Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Must I paint you a picture – Billy Bragg in interview

Unsure as to whether I’ve hit a raw nerve, he continues, “That was on the first album, and so if there'd been so much grief and hassle on the first album they wouldn't have come back to do a second album, but they did. And they recorded an extra five songs for that album, just because of the process on that first album. They hadn't written as many songs because I'd been on board for 18 months before I brought them on board. So they went away and wrote some more songs, went into the archive, choose the songs, wrote and recorded them. That doesn't sound like the behaviour of a band that can't bear to work with me anymore”. He pauses, and then moves on, ” And it was great. I think the second album tilts a little bit more to Wilco, while the first album tilted a little bit more towards me. And that's right, and I'm glad it worked out that way. We had our disagreements in the studio but that's part of the process you know. There was a film-maker [Editor's Note: Kim Wilson’s film Man of Sand] working with us, filming the whole thing, and when she wanted to put it out, she said “Look Bill, this is a really important part of making the album, and the film, you've got to let me put it in”, so I said that if the guys from Wilco were o.k. with it, I'm o.k. with it. If they're not embarrassed by it, seeing us argue, then I'm not, and to give them their due they just got on with it. I've no qualms working with them again, I enjoyed the whole process. It was a shame that it had to end really”.

One criticism that could be voiced at the project was the closeness of style between Guthrie, Bragg and Wilco. They all shared certain characteristics. Wouldn't it have been more interesting to send someone from a completely different tradition into the archives? “That's what Nora's doing. There's all sorts of people working on stuff in the archives. The Klezmatics are in there, a band that plays Klezmer music, and they're doing an album – a Woody Guthrie Klezmer album. Nora's constantly finding people. There's a lot of spoken word stuff, a lot of prose, stream of consciousness stuff, and she's got people like Lou Reed doing stuff. We were very close to working with Andy Irvine on this.” he says enthusiastically.” He's a huge Woody Guthrie fan, I think he may have met him when he was a young man, he made a pilgrimage. We wanted to work with him when we were in Dublin, but he just wasn't able to at the time. He would make a great album. There's so much stuff there. Nora could keep doing this project over and over. I think she just needed someone to prove at the start that it could be done. That you could do it and that people would appreciate it. That's what we did, me and Wilco. We showed you could do it without upsetting everybody and without diminishing Woody's status”.

Red Wedge, American Style

Though he's always had a following in the States, the Mermaid Avenue projects undoubtedly brought Bragg a new profile and a new audience. One can't help but feel that the current climate though, where numerous bands are becoming increasingly politicised in the run up to the American Election, obviously suits Bragg. He's played the Tell us the Truth tour, organised to protest against ongoing media consolidation, adding his voice to those of artists like Steve Earle, Tom Morello (Rage against the Machine, AudioSlave, and Nightwatchman), Mike Mills of R.E.M, and others. It was an experience he relished: “Playing with Steve Earle was a great pleasure. I've a great respect for the man. The people playing on the tour were the sort of people it's great to go around America with because they're positive Americans. America gets a very bad press, I think. I'm in a privileged position, and I get to travel to the United States a lot, and to talk to people, so I know that the bullshit we get from the Republican Party, and the Bush administration, is not what everybody thinks, so part of my gig is to try to express that to people in the rest of the world, but also to say to Americans that we are conducive to an America that takes its responsibilities seriously, and that signs up to treaties to ban nuclear proliferation, that protects the environment, that respects the Geneva convention. An isolationist America is no bloody use to anyone”.

Current preparations for a high profile tour of artists like Springsteen and Michael Stipe, in swing States, to mobilise the vote for the Democratic Party hark back to the days of the Red Wedge tour in Britain during the 1980s when artists like Bragg and Paul Weller toured to raise support for the Labour Party. Does he see parallels in the situation in America now? “It's just like Red Wedge, in fact it's so like Red Wedge that I refused to be a part of it. I was asked to go along by Tom of Audioslave, but I said to him ”This is about a foreign election, I really can't come and be saying to people – Vote Democrat – in a foreign election” but I think what they're doing is really great, and it's the closest thing to Red Wedge that I've seen”.

This may be an unwelcome comparison, as the British tour found itself out of step with public opinion come Election Day. As panicked voices in Europe start to suggest that, to their horror, George W. Bush may win. Is there a danger of a great political disillusionment for the artists and fans mobilising? Bragg is philosophical in his response: “Politics often ends in disappointment, doesn't it? I'm still batting away on my politics for the Labour Party. I'm much further to the left of them than I used to be, but that's because they've moved, not me. The most important thing for anyone, I think, is to be engaged, whether you're an artist or a journalist is to be engaged in the process at some level. The Americans who have lived in a hitherto non-ideological society, their society is becoming increasingly ideological but not in the strict left and right, it's becoming ideological in a cultural, conservative vs. liberal sort of way, which is really weird to witness”.

There's a growing sense, in my mind at least, that the ranks are closing amongst the celebrity supporters of John Kerry, and to question his abilities and the future direction of a White House under his stewardship is seen as to somehow be tantamount to support for Bush. Bragg though is happy to talk. Will a Kerry victory make the slightest bit of difference? “That's a very interesting question. For a lot of people there's not a huge amount of difference between Kerry and Bush, but what we used to say in Britain about Labour and the Conservative party, in the ’60s and ’70s was that although there may only be an inch of difference between the parties, in that inch a lot of people survive, a difference is made to a lot of people. The reversal of the tax cuts would be a start, signing up to nuclear non-proliferation treaties, and accepting that the only way to deal with the world's problems is through the United Nations – I think they'll all make a significant difference. I think it's going to be very close again”. He continues,”The Americans haven't decided what America is going to be like at the start of the 21st century. Whoever would have won the last election, neither of them could have said that they had a mandate. That's the problem with Bush, he acts like he has a huge fuckin’ mandate to act, when he doesn't. It wouldn't surprise me if no-one got a significant mandate from this election”.

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