letlive.’s enigmatic frontman sounds off on his beef with rock music.
By Ryan De Freitas
I find myself in letlive.’s Brixton Academy dressing room today for one, entirely trivial reason: I wanted to offer frontman Jason Butler a similarity I’d noticed between the intro to ‘Good Mourning, America’ (from their most recent album, If I’m The Devil…) and the videos of Black Lives Matter protesters singing Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’.
Sure, that’s essentially nothing more than a shower-thought and certainly not something that I should be taking up half an hour of Butler’s time with, but given his documented love of hip-hop, I had a feeling he’d be on board. So, here we are.
“Kendrick was a beacon for me on this record,” Butler reveals. Maybe there was something to that shower-thought after all. “It’s been a long time since a contemporary artist that I can consider even kinda my peer has really influenced me and pushed my art directly. Kendrick did that. That specific intro to Good Mourning though, was a direct pull from ‘They Don’t Care About Us’, by Michael Jackson.”
Something about Butler’s choice of words surprises me; letlive. are one of the finest rock bands on the planet today and here is their vocalist not-so-subtly hinting that he has to look outside of his own genre for inspiration. It makes sense – Butler has shouted out The Notorious B.I.G. on a song in the past and later tonight he’ll drop an impromptu cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Man In The Mirror’ – but to say that he doesn’t feel inspired by a single person in his own genre is quite the statement to make.
“I’m bored of it, man. Rock music is boring.” Butler continues without much provocation. “It’s stale and just a parody of itself right now. We’ve got bands acting like bands were in 2004 and it’s like, ‘Come on, man. We’re a decade past that.’
“It’s just so fucking safe and vanilla and sterile! I don’t remember the last time I heard a rock band say some shit that made me feel the way Rage Against The Machine did or Nirvana did. And even when they do, it’s so trite. And I’m not here trying to talk shit about the homies, cause they’re out there doing some shit, but they’re not the ones on the charts.
“Ultimately, I’m not out here spinning a rock record to feel artistic.”
Butler’s not pulling punches, but the sad truth is that this assertion of his is hard to argue with. What connection could he possibly feel to the rock music that the industry celebrates today? Who out there is looking to Sleeping With Sirens to hear something new or exciting? What is a Twenty One Pilots song going to offer to, well, an adult? What reflection of himself, the product of a Los Angeles ghetto, is he going to find in an All Time Low record?
It makes sense that he’d turn to hip-hop; the genre, creatively, at the polar opposite of rock music. Even on its most mainstream level, you find a genre ever-innovating.
You’ll find Chance The Rapper, an artist who has subverted the industry by resisting major labels; releasing his music for free but still playing to thousands of people every night. You have Kendrick Lamar releasing a sixteen-track epic that embodies, challenges and celebrates the culture and lives of black America all while selling over a million copies. Meanwhile, Run The Jewels are actively challenging their listeners’ views on mainstream politics and being so unafraid to stand up for something that Killer Mike ended up becoming a prominent figure in Bernie Sanders’ election campaign.
Where is rock’s Run The Jewels? Look on the front cover of magazines, and on the top of festival bills. We have no equivalent. Why does hip-hop have this fire in its belly, while rock music seems entirely devoid of… any-fucking-thing?
“You want my real answer?” Butler asks with a wry smile, unable to mask his readiness to sound off on something.
Yeah, of course.
“Too many people in rock music are from a safe place. It’s a cultural thing.” He pauses, before becoming animated. “Let’s keep it one hundred, man. Most rock music is a heterosexual white boys club. Heterosexual white boys, for the most part, aren’t being challenged that way politically. They’re not being challenged that way socially. They’re not being challenged that way sexually. So, if you’re gonna ask me why I think these two genres are so disparate, it’s because I don’t think that they stem from the same place. But that’s not to say that these people can’t feel empathy, commiserate, and/or can’t come from that place.
“My mother’s white and I’m very white-passing. I’m not sitting here saying, ‘Oh, white people can’t do this’. I’m not saying that. But I know where I come from and why I say the things I say.
“Hip-hop’s derivation is from soul and rhythm and blues. But before that, we had chain gangs. We had people in the fields communicating and singing hymns just to stay alive while they pick cotton. It’s always been rooted in that.
“But rock music was, too. Rock music came from soul. But at some point we monetised it and created this model and started plugging people into it. And you know what? The easiest person to plug into that – just like Elvis – is a good-looking white boy who can sing. But that’s black music.
“That’s why I think the root of it all is that you don’t have people that had to struggle.”
Butler recalls his own struggles. His struggles growing up in the same Section 8 housing (that being the US government’s cute name for low-income, low-quality housing in the country’s worst neighbourhoods) that spawned Kendrick Lamar. The struggles he faced just to get to play his music for people. “Me and my boys, in the early letlive. days had to literally fight security guards to get onto the stage at our show,” he remembers. And listening to him recall having to pull a bullet out of his sister’s leg, it’s clear that Butler is a man who knows struggle.
“After all of it, I have people telling me that where I’m from, we’re not a product of anything but our own divisive and bellicose coding. That’s fucking bullshit. I know that because I can play both sides.
“I can comb my hair nicely and go somewhere and play white – I’ve done it! And because of that, I can hear what’s said behind closed doors. People think that I’m Other. Like, ‘Oh, he ain’t black, so we’ll talk about black people.’ And on the other side of that, when I was younger and looked more ethnic, I heard things about white folk that I didn’t think were true because my mom didn’t exhibit those things. But overall, the idea is not an individual thing and not ‘you, genetically as a white person.’ It’s the idea of what it means to be white in America and that people need to realise that that’s a real thing.
“Why the fuck else would people be choosing to live in the ghettos? If you’ve got a choice between selling rock and struggling to get your teacher to give a fuck because the jurisdiction isn’t paid enough and the teacher isn’t paid enough and they weren’t chosen right, but they’re placed in there systemically to teach you some shit that you don’t give a fuck about… You’re gonna choose to sell rock.
“This is human nature. These aren’t things that we were born into genetically because of our skin colour, this is any human being. If you tested rats and you gave a rat one easy maze with some cocaine at the end, or a harder maze to get less, they’re gonna go and get the coke. It’s the same thing. It’s this big fucking scheme that we’re living in in America and that’s not even presumption, that’s statistical and factual. You can’t tell me otherwise.
“So my music is just an outward representation of my life. Our lives. And I’m not trying to promote any separatist notions, because I don’t want to separate people at all, but I am – as a mixed person who is literally white and black – trying to ask everybody to look at the big picture. This is what’s happening in America. It’s also happening in Britain. And it’s also happening in the Middle East. There’s a fucking emotional and intellectual apartheid. It’s set up. It goes deeper than where one city ends and another begins; it’s set up in people’s psyche.
“And I know this is how it is because, like I said, I’ve played both sides. I got to have friends and date people on the other side. My mother made sure that I went to school outside of my ‘hood because they weren’t paying enough attention to the people in my ‘hood. So I went elsewhere and got an education that’s different to the one I would’ve got and I got to observe my ‘hood from an outsiders perspective.”
Most editors would advise against using a block quote like the above in a piece of writing, but how could I interrupt that? Besides, it’s not listening to people with experiences like Jason’s that have lead to The Absolute Fucking State Of Things Right Now. And with the truly dire place rock music finds itself in with its so-called rock stars never threatening to say anything with even a fraction of the worth of this, Butler’s words warrant this space.
In 2016 with the rock scene we have – a rock scene that Butler and his band are, themselves, a part of – we’ll just have to play the hand we’ve been dealt and look forward. Before our time is up, I pose Butler one final question: What do you want from your rock scene?
“Awareness, man.” He responds, with a shake of the head. “If I say the shit I say on stage, I just don’t want it to be mind-blowing to people anymore.”
Then, Butler poses the best question of the afternoon.
“I think about this often,” he warns. “What if every band didn’t worry about what the label thought or what the industry told them to be? I know that’s a very ambitious thought, but it’s the ambitious thoughts that keep me going.”