INTERVIEW: The Totems – 30/05/2015 – Camden Rocks Festival

Thought political rock was dead? Guess again. Deep inside the decrepit corpse of the once vibrant and inflamed genre there comes the smallest of movements. Protest music might need some serious defibrillating to become a real presence in the UK music scene again, but righteous anti-right wing rockers The Totems are at least attempting to give it some mouth to mouth.

the totems camden rocksThe release of the London based quartet’s upcoming single ‘Austerity’, a bile-fuelled rant about the inequality inherent in the state-shrinking spending plans of a now wholly Conservative government, is cleverly planned to coincide with George Osbourne’s upcoming budget, sure to contain deep cuts to the social services and provision for the weakest in British society. “It just fits in to an obvious schedule” guitarist/singer/social activist Darryl Hockings explains, though he admits that no matter who had emerged victorious on 7th May their release would have proceeded as scheduled. “We’ve got a situation where the Labour attitude is ‘if you can’t beat them, join them. We’ve lost the left”. “It’s quite depressing really,” adds be-bearded bassist Niall Diskin.

It’s not only politicians who are turning away from altruistic grassroots politics according to the Totems, it’s musicians as well. When asked about what life as a left leaning band is like Darryl is typically taciturn, “Well musically I don’t really know, we haven’t seen that many political bands who aren’t catch-all ‘Oh we’re anarchists’ or ‘We’re anti-globalisation’ or this and that. No-one’s being terribly specific. That was actually the problem I had with the whole turn towards protest voting becoming not voting and I think the way the election turned out proved that that was a kind of stupid idea. Now we’ve got a Tory majority for the first time in 25 years and they’re absolutely going to screw everything they can. And they’ve come out with their big scary ideas straight away like the Human Rights Act. We’ve got £12 billion in cuts coming up that they can’t really account for. I think it’s a pretty shitty time. Music-wise hopefully we’ll see more people reacting to that.” Are we, then, due a political reinvigoration in music in response to the mulching of arts budgets, the decreased accountability of a business-controlled establishment and the ever swelling siphoning of the country’s money towards the old and rich? “Well,” Darryl muses, “I’ve been waiting for that to kick off for the last five years, and I thought it really would. I think there’s a certain appetite for it, but I think that in the industry there’s just a mindset where it’s not encouraged or promoted.” For Niall this oversight is far from a passive one, “What I would question is whether many bands who have this ideology actually get any airtime? I think the industry’s quite tilted away from that. It’s inherent that, if you’ve got big corporations that effectively control the market, then they probably don’t encourage anti-capitalist rhetoric.”

the totems camden rocks 2They have a point to be honest. Anti-establishmentarianism in music has flatlined since the heyday of Billy Bragg and The Housemartins, now living on ghostlike almost exclusively in the capital’s rap and grime scenes. Young guitar-toting bands with a real sense of injustice still exist, but lack the political vocabulary to write about real world issues. Darryl cherry-picks vitriolic but superficial garage two piece Slaves as an example, “I saw some brutal reviews of (their) album, which does promote the rebellious spirit. But then the lyrics just don’t support any kind of message.” “They’re just scraping the surface really” adds south Croydon rhythm guitarist Paul Gilligan. Niall is quick to point out that the band aren’t suggesting that any music not concerned with the actions of David Cameron’s cabinet is worthless; “You don’t have to be a political band. Also we don’t want to dig a hole for ourselves, a lot of the other songs we have aren’t political, which is the way to do it really. The point is that, if you’re going to be political then at least put a little thought and effort into it and maybe say something constructive rather than just being catch all, because that’s really just noise.”

On the extreme other end of the spectrum are the anarchist punk bands who’s message is too leftfield for the vast majority of listeners to engage with, such as Extreme Noise Terror, The (International) Noise Conspiracy and other bands with ‘Noise’ in their name. “Governments in general don’t mind the extremists,” Niall argues in reference to both musicians and the violent anarchist subsects that have been constantly ruining public protests for the last five years, “they’re not worried about the anarchists and extremists because it’s never really going to have an effect. And, worst case scenario, they’ll just put them all in jail. By all means riot, but at the end of the day if they want to get rid of you then they’ve probably got tonnes to put you away. They’re only really scared when protest becomes a bit mainstream. And I totally get that politics hasn’t been the most fucking engaging thing over the last ten to fifteen years anyway. Without sounding cliché, it’s the way the system’s set up so they won’t get worried.”

But despite their pessimistic outlook on the state of the union, the band happily admit that the worse things get, the better they write. “In (the Totems’ song) ‘New Luck’ there are a few lines that say ‘cathartic therapy with book and pen, hope I’m never too content what would I write then?’, which kind of sums up the depth of the problems I see and the output it stimulates,” Darryl notes when explaining the role of misery in their lyrical make up. “I’ve sat down a number of times thinking ‘I’m going to write an upbeat, happy guitar’ and it always ends up not working out” adds Paul, who notes that the band was formed around the shared despair of him and Darryl breaking up with their long-term partner and wife respectively, “Mutual friends Darryl and me met, hit it off and decided to do this band and after some time looking for a bassist on a permanent basis we met Niall.” Since then the band have been writing so much that they’ve obviously let their misery run away with them, “We’re effectively eighteen months behind, the new stuff’s way older than me!” Niall laughs.

Despite being driven by injustice and discontent, Darryl is optimistic about the band’s future, “Everything we write is incrementally getting better and the sound’s maturing and so we have a state of mind that what we have now is exactly how we want it.” If the sheer punk blast of ‘Austerity’ is anything to go by then their October-due EP should be worth a listen down the line. “Provisionally it was called We’re All In This Together but now I’m not sure…” Darryl ponders, “Well we thought that song ‘Austerity’ was out of date, but now it’s come back and is more relevant than ever!” chips in Niall. As egalitarianism wanes and those with power amass more of it, the relevance of bands like The Totems will only increase; and who knows? Maybe a full Tory government was what was need to start inspiring musicians to address immediate issues head on without worrying about being found ‘preachy’ or ‘divisive’.

Agree or disagree?