Outernational is a band to which music writers love making comparisons about politically outspoken musicians of yesteryear. Just about all of them stick. Yes, the New York-based rock group agrees with Woody Guthrie about whose land this is, shares the musical eclecticism of Joe Strummer (the Clash) and, hell, Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, the Nightwatchman) has been a mentor and producer for Outernational since nearly day one, but the times, they have a-changed since those revolutionary icons were first starting out. The routes to finding captive listeners have modernized with YouTube and social media, but, as this band has witnessed, sometimes connecting with an audience can still be as simple as playing Guthrie's "Deportees" on an acoustic guitar to a group of Mexican farm laborers in a California field.
We talked to Outernational singer, Miles Solay by phone from Chicago about the band's last tour through Mexican border towns, its new EP Future Rock, and the band's upcoming release show at the Stagger Inn Again (104 E. Vandalia) in Edwardsville on Wednesday, August 1 (tomorrow).
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Brian Heffernan: Immigration and our border relations with Mexico is an issue that Outernational seems to be defining itself by, at least with your last album Todos Somos Illegales. First, would you say that's true? And second, what gravitated you towards immigration and border issues?
Miles Solay: Well, we wrote, recorded, collaborated with other artists and released Todos Somos Illegales, as you said, a number of months ago. On the surface and in actuality, it's a record that takes place at the border. It's a record whose central characters are people trying to cross the border, people caught in that vortex of survival and dehumanization.
We released it as our first full length album because in many respects, we felt it was kind of a springboard to help people see the myriad and multitude of ways that late American capitialism in the year 2012 is so brutal and dehumanizing and is really just reeking havoc on people and the planet.
...But its kind of like if you see a movie -- how The Godfather is about the mafia, but in a lot of ways it's about America in the twentieth century. And in that regard, those are the characters and those are the themes, but I think there are larger themes, like the last song "Que Queremos:" "What do we have? Nothing / what do we want? The whole world."
We just felt like this was a really good entry point and a really good springboard and a microscope, if you will, to help people see a lot of other things. So, if that's part of defining who we are, then that's cool. But we're by no means to be simply reduced to an immigrant rights band. They were stories that we thought needed to be told.
So if that's a springboard, what are some of the other things that you'd like to take on? Well, I guess probably my favorite Outernational song is a song that's on Totos Somos Illegales that's called "Fighting Song"... And in that song there's a verse that says "Look down on our planet from the heavens above / see it as it. See it as it is / no borders or banks / no wars or tanks / no nations."
...Imagine if the way that humanity was organized was the way that it looked from outer space. And obviously that's an analogy and it's a poetic way of putting it. But I would say that's kind of the essence of it. Imagine if all of humanity was working in common for good, and it wasn't that one or a couple countries were dominating or exploiting the rest and waging war and occupying other countries. Or you didn't have most of humanity living on less than two dollars a day...
And that's kind of the essence of Outernational. We're a band. We're not a political organization. We may be involved with different things, but as a band, we're trying to jump start, I would say, a next wave of revolutionary culture among a new generation of young people and people all around the world.
So, Todos Somos Illegales was sort of like one record. And now we're releasing Future Rock, that we did with Tom Morello out in California. This one is a little more direct and bold on the surface. Louder. Heavier. That new EP, Future Rock, it's being released on August 1, the same day as your show at the Stagger Inn Again in Edwardsville. What can we expect from it? ...For anyone who has been to an Outernational show, it's more like our show. It's an EP of five songs, five of some of the first we cut with Tom Morello when we started working with him out in Los Angeles. It's guitar-driven. It goes to eleven. It's funky.
...It's seemingly more direct, the way that a Bob Marley song might seem more direct than an Ornette Colemen song. You know? We're really trying to hit the nail on the head. And also, in this time, right now, we're really trying to come out real bold and real radical. We're pulling no punches. This one's heavy in all regards -- how it sounds, what it's saying. You can't miss the lyrics so much on this one.
Speaking of those live shows, the last tour started with a tour route of American and Mexican border towns. I see that you're returning this tour to play a few more of those same towns. How are your shows different in, say, Laredo than somewhere like Edwardsville or other tour stops? Interesting. In comparison to Laredo, our show in Edwardsville will probably be pretty similar thing, in the sense of that they'll both be in a great small rock venue/bar-type place. By and large, when we perform our shows, we end up with the same thing everywhere we go. We don't tailor it or put a different façade on it.
That being said, things are different sometimes. For example, on our two-month "We Are All Illegals" tour on the border, as you were mentioning, whenever we play clubs we just play our show. But there were times when it wasn't at a venue. We were in a field playing for farm workers from Mexico who pick strawberries in California. And when we're playing for them in a field of twenty people... It's just an acoustic show out in the fields, which is just so powerful and so beautiful.
The other thing that made it different is that we we're actually singing about this stuff, and so people really connected with that. Aside from that, those places aren't really off the beaten path. There's lots of people.
It's the type of experience we'll take with us forever... You play a song like "Ladies in the Night" about the women from Juarez. We played that song in El Paso, Texas, just across the river from Juarez. That's deep, you know? And I think everyone in the room feels that. We play Woody Guthrie's "Deportees" out in a strawberry field in California for the people picking the fruit. It's deep, it's heavy and it connects. It was something else to go down to a lot of these places. Of course the irony is that we could do a whole border "We Are All Illegals" tour just in New York City going from one sweatshop to housing project to another. But we did think it would make an important statement going down to the border.
Is there anything people should know about the show on Wednesday in Edwardsville? Oh, the show on Wednesday in Edwardsville is our CD release for the record, Future Rock, produced by Tom Morello.
I don't know, when was the last time a band did their record release in Edwardsville that wasn't from Edwardsville. It's going to be exciting. It's going to be our third time playing Edwardsville this year. We have a great scene there. It's always a lot of fun. And so we're really excited to kick it off in Southern Illinois.
Have you played in St. Louis proper before? Yeah and actually, it's a funny story. St. Louis is a great music town, but we haven't played it that often. We were on tour with the Wailers, the reggae band, and we were their support act in January. It was our first tour after we released Todos Somos Illegales. And after the show, you know, you're talking to people outside or downstairs in the green room, and these two guys came up to me and said, "Aww man, that was so amazing--blah, blah, blah, so good. St. Louis is great, but, you know, I don't know, if you ever get to this town -- there's this little town, Edwardsville. It's where we grew up. I haven't been there in decades, but there used to be this little bar there. Aww, man, I think it's called the Stagger Inn. You guys should play there. It's not the biggest place but you'll have an awesome time."
And I was just like, "Cool man. Sounds good. Thank you." Then about 20 minutes later, these people came walking up to me saying, "Oh you guys were so great -- you guys were so great. If you ever want to play a gig, we have a little bar in Edwardsville called the Stagger Inn. You should come on sometime."
And I was like, "oh my god, these guys just told us twenty minutes ago that we have to play your bar." That's kind of how it all started.
We played St. Louis on Cherokee Street a few months ago at the end of the "Illegals" tour, like the last week of the "Illegals" tour, so hopefully we'll be back in St. Louis like in October.
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