“Authenticity Isn’t Some Gold Ring that You Can Just Grab”: An Interview with Lee Bains III

Luke Ottenhof speaks with Lee Bains about being a passive voice of change, the state of the South, and his band's new record, 'Youth Detention//Nail My Feet Down to the South Side of Town.'
By    July 19, 2017

lee bains

“What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation.” —Don Delillo, White Noise, 1985

Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires are as much dimed-out guitar punks as they are critical social theorists. Every bit the well-read, piss-and-vinegar frontman, Bains has committed himself to the admission of guilt and the processes of reconciliation and restitution. His new record, Youth Detention//Nail My Feet Down to the South Side of Town, is an interrogation of guilt and complicity in systems that criminalize people of color, objectify women, institutionalize white supremacy, enforce hetero- and cis-normativity, gentrify marginalized neighborhoods, and countless other structures that we’re socialized to support.

This is all filtered through the barroom clatter of southern guitar rock. That weathered, archaic form is repurposed here to serve a new function, a vision distorted with punk vigor and a renewed sense of agency. In fractured recollections of confrontations in churches, schools, soccer fields, and the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, Bains is coming clean, revisiting his past with a critical lens to recontextualize his present.

This is the necessary first step forward; sunny declarations of positivity and progress are empty bluster if they’re not prefaced on an acknowledgment of guilt. As Confederate monuments in New Orleans were hauled away by crane, a familiar, back-patting narrative cropped up: the traitorous, evil elements of the south were being scrubbed away by the righteous, moral north. The idea is that the north represents a pristine ideal, unaffected by white supremacy or discrimination, unsoiled by the south’s prejudice. Problem is, the north benefited from black slavery, too. Isolating and pathologizing it as a ‘southern problem’ avoids self-reflection, or admission of complicity. It sanitizes the insidious reality that these power structures aren’t local to a time or a place or a people; in doing so, it enables and further embeds those violent systems. Bains might be detailing his personal experiences in Birmingham, but what rings true is that these minutiae aren’t isolated; they’re everywhere.

Unless we’re willing to confront and vocalize the ugly reality of our tacit participation in these regimes, we will continue to preserve them. At a forum in 1969 with Dick Gregory, in his typically no-nonsense way, James Baldwin laid bare the issue: “It’s a problem of whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it.” —Luke Ottenhof

The record is full of the raw idiosyncrasies and kinks that make Tim Kerr’s records so lovely. I read it as striving for a sound that’s most honest and reflective of the nuances of life, a ‘warts and all’ approach. Is that part of the angle?

Lee Bains III: That absolutely is what draws me to so much music and to Tim Kerr’s records. His records sound so human. With this record in particular, where I was trying to deal with human relationship and the ways in which frailty and idiosyncrasy and weirdness and unpredictability crop up in these moments of relationship and the ways that their effects kind of spool out, I felt like that was important to mirror that musically. We were there together interacting and that’s what we preserved.

I wanted to touch on the title, Youth Detention//Nail My Feet Down to the South Side of Town. What about those two phrases captured this collection?

Lee Bains III: The first phrase, Youth Detention, was sort of the guiding notion for me in writing this record. I had a notion guiding the writing, and I sort of had that phrase as a touchstone from before I started even getting into the first song lyrics. I wrote all the song lyrics at the same time pretty much because I wanted all the songs to be in conversation with one another, and hopefully supporting each other and complicating each other in this one thrust.

Youth Detention guided that. One of the songs that hit on that was “Nail My Feet Down to the South Side of Town,” and I guess part of what I was trying to talk about in this record is a relationship to stasis, and to displacement. I was trying to talk about youth, and the socialization that happens in youth through interaction, and trying to talk about criminalization as it plays into that in ways that folks are detained and restricted through the law, and also through the sort of more hard-to-pin-down systems that run underneath our lives, and the way that we think about ourselves and others. I’m also trying to think about memory and the way that memory is constituted and reconstituted through time, and the way that memory then not only informs our notion of the past, but refracts on the present moment.

I was also trying to speak to that notion of creating something new out of something very old. I was trying in the title, and in various different points on the record, to think about that linguistically, and thought about some of the objectivist poets who were into that idea of creating something new out of something old using the language itself, so the second part of the title, Nail My Feet Down to the South Side of Town, uses all of the letters of the first part, Youth Detention. So then hopefully that latter part of the title complicates and enriches the meaning of the first part, while literally using the first part in its entirety.

There’s such depth and shape to these songs, with such intricate details. They feel autobiographical; is that the case?

Lee Bains III: These songs are totally founded in my own experience, with all the sort of personal biases and distortions. They’re totally drawn from personal recollection.

I was reading the Bitter Southerner interview and was struck by the story of Bull Conner sitting in the front pew of the church. That seemed an example of the sort of cognitive dissonance that characterizes a lot of mainstream socialization. Was there a moment where you started to become aware of these issues and commit yourself to challenging them or if it was just a build up over time?

Lee Bains III: I think it’s so inspiring to hear about people confronting their own place and time and people. It’s maybe a little easier, and certainly a lot more popular, to cast stones at somebody somewhere else doing something that is untoward or fucked up, but I’m so inspired to hear of folks turning that gaze in on themselves. A power structure exists for the sole purpose of remaining in power and further entrenching that power, and to subjugate whoever is outside the system, so this is a great point.

We’re doing a show to mark the release in a couple weeks in Birmingham. It’s gonna be kind of a block party thing, and [Tim Kerr’s] gonna do a mural on the building. He’s gonna do portraits of people from Birmingham, folks who fought for freedom in their various ways. He’s gonna do Angela Davis, Fred Shuttlesworth, Sun Ra, and Spider Martin, and he was talking about, ‘Well, who else in Birmingham could you think of?’ We were just rattling off black folks from Birmingham in our public memory who have pushed really hard for the sake of liberation and truth in these various mediums, and we were struggling to think of white people. There’s a reason for that, and that is that a power structure’s sole purpose is to enrich its own power, and Birmingham is one of the most segregated cities in the world.

So in any event, these normalizing systems happen in these sorts of contexts. Something that just completely perplexes me and fascinates me is the way that power operates, and the way that individuals can be subjugated by these power systems due to other individuals becoming subsumed and becoming complicit in their workings. It’s bewildering, and at the same time, there are corollaries. I think to Jim Crow Birmingham, and how many people either actively or tacitly supported that regime. The fact that these are human people, a lot of whom I’ve known and honestly thought a great deal of as people, is a mindfuck. And to me what it shows is the importance and the power of these broad systems.

I think a lot of times, I feel like I’ve been told by art that, ‘Man, it’s just about loving your neighbor,’ in these simplistic terms. But what we can see is people who, on a person-to-person level, have the capacity to be sweet, loving, neighborly people involved in supporting these structures that just fucking grind people under its boot. The silver lining I see in that is that if the individual can have these certain characteristics or beliefs exploited to support a terroristic, white supremacist regime, their other characteristics can be exploited to support a democratic, egalitarian, equitable society. In these songs, hopefully as they talk about these massive systems and the way that they do grind folks up, they also show these spur of the moment, very human, innate acts of resistance against them. I feel like those acts and those urges need only be organized, and need only be directed in concert with one another, to have huge outcomes.

Speaking of acts of resistance and organization, the clip of the Assata Shakur chant at the start of “I Can Change!” really tied that in and opened that song perfectly. I was wondering how that wound up being included.

Lee Bains III: I tried to use, around the record, different collected sounds or recordings of folks speaking, and that one I had recorded at a Black Lives Matter rally in Atlanta. I believe it was after the killing of Alton Sterling. But I’d been in the thick of these demonstrations, and was so captivated by the energy and the sound, and by this mass of people all of whom have their own story or own perspective, their own belief system, their own experience, who have found it meaningful and important to be in the same place at the same time, literally moving through the streets of Atlanta in the same direction.

I found that moment, where an organizer with a megaphone led that Assata Shakur call-and-response, so unifying and empowering and so reverential, to be looking to an elder, essentially, for guidance. I believe [there’s] a lot of power in memory, and a lot of power in listening to those with different experiences or with more experience. I found that particular moment of unity and reverence for that elder’s wisdom at a different place in time—but one so relatable to the present—really empowering and humbling.

Despite this record being set in Birmingham, it seems that the way it’s framed, it drives home the idea that these issues are embedded everywhere, not isolated to one region.

Lee Bains III: I feel drawn to speak to those systems because white supremacy is not a southern problem. Its tentacles have reached into every corner of the world, so I guess that I’ve been drawn to the notion of localizing and personalizing narrative and perspective. The consciously first person perspective is being founded in the idea that at most, I can try to understand this little corner of the world that I have spent so much time, that my cultural memory is steeped in. I feel like that is my best shot to follow the rabbit holes into these much broader systems that affect Ottawa just as much as they affect Augusta.
I think that through interrogating our own place and community and memory and relationships with our neighbors, I think these systems take much more of a discernible shape than if everything is abstracted, and we’re talking about places and peoples that we’ve never had any sort of real relationship to or familiarity with.

I’ve never been to Palestine or Israel, and as an artist, I feel like to get in and talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the ground there is something that would be doing a massive disservice to Palestinians and Israelis and anybody who wants a sense of truth from that perspective. But I do have experience in Birmingham, Alabama with that conflict and the way that it plays out in the lives of folks whose family members were displaced, in conversations in churches that have to do with that sort of intersection of international policy and evangelical christianity, so I feel like if I root my perspective in its place, with all the narrowed focus and limitation that entails, hopefully that can get to the nature of these broader systems somewhere down the line.

That brings up an important conversation about navigating the divide between appropriate education, activism, and speech on these issues, and white knighting or speaking for or coopting the narratives of marginalized identities. I wanted to get a sense of how you navigate that divide.

Lee Bains III: Therein lies the rub, ya know? That question is something that I’ve been wrassling with for quite a while. For me, that’s part of why I’ve found it so important to speak from my experience and perspective. I remember when I was growing up, I bought a CCR album. I was probably 9 or 10, and I was listening to it in our living room, and my brother got home, and he was just like, “You like ‘Born On the Bayou?'” I was envisioning this song: here’s this guy, and he’s living in the bayous of south Louisiana, running with his coonhound, and he’s somehow gotten out of that, to write this song and tell the world about how he grew up. And my brother was like, “Man, they weren’t born on the bayou, they’re from San Francisco,” and it fucking wrecked me. I was sitting there like, “This motherfucker’s lying to me.” I think that’s sort of the memory that I can point to.
As I got older and was writing songs, and also in school taking literature classes and critical theory classes and stuff like that, I started to really interrogate my desire or urge to speak for other people, and what happened in that process. The writer who really shattered my frame of reference was Gayatri Spivak and “Can the Subaltern Speak?” It was like this powerfully brilliant, astute, studied, dense theoretical piece of writing that just struck with that 10-year old listening to the CCR album. It’s something at the same time that really drew me to a lot of punk that I got into as a teenager, like the very personal perspective that strove for honesty and authenticity.

I think that maybe knowing that those things can never be fully achieved, that authenticity isn’t some gold ring that you can just grab, but at least that it’s an ideal to strive for. That’s something that I definitely do strive for, and to be honest at different times playing independent rock music the last 10 years or so has felt at times a little bit like an isolated perspective. I’ve been fortunate over the years to get to know more and more bands and songwriters who are aspiring to that same thing, and that’s really galvanizing.

Rock and roll and punk are obviously subject to the same discriminatory structures that inform society, but those are repurposed here to confront and reform the forms, and closer “Save My Life!” highlights rock’s efficacy to change. When did you start engaging with these musics as agents of salvation or change?

Lee Bains III: I guess I started interacting with rock and roll and having that type of a notion as a kid listening to records with my brothers. I grew up in church and with quite a bit of church music, and I guess what feels like rock and roll to me is this sort of a sense that I gathered in church through music at its very best moments, and those were moments where instead of feeling constrained or judged or like the function of all of this was to close off certain experiences and ideas and people from the congregant, that the goal was the opposite: to break down walls, to break down these constricting constructs and to create this sort of mystical space of inclusion and liberation where anything can happen, and where we’re all safe.

I think for me, I felt that in rock and roll, or in some of it. I guess to me that’s that feeling, is that a group of people from different backgrounds and belief systems and experiences and ethnicities, religions, genders, whatever, that we can be in this space and fully be ourselves yet fully be together in celebrating that togetherness. I guess that’s how it feels to me.

The music here reads to me as an explicit vehicle for change, for progress, for discussion across intersectional boundaries. I wondered if you ever had doubts about the efficacy of music to educate and instigate change.

Lee Bains III: Yes. All the time. I walk around feeling that a lot to be honest. Like I’ll just be like, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ I don’t feel like I can do that, but what helps is to reflect on the records or the shows or the books or the films or the pieces of art I have seen that have completely fucking shifted my course and that have turned my attention towards confronting myself and pushing to change.
So in those moments, that’s what I try to do, is to turn my attention back to the fact that, ‘Well, you might not do a great job at it, but it is fuckin’ possible.’ [Laughs] It takes it out of the realm of the existential, because I know it can be done cause I’ve felt it and it’s happened to me. I don’t know if I’d be among the living if it weren’t for certain records and so I know for a fact that that can and does happen so I take solace in that.

“Picture Of A Man” seems to speak on the trauma inflicted on young boys and young men by the mechanisms of heteronormativity and hypermasculinity. Could you unpack what’s behind that song?

Lee Bains III: I feel like in public discourse in the media and even most of the time in academia, from what little I know anyway, is that when we talk about the notion of race for instance, the focus is on people who are not defined as white. And of course the idea of race was, from what I’ve read, pretty much created by people to create a notion of whiteness, that they could be normal against which everything else was defined, and I think a similar thing happens with gender when we talk about gender. We read tons of articles where white dudes, cis-het dudes often feel free to talk about transgender folks or fluidity or feminism or whatever it is they wanna talk about, but we don’t spend all our time talking about the notion of maleness, or man-ness.

There is a lot of violence, clearly physical but there’s a lot of epistemic violence, psychological violence that rises from our notions of masculinity and only fester because of our reticence to investigate masculinity, what it is and what it isn’t. I’ve mostly learned from people who don’t identify as conventionally masculine or male.

The fact that these ideals are so rarely talked about, let alone questioned, certainly for me created a lot of internal violence or pressure that, through the ways that I was socialized to understand maleness or masculinity, couldn’t really be let out, or to do so would have indicated a departure from masculinity. With hetero- and cis-normativity, the degree to which a boy ceases to be boy-ish or masculine is the degree to which he ceases to exist at all. You’re just less of a thing.

It strikes me that across this record, these are scathing indictments, but they’re not done out of malice. It seems like there’s an element of love that pushes you to want to fix these systems, and a desire to put in the work. Is that something that informed this record?

Lee Bains III: I absolutely am driven to talk about this stuff and try and address it out of love and affection, and a desire for reconciliation and salvation, essentially. I guess at one time I might have thought it counterintuitive, but I think the more that I push to take my communities to task, has a correlative relationship to my love for those communities and for myself. The more I’m willing to take an inward look and an honest appraisal, the more mercy I find.

I do identify as a ‘dude.’ I love who I am, I’m trying to get there and that’s part of the process for me: loving and accepting and being who I am and the fact that I identify as a man. If I’m in that, then I’m allowing space and celebrating all the space in and around that, that other people can occupy, that I myself can occupy. I love my home and I love my communities and my neighbors, and that’s why I feel called to talk about this stuff.

I feel like the more I write and talk about it, the less I know, but I’m familiar with my neighbors, with my people, and I know because of that, that they aren’t two-dimensional characters in a melodrama, and I know that as long as they’re not, then they, like I, have the capacity to wreak havoc in the world and hurt people, and also they have the capacity to lift one another up and make room for others, and I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

A populist image that’s pushed of people being one-dimensional or stuck in their ways, or generalizing or ascribing the south an essentially racist quality or characteristic, benefits that power structure because it diverts your attention from the fact that those same systems are at work everywhere.

Lee Bains III: Everybody loves a whipping boy. The reason we love a whipping boy is that it takes the heat off of us. I think if ever there was such a thing as a legitimately isolated problem in a corner of the world, that time is over. The danger with whipping boys is that we wind up denying our own complicity in these systems, and thereby sidestep any potential amend-making process. I feel very excited for the people of New Orleans that the confederate statues are coming down because I can only imagine what it’s like to be fucking 10th generation New Orleanian walking down the street and see that statue everyday and think, ‘That person fought to keep my family slaves.’ So I think it’s great that those statues are being taken down.

I have been worried about some of the rhetoric I’ve seen around it, and some of the narratives that I see being spun around their being taken down, and a lot of the rhetoric I’ve read is feeding into this notion of American exceptionalism. The idea that the union army was essentially fighting for righteousness, just as it always had done and just as it always will do, and we’re finally taking down the statues of the traitors; I think that’s a fucking dangerous road to walk down.

Assata Shakur was quoted as saying that an important moment in her shift in political consciousness was when she realized that the Civil War was not fought to free the slaves. The Civil War was fought to keep slavery in the south, but you didn’t have an army raised up to say, ‘You know what, I think it’s about time we did the right thing here.’ I think that’s seldom the case. I think it is important to bear in mind that just as a lot of Robert E. Lee’s southern plantation owners, and some of my family, grew enriched on the backs of black slavery, so did a lot of northern capitalists and British capitalists and Canadians. Colonists all around the world were a couple steps away in the chain of economic relationship, but the system had much broader support and impact than just the southern U.S. or Haiti or Brazil. It reached back to Europe where it started.

Acknowledging that, and poking holes in that glossy, dissociated version of events, is so important. It reminds me of the line from “I Can Change!”: “Guilt is not a feeling/It’s a natural fact.” It just seems that that implication of wrongdoing is a fact that most folks aren’t comfortable with confronting themselves with.

Lee Bains III:

Guilt is a state of having done wrong. Regardless of how we feel about it, it doesn’t change the fact that if you’re guilty of fucking running into your neighbor’s car, it doesn’t matter how you feel about it, you’re fucking guilty of it. I think guilt is a concept that is commonly erased in this moment. It’s important to me to think about that, to think about guilt being a state, a fact, and hopefully a catalyst for redemption, for making restitution.

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