Jesse Malin reveals his political journey with Ross McGibbon
A lot of Jesse’s songs are anthemic and about standing up for yourself or about downtrodden people. How did Jesse’s political outlook come about?
“I grew up at a time when my town’s people were pretty patriotic even though Vietnam had happened. It was the eighties and Reagan was in.
“I got involved in hardcore punk from being into bands like The Clash and The Ramones. I guess The Clash opened my eyes to how singing songs and politics in the street connected. How what you did, whether it was paying your taxes or paying for gas, what your money was going into affected life on this planet and other human beings. And that America was so great – we have this big fun stuff - but there’s a price to that and things aren’t distributed properly – there are such extremes. I came from a really poor house. My Mom got sick and it was very hard for her to have money to deal with medical stuff and we were always behind, struggling. I knew from a young age, but I couldn’t really describe it, my frustration at other people living a certain way and I guess the world’s full of that but when you start to see why some people have it so fat and rich and some people have it so bad and how there could be a difference….
“So, vegetarianism, how things are structured, feeding the cattle all this grain that could be going to feed people around the world. Things we could solve but we don’t.
“So I got more involved in bands like The Dead Kennedys and Crass and it lead me to other things – checking out books and radical magazines – and me and my friends got together and maybe we took it a little further because there are human imperfections in trying to be this perfect, anarchistic, autonomous human being and we would try and live that way and not eat any products that were part of any corporation and we wouldn’t try and be involved in leather, sexism, everything. We became kind of a hierarchy – everything we were trying not to be! Like the anarchy police!”
Kind of holier than thou
“Yeah, and that’s documented in the song Almost Grown – “the politics of punk rock church”. We always found the worst in things to criticise.
“Then I found ways in which political stuff didn’t have to be shoved down your throat from a soapbox. It could be done more artistically and still get the point across via things like The Jam’s Town Called Malice and Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA. Some people thought it was a tribute to America.”
Lack of listening skills!
“I just felt rock music should have that continuous connection to the street. There is a direct line to folk music, to traditional protest songs. As long as there is a sense of humour, a sense of melody and a sense of humanness to it, then it’s not like going to school and having people whack you over the head with textbooks. You take it from there and do the research. The Clash – Sandinista leads to ‘what’s my country doing in Central America’ so you dig deeper.
“Going globally, touring abroad, I realised what an impact we have on other people. Being from New York, I always thought I was from New York, not America! But that’s changed due to gentrification and corporate measures and chain stores.
“I mean - Bush II, September 11th, Iraq – I could just say ‘I’m here to entertain you’ and I like to entertain people, I like to go to the movies and laugh and escape but I like to find a connection to the real world. But being an outlet, a place to unify, a place to entertain and talk about the things they don’t want to talk about on the Britney Spears / Avril Lavigne channel.”
So what was up with your Mum?
“She died of breast cancer. A song on the new album, Broken Radio, is about her.”
Health care seems like a really hard thing to cope with in the States. We live in a bubble here, in Britain. We assume that we’ll get free health care.
“When you think of all the money we have in America.”
You grow up assuming that if you’re ill you’re knackered.
“You need good doctors and good doctors are really expensive. I got sick this summer and I didn’t have insurance and I’m really in a mess. I’m trying to get Medicaid to pay thousands of doctor bills because I got bit by some bug on the road. There was a bacteria in my blood that was eating into my spine. I had to come off the road and cancel V-Fest and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club tour I’m still feeling freaked out about it. We pay taxes but here you go – it’s very contradictory and very scary and it just shows how evil the system is. That basic thing ought to wake people up. Everyone should at least be able to get health care in a superpower country like that.”
There always seemed a contradiction between ‘I’m an anarchist’ and ‘I want socialised health care’.
“I think that there should be a place to have food and care as basic things. People should be able to eat and be taken care of when they’re ill. Otherwise there’s no humanity to society. It needs to be provided by a system.”
How much have your beliefs changed as you’ve got older?
How old are you?
“Nearly forty. Coming soon.
“I have a song called Aftermath on the record, that was written after seeing Yoko Ono on the street one day in New York. I started thinking about her and John and that whole generation of people who fought so hard for something and these two people tried to start a revolution with peace.
“That whole generation of hippies and yippees worked through how you go and make adjustments as you get older and have kids and how you still keep wanting to challenge the environment and wanting to radicalise things but still have to go to Toys R Us and buy the kids the latest toy. A balance – I was questioning that in that song – with your own conscience, looking in the mirror, knowing all the things we’ve learnt being outcasts of society and then, once you know it, what do you do? Are you going to sit back?
“For me, as much as you can put in and contribute to other people is the balance. Maybe not everyone wants to be the martyr and hang on the cross and just devote but there are people who just do and that’s their whole life.
“I do a lot of charity events – maybe ten or so a year. To do that and to make music and to sing about thing in my songs. To use what you can to impart information and not become an escapist love song artist – I think I try to speak about things on stage. I try and get people to think and enlighten them – not that I’m super-enlightened! I’m still learning but there is a balance and understanding of the human condition and that’s the difference to when I was fifteen. We ARE f*cked and flawed in a lot of ways and we can’t create the perfect society, y’know, unless we can create the perfect human being (laughs) but we could definitely do a f*ck of a lot better. It’s been proven in small groups and communes and how people treat each other. But there’s greed, there’s hate, and it works with fear and manipulation and media manipulation and it’s just how powerful people can stay fat by letting other people take the brunt of it. I’d like to see the back of that but I don’t know if it’ll be in my lifetime (laughs).
And with that hopeful message, Jesse Malin leaves us to tuck into his vegan supper before the gig later.
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