"I think life would be really boring if it was all politics. No, I need to watch The Simpsons, I need to watch soccer, even MTV sometimes," says Bragg. "I'm more interested in life. My job is to try and reflect what's happening around me. Some of that comes from the newspapers, and some of it's looking out the window."Sat.Bragg is perhaps best known to American music fans through the two Grammy-nominated Mermaid Avenue albums, on which he enlisted the help of Wilco in creating music for several of legendary folk bard Woody Guthrie's thousands of unrecorded lyrics. Long a solo performer, Bragg was so charged by the project's collaborative aspect that he assembled a band, The Blokes, to tour in support of the discs, then kept the outfit together to record his latest effort, England, Half English.
"The experience of touring and playing with the guys made me really want to keep them together," he says. "The process of doing that made me realize how exciting it could be to collaborate with this band in the studio. When it was a bunch of us, people would come up with ideas all the time. If I'd slept in, when I got to the studio, people would have had three more ideas. I'd have to catch up."
An eclectic, ambitious affair, England, Half English takes on themes related to Britain's grappling with its own sense of national and individual identity. It also contains two of Bragg's best, most evocative songs to date, "Some Days I See the Point" and "Take Down the Union Jack."
When the idea is offered that American bands with political concepts seem to always hammer home the big, vague ideas without internalizing them, Bragg dissents, pointing to Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen as examples of artists who make such subjects uniquely personal. There's a line that begins with Guthrie, running through Dylan, The Clash, Rage Against the Machine and Bragg himself to Springsteen's urgent post-9/11 musings.
"There is political music being made out there that's increasingly for non-political types — people are really confused by what's going on the world, and confusion is not a disrespectful way to feel about it," he says. "(Springsteen is) trying to address the issues there in a very, very personal way."
Of course, politically charged times give rise to politically inclined music. Coming of age in the era of Reagan and Thatcher, Bragg was naturally interested in what was going on in the world; most younger musicians have grown up in a less contentious climate, unable to draw from the experience of being personally affected by directly confrontational political events.
Until now, he points out somewhat ruefully, when the world's differing agendas have hit so frightfully close to home, forcing a new generation to consider seriously exactly what the hell is going on.
"You can't make political music in a vacuum," Bragg notes. "The civil rights movement didn't happen because Dylan wrote "The Times They Are A-Changin'. It happened the other way around."
Shards of Rock
"I can't really predict what will happen in the music industry, but I think people are getting sick of fakeness. People are just looking for real music," says Glassjaw guitarist Todd Weinstock. "Even though kids still listen to Adidas rock, they're growing up, and the music's changing."
That a band as brutal, emotionally confrontational and stylistically schizoid as the Long Island quintet was even pursued by major labels, much less signed by multimedia leviathan Warner Bros. (now known to hipsters worldwide as The Label That Paid Wilco Twice) seems symbolic. One hates to say "never," but the chances of Glassjaw's blitzkrieg sonic misanthropy seeing regular commercial radio airplay outside two or three leading markets are only slightly better than those of a Nirvana reunion tour. Their style is light years removed from the current stock of fourth-echelon nu-metal acts.
Like most outfits commonly associated with the weighty end of the posthardcore spectrum, the members of Glassjaw were metal kids drawn to crossover and hardcore bands in a search for something less cliched, more "real"; unlike many of their peers, however, they never disowned the more daring, idiosyncratic sounds of their first love.
"(Glassjaw is) a big mishmash of all our influences, from when we first started listening to music at 10 years old to now," Weinstock confirms. "We were definitely metalheads as kids."
Those metalhead kids eventually immersed themselves in Long Island's fertile punk scene and formed bands flavored by the region. Glassjaw was originally conceived more as a weekend endeavor than a career bid, a self- satisfying project that unapologetically straddled the punk/metal fence. The band honed its thick, scattershot style and released one self-produced EP while watching plenty of their friends score indie deals. Until one day, out of the blue, they got a call from famed extreme-music producer Ross Robinson (Korn, Slipknot, At The Drive-In), a man as responsible for "Adidas rock" as any one person can be.
"He was Mister Nu-Metal before we worked with him — Slipknot was right before us," says Weinstock. "When he called us we didn't know who he was."
The band talked Weinstock into skipping a day of college classes and practicing for Robinson, who announced after hearing part of one song that he wanted to hook them up with Roadrunner Records.
2000's Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Silence, massive touring (including an American stint with Deftones), and the deal with Warner Bros. followed in relatively short order. Robinson, by this time gaining a reputation as a producer who favored a muscular, compelling vibe over genre, helmed the new, enthralling Worship And Tribute. And Glassjaw became the first band ever to participate in both Ozzfest and The Warped Tour, a fact that nicely analogizes their mercurial nature.
The quintet's steady rise among America's massively hyped new breed of heavy acts hasn't been without its hitches, however. Singer Daryl Palumbo suffers from Crohn's Disease, a sporadically recurring painful inflammation of the intestines; an attack just weeks ago sent Palumbo to the hospital and the rest of Glassjaw home in the midst of a post-Ozzfest European jaunt. Palumbo has since recovered, and the band is back on the road, fighting what may be the unit's single biggest pitfall: They can't be handily lumped into any one easily marketed category.
As if they care.
"Where we're from is the hardcore scene, and we play with a lot of bands like that, so we're probably perceived more as that than a nu-metal or whatever. If we were in one specific niche, we'd probably blow up quicker," Weinstock says, "but we're not necessarily looking for the easy road."
Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or e-mail him at [email protected].