Interview: Austin Lucas on songwriting, activism and punk’s impact on the world

With the impending US Presidential election, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the worldwide social and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, it seemed appropriate for Americana UK to talk again to musician and activist Austin Lucas. He combines the crusading spirit of the ‘60s protest movement with the energy and can-do attitude of punk to address present-day concerns. Like a lot of modern artists, Austin Lucas was influenced by multiple musical genres in his youth including psychedelic folk, classic rock, punk, country and mountain music, and he has been able to blend these influences over the last twenty years to come up with what could be described as his own genre that celebrates roots music with the spirit of DIY punk and indie music with a large helping of politics on the side. He manages all this as well as bringing a literate style to his well-developed songwriting skills.

Austin Lucas has a new album due at the end of October that was written and recorded in Germany, ‘Alive In The Hot Zone’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with him in Germany to talk about his new album, songwriting, recording in Germany, oh and how punk changed the world. Technology proved a bit of a challenge with some confusion over time zones and the gremlins got at part of the audio recording of the interview, but these issues have not stopped Austin Lucas sharing his view of the world. This view is informed not only by his experiences in America, but by his more recent ones in Europe. He is that rare type of artist that everyone should hear  at least once, even if they don’t always agree with everything he says. He is also a very good songwriter.

How is COVID treating you?
That is a very difficult question to answer. I’ve been stuck in Germany since March when President Trump implemented European travel restrictions. It wasn’t clear initially what the details were and by the time I understood I could have returned to the US it was too late. While I am missing my family and friends in Indiana,  I think on balance,  I am having a better time of things here in Mainz, Germany. The German government has been unbelievably welcoming and caring, the complete opposite of my own Government back home. Also, my girlfriend is German so I am not alone.

America seems to be a very fragmented society at the moment, with a President wilfully increasing the divisions rather than trying to bring people together. What is your take on the current political situation?
I have seen the current situation coming for many years. If you look back at the Republican Presidents from Nixon onwards, it is all part of a continuum with Trump being the most blatant. I am genuinely afraid for American society if there are another four years of Trump. There are clear signs of Fascism in this government’s actions and racism is at the heart of his divisiveness, and it is the racism that has always been part of American history.

I have had a very bad feeling about what is coming for the last five years, I don’t know what it will look like, but I have learnt to live with this awful nagging feeling.

The music community in the ‘60s was very active in politics in America, is there a sense that this is coming back to meet the challenges being faced today?
It is very hard for me to say, based on my position overseas, I also think it is very hard for me to say based upon the fact that we aren’t able to meet with each other and the entire f&%$@>g process of creating art has really become so individualised. We are all really only existing within our own bubble right now, and if we are being influenced by people it is not first hand. We are not having the kind of conversations with each other that are in-depth like we would have had at Americana Fest, which was happening this last week, which as you know couldn’t happen because of COVID. So honestly I can’t tell you. I do know over the last half-decade I have re-politicised myself, and a lot of that has to do with my journey as a human being, like taking things that are negatively impacting myself, but more importantly the other people around me, and has made me more focused than ever on doing things that are right for my community, and when I say community I mean the global community. I think there are a lot of people out there that have been similarly politicised over the last half-decade and especially maybe over the last couple of years.

Honestly, even with some of the people politicised, I am disappointed they are not taking a harder stance about things they believe though it makes sense for most people to be concerned with their bottom-line and making sure they sell records. I think some people know they can toe a political line and still not hurt their overall bottom-line as even if they lose a few listeners they know they can pick others up. I myself don’t really like care, I am not a superstar and I have a very limited fan base to begin with, therefore I know that I’m losing people and I am losing a huge portion of my fan base but I just don’t give a shit. I think if you post less political stuff then you get those opportunities to give people a break and forget that they are mad at you, and you post another political thing a month later and they are like f&%k I hate this but they still follow you. I post about shit almost every single day but that is because I think the times we are living in are way too important to miss the opportunity as people need to hear this stuff. People need to be reminded that this is important. We have to remind people that Black Lives matter every single day. Breonna Taylor’s killers have still not been brought to justice, and this is a problem that is still re-occurring on the streets of America, and not just the United States, there are so many people dying from the violence and racism of the authorities of whatever country they are in.  Every one of those deaths is abhorrent to me and in my opinion, there is no reason to be satisfied about this shit until we change our f&%$@>g world, and that is what is important, it is changing our world. I hope that I reach people, but the message is just way more important to me than selling a lot of records. I get it that some people are doing what they can, and I appreciate that, but in my opinion, if anyone is reading this, and they are a musician these times are much, much more serious and frightening than maybe they realise, and if you are stepping up to the plate f&%$@>g often then keep doing it and if not, think about doing it.

Folk-punk, Americana, bluegrass, what is the best description of your music? Aren’t you simply a gifted songwriter working within a  roots music genre?
Songwriter is the only title that matters to me. Punk mattered to me because I grew up in punk, and it is still important to me and I think punk has actually changed the world, and mostly for the better, and I am very, very grateful for that. As far as it goes with anything else, I don’t think that titles, genres, all that stuff matters fundamentally. It is important to the listener because they need to put something into a box so that they can know what it is and make a snap decision that they like it. It is important for marketing people because they know that it is important to listeners so that they know what they are getting before they have to listen to it. However, it doesn’t really matter overall. To me, being a songwriter, being an activist, these are the things that matter. These are the things that are important to me.

Where and with who did you record your new album ‘Alive In The Hot Zone’?
I recorded it here in Germany, in a city called Offenbach, which is a suburb of Frankfurt. I made it at this place called Tonstudio Bieber, with a guy named Oliver Ruger, and the best way to describe it is I slipped and fell in that studio. I got really, really lucky as I was supposed to do a live stream and I needed a studio-quality sound and I hired someone to do it and at the last minute, because of COVID, they felt uncomfortable having me in their studio.  That was fine and understandable, but I needed to find someplace and at the last minute, a mutual friend from the area, was like you need to write this guy as he has my favourite studio in the area and I think you will do really well just going in there. I went OK cool, wrote him and they booked me in and I went in for a couple of hours, did the live stream. We really got along and he liked my songs and invited me to come back and record some free demos just for fun. We recorded the first five songs over the course of a few days and it sounded so good that I was basically like, I’m making the f&%$@>g record here, and I went back about a month later and recorded the rest.

It sounds like it was a very natural process.
It was a really natural, so f&%$@>g accidental and perfect and great. He is such a cool producer, the folks playing on the record are such great people. We looked at how much time we had, and I was like I want an album out before the election, how can we make this happen? Once we realised it was cooking, I was like if we want to do this then we need to have tracking done by this date, we need mixing and mastering done by then so we can get it to the pressing plant by this date. That is literally how this recorded went, we started rolling out almost before it was actually mastered because we were doing everything right down to the wire so we could get it out as soon as possible.

The new album is on Cornelius Chapel Records. What is the story behind them?
How you heard of a band The Dexateens? Members of the band run this label in Birmingham, Alabama, and it is basically just their collective pals who get their records released and their hearts are in the right place. Anyone who knows my backstory knows I have had a hard time fighting record companies even though their hearts were in the right place. I had some pretty good experiences with Last Chance Records but they have been very focused on other things and I needed to find somewhere that was focusing on being a label and Cornelius Chapel are not only amazing human beings but they are also very focused on the label so it just made sense.

I was a fan of New Grass Revival many years ago and I believe your dad was involved with them, wasn’t he?
He was a big person in that whole entire Aspen, Colorado, bluegrass newgrass scene, you know, psychedelic hippies making bluegrass music back then. He was definitely thick as thieves with those folks and they cut a lot of his songs over the years as did others. Alison Krauss cut a lot of my dad’s songs. It is an interesting thing that my dad was so tied in with those folks back then. I come from artists and radical leftists from the ‘60s and I grew up in that world. My eyes have been very open to what the world holds and the types of corruption and evil and war-mongering that governments like to perpetrate on people. It is almost in my DNA, both as a means to art and a sense of politics.

We’ve talked a lot about America, what are your views on the UK?
I love the UK as a country. Your website, Americana UK, has always been supportive of me, and some of my very favourite artists and human beings that I have encountered in music are from the UK. As far as it goes with people and its music culture, I would say it is absolutely the f&%$@>g tops, I love it and some of my musical influences come from the UK. A lot of pals and a lot of shared love going on there but I think you are all suffering from a similarly authoritarian regime. It is different but you are also in a scary place as well.

Which UK artists influenced you?
Obviously, Billy Bragg is a huge influence, on the folk side Richard Thompson. Punk music for me has been very important, particularly punk music from the UK, bands like Discharge and the Subhumans were a major influence when I was growing up. There is a lot there that has always been there, near to my heart, as a music fan.

Are there three tracks you are listening to now you would like to recommend to our readers?
I am a big Courtney Marie Andrews fan, and I have been since the  ‘Honest Life’ album came out and I am listening to her new album ‘Old Flowers’ quite a lot, it is so perfectly beautiful. A lot of artists aren’t bold enough to make these kinds of albums that don’t have a lot of tempo driven songs. I am an enormous fan of John Moreland and I really loved his ‘LP5’ album, I thought it was f&%$@>g amazing. His voice and the way he writes just fills me up with so much joy. I have pride in him because there was a time he was opening for me and his acceleration into the beloved songwriters is so f&%$@>g great, it is one of the best things someone can see. At the moment I’ve also been revolving ‘Summer Slowly’ by the Benchmarks which is like melodic punk/indie rock. It has a lot of great guitar harmonies and solos, the songwriting is f&%$@>g great with fantastic production. Those are the three things I have been rocking to a lot lately.

Is there anything you want to say to your fans in the UK?
Yes, I am going to come back as soon as possible. I am applying for my visa to live in Germany right now, and once I have my visa to live in Germany I will be able to get tour dates safely, obviously socially distanced shows, so I am hoping if my visa to live in Germany and the EU comes through then I will be able to do a lot more travelling and hoping to get back to the UK as soon as it is safe and possible to do so. Everybody should take it easy on themselves and look after everyone and not get too stressed with the situation. It is OK to be depressed and anxious in these times and I hope everyone out there knows that it is OK not to be OK and I hope everyone has great friends and they are checking in on them.

Austin Lucas’s album ‘Alive In The Hot Zone’ is released on 30th October on Cornelius Chapel Records.

Photo Credit: Mike Dunn

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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