10.04.20 | When music becomes your job, it can end up doing funny things to you. Its terms as lifeblood take on different meanings: it’s not always easy to work out which bits of it come out of you as a kind of preternatural compulsion, and which are the functional, box-ticking impulses keeping you and your family in basic foodstuffs. In the end, you can only go with your instincts, and reach for whatever the thing in front of you is: the thing that feels like the most logical, natural choice.
Life took my family and me to Austin in 2013. I’d spent the previous ten years touring, recording, ping-ponging between the different states of life as a professional musician: bass player, spokesperson, salesman, peacemaker, absentee. After the jet-lagged multitasking, in Austin a period of (relative) stability started to kick in, domestically at least. I had a space to store an amplifier for a prolonged period of time: a place to plug in and make noise. But I’d drifted out of the compulsive musical collaborations that had defined most of my adult life. It was a kind of year zero. Outside, in the wider world of course, things weren’t quite so stable.
‘The Corporate Body’
wasn’t really designed as a response to that period, but looking back on it, it is at least the product of it, finished as it eventually was six years later, just as I was returning to the UK. It’s a cliché to look back and think that what was happening in America (and elsewhere) over that time was some big watershed of surprise: in truth the cultural and political shifts had been quietly aligning for decades. In Austin this was particularly tangible, because of the way the city is perched in the middle of the Texas countryside. It’s like a city on the hill: looked down from, looked up to; in each direction always more with suspicion than respect. You’re so close to what most of Texas really is and the way it thinks, never more than fifteen minutes’ drive from a radically different form of politics. While the city/country divide is getting more astute everywhere, Austin can claim a degree of experience on this front. Texas had the first elected female governor in 1925
, while staunchly conservative and neo-conservative values continue to live right on the city’s doorstep, indeed within the very walls of the government buildings just above 11th Street. The street I lived on during my time in Austin was named after the confederate postmaster general, John Reagan
. Its history is its present: inescapable.
Drug Life came together slowly but surely from 2014 onwards: first after a chance meeting with Joey Cortez at a Billy Squire cover show (Joey was in the band, they were called Billy’s Choir), later when Terry Irwin from Markov
came onboard to play drums. Austin still lives in the long shadow of its metal/punk scene, and plenty of people are still putting on trashy punk shows, often outside, and while my background was quite different, it was that spirit I wanted to tap into for Drug Life. I wanted it to be different to what I’d done before: wilfully awkward, front-loading the mathy-ness and discord. Joey was the first person in Austin I chimed with in terms of wanting to play, having the hardcore guitar chops, but also being sage enough to go with the flow. He’d been playing in a band called Pushmen
at that point, with Jon Syverson from Daughters
, and is probably best known for his slightly overlooked (but absolutely ahead of its time) Texas grind/hardcore band Employer, Employee
. After some missteps, we eventually found Terry, whose muscular playing and stoic patience came to hold the whole thing together. We were never in a hurry: there were weeks-long periods where we wouldn’t play or rehearse or anything, and it probably took a year to get enough songs together to play shows, but as we started to gel, the band definitely took on a unique shape. Having tried out a couple of singers, eventually I opted to cover vocals as well as bass - kind of a novelty for me, but again, something that ended up feeling like a logical choice.
American politics on all sides has long traded on the importance of both bodies of people and the
bodies of people. Texas itself puts great weight in the individual, but also in its collective image of itself as unique, the ‘Lone Star State’. And yet its labour laws hardly give succour to those looking to organise collectively. While Texas tax breaks have encouraged more and more corporations to move their offices to Texas - and specifically Austin - only 4% of Texan workers are in unions
, the fourth-lowest percentage of any US state. And at a time in which the female body is heavily policed by the state (the number of abortion clinics in Texas halved between 2013 and 2019
), the Citizens United supreme court ruling has allowed corporations to enjoy the rights of individuals, to be seen - in the eyes of the law - as people. The ‘corporate body’ is a way to describe so much of how our lives are organised in 2020: our fingertips constantly hovering over the logos of big brands, our choices governed by corporate logic, an increasing sense of the futility of the individual voice, and the need more than ever to find collective, community-based forms of response.
It’s against this background that ‘The Corporate Body’ began to take shape, written for the most part in Texan backyards and rehearsal spaces in the mid/late 20-teens. It’s a record full of a contrast of characters, the tapestry of logic that makes up the corporate body, the way that single voices of power and influence put minoritarian interests in place. The record opens with audio from an Angela Davis lecture given at UCLA in 1969
, the content of which won’t offend anyone who’s been listening to what Bernie Sanders has been saying on the campaign trail in the last two years. ‘Tickertape’ and ‘Guillotine’ are about the plaudits and riches awaiting those who can navigate such a system, those for whom empathy is just an obstacle to self-realisation. These are songs about the virtues of crassness, how “every blood-clogged clarion failure” becomes a hallmark of power, of misguided goals made into national causes.
‘Upmanship Down’ imagines two visions of contemporary youth culture side-by-side: one looking inwards, seeing only present: the other fighting outwards for fundamental things like education, future, equality. I thought of the sunshine in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, contrasted with that on the beaches of Padre Island during spring break, how on one side of the world being 18 is a fleeting moment of freedom that seems to last forever and on the other, the same freedoms look impossible. And yes, I stole the title from a Daisy Chainsaw song
. As the song says, "renounce everything".
Probably the most explicitly political take on the record is in ‘Nationhood’, about how the primary colours of red, white and blue living large in the American imaginary hide the nuances underneath. It contains the best image I could come up with for the USA in 2017: that of a “bankrupt gated community”.‘Paper Tie’ is another split-screen perspective, this time of two views of marriage: on the one side as oppression, the other as compromise. Both are distortions, but speak of power imbalances closer to home. Its chunky on-off bassline was one of the harder patterns I had to teach myself to sing over, but this was one of the joys of Drug Life in the end: the chance to do things I’d never tried, to play in a more challenging way than I had before.
The final words for the record were lifted from a long monologue delivered at the end of Season One of 'Mr. Robot'
, a reflection on reality in times of living in “branded houses trademarked by corporations, built on bipolar numbers.” Our digital living confers on us a constant sense of unease, of the elusiveness of truth: a state of affairs that benefits churning capitalism, inviting us only to scroll on in search of some fleeting sense of purpose.
Most of all, the record is a document of my time in Austin over the last six years, of the friendships and creative ties forged there. More than some kind of bloody-minded blueprint for the right kind of band to be, we really just tried to create something that made sense in the moment, to stretch ourselves, to write songs where counts of five and six intersect, to make the loudest fucking racket we could.
It’s a regret of mine in a way that Drug Life didn’t play more over those six years, write more songs, get in front of more people, but in the end it really was the sporadic fruit of an occasionally realised band, woven against the life challenges of children, jobs and studies. My hope is that what comes through is a fleeting glimpse of a time and a place, but also a testament to the camaraderie I shared with my friends Terry and Joey. It was no given that by the time I returned to London in the summer of 2019 I’d have something like this to show for it. But now I always will.
The complete lyrics of the record are here
: the record itself can be listened to/bought here