Interview: Amps for Equality
Survivors say that there has always been persecution, but not at this level - there were 27 summary executions of individuals critical of Chechen regional government (both heterosexual and homosexual) in January, followed by the first round of explicitly anti-gay detentions in February. At least 100 men have been held and tortured in secret prisons. The Novaya Gazeta estimates a death toll of at least 50. I saw what was happening and felt like I might have been in that position if born in another place or time. So I asked myself what I could do to help.
In April 2017 Elena Milashina and Irina Gordienko of the Novaya Gazeta reported that a wave of anti-LGBT violence had swept through the conservative Russian province of Chechnya in recent months, directed and encouraged by local government and including mass arrests, detainment in secret prisons, torture and murder. Hundreds have been detained and at least twenty-seven people have been killed, though it is extremely likely that extrajudicial ‘honour’ killings, encouraged by the state, have resulted in further unrecorded deaths.
In the wake of these developments, Javier Wallis founded Amps for Equality a non-profit collective of musicians working on charity projects to support LGBT+ and gender equality worldwide. Ed Sprake caught up with Javier to dig into the motivations behind this project and the support shown throughout the wider musical community.
(((o))): It was a few months ago that this Anti-LGBT violence in Chechnya was picked up by the media, but very recently, there seems to have been a resurgence of concern about this.
Javier: Reports only came through to the international media in late April 2017. The reality is that it’s been going on since last December. Survivors say that there has always been persecution, but not at this level – there were 27 summary executions of individuals critical of Chechen regional government (both heterosexual and homosexual) in January, followed by the first round of explicitly anti-gay detentions in February. At least 100 men have been held and tortured in secret prisons. The Novaya Gazeta estimates a death toll of at least 50.
International scrutiny appeared to peak in late June, with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron trying to intercede, but the Russian and Chechen authorities are very good at keeping things hidden from outsiders, so it’s been difficult to ascertain what’s going on. We do know that a fresh wave of round-ups is occurring. Many survivors have fled Chechnya, with a tiny minority being granted asylum elsewhere in Europe. I would bet money that women have also been targeted, but due to the deeply conservative nature of Chechen society, most women don’t really even have much independence or freedom to travel and escape. It would be very easy to silence female victims, as their families would just make them disappear.
To summarise the attitude of the Chechen government – when the international community pressed certain leaders, the response was to deny that gay people even exist in Chechnya.
(((o))): I’ve seen that reported over the last few weeks, it’s a remarkably closed-minded view.
Javier: Absolutely, but not so surprising – it is a very traditional Muslim-majority region that has experienced a lot of violence over the last 30 years. Social cohesion is currently aided by strong extended family networks and religious values, despite the more secular outlook of the rest of the Russian Federation. Since Ramzan Kadyrov’s appointment in 2007, Chechnya has enjoyed a certain level of autonomy, including with legislation. While not illegal in Russia, homosexual activity is illegal in Chechnya.
I grew up in a Catholic, church-going family, plus my mother is Latina. There was always a base layer of homophobia, because the ideas are just perpetuated in those communities. So I had to deal with that environment, when I was a teenager and trying to figure myself out, get through the fug of denial and come to terms with not being straight. The battle is internal, and so people have to have a battle within themselves before they can even come out, then they have the battle externally with those around them.
Fortunately my family were accepting, but I saw what was happening and felt like I might have been in that position if born in another place or time. So I asked myself what I could do to help, from what I know – which is music!
(((o))): It’s always heartening to see these kind of projects which battle against inequality and ignorance. Clearly this goes a long way beyond ignorance, but it’s certainly rooted there.
Javier: For sure. I think it’s difficult for people to feel like they can fight those things and make a difference, because we are often overwhelmed by bad news. These days there seems to be a fresh horror every day. Shortly after launching this project, it was tricky with the run up to the General Election, then there was the Manchester bombing, the London Bridge attack and now more recently, the Grenfell Tower disaster. Fighting for change can feel like fighting a cannon with a pocket knife. It’s difficult for us to have the headspace, we only have so much reserve energy to deal with this stuff and then you hit a threshold, you just can’t hear any more. Charitable projects have to keep trying to engage with people in that environment, and it feels weird when you’d rather not give people more to worry about.
(((o))): It does feel like there’s little bandwidth available at the moment, it’s just constant.
Javier: At the same time, the number of people who have offered to help me with this when I’ve reached out has been incredible. It’s been amazing to get such an outpouring of support from the place I feel most at home, which is the alternative and heavy music scenes, as well as from the queer scene. It’s pretty badass when loads of burly straight metal dudes want to help fight for LGBT rights!
The strength in the comp is really through its diversity – myriad genres, solid artists, from all walks of life. I feel fortunate to know a lot of kickass people of all colours, orientations and gender identities that all wanted to collaborate on this.
(((o))): As far as I’m aware, this is the first compilation that you’ve put out under the Amps For Equality name, but tantalisingly, there’s a “Vol 1” at the end of the title, so I’m assuming that this isn’t a one off.
Javier: There is likely more to come! There were hundreds of song submissions, and some of the artists I approached myself needed a bit of time. Also, because of the range of tracks and the way I sequenced the compilation so that it made sense across different genres, it meant that there was still loads of great material that didn’t fit in the first time. There’s definitely going to at least be a Volume 2, but beyond that, only time will tell!
(((o))): One of the things that I really like about the compilation is the variety, the fact that it’s not just a bunch of tracks in a single genre. It’s lovely because there’s a rise and fall, an obvious thematic link throughout the whole thing, but it’s got bands as diverse as Lisa O Piu and Bismuth. From beautiful, light, sweet folk to some of the most crushing heavy doom you can imagine.
Javier: Yeah, Tanya from Bismuth is just a fucking titan isn’t she?! I’m really proud to be friends with her. Some of the nastiest doom that you can find this side of Burning Witch and it’s made by a queer lady. Lisa meanwhile, is a friend from Sweden that I met when supporting her other band Promise and the Monster. Totally different, but both excellent at what they do!
(((o))): There’s also a Russian band on there as well isn’t there?
Javier: Sobaki Tabaka (Собаки Табака). The initial call-out on social media seemed to blow up and got nearly a thousand shares and I didn’t really expect it. They heard about this somehow and sent me a submission. I thought that it was perfect and there had to be something on it from a Russian perspective. There was also support from random Russian Facebook users, including a hilarious comment of “Kadyrov’s not going to like this! Keep it up!”.
(((o))): In terms of genre, this compilation does seem to hit pretty much everything that Echoes and Dust writes about.
Javier: Absolutely. Post-rock, drone, psych, prog, doom, ambient – they’re all on this. I imagine E&D readers will know Cleft and Trojan Horse, but also really need to hear Dorcha, Pijn, Asva and Bent Knee. The latter are a Boston based collective who have been playing together for a number of years and they have just put together their fourth record on Devin Townsend’s label. They’re an incredible band marrying experimentalism with pop ideas. It’s prog, but also really accessible and will just twist your brain.
There’s also William Ryan Fritch – a U.S. composer working in this weird space between psychedelia, folk, ambient music and prog. It’s very cinematic. I’d already got to know his label a little through my day job and William knew about my own music, so I was really excited when I approached him for this and he said yes.
(((o))): You’ve got a few exclusive tracks on here as well then. The William Ryan Fritch track, but also the Trojan Horse track for example.
Javier: Yeah, that’s an exclusive pre-release from their upcoming third album! About half the songs are rare or unreleased tracks. Originally I was only looking for unreleased work, but with all these great bands wanting to help out I preferred finding a way to make that happen.
Another track of note is the gorgeous, previously unreleased Asva track, ‘Fool’s Fool’. The band is fronted by Stuart Dahlquist (Burning Witch, Goatsnake, ex-Sunn O)))) and assorted collaborators. They’re quite a cult entity and have made some really influential heavy music over the years. Jessika Kenney (collaborator with Wolves In The Throne Room) was in the band at one point.
One thing I also noticed that was quite interesting was that there were a few people that contributed to this because their children are LGBTQ+, so there’s that inter-generational thing, people who have contributed because they are supportive parents which is amazing.
(((o))): In the context of the compilation itself, there’s obviously been a great deal of thought gone into not only the tracks that are included, but also the ordering and the flow of the album.
Javier: That’s the hardest bit, if you’re going to put together a compilation of everything from math-rock to folk, industrial to shoegaze, black metal and electronica, you can’t just bung it all in alphabetical order, it doesn’t work, so I’m glad the care I took over sequencing comes across!
(((o))): So there’s Volume 1 out, with Volume two following shortly, but there’s also a gig as well to support this cause isn’t there?
Javier: Yes – I used to put on small shows, so this was another way to contribute. I’m really pleased with the line-up and it’s definitely one for curious listeners.
The headline act, Daniel Land, is a fantastic shoegaze/dream-pop artist, a cult figure in that genre and formerly on the Sonic Cathedral label. Beautiful, loud, shimmery music for fans of Ride, My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins.
Dorcha are next up on the bill. They’re a wild psychedelic art-rock / electronica band from Birmingham and played Supersonic Festival this year – the frontwoman Anna Palmer is a force to be reckoned with onstage. Somebody who bought the comp tweeted me that they were a bit like an alternate-universe Mars Volta fronted by Björk. Add some Radiohead and Kate Bush and you’re not far off.
The Academy of Sun are a queer, occult, post punk band from Brighton. I got in touch with the frontman through friends, he’s an amazing composer who has worked with Toby Driver from Kayo Dot. There’s threads of Nick Cave, Bowie, Kayo Dot and Coil in there. At times their songs are like Nick Cave murder ballads but with this occult fug over it. Love it!
The lineup is completed by ILL, one of Manchester’s finest Riot Grrl bands. They’re very much on the Kleenex, The Fall, Blondie side of things – aggressive, filthy, fun punk. All the bands are incredibly talented and I just want people to hear them and experience something new.
(((o))): Sounds like an amazing line up!
Javier: Yeah, but the thing with this kind of music is always getting people to invest, so that’s the challenge. It’s a gig for everybody, for metalheads, electro kids, your punk auntie, curious listeners, hipsters and music nerds, and LGBT+ people that want something a bit different to what the conventional scene offers.
(((o))): So, overall, how would you sum this project up?
Javier: A multi-genre, cross-border adventurous music love-in. If hearing about the situation in Chechnya really got under your skin, this project is an easy way for you to help and make a difference. It’s a 24-track compilation and a gig, £5 minimum donation each.
The gig starts at 7pm on the 29th of July at the Soup Kitchen in Manchester. To Chechnya With Love: A Benefit Compilation for Chechen LGBTQ+ (Vol 1) is up on Bandcamp, Volume 2 is set to follow later in July and will include contributions from Gazelle Twin, Casual Nun, Flamingods, False Advertising and more.
All the proceeds are going directly to the Russian LGBT Network who are dealing with the situation on the ground. They have been working consistently for the cause in their part of the world for a long time and aren’t letting up.
For more information about the gig, please go here:
You can pick up the compilation from Bandcamp here: