“Would the owner of an ounce of dignity please contact the mall security?”
– The Locust
What Justin Pearson has done and continues to do as an artist isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s a challenge. Perhaps it’s a threat. Notes and shrieks spray like bullets through the speakers. Our attention, so thoroughly-bombarded by the mass marketing of apathy, pacification, and complacency, is the target. While critics fawn over his work with The Locust, Dead Cross, and RETOX, Justin’s resume reads (and sounds) like a massive “fuck you” to a dying music industry’s lowest-common-denominator commodity complex. As a longtime fan, I’m here for it. A passive discussion with Justin Pearson might be possible. But when you have a minute with a punk rock guerrilla, why go passive?
Mimi: The first time I saw you perform was with the Locust back in 2000 at the Smell in L.A. At the time, it sounded to me like the audio companion to systems collapse. I mean no offense when I say that. It felt like a storm was brewing and the Locust was going to be the soundtrack. Eighteen years later, it seems to have been somewhat prophetic. Since then, we’ve had the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis, incredibly bleak news about climate change, and of course, Donald Trump. And all of this happening at a point where, with social media, we’re seeing the collapse in real time. I’m wondering what you were feeling, as an artist, that led to that sound? What was your environment like? Was there a relationship between the socio-political environment and what you were creating musically? How does an album like “Plague Soundscapes” fit today?
Justin: Thanks for the analogy of our sound. I think you are pretty accurate in that description. I think that music in a much broader platform, perhaps addressed just as art in general, can draw from non-musical aspects. Where one would ask a band what their musical influences are to understand what pushes them to do what they do, it might be just as important, or maybe even more important to address the things outside of music that are influential. Of course, what we do is subjective and anyone can interpret it how one wants to. And even with that being said, most of the time, for me at least, I am not even aware of what might have influenced something I was part of when it’s coming to life. So with The Locust and probably a lot of stuff I’m part of, influences come from social politics, culture, economics, and then it also brings in science fiction, absurdity, subversion, and probably a million other elements that helped shape what we do. I do feel, unfortunately in 2018, something like The Locust’s “Plague Soundscapes” is relevant, both musically and lyrically. Perhaps even aesthetically still relevant too. I grew up thinking that it’s the job of artists to reflect what the world that they live in consists of, and with that, it’s also their job to change it or influence change. But with all that being said, it’s just music, or just art. It’s not like we are great revolutionaries in the world. However, it is music that transcends certain things such as age, gender, language, geography, etc. It speaks to people, it enables people to do certain things, and at times, keeps people alive. But a lot of the stuff you mentioned, such as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as stuff like climate change and possibly the overall destruction of the planet, were already on our radar. Those were things that we were aware of at the time, so I wouldn’t call it prophetic, but more accurately just being aware of the world as a whole. Sure, before Rump managed to get into office, it seemed impossible and extremely absurd. But if you were to consider a lot that has happened previous to that, such as Vietnam, the assassination of Kennedy, the Nixon administration and Water Gate, even Reagan, a crappy actor, becoming President, it all seemed unimaginable.
On a basic musical level, I have always been drawn to what some might see as non-traditional musical elements. I grew up with stuff like PIL, Septic Death, This Heat, and even more known artists like Cecil Taylor, or maybe even Sigue Sigue Sputnik. So stuff like that coupled with not having a proper musical education possibly translated into the general realm of what I have been part of. And with those musical influences, they all seem to have depth to what they did. It wasn’t the run-of-the-mill lowest common denominator music that is often what is marketed on a larger level. I grew up really resonating with stuff that people thought was garbage.
Mimi: I think that the piece about the impact that outside influences can have on songwriting might be overlooked a bit. I’m glad you brought that up. Would it be safe to say that, with something like the new Dead Cross EP, we’re hearing that impact, or is there a concerted effort to put something together that has a specific sound? And shit, how are you feeling in 2018? I don’t know that I see many cases where artists are asked how they might be holding up emotionally. It’s such a big consideration within organizing and activism circles. How are we taking care of ourselves? Are we supporting another? Seriously, how are you?
Justin: I wish there was an easy answer. For me, what I end up doing, or being part of, usually stems from my subconscious, or comes from something that might include elements that I am not initially aware of. It’s the retrospect where I can fully study the outcome of something that I was part of. I can breathe and dissect it with ease and in peace (with myself). I think over the years, while everything that happened, tons of weird energy was exchanged and moved. It made sense to some degree, but it took time to really see the broader picture or possible understand the magnitude of something. I’m not sure if that makes sense or not. I suppose, the simplistic way to answer that part of this question would be that fortunately things seem to come organically, for the most part. However with that being said, organically doesn’t mean that it’s a simplistic way, or a peaceful experience, or that it comes from a natural space. So moving into the later part of your question, about the era that we are in, it’s grim in many respects. It’s more and more absurd. I feel a great deal more anxiety than what I felt in recent years. It seems that time might be running out. I can feel the tension in the air, and smell the shit that is lingering. But with that being said, I can see new ideas, I feel rad power from people, and change is being birthed and evoked in a lot of creative and powerful stuff. Man, this is a massive, massive topic to try to articulate and nail down in a simple answer. I guess over all, I see things being polarized. I do think that might be what was and is needed, to avoid the stagnation that seemed to keep everything at bay. For so long, I could see that nasty band-aid on everything was gonna fall off eventually. It sure seems to have fallen.
Mimi: The band-aid metaphor really strikes a chord, no pun intended. From where folks on the radical left stand, capitalism is a cancer that is consistently growing. Reforms are essentially band aids, providing some minor relief and perhaps offer a veneer of progress. But with each band aid applied, the cancer grows. It seems like we’re getting to a place where the band aids no longer offer that veneer, that hope. I mean, for so many oppressed communities throughout the world, there’s been no band aid. And I’m seeing little hints here and there that some are in the U.S. are becoming aware of that. In that context, do you have feelings about the potential impact of your music, whether it be RETOX or Dead Cross? Your audiences are living in that context. Do you feel any sense of responsibility to play a role in how we move forward? To how your audience perceives your output and where they might go with that perception? And I do acknowledge that, when I’m asking this, I know that this is some heavy shit. I know of very, very few artists who would be willing to engage in this kind of dialogue and I have tremendous respect for you in agreeing to participate.
Justin: It’s so interesting to do this interview. I’m also doing some press for the Dead Cross EP that just came out and to be honest, most of the questions I get are garbage, have no substance, and are not challenging aside from challenging me to figure out how to write something interesting to a vague irrelevant inquiry. So thank you for providing the opposite of that stuff.
As for the concept of responsibility, you are correct, that is a massive topic. I’m not trying to take the easy way out, but I don’t feel that I’m responsible for anyone aside from myself. When someone creats art that is in the public sector, it can reach one other person, or a million other people and I still don’t think that the artist is responsible for anyone outside of themselves. Maybe that is the part of me who identifies with the concept of anarchy. But for me, I feel I have aligned myself with people to communicate certain things, or even just one certain general thing. We then say what we have to say, maybe over and over each time we play, or with each album, and so on. We are calculated, educated, and aware, for the most part. Once we create that art, we can also learn from it, and adjust it, for the next attempt. Then we grow on our own, and hold ourselves responsible for our own actions and words. Or perhaps we adjust that thing being communicated and see if we can speak differently, and possibly set things straight outside of ourselves. A song is something that might not be linear, it’s not physical. It’s energy and that energy at times goes beyond language, class, race, geography, gender, etc. I think I might be going down a wormhole here, trying to figure out how to address the responsibility on an artist, but it might be the artist who are reflecting the world that they live in. It could be the world’s voice. At least it is for myself. So maybe the responsibility could be placed on the world that we live in, which is what created the art.
Mimi: Why do you think that questions posed to artists are frequently garbage? What do you think fans lose as a result? I mean, I know there are probably many who feel that’s “just the way it is” or that “it’s the nature of the beast”, but does it have to be that way? I also wanted to ask you, as someone who has been involved with the music business for quite some time, albeit not necessarily in the employ of the major labels, how do you think the music business might be different if it was run on a socialist model, where the workers owned and controlled production, where they had democratic control over process, and where the full value of their labor couldn’t be exploited from above?
Justin: I assume there are a few reason why interviews are garbage. For one, the person conducting the interview isn’t always invested in it. Perhaps there is some sort of need to get a piece about a band’s new album, so the publication just assigns the interview to whoever works there. I really don’t care to talk about how Dead Cross started, or what the date was when we put the band together, or why we play hardcore. You can Google those answers. And with questions like that, it’s void of conversation and substance. You can tell, even out of ten or so questions, where there isn’t one thing that is unique or specific to the band, that they are just uninterested. It’s almost like it makes more work for the band to come up with a way to spin something that won’t come off as boring and general just to locate some sort of substance. I’m not sure that socialism would play into making an interview be better for a certain publication. I think more so, it’s just people being lazy, or being told what to do, or people being uneducated, or perhaps it’s part of some facet of a broken industry. I have done way too many fill-in-the-blank interviews over time to really understand why they even still exist. You’d assume with the internet, and blogs, that people would be able to create new things and communicate about genuine things by people who are genuine. There are really awesome publications out there and great interviews do exist. But at the end of the day, I’m not in a place to pass up interviews, since they could help with a show, or a tour, or perhaps equate to at least one new listener.
Mimi: When did Dead Cross start? Just kidding. At the end of the day, while what you do is art, it’s also how you make a living. Do you feel that artists, and you specifically, are treated fairly for the work they do? And how do you think a broken music industry can repair? Is it possible? If Justin Pearson was tasked with fixing the music industry, what would he do?
Justin: Good one! Make a living? Another good one. You are on a roll here. I often reference this thing that John Waters once said to me, something like, if you want to make art that is legit and by your own standards, you have to intern for yourself for roughly forty years before you make money. So I’m half way there by those guidelines. But as far as fixing something like the music industry, shit. If I had an answer to that I wouldn’t be doing this interview. I’d be a wealthy philanthropist and my intern could answer this for me. But maybe there is no need to fix the industry, or at least no need for me to come up with a way to do so. It’s done a great job at killing itself over the past few decades. It’s been rude and arrogant. But with that being said, to me, the industry as it’s perceived, is becoming more and more irrelevant. I see music in a much larger picture. Music is more than sound for me. It’s part of something bigger that fits under the umbrella of art. There are aspects that are part of music, such as intellect, chance, aesthetic, and so on, that are never the industry focal point. Making profit was never an objective. And with that, we can take it a bit further. It wasn’t something that was done for fun. It was a necessity in our lives. It still is that very same thing.
Mimi: You wrote on your label’s website that you “started Three One G in hopes to better the quality and creativity of stuff that I was part of, as well as the music culture that I am part of — something obtainable, tangible, and real.” Would you say that, to achieve that goal, that hope, ownership (not in some sort of greedy “it’s mine, asshole!” way, but in a direct involvement way) of the process is necessary? And as possible advice for artists who might have an interest in taking a similar approach, what are you doing to realize that vision? Are there artists that may have forged a path that you’ve been following?
Justin: I mean, the creator of something is the owner. Or we could use a different term I suppose. Something less capitalistic, ha! But nonetheless, we own what we create in my opinion. Nonetheless, the concept of obtainable, tangible, and real is basically something that my ethics are derived from. You know, the basic ideals behind what “punk” was born out of, and what later became known as DIY. We all can do this stuff. I’m not special. We can all own our creations. We can also give that stuff away for $8.99 or for gas money, or a floor to sleep on, or whatever it is that we need to survive. Whatever we feel is suitable. As for artists who steered me on a path, I would say that Dischord was easily one of the biggest influences on my early life in the world of music. Then Ebullition, which I ended up releasing records on. And then later, perhaps Gravity. I think those tree labels are what have collectively made Three One G what it is.
Mimi: Dischord was probably the first time I’d seen some sort of ethics introduced on what might be called the “business” side of things. I still look at what Dischord’s done — frequently — and find inspiration. It’s like Ian MacKaye found a way to say “fuck you,” in a really empowering way, to the gross excess of corporate music. You mentioned a bit ago that you see these glimpses of power coming from the people. Are you seeing those glimpses in the music community? Are there things you might be seeing from your side of things that the rest of us aren’t quite yet? Where do you think music might be headed? Where might the industry overall be headed? I hear arena rock artists like KISS (fuck Gene Simmons, by the way) say that they might not make full-length albums any longer because there’s no money in it, that they won’t be paid fairly for their work.
Justin: My reference to power might be misconstrued. Power definitely has a negative or oppressive element to it. But I think I meant power more along the lines of energy that humans exchange, and sometime though music, and therefore, a positive concept. I suppose my terminology comes from stuff like The Stooges “Raw Power,” other than some bullshit spewed out by Ian Stewart. As for the music community, just like the music industry, I’m not sure I have answers there. I think outside of those guidelines. And again, if I knew where things were headed, I would prepare myself. I just have no idea where most things on this planet are headed.
Mimi: I just gotta ask. What does “punk” mean to you? Is punk inherently an expression of resistance or rebellion? If it is, do you think it’s a good sign when a band like Motley Crue covers a Sex Pistols song?
Justin: Awe, the “what is the meaning of life” question. I can certainly tell you what punk doesn’t mean to me, which is Sid Vicious, or the commercialized image of nihilism. To me, it’s cultural, political, social, progressive, and a million other things. Punk is James Chance deciding to wear a suit and play a sax since punk was said to be the opposite. Punk is The Weather Underground, pet rescues, re-purposing the bourgeoisie’s trash, the Me Too movement, sustainable living, Planned Parenthood – it’s everywhere.
Mimi: There’s been a lot that you’ve said that would be fairly-well in alignment with what we might call “radical.” The interesting thing about radical ideas, to me, is that when you say them out loud, they appear to be common sense, like they are just expressions of care and support. Yet, in the U.S., those ideas are packaged as being subversive or worse. Do you think we’ll see the day in this country where we’ll penetrate the propaganda surrounding radical/revolutionary politics and shift toward models that see people, not profit, as the priority? I mean, I think we can understand why the rich would have an interest in protecting their power and systems of exploitation and oppression. Do you feel like it’s a foregone conclusion that they will maintain that power? You’re going to have fans that will read this. What message would you have for them about the roles they might play in fighting that oppression and exploitation?
Justin: I do think ideas that were once looked at as radical are the norm now. It just takes times. Unfortunately too much time though. It’s like that saying, change comes one funeral at a time. When I was fifteen, and had to stick up for LBGTQ+ friends as well as myself, or when I decided to have a plant based diet, or even when I started playing music, all of that stuff was so out there, and people thought it was crazy. Now, all of it seems normal. Homophobia is not acceptable by any means, you can get vegan food just about anywhere now, and my first band sounds like stuff you hear on the radio or on TV now. It just takes a lot of time, but it will change. I’m not sure it’s necessarily a class thing though. I do feel that there are wealthy progressive people, who do good for the people. However, it’s the oppressive forces in charge who use the idea of having people hate downwards to keep others oppressed. We’ve seen it first hand, in our faces recently, with the white middle class hating the poor. But as far as a message to send, in relation to oppression and exploitation, I’m not sure. That is a massive space to try to fill with one’s ideas. I do think, no matter what class one falls into, it’s extremely important to pay attention where you spend your money and what it’s going to. That is the real way to vote, by how you spend, or don’t spend your money. We can bring down corporations by being smart and funding progressive entities and not the garbage ones out there.
Mimi: Before we wrap up, I want to thank you for doing this interview. I’ve seen very, very few artists agree to engage with a radical publication. Why do you think that is? And why did you agree to do this?
Justin: Perhaps a lot of artists are scared to make not be known where they stand on things. Or they don’t care to discuss such topics. I agreed for a couple reasons. I’ll pretty much do any interview that someone wants to do with me. I’m grateful for that in itself, being aware that someone cares to some extent about the stuff I am part of. But with you, I was pretty psyched to get into an interesting conversation. If anything, it’s a honor to have you want to talk with me about the stuff we have covered.
Mimi: Again – many, many thanks. I really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to do this. In parting, I think there are going to be a lot of radicals/revolutionaries reading this who are just learning about what you’ve done. What about you, as an artist, do you feel is the most important piece or takeaway that folks walk away with? Any parting words you might have for the comrades?
Justin: Speaking of how interviews pan out, the parting ways last words part is so fucked. Especially to fellow comrades. Ha! There is a lot that we should be discussing, and a lot that I could, or should say, but where do I start or what is punctual enough to wrap this up? I guess I can leave it with a quote that I reference almost daily.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference” – Elie Wiesel
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
Mimi Soltysik was the Socialist Party USA’s presidential nominee for the 2016 election. He serves as Secretary of the Socialist Party Los Angeles Local and the California state chapter of the Socialist Party USA. He works as an Educator for the Maggie Phair Institute and lives in Los Angeles, California, with his wife and two cats.