Interview by Thierry Somers
Photos of Matt Johnson – Oscar Seijkens
Photos of London – Matt Johnson
Originally published in 2007 across 16 pages in Dutch arts magazine 200%, this was Matt Johnson’s sole interview between the years 2002 – 2014. Details about where to buy this unique 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: Most periods throughout history have been riddled with insecurities so one has to place these things in context. 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. Today the sense of foreboding we feel regarding international terrorism and religious fanaticism seems to permeate our everyday life and thoughts like a sickly, low frequency tone but perhaps it’s just part of the human condition to live with the threat of extinction?
Of course, thanks to the time-tested US & UK foreign policy of hosing down fires with petroleum some of this threat is now undeniably real but there’s also a great deal of fear-mongering and misinformation spewed out by politicians, the security services and the media too so it’s hard to know what to believe most of the time. It puts one in mind of what we’ve heard about the communist witch hunts of Senator McCarthy during 1950’s America. The prophetic satire of works such as George Orwell’s ’1984′, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr Strangelove’ also come to mind. Even John Frankenheimer’s ‘Seven Days in May’ no longer seems far fetched because something similar has now happened. It’s quite an odd sensation to be living in a nightmare future envisaged in the past.
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 – I just think young and old alike are generally quite disillusioned with mainstream politics and the willingness of politicians to respond to their needs. Who can blame them? Much of the public suspect, quite rightly I think, that most politicians are more concerned about their relationships with media barons and big business than with the general population. At each election we’re presented with a gallery of toads and weasels from which to choose and so the electoral turnout declines still further. But if you look at the activity within single issue groups and general activity on the Internet then I think that picture tells a different story. That the world is teeming with passionate people who are dissatisfied with the way things are being run in our name.
But let’s be honest about popular music. By the year 2007 it has become quite threadbare as a form of potent expression. Many of the artists and bands we see touted as the ‘next big thing’ are little more than nostalgic retreads from the past 40 years. Kitted out in similar outfits, wearing similar adolescent expressions behind their sunglasses, yet on the whole, devoid of irony, wit, invention or, in many cases, talent. As if taking drugs, getting drunk and swearing while striking a bad-boy pose for the tabloid press is somehow rebellious rather than complete conformity. Why do album sales keep declining I wonder? Is it because the music industry is no longer geared up for the long term support of musicians but just the short term marketing of ‘celebrities’? Mostly all there is is ‘buzz’ with no genuine talent underpinning it. No one’s interested in the product of these ‘celebrities’ because they are the product. It’s all icing and no cake.
This combination of huge, insecure egos on one side of the equation with rampant corporate greed on the other makes one wonder whether the music business is ever again likely to give birth to music with political vitality and relevance to our times.
Perhaps there’s also just too much music around nowadays? Maybe our brains are just too fatigued and numb with it? Music is no longer something that must be actively sought: it is now pumped out in industrial quantities day-in day-out as we go about our daily business, whether queuing up in the supermarket, watching television, shopping for clothes, waiting in the doctors surgery, while the dentist drills into our teeth, as cars drive by in the street or while we try to make ourselves heard to the barmaid in the local bar. We are drenched from head to toe in the stuff virtually 24 hours a day. There now seems little escape from the cacophonous white noise of nothing.
Is it any wonder that pop music has lost much of it’s power to shock, amaze and inspire? It’s as if the very soil from which its roots had drawn its inspiration and power from over the decades are now so depleted of nutrients and vitality from overuse as to be virtually sterile. It does get very fatiguing being on the receiving end of all this mind numbing Muzak and one must just try to filter most of this out of one’s mind if one is to maintain any sort of peace and space for the good, uplifting, sincere stuff.
I suppose this isn’t helped by the fact that there now appear to be more people on the stage than in the audience, all desperately vying for our attention. Most with very little to say but with very big mouths with which to say it. When I started out as an 11 year old kid in a band at school I was thought of as a weirdo. Now, it’s almost compulsory to be in a band! Pop music is now so thoroughly absorbed into corporate entertainment culture that maybe people with a real urge to say or do something are being drawn towards other areas of self expression?
Actually, there is probably more interesting music being made now than ever before if you can find the time to seek it out. In Britain just flick through the pages of a music magazine like ‘Wire’ or listen to radio shows like ‘Late Junction’ on Radio 3 or Resonance FM in London and they are teeming with weird and wonderful bands, but it’s certainly not ‘pop’ music and not likely to gain mainstream exposure in the current climate. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. It keeps it purer. The problem is that there is just such a tidal wave of music generally that the bad stuff thoroughly swamps the good. You really have to try and immerse yourself in long periods of silence where possible in order to keep your brain fresh for the music you actually like.
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.
For every Bob Dylan there were literally dozens of boil-in-the bag copies. Likewise for every Clash. Taking Bob Dylan for the moment, at his peak he was an outrageously gifted songwriter with a supernatural ability to capture the zeitgeist but by his own definition he was not a political songwriter and he loathed the term protest singer. He wrote (and continues to write) about a huge range of subjects that happen to occasionally include political ones. Songs such as ‘With God on Our Side’ are just so damn timeless and pertinent. If someone wrote that today you’d say they certainly had their finger on the pulse of our times. There were very few songwriters who could climb into the ring with him and last more than a few rounds. One would have been John Lennon but whether even he would have lasted until the final bell is doubtful.
By the late 1960’s many of the record companies were just trying to make a fast buck by packaging (or repackaging) anyone and everyone who picked up an acoustic guitar as the ‘New Bob Dylan’ for instance. In every generation there are only ever a handful of genuine thinkers and innovators. The rest follow in the slipstream. Most artists/bands in the music business are followers trying to anticipate what they think the public or their record company want rather than following their own gut instinct.
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.
An industry like today’s music business only really licks it’s lips and kicks into gear as soon as there is lots of money to be made. If the innovators become popular then the A&R men will be hastily despatched far and wide to go find and sign every copycat they can lay their hands on. Big Business always seems to find a way of sniffing out the latest youth movement, examining it, repackaging it and then reselling it back to the young.
200%: Are there any artists you can think of today who make interesting music with political content?
Matt Johnson: Yes there are, of course, still contemporary singer/songwriters out there trying to express sincerely held political thoughts and make themselves heard above the deafening din of popular entertainment’s ‘white noise of nothing’. Michael Franti with his ‘I Know I’m Not Alone’ project for instance. But a large part of the problem they face 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.
Record companies on the whole are just not going to sign and promote anything remotely political if they are not certain it will be allowed media exposure. So although there are some fine and thoughtful songwriters out there fighting the good fight the problem is that most of them will struggle to receive the oxygen of airplay. While a companies like Clear Channel own and control so many of the stations and concert halls across America this homogenisation will continue.
For example, take the CD-smashing rally which was organised by KRMD (part of the Cumulus Media corporation) where a Louisiana crowd turned up to watch a huge tractor roll over and crush a collection of Dixie Chicks CD’s, after Natalie Maines, their lead singer, dared to criticise the Bush Administration for it’s pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. Pro-war rallies were being promoted by other corporate giants in the entertainment industry with close links to the current administration. What an utter disgraceful state of affairs.
So, due to some of the above perhaps, the medium for political ideas seems to have shifted more towards documentary film making than song writing over the past decade. Perhaps there’s more freshness to that medium in this particular moment in time. With the easy accessibility of video cameras, computers and editing software perhaps young, artistically inclined, politically motivated people are gravitating towards this than going through the motions of being in a band.
200%: You say that record companies on the whole are just not going to sign and promote anything remotely political if they are not certain it will be allowed media exposure. Do you think that if an artist in the future wants to bring out songs with political content the best way would be to release it by Internet – a very democratic medium?
Matt Johnson: Hopefully record companies as we have known them will soon atrophy and become relics of a bygone age. Artists will be signed to their own labels and will have complete creative and political freedom to say and write what they please and will also own the rights to their own work and even start to get paid for the music they sell rather than having the record company seize virtually all of it. The marketing and promotions departments of the record companies may well end up as small independent companies that artists choose to employ from project to project rather than the other way round. So music will be released as downloads via the Internet and also available as hard copies in shops too if people wish to purchase their music that way.
200%: What’s in your opinion a good political song?
Matt Johnson: For me the most effective political song is one which, for the listener, triggers feelings of empathy, inspiration and hope. It shows a way forward. Great political songs are about reaching people on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. About articulating what the listener may have strongly felt yet not quite formulated into thoughts and words. It should capture the zeitgeist, provide a focal point and 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?
But there are so many different types of political songs. Those that are specifically, blatantly about a single issue such as Jerry Dammer’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ – which you have to place in the context of time of course. The Conservative government in Britain under Margaret Thatcher was still supporting the status quo in South Africa and many people in Britain weren’t even aware who Nelson Mandela was or just thought he was another terrorist in prison. This song simply and beautifully brought his plight to light with an infectious melody.
Another song in this bracket, that again should be placed in the context of its time, is Tom Robinson’s ‘Glad To Be Gay’ – this song, as far as I can remember, was actually banned by Radio 1 at the time because the subject matter was too controversial, although it still become quite a big hit. A clever song, it had a very catchy chorus melody that heterosexuals were singing along to it in spite of themselves and it did bring to the attention of the majority the plight of a minority.
There are also political songs that, while not relating specifically to an event or movement, just capture a time and atmosphere perfectly. Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. The wonderful warmth of his voice, the melody, the arrangement and the words. Simple, gorgeous, uplifting. This song just stops you in your tracks and forces you to reflect on just where you are in life and how you got there. Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ is another.
There are also great political songs that rely on an infectious and overpowering rhythm to hammer home their message. James Brown’s ‘Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’ and Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ come to mind. Pure and simple anthems for their times.
Others use allegory to convey the brutal power of their message. ‘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 song.
It is also interesting to note how certain political songs can be hijacked and taken far away from where their writers intended them to be. Take Woody Guthrie’s classic American song ‘This Land is Your Land’. Apparently after George W. Bush’s re-election he and a group of his ultra right wing pals were stood in a circle holding hands singing this to themselves in glee. I suppose it was now true in a way. This land was now their land and they were bloody well going to do with it what they liked. I wonder if the ultra socialist Woody would have been spinning in his grave at the indignity of it all or just laughing to himself that his song had survived so long. Things go in cycles and I’m sure before long ‘This Land is Your Land’ will be back amongst the people to whom it belongs.
But writing about songs and music is, as someone once said, a bit like dancing to describe architecture but let me give you a list of my favourite political songs, in no particular order.
This Land Is Your Land – Woody Guthrie
God On Our Side – Bob Dylan
A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud – James Brown
Many Rivers To Cross – Jimmy Cliff
Redemption Song – Bob Marley
Strange Fruit – Lewis Allen
Working Class Hero – John Lennon
Glad To Be Gay – Tom Robinson
Fight The Power – Public Enemy
Free Nelson Mandela – Jerry Dammers
Ship Building – Elvis Costello
Sign Of The Time – Prince
200%: Why are you interested in writing pop music with political content?
Matt Johnson: Only a minority of my songs have political content but I’m intrigued by current affairs, world events and the stuff that shapes our daily lives and thoughts.
There is a tendency to label anyone who writes a political song as a political songwriter but I just think of myself as a songwriter who tries to tackle a wide range of subjects. Some of which may be personal, some of which may be political, some of which may be neither. Why tie oneself down to one little area of expression when there’s such a big and interesting world out there?
200%: What kind of research or study do you do before you write a song with political content? Do you read a lot, travel or is it your intuition?
Matt Johnson: I travel a lot and enjoy talking to people, asking questions, trying to see the world through the eyes of others in order to help my own understanding. When it comes to song writing it’s mostly a matter of intuition, instinct, mood and emotion but I’ll also read and research voraciously to try to understand and back up what I’m trying to say.
200%: Is there anything particular you want to achieve with your political songs?
Matt Johnson: Just to get things off my chest I suppose. To help temporarily ease a growing sense of political impotence. Of course it would be wonderful to write a song that really captured the moment and expressed what was on a lot of peoples minds but most people are probably not as interested in the subjects and scenarios that fascinate and vex me. It’s really a hit and miss affair.
200%: Have you got the idea that songs with political lyrics can change the world?
Matt Johnson: No, I don’t think that at all. There may have been a moment in the 1960’s where people thought this may have been possible but I think that moment has long gone. As I mentioned before, popular music on the whole has now been absorbed into corporate culture, homogenised and sold back to the public as just another safe, sanitised form of entertainment.
Nevertheless, 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. Continued foreign intervention in the affairs of many of these Middle East countries has led to much of the rage we now feel directed towards the West. We should really be trying to see things from the perspective of our so called enemies and what has radicalised them and not hiding behind simplistic war slogans and feeding the flames of mutual mistrust.
- 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. Just begin it before even more innocent lives are lost. But you may have noticed that the Bush Administration always attaches impossible preconditions to the prospects of any talks with countries like Iran and Syria even though ultimately talks are the only way forward. The problem for the West, and the world actually, is that we’re saddled with a US president who is so far out of his depth in terms of worldliness, vision, statesmanship or even basic common sense. Let’s just pray the next one is better!
- 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. For example, ‘Enterprise Culture’ and ‘Consumer Choice’ really mean deregulation of the rules for big business to make even bigger profits; ‘Flexible Labour Markets’ really means being able to shut factories down at a moment’s notice and ship all the jobs off to countries with low-cost, non-unionised workforces; ‘Free Trade’ really means poor countries forced to open up their markets while the rich ones keep their’s closed; ‘Entrepreneurial Spirit’ really means self-serving guilt-free greed. Not to mention all these ridiculous buzz words the politicians and corporations insist on using such as ‘Brand’ and ‘Content’ etc. and we haven’t even got onto the way we’ve been sneakily turned from citizens into consumers and from passengers or patients into ‘customers’ when using public transport or the NHS! There are people that actually get paid a fortune for dreaming up this claptrap, this relentless nonsensical drivel. The vocabulary for political discourse now has to be reinvented somehow. We need to redefine what words like democracy, socialism and freedom really mean. For instance, take democracy. On the one hand, in America you can only run for President if you have several hundred million dollars worth of corporate funding in your pocket. So how seriously compromised is anyone that runs for President. It’s absurd. On the other hand, The Palestinians voted in Hamas on a popular vote in fair elections yet it doesn’t count because the Americans, Israelis and British don’t like it. Are these really the sort of definitions of democratic values the West wishes to project across the globe? That money counts for everything? And that the range within which democracy must function is so narrow that only certain types of political discourse will ever be allowed?
- 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. But what amazes me is that it barely raises an eyebrow. I don’t know whether this vast sell off will be good or bad in the long term but surely it is worth discussing in some detail? To try working out where this is all leading us? Yet it gets barely a mention. There is no analysis at all about what this actually means for the country in the long run. All you ever hear are the business news commentators telling us in breathless tones what a great deal for the shareholders this deal or that is going to be. No mention of the other costs involved in the short and long term to the country and it’s population. The fact that we no longer own much of our own energy, water, airports, ports … what does this all really mean? Maybe it doesn’t matter at all but wouldn’t it be nice if someone were to start seriously asking the question? This all started out in the 1980’s as supposedly selling the State’s assets back to the British people. But it was a vast con trick. The British public already owned it all! They were just being conned into being middle men between the government and big business. Soon, the government ministers responsible for the various privatisation deals were being offered lavish jobs and vast pay packages to sit on the boards of these newly privatised utilities. Absolutely outrageous but all conveniently swept under the carpet.
- The disgraceful, massive and still growing disparity in pay rises over the past 20 years between the directors and employees of companies. This sort of blatant unfairness will really cause problems for long term social cohesion in this country. It creates an unhealthy, unhappier society.
- The insidious growth of the corporate private sector. It’s tentacles now reaching voraciously into every aspect of our public and private lives. Witness the rise of the awful Private Finance Initiative in Britain, whereby the taxpayer pays for schools, hospitals and prisons in order to then hand them over to private corporations so they can then start charging rent to the taxpayer whilst making huge profits. Bizarre.
- Overpopulation of a small country like Britain. But no one can mention this without being screamed down as a racist. Political Correctness is now so corrosive it is almost a form of Thought Police. The size of a country’s population should be dependent upon it’s ability to feed itself and maintain good public services. The fact of the matter is that the UK is a small country and we should be looking at ways of reducing our population to a manageable size and not continually expanding it. But when will we wake up to this fact? When our population reaches 100 million?
- Personal privacy. The British population are now one of the most spied upon in the world. The state (along with the private sector) are busily trying to establish systems that will keep a close check on virtually every aspect of an individual’s life and habits. This is not science fiction, this is happening now. Britain is sleepwalking into an Orwellian state. Of course, the government will always trot out the line “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about” but is this really the direction we want to see our country going?
200%: Did you grow up within a family that was politically concerned?
Matt Johnson: Yes, I was lucky in having parents who had no deeply held prejudice and who seem, in retrospect, to have been natural liberals. Warm, kind and generous. Up to his mid-twenties my Dad held no deeply held beliefs other than hating unfairness and, like my Mum, detesting racial prejudice.
When my Dad worked in the London Docks (mainly the Royal Group) he was a member of the Blue Union of NASDU (National Association of Stevedores and Dockers). The other union was known as the White Union but was the TGWU. He was deeply influenced by some of the dockers, many of whom were widely read and would quote poetry and Marx in the same conversation. They were all self taught and of high intelligence.
When he was hospitalised for many months with TB (after being stabbed during a fight) he read ‘Das Kapital’, ‘War & Peace’, Camus, the War poets, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller amongst others. This period really influenced his thinking and ideas.
He became increasingly drawn to socialism and an alternative left wing view of the world and more involved in the Union. He was even elected from the floor of a mass meeting to Jackie Dash’s strike committee but eventually economic needs of a small and growing family meant he went into the pub trade and left the docks behind.
Recently his political feelings have been stirred again by various events. He actively takes part in antiwar marches and now votes for the Ecology party.
200%: So your childhood and environment contributed to your political views and opinions in your work?
Matt Johnson: Certainly, everyone is influenced by the environment in which they grow up in, whether they are aware of it or not. I suppose if I’m honest I do find myself trying to gently influence my own son, but without wishing to undermine his own sense of himself and the world as he finds it.
200%: A lot of filmmakers, musicians, comedians, journalists and writers are self censoring themselves and avoid certain political ‘sensitive’ subjects. In these times would you ever consider self censorship yourself?
Matt Johnson: Well we’re going through a very strange period in Britain at the moment. The issues of freedom of expression and self censorship are really running through a lot of people’s minds. Certain minorities now react with such hysteria to anything they may perceive as even a minor insult that people are becoming afraid to say anything at all for fear of a violent reaction. This is a very dangerous situation and ultimately will act as a recruiting agent for the likes of the BNP and other extremist groups. If you want to come and live in a country like Britain then I think the least you can do is respect the traditions of free expression. If you really don’t like living in a country with free expression then you should probably choose to live elsewhere. I honestly believe that the issues that divide the population are best expressed openly and smashed on the anvil of public debate. Certainly not swept under the carpet or silenced by threats of violence.
200%: Would you release a single like ‘Armageddon days are here, (again)’ tomorrow?
Matt Johnson: Well, to be clear, Armageddon Days was shelved at the last minute as a single because of threats received at both the offices of CBS (my ex record company) and against various radio stations that started to play it. In fact CBS even had to remove the American flag from their rooftop, such was the paranoia of the time. It has never, ever been played on commercial radio since. Make of that what you will. The censorship is there whether we want to admit it or not.
I have no idea what anyone who really listened to this song would find offensive about it as it’s message was simple – that we have forgotten the unifying message behind the world’s major religions and instead now worship the differences. To my ears, eyes and heart the real essence of most faiths is similar, it is just the language that’s different. You can say ‘I Love You’ in 20 different languages but it still means ‘I Love You’.
200%: Would you still write songs about this subject matter?
Matt Johnson: If I felt I had anything worth saying on the subject yes I would but I still feel the songs I wrote on the ‘Mind Bomb’ album covered the area fairly well. I really don’t know what I would add at this moment in time to what I’ve already said.
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. Odd. I have lived on and off in New York for many years and though there is much I genuinely love about America one thing I’ve always consistently criticised is their foreign policy. It has really done the American people no favours at all and has now led to them being the most reviled nation on Earth.
So in Blair’s close relationship with Bush we seem to have a classic case of power without principles. A Labour Prime Minister super-gluing himself to the repugnant policies of an ultra right wing Neo-Con US administration for some imagined influence. Do you remember when Tony Blair met George Bush at his Texan ranch and we saw Blair awkwardly dressed up in the same casual military wear as the ‘Commander-In-Chief’? Very embarrassing to watch. When in the presence of high ranking Americans Tony Blair seems to go as weak at the knees as a schoolgirl meeting a boy band. Winston Churchill must be spinning in his grave.
In return for our unstinting support of US foreign policy what does Britain really get out of this ‘Special Relationship’ apart from the dubious privilege of spending taxpayers money on the latest American weaponry? When British soldiers get killed by US friendly fire the Americans refuse to even show the courtesy of turning up at the inquests. Whereas our soldiers would be required to show up if it was the other way round. We also now have a completely unbalanced Extradition Treaty with them. Under the new treaty, the ‘allegations’ of the US government will be enough to secure the extradition of British citizens from the UK. Yet, if the UK wants to extradite someone from the US, evidence to the standard of a “reasonable” demonstration of guilt will still be required. Why would we sign such a one sided treaty? Are the people running Britain incompetent or plain corrupt?
So because of all this macho posturing by Tony Blair and his closest advisers Britain has ended up over-stretching our ill-equipped armed forces to breaking point. Sending them to hell with radios that don’t work, guns that jam and tanks that stall. Not only is this ill-fated and illegal war costing hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi lives, countless more injuries and putting British cities at increased risk of terrorist attack but it is also costing the British taxpayer billions of pounds too. And this at a time when the government is preparing to shut down thousands of Post Offices across Britain in an attempt to ‘save money’. Someone has to be held to account for this monumental incompetence.
Blair is not only the most right wing leader the Labour party has ever had, he’s also turning out to be one of the most right wing Prime Ministers this country’s ever had! Surrounded by a small cabal of shadowy un-elected officials, who wield more power over the country than the elected cabinet or parliament, it seems that once the chalice is lifted to the lips and the elixir of power has been tasted it becomes impossible not to become intoxicated. Whichever individual is in office, after two terms it seems they become a swivel eyed ego maniac with a messiah complex.
Although I actually think most of us would become swivel eyed egomaniacs before too long in office and like Thatcher and Blair would have to be dragged from power kicking & screaming, with fingernails splintered from hanging onto the door frame at No. 10. That’s why the checks and balances on power should be increased not loosened as we have seen. The fact that an egomaniacal Prime Minister dragged the country to war against it’s will is testament to this. We need the keep these people in check. We desperately an expansion of true democracy and fully transparent accountability.
Power is like radiation. Come too close to it for too long and you are poisoned. Very few can withstand it’s seduction. You’d have to be locked in a cell for a couple of decades to purify the spirit, like Nelson Mandela maybe? Preferable as that may be for many of our political figures it has certain practical shortcomings! But we should at the very least follow the Americans and limit to 2 terms the amount of time our representatives can be exposed to the corrupting influence of power.
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 leads 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’ – which basically means manipulating the truth, economy with the facts or in simpler terms, telling lies. Not that they are the first political party to tell lies of course, it goes with the territory, but they certainly brought a new level of artistry to media manipulation. They ensured all members of the party stayed faithfully ‘on message’ to minimise any possibility of handing ammunition to a hostile press.
But 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.
Instead of devising ever more deceitful methods of withholding information from the public what Labour should really have done instantly upon gaining power, when they had a huge mandate for bold change, was impose tighter regulations against concentrated media ownership. There should be no cross ownership amongst the various media and only one paper per proprietor should be allowed. They could have virtually neutered Rupert Murdoch in a stroke. This would have been wonderful for British democracy and really helped to put some faith back into the politicians who represent us. But in truth Tony Blair had signed some sort of Faustian pact with Murdoch while in opposition. Ever since then he has been forced to sit at Murdoch’s feet and pretty much do his bidding as far as the UK’s policy towards Europe and America goes.
I don’t think a person like Rupert Murdoch should ever have been allowed to own more than one newspaper in Britain let alone a TV station too. He’s not a citizen of the UK, apparently pays no tax here and yet he’s in and out of Downing Street like a bloody jack-in-the-box attempting to influence government policy in accordance with his ultra right wing agenda. On top of that he appears to hold the entire country in contempt. In the US, where he is now a citizen, his Fox News channel is pure, undiluted bile. Their catch phrase is something like ‘Fair & Balanced’ which indicates at least some sort of journalistic objectivity but you’ll fall off your chair in disbelief while watching some of the stuff on there. It’s so ultra-extremist right wing that you find it hard to believe anyone really watches this stuff – but people do. His company is now aggressively venturing into cyberspace with it’s capture of the huge MySpace website. What kind of nightmarish future does Rupert have in store for us here I wonder? It’s now becoming very difficult to find places to go that are not owned by vast corporations. Pretty much everything is nowadays so you just have to live with it and make the best of it in whatever way you can.
Britain is quite an odd place at this moment in time. At least I think it is, but I’m in a minority I suppose. There is this idea that Britain has become a more meritocratic society but I think it’s an illusion partly brought about by the spread of what’s known as Estuary English, a sort of soft, fake cockney that many people now speak in order to pretend to be more stupid than they really are in order to fit in. You even hear Tony Blair using it when patronising working class people, trying to have some street credibility perhaps, whatever that is. British society is comprised of a combination of distinct layers; The usual dysfunctional toffs and chavs at either end with a substantial core of middle class types in between, plus now of course, a growing and increasingly feral underclass who seem devoid of any of the usual faculties associated with being human. Witness the explosion in mindless, violent crime over the past few years.
Personally I wish we could finally escape from the shadow of empire and be more like the Scandinavian countries in many respects. Start leading the world through enlightened environmental policies and a non aggressive, diplomatic attitude to resolving problems. But it seems we’re determined to cling onto the ghosts of our collective history.
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.
A lot of what we watch, read and hear on the media nowadays reminds me of George Orwell’s Newspeak. Politicians speak in sound bites and meaningless management and advertising jargon where nothing really means what it says or says what it means. The thoughtless repetition of words like freedom and democracy for example, are thrown around like confetti at a wedding by certain world leaders but do we ever pause to examine their true meaning? What does democracy truly mean anymore and freedom for what and from what? When Washington talks exporting democracy to the world what they really mean is exporting free market capitalism. What US foreign policy is really all about is opening up foreign markets for huge corporations to exploit. It has nothing to do with bringing representative democracy to the citiznes of these countries. When the American President preaches to the world about how ‘peace loving nations’ should respect international law do many of us pause and reflect that America has dropped more bombs on more countries than any other nation in history? That it treats international law with cavalier disregard whenever it doesn’t fit in with US self interests. Not that Britain was any different at the height of it’s empire of course.
Part of the problem with the media today is the majority of people tend to gravitate towards news sources and outlets which reinforce their own prejudices rather than challenge them. There’s a lot of laziness on the part of us as citizens (or consumers as we are now referred to) and the various media themselves. Whereas in the past there may have been at least some attempt in some parts of the media to uplift, enlighten & educate that now seems a ridiculously quaint idea as the modus operandi is now to sensationalise & ridicule, all while making a very large profit.
Even when Earth shatteringly important events are taking place the front covers of many newspapers are still driven by the most inane celebrity gossip. It’s pure effluent. And even in some of the more serious minded newspapers like The Independent, which has had some extremely powerful Front Pages and punchy editorials over the past few years, it also now seems to be getting bogged down by the need to cover celebrity gossip. They even employ a dozen or so celebrity columnists whose inane twitterings on their own lives beggars belief. It’s ego-mania run amok. Someone must have figured out that a large proportion of their readership just can’t be bothered about what’s going on in Baghdad or Beirut and would rather be given the latest advice about which designer loafers to buy to match the colour of their iPod!
But thankfully there are so many people out there, young and old, who are finding things out for themselves, either first hand or by digging deeper via the Internet and elsewhere for more information about what is really happening in our world rather than being spoon fed the pre-digested pap served up by too much of the media.
200%: Bono and Bob Geldof fight for Africa, Coldplay for Fair Trade. Is there an organisation you feel connected to or even support?
Matt Johnson: I don’t feel affiliated to any political party or organisation although I have tremendous admiration for people who give up their time free of charge to genuinely support causes they believe in, especially people who choose careers that are based on selflessness. It’s also important to differentiate between the people using their celebrity to boost charitable causes and those using charitable causes to boost their celebrity. In an age of rapacious appetite for materialism the simple, warm quality of the kindness of ordinary people is now virtually ignored.
200%: When you’re writing a political song do lyrics come first or music?
Matt Johnson: It’s really the same process for political songs as for non-political songs. Often a title, a phrase, a chord sequence, a melody or a feeling will lodge in the mind like a small piece of grit. Slowly, bit by bit, other elements will begin to grow around it. It’s an intuitive, organic process and one must always remain open minded for new pieces of information that resonate with the initial idea. It’s then a case of crafting a song out of the inspiration. To this end hundreds of decisions, small and large, occur between the original idea and the finished recording. I should also add that it can be pure glee to just sit around in my own studio and play with my favourite instruments and pieces of equipment. Often just picking up the right instrument at the right time can give a song wings and help it soar.
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. One moment I may be wondering what’s for dinner, whilst the next thinking about sex, whilst a few moments later checking the football results or then getting enraged about some new government cock-up or even wondering what is the true nature of reality and does God exist. I don’t think it’s that easy to compartmentalise one’s thoughts and songs are just an offshoot of thoughts.
200%: In the intro of the article I quoted you from an interview with the Denver Westword where you said: ‘I’ve always believed in confronting or embracing subjects, including heavier subjects, as a way of discharging them and understanding them and dealing with them rather than running in the opposite direction or writing about more inane things’. Could you say that the lyrics you write work ‘cathartic’ for you? (like in Greek tragedies)
Matt Johnson: Yes absolutely. If I wasn’t creating I think I would go mad. I think it’s vital for everyone to have some form of creative outlet and self expression. To make the inner world outer and take the outer world inner too, in order to make sense of one’s life and what one sees around in the world. I think stifled creativity is what causes many people to suffer from depression or madness. And when I say creativity I’m not just talking about the arts as there are so many ways to create and to express ourselves. That’s one of the main reasons we’re in this life and on this planet I believe. To make the inner world outer and to take the outer world within.
200%: You wrote Armageddon in 1988 and you explained about the idea behind the song. Now in 2006 the statements you made in that song are very relevant as we see clashes between religious movements. I was wondering when you mentioned that Bush hijacked Woody Guthrie’s song ‘This Land is Your Land’ for the wrong reasons if this could happen with the lyrics of Armageddon as well? Could the lyrics ‘Islam is rising, the Christians mobilising’ be misused by a political right wing party as one of their statements? (I came to this with the last elections in Holland a right wing party won ‘out of the blue’ 9 of the 150 parliament seats. One of their statements they made during their campaign was ‘Stop the tsunami of Islamisation in Holland’)
Matt Johnson: Everything we do and say is always open to misinterpretation. It could be words said to a lover, child, friend or family member or it could be a song that is released to the general public. All you can hope in any form of communication is to be as clear as possible and leave as little room as possible for misinterpretation. Of course when only certain words or phrases are chosen and then taken out of context it’s easier to be taken the wrong way but I cannot imagine Armageddon Days (are here again) being taken in any other way than I’d intended. But you never know.
200%: We talked about ‘Imagine’ of John Lennon as an example of an ‘optimistic’ political song. Is it true or not that most political lyrics are written from a defensive perspective and have a pessimistic message?
Matt Johnson: I would agree that most political songs are probably written as a reaction to certain circumstances but I wouldn’t say the messages they contain are necessarily pessimistic. More a call to arms or general wake up calls or just expressing some of the frustration that many people instinctively feel. Of course with the song ‘Imagine’ it’s hard to know what to make of it in some ways. It’s one his most famous songs and contains beautiful melodies and is very worthy in it’s simple message of non-materialism. But not long after Lennon wrote it he and Yoko were busy buying up apartments in the very exclusive Dakota building in New York, amongst other very expensive purchases so who knows? And that’s not to judge them because it was their money and they were entitled to do whatever they wanted to with it but it does make one wonder about the real value of such a song. Was it anymore than a vague pipe dream. It’s not one of my favourites of his that’s for sure but it’s certainly his most successful so what do I know?
200%: I was wondering why not many of people in the fields of art, music, film and fashion don’t dare to make statements or dare to make polarising work these days? It’s all so shallow. (I certainly observe this in my profession, magazine making). Have you got an explanation for that?
Matt Johnson: It’s just a sign of the times I think. There is a lot of fear and very few people want to rock the boat in case it affects their career opportunities and income. Beyond that though there are just lots of people involved in the arts, music, media that don’t even hold especially strong views and find politics a bit of a turn off. Nobody likes being preached to and so many people would, quite understandably, avoid wishing to be seen as preaching and imposing their own views on others.
200%: Blair has announced that he will resign as Prime Minister. What do you think of his desired successor Gordon Brown and will he be England’s new Prime Minister or do you think the opposition will reign the UK for the coming years?
Matt Johnson: Gordon Brown desires to be Blair’s successor but it doesn’t appear that the feeling is mutual. I don’t think Brown would make much difference as Prime Minister to be honest as, along with Blair, he is one of the main architects of New Labour anyway. You do hear odd anecdotes that he has in roots in old style socialism but he seems to be as equally entranced with the American entrepreneurial spirit too. In other words we can probably expect even more free market madness if he becomes PM. Britain now has a similar problem politically to America now, which is that our two main political parties range from centre-right to extreme right. There isn’t much outlet for those who wish to vote for left wing policies.
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.
Even very simple measures such as outlawing tungsten bulbs and thereby forcing everyone by law to fit low energy light bulbs and forcing the manufacturers of electrical goods to remove the standby switches, bringing back the recyclable milk bottle system we used to have in Britain, outlawing the junk mail that none of us want pushed through our letter boxes, forcing manufacturers to use less wasteful packaging. Even these very simple, common sense measures could save tons of wasted energy and resources. I think the time has come to start legislating to protect the environment.
Time is running out very, very fast. We are living in very strange times. It’s almost as if we are experiencing first hand one of those Hollywood epics about the end of the world. We are now seeing so many bizarre things strange in front of our eyes. From little things like bumble bees and butterflies flying about in January to tornadoes ripping through parts of London to flash floods and droughts happening simultaneously in certain countries at the same time.
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.
© Matt Johnson 2007