By Chris Jarvis
Much like how their hometown of Warrington is overshadowed by neighbouring Manchester and Liverpool, The Roughneck Riot have for many years been overshadowed by their peers on the celtic punk scene. Flogging Molly, Dead Kennedys, The Real McKenzies and The Tossers are the big league, and everyone else is overlooked and often forgotten. But The Roughneck Riot excel in the field of the tried and tested blend of folk music instruments and thudding punk rock just as much as any other. With mandolins, accordions and banjos, Roughneck Riot like many other celtic punk bands are part of a movement that for many years has bene redefining what it means to be a rock band and what punk music is.
Aside from that, the band’s politics trickles through everything they do – from their lyrics to their logos, and from their ethos to their attitudes. In keeping with the tradition of both the folk and punk movements that contribute to Roughneck Riot’s sound are a band that puts conscious lyrics at the heart of what they do. That’s why we decided to discuss with accordion player Sam Bell to discuss the band’s politics, the way it influences their music and how they see it featuring in a wider political context as part of our series Music That Matters.
As ever, we start off nice and simple and I ask how Sam would describe the band’s political outlook. Much like those that have come before them, Sam answers that “however individuals may choose to politically describe themselves, as a band it’s fair to say we are against discrimination and bigotry; firmly against fascism and racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia” before in summation stating “basically don’t be a dickhead!”
I’m always interested to ascertain whether the political nature of the musicians we’ve looked at as part of this series translate their outlooks and their passion for the issue they care about into political activism outside of the music that they produce. From Sam’s response, it’s clear that members of The Roughneck Riot haven’t shied away from political involvement and are ready and willing to get directly involved with trying to effect change on political issues: “Individuals have been involved in activism such as hunt sabotage and anti-racist work, [and have] attended demonstrations etc. The band has played at numerous benefit gigs for activist groups around the country and had music on benefit compilations and generally tried to be a bit helpful where we can. Members have also put on benefit gigs, such as We Shall Overcome for local food banks and for hunt sab groups and anti-fascist networks.”
Evidently, Sam sees no division between his role as a musician and the politics that he holds. As we move onto the ways in which The Roughneck Riot blends their politics with their music, this is the key thing to bear in mind. Given the political nature of their music, and so many other bands who play in the celtic punk scene, I am interested in learning as to what impacts political music can have. To get to the bottom of this, I start by asking whether music has influenced his own political outlook.
“Music has influenced my political outlook quite a lot. I have learnt a lot about politics through music, both listening and playing. I wouldn’t say it’s changed my morals as such, but I have learnt so much that I feel that what we do musically and politically is something we can feel good about. I still think it’s important to question things you hear within the scene and to try and educate rather than isolate.”
Education on political issues seems to be the major primary effect that political music has had on Sam. Education is one thing, but agitation is another. In light of that, I ask further what impact he sees music having in bringing about progressive political change and whether music can be an effective tool of politicisation.
“I see music as a unifier and motivator. It can help individuals shake off a feeling of isolation and make them feel empowered, whether to take collective political action or just feel better about being themselves. Music can also play a good role as part of a political movement. Benefit gigs for example are not just useful for raising funds but for bringing people together to celebrate and show solidarity with a cause and network with each other. It also gives activists a welcome opportunity to socialise in a safe and friendly environment.
the DIY scene in and of itself is a form of activism,
operating a code of ethics of mutual aid and co-operation
“While I don’t believe in the power of song to stop war and bring about equality and freedom for all, music can play a role in resistance movements. It can turn people on politically and introduce them to ideas and activist movements they may not otherwise be aware of. And it could be argued the DIY scene in and of itself is a form of activism, operating a code of ethics of mutual aid and co-operation by providing safe spaces and outlets for people.”
To that end, Sam suggests that music can complement political activity, and while a song won’t change the world, it has the ability to produce a greater sense of community for activists and to help in the process of politicisation. He expands on this further when we discuss the need for radical cultural spaces to foster radical politics and political change.
“Music is a massive part of culture and people’s lives. On a philosophical level, art can help push boundaries and make people think differently about themselves and each other, as well as challenge and question and generally be awkward and stir things up. And on a practical level, radical movements need to themselves be vibrant and culturally rich if they hope to succeed in their political goals.
I would say our cultural spaces should be an example of things we wish to practice politically. It is definitely worth supporting and being involved in co-operatively run venues and utilising them for the benefit of the community. You can see this across Europe, where venues play a great role as community centres and safe and useful spaces for activists, as well as active squat scenes and a community that supports them. We seem to be catching up a little in the UK at the moment, but I think it’s getting there, as people take note of what works and seems to be effective elsewhere.”
Finishing up, I ask Sam to comment briefly on the scene and other bands that are mixing music and politics effectively. In short, he gives a shout out to TNS Records, the Manchester based independent label known for putting out albums from Faintest Idea, Vanilla Pod and Revenge of the Psychotronic Man among others: “I would give credit to acts on the scene who propagate the ethics of mutual aid and co-operation. The idea that we all help each other out, as opposed to viewing fellow artists as competition. For us, bands involved with the TNS scene seem to be a good example of this, where you find sound politics, sound people and a community spirit of ‘let’s all be decent to one another and make something good happen!’”