September 17, 2009 – 4:09 am

For a while in the early 1990s, industrial appeared to be the next wave of rock and Consolidated were among the forerunners. Consolidated’s fiery pro-choice, industrial hip-hop (for want of a convenient handle) Friendly Fa$cism was voted No. 3 Album of the Year in BigO’s 1991 critics poll. On the eve of the release of their 1992 album, Play More Music, J Poet meets the band whom writers have a problem pigeonholing. This article was published in BigO #83 (November 1992).

When writers start scribbling about Consolidated they usually start stringing together laundry lists of hyphenated adjectives as in the world’s only post-modern - militantly vegetarianist - fiercely pro-choice - hardcore feminist - hip-hop influenced - industrial dance band. In the three years since their birth, the fact that Consolidated don’t fit easily into any industry created pigeonhole has become a source of delight and frustration for the band. “We try to recognise the contradictions of what we’re trying to do,” says Adam Sherburne, over an early lunch at the San Jose Taqueria on Mission Street (in San Francisco).

The band had taken time off from the pre-production chores on their next album for this interview, and their enthusiasm was high. “We’re anti-capitalist, but if we don’t make money for the record company, then our records won’t get out. We know that things can’t always be resolved neatly, so we’ll continue to evolve and we’ll see where we end up.”

Unlike most bands, Consolidated try to break down the barriers between “performer” and “audience” to make room for an ongoing dialogue between those who “create music and those that consume it.” To that end, each Consolidated gig ends with a question-and-answer period, which the band tapes. Consolidated plan to use samples of these session on each record, just as they did on last year’s Friendly Fa$cism album.

When we went over the tapes we’re planning to use on the new record, we were amazed at the diversity of reaction,” Phil Steir said. “Some people are just becoming aware of the role politics plays in our lives and they want to know why we feel like we do and others already know what’s up and they want us to be even more militant. There are people who are afraid of animal, lesbian and gay rights, lots of people who are pro-American, even in areas that are supposed to be liberal, people who scream at us ‘If you don’t like this country why don’t you move to Russia?’

“There were women that were totally down with the eco-feminist movement wearing buttons that said Destroy Patriarchy, Long Live the Goddess. But the people who gave us the most trouble were the heavy meat eaters.

“I think deep inside people know eating meat is wrong, but they take being vegetarian as being anti-American and pro-Communist, even though commies eat hella meat. I find it really interesting that being a vegetarian attacks their way of life. We had some men who were hunters saying it was wimpy sensitive guys like us that created the need for a men’s movement.”

Sherburne laughed and continued in a similar vein. “We want to have more and more of these interactions on every CD. We’ve already railroaded our platform for two CDs, so we’re ready for our voices to recede into background. We’re planning more guest contributors like Paris (an African-American rapper who models his program on Oakland’s Black Panther Party), Jello Biafra, Diamanda Galas, or any talented people we might discover on tour. We’ll make CDs that are really democratic for as long as we can.”

For those unfamiliar with Consolidated, the group is a trio: Sherburne, the main lyricist and vocalist, was in Until December, a “profiteering, rape-oriented band.” He is tall and intense. His eyes have a sinister twinkle and he answers questions with a rapid fire delivery that’s spiced with cynical humour.

Steir, drum programmer and video mastermind, wears shades and an expression of extreme concentration. His hatred for the corporate music business and capitalistic society in general is palpable.

Mark Pistel, the band’s keyboard operator (”I have lots of samples and keyboard parts on discs and most of the time I’m on stage I’m slotting them in and out of various machines, so you can’t really call me a keyboard player”) answered questions politely, often nodding in silent agreement with his compatriots. As the afternoon went on the interview became more like a jam session - they finished each other’s sentences, or jumped into the middle of an answer to interject a comment or wise remark.

Steir “was born in Miami, but I grew up in an anti-Semitic, racist neighbourhood in Piedmont (an exclusive, northern California suburb). I went to college in San Diego, a very vicious redneck town, that pretends to be a vacation spot. (”A maximum security vacation resort,” adds Sherburne.)

“You can’t be liberal, or Jewish, or a person of colour and survive in that town. I came back to San Francisco State and graduated in ‘85.” Sherburne was “born and raised in Monterey. My father was a lifer in the military, but my older brother went to Vietnam, and (my father’s) beliefs were called into question by that. I was trained to be a professional athlete, athlete, athlete, athlete.” Sherburne pounded the table and put on a humourless military grin.

Pistel was born in Minnesota where his father “was a director of the local Lighthouse for The Blind. He was active in rehabilitating handicapped people, but at home he was conservative. I bought my first Beatles record when I was seven years old. My older teenage juvenile delinquent cousin came to live with my family when I was about nine. (”And exposed him to a lot more white, Eurocentric, racist music,” Steir puts in helpfully.) We started a rock ‘n’ roll band and the rest is history.”

“The first record I bought was a Wilson Pickett album,” Steir says. “After that I got heavily into Sly Stone.” Sherburne’s musical drug of choice was Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, followed closely by the Ohio Players’ Fire.

“Not exactly a feminist group,” Steir says. “Wasn’t there a rumour going around about them killing a woman during the sessions for Love Rollercoaster?” “Yeah,” says Pistel. “People used to say that if you listened you could hear her screaming in the background as she was being murdered.”

Despite his love of the funk, Sherburne’s first musical experience was playing heavy metal guitar in a band doing covers of Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. Steir played drums at bar mitzvahs, and made up beats to go with the dialogue on old Lenny Bruce records. Pistel played bass in various bar bands before switching to keyboards.

The trio first came together in Until December, a San Francisco-based dance band. When that band fell apart, they formed Consolidated to make the kind of music that really mattered to them, a harsh, industrial dance floor assault upon the racist, sexist, capitalist system known as the music business.

Yet as abrasive as their message was, they found their first record, an independently produced single, getting air play on Live 105, one of the most commercial and successful Bay Area radio stations. Sherburne said: “That single was on the Zothommog label, an obscure German outfit from Frankfurt run by Talla 2XLC, which means knock twice and ring the bell loudly. He does all that electronic body music.” (”Bowel movement music,” says Steir.)

Steir commented: “We didn’t get signed in the States. we even sent a tape to Nettwerk who didn’t pick us up till Talla liked us.”

Back to Sherburne: “They picked it up because it offered them a promise of failure, which is why they pick up all their acts. They seem anti-commercial, but their bands are all subject to the same pressures of wanting to succeed on some level.” Steir added: “But they do go out of their way to sign bands that have no chance of ever becoming popular.”

Sherburne said: “The interesting thing is, there’s now a genre dedicated to celebrating these anti-commercial bands. There’s an awards ceremony, and a network of bands that support each other because they think they won’t be successful. But what they’re really doing is playing to the hidden anxieties of their audience, pumping them up on negative emotion and noise to capitalise on the fears of middle America. And we’re lumped in with them.

“Trying to sell records and remain underground is a joke, but they’re happy with it. They work on an extremely low budget, they enjoy being able to make very little to no money, to work records that nobody else would work. (”Kinda like us,” said Steir.)

Do you see a contradiction between culture vs. self-expression, or fashion vs. style? Can you resolve them within the music industry as it exists?

Sherburne said: “It’s hard to put out product with the goal of becoming a careerist musician, ’cause that weakens your vision, and that weakens the other aspects of your life too. At the same time, the minute you begin to re-emphasise your relationship to your family, or friends or whatever, you’re lagging off on the competitive aspect of the band.”

Steir added: “And you fall to the bottom of the heap. On the other hand, you can get lured into rationalising the concessions you make, ’cause to be a careerist musician you have to keep upping the ante in terms of the time you put into self-promotion. Eventually, you loose your original vision. The best thing we have going for us now is a certainty about each other and where we’re going as a unit.”

Sherburne said: “If we make it, we won’t be satisfied with some kind of symbiotic relationship to the commodity industry. The only way to go on is to continue to look for ways to overhaul the value of the time you spent working on your art. There’ll never be a time when we feel that, ‘Hey, we’ve scored enough free drugs, and swindled enough property, now we can relax and be the Butthole Surfers’.”

Do you think music can empower you? How about ethnic music that’s part of a support system that’s outside of the mainstream?

Steir said: “Music that’s outside the mainstream doesn’t exist, and if it’s inside the system it gets destroyed. Music by itself, has no power to change people.”

Sherburne said: “There’s a writer named Theodore Adorno who says in Dialectic Of Culture that people who create their own positive culture, like African-Americans or Tex-Mex or what have you, are failing, because they use their energy to rationalise their anger and make a culture that doesn’t address their true situation.

“That’s not our position, but being white, and privileged enough to make music implies a responsibility to do more than produce something for mass consumption. Our music may be full of ideas that people have heard before, but we think it’s important enough to say again. That’s the only way we can be happy, but again - it’s not enough.”

How about the trap that we’re all in as part of the commodity culture? We all have to eat and buy toilet paper, probably from some bunch of corporate slimeballs who make it out of trees from the rainforest.

Steir said: “Yeah, but why does it have to cost so much? And why is it in 15 different styles and colors?”

Sherburne added: “Which could be an opening for a dialogue on why people can’t band together for collective social action, as opposed to accepting competitive capitalist toilet paper. We get people coming up to us saying ‘You’re white males. Where do you get off talking about racism and oppression?”‘ Steir said: “We believe in everything we say. People say ‘White men don’t speak out about racism,’ but we’re doing it.”

Sherburne continued: “We’re just saying what we feel we have to say. We’re not looking to be Bon Jovi and collect a gold watch and go off and play golf at the end of our career. We know that there are contradictions in what we’re saying and doing. We try to live with ‘em and make the best of it.

“Rather than say, ‘This is our position.’ or ‘This is how people should view us,’ I’ll just say, the more diverse the attacks upon us are, the better we’re doing our job. At one point we’d like to get up on stage and say ‘Let’s stop the music and talk. You tell us what you think you’re getting from us, and we’ll tell you what we think we’re giving you and maybe we can devise a new form of interactive entertainment’.”

If an artist is political, journalists often ask them - in effect - why they don’t shut up. On the other hand, they’ll take other singers to task for not being political enough. I often wonder about the contradictions in my job too. Why am I interviewing bands that fill the air with sexist, regressive posturing?

Sherburne said: “The trap in journalism is in terms of how you choose to investigate an artist. You can ask us why we confine ourselves to the kind of dorky, post-New Wave, hip-hop industrial beats that we choose to use, but if you’re not willing to have a real discourse you become another audience member, part of the horde of bodies that show up, consume drinks and music, listen to whatever’s on the tape, and then leave.”

Pistel said: “Frank Zappa said it pretty well, ‘People who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read’.” Sherburne added: “That’s an oversimplification too, but we do try to have a discourse, even in the lame market we’ve been injected into. The average listener doesn’t view dance music as anything more than disco or Top 40 Debbie Gibson, and the reasons to question what is really happening in the music, or because of the music, including this interview itself, never arise. It’s just simply a matter of - ‘Well, we’re a band” - so let’s get other people involved, no matter if they ‘re journalists, distributors, publicists, etc.”

Steir said: “Anytime you question the legitimacy of the business you’re in, nobody wants to deal with you.” Sherburne said: ‘”Cause the (record companies, et all) know that you’re going to question their legitimacy, and the publicity people don’t want to work your record, ’cause if you have questions about what you’re doing, then why the hell did the label sign you? It’s very informative, ’cause you realise how fragile everybody feels about their position. I’m getting really interested in the fear, the illusion that must be maintained at all costs.”

Sherburne continued: “(Record company people) can always get it up for the (label’s) head child molester, or whatever band is the priority that week. Then they try and save some face by saying ‘What a stupid f*** he is’ the minute the guy’s out of the room.”

Steir commented: “They never face the contradictions of what they’re doing, but that’s applicable to everybody in the capitalist system - real estate executive or rock star.”

Sherburne continued: “It extends to every area of business. Everybody’s shitting on each other, except for the elite few who are maxing out at the top. Everyone thinks if they don’t question, and they work hard, they will reap the benefits, and we find that to be bullshit.”

Aren’t we all in that position? Isn’t there a point after which asking these questions becomes self defeating? People can get paralysed by too much self-analysis and cop out of the struggle, right? Sherburne said: “That’s the dilemma of action vs. reading books, drinking coffee and talking shit.

One may not be better than the other, but people are obliged to realise that there’s a complex, multi-level system that’s working in everybody’s daily life. You can demonstrate, or read books and talk to your friends, but there’s no guarantee that any of it will change a thing.” Steir said: “We try to stay active. Donate money when we can.”

Sherburne chipped in: “And drink an awful lot of coffee.”

Are you doing any good? Is it all futile in the end?

Pistel said: “Well, getting fan mail is very instructive. People write back and they’re enthusiastic about what we’re saying.”

Steir said: “We got a letter from North Carolina, only one paragraph, and the kid said, ‘When I heard your record I couldn’t believe my ears. I’m the only one in my crowd who doesn’t think it’s cool to be a racist, and I thought I was alone till I heard your album.”

So maybe you saved his sanity. Maybe for him music was a rescue not an escape. Steir said: “People always will find a way out. Books, movies…”

Sherburne continued: “Tennis shoes, mountain bike technology. It’s all weak. The point is to maintain relationships with each other and our families, and keep taking as strong a stand as possible.”

Steir said: “We’re all f****d. The bottom line is - can any individual do anything? There’s really no answer. Maybe we can be the whistleblowers of the music industry and say -There is something you can do, but you’ll have to put away your record and CDs to do it.”

Pistel said: “We want to get a reaction. Like maybe we’ll take away our dance beats to force people to listen. That’s one way that we can bring people along, and maybe make people change along with us.”

Sherburne said: “We don’t want to present yet another myth on stage and then send people home to bed so the can get up to their lame boring jobs in the morning. We’re stuck in our middle class dilemma. We can’t bring the classes together with a CD. We can’t go to the ghetto or the prisons and show people we have a better way for them to lead their lives. All we can do what we do best.”

One last question. Friendly Fa$cism was more political than The Myth Of Rock, but the music was less abrasive, almost pop. Would you rule out making a “pop” record if it helped get the message out?

Sherburne said: “We were thinking of doing a parody of the C+C Music Factory formula, but we’re not sure about it. Maybe we’ll do it as a single and leave it off the next album, we don’t know. The powers that be get more upset with every record, so some modifications viz-a-viz the group to label relationship may be necessary. We don’t want to soften our message, but we can’t keep doing the same thing over and over on every record either.

“But even if we wrote a U2 song that was a hit, would the audience be capable of hearing what we’ve got to say? In a way, I’d rather talk to three people in a semi-deserted club, than play to 3,000 who’ll be oblivious to the message.”

Note: Consolidated stopped around the mid-’90s. Adam Sherburne’s current project is Free Music! Stop America!, an ever evolving, open group of musicians and artists based in Portland, Oregon, dedicated to the free exchange of musical ideas.

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