Interview by Thierry Somers
Photos of Matt Johnson – Oscar Seijkens
Photos of London – Matt Johnson
For the full 16 page in-depth interview you will have to read 200%. Details about where to buy the bookazine can be found via this link www.200-percent.com
200%: What do you think of the state of the world we live in today and do you think there is a lack of music that confronts the issues we face?
Matt Johnson: Is living in today’s world really less secure than living through the rise of fascism in 1930’s Europe or with the threat of nuclear annihilation during the height of the Cold War? I’m not certain it is.
Personally I don’t think younger people today are any less politically aware or active than their 1960’s and 1970’s counterparts – remember, on the eve of the Iraq war there were some of the biggest peacetime political demonstrations in history. The world is teeming with passionate people who are dissatisfied with the way things are being run in our name.
200%: Why do you think that American artists in the 60s like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger and the Punk generation in the UK in the 70s felt the urge to express their discontent and write music with political content whereas today’s artists hardly show any interest at all?
Matt Johnson: When we think of the 1960’s and the 1970’s as an era of great political song writing are we oversimplifying and overrating things somewhat too? Were they really that much better than the 1940’s, 1950’s or even the 1980’s come to that? Yes, there were a handful of very powerful innovators to be sure but there were also so many copycats and bandwagon jumpers that the picture becomes very blurred when peering back into the rose-tinted fog of time.
200%: Because record companies believe that political pop music doesn’t guarantee instant commercial success?
Matt Johnson: Due to the fashion of our times, political song writing is not that commercially desirable to record companies at the moment, therefore it probably doesn’t appeal to many young bands, whose main concern is celebrity, so it’s much a question of fashion and commerce as deeply held beliefs on the part of many songwriters.
200%: Are there any artists you can think of today who make interesting music with political content?
Matt Johnson: A large part of the problem is the intense concentration of ownership in the media since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in the US. This allowed a company like Clear Channel Communications, a little-noticed media giant, to quietly take over many of the country’s radio and concert industries. This was a devastating blow against originality and diversity in the American music industry. It’s no coincidence that more and more so called ‘alternative’ and left-field artists are now allowing their music to be used in advertising campaigns. It’s because it’s becoming almost impossible to get on the radio and you actually get paid too! Which is quite novel really.
200%: What’s in your opinion a good political song?
Matt Johnson: The most effective political song is one which, for the listener, triggers feelings of empathy, inspiration and hope. Reaching people on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. Articulating what the listener may have strongly felt yet not quite formulated into thoughts and words ad help people realise that they are not alone.
200%: Which artist/pop groups do you think have written good political songs?
Matt Johnson: When I first thought about this question I really thought I’d have too many songs in mind. But upon much reflection the list is much smaller than I thought. Also, I realised after writing out many of my favourite political songs that most were either by or about black people. Make of that what you will. Perhaps there has to be a certain amount of tension and oppression for great music to come about?
‘Strange Fruit’, popularised by Billie Holiday but actually written by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol, under the pseudonym ‘Lewis Allen’. This song became a regular part of Holiday’s live performances and she apparently approached Columbia records about recording it but was refused due to the subject matter. She then recorded it with Commodore, a smaller alternative Jazz label. It become the anthem of the anti-lynching movement and may well have helped plant some of the seeds in what was to later become the civil rights movement. It is a shining example of the power of songwriting. (FOR THE FULL LIST PLEASE VISIT www.200-percent.com )
200%: Have you got the idea that songs with political lyrics can change the world?
Matt Johnson: I do think a great song can provide a certain focal point but any lasting change has to come about by mass movement (as in the earlier example of ‘Strange Fruit’ and the anti-lynching and civil rights movements) and not by a single individual’s contribution. Songs and music are just threads in the wider fabric of our culture, not the fabric itself. I don’t believe in figureheads but I do believe in mass movements. As soon as you have figureheads and personality cults you have the poison of ego, megalomania and the struggle for power. That’s where the trouble starts.
200%: Which political issue in the world screams for a political song right now?
Matt Johnson: My goodness, there are lots of issues that young songwriters should be chomping at the bit to tackle. Of course it all depends on perspective though as there are British issues on the one hand and more global concerns on the other.
But for a start …
-The War on Terror and trying to understand how we got to where we now are.
-The brazen political hypocrisy of our leaders. We continually hear the mantra of no negotiation with terrorists? So they just arm and support them instead? Remember the Contras? And who sold Saddam Hussein his weapons? But what about the negotiations with the ANC, IRA and PLO? Even George Washington was considered a terrorist by the British at one point. Dialogue is the only way forward.
-Climate change. Well, time is running out as fast as the snows on Kilimanjaro with this one! What to do except batten down the hatches or head for the high ground!?!
-The bastardisation of our political vocabulary. This dreadful management/marketing/advertising jargon which has infected our language. Political debate seems shrouded in euphemisms.
-The rampant greed of corporations, the corruption of our political system by cash and the subsequent distorting of truth by the paid consultants and ‘experts’ of wealthy lobby groups. In Britain we seem to be selling off of everything for foreign ownership. From state assets like water, electricity, gas, airports, ports, defence contractors, even the London stock exchange, Premiership football clubs, large swathes of our housing stock, not to mention our food companies and farms. Nothing is secure from being sold off in UK PLC.
200%: Some of the songs you wrote became a reality like ‘Heartland’. Did you foresee that this was going to happen?
Matt Johnson: I’m just a voracious consumer of news and current affairs and it seemed pretty obvious, even back in the 1980’s, that Britain was becoming unhealthily dominated by American culture generally and by American foreign policy specifically. The unbalance in this relationship has continued upon this trajectory in the 20 years since I wrote Heartland. We are now in a situation where most of the UK’s foreign and defence policy is formulated and dictated from Washington and yet the people who scream the loudest that we are losing our sovereignty to the Europe Union don’t even bat an eyelid about this.
200%: The media are getting stronger and stronger and have a huge influence on the news and (in America) are even making the news. What do you think this will lead to?
Matt Johnson: The power, or perceived power, of the media in Britain has led to some real problems with our democracy. Because the Labour party lost four successive elections, due in some part to the fact that the majority of the press in the UK is right wing, it decided upon a course of information management known as ‘spin’. So much more poison has been injected into the bloodstream of politics because of this policy. You can’t just blame the politicians because the journalists are equally to blame but we now have everyone wondering why turnouts at elections are reaching all time lows and why politicians (along with journalists) are the most disliked and distrusted of all the professions.
200%: Do you believe that governments and the media form a pact trying to control and redirect the mediative consciousness of the public?
Matt Johnson: No, I don’t think it’s a self conscious conspiratorial pact but it’s just that systems of power have ways of sustaining themselves. It’s in the mutual interests of all those in power to stay in power. And the reason that corporations and individuals accrue power is quite simply to wield it.
200%: In relationship to your other work how highly do you place the quality of your more ‘political’ work and how important is to you personally?
Matt Johnson: I don’t make the distinction between my political and non-political songs. Only between my good and bad songs. All songs, both good, bad, political and non-political are pages ripped from the same diary. For instance, like many people I would imagine, my thought processes during an average day veer all over the place.
200%: You mentioned ‘Climate change’ as a potential political issue in the world which screams for a political song right now. Do you have the feeling that the public awareness of this problem is growing in the world? (Look at the impact of Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient truth’ and Vanity Fair doing ‘A Green issue’)
Matt Johnson: Well, I no longer think lack of public awareness is the issue. It’s really the lack of leadership shown by the developed world’s governments. They are failing to fully grasp the issues and missing the chance to lead from the front. We also now have the problem of the massive and rapid economic rise of China and India. How can the West tell them to reduce their emissions without leading by example.
But, contrary to popular belief I am an optimist and I remain convinced that we will somehow extract ourselves from this mess. The world, by necessity, will need to be a very different world from the one we have grown up in. But that’s ok.
For the full 16 page in-depth interview please visit www.200-percent.com