– I’m Matt Roth (aka. Major Matt Mason USA). I’ve been making music and curating art for over 20 years, mostly with my band Schwervon! and various solo projects as well as through an organization called Olive Juice Music. I’ve met a lot of interesting people along the way. I’ve decided to compile a series of conversations with some of the artists who have moved and inspired me the most. Some are better known than others. All of them are remarkable. –
“…the Anxiety EP by American Anymen is…one of the best antifolk releases ever!! If you haven’t heard it I suggest you buy it ASAP… It’s short, but it does the trick. It’s hard to describe accurately but it’s one of a kind and it’s really good. I have played this album for a bunch of people over the years. Glad it has not disappeared from the face of the earth, like a few other greatest-ever antifolk albums have.” – Jeffrey Lewis
I first witnessed the work of Brett Sullivan (American Anymen) as a guest member of Paleface’s band in New York City in the late 1990’s. I can’t remember what song it was but when I heard Brett’s guest rap I felt like I’d just been smacked in the face. His flow conveyed the confidence of Chuck D. combined with the tough-guy undertone of a working class Marl0n Brando. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before.
Two weeks later I would attend my first American Anymen live show at the Sidewalk Cafe. At the time the band included guitarist James Levy and James Broughel on bass. Further armed with a boss sampler and an acoustic guitar, AA’s combination of hip hop, rock, folk, and punk felt like a meat grinder of all popular musical genres from the later part of the 20th century. The attitude was serious but not flashy. The songwriting was topical but not blatant. It was punk but a bit more sophisticated. The sound was rough around the edges and totally unapologetic. I was hooked.
There was always something about Brett Sullivan that felt slightly dangerous to me. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to put your finger on. Some people just act crazy and that makes them intimidating. But Brett always possessed a particular personality trait I would describe as an unsettling calmness. His past drug use and the Sidewalk Cafe banning of ex-girlfriend/band-mate Michal Eisig resulted in a bad boy reputation amongst NY’s Lower East Side Antifolk Scene. Upon the first few times of meeting him, for me, it always felt like there was something just below the surface that had the potential to fuck things up.
Over the course of the next 10 years I would record four albums for American Anymen at my home studio: Olive Juice Music. I would come to realize that the most dangerous things about Sullivan are his voice and his mind. If you look back at the past decade and a half of this street punk turned revolutionary communist’s life, you might say that he has undergone a transformation. But look a little closer and you’ll discover that the revolution was was always on!
MMM: I get kind of annoyed when people ask me this but I realized that I’ve known you for over 10 years and I have no idea where the name “American Anymen” came from or what it means. Could you fill me in? I promise other questions will be more in depth and probing.
AA: I grew up in a suburb of Boston. Brockton, MA was called the “City of Champions” because Rocky Marciano, the famous boxer, grew up and trained there. We had a huge high school and the number one football team for years. The city itself was a New England industrial town set up on a river with huge factories that made all the shoe brands that we now wear. All the shoe factories have long gone and the downtown area is a business-less, drug addled, wasteland. So, the name “City of Champions” became an extreme contradiction for us growing up in the area.
I had a friend who bought a video camera in the late 80’s. We started filming my skateboarding and funny occurrences while we would be driving around, or partying. By 1996, we had become interested in film and editing. I started to make a script about the suburbs and the youth experience there growing up. This script grew into a 90 min. feature I titled “City of Champions.”
I shot this on 16mm film and edited it by literally cutting the tape on an old Steenbeck machine. I recorded all the music on a 4-track, transferred it to Nagra tape, and added it to the images. It took 2 years, and in the end I screened it successfully at a bar in Central Sq., Cambridge.
During the whole filming of “City of Champions” my friend and I had continued shooting video of our lives. The footage we collected starting falling into a few different categories. One was crazy stunts my friend would do (climbing up on roofs/doing flips off of big drops), skateboard related instances, and images of suburban youth culture. The youth culture was very interesting to me. It started to mirror my “City of Champions” film, but in a slightly different way. While the film had style and a sense of self awareness, the real images were not something that i would label cool and seemed to lead to the no-man’s land of Americana.
In between editing sessions of “City of Champions” I put together two VCR’s and started putting together the video footage from almost 10 years of filming. We had 100’s of tapes. It started to take shape and we were splicing up through the images. When it was finished, I felt that I had a non-idential twin of my film “City of Champions”. It was a strong companion piece and to me one was not complete without the other. I picked up a sharpie one day and was going to label this video. I wrote on the tape, American Anymen. I was always a fan of alliteration and this name flowed out.
I started getting discourages with my next few film projects because of lack of funding, problems editing, and the sheer size that even the smallest film project takes on when you start. As my video projects failed one after the other, I was left with the music scores that I had made for them. People kept telling me they loved the music. I found that music could be started and finished in a much more immediate way. I got together 2 friends and we started recording under the name American Anymen.
By 2013, my artistic life has mirrored the main inspiration for starting down the road of making creative art. The city of Brockton went up, and then down. My friend who filmed all the video footage that had made “American Anymen,” has since committed a horrific crime and then shot himself dead. I followed the path of drug use and crime, ended up in prison, and have only recently got my life together. The film “City of Champions” was destroyed in a flood in 2011. The video “American Anymen” was also destroyed in the same flood and when I contacted the only other person who has a master copy he told me he had long ago taped over it.
MMM: That’s an amazing story. I don’t think I even knew 90 percent of that about you. You’ve recently released another video piece that spans the length of your latest recording. Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind that?
AA: “Social Realism,” was just released on May 18th. I worked with Olive Juice Alum Toby Goodshank, on a project last winter and really liked doing that. Collaborating made it much easier for me to promote the project because I could say to people, “take a listen to this new music, Toby’s parts are great!” It was much easier then saying to friends and family, “listen to me sing!”
So, about 3 months ago I started working with Jordan Bortner in a similar collaborative way. He is a visual artist, musician, and fan of old video like me. We got together and right away started ripping footage off of youtube and compiling it. The idea was to set up a projector and have some of these images play in back of a live American Anymen performance. We got it together pretty quick, and with almost no practice, played a show. It was a lot of fun for me to be working with video again.
Around the same time I had gotten a group of songs together that I wanted to record for a new album. Scott Fragala had protools, some percussion instruments, and mic’s at his house in White Plains. We recorded the tracks in two days.
We were going to play another show with Jordan, and I got the idea that with a little work we could make the projection into a video. Most of the new songs already had images that went with them, so we put the footage to the songs. We asked my skateboard friend, Colin Fiske to make a video, and my friend Lauren Panichelli, to create one too. All of this became the “Social Realism” album/video.
The hardest part was not getting carried away with production. The music was pretty straight forward and simple. So we decided to edit the video on a free program. It basically had two tracks to edit with, in a way like two vcr’s hooked up together. So any quality loss or edits not totally lined up, were just kept in the video. The footage itself was picked for many reasons. I’m not sure it’s interesting to talk about that as apposed to someone watching and imagining for themselves.
MMM: Your music always had a political undertone to it. That tone seems to be moving more to the surface recently. Why do you think that’s happening?
AA: I was in a county jail in Dartmouth, MA. I spent seven days in solitary confinement because i was not medically cleared to be in the general population. I had recently had surgery on my foot and it was basically a gaping wound with two socks tied around it. There was a MRSA outbreak in the jail and they were panic stricken about mixing people together. So, I spent a week in a box, with one meal a day administered through a small slot, rather then treat a wound that was literally two days out of surgery.
A Portuguese friend that I had know from Bridgewater State Prison saw me and slid some instant coffee under my door in a torn out piece of book page. I asked him where he got the book and he told me that he had been to the library. The next day he brought me a book and put it through the food tray slot. It was, Beria: My Father Inside Stalin’s Kremlin, by Levrenti Beria’s son Sergo. I had been interested in European history in the 20th. century and this book naturally appealed to me. I have no idea how my Portuguese friend knew this would be the kind of reading i would enjoy but he said, “I thought you might like this one,” as he sped off.
A day or two later he brought me the book, Three Who Made a Revolution, by Bertram D. Wolfe. This book followed Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky from the revolution of 1905 through the October revolution in 1917. What first stood out for me was a completely different narrative to history than the one I had studied. Neither of these authors were revolutionaries and both were not particularly support of communism, but their books still showed something different than the common Western narratives of events like World War I and II. I had studied the Eastern Front during WWII quite extensively and was shocked to see a entirely different perspective about things like the battle of Kursk.
This changed me quite dramatically and eventually led to me becoming consciously communist. The political themes in the new music is just and extension of this. I try not to be overtly political and find that approach boring. However, when the word “now,” rhymed with “Mao” so well I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
MMM: I was thinking about all the instances in history where people came to profound realizations in prison: Gandhi, MLK, Nelson Mandela, envelope Hitler . Do you think prison turns a lot of people into communists? From the example you gave me I think most people would be surprised that these deep exchanges of knowledge are happening in prisons. Did you experience anything else there you think people might be surprised to know?
AA: It was unimaginable dirty. That is something I don’t think people know. If you have lived in NYC or a comparable city, then you know the area around your buildings trash area gets pretty dirty. The trash people will pick up the trash, the barrels will be empty, but the bottoms of the barrels and the area of ground where the sidewalk reaches the building, they are still very dirty. It is a kind of wet-gore that stains the ground and nobody takes responsibility for. This is county jail, this is holding cells for court dates. The prison was cleaner because people were there on a less transitory basis, so they cleaned up more.
MMM: When I fist discovered AA Michal Eisig was part of the band. I thought she no longer lived in New York? Then I noticed she was singing on the new recordings. How did that happen? Can you give me a little bit of history about your relationship with her in the context of the band?
AA: Michal Leah Eisig lives in Isreal. I met Michal in the antifolk scene and we started playing music together. The band has had many people who have come and gone. Michal was a person who really shared in the making of the music. She played with me from 2000 until about 2006. She has not played live with me for a few years now, but is still a very important influence in the band. We recorded the new track that she sings on and then sent it to her so that she could record her parts on it.
The history that most people from the antifolk scene might remember, is Michal and I acting crazy now and then. We were pretty much banned from most venues in the East Village and surrounding area. I was a raging drug addict who did exactly what I wanted to when I wanted, and Michal was suffering from the onset of schizophrenia. We did not know that at the time and allot of people just thought she was a violent or paranoid person.
MMM: Your music has always had a political activist edge to it, maybe not always in an overt way but it feels like it’s always lurking there somewhere. Lately it feels like I see that more and more in you. Can you explain to me maybe where that comes from and maybe where it’s going as far as your art is concerned? A Follow-up to that might be how do you feel about contemporary music now and it’s direction in relation to stuff like politics or activism?
AA: Their was a “political edge” “lurking” in the music from the beginning of the band. There were songs that were not overtly political, but had messages that were undeniable politically based. For the most part, the political line I took in the songs was correct. What has changed is that I have taken responsibility for where my art is coming from. In Mao’s “Red Book,” there is a section, “Art and Culture”, it reads; “In the world today, all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics…”
This had a major influence on the new projects. The political messages are no longer from a petit bourgeoi, cynical, point of view. To paraphrase Lenin; art and literature are cogs in the revolutionary machine. The American Anymen album, “Social Realism” and the new project “Destroy Interesting,” are both attempts at being entertaining/interesting and “cogs” in a machine representing a new way of doing things.
The idea of contemporary music being political is complicated. This complication is a result of how the music is made. I feel that being part of the anti folk scene is a political expression. Not every artist involved in the scene is a revolutionary communist, or even a progressive. I’m sure that at shows, we have all seen people perform, that actually have very reactionary views.
The political nature of anti folk as a genre, is that art is made based mainly, in its inspiration and not in its technical efficiency or virtuoso performance techniques. This makes a real dent in the class based machine that pumps out most of our art and culture. Take a look at even the most basic commercial, it has beautiful use of HD color, minute edits with regards to music, and usually an appeal that is wide ranging.
The average 25 to 45 year old will actually get their art identities from the images that we are so used to seeing in advertisements for, “Credit Karma,” or “Fiat.” The norm being established, is that of hyper technical art made by experts in the production field. This is very important because it is not this way only to sell products. The idea is that in order to make anything creative that has an impact on society, you have to have a masters in computer generated animation. This type of education takes a long time and lots of money to achieve. More than half the 7 billion people in the world, do not have the time to take off from day to day survival, to get master’s in CG effects.
Having a group of people in New York City, the cultural capital of this country, making music with a very healthy disregard for technical expertise and a reliance on inspiration as the driving force, has a direct effect on this monopoly of “professional” artists. The technical tools are not the problem in this case, it is how they are being used.
MMM: Could you give me some details about this show on the 27th, what it’s for and how it came about? What exactly is the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride to Ground Zero Texas? What draws you to this issue?
AA: In 2011, there was 46 Abortion Clinics in Texas. By September 1st. 2014, there will only be 6 left. The Abortion Rights Freedom Ride: Ground Zero Texas, is a trip through these places where the challenge to women’s rights are at there most acute. It is a mass political resistance, that has people from all over the country meeting up to make a statement that this is unacceptable. Stop Patriarchy is the group who started this initiative, and I have worked with them organizing cultural events. “Women are not incubators.” “Forced motherhood is female enslavement.” “Abortion on demand and without apology. “They are all slogans that have been promoted on stickers, shirts, and signs during rallies.
The war on woman’s reproduction rights is rooted in property relations, and the way the capitalist system itself formed. The ideas of private property and the right to inheritance, made it necessary for woman to be controlled. If a man wanted to guarantee that his children would be the beneficiary of his wealth when he passed away, he would have to be sure who his children were. Guaranteeing exactly who his children were could not be done if women were not controlled by all sorts of social means. Limiting access to abortions clinics in a state with the population and size of Texas, is a direct assault on women. This specific attack, is a descendant in a long line of oppressive relations women have had to endure. Under this capitalist system, property relations are out of control, women have been made a commodity, and in this case, there value is as breeders.
American Anymen is having at show a few days before the trip kicks off and we decided to have Stop Patriarchy host the event to bring awareness, raise some last minute funds, and celebrate the trips importance. I’m very excited about this show and it’s impact on the anti folk scene.
To hear more of American Anymen’s music check out their Bandcamp page: http://americananymen.bandcamp.com/
Brett is awesome.
I am digging the Scott/Brett line-up.