This time, Nando Cruz asks his long question to Howe Gelb: on music and its surroundings; composing and the stage; the individual and the desert.
A long question
A long question is a section of single-topic talks with musicians in which instead of making the interviewee dizzy with several questions about a thousand and one things there’s only one topic of conversation. Each month we will publish an interview with a musician especially chosen to discuss that specific issue.
By Nando Cruz
Illustration by Oriol Malet
In 2013, S.A. tried to play in Madrid four times. But it was impossible. In fact, Soziedad Alkohólika hasn’t played Spain’s capital for seven years (since 2010). Juan, their singer, doesn’t like talking to the press about these things, but in this occasion he agreed to tell us in detail the persecution they have suffered despite having been declared innocent by Spanish justice.
Now, with one of the fiercest waves against freedom of expression lived in democratic Spain, with sentences for César Strawberry (Def Con Dos) and the rapper from Majorca Valtonyc and also trials to Twitters and actors thanks to the Ley Mordaza (Gag Act), it’s time to retrieve this interview. The long question, in this case, can be no other than: how does censorship work in Spain?
The media campaign that took you to trial sprung up in 2002 from a debate in the Cope radio station that newspaper El Mundo continued. This time, was it a spark from the media what started it all?No, it has all been silenced. It wasn’t like other times when it made it to the media because the AVT or someone else saying we’re bad for young people sent a press statement. This time there were calls, threats or inspections to try and fuck the venues.
Cadenas de odio was published in 2011. In January 2013 you hadn’t been able to present it in Madrid yet. Finally, a promoter rented the club Revirock and hired you. What happened then?The concert was booked and the date had been announced, but the police went to inspect the club, they must have lacked some kind of permission or paper and it got closed down. They do this a lot: they follow the legal procedure. The promoter found another club, Penelope, and they said they could book the concert for the same date, but then they told us that some police friends had warned them that this gig was going to bring them many problems: they’d be raided, they would breath down their neck all the time because we were a very problematic band. Since they were less of a rock club, let’s say, they soon thought: “God, we don’t want to do this.”
And then the promoter looked for a third venue…Yes, but it was impossible to do it on the same date. We changed it and advertised that the gig would take place at the Rockitchen. It seemed things were moving forward, but what happened then was that the people from the club said they received a call from the police or some cops went there and threatened them, told them they would get closed down should they go on with the concert. Just like that! And not only our gig, the one taking place the following day: a festival to raise money for the people who had been arrested during the General Strike, in which some Madrid bands were going to play: Non Servium, Habeas Korpus, Boikot… [He means the Irreduktibles Fest, which changed venues last minute and ended up taking place at CSO La Traba, were the police finally cancelled it].
In this case, the police didn’t close the club down. The threat was enough for the venue to cancel your concert and the Irreduktibles Fest.Of course! They were told that if they held any gigs that weekend they would be closed down and so they cancelled them themselves. They know how to do it because even if you have everything in order, they will find something they can accuse you of and fuck you. And as for the people from the club, well, it’s the normal reaction; it’s their bread. It has happened as well in other places; the threats weren’t so blatant, though. But Madrid is the reign of this people and it seems they can do anything there. Other places have been threatened by cops saying they would send them a control each weak should they go on with the gig, and depending on your situation you can go on (as a club) or not.
You seem very understanding towards the clubs rejecting you…If you have no other source of income, even if you like the band or think it’s unfair, you have to swallow it. But I can also tell you that some people have fought back and replied: I don’t care what you say, I’ll do what I want because this is my club, and this isn’t “Chicago in the 1920s.”
You don’t even go near clubs such as La Riviera, Canciller or Moby Dick because you know they won’t accept you?No, no, La Riviera was our first option some months ago. They stopped organising rock gigs for a while, but then they started again. The promoter asked if he could bring any band he wanted, and they said: “Yes, yes, of course.” Then he told them the band was Soziedad Alkohólika and he replied: “Oh, no, not them, there’s lots of army men in this neighbourhood and it will be a shambles.” That’s what we were told, so surreal… and so real!
What other Madrid venues have you played in previous tours?Back at the time we played at Canciller a lot, and we’ve played La Riviera many times.
Before the trial?Yes, sure, before the trial. After all that mess we played Macumba (in 2010). And before we used to play La Traba, a community centre.
Your management agency manages other bands. They take for granted that they have to be more careful when it comes to you?Yes. For a while we didn’t advertise the concerts up to a little bit before so as not to make things easy for the police. But in the last five years we’ve been following normal timings, we don’t give a shit.
But after you were declared innocent in the trial, things became smoother, right?No, not that much, because we were already persona non grata. No city council has allowed us to play again. We used to play up and down the coast a lot, in village festivities and any place they called us, like they do with any other band. But that’s over.
Not playing for city councils means you’re banned in half of the concert circuit. Does this mean that the absolution sentence is no use at all?It’s of use because otherwise it would be even worse. But still, the AVT totally ignores it on its statements and looks for other excuses to go on with their paranoia. It’s great we were absolved because if not we could have ended up in jail and we would have been crucified. Now we’re only hanging from our feet!
Still, your tours have a peculiarity that most Spanish bands never have to face.Yes. When anyone wants to hire us, we prevent them: “This is what is going to happen,” “It’s OK, they’re bigmouths, but then they do nothing,” “Seriously, they’re going to put pressure on you…” People that know us and have been in this business for long know what it’s like. But we still tell them, of course.
Compared to any bands of your same style and with the same experience, how many times less do you think you play a year?I couldn’t tell. Since we don’t play for city councils or festivities, when we play clubs more people come to see us. Or we play more clubs than them… when we’re allowed to. But it’s true that in the summer we have almost no work. It used to be the time we had more gigs, but maybe what they take from you on the one side comes in on another.
In all these years, have you felt that there were times when the pressure against the band was higher and others not so much?It coincides with who’s in power. When it’s the Partido Popular, for us and other bands too, censorship becomes more acute. It had stopped a bit with the PSOE, but now the PP is back and it has increased like crazy. They are very keen on witch-hunts and as soon as they’re in power they want to destroy anyone who doesn’t think like them. When Zapatero was president it wasn’t so bad.
And in regions ruled by the PP it was always like now?Yes, it’s the same. In Madrid it used to be difficult, but in the end we always managed. Not as frequently as before, but we played there every two or three years.
This triple cancellation in Madrid has been the most blatant, but not the only one in the last years. What happened in Seville?There was a lot of pressure from the AVT. They still send letters that don’t give a shit about the fact we were declared innocent. They write their lies to try and put pressure on people, to get the media involved, to create a scandal and to get things cancelled because of popular opinion against it [the concert]. But they’re not managing lately. I think they have sussed them out. In Seville they threatened the club with organising a demonstration on the door and the guy from the club called the police. The poor man told us he couldn’t sleep due to the pressure! But he went on with it and we played.
Is it always the Asociación de Víctimas del Terrorismo who puts pressure on the press?Not always. Last year, the UPyD party sent a letter to the press to try and get us banned in Villena (Alicante) at the presentation of the Aupa Lumbreras festival because they said we were a bad example for the youth and it was better for them not to hear our songs. There was pressure, but the concert took place because the guy in charge is brave and he knows he has all the legal permits and all. And this time, in Madrid no one told us they had received a letter from the AVT. It was the police directly. We also know that the PP, or at least this is what we’ve heard, has a black list of bands they don’t want to perform. In Valencia, for instance, it’s very difficult for us to play. In places where the PP is strong, they have their list of banned bands. Some years ago we used to play in a festival at the plaza de toros of Leganés and they threatened the guy in all sorts of ways. Since he didn’t cancel, he was inspected and obliged to install metal detectors at the doors. That’s a lot of money and it made the concert impossible economically and so he had to finally cancel it. They requested unacceptable security requirements they ask no one else.
The most difficult years were from the debate at the Cope until the trial took place in 2006?Certainly! Those were the worst years. We couldn’t advertise our gigs. Each one was a fight and an agony to make it happen. We had to set up emergency meetings all the time. We called it our crisis cabinet. And we had to decide between not saying anything or denouncing what was happening. But we didn’t want to go around like crying babies and sometimes we just said: let it go, whatever… Until the trial took place and we were declared innocent, we were totally defenceless. It was our word against theirs. And you’re fucking no one, a rock band, whereas they have all the power in their hands, the media at their feet and influence over political parties. It was an impossible fight. Until we had that weapon, which was to be told you’re right by their own laws and courts, the thing was awful because they didn’t give a shit about what we said. No one cared to publish our side of the matter.
Do you know any other band that has suffered as much pressure and for as long a time as you?No, not so much as us, I think we won the race! But Su Ta Gar are suffering something similar in the Basque Country, they are being crucified. But their thing is not so bad: they play less in the rest of the country, and since they sing in Basque, whoever wants to go against them has to translate their lyrics… Berri Txarrak also suffered some pressure in some PP territories.
Did you stop playing the songs Explota zerdo! and Síndrome del norte?We hadn’t played them for a long time. There are lots of old songs we no longer play. Those songs had disappeared from our sets, so we didn’t have any moral issue. We could have said that we stopped playing them because some people were offended, but we didn’t feel we were committing any crime, just that people were misinterpreting the songs.
Did you ever think you would lose the trial?I did! It’s a lottery! It is clear that depending on the judge, anything could have happened. Depending on the political circumstances at the time, it could have gone one way or another. And it was very obvious. Garzón kept on rejecting the denunciation, and one day he is out of the office and it goes to Grande-Marlaska, who follows the procedure. Logic tells you that such a brutal and arbitrary attack to freedom of speech would have been a fucking scandal, as was what happened with Pussy Riot in Russia. But I see so much injustice, so many envelopes going from hand to hand and so many fake trials that I think, “who knows what they want now…” Judicial independence is not so… independent.
The verdict exculpated you. You’re only “near the limits of exaltation” and only in one of your songs. Apart from feeling relieved, are you satisfied?Not really because we’re not any place fucking near it anyway. I was a lot more convinced by the sentence dictated by Garzón, who said that even if he didn’t agree with our opinion, [expressing] it was an individual right, and that the song didn’t come near a crime of exaltation of terrorism or humiliation of its victims. He noted, “not even by approximation.” But the others said that it was “near.”
Though on a different tone, you still speak clearly and crudely in some songs featured in the album Cadenas de odio, like Presunto culpable.We believe we have the right to do it. Because of my age, more than anything, today I wouldn’t write a song such as Explota zerdo! I would write those lyrics differently than when I was nineteen. It’s normal. You’re no longer as impulsive. But we still like to say things the way they are, to leave no room for ambiguity. That hasn’t changed at all.
In all this process, didn’t the band undergo a crisis? Did any of the members ever say, “let’s change the tone” or “we should acknowledge our mistakes”?There’s always been the odd, “fuck, did you have to say that?” and some “for fuck’s sake, you’re too wild!” We see things and know that in their context and time they made sense. But this whole affair kept us closer together. Because you either become one or you go to hell. And seeing how we were getting slapped from all angles made us talk a lot and be better than ever as a band. We are all on the same boat. Now, when it comes to writing, we might think things through a bit more, but that’s more due to my life than to them wanting me to change the way I am.
Why don’t you go to the media to denounce the situation you’re living as a band?Because they usually never help us anyway, most media support power. In our experience, you make some statements and unless you send something very concrete, which is what we tend to do, you’re manipulated, they take sentences out of context, and in the end they tried to portray us as even worse. I can’t generalise but, deep down, you think: is it worth it? Since we’re already doomed and people have been made to believe that we’re for self-determination, we’re the devil and it doesn’t matter what we say. It’s like shouting to the wind.
But this time at least you wanted to write a statement.There were other cases that could have been denounced, and we decided to say nothing, but this time we thought it was so outrageous for three different venues to ban us and we were so fucking sick of it that we preferred to speak up. On the other hand, we don’t want to play the victim, even though we are victims, but that’s the contradiction and we’re afraid it will be bad for us. When something like this happens, you think there’s going to be a big wave of solidarity. It happens in Russia with Pussy Riot and Amnesty International and everybody supports them, but with us is a lot trickier because as soon as you try to understand our situation you’re already siding with us and you’re insulted. Everything is so politicised.