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Kenyata Sullivan (of The Majestic Twelve) Interview

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Majestic Twelve Band Kenyata Sullivan

One of my favorite albums this year has been the Majestic Twelve’s Schizophrenology. It touches on an absolute select feeling which embraces change in contrast to a voice angrily minimizing those endorsing opposing views. The album inspires through amazing musical experiences with actual feelings of love at the lyrics’ core, coinciding with political rants fueled by blind bipartisanship. Also, if Accordion-Steady is your thing, Schizophrenology has you covered. As an unexpected correspondence of emails developed into a lengthy dispelling of haters, our online conversation eventually gave way a few formal questions to dispel negative criticism, question modern independent music and most importantly, give the band’s frontman Kenyata Sullivan a place to rant. And rant he did.

Who are the Majestic Twelve and what does the band’s name mean?

Kenyata Sullivan: Sshhhhhhhhh, the Majestic Twelve don’t exist! We are a top secret organization formed during the Truman administration in order to evaluate alien technology for potential military use. Eventually we became the people who broker the deals between the aliens and the government.

Say, for example, that the aliens need 17 more abductees for their experiments. They contact us, and we contact the Pentagon. The Pentagon say, “OK, but you can only take them from rural Iowa, and we want the Mister Master Monster Mixer in return. Deal?” And we go back and forth between the two parties, until everyone is satisfied with an equitable exchange.

That is, that’s what we’d do if we existed. Which of course, we don’t.

As a cover story, we pretend to be a rock band from Wilmington, NC, who have a nasty habit of drinking lots of beer and getting into trouble.

What was the band’s purpose when getting together in 2002 and how have the members grown since its inception?

Kenyata Sullivan: We started out as a hobby, hell, I’ve been trying to quit all this music crap for years! We didn’t think anyone but our friends would ever hear us. The first disc Searching for the Elvis Knob was written by me, Alex, and Joey in my living room on acoustic guitars. People kept buying it, so Mike D and Anthony joined. We got a band room and powered up so we could play some shows here and there. And people still kept buying it, so my friend Brian Rainey made a video last year for one of the songs, and it got added to MTV’s Overdrive, and played on Much Music. That’s when we finally gave up and decided we were doomed to be a real band. So now we’re making records, and making videos, and nice folks like yourself allow me to babble on and on about it all.

How does the band’s voice fit within the modern musical landscape now as compared to the time of the release of Searching for the Elvis Knob?

Kenyata Sullivan: I think the new record is a bit more current. Since we wrote the first one in kind of a campfire setting, the older songs feel more folksy to me, and more intentionally melodic. When you’re writing with electric instruments, you have a lot more sound to work with. It can be freeing in a way. You can build something off a repeating bassline, or a drum riff, or a guitar effect, and it changes the process somewhat. Plus, the first record was an intentional rejection of the “indie rock” sound in some ways. After years of doing all kinds of things – low-fi singer-songwriter stuff, alt rock, experimental noise, etc, often concurrently – I really wanted to get back to basics, and write some good old fashioned structured pop songs. And after I got that out of my system, I felt OK embracing some things from indie rock again with Schizophrenology, though for now we’re still holding on to some pretty structured kinds of arrangements. We plan to continue playing with all kinds of sounds and formats as we move forward, there’s just so much that we’re interested in musically.

How is “Thank God Everything On TV Is A Lie” a response to blind, adversarial bipartisan aggression?

Kenyata Sullivan: We’re all really tired of partisan politics, and actively reject the “red state vs. blue state” thing. People have stopped thinking for themselves on both sides. Instead of listening to each other, or even trying to make rational arguments, so many people are just picking a side and whacking away at each other. It’s become more about winning the argument than actually solving real world problems, and that makes the argument itself more important than the people who are directly being affected by its outcome.

This is horrifically dangerous. We wanted to point out how this kind of “debate” is a bad thing, and instead of preaching about it, we let the opposite sides preach for themselves (admittedly, at their most didactic), and then call bullshit. Instead of trying to tell people what to think, we’re trying to get them to think for themselves, and this seemed like a more earnest and entertaining way to do that.

Chelsea Beyer’s recent review for Up & Coming Magazine noted of “Condoleezza, Check My Posse” that “Some parts of the song are humorous, but its sarcasm could also be mistaken for Sullivan’s being narrow and a supremacist.” What is the meaning behind this song and how do statements such as Beyer’s contribute to its meaning?

Kenyata Sullivan: “Condoleezza, Check My Posse” is a sarcastic look at the arrogance of a political majority. And you know what? If the Democrats had been in office, if they had made these kinds of mistakes post 9/11, and then refused to even acknowledge those mistakes, let alone not make any attempt to actually fix them, we’d be going after them just as hard. So ultimately, this song isn’t even anti-Republican, the Republicans just happen to be the guilty party at the moment. I have a really hard time with people – especially people in public office – who refuse to recognize when they’ve made mistakes. If you can’t see where you’ve failed, then you have zero ability to adjust your decision making process in the future, and you’ll continue to fail again and again. When real people’s lives are at stake, this is inexcusable.

As far as the Beyer commentary, (lol) am I supposed to take that seriously? She even took us to task for calling ourselves “The Majestic Twelve” with only five people in the band, we’re still giggling about that review. I’m sure she loses sleep every night with the fear that people might suppose that Jello Biafra really wants to kill the poor, and that Jonathan Swift may have been genuinely advocating that the Irish eat their own children. Sleep well, my dear Chelsea. We wish you all the best.

To me “Cry” speaks volumes about the discomforting association between love and hate, what was the basis for the track when writing it?

Kenyata Sullivan: It’s tough to write a good love song, because so few of them deal with genuine emotions. Like most things, love is really complex, intense emotions are complex. So with “Cry” we wanted to try and tap into that complexity. The real heartbreaking thing about it is that they can’t get it together, they’ve crossed the line with each other, and they’ll never be able to make it back. They’ll miss each other for the rest of their lives, but they just couldn’t find a way to stop hurting each other, so it had to end. That’s always stunningly hard to go through. We’re working on a love song for the next disc that’s about that moment in the relationship where you feel completely safe and forgiven, and that one’s proving even tougher to write. It’s just really hard to write love songs that feel true, so here’s the trick – can we write a sappy love song that isn’t just complete bullshit, and actually makes smart people feel something?

I’m a big fan of puzzles, and like the idea of writing songs that are more complex than they seem, especially lyrically. Anyone can write something that works highbrow or lowbrow, but can you write something that works highbrow and lowbrow? Now that’s a challenge. It’s more fun to strive for that, too. There are times when I’ll intentionally try to pull off a hokey lyric just to see if I can make it fly in context, I love multiple layers of meaning, symbolism versus the actual story, stuff like that. But the most important thing is that even if you don’t get any of the additional meanings, that should be ok – I’m not trying to force a listener to try and find all the little inside stuff, the song should work whether you’re looking for that kind of thing or not. And ultimately we’re just trying to keep ourselves entertained, and make music we like to listen to ourselves, so (lol) that answer is probably ridiculously over-thought.

I love the humor that is implicit throughout the album, especially the barking resentment of “Are you gonna stand up like Patrick Henry, or just get baked watching Patrick The Starfish?” in “Are You Ready?” How has this helped the band get its point across and will such illustrations roll over to the band’s next album?

Kenyata Sullivan: I think the humor is just a reflection of who we are; we refuse to take ourselves too seriously, ya know? Though we do find that using humor makes some people a bit more receptive to the things we want to say politically. No offense meant towards anyone, but we’re a bit tired of hearing folks singing sad weepy folk songs about how much Bush is a dick. It seems like the only genres addressing protest politics are sad folk singers and angry hardcore folks, which makes sense, because those genres are traditionally political in nature, but why not a funny political disco song? Instead of sad protest music, why not write protest music that jumps? In a lot of ways I think that the left wing in particular have kind of stereotyped themselves as sad bastards who are victims, and that’s just not us. We’re happy bastards who want to actually get things done, and try and fix stuff. So we’re often upbeat and optimistic, even though we have no illusions about the dire nature of some of the issues we’re talking about.

We’re still working on the next disc, and the lyrics haven’t been fully written yet, so I’m not sure how it’s gonna come out! There’s no telling, it just depends. There’s a family friend who was a painter named Claude Howell, and he used to talk about having a “conversation with the canvas,” and I like that idea. You may start out painting a picture of a rose, but at some point, you have to let go of that, and let the canvas tell you what to do next, wherever that leads you. I think our songwriting works a lot like that: we’ll work on something for a while, and then all of a sudden, as cheesy as it sounds, it’s like the song just tells you what it’s supposed to be about, and where it needs to go next. We’ll see how she travels.

Tentatively titled We Are An Army Waving Pillowcase Flags, what themes are starting to develop on the band’s next album? How does it compare to Schizophrenology?

Kenyata Sullivan: The next disc is turning out weird! Right now it’s centered more around concepts than specific events, but it’s changing constantly. I can say though, that the title track is pretty locked down as a celebration of DIY. I love the image of the pillowcase flag as a symbol for an independent arts movement. A pillowcase flag can’t be mass produced, each one has to be handmade so each one is inherently unique. You don’t need any money to make one, or any specific kind of training, just an idea you believe in and the energy to create it. And I love that it’s the kind of thing a child would make as a toy, just for fun. So for me, a group of people who are very different from each other are well represented by the idea. Waving a pillowcase flag doesn’t presuppose any political belief other than the belief that if we all express ourselves individually, that’s a good thing, and I really just like the concept of that.

What have been the most beneficial and rewarding aspects of releasing your music through your Pandora’s Legacy label?

Kenyata Sullivan: Because we’re on our own label in the very early stages of our development, there are honestly many more liabilities than benefits right now – we have to either do every job ourselves, or earn the money to outsource those jobs. There’s very little sleep, and a whole lot of Top Ramen! But we’re learning an awful lot about all kinds of things, and every day we get a little better grasp of how much needs to be done to put a successful infrastructure in place. But that’s the price you pay for your freedom, you know? If you want to control your lives, take control of your lives. It’s a lot harder, but it’s worth the effort.

And despite my longstanding DIY ethic – I said “no” to my first major label A&R guy back in 1992, and have never looked back – sometimes I get a little frustrated with the tried and true “indie vs major label” debate, because I think it’s a bit outdated. I think that as musicians, we need to shift the topic – in a lot of ways, that debate has become a smokescreen. When the true history of indie labels began – and I’m talking about the early 80′s, with labels like SST, Alternative Tentacles, Dischord, Bomp, etc. — though there were jazz labels before that that probably would qualify – back then, indie labels were founded out of a real sense of community. People started founding their own labels because the majors wouldn’t support the kinds of music they wanted to hear. And they weren’t just putting out their own records, they were also putting out records by their friends, and entire scenes evolved around their rosters. This is when the first indie vs. major ethic started to evolve, and it was very much a clear cut “us vs them” situation.

Then Nirvana broke, and everything started to shift. One of the worst changes that happened is that people started creating indie labels for some pretty non-indie reasons. These labels were not founded for the community by members of the community. These labels were founded by businessmen who are accumulating intellectual property, with the hopes of one day becoming acquired by a major label. To be perfectly frank, it’s fucked. They use their “indie” status as a badge of honor, pretending that they’re fighting the good fight for the little guy, when the truth is they’re screwing the little guy so that one day they can sell that little guy out to the industry machine.

This is really a very simplistic account of a very complicated thing, but the bottom line is “indie” means absolutely nothing anymore, other than a marketing concept. It’s a dead term, and we need to find a new concept. I recently witnessed an argument as to whether Death Cab were still indie after signing to a major. One person said that was stupid and it was impossible to be indie on a major, and another person said that because they had retained control over their money and their creative careers that they were still “indie at heart” and that that was good enough.

I personally think it doesn’t matter one whit, hoot, or holler whether Death Cab are still “indie,” but we can use them to shift the focus to something that’s infinitely more complex, but so much more important – good contracts vs. bad contracts. Fair compensation vs. unfair compensation. A more equal balance of power between artist and administrator. Labels need bands, and good bands need good supportive labels, so suits and musicians are stuck with each other – our main focus, is to try and help create a new standard that doesn’t have the A&R guy staying at the Ritz-Carlton on a young band’s tab, while the musicians in that band are sleeping in the van and scrounging for gas money. A standard that treats signed bands as employees instead of labor for hire, so they can get the same insurance benefits that the guy who works their radio has. A standard that allows for the songwriters in the band to receive publishing royalties long after their active careers are over, instead of that money going to a retired executive who’s wiling his days away on the golf course.

It doesn’t make for a good snappy slogan, but the details that build or destroy the real careers of real artists aren’t easily condensed into soundbites. So forget indie vs. major. There are good and bad people on every side of the ball, and our goal now shouldn’t be to decide which is which – our goal should be to try and create a new standard that is inherently more fair for everyone.

That being said, I plan on staying genuinely DIY for as long as humanly possible, because I don’t trust any of the bastards.

What is the ultimate goal of the band’s music?

Kenyata Sullivan: To make at least one record we’re really proud of a year. Year after year after year, until we die, leaving behind us a full body of work that might mean something to somebody who isn’t us. We just want to keep going, all the while doing our level best, and trying hard not to suck.

If you could play one last show, who would you want to share the stage with?

Kenyata Sullivan: What a great question! The Smiths circa 1987, followed by Led Zeppelin circa 1974, followed by Louis Prima and Keely Smith circa 1957. We would open of course, ’cause there’s no way in hell we’re going onstage after that.