MUSICIAN | Ben Johnston tells us: "Music has the right to be selfish"
In a world where Harry Styles' latest movement moves millions of Americans to tears, it may come at a surprise to discover a world of British music regularly ignored by generation who spent a whole decade fetishizing Britpop nights in certain corners of Brooklyn. While forgetting that bands like Menswe@r ever existed is a perfectly legitimate pursuit, some pretty good shit is lost through the cracks. Chiefly among these losses is a band like Biffy Clyro, whose seventh album, Ellipsis, was released on Warner last year.
"Funny, right," Ben Johnston, the band's drummer told me on the phone, "People always told us, before we got big, that our music would be perfect for the States." When I got in touch with Johnston, he had just arrived back to his hometown of Kilmarnock, the town where he has lived most of his life, within walking distance of his brother, Clyro's bassist James and Simon Neil, the band's frontman. This summer, Biffy Clyro will be headlining both the Download and TRNSMT festivals, ranked as highly as Radiohead and System of a Down.
Next week, the band will be flying back over here to play the Warsaw, a thousand-person capacity venue over in Brooklyn. I wondered how did it feel to go from playing, say, London's O2 (like they did last December) to playing thousand-person clubs in the US. He took the high road: "We can have really intimate shows over there, I feel really connected to the people there…we love it every time we're there but every time we do, it's always been so long that people have forgotten who we are."
Biffy Clyro hasn't toured the US since 2014, a small run shortly after the band opened for Muse at Madison Square Garden. Because things had been considerably different then, I wondered what Johnston's take was on helming an apolitical band in disparately political times. Last year, Neil expressed fury over the Brexit vote. Johnston, who had played in a Rage Against the Machine-cover band in his youth called Raj Against The Shereen, was cautious about the drive to make overtly political music. "It's selfish, yeah, but music has the right to be selfish," he told me.
Like many a Biffy fan, he is fervently attached to Puzzles, the band's major label debut and an all-about classic of '00s British rock. "That opener," he said, referring to "Living Is a Problem Because Everything Dies," is a song that "we play and we're going to play at every gig, no matter what." I asked if the band was planning anything for the album's 10th anniversary, which strikes this June and has been the subject of much speculation in the UK musical press. "We've got something planned," he coyly replied.
The slow evolution of the band's sound also interested me: Blackened Sky, their brittle-yet-beautiful debut, doubled as a punk masterpiece complete with song titles like "Kill the Old, Torture Their Young." Matt Cardle, winner of the 2010 season of The X Factor, famously covered a single from Only Revolutions, Biffy Clyro's fifth record, and turned it into a Christmas charttopper. Ellipsis, notably, contains everything from fully-formed ballads to folk experiments. "After twenty years, man, we have to sound different otherwise what would we do?"
How does the almost-forty-year-old drummer for an established prog-rock outfit discover new tunes? "I love to just get on YouTube and get into a vortex," he told me, referring the practice of letting the website's algorithm be your DJ. He's become an adamant fan of Crying—a small Brooklyn band that I saw at the Warsaw a few months back, opening for the Cardiff unit Los Campesinos!. But his ears, he told me, are always attuned to pop and he digs trap, extolling its influence on the percussion on Ellipsis.
"Childish Gambino, all that. I love pop music if I can feel some soul."
The Trump-Twitter Industrial Complex continues to fester and mutate.
This week, President Donald J. Trump tweeted a false statement about mail-in ballots.
He wrote that secretaries of state were sending mail-in ballots to every person, when actually states are only sending out ballot applications. For the first time, Twitter jumped in to fact-check Trump's statement, adding a link to a webpage full of information about mail-in ballots.
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Was the Jimmy Fallon Blackface Skit Intentionally Released as a Distraction from the Murder of George Floyd?
Racist police violence is a modern epidemic. So why are we talking about an SNL skit from 2000?
At this point, celebrity apologies are incredibly common. In 2020, it seems like some formerly beloved actor or TV personality is being put through the wringer of public opinion a few times a week.
Most recently, Twitter canceled Jimmy Fallon after an unquestionably racist skit from the 2000 season of SNL resurfaced online. The skit features Fallon impersonating Chris Rock, complete with black face and an offensive imitation of Rock's speech patterns.
Jimmy Fallon Blackface youtu.be
This quickly led to the hashtag #jimmyfallonisoverparty trending on Twitter. While fans seemed split on whether Fallon should be forgiven for the 20-year-old misstep, most everyone agreed that Fallon should apologize regardless. This morning, he did just that in the form of a tweet.
As far as celebrity apologies go, Fallon's is a pretty good one. He doesn't try to sidestep the blame, he doesn't bring up the fact that there were undoubtedly many, many other individuals involved in the creation of the skit, and he doesn't even mention the fact that in 2000, many people still thought it was possible for black face to be done in the spirit of fun, because the deeply racist nature of the act was largely ignored in mainstream (white) media. Of course, we know better now, and it's easy to see that a white person doing an exaggerated imitation of a black person—darkened skin included—can only be a racist, belittling act with a long, dark history of racial oppression. With that in mind, Fallon's only option was to apologize without caveat or reservation. Indeed, it's refreshing to see a celebrity apology that doesn't try to justify or minimize their own misstep. While we can all agree Fallon made a terrible, racist choice 20 years ago, we have to believe that, like all of us, he's grown since then. If cancel culture is to have any efficacy in making the world a better place, it has to leave room for forgiveness and growth. Hopefully, the whole affair will leave Fallon (and those who witnessed it) more racially sensitive.
All of that being said, one has to ask why the clip was brought up now, given that it's been circulated around the Internet before, and the specific YouTube clip that was shared was posted on the site over a year ago. It's also worth noting that the version of the clip that was going around Twitter has a text overlay that reads: "NBC FIRED MEGAN KELLY FOR MENTIONING BLACKFACE. JIMMY FALLON PERFORMED ON NBC IN BLACKFACE."
Megan Kelly, an outspoken conservative, was indeed fired from her job at NBC because she defended the use of blackface in Halloween costumes, saying on her talk show, "Truly, you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who put on whiteface for Halloween," she said. "When I was a kid, that was OK as long as you were dressing up as a character." While Fallon's instance of racial insensitivity was in 2000, Kelly defended blackface in 2019, long after society at large had begun to acknowledge the hurt that blackface and other forms of racial impersonation could cause. This fundamental difference aside, Kelly also has a long history of racial insensitivity that Fallon does not, even once saying, "What is the evidence that what happened to Eric Garner and what happened to Michael Brown has anything to do with race?" in a conversation about the epidemic of racist police officers in America.
Given the text overlay, it's pretty clear that whoever began the #jimmyfallonisoverparty was not necessarily seeking justice for the black community, but was instead trying to imply hypocrisy in the cancellation of Megan Kelly, given that Fallon (who has been outspoken about the flaws of the Trump administration and political pundits like Kelly) is still on the air. One even has to wonder if, given that it's obvious that the #jimmyfallonisoverparty trend was begun by a conservative individual or group, if the trend was meant to be a distraction from the widespread racist police violence that has been emphasized in recent weeks by incidents like the death of George Floyd, a black man who was murdered in Minneapolis by a white police officer on Monday. It seems oddly coincidental that the clip of Fallon should flood the Internet with controversy the day after Floyd's murder, unfortunately serving to help steer conversation away from Floyd's unjust death.
Indeed, under the unquestionably racist Donald Trump administration, more and more black people are being harassed, attacked, and murdered at the hands of racist white civilians and police officers. But Trump and his supporters don't want you to focus on that–so much so that it doesn't feel impossible that the Fallon skit was intentionally weaponized as a distraction.
In the last few weeks alone we learned that Ahmaud Arbery was murdered senselessly by a white man while simply out for a jog, and we all witnessed the harassment of Christian Cooper, a black man who was threatened by a white woman in Central Park who didn't want to put her dog on a leash. It's clear that racism in America cannot be reduced to insensitive skits from 20 years ago but is instead a current and deadly problem. What Jimmy Fallon did in 2000 was racist, yes; but don't let that distract you from the deadly consequences of racism in 2020, don't let celebrity apologies make you take your eyes of our lawmakers, who aren't doing enough to protect people of color in this country. Don't let the latest "#_____isoverparty" trend distract you from the deadly consequences of racism in our laws, culture, and criminal justice system.
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