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‘Love music, hate capitalism’: an interview with Thee Faction

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Thee Faction are at the vanguard of musical counter-hegemony and the most explicitly socialist band since the Redskins. Every comrade should get their new album Good Politics, which is out now, available via their website. Play it loud and win the argument.

An accurate analysis is conveyed by the comrades at that bastion of revolution, Mojo magazine: “a dose of wildly galvanising, blisteringly angry, insanely entertaining blue collar rock’n’roll…mixing the grungey pub rock power of Dr Feelgood with the bolshy brass of Dexys, virtually every track is scalp-pricklingly good.”

Tom Mycock of the IS Network spoke to singer Billy Brentford, bass player Thee Citizen and guitarist Babyface.

You’re the most explicitly socialist band I’ve ever heard – tell us about how that works in practice. I presume that while operating under capitalism you are nevertheless organised differently from obviously bourgeois acts such as, let’s say, Mumford and Sons.

Babyface: The most explicitly socialist band you’ve ever heard? There haven’t been many bands for whom the point is to be socialist. Which is to say, the point is to change. There’ve been plenty who’ve offered commentary, and a very few who offered an analysis. But we’re not really aware of any other group who have looked at the various ways in which you could take action, and decided that picking up musical instruments would best suit the current struggle. That’s why it’s pleasing that it’s refreshing for people.

Did the movement need another nine people on a paper sale or agitating within their union? Well yes, obviously. But by doing what we’re doing we might very quickly add another ninety people to take a conscious part in the movement. And then another ninety. And another. That’s the only point. You’ve seen our reaction to reviews that say ‘great music, but ditch the politics’. We are only politics. The struggle requires that.

Thee Citizen: And at the same time, we are explicitly non-specific about what particular interpretation of historical socialist politics people should adhere to. We are promoting socialism, as Billy says, by which we mean a transformation of society, and therefore we’re revolutionary socialists. But there are of course rev-socs working both within social democratic organisations and in groups of varying traditions, and we’re not about to start telling people which one to join.

We promote the idea that the revolution is (still) necessary, and in fact more so than ever. Once the masses (which we’re part of not outside of) share that analysis we can debate the finer points together. There are slight distinctions of belief in even a group of the size of Thee Faction, but we need a tactical approach.

There will be long answers and short answers to all of these. The obvious difference is that we have no management, no employees, and operate on the non-profit principle.

Billy Brentford: We are socialists first, musicians second. All wars have a certain amount of comradely sing-songs, so why not the class war? Musicians aren’t as well regarded as useful members of society in England as they are in say, Ireland or Scotland, where a musician (to quote the famous Jazzer Tony Coe) ‘can sit down to dinner with a priest or a doctor’. This is partly because the English have risen pop music to an art-form, possibly because of the art-school involvement in the American R’n’B-meets-music-hall which became the classic 60s pop group. It is, of course not an art form in the US, its home, where it is recognised as commerce.

Therefore when Mumford and Sons pretend to be an earthy, genuine group to peddle their meaningless pap we get all upset; it’s their ersatz nature which jars with how we see pop music in this country. They are disgusting, but they exist to earn money. We have many staunch comrades that are earning a crust as what we would have called ‘session musicians’ in the 70s, and what they do is a craft. We are none of these things. But if pop music is ‘art’, then let it be a hammer, not a mirror.

Thee Citizen: The inspiration being the Guild – see GDH Cole. Over to Babyface/Brentford if you need any background on Cole.

Babyface: Meetings. If you imagine your ideal party branch meeting, where you were unafraid to offer your own analysis in the development of a perspective, and where you absolutely trusted that the result of the sharing and thrashing out of analyses would, in some Rousseau-ian kind of way, produce a ‘general will’ which we could all stand behind, and where that was not reached based on any dogma but based on a proper discussion...that’s what our meetings are like. Now, there are only nine of us, but it’s a great way to organise. Within the band we have different people writing the songs to talking between the songs to writing the prose the band put out and so on. Yet we speak with one voice in a way I’ve seldom had moments of when involved in a party or a union.

Part of this is, of course, that we got to recruit who we wanted – it’s a self-selecting thing. But it’s more than that. And I think it’s based on our commitment not just to being a band who bang on about socialism, but to being a socialist band. And that’s GDH Cole. Use the institutions you have and make them socialist.

Billy Brentford: Yes!

Thee Citizen: Yes!

Billy Brentford: ...Anyway, we are bourgeois, insomuch as we have enough leisure time to be in a band. What we are doing, as well as agitating and educating, is PROMOTING socialism. There’s been enough PROTEST songs, we provide SOLUTION songs. Also, to provide a good knees-up. Socialist music which berates people is boring.

Thee Citizen: Inasmuch as leisure time was fought for and won by our forefathers through Chartism, trade unionism, etc, I’d regard leisure time as very much proletarian. But I like that you appreciate our explicitness regarding the politics. I think it’s refreshing. It’s fairly unique – which is unfortunate as I want more bands like us.

There are many bands who reference politics in a vague way, there are a few who are explicit enough, but the politics is seen as merely an aspect of what they do – with us the politics are the whole point of the band and the reason it exists. It frees us up that we don’t have to hide it or dilute the message.

Billy Brentford: Leisure time, not leisure industry. As Lenin taught us in ‘…An Infantile Disorder’ I am keen we don’t stand on the sidelines in Thee Faction, in some kind of socialist Valhalla, our arms crossed, harrumphing on the sidelines about other groups. I agree with Cit, it’s all about the analysis. We must be the BEST group we can be, which is why we chose R’n’B.

One thing I love about you guys is the plurality of your political influences – you namecheck the classics (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Gramsci) but also EP Thompson, GDH Cole and loads of others. I can’t be unique in having had to Google GDH Cole…

Billy Brentford: Fanx and up the Punx. Reading that stuff is great. It’s beautifully written and we’re not taught it at school, given as we are THEIR version of events. It’s fun to agitate. And we must learn how to win the argument, by being as clever as they were when they put the fences up. It’s interesting that in this day and age of everything being available on the internet and eBay and that, how difficult it is to get some GDH Cole. ‘Guild Socialism Restated’ is only available as a bootleg! Books are great, and we must get around to writing one. We’ve only got as far as the title so far (‘How to Argue’).

Thee Citizen: Personally my politics come from Tressell, Morris, Orwell, Weller, Bragg and PD Heaton. I discovered Marx and Lenin later, I’ve read Engels and Trotsky only recently and reading Cole at the moment. I think the point is that no one tradition has all the answers, so why would you close your mind to any of them?

Billy Brentford: Analysis, not answers. Filling the brain with an alternative. Healthy mind, healthy body.

Babyface: You were also asking what us being the most socialist band you’ve encountered means organisationally. I joked a year or three back that if GDH Cole were resurrected as a significant player in the British socialist canon, I’d feel our work was done. I love it that a lot of people have been intrigued enough by him to seek him out.

He was in all the wrong gangs when he was around. He was a Fabian, but a very dissident one. He sought genuine revolutionary change, but the big thing about him was that he was unafraid of asking practical questions about what socialism was going to be like. And of offering some options. Guild socialism is a brilliant idea. No need to go through the details here, but the basic principle is: if the working class has institutions which are basically democratic and organised, let’s use those as the blueprint. And if they’re not democratic or organised enough, deal with that right now, not tomorrow.

I was reminded of this during the crisis in the SWP recently. Cole was clear that democratic, organised working class institutions should be a beacon today and should be the institutions we take with us into a better tomorrow. The last few months in the SWP (he says, charitably…in fact I’ve never been comfortable with the SWP’s version of democratic centralism, even when I was a party member) showed very clearly that the democratic organisation of the party was not something you would take with you into a better tomorrow, and was no kind of example to the class. That’s alright, of course – everything requires constant polishing and improvement. But if the organisation refuses to improve, it’s not part of anyone’s vision of a better tomorrow.

What I love about Cole is that he wants us to build socialism now, in advance of the end of capitalism. That’s one of the things the band takes from him. That we can operate now as a democratic socialist organisation. Within reason we apply that to the economics and the politics of the band. We are a DIY band, but not in the old biro-drawn sleeve way of the DIY punk bands when we were kids. We believe we can do it all better than conventional capitalist record companies. Not match them. Better them. So we make sure we get even more widespread press coverage as we would if we were on a major label. We make sure the albums are packaged at least as well as a major label release. We make sure we dispatch mail order stuff quicker than anyone would, and if it’s late, we send presents by way of apology. We run our own label, and yet we’ve been in the Mirror, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, Mojo, Q, Classic Rock, etc. No record company would know what to do with us, and they wouldn’t know where to start with publicising us. Instead we do it ourselves and we do it better than they ever could.

At the heart of all this is a network of socialists we’ve been buildings since we were teenagers. Not organised socialists. Socialists who operate somewhere within the ‘entertainment industry’ who slave for abysmal freelance wages which get worse and worse as the industry exploits the new world of people willing to write for free, or record at home, or whatever. They’re just like the unorganised socialists in anyone’s workplace. Staunch comrades. But unorganised. We’ve given a lot of those people a focus. They smuggle us into the pages of national dailies, or onto the free CDs on the cover of glossy mags. It’s them doing their bit as part of a samizdat network of people who stand shoulder to shoulder with us, making sure we get access to world class illustrators, recording facilities, press and so on. So that’s how the band works in terms of our ‘business model’ for getting our stuff out there.

Politically, we have meetings. Meeting after meeting after meeting, developing band perspectives on everything. Some things we don’t yet have a band perspective on, or a well-formed analysis of. So we speak as individuals on them. Other things we are clear on. But we’re libertarian socialists of one kind or another. As a general rule we want to be the kind of socialists you’d want a beer with – Widgery or Foot, say, rather than more po-faced dogmatic ones. We differ in opinion on all sorts of things. We’ll reach for a historical materialist analysis of anything, of course. But what dogmatic party-types forget is that historical materialism as an analysis doesn’t always get you to the same result.

In many ways that’s the beauty of it. That’s why we’ve put that line about Nick Cohen in on the record. It jars with everyone who listens to it. Rightly. But I (perhaps not ‘we’ here) have no doubt that Nick Cohen takes a historical materialist approach to everything. On subjects where his analysis in non-controversial, it’s easy to see. But on subjects where he’s downright wrong, I’d argue he’s still applied a historical materialist analysis. I think socialists should be more honest with each other. There is not one single analysis of an event or a situation. There are many, that might use the same methodology and reach different conclusions. I remember times in the SWP, for example, when we knew that Hallas, say, had a different analysis than Cliff. And that was a great thing. Socialism is at its worst when we won’t listen to others who are on the same side.

Tell us about the new record. We’re quite chuffed that the name is a quote from one of our members [Rosie] after you played at Marxism.

Billy Brentford: It features analysis and solutions. Critique with answers, Francis Wheen and face-melting guitar solos. Every song brims with catchy riffs and singalongs. It’s loud and quiet. Seven quid to you, including post and packing. We’ve forgiven Soviet Beret, our record label (but I’ve not seen them at any ‘gigs’ recently). It’s only available from us. No shops, no downloads. It’s a ‘HighQual’ CD. Andy Watt did the pictures. Starchildren 20-21 reformed to help us on one track, which was totes emosh. Rosie didn’t name it but her catchphrase [‘good politics’] became a jolly band in-joke for anything we approved of. She was good fun: really suspicious of us before we played!

Thee Citizen: It’s more of a themed album (I’m avoiding the ‘c’ word) – the themes being work and citizenship. ‘Con Dem Nation’ attacks what’s happening in the country at the moment. ‘Employment’ reminds us that the rich are our class enemy not our media-friendly mates. ‘It Don’t Work (Because They Don’t Work)’ points out who the real scroungers are.

It’s got more of everything. The punk bits are punkier; the funk bits are funkier.

Billy Brentford: I’m all about the next album, which we’ve started. Socialists are efficient.

Thee Citizen: Thanks! I think we’re all really happy with the sound on this one. We sound more like a band.

Billy Brentford: On the next one we’re going to sound less like a band...more like an orchestra.

You’ll have to develop a culture of recruitment if you’re going to do an orchestra thing. Primitive accumulation of cadres.

Thee Citizen: Nine-piece and counting...

Billy Brentford: Nah. That track’s done with the comrades from the Brilliant Strings. Anyway, back to politics...

There was an allegation of sexism at Marxism 2012 wasn’t there? An odd thing to think of you.

Billy Brentford: No. There was one pissed-up comrade who questioned the fact that there was two of the Actionettes, a socialist dance troupe, friends of ours, who’d asked if they could do a routine with two red flags with ‘Go Go’ written on them. There was no accusation of sexism.

Thee Citizen: Yeah I had to deal with that. I listened in a comradely manner and thanked the person concerned for her criticism, I was very polite. But I was irritated too as I thought her position lacked analysis. I explained things pretty thoroughly and she wasn’t really listening as she had made up her mind in advance. Very much not a debate.

Are some forms of music more amenable to socialist content than others?

Billy Brentford: NO. All forms of music, entertainment, films can be amenable to socialist content. Sometimes, by using avant garde methods to question traditional forms one can be a socialist. We went for R’n’B because it has a groovy quality which lends itself to singing along AND dancing. Musically we sound like Eddie & The Hot Rods trying to play soul.

Content over form.

Thee Citizen: Exactly.

Billy Brentford: But if we could play our instruments properly we’d probably sound like Shalamar.

Thee Citizen: We are very much a DIY punk band. But with tunes.

Do you have more to say?

Billy Brentford: Yes. I’ve plenty to say. Socialists, as the objectors, must not be seen as moaners. We have a huge slew of stand-ups, the new rock ’n’ roll stars who satirise and laugh at leaders, we have a tradition of mockery – but it has little analysis. Thee Faction are fun, because it’s fun to agitate, and WE ARE RIGHT. I’d also like to say BUY OUR RECORD. SEVEN QUID.

Thee Citizen: Yep, protest songs only get you so far. we have to offer hope, and all the best political bands, from the Staples Singers to The Style Council to The Redskins to The Impressions have realised that hope is more powerful than ranting about single issues, though that’s important too. You do need both.

Billy Brentford: YEAH CIT! Heartbreak, hostility, hope. And nice shoes.

Babyface: What Thee Citizen said about hope is vital. Absolutely vital. Our analysis is materialist, of course. But there is a utopian dimension to this, as there has to be to any vision of a better tomorrow. To take some kind of determinist ‘well it’s the next stage of history and we can have no effect on what it’s going to look like’ view is absurd. Just absurd. We’re humans. Our ability to exploit nature is astonishing. Our ability to exploit each other is astonishing. But neither of these things is written in the stars.

In the last analysis, as Althusser put it, production relations define everything. But there’s a huge fucking gap between the initial analysis and the last analysis, and we can accept the primacy of the base/superstructure model, if you like, in the last analysis while still knowing that organised humans can have a huge impact on the colour and flavour of what happens. Our music – our work – is devoted to that. It’s what Billy Brentford was saying about solution songs. We have to offer a vision of a better tomorrow and we have to demonstrate that joy and hope are absolute crucial components to that. This is why Darrow Schecter is so crucial to what we talk about. Like Cole, he’s another much ignored thinker. He’s based down in Sussex, and is joyously committed to investigating all possible forms of non-market socialism, and to exploring how to replace bourgeois sovereignty with political communities. He is adamant that these things have to be about joy and hope. Thee Faction are too.

So our music, our lyrics, our onstage mucking about, our communication with the world, has got to – absolutely got to – scream joy and hope. You know when you put on a Staple Singers record and there is that immediate feeling of the possibility of redemption and that tomorrow is going to be great if we stand together and demonstrate solidarity and understand what binds us? That. Socialism is about that. It’s about loads of theoretical stuff, which we talk too much about – as you know, when you’ve read Marx and Engels and Luxemburg and Gramsci and Cole and Pannekoek and so on you can’t help screaming evangelically about them. But at its heart it has to be about solidarity, and how solidarity might be something we can found a new society on. Thee Faction need to demonstrate that authentically, and obviously. Listening to one of our records, or being in the crowd at one of our gigs, should feel like socialism will feel. That’s the point. Joy and hope.

Overall, we’re aware of the ironies of all this. We produce some kind of commodity – indeed, we are some kind of commodity – and it’s traded in an identical way to any other commodity in this capitalist economy. But we really do believe that we’ve got our approach right. We’ve all been in lots of bands before – some of us have had hit singles, played stadiums, that kind of stuff. Now, we have no interest in the orthodox professionalisation of our music. So it won’t happen. We are working people who play in a socialist R’n’B band. The commodity that that is, or produces, is something we are entirely in control of. And there’s no dull compulsion of the economic underlying it either. We’re free. Not as free as we’re going to be. But freer than most musicians. Because we’re not musicians. We’re socialists. So there’s no musical compulsion – no desire to make it big or have a hit or anything. There’s only political compulsion. And therein lie the seeds of liberation.