Mark Redfern from Under the Radar Magazine
Like Kaffeine Buzz, Under the Radar’s main focus is music, mostly of the independent variety, but also like us, Mark Redfern and his staff believe that being politically aware and involved is not only important, but a vital part of being a creative person in today’s world.
Under the Radar’s current issue is the Protest issue, and this marks the second time the magazine has taken time out to examine musicians and other artists speaking out about their political views. A striking photo shoot with the artists holding protest signs they designed themselves is the central focus of the issue, but it covers many different aspects of protest in music, both within the U.S. and across the world. Much has changed since 2004, when Political Buzz got its start and Under the Radar did its first protest issue, and yet some things haven’t changed.
Mark took some time to chat with me about being a pop culture writer and publisher in a time of political turmoil, about the place of music and musicians in the political sphere, and about the nature of protest songs.
Kaffeine Buzz: So basically, I thought your issue was really neat. I really liked the protest signs and I saw that you guys did that back in 2004 as well. Can you tell me about the idea behind that?
Mark Redfern: Back in 2004 was when we first did the protest issue, and there were various reasons behind it. Obviously 2004 was when Bush was running for reelection, and even though in the actual magazine we try not to take a side, in reality pretty much everyone who works on the magazine is probably more likely to be Democrat-leaning, and none of us were really big fans of George W. Bush.
I think that’s pretty much across the board with most of the rock music community, or certainly indie rock, whatever that means. It’s such a vague term, but that’s mainly what we cover in the magazine. And so we just wanted to do something that would—we were kind of looking at all the musicians and what they were doing for the 2004 election.
Some of them were doing stuff, you had that Vote for Change tour which had like Bright Eyes and Death Cab for Cutie and R.E.M. They were playing some of the battleground states like Ohio, and that was really good. But then there were also some of the musicians who weren’t doing a damn thing, and there weren’t too many political songs around, especially in the indie rock community. I mean, punk rock has a history of challenging authority and that kind of thing but, indie rock and the precursors to indie rock didn’t have a great history with that, so we wanted to kind of examine all that stuff.
I’m not sure how we came up with the protest sign photo shoot but we’re a very visual magazine. My wife and co-publisher Wendy, she’s a photographer to begin with, and I actually went to film school, and my dad’s a well-regarded music photographer as well, so photography’s always been a big part of our magazine, we’ve always done our own photoshoots whenever possible, and didn’t rely on press shots or publicity shots from day one. So we wanted to have some sort of visual aspect, and we just thought well, wouldn’t it be cool to give musicians some posterboard and paint and let them express themselves and write whatever message they want to write on the sign, and run those photos.
You know, it turned out really cool, to be a cool idea. Obviously in both our 2004 and 2008 issue, the signs could be pretty hit or miss. We didn’t tell the artists what to write, we encouraged them to be political but sometimes they were just writing silly things. But most of the sillier signs we did run, even if what they said wasn’t something that excited us.
Obviously another reason that we did the original protest issue–besides the fact that we were kind of outraged about Bush and the war in Iraq and wanted to address those issues in a way that we could get away with being essentially a music magazine–was that there are a lot of other music magazines out there, so we wanted to ingratiate ourselves to our competitors and try to make a name for ourselves. I don’t want to be all high and mighty and say that we just had the goal of doing something to make a difference, and who knows if what we did made a difference. In 2004 obviously Bush still won, and people are saying Kerry wasn’t the most exciting candidate, some people were just excited because he wasn’t George Bush.
Whereas Barack Obama, or even Hillary Clinton, to me are very exciting candidates. Even Al Gore wasn’t that exciting in 2000, now he’s a lot more exciting. So I can see why Bush won both those times, I don’t find McCain particularly exciting at all, so fingers crossed.
So in 2008 actually we’d been thinking for a couple of years that when the election came around we’d want to do another protest issue. And we didn’t know what the political climate was going to be at that time, or who was going to be running, but we knew that it was something we were really proud of when we did it in 2004. We got some attention for it–the LA Times did a whole page article on it–so we just thought we’d do it again, but we also didn’t want to repeat ourselves. The articles are definitely different, but we did like the aspect of the protest signs so we thought we should do that again.
We’re very happy with the results. Both those issues are ones we’re really proud of. Generally we don’t do a lot of political coverage, but in the past year we did arrange an interview between James Mercer and Dennis Kucinich, James Mercer from the Shins, and of course Kucinich didn’t get very far in the primaries because he saw a UFO, or whatever. I actually really like Kucinich. I really agree with a lot of what Kucinich says.
KB: Oh, absolutely. But he’ll never get elected. And part of that I think is that he’s little and elfish and cute, and of course there’s the legitimate discourse that you have to stay within, the range of dissent that’s OK, and he’s outside of that range that we can deal with, at least in a presidential candidate.
MR: Yeah, unfortunately, he’s too liberal for the mainstream. Obviously Barack Obama is learning how to walk that line, to stay closer to the center—in my mind maybe a little too close to the center.
MR: But I hope he is doing that to win the election and not that that’s what he really believes, but then that is its own quandary, to think that he’s saying things to win the election that he doesn’t believe.
But I still am really excited about Barack Obama despite that, and John McCain—why in the 21st century would we want the oldest man who’s ever been president? Versus somebody who is exciting to not just myself–the whole world is excited about Barack Obama, at least based on his recent travels. I have a lot of family in England; that’s where I’m originally from. Everybody over there is really excited about Obama and nobody is remotely excited about McCain.
KB: One of the main things I wanted to talk to you about was that, well, I too came from writing about pop culture and started writing a political column here on Kaffeine Buzz, which is a music and pop culture site. When 2004 came around Kim had asked me to do a political column, which I kept up with for a while but, well, life intervened.
And so this time around I’m running it a little differently. It’s mostly been separate from the rest of the site, and I haven’t really incorporated much music and culture into it. Last time around I did a “protest song of the week” each time I ran my column, and just picked something that was out at the time. I threw a lot of different stuff in there because there was protest music out there, it was just harder to find.
MR: Definitely. When we put together our Top Ten Protest Songs of the 21st Century, I had to do a lot of searching to work out which ones really were political, and there were some songs that were kind of vaguely political but really they didn’t say anything on the surface, you could tell that there was a political subtext but it wasn’t very clear. There were certainly more than enough to fill up a top ten list, but it’s not like it’s the 60s or anything.
KB: There just seems to be a difference between music that’s commercial now and music that’s underground. I won’t blame it on just indie rock, but there’s a whole lot of music now that’s just obsessed with itself and its own coolness, and so you get this whole irony schtick which has just sort of been done. But I think it is interesting, because even writing about pop culture, writing about music, writing about movies, writing about comics, you still feel the need to comment on what’s going on.
MR: Yeah, definitely. It’s a lot of fun to write about comics and movies and music, but also we can’t ignore all the problems that we have in this country and in the world as a whole. Just doing the protest issue, is really kind of a tiny thing compared to what we could be doing, I could join the Peace Corps. And after a while, let’s be honest, we get tired of writing about every hot new band.
And I think our readers would probably get bored if we didn’t do interesting issues once in a while. It’s important to us to explore different issues, and the problems of the world, to expose those to our readers. And maybe some of them will join the Peace Corps. Hopefully they will go and do something, and the most important thing is just for people to go vote.
I know we’ve had some record turnout this year, but historically the voter turnout levels in this country haven’t been that great in the last decade or so. So it’s really important for people to go vote, and not just in the presidential election but in state elections and local elections as well.
There’s nothing worse than people who complain about things and don’t actually go and do anything about it. So in 2004 it was important for us to do our small part and encourage people not to vote for Bush, but that wasn’t all it was about. It’s also frustrating, like you said, there are more protest songs out there, there are more musicians who are doing things related to politics. There are great musicians who have done a lot, political campaigning or have done benefits for charities and politically motivated organizations, but there are a lot of indie rock musicians who don’t do a damn thing, and that actually don’t believe that politics and music should mix at all. Some don’t believe that musicians should be talking about their political views, or that it makes any kind of difference whatsoever, so we thought that all that kind of stuff was interesting to examine, just talk to all those musicians who were even not into the idea of mixing music and politics.
KB: I could see cynicism in some of those articles, and it seems funny because it seemed like across the board in 2004, musicians seemed to think that if they got involved, they could help, and even though this election has gotten a lot of people involved in ways they hadn’t been before, the musicians seem less involved. I haven’t heard about any big rock tours or anything.
MR: I think a lot of the musicians feel kind of burned by what happened last time. Some of them talk about that in our issue. Michael Stipe talks about it, how he’s definitely supporting Obama but he’s a little more cautious about throwing his weight behind him because he doesn’t want to be associated with, well, last time he backed the losers, so this time he might be backing the next loser. Something to that effect. I think a lot of, well, the Vote for Change tour, they did a bunch of shows in Ohio thinking that would be a good battleground state, and it ended up going to Bush. I don’t remember what the outcome was…
KB: It was close.
MR: So I think a lot of the ones that were involved in 2004 are a little cynical about the process, I think also in our article Moby talks about that too, how in the past he was naïve to think that he would just show up to a benefit, say a few words and make a difference. And he realized that it was more than that. A lot of musicians, not all bands are into that. Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse) is another one, in our issue he talked about how he’s thought about having someone come up before a show and talk before a show about some sort of political issue, and he just envisions that the fans would throw bottles at the guy. Which may or may not be true.
This time around there’s not going to be anyone—there’s not going to be Bush, for sure, and Cheney’s not running, or Condoleezza Rice, and even though it can easily be argued that McCain will be an extension of many of Bush’s policies, he has been regarded as a maverick, and some people regard him as not quite as bad as Bush, a little less dangerous, maybe he would be a little more careful about getting into wars and stuff, though he has talked about keeping troops in Iraq for quite a while. But there’s not that kind of outrage, and the office still being in doubt after the 2000 election, which many people still regard as stolen.
I just watched that HBO movie Recount, which obviously was weighted in favor of the Democrats in regards to its viewpoint, but showed how close that election was. And then Kerry didn’t win—I couldn’t believe Bush won the first time around, and then the second time around, I thought, well, come on, this war, it’s a disaster, Fahrenheit 9/11 had come out, and I thought enough people would be smart enough to realize that they shouldn’t vote him in twice. But I think John Kerry wasn’t a strong enough candidate to convince enough people to change their minds, and I was definitely discouraged by both of those elections, and I imagine it’s the same with a lot of musicians.
On the other hand it does surprise me because Barack Obama is such a motivational kind of candidate, he does talk a lot about change, but I think people are just distrustful of politicians and politics in general. And as we talked about earlier, Barack Obama has been getting closer to the center on some issues that he seemed to be much more left on. He still seems more trustworthy than other politicians, since he’s not taking a bunch of money from oil companies and such.
KB: It’s interesting, because your issue is called the Protest Issue, not the Political Issue. And the 2004 election was very much the anti-Bush election, we had the Rock Against Bush CDs and all that stuff, it was very much “We’re against this guy.” Whereas this one, nobody’s as strongly anti-McCain, and though more people are strongly for Obama, I wonder if the protest vibe gets lost because it’s easier to be against something than for it.
MR: Certainly the election in 2004 was much more against Bush than it was for Kerry, and certainly this time around it’s much more for Obama, and it’s a lot harder for musicians to come off being cool and writing songs in favor of a candidate, because there is this kind of anti-establishment vibe that goes with all rock’n’roll, going back obviously to the 60s.
I can’t imagine too many people writing songs about Barack Obama and how great he is, but it’s a lot easier to write songs about how Bush sucks, and since McCain isn’t actually in office, it’s a lot harder to know what he’s going to do. To write anti-McCain songs is kind of weird as well. Neil Young, I think he mentioned Obama in a song…
KB: And they did that Yes We Can song, but even that was full of actors and not musicians, and that’s kind of interesting.
MR: There are musicians right now—the Decemberists played that big rally up in Portland when 75,000 people were there, and I think having them play, being one of the biggest indie rock bands from Portland right now probably helped get those numbers up there. A lot of people were there to see him, but I’m sure they helped with some people, and it made Obama look good to have that many people there. And Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, Superchunk and some other bands have been doing some shows for Obama, so you know, give it time, the actual election isn’t until November, they haven’t picked vice-presidents yet, so there’s still a lot of time to do stuff.
But you know, I do think it’ll be different this time around. I think like you were saying, having shows that were in protest against Bush were a lot easier to sell to indie rock musicians and to the fans than having shows in favor of Obama.
And it’s a lot easier also to be against somebody like Bush than it would be to be for Obama, because what if you’re wrong about Obama? There’s no question in most musicians’ minds that Bush was wrong for the country, but Obama is still a young senator, he has moved to the center on some things lately, and some of the musicians might have supported some of the other candidates in the primaries, like Hillary Clinton or Kucinich. Some of them might support Ralph Nader.
But I think there’s still time. Obama does have a pretty good chance, but you never know what the Republicans will pull out in order to win an election, and you never know what can happen between now and November, but I hope that there will be more musicians who will get involved. It would be nice to see another tour like the vote for change tour.
KB: I liked the article that you did about political musicians around the world, because you see, especially in countries that have had it a lot harder than we have lately, like in Iraq, you really see music as something that people can really take pride in, not just as something to rebel against society but it also functions as something to draw people together.
MR: We definitely wanted to highlight some different countries, because I think a lot of Americans so easily become very insular and only interested in what’s going on in this country. It’s such a big country—you could fit all of Europe inside America—but it’s very easy to forget what’s going on in the rest of the world. We also cover a lot of British bands, a lot of Canadian bands—we had a whole issue just on Canada—a lot of Swedish bands, so it was important to us to not just focus on the American side of things, to open our readers’ eyes to some of the problems in other countries. Certainly music can be a savior or an escape, if you’re living in Africa or in Iraq or some other places that are war-torn right now, like that band they made that movie about, Heavy Metal in Baghdad. We interviewed the directors of that movie, and were talking about how hard it was for that heavy metal band in Iraq and how they eventually had to escape the country. I think they’re living in Turkey now.
We also interviewed Emmanuel Jal from the Sudan, who was a child soldier and now lives in England. It was definitely important to us to get into that side of things.
KB: And of course being a big comics nerd myself, I really loved your political comics article. It’s interesting to me to see a music magazine that covers comics.
MR: I was a comic geek in middle school, and then I kind of fell out of comics, and then a few years ago I got back into them. And then about a year ago we were talking about expanding our coverage more, because we were mainly just covering music, and we had DVD reviews and book reviews, and then I said let’s start covering TV since there were a lot of great TV shows, and we had done some film coverage but I wanted to do more, and then I threw out there the idea of covering comic books, and my wife was slightly skeptical, but most of our staff was pretty into the idea, and we’ve made great relationships with DC and Image and Dark Horse, all those companies. It can be a good crossover, people who are into indie rock and also into comic books and vice versa. And part of the reason to do it is I get free comic books in the mail!
We just thought it would be interesting to talk about political comic books, since I had been reading DMZ already.
KB: I love DMZ.
MR: Yeah, so we wanted to work that in there, and I started talking to some of my contacts at the main companies to see what other political comic ideas they had, and Brian K. Vaughn and the whole Ex Machina thing got brought up, and the War Heroes thing, with Mark Millar, was brought up. So we kinda just ran with it. I wish we’d had more space than just a page, since there’s a lot of other comic books we could’ve mentioned, a lot greater depth we could’ve gone into, and a lot of other people we could’ve spoken to.
I feel like it only just touched the surface, and we’ve gotten some complaints from some people about comics we didn’t mention, but it was fun to do and I don’t know why more music magazines don’t cover comics.
There are so many fans out there, though, just at Comic-Con there were 120,000 people there. I want to start branching out and covering some more obscure comic companies, too. We’ve mainly been doing the big four, DC, Marvel, Image and Dark Horse, and we’ve done a little Drawn & Quarterly, a little IDW, but that’s about it and I know there’s a lot more out there.
Our main focus is still music, that’s our core, that’s where we came from, there have been magazines that have diluted their music content too much and we don’t want to do too much of that.
KB: You guys did the top ten protest songs of recent years, but what would be your top protest songs ever?
MR: That’s a tough one. Obviously some Bob Dylan stuff would come to mind, The Times They Are a-Changin, that kind of stuff, some Clash songs. A lot of music that I kind of grew up listening to wasn’t particularly political. I was a child of the 80s, and the political stuff wasn’t what I was listening to. I wasn’t listening to Minor Threat or anything, I was listening to Hall & Oates, probably, and Madonna. And in college I was very much into the whole Britpop thing. Most of that stuff wasn’t particularly political either. So it’s hard for me to pinpoint particular songs.
Reader mail can go to sarah.jaffe-at-gmail.com. Please include “Political Buzz” in the subject line or it may go to junk mail!