Blacklist were one of the best bands to come out of NYC during the 2000’s. This was noticed by the influential Pieter Schoolwerth, who released the LP Midnight of the Century on his label Wierd Records in 2009.
The previous decade was quite a different era of sociopolitical milieu—where the current dichotomy of narratives would have only seemed absurd caricature extracted from the works of dystopian fiction. This historical awareness of the eternal sea of politics was reflected within music of Blacklist, which was ultimately “a rejection of totalitarianism in all of its past and future guises.” Despite such the band’s untimely dissolution (or hiatus)—arguably before it’s popularity could even ascend to it’s peak—Joshua Strawn has been prolific in his musical output with consistent release through experimental metal quartet Vaura and his musical collaboration with Zohra Atash, Azar Swan.
Now, Strawn finally continues the legacy of the creative manifesto that he set out to express with Blacklist—in the incarnation of Vain Warr. The project has it’s genesis in material original written as followup material for Midnight of The Century, but here through the guise of Vain Warr via the Deadline Season EP—the first release of Strawn’s label Primal Architecture—the music sheds most of the cold-wave sensibilities of the previous band in exchange for a darker kinesis of drum machines and basslines from the merciful house of reptiles.
Recently—we were happy to correspond with Joshua Strawn to learn more about the music of Vain Warr, the legacy of Blacklist, the greatly anticipated gig at Wave Gotik Treffen this year, and if we truly are on the eve of World War III:
Can you tell me about your noted fandom of The Sisters of Mercy?
I feel like when you hear a lot of older artists talk about what The Stooges or The Velvet Underground or The Sex Pistols meant to them, something similar is true for me of The Sisters of Mercy. Of course there were really influential bands to me before the Sisters. But they were the first time everything fell into place and an artist really overtook me and made me want to do what I do. I’ve always stumped hard for them as a really important and unique band in the context of music, generally, not just as figures within a subgenre.
I have heard some say that the Gothic scene as we know it actually formed in Leeds, and not in London at the Batcave.
For me that’s true. I think it’s pointless to dive into those debates, but it was the Leeds “sound” that captured my imagination. The drum machines, the heavy bass lines, the vocal style. And, really, the spirit. It’s hard to separate much of my work from the sort of charging, brooding optimism of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, and the very special sort of left wing, literate lyrical approach of Andrew Eldritch.
How did you take this approach into Blacklist? How has it carried on into Vain War? Do these band names have any political connotations?
In Blacklist it was very much about those two spiritual things: brooding optimism, and an approach to writing political lyrics that was not overtly agitprop the way The Clash or Gang Of Four or The Manic Street Preachers would be. Tons of allusions to outside works or literature, philosophy, etc. With the songs that eventually became Vain Warr material I wanted to let go of my fear of being a goth band. In the Blacklist years I had spent too much energy worrying about getting pigeonholed as a goth band. By the time I was writing for the second record, I was not only over that I was almost going in the opposite direction. I wanted to be more honest and affectionate about my love for those Leeds drum machine records, I wanted to see what would happen if I engaged directly and openly with how fundamentally the romance for that Leeds scene effected me, romance for the Sisters especially in that early period and the Reptile House period. But the band parted ways in the middle of that process, so Vain Warr is the entity I created to pursue those songs I had written for a second Blacklist LP.
The name Blacklist sort of represented the groups that went against party orthodoxy–the opponents of the Stalinist state or the McCarthyist state, there are lots of ways you can extend it to other regimes and movements. Vain Warr is a reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s a reference to Lucifer’s war against God, because I had initially imagined that Vain Warr’s subject matter would be different from Blacklist by focusing more on domestic theocratic Ted Cruz, Quiverfull sort of stuff. I’m not sure that will remain the case, given the turns in world affairs, though. This section of American culture and politics did play a huge role in getting Trump elected, though, so it remains relevant. The limited edition cassette comes with a small book containing an essay I wrote, “On Vanity And Warfare” that delves into the meaning of the name in a lot of depth.
How do the songs of Blacklist on ‘Midnight of the Century’ apply to current events and geopolitical history?
I put so much into the lyrics of that record it had been difficult for me to figure out what else I would have to say on another Blacklist record. The entire album is an articulation of a politics of the humanist left. I would contrast humanism with postmodernism. Humanism is very out of vogue right now, and was when I wrote the lyrics for the record. Those of us who were involved with Wierd Records as a larger concept than just music–Pieter Schoolwerth, Sean McBride, and myself specifically–had always conceived of what we were doing as a kind of resistance against the dehumanizing forces of abstraction. There’s a lot to go into here. Punk and postpunk came about around the same time that postmodernism was taking root in European universities. There was no widespread sense that you couldn’t know something close to the real truth. This is key to the distinction between humanism and postmodernism–humanists tend to believe there’s a knowable truth, and I think it’s why Blacklist spoke to a lot of people. There’s an anchor there, a kind of belief that speaks to people.
But the themes in the record of the problems with nationalism, theocracy, nativism, tribalism, are all pretty applicable today. “Still Changes” was an anthem about “living as if” (in the post-Soviet resistance sense of living as if the oppressor isn’t oppressing you) — but it was about living as if the forces of superstition, political and religious, were going to die an inevitable death. “Flight of the Demoiselles” was about feminism in the so-called Islamic world. “Odessa” was about the ongoing struggle between cosmopolitanism and nativism, about Soviet imperialism and Zionism. “When Worlds Collide” and “Poison For Tomorrow” were both about nationalism, with the former being a sort of optimistic hymn to global connection and shared humanity and the latter being a lament about the kinds of false memories that provoke nationalist sentiment. “The Believer” is about Muhammad and Khadija, told in a sort of “Personal Jesus” style.
In recent years, some songs like “Odessa” felt like they were literally “coming true” before my eyes. The invasion of Crimea by an ex-Soviet-turned nativist nationalist was ripped straight out of “Odessa.” Others definitely didn’t, like “Still Changes.” On that front, things are much worse, I fear. And showing no signs of getting better.
Can you tell me about how ‘Shock in the Hotel Falcon’ relates to George Orwell?
It’s a reference to “Homage to Catalonia” and the song itself is about breaking with orthodoxy in your own tribe, when the hierarchical forces within that tribe are subverting what’s moral or true. Of course there are lots of implications there for sectarianism on the left, but I think it applies pretty broadly. It’s a lesson the American right needs today, probably even more so than the left.
How does the Spanish Civil War relate to the events of today?
I guess there are lots of ways to approach that question, but for me it probably relates most meaningfully in that it was a conflict which drew the fault lines of the coming war before the war had officially started. If we are headed for another world war, the Syrian Civil War will probably be remembered as our Spanish Civil War, the conflict where, if you knew who was in the right in that war, you know who’s in the right in the global war. So, for instance, if you’re dumb enough to have believed the White Helmets were terrorists and that Putin’s intentions were good, you can probably be counted on to choose the wrong side in the future. I hope we can avoid another massive global conflict. But those who know Putin and Assad are the enemies in Syria will be the equivalent to those that knew Franco and Hitler were the enemies back then.
Can you tell me your thoughts on Jacques Lacan and the constructed other? Do you think the post-modernism of the left has contributed to the widening berth of “otherness”.
It’s funny for as much Lacan as I’ve read and studied, I don’t find it occupies much of a place in my mind anymore. I guess I didn’t mention that “Language of the Living Dead” and “Julie Speaks” were both related to certain ideas within psychoanalysis in the 20th century that came to have a lot of cultural and theoretical capital. For me, that was a journey that started at Lacan and landed me in the realm of neuroscience, the materiality of the brain. I’ll never forget being wet behind the ears, marching up to Steven Pinker after a talk he gave and trying to grill him about Lacanian notion of the subject. He was kind enough, but said rather dismissively, “I don’t think Lacan accounted enough for the brain’s capacity to create a subject” — or something to that degree. At the time I found him so frustrating. After many years, I know why he feels the way he does, and why he answered me the way he did.
I think the postmodernism of the left has been a vision of the left eating itself. When people complain about identity politics, they’re more often arguing over universalism and objectivity. For some postmodernists and postcolonialists, these things are products of and instruments of white patriarchal racist colonialist repression. So they start their sentence with “I self-identify as” and then they relate their “truth” as an anecdote, and their specific experience is supposed to be regarded as an important truth. You can’t effectively do politics this way, through particular identity and anecdote. You need collectivity organized around a shared reality and truth.
Do you think Trump is more so the political candidate that Ballard prophesied in the Atrocity Exhibition, much more so than Reagan?
I think Trump is kind of the update. The reality TV and Twitter version. At least as far as the phenomenon that Ballard was articulating and critiquing. Which I think gives his insight even greater force. That means he’s talking about something in the electorate that responds to media, not just to a particular moment or media format.
What can we expect in anything from Vain Warr in this context? Who will be in the lineup for this years WGT? How do you feel about returning to Europe during this current political climate?
The lineup for WGT will be Toby Driver (my bandmate in Vaura, who also plays in Kayo Dot, Secret Chiefs 3, etc.) on bass and Ron Varod (who also plays in Psalm Zero, Sabbath Assembly, and Kayo Dot) on guitar. Plus myself, plus a drum machine. I’m pretty excited about it, we’ll definitely be incorporating a decent amount of Blacklist material into the set.
I’m very excited to be back in Europe, and in Germany. My last experience at WGT was fantastic, very special in fact. I saw the Little Nemo reunion, met Andy Oppenheimer after his Oppenheimer Analysis show, hung out with Dominick Fernow for a bit and caught his Vatican Shadow set, met Andy Oppenheimer, and saw Slowdive with my friend Neige of Alcest. Media in America like to focus on the cosplay side of WGT, and that’s definitely a thing, but what other people who are into this music should know is that the festival is so absolutely huge, that there’s really amazing stuff going on separate from the cosplay and the corny Blutengel shows. There is an element of unease about travel, but thanks to Trump the United States has become just as scary if not more scary than Europe with its flirtations with the populist far right. As one of the great songwriters of all time said: a person isn’t safe anywhere these days.
You self-released the Vain Warr cassette. Have you started your own label? If so, what future releases can we expect you to put out?
Yes, the Deadline Season EP is the first release on my label Primal Architecture.
I’ve got a whole release calendar for 2017. In the immediate future, I’m releasing the first record from Axebreaker, which is Terence Hannum of Locrian doing brutal, politically charged power electronics. And after that I’m releasing an LP by Sleep Museum. Charlie from Vaura, who has also been playing with Tombs for the last couple years has put together an amazing project called Del Judas that I’m going to release later this year.
What do you think Hitch would say about Russia…”Today.”
Funny you should ask, I’m currently sketching out ideas for a piece I want to write on the way his legacy has become contentious–some peg him as a forefather of the “alt-right” while people to the left of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sounded like they’d read nothing but his takedowns of the Clintons and Kissinger during the election. The short answer is that Hitchens’ general disposition as an opponent of totalitarianism and right wing repression never really changed. This sounds odd to people who know him as a defender of the Iraq War and critic of the left. But those people should keep in mind how many years he spent as a fixture on the left. Even his (completely wrong and discredited) defense of the Iraq War was given in leftist terms: If George W. Bush is fighting on the side of Kurdish socialists, I’ll take that side over Saddam, the Ba’athist. Because also keep in mind, nobody was better at pointing out how supposedly secular totalitarian regimes were not secular. It’s as common to say that Iraq was officially secular as it is to blame the calamities of WWII on secular regimes. But Hitchens never accepted that any of the three were really secular.
So as far as Russia being pretty much the epicenter of a new traditionalist far right brand of postmodern dictatorship, I think Hitchens would have been appalled by what Russia has become, with its imprisonment of feminist punks, attacks on LGBT, and decriminalization of domestic violence, assassination of journalists. He would have been the first to point out how it has all been part of a cultural alliance with the Orthodox Church, and I think it would have fit squarely in with his critique of religion and totalitarianism. He would have been disgusted by how The Republican Party in America is currently working from the same playbook.