Playing More Music: Consolidated Interviewed

The American activist band Consolidated are back. Stevie Chick talks to Adam Sherburne about why it was time for new messages of militant tolerance and diatribes against capitalism

Consolidated’s Adam Sherburne at home

To be in the pit at a Consolidated show back in the day was to find oneself thrust into a maelstrom of discourse and invective that anticipated the fevered babble of Twitter, that portal to the hell that is other people. For while the trio – once succinctly described as “the hardest liberal, vegetarian, pro-choice, lesbian and gay-supporting motherfuckers from San Francisco” – utilised their industrial hip hop as a vehicle for messages of militant tolerance and humanity and footnote-heavy diatribes against capitalism, their audience weren’t always on the same ideological page. And when frontman Adam Sherburne ceded the microphone each night to the crowd to discuss the issues raised by their music, the mood would often turn confrontational. Such moments were often captured on tape, spliced between tracks on their albums or sampled and woven within the Bomb Squad-on-steroids crunch of their beats, as a ghost chorus portraying the mindsets they were fighting against.

“We just want to party, life is serious enough, and I don’t want this serious shit!” yells one voice, on ‘Crusading Rap Guys’. “Why the fuck is it legal to have a black college fund when we don’t have no god-damned white one?” barks another, on ‘Why I’m In The Klan’. “You say about America being ‘too imperialist’ – well, if it wasn’t for that, all the fucking Jews wouldn’t be around today,” bays one more, on ‘White American Male ’91 (The Truth Hurts) Part 2’.

“The people who ended up on the records were violent and drunken, and excited and brilliant and ignorant,” remembers Sherburne today, from his home in Portland, Oregon. “Every fucking night, I was surrounded by often-drunk and possibly armed skinheads who wanted to take me to task, or recruit me, or ask me if I was gay or whatever. I had to deal with all these bizarre cavemen behind the bus or the van after the show, to de-escalate and find a human agreement point, to fuckin’ break off from motherfuckers who were very aggro, very driven by the same things that we’re seeing now.”

Sherburne got his introduction to the combustible discourse of US politics as a kid. “In 1969, Nixon began his secret bombing campaign in Cambodia and Laos,” he remembers. “And that was the subject of debate at our family dinner table. Both sides of my family had five generations of military. My father was a decorated war hero and a general who had retired by the time of Vietnam, and yet his own son was drafted. That changed the entire family’s understanding and polarities on that shit.” Sherburne’s best friend back then, Arthur C T Strum, is now a professor of multi-disciplinary programs at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington state. “He’s a great friend, and a great person who’s spent his life teaching people to think critically for themselves. Back then, we were privileged, smart-ass 10-year-olds, challenging our parents on all these issues.”

By his early 20s, however, Sherburne found himself “on an inexcusable path that led to my own exploitation and my own shame. I was starving, and ended up in a completely shallow necro disco band, like Frankie Goes To Hollywood or Dead Or Alive or something.” The group was Until December, a San Francisco alternative outfit who dropped a self-titled debut LP in 1986. “Don’t look for them, they’re ‘Where are they now?’ file,” he deadpans, the first of many This Is Spinal Tap references he drops throughout the interview. “I wasted two long years on bad music, trying to make it. Meth and gay disco almost wrecked my life, to paraphrase John Lee Hooker.”

Sherburne says “a traumatic series of Spinal Tap-esque bus-wrecks and business decisions” led Until December to replace their original bass-player with local musician Mark Pistel. “He was a hot hired gun trying to get somewhere, and my bullshit was attractive enough for him to put down what he was doing and move back to the Bay Area from LA.” In Pistel, Sherburne had found the creative foil that he’d been searching for, and in late 1987 he split Until December to start a new project, with Pistel handling samplers, sequencers, synths and bass, backed by drummer Philip Steir. Christened Consolidated, the new group pulled an ideological 180 from the hedonistic approach of Until December. Newly a parent, Sherburne says he “felt a need to be involved in reality”. The nascent unit’s lyrical focus was expressed by early song titles like ‘Fight The Fascists’ and ‘Message To The People’.

The new direction shocked their hometown scene. “They thought we were drag-wearing entertainers, the most dumbed-down disco people that didn’t give a shit about anything,” Sherburne remembers. “We were playing the same clubs on the same street, but coming in with an entirely different thing. That scared a few people, and made others think, ‘Oh, that dude’s a poser and just feels guilt and shame for the aspect he went down before’. They were accurate in that assessment. I was a drunk drug addict, a crazy person – a messianic, stupid warrior on my own ‘Trump-army-but-for-the-left’ thing back then.”

Early Consolidated were blunt, brutal, their anti-fascist groove thang almost oppressive in its intensity, and the teutonic assault of their beats often attracted a violent element. “The audience wasn’t monolithic,” he says. “On our first tour, we played Miami and there were three white supremacists in the front row, Sieg Heiling our Jewish drummer. That moment was the product of these incredible American contradictions, where we played music that fomented white supremacists and right-wing ideology, even though everything about our music was the opposite of that.”

Though Consolidated’s anti-fascist message was explicit, they rarely engaged in simple sloganeering, eschewing sound-bite polemic in favour of something deeper. Their tracks were often dense, discursive screeds immersed in cutting edge academic theory, with titles like ‘Unity Of Oppression’ and ‘The Sexual Politics Of Meat’. Much of their work focused on “the culture industry”, as they infiltrated the entertainment world and discovered a microcosm of the racism, sexism and homophobia they were railing against.

Like sampler-wielding post-modernists, they critiqued their own roles as artists, as activists, as moral human beings – how they wielded the power art afforded them, and how powerless they and their art often felt. “The history of oppression/ We know we can’t erase it with a pop song,” Sherburne rapped on ‘Unity Of Oppression’, off 1991’s fantastically self-referential and meta-textual Friendly Fa$cism. The album lampooned the fake liberalism of the indie-rock scene, (lightly) recut George H Bush speeches into fascist screeds and ceded the spotlight to black MCs and female academics to speak their own truths. It delivered a vegetarian manifesto inspired by Carol J Adams’ text The Sexual Politics Of Meat: A Feminist Vegetarian Critical Theory, before satirising their own reputations as ‘Crusading Rap Guys’ and reasoning ‘This Music Has No Meaning’ on a closing track that depicted music’s ability to affect change as fatally undermined by the compromises demanded by an industry in thrall to the cultural hegemony of MTV.

“We were in an ugly middle ground of our uncompromising willingness to admit the ridiculous compromises we made,” Sherburne says. “We attempted to fuse the documentary concept with the comedy concept, fucking with the media as the Residents and Negativland had done before us. So we were ‘The Band’, but we were also commenting on the band and the whole band phenomenon. We were critics like Adorno and Horkheimer, standing apart. We were constructing this cartoon. I mean, there was an intellectual intent, no doubt, but there was also a silly, comedy intent. And there was the real brutality of life, and… not ‘identity politics’, but what back then were called ‘single issues’ that were vying for their own individual legitimacy. We were desperately trying to hold on to the universal solidarity around all the concerned classes.”

Their second album, Friendly Fa$cism signalled a change in the group’s direction, partly in response to the violent white supremacists their earlier industrial beats had drawn. “We ceased to make music that way anymore, except as irony or parody, and immediately went more down the road of pop music, of hip hop, of what has historically been ‘black music’.” Follow-up Play More Music arrived in 1992, just as genre barriers were being emulsified by everyone from Public Enemy and Beastie Boys to Rage Against The Machine, and felt supremely timely for that.

Play More Music was a cannily eclectic set, opening with the steroidal pulse of anti-firearm anthem ‘Tool And Die’ before fusing beatific Hendrixian sonics with West Coast beats for ‘Praxis (Bold As Love)’, scoring anti-homophobia narrative ‘Accept Me For What I Am’ with macho sludge-metal, setting their critique of the fishing industry ‘Gone Fishing’ to oceanic ambient and channelling the sublime agit-funk of Curtis Mayfield and the Isleys on ‘A Day On the Green’. Their collaboration with veteran Bay Area feminist rap trio Yeastie Girls, ‘You Suck’ – a demand for gender parity within the realm of oral sex – scored an underground hit. The flip-side to its scabrous inversion of sexist tropes, ‘Guerillas In The Mist’, boasted incendiary verses from San Francisco rapper and Public Enemy ally Paris that summoned the violence and frustration of the still-recent LA riots.

The interstitial tracks culled from their pass-the-mic moments remained. One, the hilarious ‘Industry Corporate’, found the group fielding accusations of hypocrisy from their more hardcore fans, who argued they were sell-outs for having a music video on their despised MTV, and for charging higher ticket fees than legendarily good value hardcore band Fugazi. “We’re not Fugazi,” admitted Pistel to one questioner, adding “They’re way harder than we are.” “Was showing your video on MTV not a big compromise?” asked another fan. “Yes,” dead-panned Sherburne. “Next question?”

Consolidated live in 1993

Presumably, these fans shit a brick in anger when, off the back of ‘You Suck’’s college radio success, the group signed to major label Polygram for 1994’s Business Of Punishment. As they noted on the album, Consolidated had learned the hard way that sharks still patrolled the supposedly more ethical waters of the independent music industry – “We got worked on Nettwerk but I’ll be damned if we ever get Played Again Sam” – but their journey through the digestive tract of the super-corporate machine after signing to Polygram was an entirely new level of dog and pony show.

“The culture industry was all about cutting down people’s aesthetic and creativity,” Sherburne says. “The label had no concept of who we were. Our A&R heard ‘You Suck’ and thought, ‘Oh, they’re a producing concern with a comedy feminist anthem who can make beats.’” The label wasn’t banking on a group plying industrial jazz-fusion jams (‘Empowerless’), hiring comedian Greg Proops to fantasise comically grisly death scenarios for right-wing radio personalities (‘Consolidated Buries The Mammoth’), dismantling the private prison industry over Sugar Hill beats (‘The Business Of Punishment’) and releasing as their lead single a bionic pro-choice/anti-hate anthem with a chorus that rallied “If you don’t want a Nazi in your house don’t let one/ You don’t know a fundamentalist until you’ve met one/ If you’ve memorised your civil rights don’t forget one/ If you don’t want an abortion, don’t get one.”

The relationship with Polygram was, unsurprisingly, short-lived. “The fucker installed his own cover-artist on the album,” Sherburne grumbles. “Our guy who made all our great logos and stencils of our commie/social realist shit got bounced against our will. I went to our A&R guy’s office and told him he was committing commercial suicide on his stupid investment in us. And he was like, ‘If I don’t have my fucking artist, I take my ball and I go home.’ In that one exchange, the album was done. We got some money once, but the writing was on the wall.” Sherburne quit the band, but was then convinced to rejoin to tour an album Polygram were reluctant to promote. “Within a year, it was over. A mercifully short amount of time. Ugly, and sort of predictable. I was a mentally ill guy with two kids. It was not a good time.”

The original line-up of Consolidated folded after Polygram dropped the trio. A short time later, Sherburne reformed the group, without Steir and with Pistel playing a more minor role. A downbeat and more personal album, Dropped, followed on Roadrunner on 1998, largely abandoning their hip hop influences and switching its focus more inwards. Sherburne’s self-criticism spilled over into self-flagellation on ‘Schnitzel Boy’, a heavily metallic overview of their time with Polygram that took a jaundiced view of Consolidated’s mission to date. “In the hot-seat, preaching to slackers,” snarled Sherburne, “Spewing out info cheez-whiz for crackers/ PC hypocrites, bong hits, mosh-pits/ I’ve got the mic and I’m talking much shit/ Born into privilege and wealth/ Yet I still draw attention to myself”.

The album stirred little interest; neither did 2001’s Tikkun – Survivor Demos or 2003’s The End Of Meaning. “The last two records were essentially solo records,” says Sherburne. “It wasn’t working for me. I had to bail out. You hit your thirties, and it’s an onslaught: ageing, children, cancer, personal lives, mental illness, all that stuff that drives people further into capitalism, until they can’t come back. We’d victimised ourselves with all the Spinal Tap pathologies. I tried for a minute to go my own way, but all of a sudden the phone stopped ringing instantly. And I assumed that was just because our period of beating people over the head with a political trowel was done. But little by little, I realised that everybody’s phone had ceased to ring.

“All of the air went out of the music business in 1998,” he adds. “They still don’t want to admit that was the final punch-line, but it was.” As file-sharing and the internet dealt blow after blow to the industry, Sherburne peaced out and got himself a job at internet-based independent distributor CD Baby. “I made a documentary in 2005, called Free Music! Stop America!, a Spinal Tap-esque comedy documentary about how the last pennies and the last mental illness fantasies of people in the music industry were playing out at that stage, all pointing towards the inevitable and inexorable downward spiral to zero profit. At work, people were just drowning in people’s crushed dreams. And it was a very fertile environment to develop the corrective to that, to develop a full philosophy.”

That philosophy, Free Music, is something Sherburne has been exploring for the last 15 years; the documentary, along with his thesis behind Free Music, is available at his friend’s website, “Instead of performing for people, we just take instruments, go to the town square and invite anybody – kids, parents, the town drunk, shredder musicians, world famous friends of mine – to come, have fun, enjoy the non-event,” he explains. “We charge nothing, we sell nothing. We’ll play anything you want to play. We simply don’t do money. We don’t do a fixed group. We’re simply promoting existence. And it’s therapy. It’s all the things with beating off on stage and being a recording artist were not.”

As Sherburne abandoned an industry he saw as entering its death spiral, Pistel continued on, joining Meat Beat Manifesto and producing and remixing artists like Hercules & Love Affair. “The other two dudes stayed in the game, they weren’t scarred by it, they could make their peace with it,” Sherburne says. They remained in touch with Sherburne, though. “Mark called me and told me this techno festival called Cold Wave was offering us a fucking million dollars to reform and play,” Sherburne continues. “And I didn’t want to do it. I wasn’t into it for that. That was a couple years ago. And then last year, all these new artists got together and recorded this album to benefit the ACLU and homeless charities, called A Message To The People: A Tribute To Consolidated. And it made us decide to do something again. The three of us met in the Bay Area for the first time in decades. And Philip said he couldn’t do it, because of commitments in his life. And Mark and I said we’d weigh in, make something happen, and take the mic to the people.”

When Sherburne talks about the reunion, which has sired Consolidated’s recently released album We’re Already There, he has an air of “I thought I was out but they pulled me back in” recalcitrance. “Free Music saved my ass, and now I’ve agreed to re-enter this other thing that to me is a ghost,” he says. And he doesn’t view Consolidated’s output with rose-tinted spectacles. “I feel we hit the vein on about three out of the 20 bits on every record,” he says, of their back catalogue. “The rest is, you know, three individuals all fighting to jam their shit in there on the limited 72 minutes of a CD. We did try to expand our aesthetic. To me, it’s pretty stiff, you know? If you listen back on industrial music from those times, we just weren’t as funky as a lot of shit that was out there. But we were saying something that kind of made everybody pause and look at their own shit.”

Their new album, he concedes, is another where “three out of 20 tracks hits”. Like its predecessors, We’re Already There is a thorny mess, but it’s never dull, thick with soundclash ideas that shouldn’t work, but often do. Shifting from old school stompers like ‘Capitalism AF’ (which he describes as “like a Consolidated parody song”), through passages of dense fusion and jazzy guitar, a perhaps unwise excursion into Autotune, slabs of icy electro and waves of heavy digital dub and even heavier trance techno, it is, Sherburne says, the product of a creative “war” between the two remaining members. “Mark’s in his pristine studio, making tracks to high professional standard, and I’m screaming my lyrics into the hole on this iPad and sending him my ‘garbage lo-fi unprofessional bullshit’, as he accurately describes it. We’re fighting with ideas, him painting the canvas I have to react to, mostly with human voice and acoustic sounds against his machine-dominated tracks.

“To do this, I have to do two things that I promised 30 years ago, I would never do, which was never be in a band again, and certainly never be on this ‘FaceFuck’ shit,” Sherburne laughs. He’s been off the grid long enough that connecting to the world via social media is a high price to pay. “Mark was telling me if we wanted to do this, we had to do those things, or you don’t exist. I’m under no illusions that I’ll make any money on this, but my homies are making a living off of it. So I’m here supporting them, in an ironic, sort-of-distanced way.”

The idea of returning to the road as Consolidated seems like an unattainable mirage to Sherburne at this point, and one over which he feels much conflict. “If we ever should find ourselves in capitalism, I would agree to play live as Consolidated again,” he says, but adds that his main focus would be the opportunity “to go and introduce and demonstrate Free Music outside of the music industry, and outside the gig. Those are my reasons, and Mark has his own reasons for getting involved again, for being willing to risk his livelihood and his career.”

He admits, however, that the idea of reconnecting with the group’s audience again, and reinitiating the paradigm-shifting mid-show conversation between artist and audience, is one that tantalises him. “I would definitely pass the mic again, to try to re-enact that discussion with the audience one more time, to see what the hell happened over the last 30 years, to weigh in on things that are happening now, politically. I think we’re both willing to commit commercial suicide to revisit that thing that we knew would outlive us… That is, the audience being the music, being the political activists, the engagers, at each other, at us and, dialectically, all the people commenting from the outside. That was a cool thing, that was worth it, and that’s still worth it. Passing the mic is the only thing really worth passing on.”

We’re Already There is out now

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