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From Monument To Masses

“How can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice? We need noise…”
– Refused

“The work: to make revolution irresistible.”
– Toni Cade Bambara

Revolutionary. While it’s become increasingly difficult to refrain from rolling one’s eyes whenever one hears the word, it’s even harder not to use it when describing From Monument To Masses. This San Francisco area three-piece, founded in late 2000, is constantly pushing the boundaries of instrumental post-rock–combining layers of guitar loops, driving polyrhythm and breakbeats, and sampled sound into emotional, ever-changing song structures. FMTM’s music has always moved away from the pop music standards of lead vocals, verse-chorus-bridge song structures, and radio-friendly song lengths. But there is a conscious limit to their instrumental experimentation… a desire to stay away from the suffocating artsiness of highbrow indie wankery in favor of tunes that remain grounded in a driving rock sensibility.

Among FMTM’s influences, stand out artists like Refused, Fugazi, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and DJ Shadow who are particularly inspirational for their ability to combine progressive sounds with equally progressive political ideas. Living in the Bay Area, it’s no wonder that their music celebrates political activism and social change. The group has always held that art cannot exist independently from political struggle.

With their latest album, “Schools of thought contend.”, FMTM chose to collaborate with a diverse group of artists as well as record two new studio tracks. The result is an album that showcases the band’s new musical directions and presents radical interpretations of songs from their previous full-length, “The Impossible Leap in One Hundred Simple Steps.” with sounds ranging from indie and electronic pop to drum&bass and post-rock. “Schools of thought contend.” is not some “throwaway” remix album but a true notch in FMTM’s discography that the band attests is as vital, representative, and artistically challenging as its last two albums.

From Monument To Masses:

Francis Choung – drums, keys, programming
Sergio Robledo-Maderazo – bass, keys, samples
Matthew Solberg – guitar, loops

This is an interview with From Monument to Masses James Tracy recently did for Left Turn magazine.

From Monument to Masses (FMTM) proves that creating politically engaged music doesn’t mean sacrificing artistic form. Their complicated, textured music in virtually lyric-less opting to sample political speeches and soundbites from the global intifada. Left Turn sat down with Sergio Robledo Moderazo and Matthew Solberg just after a US Summer tour to talk about the rock and roll and revolutions past and future.

LT: FMTM rips apart the basic formula of a protest song-lyrical, anthemic, and direct and replaces it with long, textured songs with samples of political speeches and rallies. How does this break with tradition help you get your message across?

SERGIO: Well, on an artistic level, it helps because it sort of sets us apart stylistically from much of what’s out there in terms of popular music, whether we’re talking about protest music or otherwise. This is always a good thing when you’re trying to get people’s attention.

From a political perspective, there’s something to be said about presenting the words and people’s movements, organizations, and activists using samples…actually letting people hear them in their original voices. There’s something immediate and “real” about that. Much of the perspectives and voices that we feature in our samples have been left out of mainstream politics in general and definitely out of popular culture. I like the idea of re-inserting them…featuring these unheard voices and perspectives when no one’s looking. It’s like we’re sharing the stage and the airwaves with people’s struggles all over the world.

LT: How important is it to create movement-minded culture today?

SERGIO: It’s always important, whether we’re talking 2006 or 1006. At all times it’s important to create politically-minded culture, especially that which tries to highlight the issues of everyday people…the “masses”, if you will. In any society, the mainstream culture reflects the foundations of society, especially its economic foundations. If those foundations champion the welfare of a small minority at the expense of the overwhelming majority of citizens, then the mainstream music, art, and culture tend to reflect that…to support it. I think all artists need to at least be aware of this and question how their art stands in relation to society. Does it support the “good” things…the “just” things about society?

Does it promote change or acceptance? Does it champion exploitation or apathy? These are all questions that I think all artists need to ask themselves. Some are conscious about it…others just don’t bother. I can understand why. We’re not exactly taught to celebrate critical thought or politics. We’re told by mainstream culture that music should be “fun” and “light”…don’t be too political or too “preachy”. But I just want to point out that kind or perspective definitely serves to maintain the status quo rather than move people to be accountable for the world around them.

As for today…the 2006 reality of post-911 with its War on Terror and increased landscape of fear and political repression… I’d say it’s definitely-extra-super-absolutely important to create politically-minded culture. There’s a lot happening that demands critical artists to create art that makes people think…that challenges us to take a look around at the world around us and question the current state of things.

LT: Have you discovered any good ways for your band to support movement organizations beyond just playing benefits?

MATTHEW: We’ve played some benefits and we do like to contribute in that way. The problem with benefits though, is that frequently the people who are beneficiaries of the benefit are invisibilized. Often a benefit raises money without raising consciousness. Despite the fact that organizations need funding badly, playing benefits like that can be a drag. We’ve also done several shows that were community-building events, not fundraising benefits; all the people whose labor went into making the show happen were paid. That seems like one alternative to playing benefits. I’d say another way is talking to folks at our shows around the country and around the world about their conditions, their feelings, and their political perspective. When we’re on the road and folks want to discuss politics with us, that’s maybe the greatest part about being in this band. Every now and again, folks want to know how to get involved… or folks are already involved and want to say thanks to us as Comrades. That’s not to say that we are “organizers” in the work of From Monument to Masses. We are just cultural workers trying to create a culture of resistance — maybe to inspire and motivate. But if we have an opportunity to turn someone on to a new perspective or to an organization that needs them, hell yeah.

SERGIO: Hmm…I’d say the best way to support movement organizations is to find one and join it. It’s really important that all people belong to a space where they’re hooking up with other like-minded individuals to try to make change. Being in a progressive band is good and can help out, but there’s nothing that helps one learn more about making real change in the world than actually committing to being a part of an organization and struggling through the challenges of organization or movement building. That’s where real change is gonna come from…from people being organized and building people power. How can we, the masses, expect to change the world if we can’t even commit to working with 10 other people?

Other ways that we as a band have helped is by spreading awareness about organizations and encouraging people we have conversations with at shows to check out the work that people are doing. I think that’s really important. It’s not enough to tell people, “You should be aware of this issue.”Educating’s good, but I like to have conversations about issues but also encourage people to join an organization that addresses these things. It’s all good for people to “know” about issues, but it’s way more important that people work with others to do something about them.

Oh, and of course I think it helps to “spread the word” through interviews like this one. I think the fact that there’s these guys from a “rock band” talking about how important it is to join people’s organizations is helpful to all organizations. Not because it makes joins orgs “cool” or anything silly like that, but just because it’s not something you hear a lot. I think most people think that joining something is silly or not worthwhile. That’s something that’s been ingrained in our culture…like joining a political organization is stuff crazy people, college radicals, or old people do. They look at it as “volunteering”. Ha. But nah…it’s about building people power. I keep saying that, but that’s cuz I believe it.

LT: Are you ever faced with serious ethical issues as an independent band rapidly growing in popularity?

Matthew: Yes and no. Our main concerns as a band are making the band financially sustainable and delivering an anti-imperialist message, albeit a loosely rendered one, to listeners. These goals go part and parcel with bringing our music to as many listeners as possible. The ethical issues we encounter at this point usually have to do with our goals and economic imperatives not jiving with the values of some promoters, bands, and audience members. We’ve played a couple of Clear Channel venues and have caught some flak for it. When we play those shows, do we feel great about working for a monopolist media mogul? Definitely not. Do we feel good about bringing a different style of music and some radical voices from history and today to a venue that rarely if ever sponsors that kind of thing? Yep. Thing is, I can’t see us changing our music or toning down our politics in order to be accessible or to make money… but if businesses sell our records and promote our shows, then capitalism proves once again that it can sell rope to hang itself.

SERGIO: Well “rapidly growing in popularity” might be an overstatement. We’re definitely not on MTV or anything. I’d venture to say that we generally operate under most people’s radars. So far, it hasn’t been an
issue. I could see how some would be conflicted. Personally, my “ethics”aren’t necessarily averse to the band growing bigger or rapidly. I think it would be helpful. There’d definitely be challenges along the way, but that’sjust life. So we’ll just have to assess and make adjustments at every corner.

I think if there’s anything that the growth of the band has complicated it’s just our schedule and the issues related to our capacity as people and as a band. That’s really wordy. But, for example, since we’re getting busier and busier and we have to think about the “welfare” and “success”of the band, it sometimes gets harder and harder to schedule things like benefit shows. I gotta be real about this. It gets tough sometimes to do the benefit shows when clubs put a window around when you can / can’t play in a certain city so you don’t effect the turnout at their show. Then it becomes a question of what we prioritize, and it’s hard. Some of the die-hard independent musicians and music fans out there might think this is a cop out. So be it if that’s what they think, but I think we gotta consider the context we’re making music in. Because what I think a lot of people don’t consider is the economics of being in a band. We’re cultural workers. There’s a lot of time, energy, and labor that goes into us doing From Monument To Masses stuff. Under capitalism, you gotta hustle…we sell our labor in the form of playing shows, recording, creating merch, etc. We’ve got expenses like rehearsal space rent, van rental, gas, equipment costs, and so on. Plus we have day jobs. Just like everyone else, we have to pay rent, eat food, and so on. So that means, for example, when we tour, we’re losing wages from our day jobs. So these things come up when you’re asked to do a benefit show for free. I’m just tellin’ it like it is. That’s not to excuse us for not doing benefits, but rather to educate people on the fact that we’re all fucked by capitalism, even the “glamorous” rock bands.. So it’s not so much a matter of “ethical issues” but more a matter of having to face the realities of the system we live in.

LT: Can rock music still be a vehicle for change or has capitalism made it completely useless in that regard?

SERGIO: Capitalism is a temporary reality. It hasn’t “won” anything nor has it rendered any form of resistance against it useless. That’s not my blind “faith” saying that, but my understanding of a bigger picture. From my study of history, I’ve found that music and art have been vehicles for change
during the times when slavery was a means of producing wealth, during the feudal days of landlords and kings, and throughout the development of the system we now call capitalism. And music and art will be catalysts for change even after we move past capitalism into the next stage of history…when there will be a whole new set of things for human beings to work out.

Granted, capitalism has turned music, like everything else, into a commodity. The stuff that sells the best is the stuff that celebrates or tolerates capitalism simply because that’s the crap the capitalists and
corporations push the most (eg the stuff they advertise and make accessible in all fine retail outlets). That’s not a “conspiracy theory”…that’s just “good business sense”. You sell the stuff that’s gonna keep you in business.

With that said, it seems like it’s hopeless for rock music to be a vehicle for change. But I don’t believe that. I can’t. That’d only make it easier for them. Ha. Rock music and all music can tell the stories of everyday
people…their struggles and glories. Music can raise consciousness and even move people to take action. Springsteen did it. Bob Marley did it. Marvin Gaye did it. U2 did it. Refused did it. 2Pac did it. Rage Against The Machine did it. Ozomatli’s doin’ it. Dead Prez is doin’ it. DJ Shadow’s doin’ it. Talib Kweli is doin’ it. Radiohead’s doin’ it. There’s a bunch of activists in the Philippines doin’ it, I can tell you that for sure. Shit, there’s guerrillas all over the world writing songs of revolution as I type this. The point is, rock music can be a vehicle for change. People can argue over which music is really making change til their blue in the face, but I guarantee that somewhere out there right now some teenager is listening to a piece of music that’s making her think critically about the world around her. That piece of music might lead to a life of questioning, speaking out, and joining others to make change. Seems ideal right? But happens. It happened to me and a bunch of folks like me. So don’t count music out just yet.

MATTHEW: I believe strongly in the potential of music. I think all music has the potential to motivate people in a lot of interesting directions. Despite the fact that most of mainstream music today has zero political content and the majority of progressive political voices in music come from the independant or underground bands, I don’t believe that situation proves any theories that only independant bands can be politically vital. There have been some very powerful underground bands who have, as individuals, demonstrated a real commitment to the Work and it comes through in their music. Submission Hold, Los Crudos, and The Ex spring to mind as just a few examples. These bands, however, were/are commited to staying “independent” and flying below mainstream radar… staying “pure”… playing shows
for a pre-existing audience who participate in a genre-specific scene… preaching to the choir, so to speak… and not acknowledging that independent record labels in the USA, as wonderful as they are, are still a micro-market within capitalism. What I mean to say is that Dischord Records, for example, is a teeny tiny little version of Sony. What I really mean to say is that the incessant struggle in the independant or “alternative” music culture for purity or non-complicity in the system of capitalism is, on the individual level, unwinnable… plus it distracts people from more relevant struggles. Those being: What’s really going on here? Who is dying? Who are being murdered or systematically starved to death? Who is being deported? Who can’t find work to feed their family? And WHY? And, if I’m living relatively comfortably in the First World, then what, beyond my consumer habits, can I do help create a more just world? Those are the questions that conscious bands need to raise regardless of whether they’re on a major or indie label. So long as music keeps raising those questions in peoples’ minds, it seems like a vehicle for change to me.

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