Monday, September 14, 2015

Interview with Alexander Heir of Death/Traitors, L.O.T.I.O.N., and Survival

Death/Traitors, Alexander Heir's clothing line, began back in 2007 and has grown in terms of output and iconography. A thirsty decapitated head lolling at the foot of a police officer? Boldly stitched Old English lettering? Probably a Death/Traitors shirt. Heir revels in cartoonish depictions of gore, while admonishing systemic misuse of authority and violence. It's ironic, right? Well, yes and no. Unfortunately, our society has a gross history of "irony" abuse. "Irony" as it was created and intended is a tri-pronged concept: Verbal irony is a statement in which the meaning that a speaker employs is sharply different from the meaning that is ostensibly expressed. Dramatic Irony is the device of giving the spectator an item of information of which at least one of the characters in the narrative is unaware. Situational irony is a sharp discrepancy between the expected result and actual results in a certain situation.

A lesser analyst would say that juxtaposing a message of empathy with images of violence and death is situational irony. And it is situational irony, to an extent, because the image doesn't necessitate the words or vice versa, though they manage to be paired together. It also isn't situational irony because anyone paying attention to the way things work knows that both the expected and actual results are that life is extinguished and life is born. Alexander Heir's message takes all of this into account. Life is hard. And a lot of people and things want to hurt you. But you don't have to buy into the cycle of pain.

Heir's industrial punk band L.O.T.I.O.N. just recently put out an amazing LP on Toxic State Records, which is available to stream. It's one of the best things I've heard this year. He also just recently held an art exhibition in Bogota, Colombia, and is working on new paintings.

JR: So tell me a little bit about your first forays into doing fliers and putting your art into punk. Was it always hand in hand?

AH: Well, I grew up around art because my dad was a photographer. I was always drawing and when I got into punk, it made sense. By the time I was sixteen or seventeen, I had done art for friends’ bands and t-shirts, but I was just doing art for people I knew. Years later, in New York, as the scene started to pop up again and be reinvigorated, I kept drawing and naturally made fliers for shows, starting off with ones that I had booked, but eventually people began asking me to do fliers for them, and it just kept expanding.

JR: Have you always lived in New York?

AH: No, I was born in Northern New Jersey, probably twenty minutes north of the city, and I’d go in for shows. I can’t consider myself a local, since there was a little bit of a transplant, but it’s always been close to home.

JR: Do you think there’s a pride in New York for having its robust arts community?

AH: Absolutely. Locals take pride in being from the city, but beyond that, I think people are proud of what we’ve made. New York was pretty dead for a long time, with the fallout of the Street Punk scene. Basically this group of friends from the Tri-State Area started bands and started doing things together. Toxic State Records started and an exciting scene started to emerge. There’s a lot of pride in that, on top of the fact that we’re making our own music. I don’t think anyone’s trying to copy another sound, scene, or era. Obviously we have influences, but we’re trying to make music for us right now.

JR: Toxic State’s one of my personal favorite labels around right now. Nothing sounds like any of the bands on that label. It’s incredible.

AH: All the bands are amazing and John’s got amazing taste for what he puts out. On top of that, everything’s screen-printed and stamped, as much as possible, and I think people can see the care that he puts into all of those records, which are still the same price as any mass-produced record.

JR: It’s already a bit iconic, even though I think it’s a fairly young label.

AH: I think the first release was in 2009 when he was still in Jersey. I think it’s a response to going to punk shows at the end of the 90s and seeing throwaway 7”s with poorly printed covers and mediocre songs that never needed to be released. What happened to the culture? That was the reason we got into punk in the first place - all the cool stuff from the 70s and 80s when punk wasn’t so solidified as a genre to rehash. People were exploring new ideas and being creative. I think that’s what everyone in New York is responding to. The spirit of punk in creative terms, rather than just studs and aggressive music, even though that is an important part of the culture too.

JR: When I hear L.O.T.I.O.N., and I’ve listened to your new LP a lot, it is punk, but it’s industrial too. There’s a lot of overlap, but those communities butt heads over a lot of things. It was interesting to see the synthesis.

AH: Yeah, well, first and foremost, I grew up with punk so that’s the perspective that I’m taking, and I like a lot of industrial music and the sounds that are associated with it, but I’m no expert on it. I listen to more New Wave and Postpunk than industrial. So I feel like it was a bit of an ignorant attempt to make this music, like the kid who’s playing punk for the first time, but he's trying to do it honestly. The first demos were literally just Tye and me in my bedroom with garageband, experimenting with distorted drum patterns I had made and recording into a 12” Orange Amp. Our big references were the Prodigy, and, for me, stuff like Nitzer Ebb, which is industrial, but more on the EBM side. What I like about L.O.T.I.O.N., and what tends to be my issue with a lot of contemporary industrial acts, is that we write songs. At the end of the day, a L.O.T.I.O.N. song can be played with a traditional four-piece punk band. It’s a rock n’ roll song with a chorus and melody. Some people purposefully stay away from that in industrial, but for me, I like pop music. A good song can be translated to any genre. The mentality was thinking that there didn’t need to be a spacey ten-minute intro - just fucking do it, bring it in, and pound it home. Once Emil joined, who’s kind of a noise guy, he brought his stuff in. That's where the sounds between the songs came from, which creates a lot of the mood.

JR: It’s a catchy record. I find myself having some of the mantras rolling around like “They Do This To People!” which repeats and starts applying itself to, you know, all sorts of things you see: surveillance, authority, and the overwhelming paranoia that was part of my life.

AH: Right. It’s corny, but I think back to this Jello Biafra quote about George Bush and how George Bush was the best thing to happen to punk because it’s something real to rebel against or fight against. It’s not just lip service at that point. Here’s the real New World Order in your face, but I can’t think of any American records that resonated with that or had a quality response from that time period. Now there’s plenty of things to be upset about and people are beginning to address their concerns in real and interesting ways. The idea built upon itself, using electronic instruments, then addressing the good and bad aspects of technology, and then the cyborg stuff fit nicely in place. It all started to make total sense. It built itself.

JR: Did you do the art for the inserts?

AH: Yeah, the insert art is me, and the cover art is a collaboration with Emil from Dawn of Humans, who does really interesting work where he’ll photocopy different parts of the body and collage them into monster shapes and figures. The back cover is him with me adding the layout and some of the texture on it. The eyes and mouth stuff he did was a real collage on a photocopy machine. The cover is his work too, photocopying circuit boards and other media elements that we had scanned. But the insert and poster was me. I don’t know if you saw the promo photo, the one in color that I posted, but we made prosthetic cyborg masks that we all wore.

JR: Are you a big sci-fi fan?

AH: I am. It’s funny. I don’t get nearly enough time to read or watch movies as I want because I’m always drawing and usually at the end of the day my brain’s telling me that it just wants to watch an Adam Sandler movie or Arrested Development, but obviously I love so much sci-fi, especially the imagery and visuals. I’m inspired by the illustrations, movie posters, and book covers. And, of course, a good sci-fi is always an allegory for something else. I really like Tetsuo: The Iron Man, which was a big influence. And Burst City, which is an 80s Japanese Cyberpunk movie - you can find the trailer online - and that band The Stalin is in it. It looks unbelievable. Robot police are shooting rockets at motorcycle-wielding speedpunks. You can watch a bunch of it, but the whole thing’s in Japanese. That said, I’m sure if you dig, you could probably download a dubbed version or you might even be able to find a legit release. And Terminator is the most obvious. You know, L.O.T.I.O.N. and the record design with the corporate-looking stuff was inspired by SkyNet and corporations like that.

JR: I think it’s really applicable. Terminator is so visionary. We don’t necessarily have robots stalking the earth, but we definitely have insidious technology.

AH: Well the technology we have looks sexy too. It’s not a hulking exoskeleton, but it might be a silver disk that can drop bombs, and people are reading your e-mails all the time. Although, have you seen pictures or videos of that MIT hunting robot yet?

JR: I don’t think so.

AH: Oh, it’s fucking terrifying. It’s this headless dog with four legs and it can run, jump, open doors. You can’t knock it over. It’s clearly going to be the future of policing.

JR: That’s not good…

AH: Yeah, well I guess the government funded it in the first place, but it’s insane that there are people who are smart enough to build this stuff don’t have the conscience to say “No, we’re not going to make you a hunting robot.”

JR: Yeah, well, that’s the same thing with Oppenheimer, I assume. I think that people of that caliber are sort of doomed to be used for sinister purposes.

AH: I think his philosophy was that someone else would have done it, so he may as well do it and give it into the hands of people who were “good.” But…I think it’s pretty ignorant to think that the U.S. government is a force of good.

JR: Yeah, well, who would you even go to, anyway?

AH: Right. I can’t imagine a single government that needs that. If you’re a good government, you don’t need that anyway.

JR: So when did you start doing the Death/Traitors clothing line?

AH: Death/Traitors officially started in 2007, a year after I graduated from Pratt. I had been doing other shirts before that at the Pratt facility, but about a year before I graduated, I bought a silkscreen press with some friends of mine, which we stored in our apartment for years until I finally got a studio. In ’07, I decided to try for serious and do it “professionally.” I started with a friend and for the first four years, we made shirt designs and printed them ourselves because we had the press. If we made a couple and sold them, then we wouldn’t really lose any money, and we could have a new season with new designs without having to front a ton of money, since we controlled the production. Slowly but surely we kept making ends. We’d have parties or shows or give shirts to our friends, and we made the website more professional, and figured out the imagery and idea. Things just came together and picked up from there. In 2010 or 2011, my partner and I split ways amicably. He was into other stuff and this was my life. I wanted to do it all. So I took it over and the imagery solidified itself, including the concepts behind it, and the line itself formed. I began to get a little bit of buzz.

JR: Let’s talk a little bit about your imagery. When I first saw your clothes, I thought it was like the bleakest thing I’d ever seen, but eventually I realized that there was a lot of hope in it. There’s such a juxtaposition between the peace and violence in your work.

AH: Yeah, I think of that saying: “A hippie is a mean person who looks nice and a punk is a nice person who looks mean.” I think the same thing is true for my line. As far as style and imagery goes, that’s what I like - that’s what we like. Scary, tough, bleak stuff with skulls and death. Our culture is into that in general. I, personally, am really into these Japanese depictions of gore that are almost cartoonish - ridiculous, comic book kinds of stuff. But I juxtapose it with messages that I believe are important. You can be a punk, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a brain or you’re pro-war. When I first started doing it, I was way into masonic and illuminati stuff, like the power of symbols. At the end of the day, even if there is no real secret behind these groups, the symbols remain inherently powerful - they affect people. How can you harness the power of these images and get the message that you’re trying to direct to people, instead of having it be a secretive thing?

AH: Initially, I was using a lot of Japanese because I like the idea that you can put a word or phrase on a shirt, and most people in America would have no idea what it says, but it’s out there for everyone. You could still go home and translate it or ask someone, but there’s a level of a secret meaning, and plus, I’ve always loved the way that Japanese lettering and kanji has looked. Eventually, I stopped doing that as much. I didn’t want to get to the point where I was unsure about cultural appropriation. It started to become a trope too. So on the newer shirts, there’s this almost illegible, vertical Old English. From a distance it’s hard to read, but when you’re close up, you can read what it says. It’s like subliminal messaging. Again, when I first started, along with the Illuminati, secret society stuff, I was looking at fascist imagery - medallions, nazi stuff - it’s so powerful and even now people who aren’t even fascist are riffing on it. So I started thinking “how can I take this imagery, but instead of using it for a fascist state use it to promote freedom and empathy?” The power of these images isn’t necessarily good or evil. It’s how you attribute it.

JR: Do you think there’s a single message to your visual art?

AH: I don’t think there’s one particular thing - it's reporting. Some of my duty as an artist of my time is to report about what’s happening in the world and how I feel about it. In general with Death/Traitors the idea is propaganda for…well, “peace” is such a simplistic word, but anti-oppressive propaganda or anti-fascist propaganda. Again, all these words are so monolithic and singular, but the general idea is empathy.

AH: In the 90s, it was uncool to care or to give a shit. Someone would say “Oh, what? You’re a fucking hippie?” And I don’t think having a moral compass or a care in the world makes you a squishy liberal or a bleeding heart bike punk. You can have a mohawk and studs too. That’s what punk is.

JR: Absolutely. I think that’s how it started. A lot of people talk about the Sex Pistols being the first punk band, but the Sex Pistols were also almost a boy band. Real punk bands were like the Ramones, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Circle Jerks. I think those guys definitely stood for a lot of things.

AH: Absolutely, and I don’t think it needs to get to the point where you’re giving everyone directives, either. That’s one of the things I like to consider with my work - I don’t want to be preaching. First and foremost, people are buying my record or wearing my clothes because it sounds good or looks good. I don’t want to tell them what to do, but I want to report what I see and do. You can talk and talk, but the way you conduct yourself matters a lot more than what you say in your lyrics. There are plenty of bands who have plenty to say that don’t back it up with actions. There are also bands that get flagged as being apolitical, but who do a lot for the community. Like Toxic State - most of those bands aren’t overtly political, but it’s this totally independent DIY thing and John gives bands the best deals, works with everyone, donates money to charity and doesn’t need to tell anyone. Actions speak louder than words.

JR: Do you get to travel a lot for your art?

AH: In the past two years I’ve started to do some traveling. I went to Europe in early October last year, and now I’m going out to Bogota in the next couple weeks, and then I plan on going to Berlin to meet up with Anasazi at the end of the year. I’ve got friends there too. That’s the cool thing about punk - I’ve met tons of people over the years just from them coming to New York or the general area. And eventually with all these connections it’s like: You can set up a DIY punk show? I can set up a DIY art show too. I don’t need to worry about selling a $500 or $1000 painting because I can sell a bunch of shirts and at least make my money back. Some people argue that a twenty dollar t-shirt is little expensive, and yeah, it’s not cheap - it’s not a ten dollar punk shirt, but it’s a hand-printed wearable art piece. I design it and print it so twenty bucks for an original print that you can wear isn’t so bad. That’s what allowed me to be an artist and work for myself instead of showing in galleries and expecting one person to pay a lot for one piece. I’d rather keep it at putting my work on t-shirts or prints and do a book so it can reach more people. It adds up. I can squeak by and still get my stuff out to people. The hard part is that I really want to do paintings, but at the end of the day, when I have these pieces and can show them, who can afford them? I want my work to be out there, but if I put six months into a painting, it’s worth a lot more, just in terms of time, if nothing else.

JR: Do you sell your paintings?

AH: I do. I’ve sold a handful. I did a few paintings three or four years ago and I sold most of those, but they were smaller wood panels. I didn’t have a chance to do anything that I wanted to show until last October when I had done a bunch of watercolor pieces. I sold half or so of them - they were all small. Most of my stuff is black and white, though, so color takes me a lot longer, and I’m still learning so I’m slightly less confident. I’m working on this big piece for Colombia now, though, and it’s going to be a big print. From that, I’m going to make a painting. I’m going to make a series out of it - hopefully by next year I’ll be able to show new paintings.

AH: Unfortunately I’ve also had to start saying no to a lot of commission stuff, which is money and work, but it's hard because you can’t charge a punk band that much money, and I’m also not going to give something half-assed. It's hard to spend a ton of time on something and then give it to someone for really cheap. I’ve been limiting what I say “yes” to, so I’ve been limiting myself to t-shirts, and paintings and art that I’m doing.

JR: Is there anyone contemporary who continues to be an influence on you in terms of visual art?

AH: Obviously people like Pettibon, I don’t know how contemporary we’re talking, but that whole spectrum of punk artists, and then people who are peers who are bringing it so hard. We all inspire each other so much. Sam Ryser who does Dripper World is unbelievable. He’s one of my favorite artists period, let alone a good friend, which blows my mind. And Eugene from Crazy Spirit, Emil from Dawn of Human, Heather Benjamin, who moved to Providence. She did a zine called Sad Sex, which is hyper gory hairy ladies - it’s really sick. And my partner Jess who’s in Anasazi is an amazing artist - she also helps me out in the studio. I literally don’t know how to paint so Jess will help me mix colors or do textures.

JR: How was it working with Sacred Bones doing the book you did?

AH: It was great. I love Caleb - he’s a sweetheart. I was happy to get my toe in a more mainstream world. He’s got more of a reach than anyone else I’ve worked with before, but Caleb’s also a punk and he understands punk so he didn’t push me to do anything I didn’t want to do or was uncomfortable. And then he did a great job on production. I was really happy to have made that decision and I’m definitely going to do another book for Sacred Bones once I get enough together, but rather than simply having a compilation of stuff, I’d rather have it be a interrelated and made for the book so it’ll be a piece in itself.

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