Creator Chats: Bad Moves & Lee Bains & the Glory Fires

Welcome to Creator Chats - a conversation among two groups, bands or people in the music industry. Today we welcome Bad Moves + Lee Bains and the Glory Fires.

Bad Moves // photo: Emily Chow

Bad Moves // photo: Emily Chow

Lee Bains III: I know that y'all are all fans of what you describe as pop music. We've had conversations about everything from K-pop to ‘90s pop-punk to Top 40 R&B to ‘70s power-pop to praise and worship music. How does y’all’s music relate to that broad network of sounds?

Daoud Tyler-Ameen: One great gift of being in this group is that we've each spent lots of time soaking up music that’s very unlike the kind we make together. David was extremely invested in the local ska scene growing up in Maryland and still goes to shows sometimes. Katie was exposed to a lot of praise music as a kid, and even though that's not reflective of her life right now, I suspect it's one reason why she's so versatile as a musician. Emma DJs parties occasionally and is really steeped in dance music — not just electronic but like, Italo disco and cumbia, all this stuff. And I've probably listened to more hip-hop and third-wave emo than any of them; funny how that's not so strange a juxtaposition anymore.

More than that, though, we're all very curious about modern radio pop — sometimes because it's interesting to unpack how songs are made in the industry machine, and sometimes because the songs are just great in themselves. Not to judge, but sometimes you see a band and they're all wearing the same leather jacket, and you can tell they're all really into this one thing. Which can still yield great music, but I feel like they must run out of stuff to talk about in the van.

LB: D.C. has a storied history of independent, energetic, and socially engaged music, going back to the first wave of American hardcore and go-go music. How does the District shape y’all’s work? 

Emma Cleveland: I often joke that that once I’d been in D.C. for five years, I was contractually obligated to start playing in a punk band. But re-discovering punk after a bunch of years dabbling in all sorts of other music has been a refreshing way to bring together my personal politics and art. I can see other scenes starting to move towards the conversations about representation and power, which have been going on in D.C. for decades, and I think that is part of what made it comfortable for me to start playing in bands here.

David Combs: As the only one who grew up in the area, I probably have a bit more Fugazi in my blood than the rest of the band. I can say that some of my first engagement with local music was going to punk and hardcore shows in the early 2000s at the height of the anti-globalization movement. At the time the line between the music scene and the activist scene was extremely blurry: It was pretty much the norm for there to be tables full of radical zines and books at every show, and people would get onstage between bands to talk about the next protest or animal rights or a local food drive. The political potential of people gathering around music and culture was really central.

My personal experience aside, D.C.’s legacy of Dischord hardcore and punk, as well as go-go, is one of fiercely independent and original music that blazes a path for itself whether or not there’s a perceived audience for it or not. Not sure how much it shapes our work, but I love it. (Cue: Icona Pop’s “I Love It.”)

LB: Billy Bragg talks about "mixing pop and politics." While his songs were catchy, beautifully written, accessible, and in conversation with popular styles, the sound and subject matter clearly weren't written to be universally liked, and didn't conform to trends. As four politically minded folks with your feet planted in underground/independent music, do see your work operating in that relationship between pop and politics? 

Katie Park: I mean, music played a big part for me in becoming politically aware. I think for a lot of young people, it often is the first avenue through which they come to understand politics and political expression. It feels important to be a part of that. I’ve loved music for longer than I’ve understood politics, but I’ve always felt it was important for music, in its lyrics or even just its form, to say something meaningful.

David: All I can offer is embarrassment and the usual excuses.

LB: Last we hung out, Katie and David talked a lot about music — including Chumbawamba, which sent me down a listening wormhole. Do y'all relate to them? What do you make of their being a politically subversive band that draws inspiration from and makes reference to types of music often made with the purpose of selling as many albums as possible?

Katie: I guess like a lot of people, I first found them through “Tubthumping,” then discovered their anarcho-punk roots later. To hear this artist making music that was so listenable and commercial, then dig a little deeper and learn they were exploiting that form to make political statements about how we consume media and culture, was pretty thrilling — especially because they tackled such a breadth of musical styles. 

David: Though I would make the distinction that the purpose of drawing on popular music isn’t necessarily to sell as many records as possible, but maybe reach the widest body of listeners.

Katie: Right, we draw a lot from mainstream pop too, but they’re making a specific statement about how it functions in a capitalist society. They’re literally using pop as ...

David: Propaganda?

Katie: Or as a form of political critique. Whereas I think we draw from it less self-consciously, and more from just an appreciation of the form. 

LB: Name us four contemporary DMV bands that y'all love, please.

David: Maybe we can each pick one? I’ll take Saturday Night for that good power-pop. 

Daoud: Emma's gonna hate me for stealing it, but Puff Pieces. Minimal instrumentation (the drummer's kit has three pieces), weird lyrics, kind of monochromatic singing? And yet just intensely funky, catchy and danceable.

Emma: I'd been following Protect-U for longer than I've known Don Giovanni press honcho and synth freeq Aaron Leitko, and I've been vibing hard on his new Geo Rip tape.

Katie: The CooLots are almost impossible to describe genre-wise, but they have one of the District’s best drummers and did one of the grooviest, most moving covers of “Killing in the Name” I’ve ever heard.

LB: In a moment when so much independent music tackling thorny issues can sound sad and impressionistic or aggressive and negative and detached, y’all’s music sounds energetic, positive, and direct. Is that deliberate? If so, what purpose does that decision serve?

David: I think it’s pragmatic to adopt optimism as a guiding worldview, even if I’m a deeply pessimistic person at my core. If you stuff down any belief that the world could be a better place, you’re complicit when the world gets worse — which doesn’t mean letting people off the hook about their bullshit, but you have to believe that people can change or else what’s the point in advocating for change on any level? I don’t want to ignore the thorny issues, but I also don’t want to dwell on them in a way that beats you down. I think the best political jams let you look difficult issues right in the face, and then motivate you to get off your ass and do something.

LB: How do y'all handle the inevitable situation of pulling off four-part harmony with no monitors??

Daoud: I hope we do pull it off! Four singers is obviously a technical challenge sometimes, and the best experiences tend to be at the far ends of the venue spectrum: Either we're in a high-end spot where the monitoring is pristine (shouts to the 9:30 Club in D.C. and the Paradise in Boston), or it's a no-frills DIY show where what the band hears is basically what the audience hears. Anywhere in the middle, you focus on nailing your own part and hope for the best. But the real answer is that we don't really sing in four-part harmony! I guess we pivot between harmonized parts so you hear different voices together from line to line, but there's more shouting in unison than you think. 

 LB: Give us your top veggie burger, pupusa, and falafel in the world.

Emma: As the self-ordained tour food researcher, I feel like I should answer this one but I have to admit that I lean more #gloryfireseatshit than veggie burger. I tend to steer the band towards stopping for dosas or banh mi. David, on the other hand, loves a saucy vegan sammy, so we always try to stop at Spak Brothers in Pittsburgh, Harrison Street Cafe in Richmond and The Chicago Diner.

Katie: David turned me on to the vegan bacon cheeseburger from Arlo’s in Austin. Lots of veggie burgers taste like you mashed up some vegetables and oats, but these taste like a wonderful, terrible Big Mac.

David: And I feel obligated to say that the greatest vegan sandwich in the entire world is the fried chicken sandwich at NuVegan Café, formerly known as Everlasting Life, right in Washington, D.C.

Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires credit: Wes Frazer

Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires credit: Wes Frazer

Bad Moves: Several of your songs talk about the belief that people have good in them and are capable of growth. "Change Your Mind," the opening track on our album, is about challenging people to believe that about themselves. How do you think about the possibility for change — personally, culturally and societally?

Lee Bains III: When I remember my childhood and the older folks I knew who had grown up as white children in Jim Crow Birmingham, where segregation and the threat of anti-black violence was as normal as could be, I think about how those people later confronted ideas that they had been socialized to believe without question: that segregation was the natural order of things; that there were two classes of people, black and white; and that white people were naturally superior to black people. To know people who had reckoned with themselves and their society and their families in such profound ways is still pretty sobering to me.

That being said, many of the folks who evolved on those issues still held anti-black views in other ways, and that's why it is important to me that we continue to hold ourselves and each other accountable. These systems — white supremacy, patriarchy, worker exploitation, whatever — took centuries to build and buttress, and they'll take persistent, ongoing struggle to dismantle.

BM: Lee, in an interview a few years ago you said, "I thought that, because I took issue with so much of what the South was widely defined to be about, that I wasn’t really Southern." You were talking about the popular idea of two Southern identities, Reconstructed versus un-Reconstructed, and how that feels like a false dichotomy that erases all the different cultures that are part of that region. White identity often feels structured in the same way: defined only in opposition to an “other,” allowing white people to kind of opt out of having any racial identity.

Clearly, if you used to think you weren't really Southern, that's not how you position yourself now, nor do you ignore your whiteness. Can you talk about why it's important to you not to opt out of conversations about race, specifically as a Southern white man? 

Lee: Well, to follow up the prior question, I think the challenge to change works best when it's borne out of love. I don't challenge white Southerners because I hate them or think they're stupid or backwards or weird: I challenge white Southerners because I am one, and I love them. I want us to be the best incarnation of what our grandparents raised us to be. In a sense, I think that's what first drew me to the idea of punk, or counterculture in general.

I always knew that the South was different from other places in some abstract sense, but when I moved away for the first time at 18 to go to school, I sensed on a deeper level that there was something different about me culturally. It was the first time that I saw my place as anything other than "normal." Growing up, I remember feeling like I was without any real culture or identity: I looked around and saw a richness of culture in the black folks of Birmingham, and myself as in need of culture of my own. But in New York City, I was marked by my difference — my accent, certain cultural touchstones, ways of being social, food tastes, religious background. I began to understand that what I used to see as "normal" was a culture in and of itself, and that the reason I had been raised to see it as an absence of culture had a lot to do with constructing black folks as being fundamentally different from white folks.

I started to disentangle whiteness and identity, with the help of writers like Angela Davis, bell hooks, Edward Said and others — and the more I did, the more I understood that the problems I'd long felt with Southernness were really rooted in the problems of white supremacy. I began to recognize that I loved my culture — cornbread and saying "sir" and "ma'am" to strangers and gospel music and telling stories on porches and all that stuff — but that I hated the way that culture had been manipulated and politicized to oppress folks. If we want the best for the South, we need the best for all Southerners, not just white, Christian, cis-het ones. It's up to crackers like us, who are of this place and love this place, to say to our fellow crackers, "Hey! chill the fuck out! When our black or immigrant or LGBTQ neighbors are impeded, so are the places and cultures that we love."

BM: Your music is very rooted in place: Songs like "The City Walls" mark divisions through Birmingham's neighborhoods. The Glory Fires sometimes get described simply as "Southern rock", while bands in D.C. are often pegged as political because we make music "just blocks from the White House” — even if in our case, our relationship to politics tends to be more local or personal. How do you find ways to both hold and defy these labels of place?

Adam Williamson: Fuck labels. My politics travel with me. Home is home. 

Lee: We do draw from a lot of consciously Southern music, but we also love a ton of music from different places: reggae, Britpop, Northern punk, a ton of stuff that isn't rock at all. And a lot of the Southern bands that left impressions on us when we were getting into music might not necessarily strike people as "Southern" — bands like Superchunk or Crooked Fingers or Against Me! or Strike Anywhere.

Blake Williamson: Also, the fact we’re from Alabama doesn't mean we’re country. We're all from the city.

Lee: And we grew up in the independent/DIY scene there, with weird bands coming through from Chapel Hill, Athens, Richmond and Gainesville. So our "Southern" probably looks a fair bit different from other folks'.

Blake: But as far as home, you have to embrace the good parts to try and make the bad parts of your place better. Being from Birmingham, we're surrounded by civil rights history every day, in a mixed city that's still very segregated. We need to look at that reality to change it. And we love the good stuff about our state, like college football — even though there are problems there, too.

BM: Can you tell us about your songwriting process? Lyrics feel so crucial to your music — how and when are those written? Do you work on songs over a long period of time, or do you meet for intensive writing sessions? What roles do jamming and improvisation play?

Lee: I tend to amass a group of songs, working on the framework of each song in relation to the others, revising and revising. Along the way, I work toward an idea of what the album wants to grapple with thematically, and what part each song wants to serve lyrically. Once the songs are in a good spot, we start working on the music as a band. That is the most fun to me, because the guys bring energies and ideas to the songs that are beyond my invention. I start working on lyrics in earnest at the same time as we're working out the music. I like to write lyrics for an entire album at the same time, to make sure all the songs are in conversation with each other.

Blake: Lee usually has an idea of how a song should go, and we'll play around on it till we catch the right feel. Once we get the structure, we stay flexible and continue thinking about how to tweak and improve it. And once we get into the studio, we sometimes decide something else works better.

Eric Wallace: It's really cool listening back to our very first demos, the stuff that ended up being on Youth Detention, and seeing how far playing the songs live moves the song along, how different they wound up being.

BM: Shout out three bands we should know about from Alabama, besides Alabama.

Adam: Holy Youth, Shaheed & DJ Supreme, Heath Green & the Makeshifters.

Blake: Quadrajets, Dexateens, Dan Sartain.

Eric: Dommel Mossel, Bad Example, Joy Boy.

Lee: P.S. Eliot/Waxahatchee/all things Crutchfield (duh), Snacks, Blue Eyed Boy Mister Death (RIP).

BM: Since you mention it: Some people have said you're the Chumbawamba of Southern rock. How do you feel about that?

Lee: My initial, uneducated response was, "I can't write a song anywhere near that catchy!" After doing some digging, I'm quite chuffed, as they say over there.

Adam: I've been called worse.

Eric: I get knocked down, but I get up again.

Adam: I'll take a whiskey drink, I'll take a lager drink.

Blake: Now, we do feel good about that.