By: Ben Cutbank, for Beautiful Resistance Distro
Beautiful Resistance Distro: Hello, Its Ben for Beautiful Resistance Distro. I’m honored to have the chance to have a discussion with members of the music group Big Dudee Roo. To start, would you please give a brief explanation of who you are and what you do?
Max: We’re a folk-rock band from Wayland, Michigan. We write a lot of original music and play a lot of shows around Michigan. I think our music has a wide range of themes, as far as the songs that we write. Me and Nate, our banjo player, tend to focus on different environmental and social justice themes, in sort of a way that relates to people individually and emotionally. As far as the music itself goes too, we really try to focus on having a unique, original sound that is still grounded in folk and rock influences, and those genres. We pay really close attention to the songs. There’s really no virtuosic playing in the band. Everyone kind of plays their role and contributes to the song itself without stepping all over the song. You know, there’s not a lot of solos or anything. So, it’s sort of more egalitarian the way we make music.
Aurora: Yeah, I think mostly we all just love to play. You know, we just love music.
Max: And, we’re all really close friends. We all grew up in the same small town here in Southwest Michigan. So, we have a close bond with each other.
BRD: When did you start playing music together as Big Dudee Roo and what first led you to begin using your gifts as musicians as a tool for expressing your personal views on environmental, social, and political issues?
Aurora: As far as when Big Dudee Roo started playing: like we said we all went to the same high school. Everybody else in the band is a few years older than me. I’m Max’s little sister. They started playing— Max and Nate played 7th and 8th grade talent shows. And then Justin was your friend too, and so is Kurt, so they started playing together.
Max: Kurt was actually Justin’s next door neighbor. We needed a drummer and Justin was like, “I think Kurt’s a drummer”. And Kurt used to babysit Justin back in the day because they live right next to each other.
Aurora: Yeah, and then I started singing backup with them when I was about fourteen years old and I officially joined the band when I was about sixteen.
Max: And, we used to be called Big Dudee Roo and the Raptors.
Aurora: We all had nicknames; raptor nicknames.
Max: It’s such a long name that no one could remember or get it right. They’d be like, “What…did you just say?” So for practical purposes we just cut off “the Raptors”.
Aurora: Yeah, there was one venue that put up a flyer about us that said “Big Dundee Roo and the Rafters”.
Max: As far as when we started using our musical talents to support or promote different political and social causes: that was something that attracted me about music right from the beginning. When me and Nate were in 8th grade we had a pop-punk band. That’s how we got our start. I was attracted by—back then I remember there was a band called NOFX that I was into. They had some political songs, some anti-Bush songs and I thought that was so cool. So, when I first started writing songs that was something I started doing really early, trying to write protest songs. Then, over the years our political consciousness as individuals and as a band grew a lot and I personally got really into Deep Green Resistance activists and writers. I read a lot of Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith and even spent some time over in Bellingham, Washington, working with some members of Fertile Ground, who are still really great friends today. So, it’s always been important to me, and I think it’s important to everybody in the band, to see music not just as pure entertainment, but as something that can make people think and get at their emotions. You know, on one hand music is entertainment—you want to make music that sounds good and that people are going to enjoy, that they can dance to, move to—but on the other hand it’s always been more than that for me. I remember in high school I was totally obsessed with the band Pearl Jam. It sounds funny, but I was totally attracted to how they did things like took on Ticketmaster for having a monopoly. A lot of their songs actually deal with feminist issues. There are lots of songs that concern abortion and also songs about the abuse of the culture. That was something that really attracted me. Anyways, we love—like last year when we got to play at Candlelight Collective in West Bend—that was so much fun and we had such a great night. Because a lot of times we play in bars and different places aren’t necessarily paying close attention to the words, and maybe even not the music, sometimes. So, it was great to play at a place like that where everyone was super engaged and playing attention to the words we were saying. And, we could tell the stories about the songs. That just feels so good. Those are the shows we love to play.
Aurora: The gems.
BRD: Many of your lyrics seem to express affinity and love with the natural world, as well as anger for the destruction of it. Does the land where you live inspire your songs, and if so, how? Are there any specific nonhuman neighbors who inspire each of you?
Max: Totally. Yes, to all of that. Actually, where we’re sitting right now is our parents’ house where we grew up as kids. Right back here behind me there used to be an old swamp marshland with pretty old growth oak forest, actually, which is surprising because we’re in a suburban area. But, somehow that survived. But not for long: when I was thirteen it was all clear cut and there was going to be a condominium development back there, but the developer ended up going bankrupt. Now there’s just a road back there with no houses. The swamp was filled in and now it’s kind of restoring itself. There’s a pond, and a lot of frogs back there now. Despite the destruction, it is fun to watch it come back because it’s just being left alone. That’s been kind of interesting. As a little kid, we used to spend a lot of time back in those woods. I remember there used to be turtles in our backyard all the time and deer right behind the fence. This land had definitely inspired a lot of my own lyrics, as I take a lot of walks back there. I distinctly remember one song—it’s called “Yours is my Origin”, from our first E.P.—where I was sitting here in summer with the slider door open, and I could hear birds outside and the wind rustling through the trees. I was playing the guitar and I would walk around in circles and I could literally feel the trees giving me inspiration for the words in the song. I would just feel it. I’d sit down and look out there and then I’d write a lyric down, and then go back and forth. And, as far as individual animals, I have always had a strong connection with ravens and crows. And there’s a song about ravens and a song about crows on the new album. So, that shows up a lot, too. They’re even in my dreams.
Aurora: Max has a song that he wrote on our new album, and it’s called “Being Free”. There’s one specific line that, when we’re playing shows live, I just close my eyes and get really inspired by because it says, “this land isn’t our land, this land is its own.” It reminds me of when the woods behind us were totally clear cut and it was so sad. I was like nine years old. And I remember me and my mom went out there and we tried to do all this stuff to get the developers to stop. She went to so many city council meetings trying to fight it and get them to leave the woods, but it never worked. I’m always really inspired by that line in Max’s song because this land is totally its own, it’s taking a new form and it’s rebuilding itself and making itself its own again. And, I feel a really big connection to animals. I get really inspired by the way they interact with each other. Especially birds; how they can all fly in unison, and it’s totally intuitive for them. They all fly as one and it’s amazing and I love to watch that happen and it really inspires me.
BRD: I was actually humming “Yours is my Origin” as I was walking around the forest today.
Aurora and Max: Awesome!
BRD: You recorded most of your latest album live in a barn. Can you explain more about making this album and about the barn itself?
Aurora: Oh gosh, there’s so much to be said about the barn. Well, first of all it was beautiful. It was huge and it was one of our friends, totally just lent his barn to us to record. So, when I got up there and saw it for the first time, I was just in awe. There were Christmas lights hung everywhere in this huge barn. The guys stayed up there for three days straight. They slept there, they cooked there, everything. I never slept there because I was only needed for the vocals which we did on the third day. So, when I went there I remember thinking it was so awesome and there were roosters down beneath the barn, there were hens. There’s so much to say, but it was just really sweet.
Max: When we recorded it, we played the music live in the barn. It’s a big open area. And, in quiet moments on the CD, you can hear the roosters from down below. Or you can hear crickets or frogs outside or swallows flying around the barn.
Aurora: Yeah, there’s a whole track: “Crickets and Frogs”.
Max: The barn is old and beautiful and there were bats flying inside it with us at night, when we would fall asleep. It was a great weekend too because it was a full moon. And, the barn has all these Christmas lights strung up in it and there’s great lighting in there. We would flip on all the lights in the barn at night and we’d go outside and walk down the hill. There was the great line of Osage Orange Trees that are old and all packed close together and we would stand along there and look up at the moon and then look at the barn and just feel like “wow, I can’t believe we’re here right now”. It was such an amazing experience to record the album like that. The way we did it, too, you can really hear the sound of the barn on the record. We even had one or two microphones set up to capture the ambient sound of the music reverberating in the barn. I think it’s a pretty unique sound and we’re really lucky to be able to do it there. Greg Peterson and his family were so kind to us. Oh, I should say that Greg’s son, Adam, is around our age—a college student—and he’s very environmentally conscious. He had the coolest bike I’ve ever seen. He had taken a used copy of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, cut out all of the pages, and glued it around the frame of the bike, everywhere. So, his bike frame was Sand County Almanac. It was just so cool.
BRD: That’s amazing! What responses has your work evoked from your community?
Max: Good question. Well, it depends. I think we have friends and fans who are really plugged in to the political and environmental aspects of the music and we get a lot of feedback from that, especially from you all, who really picked up on that and are inspired by it, which in turn inspires us a lot. We’ve got friends here who are also really inspired by that. Honestly, and unfortunately, it’s tough to say what our community is because for one thing we’re kind of all spread out about the state right now. When I think of our community, though, there is a strong music community here of different artists and musicians and friends. We’ve been getting a really great response from that community. We had one of our friends, and I think a hero of everybody in the band, Samuel Seth Bernard, who is another Michigan artist—he and his wife May Erlewine do a lot of music together, and they are very inspirational to us—play lap steel guitar on the new CD. He has a lot of songs that confront the destruction of the natural world in a very positive manner. He played on the new album and loved it and says a lot of great things about us, so that felt great. You know, it’s tough to say right now because on one hand we haven’t gotten our music out there that much because we haven’t been around very long.
Aurora: Lately we’ve been getting pretty enthusiastic responses to our music, whether that is because people like our music or our lyrics or both, or us as people. It’s been really awesome and inspiring.
Max: Actually, now that I think about it I would say we really just started to build a community that’s in our fans and friends. It’s pretty cool because while we don’t have a whole ton of fans right now, the fans we do have are really devoted and we give and take a lot from those people. That’s been really cool to see and that’s what we want: a more close relationship with our friends and fans who appreciate the music.
BRD: What experience or impact do you hope a listener or audience member will take away after hearing your music?
Max: That’s a tough one because it’s such an individual thing for everybody. Personally, I think the number one thing for me as a song writer—I think a lot of my own opinions come through a lot in the songs and that’s always going to happen, but I’m not necessarily looking for people to think like me. Really, what I want the most is for people to think for themselves and sort of take an honest appraisal of what’s happening in the world. If they like my view of it, that’s great, but if it sort of convinces them to just think for themselves and be inspired to do something, that’s the most that I can hope for. Also, to feel more of a connection to themselves and to their community and their friends and family and build on that, build community. One of the songs I’m proudest of on the new record is “You are Your Own”, because it emulates all of those things for me, even just the title “You are Your Own”. That’s what I want people to get out of it, I think.
Aurora: I think that some of the best things that happen after a show or after somebody hears our album is when somebody says to me or Max or anybody else In the band, something like “Oh my gosh, that was so inspiring. I want to just get up and do something and take action now.” Like, I had a couple of people say that. I feel like that’s the best thing that can happen when somebody hears our music. Whether somebody says it to us or is just thinking it, awesome. That’s the best thing that can happen, is that it inspires people and makes them want to do more for themselves and everybody else.
Max: I’m really excited that we’re putting this album out right after the whole Occupy movement has really politicized young people in this country for the first time in a long time and now it’s sort of unavoidable to think about these things. Just in our home base, Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the size of the city, there’s a really strong Occupy group there with quite a few people who are Deep Green Resistance-type folks. It’s just great that there’s that cultural shift that’s happened, so those themes in our music are maybe a little more easily picked up on because people are just thinking about those things more right now. I hope that’s true.
Aurora: Well said.
BRD: Resistance seems to be a reoccurring theme in your songs; resistance to ecological destruction, sexism, capitalist culture. Would you like to see your music as being part of a culture of resistance? Please explain.
Max: Yes, of course. I think a lot about where music fits into that, and I think it is really important. One thing I’m thinking is there’s a lot of music out there that’s really popular, that a lot of young people listen to and are influenced by, that is totally toxic. A lot of the most popular music just scares the crap out of me. To think that young people are hearing this—like, what’s that Rhianna song, whips and chains excite me or something?—that’s just scary. So, the people who are creating those songs and are promoting abuse or destructive attitudes have really good, well produced music with really talented people to help them, and I think we deserve that too. We deserve to have a lot of really great music and art and writing, poetry—you name it—that supports causes that we identify with, like how we feel about these things. Obviously, music isn’t something that has very direct effects as being part of a culture of resistance. Music isn’t going to sequester carbon or anything like that. But, I think it is important and has a really strong ability to foster community. It just brings people together in a way that doesn’t happen very often in this culture. I think it’s really important to have music to build solidarity within a culture of resistance. Also, I see our music as trying to bridge the gap between the people who are actively working in the culture of resistance and the people who would support it if they knew more what it’s truthfully about. Those people might never take strong action, but it’s that unquantifiable crowd that supports the idea of resistance or its legitimacy, just in their conversations with friends and family, or anything like that. Just that base of support that I think is really important but it’s hard to put your finger on what it is exactly. So, we’re trying to create culture, and we’re trying to create it where there isn’t a culture of resistance so we have to start from the ground up.
Aurora: I think it would be really cool if we had more young people that listen to our music, because a lot of young kids and teens grow up listening to some really degrading, awful music. I totally did when I was twelve years old. That effects people subconsciously so much more than anyone will ever know. I think it’s really cool when young people listen to our music because subconsciously and consciously, I think they start to say, “Oh, this is what’s happening and this is making me wonder what they are talking about”. They start, maybe, to recognize what’s going on.
Max: How I first got into anti-civilization thought is Pearl Jam, like I said, has an album called “Yield”, and it has a song—they were all passing around Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael when they wrote the album—called “Do the Evolution” that Eddie Vedder always said is pretty much directly based on that book and his reaction to it. I loved them and so I went and picked up Ishmael and I read it in about a day and a half. I was about fifteen years old and it totally blew my world open.
Aurora: That’s what started me with realizing what was going on.
Max: So, I’m a perfect example of the fact that music can lead someone down that path. From there I got into Derrick Jensen. Also, I think music is inherently emotional and gets at people’s emotions in a very deep way; it gets at their deepest fears and desires, even when it doesn’t have words attached to it. I heard someone say music is “what feelings sound like”. That’s so true. When it’s connected—like our lyrics—to political or environmental causes that we feel strongly about, that we want people to feel similarly about, that emotional aspect helps a lot.
BRD: Do you have advice for other writers, musicians, or artists who are creating politically focused art?
Aurora: It’s awesome that people are taking a political focus in their music and there seems to be a lot more of that today but a lot of young artists, poets, authors, musicians don’t know what to do with all of their political work and they don’t know how it’s going to help the world or where it’s going to go or if they can do anything with their work. But, you totally can. I’m a really firm believer that if you have a piece of work and you show it to one person, that’s making a difference. I personally believe that. So, don’t give up. Show it to as many people as you can and get it out there with the resources that you have and make it known. It doesn’t matter if it’s one or one thousand people; I really think that if one person sees your work it can make a difference.
Max: To speak to that, I think it’s a funny way that political art impacts people. I think it’s unusual that people immediately respond to it. With recorded music especially, somebody hears a band they like and they pick up the CD and go home and maybe flip through the lyric booklet and go, “Oh, wow”, and have a more instant relationship with the words and what the band is saying politically. A lot of times there’s not an immediate recognition that people have really picked up on your political message. It happens with time; when they come back to it they read it a second time and then they really get drawn into that. Then, maybe that picks up their consciousness a little bit and maybe they’ll research for themselves more. And, not everybody does that. It’s a fairly small amount of people that might end up actually doing that, but that’s still so important and it’s those people who really have a strong connection with the work. Another thing is that something I’ve struggled with, personally, while trying to make political songs or writing is what is the line between being preachy—I don’t want to say that you shouldn’t be preachy, if you need to preach. Basically, the rule should be if there’s something in you that you feel needs to get out and that people need to hear, that you need to express, that’s the number one thing. You shouldn’t even question for a second what it is. If you feel strongly it needs to be out there, then it’s got to be out there. I think for me, like I said, I really want people to think for themselves, and I don’t want people to think like me. I want them to figure things out for themselves and I’ll give them the information that I have and the feelings that I have, and put them out there for them to think about. Once you put a work out there, you can’t control the way people are going to think about it, the way they are going to interpret things, so you have to try to be as clear as you can with the feeling you want to express. That said, I have a lot of strong opinions and I can’t help but put those forth in the art that I make. It’s a fine line to walk. For me, I try not to be too preachy, but at the same time I try to be direct and clear about the way I feel about things. You can’t worry about what everyone is going to think about your music or your poem or your artwork. There are always going to be some people that don’t like it, and some people that really like it. When you make that connection with the people that really do like it, it’s just the most beautiful thing. So that’s what’s important.
BRD: Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we end the interview? Any websites or contact information you’d like to plug.
Max: Yeah, our CD is online and we all the social networking things—facebook, twitter. Both of our CD’s are available at bigdudeeroo.com and you are selling our CD in Beautiful Resistance Distro, which is really cool, we’re really excited about that. That’d be a great place to pick it up. It’s called Listen to Your Discontent. To everyone out there: keep in touch, find us online, and hopefully we’ll see you in the flesh someday.
BRD: Great. Thank you!
Aurora and Max: Thank you.