The Indigo Girls & Rage Against the Machine
the Atlanta, Georgia-based duo the Indigo Girls signed on with Epic Records in
1988, the mainstream music market was getting on the bandwagon of a new "folk
revival" trend triggered by the surprising breakthroughs of Tracy Chapman,
Michelle Shocked, and Suzanne Vega. With the 1989 release of their major label
debut, Indigo Girls, singer-songwriters Amy Ray and Emily Saliers caught
the moment with a collection that sold double platinum (over two million
copies), while also earning the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Group.
sudden and wide success, Ray and Sailers had never made music with any grand
commercial ambitions. Friends since childhood, they began singing together in
high school and while students at Emory University in Atlanta, they
self-produced their first single in 1985. Two years later, they self-released
their first album Strange Fire (later reissued by Epic in 1989). Soon, on
the strength of these studio recordings and a growing reputation as charismatic
live performers, the majors were calling.
rough-edged alto voice with Sailers folk-like soprano, the Indigo Girls created
a vocal contrast that was both soothing and tough. But the heart of the Indigo
Girls appeal lay in their passionate delivery of poetic tunes expressing
unabashed feminism, spiritual searching, and environmental protest. On the
release of Indigo Girls, Ray explained: "We never expected to be on a
major label and we’re a little nervous about it. We’ll more or less function
the way we always have. No matter how many people we play for, it’s always
been important to reach each one of them. That isn’t going to change."
Ten years later
Amy Ray and Emily Saliers are still keeping the faith. Through seven albums,
their acoustic-based sound has gradually incorporated rock, blues, reggae, and
Native American sounds. But as Saliers recently commented to an interviewer, the
subject matter remains "typical Indigo Girls fare. The words are always
earnest and heartfelt. We still make social commentary, and we still sing about
love. We’re just occasionally framing our words in different styles of music,
and that keeps us fresh as an act."
has also earned the Indigo Girls a large and extremely devoted audience crossing
lines of age, race, class, gender, and sexual preference. With little airplay on
commercial radio or MTV, the Indigo Girls have now sold more than seven million
albums worldwide. Impressive proof that even in the apathetic, materialistic
1990s, popular music can still inspire progressive personal and social change.
committing their music to awaking hope and resistance, Ray and Saliers have also
been off-stage activists giving time, money, and voice to issues of women
rights, gay and lesbian rights, indigenous struggles, gun control, the Zapatista
movement, environmental protection, and the death penalty. Explaining these
commitments in press notes accompanying the recently released Come On Now
Social (Epic), Saliers said: "The most natural thing in the world
for us is to marry social activism with our music because our music is so deeply
rooted in life issues."
As with all
Indigo Girls albums, Come On Now Social is a reflection of personal and
political concerns facing ordinary women. Saliers’s tender ballad "Andy"
tells a sad tale of love gone bad, and her catchy heartland rocker "Cold Beer
And Remote Control" provides release from deadening economic struggle and the
chase after "the impossible American Dream." In a more topical vein, Ray’s
"Faye Tucker" meditates on the death penalty and the first execution of a
woman in the state of Texas since the Civil War, while Saliers, on a hidden
track, takes a swipe at organized religion’s anti-gay bigotry.
difference this time out is in the sound. Employing a versatile back-up band
composed of Irish and English players and a host of guest all-stars (Me’Shell
Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Sher- yl Crow, Kate Schellenbach of Lucious Jackson,
Rick Danko and Garth Hudson of The Band), the Indigo Girls and co-producer John
Reynolds have come up with a daring, electric sound that captures a heightened
sense of urgency and power.
On the punked-out
opening track "Go," Amy Ray’s stirring challenge to activis:,
Raise your hands high
Don’t take a seat
Don’t stand aside
This time don’t assume anything
Just Go go go
The song rides on
drum and guitar noise perfectly suited to the lyrics. The fiery protests of
"Trouble" and "Compromise" are empowered by hard rock backdrops matching
the anger and conviction of the words. Elsewhere tuneful, lovely vocals and
quiet introspection get their due. But the overriding spirit of Come On Now
Social resonates a call to action.
In mid November,
in the middle of the Indigo Girls current tour, Amy Ray and I talked by phone
about politics, activism, and the group’s bold new sound.
Let’s begin by talking some about the new album, Come On Now Social.
The record seems to be getting a lot of praise. How are audiences reacting to
the new material in concerts?
RAY: Great. The
audience is very responsive. In fact, it’s probably the most immediate
response we’ve ever had to new material.
really a broad cast of musicians on this album, a diversity of musical styles,
and a hard electric sound. Did you set out to make a more adventurous record or
did this come into being more spontaneously?
It was pretty
spontaneous. At the 1998 Lilith Fair we jammed with Sinead O’Connor and her
band on that tour, Ghostland. We were wanting some guidance for our next record
and John Reynolds, the Ghostland drummer, seemed to be able to find the thread
through all the different music we love. His Celtic background offered a natural
link to Appalachian music as well as world music and folk stuff. And then by
bringing in other players with other sensibilities, we could mess around without
any pre-conceptions of what the Indigo Girls are or should be. We’ve always
been into a lot of different music—folk, country, bluegrass, punk—but what
we came out with is better expressing everything inside us.
title and the opening track "Go" seem to rally a spirit of activism and
idealism. Your liner notes list various organizations as resources for
progressive social change. Do you sense your audience is looking for a place to
plug in their energies? Are they looking for values and vision beyond the
dominant culture of the U.S.?
Yes, our audience
is very responsive to what we sing about and to what we say and do. But given
the state of the world and the control of the media, it’s often not so easy to
find your way. As mentors and activists, we list information and organizations
we trust and hopefully that helps people find where to begin. We’re very lucky
in that our audience gets what we’re about. As much as I love Rage Against The
Machine, when you go to their show you wonder how much their audience is getting
your activism and upfront socialist and lesbian identity, the Indigo Girls,
particularly in the pop press, seem to take a lot of flak for being
"earnest" and "preachy." Do these kind of tags or characterizations
Well, so is Eddie
Vedder. And so was Nick Drake. Really this tendency to label women in this way
is very sexist. I mean is Zack de la Rocha "earnest’ and "preachy?" Of
course he is. And the Indigo Girls are very earnest. But women are not looked at
in the same way. They are not taken as seriously. So that attitude or criticism
will never stop me or make me change.
Can you talk
some about experiences and influences that gave birth to your views and social
From an early
age, I had a sense of community involvement. But my family background was very
conservative. My father was a product of the 1950s, very conservative, very
smart, and hard to argue with, but also very charitable and giving. By college,
I was gay and had broken away from a lot of that background, become an
environmentalist, and was into social welfare and down on the military. But some
of my biggest changes came when I met Winona LaDuke in 1990. Through her I was
able to bring environmental and indigenous activism together and that opened
doors to other connections. Reading Noam Chomsky helped me see the
interconnections between a broad range of issues and how the whole paradigm of
society needs to change. Later, meeting the Zapatistas in Mexico and seeing
change happen at the grassroots level, bottom-up, that was certainly an
Girls have a track on the Pete Seeger tribute album that Red House/Appleseed put
out last year. Did that left folk heritage of Guthrie, Seeger, Leadbelly
influence you? Where do influences of the 1960s come in?
I always listened
to Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. I learned their songs at the YMCA and church.
But I really didn’t understand it all. I didn’t have a context for this
music and knew very little about labor politics. So I’ve had to go back to the
history and read. As far as the music, Steve Earle has been very helpful,
showing me songs and helping me discover the struggles running through the
The 1960s I read
about in college, but I didn’t get a very good understanding of those years
until I met Joan Baez. When I met her in 1992, I drilled her about the
movements, the music, the demonstrations. Now I’m much more in touch, but
I’m constantly seeking out information to fill in gaps in awareness.
How did you
come to support the Zapatistas?
after the 1994 uprising, I was reading about it, but couldn’t put it all
together. Then in 1996, I got a chance to go down to Mexico with Winona LaDuke
for a visit hosted by the Zapatistas who were holding a teach-in on
neoliberalism. The trip included a 20-hour bus ride, soldiers all along the
road, but I felt the Zapatistas had a lot of integrity. I trusted them and knew
they wouldn’t have invited us if they couldn’t insure our safety. Still
it’s very intimidating, the tanks and army bought with U.S. dollars. In the
face of that, it was very inspiring talking to the people in the villages. Here
they are with no land, no resources, no medical care, just struggling for
existence, yet people have a voice and are becoming organized. It’s very
impressive. As for U.S. involvement in Mexico, it’s completely corrupt.
you’ve been active in the movement against the death penalty, but what was it
about Faye Tucker’s life and case that sparked a song?
Well, it wasn’t
she was such a beautiful woman, why did we kill her? I’m against the death
penalty for many reasons: it’s not a deterrent to violent crime, it costs a
lot of money, it’s class and race bias, and it offers no resolution to victims
of violence. But my interest in this particular case came from watching the tug
of war over Faye Tucker between the Christian Coalition and the more
left-oriented anti-death penalty activists.
I think both
sides wanted to make her a kind of poster child and in the process lost the
humanness of somebody like that. I started to wonder what she was thinking as
she watched all this and saw her life manipulated and taken away. I wanted to
show the ironies and how everything going down was not black and white.
Can you talk
some about your grandmother and the song ("Ozilline") related to her?
The song is in
her honor. She’s at a point in life where she’s fading with age and it has
me reflecting on the lessons she taught. In many ways she’s a very typical
Southern woman. She grew up in Atlanta and she’s had to adjust to my sexuality
and left ways. She’s embraced new ideas. Now she’s got a lot of physical
problems. I feel for her.
Over the last
10 years, the Indigo Girls have had wide commercial success. What do you do to
keep yourself grounded in everyday concerns. that face most people in our
We do have a
privileged life compared to many people. But we have a strong work ethic and we
work very hard at what we do. We also are not really an elite group and we
don’t live a glamorous lifestyle. Our friends are people we’ve known for
awhile and they’re working, paying bills, raising kids and that helps keep us
centered. We listen, we try to be honest. In the early days of our success,
there was a time when I wanted to meet all the stars, all the musicians you
looked up to and admired, but I went through that in a couple of months. And
being on the road and on the move so much did strain relationships. But we still
have the same friends and live in the same town.
You and Emily
are also role models for many girls and women. How do you handle that
Mostly by just
being real. That role model thing works both ways. We learn from our fans and
friends. Somebody may ask us a question or want to know our opinion about
something, but we ask back. What do you think? We don’t pretend to know
in the middle of a tour. Further down the road, what’s up for the Indigo Girls
musically and politically?
Well, for me,
sometime in the new year, I’m going to make a solo album with more of a punk
sound. I’ll probably put it out on an indie label. It’s just something
I’ve got to get out of my system. Beyond that, we plan another Honor The Earth
Tour to help support indigenous activism. We’ll be doing a benefit in Seattle
for breast cancer. And we’ll be doing an indie label benefit record to raise
awareness and funds around gun control. We’ll be very busy. I wouldn’t want
to play music if I couldn’t be an activist.
to believe that a band flouting incendiary politics of socialist revolution
could explode to the top of today’s dismal hit parade, but in mid November
Rage Against The Machine’s The Battle Of Los Angeles (Epic)
made a miraculous debut at No. 1 on Billboard Magazine’s album chart.
Though it is
obvious that Rage’s monster commercial success owes more to the band’s sonic
earthquake crunch than to its sympathies for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier,
and the Zapa- tistas, the group has blown a hole in business-as-usual in the
mainstream music world. Call them a throwback or a harbinger of things to come,
but Rage Against The Machine is a rock and roll band that makes no bones about
its mission to change the world.
Since the dawn of
the music in the 1950s, rebel stance (real or fake) has been the bread and
butter of rock’s commercial appeal. All the genre’s heroes, from Elvis and
Little Richard to the Beatles and Dylan, from Springsteen and Patti Smith to the
Clash and Nirvana, have reflected and inspired political and personal resistance
to the status quo. But pop rebels have seldom attached themselves to a radical
political agenda as unequivocally as Rage Against The Machine.
In song lyrics,
interviews, videos, and album liner notes; at demonstrations, benefits, and
public forums, Rage has made it abundantly clear that they exist, first and
foremost, as a channel for anti-capitalist activism. A photo montage on the
album jacket of 1996’s Evil Empire lays out recommended books by
authors such as Noam Chomsky, Ben Bagdikian, Che Guavera, Marx and Engels,
Jean-Paul Sartre, Malcolm X, and Frantz Fanon. Still, in the end, Rage’s great
power to incite critique and action rests in the appeal of their aggressive
"YTimK" Com- merford and drummer Brad Wilk make for a tight, bone-jarring
rhythm section supplying a bed of heavy beats culled from Zeppelin, hip-hop, and
funk. In vocalist Zack De la Rocha and guitarist Tom Morello, Rage has two of
the most exciting performers alive today.
De la Rocha’s
militant rap spew is pure passion and his lyrics are far too brainy and socially
aware to be dismissed as sloganeering (although that seems to be the pop press
consensus). Even without sound "Calm Like A Bomb" offers poignant realism:
I was born
It’s tha native son
Born of Zapata’s guns
Stroll through the shanties
And the cities remains
Same bodies buried hungry
But with different names
Leave nothing but chains
Pick a point on the globe
Yes the pictures the same
There’s a bank a church a myth and a hearse
A mall and a loan a child dead at
ingredient is Tom Morello’s guitar. Mixing influences from hip-hop and
assorted heavy metal guitar gods (most obviously Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page),
Morello has discovered an inventive noise that runs from thunderous power riffs
to a blistering bombardment of shrieks, squawks, and roars. And all his awesome
power explodes after De La Rocha provocations like:
It has to
It has to start sometime
What better place than here
What better time than now
The effect is
riotous. But what does all this heated rhetoric and electrifying energy mean to
the young masses who count themselves Rage fans? Clearly for many, Rage is
merely a soundtrack (maybe the best soundtrack) for male mosh pit mayhem.
Political struggle in Chiapas? The racial and economic realities of East LA?
Amnesty for Peltier and a new trial for Mumia? No clue.
from concerts and debates on the band’s web site, Rage fans are not your
typical metal-rap meatheads. At any Rage show (at least out west) you will find
a good percentage of people of color and a mostly friendly response to left
leafleting. A sizable portion of the audience also seems to know De la Rocha’s
lyrics well enough to mouth along with his furious verbal spray. How many other
rock net spaces feature discussions on the corporate dominated media and the
Chomskian take on U.S. foreign policy?
Of course, none
of these indications of social awareness suggest revolution around the corner.
Those who have read or seen interviews with Rage may also recognize De la Rocha
and Morello are well informed, articulate defenders of radical ideas who clearly
know what they’re up against. But like abolitionists, suffragists, and labor
radicals of an earlier day, they know even if their time is not yet here,
there’s no excuse for accepting lies and injustice now.
Carter is a regular contributor to Z Magazine.