Philadelphia’s Rosetta have achieved a lot in their ten years as a band. In addition to three self-released LPs full of lush, intricate, and very noisy post-rock and metal, they’ve toured extensively, especially to spots their contemporaries have yet to visit.
Rosetta’s travels are the perfect mirror to their artistic eclecticism, matching, in terms of territory covered, the breadth of ideas communicated by their epic songs.
One half of the group – Mike Armine, the singer and audio-manipulator, and J. Matthew Weed, who plays guitar – recently sat down with Souciant to discuss everything from playing in the former Eastern Bloc to the creation of subculture and where we go from there.
What follows is a fabulous and involved conversation, that’s as good an argument for Rosetta as any of the band’s gigs or records.
A = Mike Armine (he goes by his last name)
M = Matt Weed
Souciant: How functional is touring in Russia?
M: It’s very functional. Everybody always says negative things about Russia, they talk about how scary it is, they tell you the stories about crazy things that happened. But none of them have ever been there. So you don’t know if any of that is true or not. The rumor mill is big.
Souciant: It seems like more established bands will go there, but not as many DIY bands. What kind of reception did you get?
A: We were treated better than we were treated anywhere.
Souciant: I remember talking to Rich Hoak from Total Fucking Destruction and Brutal Truth. He relayed stories about the off-the-beaten-track places they’ve played. Hoak said that it’s sometimes just enough that the band is from America that will make people come out, that the music itself plays a backseat role.
A: That was our first experience in Australia. It was less about who you were, more about “You’re from America and that doesn’t happen too often.” In Russia, I can’t say if it was being an American band that made those shows so big.
M: But also the Russian shows were cheap. There was some of what you were describing, but actually there were a lot of people there who knew the words to our songs, which was very weird. We encounter that lots of places but not places like Russia. Poland is the only other analogous place where that has happened.
Souciant: What about Rosetta works for the Poles?
M: It’s something about people east of the Iron Curtain. I think that especially for the late ’20s early ’30s crowd in those areas, because the big experience of their childhood is the fall of Communism. There’s a sense that things were just crushingly despairing prior to that, but then there’s also this sense of disappointment about how things have gone since then. It feels like their main experience through life has been ambivalence. So something about music that doesn’t deal explicitly, but sort of creates this tension, I think makes intuitive sense to people with those kinds of life experiences.
Souciant: Is there much over there that compares to what we would describe as a DIY scene?
A: (With) the Russian shows, we didn’t play anywhere that would be considered DIY by American standards. We played squats in eastern Poland, so it exists in eastern Poland.
M: My normal experience in the U.S. is that most of the time the DIY/all ages stuff is going to be a better show than when we play at a bar or a club. In, you know, eighty percent of cases that’s true in the United States. I actually think the opposite is true with the squats we played at in Eastern Europe. It was super disorganized; the band is just a distraction.
A: It was like you were playing a house party, where here it’s a show. And where here playing at a bar is a burden, over there playing a bar is for the music. And that may have something to do with the drinking culture being different than it is here.
M: I don’t know what DIY is like in Russia, because that was not part of our experience there.
Souciant: Do you think it exists?
A: It has to!
M: My sense is that maybe it doesn’t exist for international bands in Russia. I feel like it has to exist for Russian bands, but (not) for international bands, because of the logistics [necessary to tour.] The thing with touring in the European Union is that if you’re an American citizen or a Canadian citizen, it’s a piece of cake. You show up and play. With Russia it’s invitation letters, a background check, (and) a visa application process that’s 45 pages of forms per person.
Souciant: I’ve heard that sometimes you have to deal with the mafia.
A: We didn’t have to, but our guy might have been paying those people off, we don’t know.
M: It’s pretty interesting because we didn’t actually see any of the behind-the-scenes stuff. We had to deal with the visas, and that was terrible. But once we got there, it was “Here’s your meal tickets, what would you like to eat for dinner,” and at the end of the tour he paid us a pretty good amount of money.
A: It was one of the more professional things that we’ve done. But getting back to that DIY versus above ground shows, in Poland, the squats were dysfunctional and disorganized, but Zoro [in Leipzig, Germany] – while they ran late – was nice.
Souciant: I just feel like DIY, as we see it, is an American or at least Western construct in a lot of ways.
M: It’s because of the attachment to individual enterprise. It feels like when it’s instantiated in other countries, there’s a certain extent to which it’s an imitation or a parody of the American individuation of enterprise. But then it’s always acculturated in that location, so that we have poor experiences in Poland, in squats. I don’t know what it is: we go to Croatia and we have fantastic experiences in squats. In Germany, it’s very much integrated into the work ethic: do things nicely, treat people well, that type of thing.
Souciant: What’s it like coming back from Europe to America?
A: When we came back from our first run to Europe, we played this festival in Pittsburgh. There were, like, ten kids at this fest. The last show I played was to about 500 kids and I’m going, ‘Oh shit.’
M: And that’s why our friends tour Europe every single year.
A: It took me a minute to adjust, but I realized that this is community, this is all-ages, this is why we do it. It’s not about the numbers of people. It’s about the people there that care about us.
M: It’s weird. I feel like I’m not objectively able to evaluate the quality of bands from different places because I’m in a band. But the guy who books us in Europe, his theory is that because it sucks to play in the United States, that that’s the reason that DIY bands from the United States are better than DIY bands who come out of other places.
Souciant: Because it’s so much harder to tour?
M: It is. In his words, it weeds out the unfit. I’m not really interested in touring Europe every summer just because that’s where we have the easiest time or whatever. I feel like there is a certain amount of perspective [to be gained] from being able to bounce around to different places where you engage in different tradeoffs in each place.
We’re talking about going to China next year. I’ve been to China because my wife is from there, and because of that, it’s the tour that I’m most excited about out of anything we’ve ever done. We’re probably not going to make any money, our plane tickets are going to be a pain in the ass to pay for, but we might have the best time we’ve ever had anywhere. I think it will be crazy.
Souciant: What do you know about your following in China?
M: What I understand is that post-rock is really huge in China right now in the bigger urban centers. You’re not going to find it outside of the sorta global megacities, which means that there’s, like, seven places to play. In a nation of 1.4 billion people, there’s seven places to play. That being said, at least according to the guy that we’re talking to, metal is really not a thing there but it’s going to be very soon. He said that there’s a place for a band that can cross over between this floaty post-rocky shoegaze thing and something that’s heavier. Punk is doing really well in China, and he said it’s only a matter of time before kids start getting into metal.
He’s e-mailing me from behind the great firewall of China, but I’ve had enough conversations with people who live in China to understand some of the stuff he’s hinting at. It’s not just about the fact that it’s a western idiom. It’s also about the fact that it’s fundamentally a protest idiom, that loud, angry music does something for people who are not guaranteed freedom of speech. He feels like there’s something important about being a loud and expressive band that goes beyond any notion of taste or genre or identifying with a particular subculture the way we conceive of it. It cuts straight to the heart of the experience of being young in a place like China. In that respect, it’s similar to the experience of being young in Russia, where there’s this major event of the fall of the Soviet Union that demarcated [everyone’s] life. Except that in China it’s not like one event, it’s this massive sea change where the city that you live in is three times the size it was 15 years ago when you were a kid. I can’t even imagine that, that’s crazy.
Souciant: Discovering new culture that exists everywhere else but where you are must be a very unique experience. Speaking of which, you mentioned talking to some fans in Iran recently?
M: There’s this illegal person-to-person photocopy ‘zine that I did an interview with in Iran.
Souciant: How’d they find you?
M: I don’t know. I guess the Internet? The interesting thing about Iran is that their government is taking a different tactic than China. China decides to block all this stuff. Iran doesn’t block anything, but they monitor what you access, which in some respects is much more insidious and much more effective.
The ‘zine they write is this person-to-person thing, and it’s not government sanctioned, because our music is not government sanctioned. In that interview, the guy said, “Your music is illegal in our country. Do you feel that the fact that we pirated your albums is justified?” And I said, “Yeah, sure, why not.” Again, it returns to this idea of an idiom that is fundamentally protest-oriented. It’s not to say that all rock music is protest music, that’s not true. But when you go back to the roots of rock that it’s engaging in appropriation almost for the explicit purpose of protest. And I think that’s something that people intuitively grasp when they’re having the experience that you’re describing of having this thing that exists everywhere else but doesn’t exist here. When you have that tabula rasa-like first listen of it, I think it makes sense that this is opposition. Then it becomes an issue of self-expression when there is no guarantee of being able to do that, like in a place like Iran.
Souciant: What do you think that means in regards to protest music in this country?
A: To what end? I find that with a lot of the protest punk bands, it just falls on deaf ears. Take a band like Catharsis, one of my favorite bands of all time. At the end of the day, what’s going to change there? I feel like that guy – and he believes every word he’s saying, and I know it – is singing to a bunch of apathetic punks that have been spoon-fed and who are pretty much pampered. No one’s going to create any kind of social change. It might raise a few iotas of awareness. And you look at a place like Iran, where people are super hungry for change. You’re talking about apples and oranges there, it’s two different things. So I don’t think that protest music here is really going to bring us the change that we want right now.
M: That raises the question of what is the purpose of protest music. Is the end the expression itself or is the end producing some sort of movement or something. And I don’t actually feel resolved about that. What I think is interesting is that you have a case like Iran where the music itself is outlawed.
Souciant: But the protest music there can be Michael Jackson, and it has been in the past.
M: Exactly. And that’s the sort of polar opposite of our situation [in the United States], where you just have the self-satisfied people who think things are fine. What’s interesting to me about China in particular is that China’s somewhere in the middle: they essentially have a totally oppressive totalitarian regime that is using the tools of late capitalism – materialism and consumer psychology – to anesthetize it’s population to the fact that they do not have any freedom. And so part of what’s interesting about the Chinese case is that despite the presence of this American-style consumerism and hyper-materialism that there’s still an experience of self-expression that’s coming along with the music that’s clicking with people. It’s outside of our categories for those types of things, for expressions of protest and the such.
A: It makes me think about old protest songs of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Take the old Bob Dylan stuff, for example. That got union workers pretty stoked. We can make the connection that he got union workers pretty worked up and [they] went out and fought hard. I don’t necessarily think that punk rockers today and politically active bands are really going to put a fire under anybody’s ass here in America because once they experience the least bit of discomfort, they stop. And that is evidenced by what happened at Occupy Wall Street. It got cold and people went home.
Souciant: With a lot of punk music, you’re just preaching to the choir. It’s yet another dissatisfied youth from the suburbs.
A: We’ve met you. We’ve seen you before.
M: Maybe that’s the problem. The discourse of protest in the United States is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly college-educated, and affluent.
Souciant: Which is why in a lot of ways people have been looking at hip-hop as, I hate to say it, the new punk.
A: No, it’s the new punk. You’re totally justified in saying that.
Souciant: What’s fascinating is just how much it’s been embraced around the world, especially by minority populations.
A: It’s a protest against what the affluent white system has done to people of color, how it’s kept people in pockets of poverty. [On Youtube] you pick a country and you’ll find a video of somebody with a crappy ass boombox and a microphone standing in front of a shack, rhyming about the shitty conditions in which they live in. Which is what happened in America in the ‘70s with hip-hop. That caused a lot of changes within the African American community of New York and then obviously in LA. But again, this goes back to the fact that the dissatisfied punks are white, educated suburban kids. (Punk) is not going to get that same steam behind it.
Souciant: But it might in other countries.
A: The question in my mind is what is it about our system that prevents that kind of change. Is it the fact that these white, educated college kids are then falling into home ownership? I’m part of that thing. I could go out and protest, I could have been at Occupy Wall Street more than I was, but I own a home, I’ve got a job, I have responsibilities. I’m living a life that’s integrated into this system. Whereas what does that guy in South Africa with a boom box and a microphone have to lose? Not much.
M: We’re the new consumers. What do you have to lose? Everything you want to buy.
A: Being a teacher, if I were to get fired for political activism I would never find a job again. I have no skills. I might as well be a terrorist. I’m not going to find work with that black smear across my resume. I’ve got a lot to lose by putting my neck on the line that way. So do a lot of the white, educated punks in bands.
M: Part of the problem is that the discourse is infuriating. The discourse of protest in the United States is the same thing that has happened to the discourse of feminism in the west, where it’s become super insular and it’s wrapped itself in this vocabulary that really only makes sense to one little group of people. It’s the way that the discourse of feminism developed in a way to be about white women who are affluent and it’s only just now starting to move beyond that vocabulary.
There needs to be a coherent sense of what it means to talk to people who are different than you. And by ‘different than you’ I mean why is it easier for me to talk to an international student from the University of Pennsylvania than it is to talk to the guy who does my plumbing? And it’s because elite education constitutes a culture. So I can sit here and believe that I’m enlightened and that I’m not a racist and I’m not a misogynist and all those other things, when in fact all that allows me to believe that is that I associate with people who look different from me but are the same as me because we come from the same elite education culture. And I can’t talk to my plumber who is the same gender and the same skin color as me because there’s this wider gulf that separates us. And really, I’m still racist, I’m still misogynist, but I’ve been coddled into believing I’m not.
Souciant: Racism and a lack of diversity is definitely something that comes up a lot in the punk and metal scenes.
A: Our bass player is African American and we travel overseas. I can think of two instances of him being harassed … at shows and also out in public. When we were in Russia, and I looked out into the crowd, I did not see a lot of diversity. At most of the shows we played in Europe I did not see a lot of diversity. And when we play the States, I don’t see as much diversity as I would like, but I still see more of it.
M: Australia is probably the best balance of multiracial and fairly even gender balance that I’ve seen anywhere that we’ve been.
Souciant: I was at a basement metal show the other week, and there were a lot of non-white people there. I was pretty psyched about it.
A: It would be great if we could get to the point where we don’t have to associate race and music. When we play Philly, there’s this one guy, he’s this really tall African American man, and when he comes to shows [I think] “this is awesome!” It’s change, it’s progress. But again, is that excitement my racism bubbling over? Because I should just be, like, ‘whatever.’ But I’m not.
Souciant: I don’t think we exist in a place where you can say whatever to that.
A: That’s what’s so great about DIY is that it creates that environment where anybody can go. It brings community where there was none. Why are there basement shows that happen only in West Philly and South Philly? Because it’s pockets of poverty where the cops don’t go where we know this and we take advantage of it and we build a little bit of community. And sure, the neighbors don’t like the loud noise, but it brings in foot traffic, it brings in business, and after a while those areas will change and we’ll move on to another spot. And that’s what’s so beautiful about it.
Souciant: But that’s also gentrification, which is what subcultures often do.
M: I’m ambivalent about it. This goes back to the whole white identity thing, and the attachment to whiteness: there is nowhere I can go that my whiteness will not follow me and have consequences for people other than myself. I continue to feel uncomfortable about that. I feel like I’m getting to a point where I’m getting to be okay with whiteness, and starting to feel like I have a better grasp of what whiteness is, but it is hard because you say, “I don’t want the things normally attached to whiteness but because I’m white they’re attached to me and they follow me wherever I go and I can’t do anything about that.” So I don’t know if it’s okay that punks go into rundown neighborhoods and end up being the first wave of gentrification. Maybe it is. And maybe we’re all just, in the words of Ted Kaczynski, over-socialized liberals so divorced from the basis of our survival that we can’t help but over-think everything. But maybe, on the other hand, we’re simply not entitled to that, I don’t know.
Souciant: As a DIY band, in the States you’re seeing repeated versions of the same thing, and then you go to Europe where it’s a sea of white faces. You have to ask what all this is inspiring people to do.
A: I guess that’s what I like about punk rock being in these pockets of poverty is that maybe, just maybe, it gets somebody else who is not apart of the punk scene to say, “You know what I can do with that abandoned lot, I can turn it into a garden and I can grow vegetables.” It doesn’t have to be punk, it can be something else. I don’t think we’ve been around long enough to see that. I don’t know if we ever will.
With the music (of Rosetta) I just want to get somebody to do something awesome for themselves. I want that kid in Iran do something great, whether it’s to create a piece of protest art [or] keep doing his zine. To me, the fact that we put out a record that he got ten years later and wrote a review of it in the ‘zine that he’s shadily photocopying somewhere and handing out is awesome. That’s a piece of a bigger puzzle that I’m proud to be a part of. I’m not taking part in the overthrow of the Iranian government, but maybe that kid’s going to do it. And that’s me being stupidly hopeful.
Souciant: Next stop: Iran.
M: We have been talking about playing in places that those people could get to, like Kuwait City, Dubai, even Istanbul. We get requests from there all the time.
A: To me that’s a privilege that most people don’t get, that acknowledgement of “I live here and I like what you do and it means this to me.” When people tell me that on tour, I can’t stand it. But when I go home and reflect on it, I think, “That’s pretty cool. And if this is what my privilege has given me, then I’m glad to have been able to pass something on instead of raping from the land and taking it in for myself.” But knowing at the same time that on some level I’m doing that, too.
M: Yeah you are. I was about to say, you can’t ignore that being in a touring band is cultural imperialism on some level.
A: I’m taking and giving. But I would like to think that what I’m taking is less destructive and more enlightening for me. What I’m giving is hopefully more inspiring to somebody else.
Photograph courtesy of The Eyes of New York. Published under a Creative Commons license.