Letlive: “I don’t give a fuck what anybody says, punk rock is pop as fuck”

Ahead of the release of their fourth album, Letlive frontman Jason Butler told SAMUEL BAUERMEISTER about the endemic injustice of politics and policing in America, breaking new sonic ground and being a “shitty” punk.

Ever since their conception, Letlive have always had something powerful to say. Whether it be the faults of the American health care system or the ever-present nature of racism in the 21st century, Letlive have lead modern protest music with the instrumental ferocity of Rage Against the Machine and the audacious lyrical content of Bob Dylan.

Their latest record If I’m The Devil… is no exception. The band’s label – the legendary Epitaph – has issued a statement citing “the griot lineage of Saul Williams and Ta-Nehisi Coates, the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown, the social pathologies that led to Ferguson, Missouri and divisive redlining policies that are functionally domestic terrorism” as key influences. But the searing, politically minded follow-up to 2013’s The Blackest Beautiful is also the band’s most accessible record to date.

“We got into a bunch of fucking arguments when we were writing this record,” Butler recently told Revolver. “Some of us wanted to do our punk songs and some of us wanted to do our more rock songs … I wanted to do some shit that sounded like Kanye meets Royal Blood or some-thing. But then we started to let go and just said, ‘Fuck it, let’s write the song and see how we feel about it when it’s done.’”

“A lot of it is essentially the most punk rock shit we’ve ever written, but with the most accessible melodies,” he explained. “But not accessible in a way that we were like, ‘We want to get on the radio.’ Because that’s not an approach that would work for Letlive. We just wrote some music that has a lot groove in it, and some of it is just plain catchy. And I’m okay with that. I’m actually really excited about it.”

Congratulations on If I’m The Devil…, it feels like your best work yet. How do you feel this record differs from The Blackest Beautiful?

“We’re not trying to put out a record where we hit the radio or hit the fucking Hot 100”

You can always say “it’s an evolution or a step in another direction and that its hopefully a step forward” but I feel like these records are very different and I like that. I like that disparate nature, I like the dichotomy that is represented between them. With Blackest Beautiful we went out and we were really upset with the way our relative genre was so homogonised and sterile and just so safe. So we created this record both sonically and lyrically where it was almost jarring, you know? Like uncomfortable and abrasive. We did that because we just felt like it was our sort of testament to trying to aid in the evolution of the genre, or at least shaking things up.

With this record I feel like there was a much more deliberate approach to be more accessible, which is quite antithetical to what we did on The Blackest Beautiful. We’re not trying to put out a record where we hit the radio or hit the fucking Hot 100 but we’re definitely putting out some music that is both lyrically and instrumentally that we’d like to let us paint a wider canvas to see if people can accept and understand the things we’re saying and doing in another way. We’re very deliberate, everything from the mixing to the actual song writing and what was being said on top of all of that. But yeah man, it’s very different and I’m really excited about it.

You’re definitely right about it feeling more accessible, especially compared to Fake History and Exhaustion, do you feel that this is the natural way in which “Soul Punk” is evolving?

Absolutely, man. I think that through all these years we’ve been working on the essence and the idea that is Letlive, and I finally feel like we’ve created a record that can really break open the possibilities of what we can do as a band and what we will do as a band. I think it’s the best way to represent that “Soul Punk” sound.

Has the definition of “Soul Punk” changed for you throughout these years?

Nah man, I think its only just gotten stronger. I think it’s just a matter of feeling free, opening your mind, understanding that its something within us and not just something we figure out externally but that it’s actually an inward idea that we represent outwardly. And I know that shit sounds like mad cliché man, but that’s what it is.

Had the writing and recording process changed since guitarist and percussist Jean Nascimento’s departure?

Yeah, totally. No shame to him at all because that was our homeboy and we did great things together. But we were already writing this record as a four piece before we relived him of his position, you know what I mean? We were already writing the record, so it just kind of became what is was. So when we got to recording, we were like “okay, so now we have this opportunity to do it differently”. And I think the ultimately the reason that Jean is no longer with us is because his idea of what Letlive was different than the four of us, so respectfully, he was disconnected from the band. So we were able to really focus in and hone in on what it is we felt we needed to do for this record as far as recording and writing.

When we went in to record, we did it much differently than last time. We got a producer, like a real producer for the first time and we worked with him and that was fucking awesome. He helped us explore the soundscapes that we had visions for but maybe we didn’t necessarily how to get there as quickly. He was able to help us explore those things in our head that we wanted but couldn’t really articulate. Within the studio too, whether it was searching for sound or an approach to how we were going to sing or how we’re going to put these keys here or how we were going to put this ambient noise here, just everything was different because it had to be.

There was no way that this record could be written and come out the way it did without changing basically everything. This was the first time that we shed ourselves of our arrogance and we were like, “okay we need to change, we need to do shit differently for this record, and we don’t know the best way to do this yet, so let’s figure it out.”

The Blackest Beautiful and Fake History like they were extremely personal records for you guys to write. But I’ve noticed that this new record seems really driven by social change and protest. What events transpired for you to write about that?

There are events that sparked the things that were said, like a specific song or a specific lyric. But ultimately, these ideas were ideas I’ve had since I was a child, because the things I’m discussing are things that have been happening for literally centuries. That’s what I want people to understand, these things didn’t manifest out of thin air by way of the internet or someone’s cell phone being able to capture an injustice.

These things have been happening for centuries and more specifically and more immediately for decades that I’ve been on this earth. I’ve experienced these injustices, these institutions that negate and mitigate and subjugate and cancel people out of certain beneficial opportunities. I’ve experienced those things, man. They’ve been happening my whole cognisant life. I’m not saying this in a way that a conspiracy theorist says it, or someone who’s a fanatic about going against major media, I’m not saying that. I’m saying this as someone who has actually been able to observe objectively, statistically, factually and intelligently, I’m saying this as a person who’s experienced those things.

“The people that were exploited, or disadvantaged, or disenfranchised, or carved out were the people of colour. That’s not a conspiracy, that’s not like some kind of fucking fallacy”

If I were to tell you I got sick and that I felt a certain way in the hospital, people would most likely say “Oh man” and they would accept that and they’d say “I feel you, I understand”. But for some reason when I tell people my experience as a person of colour in the area where I grew up and the way that I grew up and the time that I grew up, when I try to explain that to certain people that haven’t experienced it, they don’t want to accept it.

I think that’s because those ideas are uncomfortable, because the underlying idea of this all is that there is a position of power that a lot of people are born into or at least in some loose way attached to that. People feel that I’m saying they should share bare some culpability for the hardships that me or my fellow people have experienced, which is not what I’m saying at all. All I’m saying is, to understand and to observe and to at least accept the fact that this is not subjective, but it is objective. These are objective experiences that people are giving you facts about. You can’t tell someone that their experience is incorrect. You cannot do that.

It’s not even perception. If I were to tell you that my friend who was a light-skinned man and myself were in an area that was over-policed and we got stopped on our skateboards and I’m the one who got questioned asked why was I there? Where am I from? Why am I here? And then getting searched, which is illegal with no reasonable suspicion. Like I’ve experienced that, you can’t tell me that that didn’t happen, it did happen, see what I mean? Like, why is that? That’s by way of policy.

If you look at the laws that were enacted throughout history in most Western counties, the people that were exploited, or disadvantaged, or disenfranchised, or carved out were the people of colour. And that’s not a conspiracy, that’s not like some kind of fucking fallacy. That is actually in the policies and in the laws, it is written. For example in the 1930s and 1940s the Federal Housing Administration where black people were carved out of one of the largest wealth building opportunities perhaps in American history. That is just the facts. You can’t tell that it’s not a fact, it’s written down and is a policy by which we operate as a country.

And surely you can understand that as an Australian. There were and still are policies that are still in place like there are very, very primitive policies towards the Aboriginal people that actually keep them outside of a beneficial opportunity. And for people to deny the facts… I don’t know. I do feel like I know its uncomfortable for those people, but it is the reality.

On the new record, you can hear some Michael Jackson in your voice. Who else inspired you vocally?

My father Aalon, he’s always going to be my largest influence vocally and with my guitar playing, that’s how I learnt man, he’s my Dad. At a more contemporary level there’s my peers – well, people I like to consider my peers – Kendrick Lamar and more recently, there’s this dude from New Zealand called Marlon Williams. He’s like this young cat who plays this cool breeze of folk music. I was really feeling him when we were doing the record. Oh, and Nina Simone is another one.

And as far the pissed off stuff, it stays pretty regular, people like Henry Rollins, Keith Morris. But also I’d like to shout out one of my buddies in a band called Dangers, this dudes name is Al Brown. He’s a half-black half-white dude in punk rock who I’ve always really respected; he’s one of the most intelligent, one of forthright, one of the most loyal people I’ve ever met and he’s also so talented musically. That’s someone I was really fucking with when I wrote this record.

What was it like growing up and getting into the hardcore scene, how accepting was everyone while you were growing up in that?

“I was a shitty punk – I had shitty vests with like fucking Dickies that were ripped up and fucking shitty shoes and a shitty Mohawk”

I kind of tripped into the hardcore scene, I sort of fell into it. I got into punk rock through the ideals of hip-hop. Hip-hop was so subversive, there was Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ and Fear of a Black Planet, all that stuff. And then I was just really trying to figure out my place in society and through hip-hop I got those ideals. And then when I found this thing called punk rock through skateboarding.

I was really impressed by that sort of brazen, unabashed approach that people were thinking about people were just discussing how they felt. There was this real pop sensibility and I don’t give a fuck what anybody says, punk rock is pop as fuck. The choruses, the verses, its just the way they think, they want to grab you and tell you something. So how do you do it? You create something that’s enjoyable and accessible, it’s captivating. I was a punk, I was a shitty punk – I had shitty vests with like fucking Dickies that were ripped up and fucking shitty shoes and a shitty Mohawk.

I showed up at a show in this place called El Segundo, which is quite close to where I grew up but its like light years away as far as the demographic affluence and wealth between my city and that city. So I’d head there and check out shows, and that’s where I met some of my best friends: Mark Pepe, Dave Tiano and so many more from bands like Final Fight and Every Time I Die, all these bands, my introduction was through skateboarding, then skateboarding got me to a show. And then we started putting on our own shows in Inglewood and Westchester and El Segundo.

We were just playing shows and we all realized that we had this common thread and the idea of punk and hardcore started to grow and expand so large. Then we got the idea that we could tour. So we started touring because punk and hardcore felt like this massive community that anyone could reach out. Then the internet happened and shit, man. You could just hit up someone on MySpace and you could go play a venue or a house. That was my induction into hardcore and punk rock on a larger scale.

And what’s kept Letlive so strong throughout all these years?

I think we just believed that what we’re doing is bigger than ourselves. We weren’t really serving ourselves in a manner that was by any means typical. We weren’t making any money, we weren’t staying healthy, we were losing relationships, we were losing our sanity. We were really hard pressed for some sense of normality.

I think it was just us believing that what we were doing was a little bit bigger than just us making a paycheck or us sustaining a sense of reality, and people investing. When people invested in that idea then we were sure that we were doing something bigger than ourselves, this was a much larger collective consciousness that we got to call Letlive. That’s why we kept doing it and why we’re still here today. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think that we’d still be a band.

Letlive’s If I’m the Devil… will be released on Friday, June 10 via Epitaph.