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Friday, 20 September 2013 09:59

'My bottom line is to communicate' An interview with Billy Bragg

'My bottom line is to communicate' An interview with Billy Bragg
Written by Robin Wheeler

It's been 30 years since Billy Bragg blended punk sensibilities with a lone guitar for his debut album, "Life's a Riot with Spy vs. Spy." In that time he's not only created a rich catalog of music, but he's also been a labor advocate, a protestor, a writer and playwright, a father, a collaborator -- most notably with Kirsty MacColl and Wilco, and one of the foremost keepers of Woody Guthrie's legacy.

For his career's fourth decade, Bragg's on the road supporting "Tooth and Nail," released last spring, while preparing the 30th anniversary of "Life's a Riot." He kicks off the next leg of his year-long tour this Sunday, September 22 at the Old Rock House.

Robin Wheeler: You're going to have a very excited audience in St. Louis on Sunday.

Billy Bragg: We're really very excited, too, because it's going to be our first proper gig. We've been down in Nashville doing little bits [at the Americana Awards], which is a lot of fun. I'm just playing showcases and in-stores and radio stations. When am I going to get to play a proper gig? [laughs]

You'll have a good one on Sunday. I've been talking to a lot of people who are excited that you're finally coming back here.

Yeah, it's been a long while. I lost the map.

You've been to Chicago a bunch...

It's no St. Louie. It's nice, but it's no St. Louie.

We're all tired of going to Chicago to see you.

It's too far.

You were doing a lot of union protest shows last year, especially up in Wisconsin. Have you had much time to continue that with the tours you've been doing this year?

I try to keep up to speed on those kinds of things. Obviously in a foreign country it's a little bit harder to actually be there and be part of it, but we passed through Wisconsin last year and I was able to touch base with the people up there. For a whole day when they were at the state capitol building I was able to go down and sing a few songs with them there, which was great.

I know you're going to have a lot of union people at the show on Sunday. Locally we've had a lot of protests against Peabody Coal about pension issues, and fast food workers strikes.

I've missed most of that, I'm afraid. The thing about coming to a town is you find out about these kinds of things, you know. You don't hear about these things in Britain. Are they striking for wages or safety? Pensions? It's happening in the U.K. to public service workers, that's where I'm often marching with the nurses and teachers and those kinds of people, getting their pensions cut.

On to happier topics, the 30th anniversary edition of "Life's a Riot with Spy vs. Spy" -- what can we expect when that comes out next month?

The wonderful thing about "Life's a Riot with Spy vs. Spy" is that it's only 17 minutes long, so I can play it as an encore, the whole album. I did recently at a show in London, and they recorded it. The reissue is one side with the original album and the other side will be a live version of the album recorded this year. Most people record their favorite album at the London Symphony Orchestra or the Royal Albert Hall, but I said no, an encore.

That's really cool. So many anniversary editions come out and it's just the same album with a few technical tweaks and maybe an extra song or two.

There's not a lot to tweak on that album. It is what it is -- one bloke playing his guitar, loud and raucous. There's not much you can do with it. That's what it is, baby. What have you learned in those 30 years?

What I learned is that it's all about the songs. If the songs connect with people, they'll last. It's not about production. It's not about the light show. It's not about the style. It's the content that we're drawn to. Certainly on that record, anyway. The fact that people still love those songs for all that time, and they're so stark and so ... what's the opposite of slick? Slack, maybe?

Slick and slack?

Is that a word in America, or does it have another terrible meaning? I'm always in fear of using a word like that. Like "teabagged." In England it means someone gives you a teabag and you make a cup of tea with water.

Yeah, that means something totally different.

Oh, that's nice to know, in case someone offers.

I have a friend in London, and it's been a game of ours for years to...


No, we're not equipped for that. We like to find the dirty words in each others' versions of English. There used to be a bar here called Growler's Pub, so I made sure she had one of their t-shirts to wear around London. [While a growler is a half-gallon beer vessel in the U.S., in the U.K. it's slang for a part of the female anatomy.]

That would make a lot of sense, yeah. Your listeners don't know what a growler is, do they? If anyone's listening a "growler" is a small iceberg. That's what they call the smallest icebergs in England. I don't know if you know this but when icebergs melt, because they're freshwater they give out a hissing noise.

Oh! So they growl!

When they hit the saltwater, they don't just growl, they roar, which is scary. How did we get into icebergs?

Because we're going with the iceberg definition of growler to avoid any double entendre.


We were talking about word meanings, which goes right into what I was planning to ask you next. I don't know if people here are aware of the writing you've done beyond music, like being involved with the play "Pressure Drop" and the book "The Progressive Patriot." What have you been writing of late?

My bottom line is to communicate. Whether I'm doing a gig, writing a song, talking to your listeners, if someone asks me to write something, I'm always up for banging out 500 words, 600 words. The Guardian newspaper asked me to do a piece after they heard me talking about how the Brits invented Americana. I just sent off 800 words that should be in there tomorrow.

That's one of my favorite news sources.

Great website. The fact that they have an American version is really helpful for us in the U.K., because when we're coming over it allows us to get up to speed on what's happening in the U.S.

OK, so I am going to talk about Woody [Guthrie] a little bit.

That's allowed. That's allowed.

You spent so much of last year on the road, celebrating his centennial. What was that like, and what keeps bringing you back to Woody? Other than the fact that he tends to grab you by the neck and drag you all the way in once you're involved in his story.

He's the father of the protest-song tradition of which I'm a member of that brigade, so he's always been there in the background. But obviously since the "Mermaid Avenue" project, he's been even more important to me. As someone who was asked by his daughter to represent him, but also in the sense that he ... working with him taught me that the enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place isn't capitalism or conservatism; it's cynicism. Woody never wrote a cynical song. His songs were all about lifting people up. That was quite an insight to go and delve deeply into his archive of 3000 lyrics to find such a unquenchable belief in humanity. That's quite a powerful thing to witness, and I hope that I've got some of that in my own world view, my own songwriting, my own way of dealing with the frustrations and challenges that life constantly throws at me. To not give in to my own cynicism along with everyone else's. To battle my own cynicism. That's the insight I received from working in the archive. The power of Woody. The power of Woody.

We need to talk about "Tooth and Nail," because it's fantastic. I know you recorded it very quickly. How did that process go with doing all the touring for Woody's centennial?

Actually, it was all recorded before. I recorded it in January of last year. Because I not only had to pay for the recording but I also had to pay for the marketing? I had to hold it until I had a war chest of enough to pay for a year of promotion, going out on the road with a band for a year. So the Woody tour helped pay [for that]. Putting out an album and touring for 18 months is a huge commitment of blood and treasure, so it was a big deal for me to take it on. So that's why I held it. But it's so similar to "Life's a Riot" where I was straight in, play songs, straight out, and look at how it sounds afterwards.

What can we expect with the Vintage Vinyl in-store and the concert on Sunday?

The in-store, I have no idea. I'll have to walk in the room, see who's there and what's in my head. It'll probably be acoustic, so that'll involve a lot of Woody stuff. The gig, a lot more built around "Tooth and Nail" with elements of "Mermaid Avenue" in there and my back catalog. Kind of run through the sound of "Tooth and Nail."

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