BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Arising from Phoenix, AZ in 2009, The Haymarket Squares have made much hay while spreading their politically packed and socially seared songs across the country. On February 26, the band (John Luther Norris – vocals, acoustic guitar – Mark Sunman – vocals, mandolin, accordion, piano – Jayson James – fiddle – Mark Allred – vocals, slide guitar, harmonica – Marc Oxborrow – vocals, bass) will release Light It Up, a food for thought set of 12 songs served up in often bite-sized portions (average song length about 3:00) in accordance with the group’s self-described genre dubbed punkgrass.
“We don’t necessarily think of ourselves as activists, but we’re more like the support team for activism,” said singer-bassist Marc Oxborrow during our recent conversation. “We’re like the USO [for] activists. We give them something to sing along to and remind themselves that they are not alone in their struggle.” Examples of the soundtrack to social change found on Light It Up include the defiantly-dubbed “Let’s Start a Riot,” “Part of the Problem,” “Horrible Inventions,” “Jump the Border” and “No Such Agency,” all of which are as sonically fun to hear as they are lyrically fundamental to the here and now.
Let’s chat about this great new record you’ve got coming out. Are you ready to rock?
You guys have been making music – and I would bet making a little hay along the way – since 2009. You’ve opened shows for tons of folks, everyone from The Young Dubliners to Old Man Markley. What motivates you to get back in the van, time and time again?
I think some of it is that we just really enjoy it. As we continue to build the band and try to reach more and more people, more aspects of business find their way into it; you hire publicists and you have calls with writers, you turn into an email machine. But at the heart of it is, we love making music. I totally understand the comparisons of music to a drug because even if you have s***ty experiences – and thankfully this hasn’t been the case – all it takes is that one great show where the crowd is really into it and you feel like you gave a great performance, then you have that high and you just keep chasing it.
Yeah, that’s the show where you go, ah, that’s why we do it!
You mentioned hiring publicists. I have to interject here, Marc: Krista Mettler (Owner/President, Skye Media) is wonderful. Bottom line! You guys are in great hands. I just wanted to make a quick shout out to her.
Yeah, our experience has been really positive so far. She’s so on top of things. That’s the sort of adult supervision that we can use once in a while; the checking up on things. So yeah, she’s been terrific.
She’s great. Umm…
Sorry, if we can go back to the question you just posed. The other thing that makes us wanna get in the van is also that we’ve got some fairly strong feelings about the state of the world, and…
Yeah you’d never guess it would you, from the lyrical content…
More on that in a bit, but go ahead.
Yeah, so that’s what I was gonna say. Our music isn’t about kind of like ibid contemplation most of the time. A lot of it is a sort of call to arms or like poking a finger in the eye or something, and all of that sure works better when there’s actually somebody to hear it (laughs). It’s kind of like, “rise up!”
You wanna rally the troops.
Yeah, exactly! So I think that’s another thing that motivates us is that the music is meant to be heard and shared and shouted, in some cases.
So before you started rallying the troops – let me take you back – what was the first concert you ever attended?
Well, do you want the truth, or the one that builds credibility (laughs)?
The first one I went to was some radio contest that I won when I was like 13 or something, living in Tennessee, and I saw the Atlanta Rhythm Section. They had that hit “So In To You” and they did that cover of (Classics IV’s) “Spooky.” As far as my music background, I didn’t have an older brother, I grew up in a religious household, so I grew up on Top 40 radio and musicals and hymns. It wasn’t until I was almost 16 or 17 before I started exploring music and developing musical tastes that were independent of just what was on the radio. So the embarrassing answer is the Atlanta Rhythm Section: the cool answer is that four years later or something I saw The Clash as like my first real concert. So I guess that’s almost like my personal background sort of summed up (laughs).
Well I was gonna follow up by asking you to tell me the story of when you first felt like you really wanted to make music for the rest of your life. Did you have the proverbial Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment, when you saw somebody or heard a song and you said to yourself, I wanna do that?
Not until the opportunity to actually be in a band presented itself, really. I mean I was in choir and took piano lessons and did some singing, and music has been important to me my whole life, but actually the idea of being in a band wasn’t until I was hanging out with some friends who played music and they were talking about jamming and those kind of like exotic sounding words. I thought, oh, yeah, wait, I wanna be in a rock band, too! They didn’t have a bass player and the bass can be just a really super simple straightforward instrument, especially in punk rock. So it was kinda like, I’ll learn how to do this in order to be in this band.
Let’s talk about your great new album, Light It Up, which comes out February 26. On the album opener “Heaven” you make reference to the legendary Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I’m curious to get your take on the age-old sinner-saint conundrum: hanging out at the bar on a Saturday night and going to church on Sunday morning. Is that hypocritical, or is that human nature to do that kind of stuff?
Hmm, that’s hard to say. I think maybe it’s less about judging the behavior – putting a label on the behavior – and more about the attitude that you have or the values that you ascribe to that. I think most people aspire to be good in some way, and also have fun. I don’t know. This could be dipping our toes into a big discussion about religion, which is obviously a recurring theme in The Haymarket Squares’ music. But I think some of it is just a question of judging. If you accept that both of those are legitimate expressions of people’s desire and experience, then that’s fine if it’s ways to get you to feel like a part of a community, or feel like you’re your better self by checking in on spiritual matters once a week. It’s not for me – but that’s fine. But I think it’s when people who are seized by the letter of the law of religion and start to want to prescribe other people’s activities, without acknowledging that they are just as human as anybody else. I think it’s when the religious impulse starts to be written in legislation or starts to become this strict set of codes that I have problems with it.
“Horrible Inventions” is another track on the record, and I’m going to maybe open up another can of worms here, Marc, but you seemingly start to traipse into Trump territory here, tackling the hotly debated border issue. What side of this issue does this song take?
I think the song comes down squarely on the anti-border, putting people ahead of national boundaries side. The song is pretty explicit about how a lot of what goes on in the border is basically for padding the wallets and inflating the budgets of the companies and agencies that do business, or like to pump up the necessity for some kind of armed border. We’re definitely on the side of freedom of movement. There’s a line in the song that says that the borders were drawn by “scoundrels from a different time.” Those borders are arbitrary and they cut right through the heart of some native tribe’s historical homes. So the idea that we have to build this walled fortress to keep out people whose primary impulse a lot of times for coming to the U.S. is to try and escape problems that the U.S. is complicit in. So I’d say that we are probably the anti-Trump on questions of borders and immigration.
Yeah, the Trump conversation is for a different time, of course. We could go on, but I’ll just say amen to everything you’re espousing here. Now the album features 12 tracks, only two of which top the four-minute mark, and only four more clock in at over three minutes. As a band you guys have a lot to say, so how difficult is it to say what you want to say in so many short songs? What’s the challenge?
I think our first album didn’t have anything that even made it past three minutes, so we’ve been gradually expanding the length. But I think some of it is trying to be kind of concise with language. You can’t give a complete history, or address an entire issue in some sort of complete and measured way, in a song. You try to find a way into it and a set of words or phrases that make connections, and hopefully you use language that’s clever enough and smart enough that the words themselves have allusions to other things that help make the song bigger than the two hundred words or so that are in the song itself. It’s not like we’re always measuring, going, “well is this punk enough.” I mean punkgrass is a useful label, but it’s not like it’s some sort of purity test for us. But that kind of urgency of punk starts to wear out its welcome at six minutes or something like that. You get in, you try and say something with some energy and wit, and then get out.
Actually, I was gonna make that point, that the length – or lack thereof – of the songs probably has as much to do with the punk aspect of the band. Get it, get out.
As I recall, the shortest tune is a mere 1:42 and that is “Gritty City,” an ode to the band’s hometown of Phoenix. If you’re into that sort of thing, sorry about the (Arizona) Cardinals. That was a tough loss (to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship Game).
(Laughs) No, I don’t think we have any football fans in the band.
There are a couple of things. One, even though Phoenix is a huge city it’s still sort of young. There’s no old guard, there’s no hierarchies in the music and culture scene; there’s things coming and going: Phoenix is famous for tearing things down every 20 years. So there’s kind of an openness that allows bands like ours and artists and culture makers of all kinds can kind of create or find their way into a scene without having to spend a lot of time kissing up, or anything like that. Everybody’s a transplant and so everybody’s just bringing a mixture of ideas from other places, and also they don’t have any kind of allegiance to some sort of set way of handling things. And, you know, the weather’s nice, the sky is blue, the sun shines, it’s not ridiculously expensive. And then I guess for us it’s an unending source of song ideas because depressingly enough it’s just a steady stream of news items. The state’s maybe a little more purple than people realize, but there’s still plenty of reactionary idiocy that originates or finds a foothold in Arizona, so there’s no shortage of local, or national stories with local implications, to give us fuel for songs. You can always find something to be angry about (laughs).
Let me share my favorite Phoenix moment. In the mid-90’s I was producing an Ozzy Osbourne radio special and so I was going around doing a bunch of interviews for the show and I’d set up an interview with Alice Cooper, who of course is a longtime Phoenix resident, and as it turned out, Alice in Chains were on tour and playing in the city at the same time I was going to be there. So I spent what I call my “Alice” in wonderland weekend in Phoenix. I interviewed the guys from Alice in Chains at their hotel and Alice Cooper at his house. It was an unforgettable weekend. So that’s my Phoenix story; a pretty good one, I’d say. So let me ask you about the – I guess – “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” of the album, the longest track, the 4:49 “Jump the Border.” In it you ask America to stop looking at itself in the mirror. When you look in America’s mirror, what do you see?
I guess a couple things. If you take the question at face value, you can say that America has abandoned a lot of the ideals, or in practice at least, abandoned the ideals that we used to or give lip service to. The idea of openness and freedom of expression and inclusion and desire for peace, and all of those things. Basically we’ve seemed to resign ourselves to a state of perpetual war, that fear is used as a way to justify every policy decision. It’s an economic system that’s driven by, you know, I’m gonna get mine and f**k the rest of you all. So the kind of things that America used to pride itself on and use as a basis of our smug moral superiority to the rest of the world. It’s pretty obvious now that those things aren’t true. That’s marketing bulls**t and platitudes because our actions don’t line up to them. The other thing is that as individuals in the band, all of us have kind of, at least a little, anarchist-leanings.
Obviously the album is rife with no holds barred commentary. I’ll just throw out a couple of other song titles: “Let’s Start a Riot,” “King Me,” “No Such Agency” and “Part of the Problem.” All of course are thought-provoking. Is there an overriding theme to the album that you’re looking for? Or not?
You know I don’t think so. The songs on this album range from things like “Gritty City” which we’ve been playing forever – we just had never put it on an album. And then songs like “Heaven” or “Jump the Border” or “High Demand” are things that have been written in the last year or two. So other than hitting on some of the themes that have been central to the band from the beginning, the songs weren’t chosen because they addressed a predetermined list of topics, or that they had a particular feeling to them. It’s kind of a snapshot of where we are now and a nice mix of the older, slightly brattier songs like “Gritty City” and, like you said, the extended dance mix of “Jump the Border” (laughs).
You guys did put your sonic spin on the CCR classic “Fortunate Son.” You did a great job on that. Why did you decide to cover that one?
Picking a cover song for us can be a challenge. We want something that’s fun, we want something that’s fun for us to play, but it of course needs to, in some way, even if it’s just a wink and a nod, have something to do with the topics and themes that are important to us. “Fortunate Son” had the advantage of having only four chords in the entire song (laughs), but also sadly this kind of anti-militarism song that was written in the 60s is, like you said, is just all-too relevant today. And then we gave our slide guitar player and bass vocalist Mark Allred his Ringo moment, so he got his one lead vocal on the album.
Um, let’s see. Lemme kind of circle around that answer. So I think we don’t necessarily think of ourselves as activists, but we’re more like the support team for activism. We’re like the USO [for] activists. We kind of think of ourselves as a band who gives activists a sense that people agree with them. We give them something to sing along to and remind themselves that they are not alone in their struggle. You know it’s tough to say whether a song can actually change anything on its own, but I think it can be part of a person or group’s discovery and investigation and identity. And so I guess maybe a protest song is something that kind of presents and summarizes a problem and then demands attention and action.
And perhaps you guys just provide the soundtrack.
Yeah, exactly. We’ve played our share of protests and vigils and fundraisers for groups like Food Not Bombs and No More Deaths, which is a group that leaves water for migrants along the border. So we have done what might be thought of as activist actions, but thankfully the world of activism doesn’t rely on people like us. We’re trying to support the folks that are actually doing the hard work of organizing protests and getting legislation changed and chaining themselves to block roads to protest Black Lives Matter. We’re hopefully providing reassurance, strength, a catchy soundtrack or something to those folks.
Alright, Marc, well thank you again for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Thanks for the conversation, and congrats on this great record. It’s fun, and I guess, fundamental to hear.
Man, that’s exactly the kind of reaction we want, so thank you.