Lee Bains has never been shy about speaking his mind. The Alabama native has made a name for himself belting out politically and socially charged lyrics with his band the Glory Fires. Though the band is known for loud, in-your-face blistering rock and roll – a sound that some may think is devoid of emotionally potent lyrics – they also happen to be one of the most intelligent acts out there. Like their Alabama brethren the Drive-By Truckers, Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires challenge the ideas of what it means to be a Southern rock band. Fiercely proud of his home state (although he calls Atlanta home these days), Bains writes about the struggles of the working class, violence, race issues and corruption among other topics. His narratives are mostly set against the backdrop of the South, and specifically Birmingham, Alabama. In keeping with the great literary tradition of Southern writers like Larry Brown and William Faulkner, Bains manages to turn his settings into a character in and of itself.
Through lyrics and loudness, Bains’ music has always been a relentless pursuit to explain the South through rock and roll, and also to raise questions about its complicated history. This is especially true with the new Glory Fires album Youth Detention (Nail My Feet Down To The South Side Of Town), which comes out this week on Don Giovanni Records. Spanning 17 songs, the album is as lengthy and sprawling as its title. Its material is far from light, bluntly addressing our troubled times with scorching commentary and illustrating how we got ourselves into such an ugly mess politically and socially. But whereas other groups seem to write about things affecting America as a whole, Lee Bains takes the approach of using his own community as the example of what is happening everywhere else. It may not be fair to call Bains a political songwriter, but it’s impossible to deny the political and social potency of his lyrics. Of course, all of them are sang loud and raw throughout the new album. Recently, Bains took the time to get deep about what the new album is all about and what keeps him going as a rock and roller.
Were all the songs on the album written pre-election?
Lee Bains: They sure were. Everything was done before the election. These days campaigns go on for years prior to an election. I think we cut the record in February of 2016. Of course, I was very much thinking about the issues happening that played into the election.
The album has 17 songs so it’s really a double album. Were you sitting on these songs for a while and just figured they all worked well as one body of work as opposed to breaking them into two albums?
To me, all these songs were working together in concert. The process for the record was I sort of had a vision of what I wanted to write around, being essentially socialization and the way in which a person comes to know themself and their community through interactions with their neighbors or the place itself. That was going to be a pretty large undertaking on one side. Then on the other side, I think those processes are sprawling and encompass lots of different characters and places, so I wanted the work to reflect that. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was sort of a guiding influence for me in thinking about this. I thought a fair bit about the way in which we come to understand ourselves and our communities and how those communities define themselves against other communities. Meaningful revelations can happen in a single moment, but the reason those moments are so important and powerful is that they’re charged with these massive systems and they’re charged with the past in a really profound way. All of that to me sort of takes on this sprawling, spiraling thing where one moment contains centuries of history within it and how one interaction between a couple of angry people contains multitudes. That sort of guided my way of thinking about the actual substance of the record – the music, the lengths and the number of words and stuff like that.
Obviously you touch a lot on social injustice and police violence. Are those the kind of things you are referring to when you talk about these moments?
Definitely. The whole record is constructed of these scenes to me, these very small happenings or events that bring to bear these really complex chains of events that have preceded them and will outlast them. These relationships and dynamics are much larger than these single moments, but these moments can shed light on them. I think that’s just how our lives work, from our personal interactions to governmental policy – the past is being played out today. Global systems are being played out on a very specific localized level. Police violence is an example of that, colonialism – there are all sorts of these vast old systems that I see cropping up.
A big recurrent theme on the album is white privilege and specifically white males in power and the things they do. Do you think your songs speak to groups like the alt-right who believe white males are disenfranchised now?
I do certainly try to talk about that. A few months ago I would have labeled it laughably absurd and now it’s troublingly absurd. Those folks are playing into really old roles. Growing up in the Deep South in a city like Birmingham and having pretty long roots there, I can see how those folks are saying white men are being discriminated against or disenfranchised. That’s a very old history. In Birmingham the clearest example I can point to is in the days of Birmingham’s founding where the South, which had been largely destroyed after the Civil War and many of these working age white men had been decimated and these enslaved black folks had been freed, there was this period of complete upheaval. That’s the point when Birmingham was created. It was created as an industrial and shipping center, and all these white folks who maybe came from rural areas or worked on plantations that had been burned or traded hands went to the city looking for work. Freed black folks were also looking for work, so this brand new city popped up and people were living side by side who had never met each other and who had been from rural communities but were now living in urban communities.
At first, black and white workers were working the same jobs, you know, in the mines and the steel mills and the foundries and things. Before long the company bosses saw that these workers were getting together and saying things like ‘we’re not getting paid enough’ or ‘we’re working too long so we’re going to organize’. One of the prime ways these companies reacted to this organization across racial boundaries was to first off influence the criminalization of black men in which a black guy could be locked up, certainly for violating Jim Crow laws, but also for vagrancy or loitering, basically for nothing. Then these companies would use not black free labor but black convict labor, which was essentially slave labor still, alongside the white laborers, and then play the white laborers in such a way to say, ‘well the reason you’re not getting paid more or the reason you got laid off is because all these black guys are working for cheaper.’ Then there becomes this animosity where a white guy is now making less or is laid off and the catalyst that’s been offered to him is this black guy who will work for less.
Of course that’s a ridiculous idea – the black guy’s working against his will for nothing – but as far as the work goes, the white guy sees he’s making less money or has lost a job he had. Somebody is to blame for it, and that black guy is working where he used to be working. So animosity mounted, and a lot of scholars think that history around the turn of the century is what made Birmingham such a hotbed of racial violence and white supremacy and supremacist law – because of that process – and it centered on the coal companies and steel companies.
So when I look at the alt-right now I see the exact same phenomenon where you’re talking to white guys – for some reason it has to do a lot with masculinity so it’s guys – but I guess their message is white people in general who are struggling who have lost jobs through globalization and wealthy people’s exploitation of undocumented immigrant labor. So the blame is again cast not on the people who do the hiring and firing, but instead on the other workers who are by no means living high on the hog. This is a very old playbook that’s being used. I don’t think it’s just the alt-right doing it, it’s very much mainstream these days, we’re kind of hearing that from the White House.
It’s interesting hearing that perspective because it seems like Birmingham forms the backdrop for a lot of your songs and the stories in them. Going off of that, can you talk about the song “Whitewash” – does it take place in Birmingham and is it about gentrification?
I see gentrification again as being part of this old system of land theft by the wealthy and powerful, by a pattern of cultural erasure, a pattern of displacement that mostly focuses on black folks and indigenous people here in America. I see our current moment of gentrification as these systems playing out, and at the same time these sort of exploitative, predatory mode of capitalism playing out. Here in Atlanta [where I live now] one of the most clearly gentrified neighborhoods is Cabbagetown. It got its name because back in the day when it was a mill town, everything smelled like boiling cabbage, because that’s what folks were eating. They were largely white folks from the countryside to the north, the foothills of Appalachia in north Georgia. It’s weird because Atlanta and Birmingham as well are technically in Appalachia, and Atlanta was home to Fiddlin’ John Carson, one of the very early music recording artists in the country.
He was born in raised in Atlanta. Cabbagetown was this largely white working class neighborhood for a long time, up into the 80s or so, when gentrification started to hit. So I think these patterns don’t always follow color lines in the way we sort of envision them, but when I look around the places I’ve lived, for the most part it absolutely targets people of color. I see that as part of a long tradition of people having their land stolen and being denied their due when it comes to property. The failure of Reconstruction to provide 40 acres and a mule to freed black slaves, and moving onward to redlining and these sort of systems, we’re seeing it play out.
Is that song about all of that?
That’s a piece on it for sure.
This album seems to gravitate towards a more punk rock sound compared to the straight southern rock and roll of the last couple and is closer to what you guys are like live. Was that a conscious decision for you or do think heavier sounds fit in with your message?
Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. We’re constantly talking about what we want such and such to sound like and what we’re trying to get it to do, and we don’t want to make the same record twice. We want the music to serve the songs on the record as a whole. But I don’t think myself or any of the guys talked about it being heavier. I guess I thought about it being more nuanced.
Well it’s definitely nuanced and there are some quieter acoustic moments but overall it captures the loudness of the live show.
We definitely did want to capture spontaneity and that sort of live raw energy. We were talking earlier about how the songs were largely focused on these moments of authentic interaction between people, a place or a group, and how those moments can be kind of ugly or vulnerable or courageous, like in those moments a curtain can be lifted and expose the vastness of space and time that informed that moment. I guess for me that’s what we were trying to capture musically. When there’s four people in a room playing instruments, things get out of tune or something can fuck up and unplug, so when everybody is in that moment just fucking going for it things will go awry and not as planned. Those moments, for me, make rock and roll transcendent and greater than anything the artist envisioned or planned. That happens through those moments of humanity, of something being fucked up or off the cuff.
So you cut everything live in the studio?
Yeah we just get in there all four of us. We overdub vocals almost always because it’s hard to mix if you don’t get that, because we don’t use headphones either. So we’re just in there like band practice. I’ll yell out into the room or whatever, and that’s how we cut it. If there are overdubs that need to be done, we’ll do that.
One thing that stands out about your performances is the passionate statements you make between each song. How did you come upon this do you think people respond to statements better or worse at a rock show? Like when you play in places where people make disagree with the message, how do you relay it in a way that makes them not want to kill you or something?
I guess I’d seen bands over the years, usually hardcore bands and screamier punk stuff, where the singer would often preface the song with a brief description of what it was about. I guess it was because once they got going there was no way of knowing what the fuck they were saying. It stuck with me and I think once this band started playing we had some moments where we would play a song and something about somebody in the crowd’s reaction just set something off in my head where I thought, I’m not sure they are contextualizing this correctly.
For me it’s like, I’m drawn to make music that is consciously and deliberately Southern because I am Southern. If I want to learn how to be myself in the sort of best way that I can be, the kindest most benevolent person that I can be, I’m going to have to confront where I’m from. So that’s why I do it, that’s why I take up the sounds and the language and musical traditions I’m drawing on. I’m not doing it to say ‘I’m fucking awesome and where I’m from is the fucking shit!’ That’s not at all what I’m trying to do, it’s not about bravado or chauvinism or anything like that. It’s about trying to really understand something because you love it, and because you love it, wanting to take a long hard honest look and get into a real conversation with all its ugliness and its beauty too. That’s why it’s really important for me to say that shit before the songs, because I would really hate for somebody to walk away from one of our shows and fucking slap a rebel flag decal on the back of their car because that’s not at all the point.
We have at times definitely rubbed some people the wrong way with these sort of introductions. I think our last show in Atlanta, the guy who booked the show was like, ‘man you got fired up out there and it was cool what you said and I was looking around and was thinking, how many of these people are gonna walk out of here.’ For me, this moment where we are as a country, what we’re talking about and seeing on the news all day, it’s like I need to be in a space with people where we can just be together and I’m not the only one and where we can talk honestly about the shit going on and how to change it. That’s really helpful to me.
I guess you might raise some eyebrows, but then you go into a song like “Dirt Track” where everybody knows what’s being expressed.
The reason I focus on where I’m from, because it’s born out of love and familiarity, not judgement or vitriol or disdain for some other thing. I think there have been some times where I’m like, am I going to blow up anyone’s spot, and there have been times when I know somebody has gotten into our band because they related to the sound, and they just kind of lived with the lyrics. I’ve seen some of those folks change their minds, like there’s a different article they share on Facebook or something. Who knows if my song had anything to do with that, but people can and do change, and thank god because if they didn’t I’d be in a ditch right now. I’m much more liable to hear somebody’s take on something if they’re coming to me as an equal or relating to me from their own experience. I’m way more likely to listen to that than somebody telling me I’m wrong and why I’m wrong.
Do you feel a role as an ambassador of the modern South?
That’s a really good question. All of the songs on this record are taken from absolute personal experience because I don’t want to speak for anybody but myself. At times when we’re traveling around other parts of the country or Europe, we as a band have talked about how we feel exoticized in some way and made to stand in for where we’re from. That is a very weird uncomfortable feeling to be put in that position of having to speak for anybody other than yourself. This is a sore subject. Songwriters and writers I appreciate who ground their narratives in a very particular vision or place, that’s what I’m working towards.
Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires will release Youth Detention (Nail My Feet Down To The Southside Of Town) on Don Giovanni Records June 30th. For more music and info visit thegloryfires.com.