MP: There is definitely a big change of energy from 08 to 2012. However, I think a lot of people will support him because he is not Romney, and because in his second term he may have the experience and/or the political will to establish some things that we all need and would benefit from, whether its bank regulation, health care, scaling down or eliminating the war machine, dealing with the prison industrial complex, etc. I think it's the French who have a saying something like "we will vote, but holding our noses" meaning that there is a conscious critique of what stinks about the candidate but also a realization that at this point, this is the best we've got. It's our own collective fault for not believing in, participating in, supporting, and sustaining other options, at least not as far as the presidential election. Local and state elections are another story, equally important but with more possibilities for breaking up the false dichotomy of Republicans and Democrats.

MGA: Is part of the message and mission of releasing this album to wake the American public up to what's happening around them and inspire them to act?

MP: That's embedded in there, for sure. Particularly on "The Rat Catcher" and "Dirty Money". The Rat Catcher was written several years ago after the "War on Terror" began. Like millions of everyday Americans and people across the world, we experienced all types of losses of liberty but no increase in feelings of safety. The song talks about the paradox of a world where we make misguided efforts in order to become safer and imprison ourselves in the process. It is definitely a critique of the US creeping, and sometimes leaping, towards fascism.

Dirty Money is a critique of the way the financial system is rigged, and various aspects of it. The video that we made and the puppet imagery used shows a few ideas--first, the widening discrepancy between executive pay and worker pay, as well as the ways that disaster capitalism--corporations profiting off of misery and disaster without alleviating the conditions--is a major part of our economy, via prisons, pharmaceuticals, crisis relief, foreign aid, military aid, etc.

I don't ever see us as having the mantle of the "political band of the moment"--we are all dealing with our own internal contradictions just like everyone else. Our CDs are made of plastic. We burn loads of fuel and create lots of carbon when we take airplanes...that's just the tip of the iceberg. However, that's because of the paradigm. If there were a biodiesel or solar boat that could get us to Europe quickly, safely, and affordably, we'd take it. However, our options, whether it's food, fuel, shelter, are limited and come through much more powerful and centralized channels. For example, in Houston, Texas it's easier to find grapes from Chile than it is from a vineyard in South Texas.

However, it's important to be part of a larger culture of resistance, of groups who are using their voices to imagine better ways of doing things, better ways of living in the US and the world. No single group can do it alone.

MGA: What does the (foreseeable) future hold for Antibalas?

MP: We will be doing a ton of touring across North America, parts of Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand between now and Spring 2013. We have a lot of new songs in the oven and we'll be working on them a little bit at a time while on tour so that hopefully we'll be ready to go into the studio sometime late next year.

In the meantime, Daptone will be releasing one or two 45s with unreleased songs from the "Antibalas" sessions. We'll also be doing some collaborations with various musicians, as a group and also with clusters of musicians from the band.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Martin sounds like a pretty fascinating dude.