With T-shirts, stickers, and an upcoming benefit show, members of North Carolina's heavy rock underground are taking a stand against hate.
Photo by Matthew Brantley
Last year, if someone outside of North Carolina provided a one-word descriptor of the state, they might say “basketball” or “BBQ.” But over the last six weeks, we’ve developed an international reputation for our bathrooms. It all began in late March, when the North Carolina state legislature voted in a special session to approve House Bill 2, a discriminatory piece of legislation that requires transgender people to use the bathroom of their biological sex, rather than the gender with which they identify. The bill was a response to an earlier Charlotte ordinance that offered protections to transgender people in public restrooms.
Using transphobia as a Trojan horse, HB 2 went even further, restricting local governments from passing minimum wage increases and denying state employees the right to file a state law claim for discrimination based on race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex, or handicap. That means workers can no longer claim wrongful termination based on, say, the color of their skin or what religion they practice. It's not altogether unsurprising that HB 2 has come under fire from everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union to Against Me's Laura Jane Grace to Chapel Hill doom metal trio, MAKE, who have long been vocal in opposing their home state government's bigoted policies and used various mediums (including stickers) to get their point across.
Though the bill goes far beyond where people choose to pee, we should get this out of the way: There is no credible evidence to support the theory that transgender men and women using bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity creates any risk. There has not been a single incident in the 17 states or more than 200 communities that have implemented the ordinance that Charlotte attempted before Governor Pat McCrory and his cronies stepped in and reversed it. (There are, however, several conservative politicians who have been arrested for sexual misconduct in public bathrooms).
In a little over a month since the bill was passed, the mayors of San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City have banned employees from non-essential travel to North Carolina, costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in cancelled conferences and tourism. Even Donald Trump has criticized HB 2. But what seemed to resonate the loudest was an announcement from Bruce Springsteen, who chose not perform a scheduled date in North Carolina due to the bill. “To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress,” he wrote in a statement. “I feel that this is a time for me and the band to show solidarity for those freedom fighters.”
Since Springsteen’s cancellation, the choice between playing the state or boycotting has been thrust into the national spotlight. But for many artists who call North Carolina home—and who, presumably, cannot boycott their own lives—there’s only one option: Rally the troops and fight.
As MAKE prepare for the release of their new album, Pilgrimage of Loathing (out July 15 via Accident Prone), they’re leading the charge on a major benefit show on June 11 in opposition to HB 2. I spoke with MAKE guitarist Scott Endres, plus Dave Cantwell from In The Year of the Pig and Organos’ Maria Albini—all of whom are performing at the benefit—about politics, activism, and what they think the music community can and should be doing to combat intolerance in North Carolina and beyond.
Noisey: MAKE’s involvement started with the Pat McCrory Human Garbage t-shirts, which you made before HB 2, right?
Scott Endres: Right. We were in the studio, working on the upcoming record, everything from song titles to lyrics and concepts. We already had a general idea—and normally we don’t do this—but we wanted to specifically make an angry album, and to direct our anger at specific targets. We were getting into the political aspect, and McCrory didn’t need to pass HB 2 to be a piece of shit. So, I started messing around in Illustrator with an image of his smirking rat face, and human garbage were the words that immediately came to mind. That became the song title. And then, of course, HB 2 happened, and I saw it happening in real time. I saw posts on social media from Democrats who were there. With McCrory’s track record, I had no doubt that something really awful was about to happen.
I spent the rest of the night dumbstruck, and the next morning, I couldn’t concentrate. I felt really powerless and impotent. And I thought, how can I help? As a cis-gender, straight white male, does anyone even want to hear from me? But after talking with people, I decided that I have a band, we have some fans, and that gives me a platform and a voice. I think it’s my responsibility to use it. Now it’s just a matter of finding time to do it all.
It’s a lot of work to play music and have a job and be politically involved, too. How have you balanced everything?
Endres: The exhaustion tends to flavor your interactions with people. Everything before our most recent tour, and then after it, has just been, how do we get this benefit to happen? We’re making it up as we go along. There were a few moments when Spencer and I got a little testy with each other, and we had to step back and say, hey, once we get through this, we’ll focus on the tour and the album coming out, and hope that other people take up the torch. The thing is, these assholes are not going to stop. They’re working overtime, too. If I were to sit around and talk shit on the Internet and not be actively involved, I would have a lot of questions for myself.
Every once in awhile, something really awful happens, and it’s usually because the GOP is in an election year and they have a habit of finding an “other” and painting a target on them. It usually works to their benefit, because they have preyed for years on people who either don’t have the right education or knowledge base to understand complex issues like this, or to the crowd who won’t back down because they reference the Bible, as though the Bible is really a book we should be using as a reference point for kindness and law. There’s a lot of really awful shit in that book.
But it’s hard to balance all of it, especially if you truly care, because you’re putting all of your heart and soul into it. So, in a way, it’s good. What did I do last year that was helping people out? Maybe not a whole lot. So, it’s fine if I’m exhausted now.
Dave Cantwell: Taking a stand against HB 2 is a pretty low-stakes affair for me, to be honest. I have nothing to lose by opposing this misguided law. I guess if playing this show is taking a stand, the crux of it is that all of us playing are contributing to making opposition to HB 2 something widespread and reasonable and not really worthy of complicated explanation.
Having said that, I find HB 2 despicable in just about every facet in contains. I am struck by its naked and unapologetic lack of benefit to the people of NC. No solution to any real problem, only ways to restrict citizens at the whim of the least-marginalized people in the state. The part about restricting minimum wage is especially bizarre. What problem does this claim to solve? It is clearly all about control.
I look at what people were doing during Amendment One versus now, it seems like the whole North Carolina community is coming together in a bigger way, like we’ve all been through something and have matured together.
Endres: You don’t want to feel like you’re becoming complacent as you mature. I imagine it’s probably universal, but it’s certainly the case in this country where people who aren’t directly affected by something have a hard time getting angry. And maybe people do get angry, but they don’t know how to help. And it’s like, okay, we have friends in town. We’ve been a band for seven years. We have an easier in, but anyone can do it. There’s nothing special about us. We just got pissed and decided to do something about it. Everyone should be doing that. Everyone should be pissed and feeling exhausted. It’s the time to feel that way.
Cantwell: If I can contribute to a climate of questioning HB 2 and its motives and authors, then that's what I'm going to do. It's true that folks who support HB 2 might not like In the Year of the Pig's music, but at least they can see that we are reasonable people who live in NC and are putting our effort into something bigger than our little band.
Tell me about the benefit you’re organizing—and playing—on June 11.
Endres: Part of the deal with the T-shirts was thinking about the most immediate way we could get some money to the people on the ground who are mobilizing and tabling and speaking out. This was my chance to make up for not mobilizing when I could have in other times in my life. We raised over $1,000, which is pretty good for T-shirts. But we thought, we can still do a whole lot more. There’s no reason to pat yourself on the back and stop. This shit hasn’t stopped, and we don’t need to stop.
We decided to work with Southerners On New Ground, because they’re bigger than just North Carolina. And, of course, we wanted to get high-profile acts because the point isn't only to have a good time, though I hope people do. We want as many people paying the door price and entering the raffle as possible.
You got some old bands to come back together for the show. How did you do that?
Endres: Yeah! Aaron and I are close friends, and I’ve been pestering him, wanting to somehow dig In the Year of the Pig out of the ground. He is a very political guy. If you’ve ever seen him talk politics, he gets really animated. But those guys are so spread out, and they’re so busy. They’re old dudes, like me. But I thought this might be the thing. So, I sent him a message that said, “How impossible would it be?” It was a question worth asking, but I didn’t think I would get the answer I did.
Cantwell: MAKE and In the Year of the Pig used to sometimes share a practice space, and we're all pals. Scott and MAKE have been some of the most vocal opponents of HB 2, so I was not surprised to hear they were largely behind this show. They like to make things happen.
Over the last few years, we have talked about getting together to play or finish the last recording we never released. But schedules are tricky things. Since In the Year of the Pig stopped playing, a few of us have gotten married, one of us is now a father, some have started (and some finished) grad school. I don't think we've played since 2013, maybe 2012. This was the first time that there seemed to be a compelling reason beyond simply knocking some jams around. Even though none of us is formally involved with the organizing of the event, we all believe strongly in its goals. We are all disgusted by and passionately opposed to HB 2.
Maria Albini: Scott invited Organos to play, and I accepted the invitation because I am against HB 2 and wanted to show my support to those who are closely affected by this law. The last Organos show was with Marissa Nadler in 2014. I've been waiting for a significant reason to play out again, so when Scott invited me, it felt kismet.
What do you think the expectation is on performers to have an opinion about political issues, like HB 2?
Albini: As far as the expectation for musicians to speak out politically, it makes sense given that they have a platform and an audience. I'm against HB 2 because it is a dangerous and bigoted law. I feel like the legislature has created a problem where there wasn't one, just to rally the Republican base in North Carolina.
Endres: The outspoken progressive in me feels like saying, look, if you have a platform and a voice, use it. No excuses. There’s a really amazing recording of a speech that Howard Zinn did closely after 9/11. He was directly confronting young artists, and he said one of the most amazing things I’ve heard. I’m paraphrasing here, but he says, ‘Artists, you have a voice, and you can use it in a variety of ways for good. You’re doing enough just doing what you do. You’re an integral and important part of our society, and don’t let anyone tell you any different. But, if you want to, you can make a choice to use your voice.’ I personally feel disappointed when I don’t see people taking it upon themselves to get involved. I don’t want people to do it because they feel pressured; I want people to do it because they feel like it’s the right thing to do.
Cantwell: I think it's interesting how intertwined music and politics are—so much that I think we don't always see it, especially with popular music. Since Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Woody Guthrie, music in the U.S. has taken on an explicitly political bent (and probably before them, I would suspect). Now, an artist is more or less expected to be political in some way. It's hard for me to think of many truly apolitical musicians functioning today, the way we might think of, say Johnny Mercer or Buddy Holly or Patsy Cline as being musical geniuses who only seem to exist for our pure aesthetic pleasure. And since The Beatles and Dylan, left-leaning politics has become almost inseparable from popular music (Kid Rock and Ted Nugent notwithstanding). Even Miley Cyrus made a pro-Occupy song. Remember that one?
I guess the question is what to do with your politics. When Bruce cancelled his NC show, I was surprised and very impressed. It was a bold move, and probably the right one. But we've seen other non-creative entities taking a stand as well: The NBA, Google, fucking NASCAR. I think HB 2 stunned many citizens of North Carolina. We've been getting used to the hijinks of the NCGA for a few years now, but this rushed law pandering to the worst of elements of human nature came out of nowhere.
Growing up, music was a way for me to learn and grow emotionally, and to realize that there were other weirdos out there. That’s so important, especially for those who live in rural areas and may not have easy, repeat access to cultural or artistic experiences.
Endres: I think that’s kind of the thing. Music is unique in its ability to do that, to bring people into a conversation. For me, it was being 14 years old and listening to Hairway to Steven by the Butthole Surfers. I was like, this guy is saying nonsense, the same kind of weird shit I say. Oh, my God! It was so important to me. When I got older, I got way into punk rock, and post punk. At that point, if your mind is open and you’re listening, you start learning about the world, and you start learning about politics. It is engaging. Musicians are people who like to talk, in one way or another, and we are able to exist because people are listening.
How do you see the conservative influence impacting the arts, especially in the metal and underground scenes?
Endres: One of the more disconcerting things about the metal scene is that you encounter… things. Bands with Confederate flags on stage. It played a part in the hiatus that we had. There were a lot of things that led into that, but I got kind of burned out on the metal scene. There’s a lot of posturing, and not much of it is helpful to anyone. I don’t want to deal with the macho posturing, and on the other side of that, I don’t want to deal with the cute, hip posturing, either. And it’s already very politicized in a lot of gross ways, whether that means the kind of trucker bikini girl on the mudflap thing, or black metal, which is problematic in its own way.
Personally, we really haven’t had much blowback. We knew if we were going to make a public stand, we might be alienating people, and we decided that we don’t give a shit. People that would support HB 2 who were our fans can take a hike. We don’t give a fuck. Go away. We don’t want you at our shows, and we don’t care if you buy our records.
Cantwell: Most of my favorite musicians have pretty small followings, but have come up with creative ways to mobilize. Things like MAKE's anti-McCrory T-shirts, Laura Jane Grace's burning her birth certificate, sincere on-stage statements to small crowds, and this upcoming benefit show.
Are you going to invite Pat McCrory to the show?
Endres: I would love to have a conversation face-to-face with him, and not even stoop to the I-wanna-beat-the-shit-out-of-this-guy level. I would love for him to try to tell me that somebody else is a bully. I would love to hear that, so yes.
After the June 11 benefit show at Kings Barcade in Raleigh, NC, catch MAKE live when they hit the road in July with Dragged Into Sunlight and Primitive Man—and later this year at North Carolina's Hopscotch Festival alongside such luminaries as Converge and YOB.
7/19 SAN ANTONIO, TX, Paper Tiger
7/20 DALLAS, TX, Three Links
7/21 NEW ORLEANS, LA, Siberia
7/22 ATLANTA, GA, The Earl
7/23 RALEIGH, NC, Kings
Tina Haver Currin is fighting the good fight on Twitter.