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Junkyard Empire: A Band that Wants to Rock the Empire

By staff

A photo of Junkyard Empire band members.

Junkyard Empire is a band from the Twin Cities that started out in 2006. They are a band with revolutionary music and revolutionary politics. Their lyrics and their music make you want to listen carefully and inspire you to want to take action.

Junkyard Empire’s two biggest musical influences are jazz and hip hop, but there is more there than that. Their CD, Reclaiming Freedom has a number of excellent songs, including Rock the Empire. Their soon to be released album Wretched promises to draw even more attention to the group.

In December, Fight Back! interviewed Junkyard Empire. Here are some excerpts from that interview.

Fight Back!: Junkyard Empire performed at the No Peace for the Warmakers anti-war protest on Sept. 4 at the Republican National Convention. While you were playing, riot police surged into the crowd to arrest people and the riot police started to surround the stage from behind. At the march after you played, almost 400 people were arrested after the crowd was repeatedly tear gassed. Tell us what that was like for you as a band to play in a situation like that? How did it feel to be part of the movement against the RNC? Do some of the lines in your song Alternative Energy refer to that protest?

Christopher Cox (trombone/keyboard/electronics): Playing that protest was by far the most perfect and memorable situation I have ever been involved with as a musician and just a man. To say that it was surreal when the riot cops came charging in on their horses, yelling through bull horns threatening tear gas would be the understatement of the year, for sure. I have a really photographic memory of the very moment when the horses began to close in on some protesters, along with a bunch of bike cops and so on. Making the decision to not only keep playing, but to actually honestly improvise directly off of the energy of that historical moment was deeply satisfying. I mean, even though it was a potentially very dangerous situation – a situation which actually could be made worse by us playing a song with the lyric “let lose your chains you deranged masochists,” I felt that I had a duty to keep raising my voice artistically during that moment, as long as I was being given that absolutely extraordinary chance. It was very empowering as a band, and as individuals, and it made all of our hard work feel so justified.

As for Alternative Energy, I think Brian [Brihanu] wrote those lyrics with the imagination of what a show like that might be like. That day, he got to see just how accurate his imagination was. Perhaps Brian will speak on that.

Brian [Brihanu] (vocals/raps): The feeling was surreal. It was a major adrenaline rush to have the power of the masses standing up for their rights against a massive police force who was there to make sure that our voices were not heard. The Alternative Energy lyrics were written before that show. They are based on previous experiences I have had at protests and demonstrations where the police were there to suppress the citizens and oppose our right to dissent to the injustice we see on a daily basis. The lyrics are also based upon a vision that we have about the kind of movement, energy, and demonstrations that we would eventually like to see at all of out shows… and in all facets of life when people see injustice.

Bryan Berry (guitar): I feel that performance and the whole week in particular gave me a tangible experience of the injustices that occur on a daily basis within the United States. As a middle-class white male, I am not often subjugated to police brutality and racial profiling in our society, but during the RNC all of the protesters were targeted as one group regardless of race, class or gender (that I witnessed at least) for what became a blatant exercise of a totalitarian police exploitation of power.

Graham O’Brien (drums): Playing at that rally during the RNC was truly a highlight of my career both as a drummer and a citizen. It was one of those rare moments when what you are doing aligns perfectly with what you believed, and our voices – everyone at the rally, including Junkyard Empire – were being heard. That was the first time I have been able to literally use music as a real-time protest. For a moment I thought, “Should we keep playing? What should we do? Are we going to get arrested? For playing music?” Then those anxieties turned into fuel for the next five minutes or so of the extended ending of our song, Wretched, which was perfect because that song is about people snapping out of it and making some noise in the face of authority.

Dan Choma (bass): I second Chris in saying that show was a particularly spiritual moment for the band. There was a moment as it was really hitting the fan my heart raced, I started to take pictures in between notes, and I wasn’t quite sure whether or not the police were going to start tear gassing everyone. Reality and musicality seemed for a few moments to be the exact same thing, which is especially frightening when the musicality I’m speaking of has to do with riots, chaos, unrest and the oncoming threat of violence.

Fight Back!: The name of your band and your song Rock the Empire both imply that the U.S. is an empire, or imperialist. That's almost a forbidden idea in the mainstream media. How have people reacted to that and to your political approach in general?

Brihanu: It’s not very hard to see that the U.S. is the most recent empire and that our goal is to use the earth and its people for our selfish needs. The U.S. has just been smarter about it than previous empires. We don’t say “We are conquering your land!” instead we say “We are bringing you democracy in the form of free-market capitalism.” If other nations resist our offer to steal their resources in the name of democracy, then we invent reasons to go to war – communism, terrorism, WMDs – and take their resources anyway. Anyone who thinks that the U.S. is not imperialistic is operating on a naïve assumption.

I think most people agree with our positions because we back it up with facts and also organize through our music. We don’t just say “The world sucks”, we ask “What are you going to do to help us change it?” We engage with people, we work with organizations and we back up everything we say with actions.

Berry: My perspective is this: Many Americans are in deep denial of U.S. economic and nationalist imperialisms. Rock the Empire speaks of this, but I feel that Manifest Destiny is really Junkyard’s response to these reactions. [ Manifest Destiny is one of their new songs, which will be released soon.]

Fight Back!: On your band's blog, you've written passionately against the Wall Street bailout and also on other important political topics. What are your thoughts on the relationship between music (and arts and culture more generally) and movements for social and political change?

Brihanu: Music is about life. Not all music needs to have a social commentary or be political, but that is the direction we are deciding to focus on. Due to mainstream media’s refusal to play music dealing with social change, you see a watered down idea of what popular music is supposed to be – i.e. stereotypical, misogynistic, materialistic, catchy hooks. Music should have more depth to it. There are a lot of talented artists that write political music; there needs to be a balance in the messages that are heard and the types of music that get broadcast to the masses.

Cox: I think music has always been, and will continue to be, an indispensable piece to the development of any successful social movement, whether the people and the politicians realize it or not. Music, with or without lyrics, has a way of motivating people’s minds at the molecular level, way deep inside. I mean, it was no damn accident that that Joan Baez was at that protest on the Capital Mall in 1968, nor should it have been a surprise that her voice changed the world, as a result of influencing the vibe there that day. Well, I could go on for days and days about the times in history when musicians, be they Woodie Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens or any of today’s protest artists, have taken a bold stand in utilizing their artistic platform to propagate information that the government and all its institutions have failed to release to the voting public. We are all about that. On our business cards it says, “music for the revolution.” People can look at that in the typical American cynical way and laugh or they can take us seriously. They should take us seriously.

Berry: I feel it is the responsibility of artists to speak out about the social and political atrocities of their time. I think anyone that is given a stage and the voice to do so, needs to represent their culture with honesty and integrity – politicians included.

Choma: Musicians, whether we admit it or not, are always going to be some of the first people to understand the first waves of what politics are doing to society. For whatever reason, In America, we view music as expendable. Look how we’ve stripped the arts out of our schools, look how we have cut back on funding towards arts, look how jazz musicians have traditionally done better overseas than they have at home. This means that when shit hits the fan economically, the first folks that feel the knife are the artists. Bryan, our guitar player, recent wrote a wonderful blog about how the minority of society have a better understanding of how to create a level society namely because they know everything that is wrong with it. As musicians, we fall into this same category economically because when it hits the fan, unlike a banker, we feel the heat immediately.

O’Brien: When a band or other artist proclaims to stand for something – a social cause or specific political issue – it’s a great way to engage other people in the community for not only the enjoyment of our art but for actions that are going to help our fans once they go home and continue with their lives. That being said, we are a band when the day is done, and our first and primary function is to captivate people with honest, strong music. Once that has been accomplished we can connect with listeners on our messages.

Fight Back!: Your new record is called Rise of the Wretched. Tell us about that record. Where does the title come from? How can people hear it and buy it?

Brihanu: The title comes from the song Wretched, where we talk about the masses of people that are oppressed and sleepwalking through life. It is a call to unify and organize so that we can stop being slaves and start living life. The inspiration for the word “wretched” comes from Franz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth, which is a political commentary on revolution.

Cox: From my perspective, Rise of the Wretched, as a phrase, speaks volumes, easily interpreted by those of us who are poor and struggling in this modern world of overt materialistic capitalism; of favoring the rich over the poor; the beautiful over the ordinary; the skinny over the fat, and so on. But to be more specific, there is an increasingly tiny, moneyed minority that basically runs this entire country necessarily at the expense of the so-called ‘people.’ The only way the powers that be in America can continue to operate the way they do now, is if they simply see the rest of us as stupid, dirty, unimportant, serfs to be utilized in the quest of the wealthy to get wealthier. We are “the wretched,” but what they don’t know is that we will inherit the earth, because imperialistic and fascistic folks always fail to prepare for when the people are fed up enough to take back what they built. This album is basically a call to arms, in that it urges the wretched to come together; to rise up and take back what we all collectively built.

Choma: You can buy our music online through our myspace. We also have a blog that we update regularly with our thoughts on what is going on in the music scene, the political arena and how society is changing. The two websites you should have on rapid fire on your Google machine are:

Choma: Also, if you live in the Twin Cities area or are lucky enough that we will be touring through your town, check out our shows. We all have a strong love for improvisation, so each show will be different and cool in its own way. The other advantage is that we allow you to name your price on our records if you come to our shows. So yeah, come to our shows, you won’t be disappointed.

A photo of Junkyard Empire performing at the RNC

A photo of Brihanu of Junkyard Empire and Jess Sundin of the Anti-War Committee

A photo of Brihanu of Junkyard Empire performing

Album cover of "Rise of the Wretched"

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