Scott M.X. Turner: The Devil’s Advocate
Scott MX Turner is the front man for Brooklyn, NY based Celtic-Punksters the Devil’s Advocates (and also the United 32’s and oh yeah a solo performer plus a Spunk Lad). The latest DAs CD, “Snipers In Derelict Houses” is benefit for the Pat Finucane Centre a civil right’s organization in Derry, Ireland. Thanks to Scott for taking the time and trouble….
(S’n’O) Who the hell is Scott MX? You have 3 band going (simultaneously I believe) plus a solo gig yet you are strangely low profile. What is your history and how did you become involved in this strange beast called Punk Rock?
(Scott) Oh, Christ, don’t ever ask a musician about “their history.” Unless you have lots of time to kill in a grisly way. In short, I grew up in New York and North Carolina, was in college to be a photojournalist, but then London Calling came out and changed all that for good. I dropped out, moved back to New York and have been in bands and day jobs — in that order — ever since.
Punk rock is a strange beast — especially now that its face is horrid, safe bands like Good Charlotte and New Found Glory. It’s amazing how contemporary punk is being used to make kids conform to MTV, Joe Lieberman and the Army of One.
Like I said, London Calling changed everything for me. My best pal Whit and I retroactivated our souls with The Clash, Pistols, Sham 69, The Jam, and all the two-tone bands back in ‘80, ‘81, ‘82. It was everything music should be — passionate, good tunes, great lyrics, enough energy to light small cities, and best of all, all the adrenaline 19-year-olds trying to figure out our future could ever need.
As for my flying under the radar, what with three bands and solo projects — that’s part the music biz’s inability to figure out anyone it can’t compartmentalize, and my inability to immerse myself in the music biz’s Byzantine currents.
(S’n’O) The lyrics are highly political in-your-face. How did you develop your beliefs and how important are they in the whole musical picture?
(Scott) I’m kinda crusty-of-age — 42 yrs. old. Which means my formative years were the very zany rebel ‘60s. Every night over dinner, Uncle Walter Cronkite beamed the news into my mom’s and my home — Vietnam, assassinations, spaceshots, the Cold War, Attica — okay, that was the early ‘70s. So much so that it felt normal…Dr. Seuss blended with Ho Chi Minh.
I still can’t imagine that ANYONE my age isn’t political. It coursed through schoolyears, even where the teachers did everything to pretend everything was normal. Our grades were the last to do duck-and-cover drills. Nothing normal there…we could see in our teachers eyes that desks weren’t gonna save our little asses.
I always paid attention to the news — current events and phys ed. were the only classes I aced. Then came the bands that sang about more than girls and parties and didn’t care about geetar solos and twelve-movement concept albums. When I started playing in bands, the ones just ahead of us proved you could write about important stuff, rock hard, put out a few ideas, and yet not hit people over the head.
I think it’s REALLY important to sing about what matters. Sure, there’re bands for whom fucking and getting drunk is all that matters. I think the music biz prefers them — its easier for a record company to answer to the PTA and Pat Robertson than to the Fraternal Order of Police, the FBI and the NSA when a band starts making REAL trouble.
Music and politics are completely interwoven, just like sports and politics. Anyone who disagrees either ain’t payin’ attention or is working for the Bush administration. Just playing music can be a political act, even if the song isn’t political. Even disco in the ‘70s was political, a liberation music for people of color, queers and folks who just wanted to dance without macho football players shoving Molly Hatchet down their throat.
So even if you don’t sing about race wars and struggles, don’t listen to or go see bands that do, you have to acknowledge that you’re a stitch somewhere in that political/cultural fabric.
(S’n’O) Did you ever have any doubts about your politics? How important is the message and what do you think of non-political gits like me that just like a good song?
(Scott) Everyone should have doubts about their politics. Question your own motives before others can do it. Because if an activist or a band with topical song goes out there waving two-minute-fifty-eight-second banners, people are gonna tear ‘em apart to see if they know what they’re talking about.
Spinal Tap’s famous quote was “there’s a thin line between stupid and clever.” As for doubting my politics, I’d say there’s a thin line between confident and arrogant. I’m confident in my politics. I listen to everything out there, whether it’s those boring shows on Pacifica Radio (good ideas on dullard radio that ain’t pullin’ the masses in) or Rush Limbaugh’s insane insecurity — like a rich straight white man has anything to worry about these days). I’m a lefty — I believe we should all look after each other instead of competing against one another. These days I believe that more than ever.
As for messages in songs, I put the song first and the message second. I’d rather listen to a great pop song like — don’t laugh — “Oops I Did It Again” than a putrid political anthem that condescends and clobbers people over the head. The trick, of course, is to write great pop songs with great lyrics. The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” Bruce Hornsby’s “That’s Just The Way It Is,” Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” are all Top 40 hits that carry a heavy message…but the tunes are infections, great!
If I wanted speeches, I’d subject myself to anti-war rallies these days. People like me who put politics into songs have to respect the song and the rhythm — they come first.
(S’n’O) Speaking of politics and music, Joe Strummer was to me the guy who put politics back into rock’n’roll. Any thoughts on his passing?
(Scott) Well, it’s closing in on a month since Joe left the building, and I’m still heartbroken. He wasn’t done, you know? He’d just hit his stride, again. The Mescaleros put out great albums and played great shows. Joe’s last performance was a benefit for the British firefighters’ union and his last song, apparently, was the one he wrote about Mandela to raise awareness about AIDS in Africa. Even when he was quieter — doing soundtracks for Alex Cox films and trying to create new things under the massive shadow of the Clash — he was a real inspiration. I saw him play his last New York shows — in Brooklyn, I’m proud to say. He still had it. He was 50 and still had it. What more inspiration could you ask for.
I think about his black guitar, the one he had ever since I saw The Clash for the first time at Bond’s in NYC in ‘81. The black guitar with the “Ignore Alien Orders” sticker on it. How’s it gonna get on now that its partner is gone.
Now that Joe’s gone, all of us he meant something to are gonna have to pick up the slack.
(S’n’O) Have you ever had pressure to change your lyrics? I know the Hudson Falcons took a lot of shit for some early songs about Ireland and stay well clear of that subject now.
(Scott) I’ve never been pressured to change a lyric. That’s one of the benefits of flying under the radar. They only care about your politics after you’ve passed a certain number of units sold. And sometimes, they want you to be difficult, if your controversy makes the bottom line all shiny to their shareholders.
I like the Hudson Falcons; we’ve played with them. They’re a thrilling band with lots of integrity. But it saddens me to hear they’ve backed down on singing about Ireland. Especially these days, when less and less people are singing about Ireland.
If I have to change a lyric, then what’s the value of the song that’s left? What’s the value of all my other songs that, by extension, were deemed “acceptable” because there was no request to alter a lyric?
(S’n’O) How did a guy in Brooklyn get so interested in Ireland and “the troubles”? I grew up in the South of Ireland and one of the most common beliefs was the Irish-Americans have no idea what’s really going on in Ireland and in most cases couldn’t even find the place on a map but are caught up on some old sod romantic trip (an example being SLF’s song “Each Dollar a Bullet”). From my own experience while most Irish-Americans don’t really know that much about the Irish situation they don’t care either and those who do care are often more informed then your average person walking down Grafton Street in Dublin. Any thoughts or comments?
(Scott) When you grow up, certain things resonate, for reasons unclear. Like I said, I was a news junkie as a kid, and news of the Battle of the Bogside, internment, Bloody Sunday, all jumped right at me out of the newspapers. With all that was going on back then, news out of the six counties hit me hard.
I didn’t grow up in a traditional Irish-American household. There’s no explaining it.
I read Trinity in the early ‘80s, and that was a first step. Once I got acclimated to Irish politics, I felt sheepish that Leon Uris was my portal in, until I heard that Trinity was part of the program for Republican prisoners at Long Kesh. I didn’t feel so goofus after that.
I got the rest of the way in through my wife and my record collection. In the 90’s, Diane George was an immigration lawyer who handled some high profile Irish political asylum cases, including the Meehan and McAllister families. Not long after we started dating, we made our first trip to Ireland. I got to see everything I’d only heard about — the seisiúns, Kilmainham Gaol and the GPO, the Bogside, “peacelines,” how big a plastic bullet really is. Some of the family members in one of the cases took us to the Felons Club on the Falls Road, which was a privilege. After that trip in ‘92, there was no turning back. We’ve been there every year since, either music or work for the cases or visiting with friends — including the Pat Finucane Centre, the human rights center in Derry that Snipers In Derelict Houses is a benefit for.
There were also bands that I learned about Ireland from — you mentioned SLF, and there was Ruefrex too, who also had a song very critical of Irish Americans’ involvement in The Troubles. Black ‘47, Christy Moore, Ray Kavana, Marxman, the Pogues, a lot of trad bands from the ‘70s. One band that I learned NOTHING about the Irish struggles from was U2. No…better to say I learned how to apply myself to all political affairs Irish by flat-out ignoring all of Bono’s rock-star blather.
About Irish Americans…there’s a wide range of knowledge about the six counties in this community. It runs from people who are selflessly devoted to a united Ireland — reading up on it every day, politically agitating, mounting campaigns, fundraising — to those who put on green plastic derbies and get pissed on St. Patrick’s Day. The Irish diaspora in the U.S. is certainly infuriating — the best and worst, tumultuous family.
One thing that bugs me to no end — Irish Americans’ conservatism when it comes to political issues that don’t involve the six counties. It’s frustrating that people who support a people’s war for independence in Ireland turn a blind eye to all the other progressive struggles in the world…and here at home. That’s a double standard that I’ve never, ever been able to process. And it hurts us. Hurts us badly, because other political groups — African Americans, Native Americans, queer activists, Asians and Latinos and other immigrant groups who see parallels between the Irish struggle and their own — support us. And then we refuse to get involved with their struggles. The solidarity dissipates, and at some point, we’ll find ourselves alone in ways that the words “sinn féin” were never meant to convey.
Maybe the average Irish American knows a little something about the war in Ireland — and you know the saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Whatever the median, it’s unfair of folks in the Republic to rag on Irish Americans. I agree with you that folks in Dublin, Kerry, Wexford — in spite of the history in those locales — bury their heads in the sand when it comes to affairs in the north. Maybe they’re too far removed — geographically, emotionally, politically. Maybe they’re scared of an economic downturn when there’s a 32-county republic. Maybe they’re safe in their “we don’t go in for sectarianism down here” arrogance…though the treatment of travelers and recent asylum seekers may belay that stance. And maybe some of ‘em buy into the fear that loyalist paramilitaries will strike all over Munster, Leinster and Connacht — a red herring, far as I can see. Feeding a populace pure fear is how power stays in power. It works for the Irish and British governments in Ulster…and it’s working for Team Dubya here at home.
The view of the north from down in the south of Ireland reminds me of West Germans’ take on their cohorts in East Germany. The GDR really wanted no part of reunification, fearing all sorts of troubles — primarily economic. Now Germany’s the big star of the E.U.
Reunification of Ireland won’t be easy. But it is necessary, and once the anxieties are overcome, an all-island Ireland will be a good, strong, diverse community.
(S’n’O) On your web page every Scott MX/Devil’s Advocate/United 32’s track is available for download and your sleeve notes include instructions about home taping. Have mp3’s helped spread your music or just dampened you CD sales or do you even give a shit?
(Scott) Of course I give a shit. I’d like to earn a living from music. Nothing that’ll show up on “MTV Cribs,” mind you. But it’s important to make music available. The internet’s good for that…at least for folks with access to the internet.
Mp3s are a great thing. Don’t forget, back in my mom’s day, you could go into record stores, take any disc into a listening booth, and try ‘em out. When the record companies and stores phased that out, we were left with the few songs that made it on to radio, and the grapevine. Now, with mp3s, we’re opening up the listening booths again.
The difference, of course, is that in the old listening booths, you couldn’t download songs for free and keep them. It doesn’t matter…there’re all sorts of ways to attract fans — with the mp3s, they’ll check you out the next time you play their town, buy your tee shirts, put you on their buddies’ grapevine. And a lot of mp3 downloaders still buy the album.
The record conglomerates, the RIAA, and assholes like Dr. Dre and Metallica — and all the others who worked so hard to shut down Napster — are blaming free downloads for everything wrong with the music biz, democracy, and the health of the planet.
Expensive CDs…corporate control limiting distribution…shit, disposable bands being jammed down our throats…good bands being given up on after one poorly-promoted album…drinking age up to 21 and far too few all-ages show…music execs who are biz-people first, music-people last…MTV/VH1/BET. Those are the things killing the music biz, not free downloads.
Back in the ‘20s, baseball teams initially refused to broadcast their games on radio. They were scared that fans wouldn’t bother showing up. Same thing in the late ‘40s with t.v. Of course, baseball attendance, and interest in the sport, skyrocketed. The music biz has to recognize fans won’t buy what they don’t know. And with but five major record labels — who’re doing everything they can to disrupt indies — it was getting harder for us to know.
The big companies are well on their way to figuring out how to harness this new technology. It’s important that music fans and bands hook up and use the new technologies together and, for once, freeze out the big dogs — instead of the other way around, which is how it usually plays out.
(S’n’O) What groups do you listen to and why?
(Scott) Asian Dub Foundation — South-Asian/London hip-hop/reggae/raga/bhangra, with great politics, beats, melodies and passion to spare. The best band going.
Steve Earle — there’s no categorizing his brave lyrics and great songs.
Seanchai and the Unity Squad — pushing Irish music to the next level while respecting its roots.
Ozomatlie — their rock/ska sound of East L.A. and their lyrics make them The Official Band of the Lefty Movement…and that’s a compliment.
The Roots — speaking of roots, these guys have great hooks, a great live show, and craft great hip-hop without resorting to crap lyrics about material things and disrespecting women.
The Clash — they showed me the way, and they’ll always have a place on my turntable…or tape deck…or CD player…or computer.
Midnight Oil — still doin’ the good work with great melodies.
Blood or Whiskey — Barney Murray’s heart is driven, and it comes through on all their songs.
Joe Strummer — his last two albums are what punk rockers with open minds should be listening to.
Farrell Burk and the Pollynoses — songs that fall through the cracks and churn up all the angst lying at the bottom.
The Boys of the Lough — everyone has their fave trad band. We danced our wedding dance to a Boys of the Lough waltz.
The Spunk Lads — the best of all the reuniting Brit punk bands from the ‘70s…and the only ones who supported Irish republicanism back in the day. (They still do.)
Tom Waits — you can’t go wrong with his heart, irony, mystery and true American stories.
Randy Newman — makes us face our demons, with great songs and courage.
Public Enemy — they still kick ass, especially that belonging to the bloated, sad current crop of hip-hoppers playing minstrel for the Man..
(S’n’O) Scott, thanks for answering my questions and thing else you’d like to say.
(Scott) Like I haven’t gone on long enough. Eat yer veggies and do whatever it takes to save the best show on t.v., “Firefly.”
The Pat Finucane Centre