Fifth Estate Magazine, spring 2011
Ron Sakolsky on Mecca Normal
Ron Sakolsky is a scholar covering the intersection of music, revolution and radio. As of 2005, Sakolsky is Emeritus Professor of Public Administration at the University of Illinois at Springfield. For more than twenty years he taught at the university on music and social justice issues, originally attracted by its innovative and radical courses.
Over the last 25 years, Mecca Normal has consistently turned up the heat on the theoretical relationship between music and social change by furiously stirring them together in the fiery cauldron of artistic practice. In the process, they have boldly created a unique body of work that has challenged the downpressing gravity of the authoritarian life with a yeasty combination of outrage and subversive laughter. In essence, they have defied gravity, and, in doing so, have urged us all to refuse to be held down when we could be soaring to the outer reaches of possibility, or, better yet, demanding the impossible. Their music is not designed to present us with a dry polemic on the “one-best-way” to be politically active or offer a pat answer on how to live our lives according to anybody’s party line. Instead, it is a direct call to see through the bullshit and make our own choices.
Historically-speaking, the house of Mecca Normal that Jean and David have built has been widely acknowledged as one part of the foundation of the Riot Grrrl movement which burst on the punk scene in the Nineties throwing down the gauntlet to male supremacy and laying the groundwork for Ladyfest solidarity. Before that, Mecca Normal was the spark that lit up the radical political landscape of the late Eighties with the Black Wedge tour. That tour was an anarchist antidote to the self-congratulatory left/liberal Red Wedge tour in the UK, which aimed at unseating Boss Margaret Thatcher, but ultimately led to the reign of Boss Tony Blair, who became the staunch Labour Party ally of Boss George Bush in the “war on terror.” Black Wedge, on the other hand, placed its rebellious emphasis on a politically-engaged music and poetry that wanted nothing to do with the electoral realm and focused instead on denouncing systemic abuse and countering the spectacular politics of everyday life.
Many recording artists naively, or perhaps conveniently, believe that music can only be used to change the world by trading on their own status as stars who are recruited to support the least obnoxious political candidate or who involve themselves in do-gooder charitable activities that condescendingly distance them from those that society attempts to victimize. Mecca Normal has never played such shallow celebrity games. Instead, the name of their record label, Kill Rock Stars, says it all. As Jean Smith once explained in an article she wrote about Black Wedge for the 1995 anthology that I co-edited with Fred Ho, Sounding Off!: Music as Subversion/Resistance/Revolution, “The Black Wedge functions/agitates in the crawlspace of resistance, under the big house of capitalism.”
And that original Black Wedge tour has provided a seminal source of experiences and ideas that have animated Mecca Normal’s music, writing and visual art ever since. Their most recent 2009 tour, whose overriding theme was “How Art and Music Can Change The World,” is a case in point. More than a mere retrospective of their work, the tour opener that I caught at the Vinegar Factory in Vancouver was a reaffirmation of their inspirational power and continuous resilience. Both Mecca Normal tours represent plateaus in relation to their ongoing commitment to cultural activism. Yet, the latter, by combining a seasoned performance-based pedagogy with a raw emotional and lyrical intensity, is the culmination (so far) of the rock solid artistic integrity that has made Mecca Normal into an underground legend in its own time. –Ron Sakolsky
BC Bookworld entry:
Globe and Mail Published June 29, 2007
By James Adams
Late last year, critic-musician Franklin Bruno, writing in the Boston Phoenix, one of America’s oldest “underground” newspapers, declared that the best rock record of 2006 was The Observer by the Vancouver-based duo Mecca Normal (a.k.a. Jean Smith, 47, and David Lester, 49). Better, he claimed, than White Bread Black Beer by Britain’s Scritti Politti, his No. 2 choice, better than Sound Grammar by New York jazz legend Ornette Coleman, better even than Songs and Other Things by Television founder Tom Verlaine.
It’s a pretty safe bet The Observer didn’t end up on any similar list from a Canadian critic. In part, this is because the disc was released by Seattle’s small Kill Rock Stars label and distributed, as most of Mecca Normal’s records usually have been, as an import. Partly, too, it’s because Mecca Normal, with a repertoire of self-penned songs with titles like I’m Not into Being the Woman You’re With While You’re Looking for the Woman You Want and Don’t Heel Me Like a Dog Just to Break Me Like a Horse, remains stubbornly sui generis – “the Buckley’s cough syrup of rock” – 20-plus years and 12 or so full-length records after its formation. As vocalist/keyboardist Smith remarked recently: “We operate Mecca Normal as a vehicle to put across ideas. I didn’t start a band and then try to think of things to say. I had things to say, so I started a band … We aren’t changing to satisfy trends or new audiences; anything we want to do, we give it a try.”
She added: “From the very beginning, there have been those who love what we do and those who hate it, and both of those positions give us inspiration and encouragement.”
Sometimes the things Mecca Normal has wished to say haven’t taken a musical form. Indeed, Lester, the group’s guitarist, and Smith – who stresses they’re “not a couple … We have an excellent friendship” – have “included art exhibits, lectures, publishing, writing (Smith’s novel Broke Like Me, her third or fourth work of fiction, will be published next year) and graphics into the Mecca Normal vehicle.” The duo has worked various day jobs to keep the vehicle running — Lester’s the editor and designer of B.C. BookWorld while Smith, a former ski instructor, has a steady gig as “a fitness technician encouraging and instructing women in weight-bearing exercise.”
Neither Lester nor Smith has ever seriously considered moving out of Vancouver to, say, New York (Mecca Normal has opened for Sonic Youth and Fugazi) or Seattle. True, “we have made a lot of friends in the U.S. over the years,” perhaps because “Americans believe or hope that art and music can change the world – more than Canadians” and because “the gregarious nature of Americans, their energy” provides more of a boost to Mecca Normal’s live shows. But, noted Smith, “we did not set out to be famous … [we're] not essentially a ‘get-ahead’ kind of a band.”
Yes, if fame and fortune ever come to the band that once produced this couplet “You vote Socred next time instead of NDP/I’m gonna have to wonder about you and me,” it’s gonna come on their own terms.
– Venus Magazine, 2002
Creating a Mecca
JEAN SMITH’S ART CONTINUES TO INSPIRE GRRL ROCK
by Summer Wood
Jean Smith is one of those extremely rare people who seem to be constantly in motion – onstage, as the vocal half of the minimalist punk duo Mecca Normal, and as a prolific painter and printmaker, novelist, poet, and anarchist-feminist activist. After close to two decades, she still tours extensively with Mecca Normal’s guitar half, David Lester, and the two are set to release their 10th record, The Family Swan, on Kill Rock Stars in August. Lester and Smith recently published a hand-printed chapbook of the lyrics from the new album on their imprint Smarten UP! and Get To The Point Publishing, and Smith is in the process of finishing her third novel, Living on Eggshells. If that weren’t enough, the two also will mount a show of Smith’s conceptual paintings and Lester’s educational prints of obscure political figures at an Olympia, Washington, gallery in August.
Smith’s career is proof-positive that success manifests itself in myriad forms, and that you don’t have to sell out in order to make a living. Her passionate commitment to D.I.Y. aesthetics and radical politics is widely credited with inspiring the riot grrl generation. Now, having outlasted that movement, Jean contemplates her legacy while continuing to make new music and art on her own terms. She spoke with me from her home in Vancouver.
Mecca Normal’s music is pretty explicitly political. Did you begin playing music to express your personal convictions, or did playing music and making art help you to discover what your belief system is?
I learned a lot about feminism; in fact, from David, which I don’t think people ever really piece together – that he was the one of us who had the political convictions all sorted out into a theory of anarchism and feminism and how they related in the music community. When I started learning about these things, I wanted a way to express this new energy and outrage about social injustice in general, whether it was poverty or feminism or how to think differently, to challenge the status quo.
You’re often cited as an influence of the riot grrl movement. Are you at a point in your musical career where you can contemplate what your musical legacy is, and if so, what do you think it might be?
When Mecca Normal started out, we spoke a lot about social change, and people would say it wasn’t possible to change anything. But as we proceeded, and spoke from the stage and in interviews, we spoke a lot about women getting together, starting bands, dealing with issues that were of concern to them. To see that happen from the vantage point of being based in Olympia — a lot of our performances and our record label were there – and having people like Kathleen [Hanna] and Tobi [Vail] and Allison [Wolfe] of Bratmobile there and starting bands, coming to our shows, and finding a lot of inspiration. To me, the exciting part of that is that it is possible to speak out and inspire people and from that, things will actually change. To still be around and able to say that at this particular point sort of triples the impact.
We didn’t set out to be aligned with any particular group. We are now more interested in being current – we’re here, we’re now. I think people have a tendency to think that now is not a really great time, and “what if I was alive back when everything was really happening?” People lose any sort of faith that now is as potentially interesting and has as much to offer as then did. It’s only with a historical hindsight that we can say that was such a great time.
This kind of false nostalgia seems like a dangerous notion. It gives you permission to do nothing, and to give up before you start by saying that everything has already been done, so there’s no point. That’s an incredibly arrogant statement. We can all come up with excuses as to why we don’t want to put ourselves out there and be criticized, or we can just do the work of making art and getting into the fray of community.
You and David do everything yourselves, from PR and booking your tours, to album art, and printing your own books. It seems as though that’s increasingly rare these days, even in the punk scene. Can you talk about your philosophy of D.I.Y.?
Dave and I worked together putting out an independent weekly newspaper here [in Vancouver], back when it was all done with wax and knives and that sort of thing. We’re both inclined that way. It’s way more exciting, really, to do it yourself. We also realized that we enjoy the kind of reciprocity that comes from working with like-minded people.
I guess when people see that you’re a writer or that you’re in this rather public sphere of the arts, they assume that you’re out to get as famous as possible, to be as well known to as many people as you can. But for us, the thrill is really in working together, and making the art, and then taking it out there and finding the few people who are really responsive, and who it means something to.
We’re not trying to play to everyone — we actually like playing smaller clubs where we can make eye contact with people, and that we’re available to talk to people after the show about what they’re doing. That’s a far more satisfying way to proceed than the capitalist way that you’re trying to get as much for yourself as possible.
Over the past couple of decades, have you seen it become increasingly passe to be a political musician?
It’s easy for people to pigeonhole you and call you things like rhetorical or dogmatic. People can write you off more easily if they can say, “You’re a feminist; therefore, I wouldn’t be interested in whatever you do.” It seems that feminism has become more of a widespread pretext for making music and art, and with things like the WTO protests and independent media outlets that are springing up, and the way information gets around on the Internet, it feels like there’s more potential; differing opinions are more accessible. People are becoming politicized to the degree that they’re willing to go out and protest.
Speaking of the media, you and David have built up this very interesting D.I.Y. media empire over the years. Was that your intent in the beginning?
(Laughs). Not really! We’re kind of assessing our body of work over the last 15 years at this point, and trying to bring it all into one place at the shows by putting up Dave’s artwork and my artwork, and displaying these books that we’ve put out of my writing and Dave’s graphics. It’s more that we just keep working on these projects as we go along, without an organized framework. It could appear that we’ve had this goal and this plan all along, but that’s not really the case.
Watching you and Dave perform together, the closeness between you is really apparent. I’m curious about the creative process you go through when you’re writing songs, and how you work together.
In my corner of the room, I’m pretty much dealing with what’s going on in my life, and a good part of my writing came from an angry perspective on how women are viewed, and how my relationships were going, and how my parents perceived my life. Now, I’ve quit drinking, which is something that has been really great for the band, and also for my life, and started dealing with things in songs that were the reasons why I was drinking.
Dave’s role is to find musical accompaniment to my verbal expressions that doesn’t really match them — it’s not like a sentimental soundtrack to my thinking and theories — to create a little bit of tension. His way of thinking is very different than my way of expressing myself, and we allow each other the space to bring two very different expressions together. We both respect the other’s perspective.
Do you find yourself surprised when you take a step back and look at all the things you’ve made? You’re about to release Mecca Normal’s 10th record — that’s pretty remarkable.
It is to me, that we’re still doing it as a duo, although we had a drummer there for a couple of albums, and I’ve worked on my own bands and projects. That’s like fuel to us that we can look at our past now and kind of fine-tune our future based on what we’ve been able to achieve. It always feels like fresh ground — I don’t think we’d ever be satisfied to say “this is what we do.” But to remain, as a format, the duo, with Dave and I working on this partnership, which is based on the fact that we really get along and work well together – that he is so supportive of what I do as a woman and as a feminist — it is kind of remarkable.