In the Minotaurs press shot, the sprawling afrobeat band born in Guelph, Ontario is crowded towards camera, decked out in army green and facial hair and looking like old-school revolutionaries despite their album being called "New Believers."
The brainchild of singer-songwriter Nathan Lawr, a former member Royal City and sometime-solo artist, the Minotaurs feel trapped in these modern times. Though their protest music screams the '60s, "New Believers" is an angry record reflecting contemporary crises, with songs tackling such topics as the Quebec student protests and Toronto's G20 "debacle," which boasts an assist from artist-activist Sarah Harmer.
We spoke to Lawr about the labyrinth of love songs, the collapse of his Canadian Artists for Civil Liberties organization and why saying Obama was better than Romney is "like saying getting peed on is getting better than shat on."
What inspired the new album?
Well, it all sort of starts from me, it's not really a band in the classic sense. The songs are a little more frantic and it's just because I was feeling a little more frantic. I wanted to refine my words a little bit more and if I have a message maybe refine what that might be.
It's interesting you talk right off the bat about your message, however you try and downplay it, because most music nowadays doesn't have a message.
Yeah, you're right, and part of the reason why I try so hard to put some sort of message in my songs is because of that. The corporate message is that you need to treat yourself; you need to do things for yourself. You can call it the "Me Generation," I guess, but it's also a sort of individualistic thing taken to an extreme level and everything in our society is sort of predicated on that fact and I think that is part of it.
The sort of dominant cultural paradigm is that profit is good; sharing is bad and everything else that manifests in our society stems from that basic premise. And so when we talk about music not having a message it's because we are sort of inculcated with this idea that talking about our feelings is somehow the thing that we should strive for. Communicating our feelings is somehow the thing that's like the highest artistic expression and I'm just tired of that, basically. I don't need to hear another love song.
So one thing that I do also find interesting about the lack of politics in songs thought is that I'm the son of hippies, so the music I heard growing up was their protest music and then you know like we were saying the '80s and early '90s had a lot of kind of politics to it but we've been in a non-stop crisis mode since 2001. In the past, that sort of pressure has led to hip-hop, to punk rock to the protest folk music in the '60s. But this time it didn't work.
Maybe it's just a saturation thing but there are so many things that are wrong and on top of that we've sort of been conditioned to think that politics is for people who are just for people who are really into it, not for everybody. That it's not something I need to be too concerned with. I don't know.
You wrote two specific songs inspired by the Quebec student protests and the G20 events in Toronto. Can you explain your hindsight takes on those movements and their outcome?
I am a history student and I studied the emergency powers and their use in Canada over the years and the thing that I found was that anytime a sort of minority's civil liberties were violated, the majority of Canada shrugged. So I wasn't too surprised to see the reaction of what people had to what was going on there. But to me the main thing with the G20 was that there was all this discussion about the burning cars and the black block and the kettling — and those are important conversations to have — but what I didn't really hear a lot of what was going on in the meeting room.
What was on the agenda for the meetings? Who was saying what? You know, what were they talking about? I didn't hear anything about that at all so the song opens the doors to why are those doors closed. These are supposed to be our democratic representatives. Why are we shut out of the process? Why are we at the fringe? Why do we sort of have to look through 10,000 cops and a giant barb-wired fence? Doesn't that say something about what is wrong with our so-called democratic process? So that is what that song is about.
And yet the Quebec protest seemed to succeed where the G20 one failed.
The G20 thing suffered from the same thing the Occupy suffered from at least in the mainstream media and that is, "What is your message? It's not a clear enough message." Whereas the student protest, their message was pretty clear and most people could grasp what they were asking for whether they thought they were right or wrong. Accessible education, obviously it's bigger than that but it's an easily digestible idea.
I think anyone who said it was only about tuition was dismissing the entire event. I saw it as young people saying it's not fair that you boomers used up all the money and are planning to pay for your retirement with our education.
Yeah, for sure. That song was about the student protest in Quebec because I experienced it first-hand and it was inspiring, but it's mostly about the act of protest in general. Look at where we are. We are on our knees here. The only way things are going to change is if we make some noise quite literally, like casserole thing with the banging on the pots and stuff like that.
In the past, musicians have kind of led the way on these protests, right? But musicians from Arab Spring to Occupy to the Quebec protests musicians have been almost entirely uninvolved with the process.
There was a list of artists who supported Idle No More and even the thing we did for the Civil Liberties trying to use a group of artists who endorse these projects as a way to bring the message to a wider society. It didn't really work very well. Yeah, musicians and artists have been on the front line of these kinds of things in the past but also politicians have faced the music more in the past, too.
I mean now it's astonishing what these guys get away with and never sort of have to answer to anything or anyone. That's kind of the flipside you know. Music isn't politicized and politicians aren't accountable like ever and I wonder if the two things are connected.
What is your take on Obama?
The United States, democracy has not existed there for some time. Obama's [State of the Union], I've never heard emptier words in my life. Like he's saying all the right things to get all the liberal-minded people in that country to support him and when the election was going on and on Facebook and Twitter everyone was like, "Obama! Yeah man, wicked!" Yeah, he's better than Romney, but that's like saying getting peed on is getting better than shat on.
He's better than Romney but he's not a hero. He's continued the war on terror with fervor. He's as much a puppet of the corporatocracy as Bush was before him. I mean, there is no choice in that country. You choose between the lesser of two evils, but they are both pretty bad. And you know I don't know what else to say really. I don't really see how he is worth championing as some sort of like liberal savior because I have not seen the evidence.
I don't think that's fair. During the election of 2000 people said the same thing: Bush and Gore, Gush and Bore. It doesn't matter. But, in hindsight, there would have been a huge difference. At the least, Iraq wouldn't have happened and environmental laws would have.
To get back to music, obviously you're really politically engaged and you've written these songs that are infused with that. What impact do you hope for them to have?
I hope people hear them and think about it. I just want people to think about it. Everywhere I look it just enrages me all the time. There's like, "support our troops." Well what does that mean, really? Let's talk about what that actually means. It's sacrilegious to ask "Why are we supporting our troops?" You know, these are brave people that do things that I would never do and I respect them for that, but I'm not sure we necessarily need to be calling them heroes.
You gathered other musicians to start Canadian Artists for Civil Liberties. How do you feel that has gone?
I feel like it's a giant ball we got to push maybe a kilometer. And now it's just sort of sitting there again. It went okay. A lot of people talked about it for a very little while. And now it's just sort of — it's hard to convince people the things they take for granted are taken for granted and not necessarily etched in stone until they actually lose it and then they go, "Oh shit." But, whatever that is nothing new.
No, but I guess it ties in to what we were talking about earlier about how musicians had played this leadership role in protest culture that they don't necessarily anymore.
And even at that, not many young artists jumped on board, right?
Very few. And I don't know how to explain that except for what I was saying earlier, the younger generation especially has been targeted with this message: "Don't worry about politics. It's not what you are supposed to do with your life. What you're supposed to do is fulfill your desires." That's all. Just worry about that.
The Minotaurs perform March 15 at the Red Garnet in Peterborough, ON and March 16 at Pressed in Ottawa, ON.