Stoneborn II: We're All Playing Cards as the Ship Goes Down...




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Hello again,

It has been a while since I've contributed significantly to this blog, for just reasons. However, I come now offering a short dialect I undertook with CPN of the group Blackbird Raum. For a long time now this has been a group that really harnessed my full attention and simultaneously conjured and appeased a certain elitism within me toward that which is often referred to as Folk Punk. Since the release of their second full-length offering, Swidden, it has been apparent to me and many others that this group of musicians has a tremendous amount of relevant inertia in the course of radical, DIY music, and they're making waves. With the unleashing of their third album, Under The Starling Host, I finally took the time to ask the questions laying dormant in my mind, and presenting the answers thus. Without any further adieu...


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"Blackbird Raum formed out of the nucleus of a squatter community living in abandoned buildings and greenbelt treehouses in Santa Cruz, CA, in the early 2000's. Finding themselves living without electricity, they began to learn to play folk instruments from each other and other members of the traveling punk/folk culture. They all grew up playing in anarcho-punk, indie and ska bands and then, knowing next to nothing about traditional music, slowly gathered together the skills to create a new genre of music, based somewhere right in the middle of punk and folk.
Refusing the retro cliches of many of their contemporaries, they write entirely original music (in both senses of the word) that is reflective of the world they live in: a realm of abusive police, ecological devastation, creeping ambiguity and vague fear, but also a strong sense of community and a deep love of a natural world constantly on the verge of collapse. They jump back and forth between extremely fast metal-influenced jug band dance numbers and quasi-medieval chant-and-drone while doing herky-jerky hardcore-influenced time signature gymnastics. They toured the country in a tiny truck, playing mainstream folk festivals, punk houses, squats and all ages clubs. When they aren't touring, they play various American and European traditional music, hang out in the woods, raise children and read a lot of library books."






So, lets start by introducing the band to those who aren't familiar. Who is Blackbird Raum, where did you come from, and why is it important that you exist?
Raum is David, C.P.N., Mars, K.C. and Zack, we use traditional acoustic instruments to express a host of influences from Leonard Cohen to Operation Ivy to Neurosis. We're from Santa Cruz, CA. As for why it's important we exist, I guess that's for other people to decide. My guess would be that it's because we're the only band that sounds like us, and probably the only band that sings about all the kinds of things we sing about.
I've noticed that throughout the progression of releases you've amassed, there has been a stronger and stronger focus on the Oral Tradition. Whereas Purse Seine had references to train-hopping, squatting and any number of personal accounts, Swidden took more of a political dialogue with songs like Silent Spring and Coal (a la the obvious Anarcho-Punk influence), however it maintained the element of personal experience with songs like Shot Coplifting. Now, as we come in to Under the Starling Host, we see songs and stories like William, Lucasville, The Helm of Ned Kelly and Old One Eye, a quick tune about Odin's sacrifice upon Yggdrasil. Is this shift to traditional storytelling a natural development for the band, or was it something intended and conjured in concept? Do you think this is an important tradition to be upheld? Are you inspired by any past or current upholders of the Oral Tradition?
I'm interested in the personal stories of those who resist the exploiters and planet killers. I view most traditional cultures, most specifically older animist lifeways, as inherently superior to civilized, monotheistic, or rational-scientific cultures. Then again, I don't necessarily hold the stories of those people to be more valid than that of a twenty year old trainhopper who escaped her middle class background for a more free life. My goal is to make music that "feels" radical without trying to promote some specific agenda. I love CRASS but I can't write like that. I'd rather make cultural music based on the unique experience of people in the subculture, while at the same time re-tell the stories from history and mythology that I think people should know. Every time we do it it's more purposeful, but I always want it to be more so. Anyways, I'm absolutely inspired by the oral tradition, from Snorri Sturluson to Joe Hill, theres no contradiction. To me, the legends of anarchist history are the god-heroes of old.


Another really interesting thing I've noticed on your newest release is a strong shift to an incredibly metallic sound. I'm not sure if it's just my ears, but songs like Ensemble Suicide uncannily follow the flow and progression of a tradition a Metal song, simply performed on acoustic instruments. This can be detected on almost all songs, and I believe it to be the biggest difference between this release and Swidden. Again, was this a conscious effort, an organic development, or am I just totally crazy in this assumption?
I think that we've been striving for something, from the beginning, that included elements of early black metal (Ulver was a longtime obsession) and also the first wave of "emotional-hardcore" bands like Portraits of Past and 400 years. You're absolutely correct that "ensemble" sounds like a metal song, it's supposed to. We've always wanted to incorporate these elements, but in the past we were much more limited, technically and creatively than we are now. We've had to forge our own idioms, figure out what works and what doesn't. Most people growing up in this culture associate the basic "one-two" rhythm that is the first thing you learn when you play accordion with "hee-haw" and "the beer barrel polka". This is very depressing, because in some of the old music there is something incredibly moving and atavistic, but most Americans haven't even heard these recordings. We have had to fight against being perceived as "old timey", "pirates" etc. both musically and aesthetically. We actually DO incorporate a lot of elements from old American music, but they come unrecognizable to most because they aren't based on "dusty old highways" and the wearing of overalls. Most of the bands who are our supposed contemporaries make this worse by pandering to stereotypes created by television, rehashing noir imagery that was fresh when Tom Waits did it thirty years ago. The alternate tunings, dissonant chords, and oblique structures that are innate to old appalachian music have been rounded off by revivalist "roots music" yet coincidentally enough, these descriptors could all be used to characterize underground metal.
Blackbird Raum recently undertook a trip to Alaska for a quick tour. How was this experience, and what were the motivations behind it? Any peak moments?
...pulling a chunk of melting glacier out a lake and eating it, watching beluga whales cavort out in the Turnagain arm, twenty feet away from me. Eating moose soup with queer mountain men, playing a show on an abandoned gold dredge forty five miles north of Fairbanks. Getting picked up hitchiking by people that kill wolves for fun and having to learn to explain my views on the subject to them. Alaska is the called "the last frontier" which means that everyone is is rushing around trying to make $$ destroying the place, yet most people that you meet in Alaska are way less uptight than other Americans. It's the first time I really understood Jotunheim, the realm of the ice giants. in Alaska this is something that you can point at. Places that don't exist on a human scale, but on a mythic scale, and it's pathetic that many people up there just think it's a place to go kill wild creatures for trophy. The tour itself was amazing, people up there just fucking got what we were about in a way that it might be hard for someone who's only lived in urban environments to understand. There are no hipsters in Alaska, nobody is too cool and if you play a show outside of Las Anchorage it's gonna be punks, miners, pot growers, small town metal guys, all mixed together.

When I was on tour with Iskra through the US, we played an infoshop in Flagstaff run by some really cool folks. I was really excited to see a large amount of the local native kids show up, and even more excited to talk to them and learn that they were running the infoshop, really shattering the threat of the every-present eurocentricity of Anarchism in their community. After our set, they put on a Blackbird Raum record, so we started to discuss the band. They mentioned that some members had helped in a Native land-and-lifestyle reclamation project that some of the elders were instigating in the area. Would you be willing to talk more of this project?
Black Mesa is a region in Arizona where the indigenous Dine people have resisted being forced off their land to make room for a coal mine for over 30 years. Basically they need people to come out with supplies(tools/food/fuel etc.) and help them out, mainly with sheepherding, because many of them are quite elderly. It’s no surprise as anarchists have been helping out with native struggles ever since Louise Michel joined the Kanak rebellion in 1878. I think that these people can help us answer extremely important questions: How can we build multi-generational communities in resistance to industry? What would a non-culturally-appropriative and non new-age earth based spirituality look like? I could probably say volumes about it, because it ties into almost everything that we as a band are trying to convey. The scene in Flagstaff is absolutely amazing, and it was like being home, to be surrounded by people that prioritize the same things we do: playing good music, strong community that knows how to have fun just well as they know how make hard decisions, and a dedication to protecting the earth that we hold sacred.
On the topic of that Iskra tour, how the best was that when we got to play together in New Orleans?
It was pretty ripping, though I wish that we got to play a more formal show. My favorite part was finally meeting you in person and also getting a LEPER t-shirt. If you told me 7 years ago that I’d be playing a show with Iskra in NOLA and that they would actually have heard of my band I would have shit a brick. 
I honestly think that one of my favorite songs ever produced by the band is Fortuna, I Am a Spear Fisherman. The long, linear and avant garde (though I hate the term) elements of it lead to such a dense, beautiful piece of music, concluding in the reading of Robinson Jeffers' famous poem, from which the album takes it's name, Purse Seine, resulting in a poignant and inspiring audial journey. Is there any interest or possibility of experimenting in this manner on future recordings?
Now that we have established our sound we have come to an exciting creative precipice. Some bands in a similar spot work to institutionalize their esthetic: "the motorhead model". A safe bet, as you don't have to risk alienating your audience with potentially self-indulgent escapades. The danger; however, is that your music never capture the magic of that first venture. Everything we've done so far has been to build, but lately my impulse has been to transgress. Of course I'm certainly not the only creative voice in the band, but we have agreed that the next release will completely reframe how our music is presented in recording. In other words I'm sure it's possible, knowing what we know now, to go above and beyond Fortuna. it's just a matter of doing these things, and focusing them all together in a coherent piece, rather than throwing them on the plate like garnish. 
My interest is piqued. It's exciting to hear of a transgressing of the idiom the band has conjured. Is there any possibility of discussing directions that this may flow in to? Has this intent already slid in to progress in any describable manner?
It’s hard to say without giving away the goose, I reserve the right to change my mind. I was very impressed when I heard your Skagos tape with the wind chimes and hand drums on it. I liked the idea of metal purists squirm in their seats, as they confusedly realized that they were honestly enjoying something their identity told them to hate. I think we do that a little bit already as our audience is not in the majority comprised of “folkies”. To be more specific, we’re starting to write things with an eye to the whole experience instead of just writing songs as we go along and recording when we’ve got 12 of them, as most bands do. Varied instrumentation, collage, over-arching concepts, all this stuff we’ve dabbled with subtly in the past, but now can wheel on to the forefront. Maybe I’ll be inspired by you and put a didgeridoo solo on there just to make the punks complain.
Finally, do you have any interest in releasing your music on vinyl? I notice that you released Under the Starling Host in both CD and Cassette formats, why the eschewing of vinyl? Moreover, what is to become of the Stormy Petrel 7"?
Actually we'll finally be releasing some vinyl this summer, a split with our friends hail seizures from olympia. The reasons we haven't done it before are purely economic. In the past Raum has seen little interest from labels in the "punk" world despite the fact that we have more fans than many other DIY touring bands. This is because our music doesn't fit easily applicable genre stereotypes. We have little spare cash for hobbyist projects like vinyl releases. Luckily a label in New York called INT is financing it. As for the stormy petrel 7" we really should release it but we have a terrible habit of becoming dreadfully embarrassed about our work as soon as we put it out. We made that recording two years ago, and we're so much better musicians now that we should probably just re-do it. Recently a punk label in Venezuela expressed interest in it though, so maybe it will see light. Of interest to metal fans: the second song we recorded for the stormy petrel 7" was a version of Agaloch's cover of sol invictus' "kneel to the cross".
All photos pulled off the internet...



Blackbird Raum merchandise is available all over. Personally, I simply suggest making your way to a show or twelve. Otherwise, all albums can be purchased from their website, Little Black Cart, or you could always send a missive to them directly at: Blackbirdraum@gmail.com
I hope this has been a fulfilling read for all. Leave comments and questions, and I'll be back in the future with more to offer.
Stoneborn,
Ray