by Chris Jarvis
For years, Josh Chandler Morris was known as the energetic frontman of skacore band Anti-Vigilante, whose powerful stage presence, piercing sax segments and fast paced vocals thrilled crowds across the country including on tours with veterans of the ska scene such as King Prawn and Inner Terrestrials. Nowadays, Josh has teamed up with Carly Slade to form Hope in High Water, a two piece acoustic folk band, whose focus is much mellower and whose lyrics are less focussed on the political issues that Anti-Vigilante were well known for. But because of Josh’s background, The Norwich Radical decided to discuss with Josh his political outlook, how it interplays with his musical outputs and why his most recent outfit has decided to steer away from the politics as part of our series Music That Matters.
We start by discussing Josh’s overall political outlook, to discover how this has influenced the music that he has produced over the years. While explicitly acknowledging that he would ordinarily be defined as being on the political left, but simultaneously describes this framework and narrative as being restrictive: “As I’ve got older I have veered away from identifying with any particular ideology. I think I will always find myself on the left of the spectrum and have at points in my life been drawn to far-left and anarchist ideologies but in more recent years I’ve found that a bit limiting. I guess these days I’m just interested in a politics that seeks the freedom and well-being of people mentally, physically and spiritually.”
As I’ve got older I have veered away from identifying with any particular ideology.
We move on to the intersection between this political framework and the music he has produced, principally through Anti-Vigilante, looking first at how music has influenced his politics, before moving on to how politics has influenced his music: “Growing up in the punk scene I think it’s easy to underestimate how many ideas and different ways of life you’re exposed to. I think bands like Propagandhi definitely opened me up to different ideas on gender, sexuality and diet. They also pointed me in the direction of authors like Noam Chomsky and an amazing book called ‘Refusing to be a Man’ by John Stoltenberg. When I was a teenager that book really challenged the ideas I was bombarded with on a daily basis regarding sexuality and what it means to be a man. It was fundamental in opening my eyes to differing viewpoints and I feel blessed to have been exposed to it.”
On the role politics has played in shaping previous music Josh has produced, he is clear in his response as to just how important this has been in feeding in – “It was fundamental to what we did in Anti-Vigilante. My goals at the beginning were just as much about political change as they were about the music. I’m still proud of those songs and for the most part hold similar views but I think the stuff we were doing towards the end had more of an impact as I was starting to actually share something of myself rather than just political monologues.”
This last point is enlightening, especially given the seemingly apolitical nature of Hope in High Water’s music. This shift away from writing political music is as notable as the change in genre between the two bands, from heavy skacore to soft acoustic music. I ask him why he took this decision, and why he decided to make this new project less political than Anti-Vigilante was: “I think I had just said what I wanted to say with Anti Vigilante and was ready to talk about something else. I think my outlook on our ability or willingness to change things at a structure level changed and I had a lot of personal experiences I wanted to share. I feel like I’ve achieved genuine connections with people by opening up about my own life and experiences and I think sometimes when songs simply talk about foreign policy or patriotism, it can all be a bit too abstract for people to connect with. I think the best political artists make political statements through stories or experiences that people can connect with whilst also being challenged by.”
On this point, the question of how to be effective in creating political change through music or other art forms comes through with ambiguity as Josh responds to my question regarding the role of music in bringing about political change. Rather than descending to naivety, his understanding of this is nuanced: “I think ultimately you can bring new ideas to the table and shine a light on them. If you make a name for yourself you can also display the kind of change you want to see in wider society. I think though, that it’s easy to underestimate the power the media have to skew and distort, so I think inevitably once you get to that point it’s probably harder to express yourself clearly. We’ve seen that with the ridiculous attacks on Jeremy Corbyn in the mainstream press. I don’t know whether a song can change the world on a grand scale. What I do know for sure is that bands and artists have fundamentally changed my life and I think as an artist that’s the most you can ever hope for.”
I think the best political artists make political statements through stories or experiences that people can connect with whilst also being challenged by.
Throughout the conversation, Josh is fascinating in that he is trapped in purgatory between the radicalism of youth and the pragmatism of being world-wise and of age; clear in his political views, but dubious about his or others’ ability to bring them into action. This is exemplified when I ask about his involvement in political activism: “The way you act in your daily actions is political in so much as you can affect some sort of change. Outside of music we try and have jobs that have some positive effect on the community. Carly chooses to be Vegan and we try to support local businesses where we can. It’s small but I like to think it adds up.”
“I found after a while that direct action, protest etc. started to feel a bit disheartening, where as if your end goal is simply to improve someone’s day through a positive interaction it’s far more achievable and ultimately better for our own mental well-being. That’s not to say I don’t approve of other means, I admire anyone that dedicates themselves to spreading ideas and taking the issues to the street but I just don’t think it’s my way any more.”
We finish off by touching on the bands that Josh sees as being effective at blending music and politics who are on the scene today: “I think in the punk scene Propagandhi will always be that band for me. They can make you cry and want to go out and start a revolution in the same song. It’s honest, philosophical and political, they’ve definitely honed that in the last few albums. For me ‘Supporting Caste’ is political rock music at its best and I challenge anyone not to be moved by ‘Without Love’. I think also Hip Hop music is probably is doing the most to push intelligent, thoughtful lyricists. Kendrick Lamar, B. Dolan, Sage Francis, Joey Bada$$, JME. The list is endless. I think the fact that lyrics are the main focus of the music gives it great scope to channel ideas.”
What made this interview with Josh so fascinating is that his responses to my questions around politics and music were multi-layered and multifaceted. There is no straightforward answer, and there are shelves of nuance in every response – the kind of perspective you are bound to get from someone whose been involved in such radically different projects.