After catching their show at the Echo last week, the politically active Outernational asked me if they could use one of my pics for an article about them on MTV Iggy, the future of music. It actually did not happen, but I managed to get an interview with friendly Miles Solay, the frontman of the band, who despite some trouble with his voice (due to 5 weeks spent in the very dry Southwest desert) nicely accepted to speak with me for more than 30 minutes on the phone.
‘I am not even sick’, he told me during the conversation, ‘I am healthy but my voice is just,… I pushed it too far, we really are not sparing any expense on this, because it is like,… the future depends on it, it really does, you know!’
This is exactly what you get with Miles, someone who is 100% dedicated to his cause, as he talks with determination and sincerity. During their unconventional 2012 tour, he and the band, five white guys who don’t even have a Latino background, traveled along the US-Mexico border, played in numerous venues but also in Native American reservations, in the fields of California’s Central Valley, even crossing the border to venture in Tijuana, to shine a light on the ridiculous anti-immigration laws and demonstrate how absurd it is to label human beings as illegals.
Me: You are obviously on a mission that goes beyond your music. Do you really think that music can start a revolution?
Miles Solay: ’Music in art, in culture, can play and already do play an immense role in the realm of ideas… play a role in even how people think, not just what they think, it’s what make the human beings, the species so fascinating and powerful!
Outernational can start a revolution, there needs to be a real revolutionary movement, but the music and art we are making, is part of a larger culture, that can have a very big impact on the people who need to be the ones to make a revolution.’
Of course, the term revolution will come back often in the conversation, as Miles is a believer in the powerful strength of arts, but I decided to continue with a depressing thought.
Me: According to a poll, 78% of voters were opposed to legalizing the status of illegal immigrants in the U.S. How do you think it is possible to change this mentality?
Miles Solay: ‘Oh well, polls! I have an opinion about polls, polls are more designed to tell you what to think rather than to tell you what you already think. That’s kind of the role of polls in our society.
For us, this is bigger than just immigration and these sorts of little reforms. With songs like ‘Ladies of the Night’, ‘Que Queremos’, ‘Fighting Song’, ‘Eyes on Fire’, we are talking about a whole new world, not about putting a band aid on cancer, or trying to reframe the American society, this is about remaking,… new people, transforming but also transformed by a whole new world, a whole new revolutionary society. Those challenges, about changing a lot of people’s thoughts, those are big challenges, but this has done before! In the 1960s the US and all around the world, a whole new generation awoke with a new thinking, a new revolutionary possibilities. That was a long time ago, this is a different generation, a different time, a different world, I mean same world, but different things are happening in the world.
Lenin, who led the Russian revolution, once said that there are times when 20 years can happen in a day! Even traveling the country during the Todos Somos Ilegales/We Are All iIlegals tour, I may be able to see how big and immense this country and society is, but the contradictions of this society are deep and so I am very excited about the possibilities!’
Miles came back to the question when he found out I am from France, asking me if I had seen Bernado Bertolucci’s ‘The Dreamers’ (which I hadn’t unfortunately!), the story about a young American spending time in Paris during the 1968 uprising, first secluded from the events, then forced to face reality. ‘It’s a fantastic film!’ he said, ‘I think I see what Bertolucci was getting to in that film,… you should see the film, it shows how people can really change!’
Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello produced some of their tracks and even participated to the song ‘We Are All Illegals’ and to their version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Deportees’, but their friendship, as he told me, is an old story.
Me: How did you connect with Tom Morello?
Miles Solay: ‘I met Tom years ago, when I was a teenager, when I was a young revolutionary activist in high school and I had determined to meet and talk to some of the artists that at the time I though were important to speak to, and I wanted to talk about politics and theories and activism! I met him in 1996.’
Me: Can you talk about your new video and why you want people to get involved in it?
Miles Solay: ‘This is very exciting! So for the single off the new record, called ‘We Are All Illegals’, we have Thom Russo, the big Latin producer, we have Tom Morello, Chad Smith and Residente of Calle 13. So, to make a big music video, we want to really emphasize ‘WE’, like the ‘WE Are All Illegals’. And also being on this tour, … the Outernational following of the fans is so powerful right now! It’s just like a couple thousand people underground, but I thought that would be very powerful to emphasize that in the video.’
They need 100 people to be in the video, so far 40 or 50 have sent footage, and Miles said that ‘they have been incredible, people are singing along the Outernational verses, making signs,… it’s very very powerful! I am looking forward when we put it out, and we can finally go viral!’
Me: How did you get involved into ‘Chimes of Freedom’, the Song of Bob Dylan, for Amnesty International and how did you choose the song, ‘When the Ship Comes In’?
Miles Solay: ‘I first heard about it, a long time ago. I was talking with Tom and we were sort of talking about our favorite Bob Dylan’s song, and I was telling about ‘Blind Willie McTell’, which actually Dylan left off his record ‘Infidels’, and which is very very haunting, and Tom said ‘I think I am gonna cover that for this Amnesty thing’.
From this, Miles said he wanted to be part of this record, and Amnesty International eventually asked them if they wanted to be part of it. He said he was invited to participate to sing on another charity song for Amnesty International ‘Toast to Freedom’ with Levon Helm, the former and ‘phenomenal drummer’ for the Band
Miles Solay: ‘It was a charity song I don’t remember what it was called, they invited me, I went up to Levon Helm’s house in Woodstock NY, I sang on the song with blues singer Keb Mo and Levon Helm, and at that point I had already heard about the Bob Dylan project and I just said I would really want to be part of it. And so a couple months later, they invited us to be part of it and I got to choose… I was very excited because there were so many artists involved in it,… you don’t always get the song you want to do! But then I had chosen ‘When the Ship Comes In’, which is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful songs ever! If you really listen to the lyrics of that song, it’s just, it’s basically a song about revolution, it’s a powerful way to use a metaphor,… so we were really happy to do that!
And then we got to do it with Bob Dylan’s friend and drummer Jim Keltner, he is a drummer, there is a video on YouTube that shows us recording with him. He is a powerful and genuine soul, and a jazz guy too, we ended up liking him a lot’
So much passion and dedication brought me to the question: Do you think that an artist should always be politically engaged?
Miles Solay: ‘I think there are different kinds of arts, art can be different things. I think people should be engaged and involved in politics, it’s a bad rap that people think politics are just elections, bourgeois policy and laws, but politics is the life of society, if you are from Western Europe, you are familiar with this even though there’s not a lot of revolution stuff happening there, but people are more engaged and more aware.
For me, I think that all artists are political, not all art is political in the sense of speaking on a particular issue, but as I was saying at the beginning, it deals with the realm of ideas, perceptions, admission in the sense that art to me is fantasy, and is not accountable to reality the way non-fiction is, or the way we are speaking to each other, because it affords a tremendous power to help people see and think and perceive differently.
Yes, there is really political stuff like Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ or ‘Fortunate Son’ by Credence Clearwater Revival or stuff like that,… may be Diego Rivera’s murals, something like that kind of stuff, and some of our work is like that, (laugh) I am not evaluating how good it is, but I am saying that it has that necessity.
But there is other thing like jazz music where there are no words, or Prokofiev, there are no words, you know what I mean? or Jackson Pollock, that’s just colors and paint.
Those things to me can be as inherently political, because we are not neutral people living in society, we are living in a oppressive exploitative class society and nobody is aloof or separate from that. So how you challenge people to think has everything to do with how they fit in, feed themselves and feed the world around them, so to me, people say that art reflects life and society, but to me it doesn’t, to me it can be a profound lie which is why it is so powerful and so exciting,… whereas non-fiction or journalism should not be a lie.’
Me: How is your last album 'We Are All Illegals' doing? Have you sold a lot of copies?
Miles Solay: ‘Not enough, we sold a couple 1,000s I think,…so the short answer is tell your friends and tell everyone to download it, it is too important to remain a secret, I would say that it is beginning to catch on, and I think that the response to it has been really tremendous and powerful, so I would say so far it has been successful but it is not enough! There are so many people out there whom I have discovered on this tour, and I have met so many people!
People are looking for something like this, even if they don’t know it yet, so we got to get out of there, and this is what we are doing!’
When I saw them at the Echo last week, I had noticed a lot of songs not figuring on their last album, that will eventually be part of a next release.
Me: ‘We Are All Illegals’, was a 'concept album about the US-Mexico border’, Can you talk about your next album?
Miles Solay: ‘There are a lot of concepts in it, but it is may be more direct, and we have already made it. Last year we made two records we made ‘We Are All Illegals’ and we made a record called ‘Welcome to the Revolution’, with Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We started working on it in NY, he came to our studio in Brooklyn and then we drove out to California and it actually was quite different because it was made as direct and raw in terms of the writing of it, we wrote it in a month or two,… Five guys in a room.
You saw our show, that’s different than the ‘We are illegals’ record, it’s a different energy, that’s the record we made with Chad, that’s the heart of Outernational. ‘Todos somos illegales’ was kind of a special project, originally it should have been an EP of 5 or 6 songs, then last year, it went crazy, we expand it to eighteen tracks! ‘Welcome to the Revolution’ will be our proper debut, it will be out late summer or early fall.’
I tried to ask Miles what he thought about current popular music, the type that sells tons of records, the Lady Gaga and Adele of the world, ‘I like Adele she’s great’, he told me. My idea was to contrast the strong political message that Outernational’s songs carry with the superficiality of some very popular hits, but Miles does not exactly agree: ‘You just have to look and see what that message is, everything has a strong message. If you think, I have no message, I am just an artist,… but that’s already a pretty strong message to me!’
He told me he likes ‘stuff that cuts way deep’, and listens to a lot of folk music, a lot of blues, the Doors being one of his favorite groups, and also this: ‘I like Edith Piaf, I listen to a lot of Edith Piaf! I like strong personalities!’
After all this talk about revolution and changing people’s way of thinking, I couldn’t resist to ask him about one of the biggest mind control tools in our society.
Me: What do you think of the role of religion in today’s world?
Miles Solay: ‘Terrible! I think religion is outmoded, from another era. The fact that people hold down so many superstitious beliefs is so poisonous and deadly and a lot of subversive religiosity in the US, it’s slave mentality!
People are walking around and thinking and talking like slaves! Some people say to me ‘Miles you are like these communist atheists! Don’t you think life is so dull and boring!’
‘To me it’s those metaphysical believes that denigrate the full perspective of the universe of the possibilities, of what is out there, in the human spirit!’
‘To me, it is so amazing, we don’t need imaginary friends to grown ups, to mask over!’
Me: I agree!
Miles Solay: ‘We should be friends!’
I also asked him what was his best memory during this tour, and he mentioned his experience in the Rio Grande valley of Texas, but ‘It [the tour] is not finished yet ,so I don’t know! The whole has been like a real…, sometimes my best memories are on stage because I feel like I lose it on there,… in a good way!’
I also asked him about some eventual (and dream) collaborations he would like to do, since Outernational has already recorded with Tom Morello, Ceci Bastida and Chad Smith.
Miles Solay: ‘Probably Natalie Merchant, she is probably my favorite singer so I would love to work with Natalie, I love her and I have a lot of ideas, it is not just like a dream, I have some concepts and ideas,… also may be Tracy Chapman, and Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star’.
Since the band has been traveling so much, we finished with a talk about the perpetual comparison between Los Angeles and New York City.
Miles Solay: ‘LA and NY are very similar and very different at the same time, LA is like 20 cities, it is much more segregated, much more spread out, so for me, if you ask me do I like NY or LA better, I can’t make a generalization! I can tell you, I like working and writing in LA more than in NY, but that’s because I spend so much time in NY!’
Miles was so nice and he thanked me several times for writing about the show and the album, I thanked him for talking to me despite his stressed out vocal chords. I now have to listen to this band, Mazzy Star, I couldn’t remember the name, but yeah, of course I knew ‘Fade Into You’ … and I have to watch this Bernado Bertolucci’s movie too.