Ball of Wax likes songs about books and Ryan Bartek likes writing books about those who make songs. Bartek and Ball of Wax are a match made in heaven.
Those with a decent memory will remember a post from March 2011 heralding the upcoming arrival on the continent of a US-born musician/journalist/novelist/traveler looking to delve deep into European music scenes – with an angle to making a follow up to his take on underground music scenes across the states named The Big Shiny Prison. I had the pleasure of meeting Ryan during the making of his epic road book, and have maintained a keen eye on his many fantastic journeys and artistic endeavours ever since (e.g. the grindpunk band A.K.A. Mabus, the antifolk/acoustic leanings of Jack Cassady, or his spoken word tour across the US promoting the findings from The Big Shiny Prison and beyond). Upon hearing he had completed the first stage of his European adventure, I had to pick his brains on his most immediate thoughts with regards to what is his second incredible feat of independent explorative ethnomuscological journalism.
Well Ryan Bartek, what are the vital statistics of your trip (number of countries, people interviewed, trains boarded etc.)?
I ended up walking out of Europe with nearly 100 hours of interviews after 78 days of backpacking on an ultra-low budget. In that entire scope of time I only bought one hostel & 5 packs of smokes. Everything else went to food, booze & transportation costs, which I did remarkably cheap. The typical American, even doing it cheap as possible, probably would have blown through $7,000 USD attempting what I did. . . . June 1st I left the USA from Portland, Oregon – from then on my route was London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Trutnov, Copenhagen. Stockholm, Helsinki, Milan, Venice, Trieste, Ljubljana, Bologna; then back to Amsterdam before Brussels, Gent, Liege & Amsterdam once again for the final Ruigoord party, this bizarre hippie-raver-pagan outdoor acid frenzy in which the children were the overlords, burning huge piles of wood ritualistically while people covered in mud, purple & bells blew into didgeridoos . . .
In your last book, The Big Shiny Prison, you covered a lot of ground within the USA – how different was it getting around so many countries?
In the USA we have Greyhound – in Europe you have Eurolines plus ultra-cheap regional trains & sites like gumtree, hitchwiki, kayak & rideshare.co.uk. And hitching is actually legal, not a felony like it is in 49 USA states in which you can actually be tried as a terrorist by the secret police if they really wanted (thank you Patriot ACT). The USA is a piece of cake to be homeless in compared to Europe. In the USA we just have different territories & accents, but everyone still speaks English. In Europe it’s head-spinning at every turn – after a two hour drive in any direction it’s like you’re in an entirely different civilization. I felt like the Mexican in USA society – no one speaks your language & your money isn’t worth shit. But the frustration of lost communication turns into a humble acceptance & makes you that much more indestructible. Plus Europe is generally “bum proof” – you can’t get away with sleeping on the streets in most places. There are barely any alleys from the years of compact housing & all dumpsters are locked. It’s hard to find free food, the cops are closing all the squats & the squats are really cautious about letting anyone in – especially some random American. But you find the right people if you work at it. . . . Some towns went bad (Paris, Stockholm), some were rocky (Berlin, Amsterdam), but 60% of my trip went according to plan. I only ended up sleeping on the streets about, well, half the time. . . . Maybe 26 nights of shadowy corners in my sleeping bag; I haven’t quite added it up yet . . .
How much of a different experience was it from your last book? Did you find the European people to be greatly different from all those you met in The Big Shiny Prison?
In Prison I set out to get the seedy underbelly of America – show it for the hopeless, disturbing casino it is. With this new book Fortress Europe (The Big Shiny Prison Vol. II) I wanted to escape from the nightmare. Instead I felt like Charlton Heston at the end of Soylent Green or Planet of the Apes – the total shock of witnessing the “Americanization” of Europe. Like a bunch of Martians finding space rubble from Earth and making a cargo cult out of it on some distant planet. . . . No matter where you go Eminem is still blaring from car speakers, everywhere the same rip-off designer clothing & sex-propaganda advertising. . . . Seriously, what the fuck will it take to defeat Ke$ha? Why must their ilk continue to stalk our civilization with such totalitarian omnipresence? I sincerely wish Europeans would drop the American fascination and promote their own cultures & origins more blatantly and with more pride. I think it can be done without becoming some nationalist, asshole country like the general vibe of Northern France. I don’t know which I hate more – Paris or Houston. It’s a tough call, really, and that’s a lot coming from me, the guy who wanted to run away to France like a death row prisoner’s escape fantasy . . .
After The Big Shiny Prison, I’m sure nothing could surprise you, but were you taken aback by the music culture in Europe, or was it as you suspected?
This answer varies from country to country. The bottom line is that these elements of fringe like punk & metal specifically – they are just kind of hanging out on the fringe, like some minor thing going on by a handful of people in the overall scheme of the population. I mean, how can something like heavy metal penetrate the age old traditions of an Italy, France or Spain?
What was your most memorable interview?
Some of the standouts were Mr. John Sinclair (former leader of the White Panther Party & notorious 60’s radical), Mr. Will Carruthers (Brian Jonestown Massacre/Spacemen 3) & Miss Korana Jaleca (vocalist of this sweet, ultra-obscure grind band from Copenhagen called Solid Noise). There is also this great interview I did with a former roadie of Soulfly who schooled me on the collapse of Yugoslavia and his experiences through the Milosovich debacle. Bone chilling stuff.
What was your most memorable moment?
Randomly smoking blunts with John Sinclair under a giant poster of Frank Zappa at the 420 Café in Amsterdam & talking about the absolute doom & futility of Detroit. . . . There was something special about that, having just read Abbie Hoffman’s Woodstock Nation right before I left for my journey, that book kindling a growing fire to propel the mission…
Ball of Wax is currently releasing a compilation of songs written about books, do you think there was any band that stood out that could provide a soundtrack to the book?
Before the mission, during the mission, and still after Laibach’s Volk album was & still is the master symphony (their concept album of remixed national anthems, mostly European). That I interviewed the duo behind this record (Silence, working with Laibach) in Ljubljana makes it even more precise. And then you have John Carpenter’s Escape From New York soundtrack, as well as the Tron: Legacy and Fight Club soundtracks, by Daft Punk and Dust Brothers . . . I toured with Repulsione from Bologna, one of the only grindcore bands in Italy. Something from their Powerviolence Is the Fastest Non-Motorized Sport on Earth album would probably describe the madness quite well.
If you could write a song to describe your trip, what would it sound like?
My plan is to ape the Volk album on the new Jack Cassady record (my acoustic/antifolk alias). I’ll have one song for each country I visited, with vague & artsy lyrics about the cultures/societies but translated into whatever nation’s language I’m representing. This will be a touch record, especially learning songs in impossible languages like Finnish & Dutch . . .
Is there any music scene or city that stands out as the most incredible you have ever had the pleasure of being part of?
Berlin is pretty high on the list, probably number one for Europe. Everything needed from a society, government, & culture makes it extremely enabling. Copenhagen, Helsinki, Ljubljana & Prague are also very promising – but this is mainly an underground, squatty sort of good. I can’t speak for Iceland, but I know many idolize it. . . . The UK in general has great things happening. I really was blown over by London on a cultural level and how efficient the transportation, social benefits, etc are. I get the British now; I thought they were going to be this stuffed-shirt, proper, tea time sort of boring species – this shit the BBC feeds us here in the American media. But then you get there and you realize how damned silly, loud, drunk, clever, & energetic the people generally are. . . . London is very much like an LA or NYC, with musicians/artists moving in like locusts for a year, devouring the opportunities & then scuttling off to the next city. It’s a frenetic international whirlpool, not an organic “hometown” sort of scene (there are of course passionate locals, as always, so don’t take it that I’m knocking anyone). . . . However that CCTV shit is pretty scary & repulsive. If it wasn’t for Tony Blair & the Thatcher hangover, I’d really dig living in the UK. . . . At a worldwide level, the Portland/Seattle Axis still holds the edge – and Detroit is still its own beast with no comparison or specific equal.
Finally, anything to look forward to while the book is being written?
I will soon be doing two things to promote the new book while I’m busy writing it – a radio show and a limited edition cassette tape. The radio show will be online in 6 parts, with myself as the host playing songs from bands that appeared in the book. The cassette will be a hand numbered, ultra-kvlt thing people can mailorder. No money will be made off it, just the cost of shipping & handling. Stay tuned for info.
Ryan Bartek is an underground journalist/musician who has been published in zines such as Metal Maniacs, AMP, Hails & Horns, PIT Magazine & others. He is the author of two books (The Big Shiny Prison & The Silent Burning) and currently plays guitar in grindpunk shredders Sasquatch Agnostic. He performs acoustic as Jack Cassady & also tours nationally as a spoken word artist. Download all of Bartek’s albums/books FREE here: http://ryanbartek.angelfire.com/blog/ or contact him at RyanBartek@Hotmail.com.