Interview: Bad Breeding

You constantly have to be aiming beyond cosmetic subversion if you want to have meaningful political conversations to reach genuinely radical alternatives.

More left wing art activist collective than conventional punk band Stevenage based Bad Breeding released their first album, S/T, in 2016 with Louder Than War giving it a massive 8/10 thumbs up (1). Keeping up a work rate as intense as their music Bad Breeding released Divide the following year and have their new album Exiled out on 21 June. The band have made three tracks available on Bandcamp pre-release; ‘Exiled’, ‘Whose Cause’ and ‘Theatre of Work’, each track part of a statement of resistance against the continuing class war euphemistically termed ‘austerity’; the Tories final eradication of the material/bureaucratic legacy of post war social democracy. Taking elements of hardcore punk and making it fit for purpose in 2019 (‘Theatre of Work’ includes some extraordinary saxophone), Bad Breeding eschew the empty posturings of ersatz rebellion instead constructing and presenting their releases as both material for, and as an avenue into, meaningful political conversation and action around radical left alternatives to ‘what is’.

With excitement building around the release of Exiled later this month and a tour with Uniform at the end of July, Tim Foster talked with singer Chris Dodd to find out more about the band, their motivations and their music.

(((o))): Your first release S/T came out in 2016, you then released Divide in 2017 and the EP ‘Abandonment’ in 2018 with Exiled out this June. Have you found the subject matter you engage with has changed over the releases?

Divide stands out as the record that was more conceptual than the others as we sought to challenge the narrative surrounding the nature of the EU referendum – not really in terms of ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’, but more in opposition to the political misdirection and self-interest that hung over much of 2016. Lyrically I’ve always felt I’ve been writing about the enduring issues that have dogged working-class communities ever since Thatcher, and have been significantly more apparent in places like Stevenage since austerity measures crept in under Blairite guidance and continued to become ideologically more pernicious under the Conservatives.

(((o))): Is there a sense of the four releases having a continuity, being a body of work or are they more a stand alone documenting of a period, of your response to a certain set of political/social events?

Apart from the S/T, which stood as a collection of ideas and songs we’d been building up when we first started out, the other three releases were written in fairly short timeframes and were always responses to the material realities we’ve had to contend with in Stevenage. Divide stepped beyond that to discuss a very particular point in time, whereas Exiled is very much a document of the impact of neoliberalism on a working-class community. It was written during a period in which calculated austerity measures have continued to bite with a prolonged intensity – you think of reaching a ‘breaking point’ but it never comes, we just keep hitting new lows of poverty and degradation and sucking it up. The record is a portrayal of a town at the fag-end of bourgeois concerns. People only tend to talk about this place through a patronising liberal lens focused on pity and preening poverty tourism. We wanted to make a record that stood in defiance of the virtue signalling that tends to infect so many discussions about towns like ours. This is a real place. Not a distant invented trope in the armoury of shallow liberal gesturing. Our town is a real victim of a global, systematic inequality – the rule not the exception.

Lyrically it’s blunt in its description of material working-class concerns and is something that spells out the impact austerity has had on our community, as opposed to where the individual fits into the stifling mess of late capitalism, because we need to be blunt. This isn’t a request for sympathy, it’s a call to arms.

(((o))): I’ve read a couple of books recently about the Russian Constructivists (2) and left Post-Punk (3) and both groups explored cultural production and form around the question of ‘What does a socialist process of production look like?’ Egalitarian democracy? The evidencing of production as a socially dynamic process? What does the process of production look like in Bad Breeding?

The early work of someone like Vladimir Tatlin is a decent starting point for the idea of art with a social function in that it rejects the notion of individual pursuit. I think in a lot of cases we’re now facing similar battles in the conflict between class and identity in contemporary times. Our early releases were put out off our own backs with the help of close friends. I think that focus on a small community self-producing has been a guiding principle ever since. Capitalism has infected, poisoned and contorted all that we do nowadays and confronting that is a constant ideological and practical concern at the forefront of our minds when writing, recording, making artwork and also releasing records.

At the heart of it all there needs to be a focus on community and social purpose, whether that be in artwork designing or doing fundraising, collecting and organising work for local groups in conjunction with shows or record releases.

Of course any kind of social event can be recuperated by capitalism and sold back to us. Look at the transition of rave culture from the national tabloid scandal of young people getting together to open their hearts to each other with the help of restricted substances to the super-clubs with VIP areas, celebrity DJs, where you’re charged an hour’s wages for a drink and working-class clothing is banned at the door. Obviously we don’t need to chart the journey of punk, which even more than rave, held the seeds of its own capitalist caricature within itself from the start. But assemblies of people remain dangerous to capital, and if the sedition being conveyed by the organisers is real – and in our case it is – it can be infectious. A sense of belonging and being self established outside the logic of profit, if even for a few hours, can stay with someone and blossom or explode at unexpected moments.

(((o))): The associated question was/is ‘What form and content does the object/cultural product that is a comrade in the struggle for socialism look/sound like and how should it affect the individual and society? What effect do you hope a Bad Breeding song has?

The main focus is on resistance. Not necessarily in the commodified kitsch idea of punk, but instead representing an alternative to the conversations that are so often had about places like Stevenage. Art that reflects the working class is far too often centred purely on stale victimhood and sentimentality. Lyrically I want to produce things that run counter to that. Songs that may sometimes seem knuckle-dragging and overbearing in their depictions of the town, but that stand in defiance of our material conditions instead of bowing to them with art that is essentially accepting of our noxious political and economic climate. The concept of being “punk” isn’t enough, there has to be some sort of collective element to what you’re trying to achieve: paying to go to a show as an individual pursuit, purely to satisfy your own identity, feels like a political dead end. There is no radical resistance in simply consuming music and adopting a disobedient identity. Simply saying “I don’t consent to this” with a t-shirt of a hashtag, is not enough – yet so many of us have swallowed it as being the epitome of rebellion. Action is derided, but performative angst is universally acclaimed. To break out of this trap you need organisation and direction. If you can provide that then there is nothing more productive than a live show full of people committed to the idea of collective power and unity. Shows can become powerful environments that promote solidarity and community-driven inspiration based around the endeavour of the collective.

Secondly, alongside side this, there is also the aim for us of using the records as a means of contributing to conversations. Partly the reason why there have always been essays and other pamphlets that come with the physical release of the records is to serve as an entry point for people to read up on towns like Stevenage, while also providing points of debate and argument for others.

(((o))): In ‘Resilience and Melancholy’ Robin James seems to be saying, if I understand her correctly, that certain pop music structures parallel values of neoliberalism (4). Has the form of your music been shaped by the concerns of the band, by the subject matter of the songs, kind of ‘form follows function’?

That’s a good question given that the endpoint of what we create musically still sees us take part in a capitalist exchange. You make something and it gets sold on and with it so does the agency and notion of resilience that you’re trying to demonstrate. However pure you feel your intentions are, punk and the idea of opposition have been commodified to such an extent now that it makes little sense to be doing it without wider, organised political aims and objectives. The very notion of rebelling through art is arguably a commodity in itself, long appropriated by neoliberal forces to become just another selling point for a financially lucrative cultural identity, which is either peddled for monetary gain or worn as a means of moralistic gesturing. The petty-bourgeois student rebels of 1968 who captured the imagination of their era went on to use that same efficiency in sloganeering, battle-worn competence in communication to sell us their capitulation and personal freedom for the following decades.

You constantly have to be aiming beyond cosmetic subversion if you want to have meaningful political conversations to reach genuinely radical alternatives. I am not saying ‘don’t make music because it’s completely redundant’, but I feel like we have to always be thinking about ‘and what else, where is this going and what are we attempting to achieve with it’. That’s why the idea of collective power through shows and politically organising around music is crucial. If you can focus on community and the collective element of bringing like minded people together in a room you can attempt to strip away the dominance and power that capital holds over artistic expression.

(((o))): The video for ‘Burn This Flag; is really powerful and reminded me of Martha Rosler’s art, in ‘The Gray Drape’ and ‘Cleaning The Drapes’ she juxtapositioned American domesticity and the Vietnam War thereby drawing attention to the interconnectedness. In the ‘Burn This Flag’ video you very effectively do a similar thing, was that the intention?

The focus for that video was exploring a way of mirroring the distortion and misdirection carried out by the instruments of a ‘mainstream’ media largely backed by boundless capital and the intentions of a select few. We worked with Roger Sargent to find a way of commenting on that neoliberal trap of confused storytelling, deflection and false narratives, while the complex issues of our time are played out as peripheral events that we are believed to have very little grasp of and can supposedly have little bearing on.

(((o))): The video to ‘Whose Cause’ is also a really powerful collage of images, could you talk us through it?

That song explores political misdirection in the media and its role in sowing seeds of division, suspicion and distrust in our communities by using identity as a means of fear. We wanted to create a video that touched on the nefarious ties between capital and a pocketed media class and to do that we tried to collage certain elements of working-class struggle and set them amidst examples of capital and state control. The video also tries to hint at the implications reactionary storytelling has on propping up late capitalism and the patrician outriders it funds and protects.

(((o))): Barthes wrote about the death of the author, that the meaning of a cultural artefact is constructed by the viewer/listener. As an artist is that ever a concern, that people may misunderstand or misinterpret your music?

Not particularly. The intention in this band is to write as a means of resistance against the increasingly suffocating grasp of the conditions we have to navigate every day. The lyrics are measured and come from a very particular place. For me, once they’re finished and put out there that’s me done. They’re presentations, descriptions and reactions to systems that are constructed for the benefit of a small number of self-interested individuals. The point is to be blunt and direct in the face of a world confused and coerced by political distortion.

(((o))): Capitalism would socialise us into constructing our sense of self from consumption, John Holloway talks about our sense of self being able to emerge from acts of collective creativity (5). Do you experience that tension? Have you found music has helped you derive your sense of self from creativity and community?

The band started as a release from the monotony of exploitative work and we found our grounding from there on, but that’s not to say an interest in community came purely from starting to write music. It has been shaped by the material conditions around us too. To suggest that our sense of self came solely from music would be slightly too individualistic. I don’t think we term this band as a collection of individual pursuits. So partially, yes, forming this band was a direct result of finding a collective release from the confines of abstract and concrete labour that someone like Holloway would be likely to discuss, but I’d also say we have left that era of nebulous ‘anti-capitalism’ well behind – not as a band, but as a society. That turn-of-the-century scepticism towards capitalism that led to slogans like ‘One No, Many Yeses’ and the come-as-you-are concept of a ‘Movement of Movement’ looks quaint and twee from our vantage point. Since then we have had unbelievable imperial carnage in the Middle East, the bursting of the credit bubble that had masked Thatcher and Reagan’s savage attacks on our class, and the final revelation that beyond any shadow of a doubt, the planet is being murdered by our economic mode. People like us will be the earliest victims of all of that. We live in a time of war.

(((o))): You also emphasise that ‘place’ has played a part in your development as people and as a band, that the band and its music has emerged from a certain set of circumstances. What aspects of Stevenage have been particularly affecting?

When we first started the band we ran with this idea to engage people with what it means to be from a New Town. We put up statements that people had made about Stevenage as being sort of a ‘nothing’ town and wanted to see what kind of descriptions people went with when discussing the music. They essentially ended up being those same statements – excluding a few writers – without any other opinions being offered. It felt like that identity of the town, popularised in the press and in a lot of TV writing, was simply accepted. Stevenage is a difficult place but it’s also a town that shines with a defiant pride in the face of neoliberal destruction and ideological policy designed to punish the most vulnerable sections of our communities. That sort of endurance is something we’ve always been keen to mirror, both on record and when playing live.

(((o))): I was reading the essays on your webpage (here), in the late 70s/early 80s there was a false dichotomy propagated by Garry Bushell that authentic working class identity excluded higher education (3), the reductive idea of working class identity as excluding education and therefore astute politicisation. Perhaps there is a bit of that in recent criticisms of Idles? Have Bad Breeding had to deal with that sort of nonsense at all, that if you’re intelligent, educated and articulate you can’t really be working class (punks)?

Yeah I think that’s bollocks. We’ve had that happen on one or two occasions but you do what you need to do and tell people how it is. What I would say, though, is that the notion of working class people becoming ‘intelligent’ smacks of liberal condescension. The kind of unidirectional university debates we are told are radical are conducive to the kind of conditions we find ourselves in at the moment, whereby working communities are preached at to the extent where material conditions are ignored at the expense of patronising sneers and dismissive intellectualism from the liberal, predominantly middle-class left, who very rarely have any immediate experience of what they’re commenting on. But at the same time, a lack of university – or any kind of education – is not something to be celebrated.

The English working-class tradition is deeply grounded in radical and revolutionary thought that was absolutely self-taught. Marx and Engels formulated theories of socialism based on a pre-existing socialist movement that was led by manual workers who had learned to read by candlelight before heading back to those dark satanic mills before daybreak. They would spit in the face of anyone who claimed intellectual inquiry ran contrary to the identity of the working class. ‘Intelligence’ isn’t simply borne out by a university education. Politicisation may happen at an institution like a university, but it needs a grounding in material realities. You could even argue that universities seem to increasingly be a place where the pursuit of radical, anti-systemic ideas are neutered and nullified into a quest for self discovery and making peace with the status quo. Anything radical that is truly potent must be shaped by experience and participation.

(((o))): Would you identify as a political band, whereabouts would you place yourselves politically or is there a continuing evolving of thought?

I’d like to think this band has the ability to either introduce listeners to certain issues or contribute to arguments around them. Personally I would describe myself as a socialist, but I can’t speak directly for the others involved. As you can see by the work we do and shows that we play around Europe, there is an outwardly antifascist element – playing gigs and fundraising for communities to help stave off the divisional motives of fascistic forces both in the UK and in Europe. Political motivations often get worn as a badge of identity in contemporary guitar music, as well as in liberal politics at large, with very little actually being done on the ground in terms of organising and putting in work at community level. That’s where the battle will ultimately be won against the tide of the far right: by the organised working class on the streets and within communities that are pinned as targets for manipulation.

(((o))): Your new album is out in June, can you give us any clues about its feel maybe relative to previous releases?

We recorded Exiled over the course of a week in the winter of 2018 having just come back from a month-long tour around Europe. It came together over the course of a month or so and was recorded by Ben Greenberg (Uniform), who did Divide and the ‘Abandonment’ EP too. We took a slight step back from the electronic padding and digital effects on Exiled when compared to Divide and instead tried to capture the nosier elements more naturally – more so by ragging the amps and using natural feedback to create layers in the songs. Thematically, Exiled focuses on the impact of neoliberalism on places like Stevenage, where I think large sections of the community have been ignored, but also punished as a matter of ideological course. The piece of writing that accompanied the announcement of the record provides an idea of what’s explored lyrically throughout the record. (read here).

(((o))): Looking forward to seeing you for the first time at Electrowerkz in July, how did the tour with Uniform come about?

We’ve done some shows with Uniform before, sharing festival bills in Europe just after we released Divide in 2017. We’ve known Ben for years having made three records together so it was a fairly easy choice to decide to play together when they were next over in the UK.

(((o))): Are there any bands or writers you are enjoying at the moment?

Subdued are one of my personal favourites. State Funeral are great too. Sound people with great songs. I’ve not long finished Michael Parenti’s To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia, which is a brilliantly fierce attack on the reach of US imperialism and the role of NATO in the bombing of Yugoslavia. Parenti strikes me as one of the very few Marxist writers who remains dangerously revolutionary amidst the wash of celebrity socialists that dominate popular academia. Having said that, one of the most touching and thought-provoking things I’ve read in recent years will always be Exiting the Vampire Castle by the late Mark Fisher. Anybody who perceives themselves as being on the ‘Left’ needs to read it and take a good hard look at themselves in respect of how they’re really contributing to solidarity and comradeship in the face of late capitalism. (read here)

Thanks to Chris and to James Sherry at Division Promotions for organising interview.

Photo by Katie Rose.
Interview by email.

If you happened to miss our review of the Exiled album, you can read it here.

(1)Whyte, J. (2016) Bad Breeding: S/T-album review.

(2)Kiaer, C. (2005) ‘Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism’ The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.

(3)Wilkinson, D. (2016) ‘Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain’, Palgrave Macmillan, London.

(4)James, R. (2014) ‘Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism’, Zero Books, Winchester UK and Washington, USA.

(5)Holloway, J. (2005) ‘Change the World Without Taking Power’, Pluto Press, London and New York.

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