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an interview with Ted Stevens by Martin Williams
Perhaps in acknowledgement of business unfinished following the silent demise of Nebraska's Lullaby for the Working Class a couple of years ago, the new release by primary Lullaby songwriter Ted Stevens's new loose confederation Mayday, comes with a cover-mount sticker announcing the contents to be "Informally... Lullaby for the Working Class." Promotional expediency aside, it's unusual amid the ever-present hustle towards individualism and divergence, for such a continuum to be flagged up so directly. 'Old Blood' may lack the snowballing instrumental collision that characterised the best moments of LftWC, but Ted Stevens's parables survive intact, as Mayday extends and vindicates the expansion of form that Lullaby embarked upon with the EP 'The Ebb and Flow, the Come and Go, the To and Fro', and their final album 'Song'. It's no accident that Mayday came together as part of the annual May 1st concerts staged by Ted and friends in Omaha, Nebraska over the last six years. Though the songs might at times be angry, defiant, melancholic and many things beside, LftWC and Mayday bear witness to the function of music not as propaganda, solipsism or shtick, but as an inclusive force, a standard to rally around and buoy up, one that encourages and enacts its own fellowship and solidarity, and ends up every bit the balm that a name like Lullaby for the Working Class implies.Is there any connection between the names Mayday and Lullaby for the Working Class? May Day being International Workers' Day.
Yes. Does this indicate a larger social/political interest on your part? How do you integrate this interest with your music work?
My music is the medium by which I communicate everything internal to all receptive externals. The message thus far has been elusive and, in my own harsh opinion, non-committal to a political leaning. This I hope to change with subsequent efforts. The connotations of Mayday and the imagery of a name like Lullaby for the Working Class are very important to me because they reveal my sympathies and set the tone effectively for the sounds that follow. A larger political interest is mandatory from here on out.Is this your own will or a necessity to 'put your money where your mouth is'?
Mandatory because current events necessitate a response. I have no money, only a mouth.Do you sense a lack of engagement around you, a lack of a necessary response?
I feel guilty for my personal detachment from the issues at hand. My sympathies have been in the right place, but complacent and bewildered.Are you talking about directly addressing issues in your songs, or about the processes and structures surrounding the music?
I'm hoping to address the hostility of the modern global political climate and the absurdity of our American system in future songwriting. Are you wary about being seen to be soapboxing?
No. Many of the new songs follow a narrative/storyline that keeps the 'political' commentary buried in the characters' development and their own storytelling. I'm trying to remove myself from this narration.Do you think music is, or has traditionally been, an effective medium for directly addressing 'political' issues? Who do you look to for examples of this?
Music is an effective medium for everything. Personally, I find solace in the words of the late D. Boon, 80's activist and frontman for the Minutemen.Both LftWC and Mayday seem to be collective endeavours. Do you see a metaphor for a wider communality in this, with the communal participation and interaction symbolising something of the essence of your wider concerns?
Yes, I would like to acknowledge and play off that metaphor. I don't know how much of a collective the band will be in the future, but that would be the ideal.Is it important to you that your collaborators/band members share your convictions?
It is only important that they feel comfortable playing and singing with my lyrics. An open dialogue on all matters helps time pass in the bars and cars. Differing convictions fuel this conversation. I have sought out like-minded (wide open) people to play with.How would you typify American political consciousness? Are you optimistic about the future?
America is still licking its wounds from last fall. Any statement of political dissonance is not acceptable around the majority of citizens (see Bush's 2002 approval ratings). Another huge section of the population seems detached and disinterested from the discussion (see ostrich 'head in ground' phenomenon). The major news sources follow the interests of bigger business and broadcast 'terror' reports until they're blue in the face. The Whitehouse is full of multi-millionaires locked arm and arm with Ted Turner and co. Public opinion is in need of a massive overhaul. I've lost most faith in the Bush administration. The only hope is to bridge the Democrats with their peers to the far left in some attempt to compete with the resurging republican nightmare ahead of us.Do you feel that revolution is feasible or desirable?
I have hope that more journalists (i.e. the Mike Moores and Noam Chomskys of the country) will step into the light before the next election and rally the cause in greater interest of the greater people. As long as the American majority feels threatened however, in terms of homeland defense, I'm concerned that paranoia and conservativism will reign. Revolution might be a state of consciousness for the Americans on the left and in the shadows. Do you think that the real revolution is occurring in a global sense against America?The couple of times I saw Lullaby for the Working Class perform you were all very much dressed up for the occasion. What was the thinking behind this?
We wanted the audience to know that we had respect for them.Although you've been involved in other, more 'rock' outfits-latterly Cursive-the bands in which you've been formative, LftWC & Mayday, share a similar texture and orchestration. What attracts you to this set-up?
I love to watch bands play outside of the rock format. Over the years it's become stagnant and repetitive.What were the circumstances behind Lullaby for the Working Class coming to an end, and the subsequent 'resurrection' as Mayday?
At the end of 1999, Lullaby did a two-week tour supporting the third album 'Song'. By the end of this tour I knew that most of the band was interested in moving out of Nebraska, I was interested in returning to the University. AJ was already back in school. The recording of 'Song' was a total pain in the ass for me. I really struggled with my voice and writing. Acknowledging the end result, I was insecure and disappointed. Lullaby quietly took hiatus. Mayday existed for the whole run with Lullaby, just under a variety of monikers, recording demos and playing dissonant live sets. Always with a theme of revolt, if only against conventionalism. When it came time to make a record again-when I believed the demos reflected a decent record-it was important for me to use a new moniker and alternate approach to the studio time allotted by Saddle Creek. Mike Mogis co-wrote much of the Lullaby music, especially for 'Song'. He is the mind behind the instrumentation. Without his presence in the composition of the Mayday record, it seemed unfair to title the group Lullaby. I miss Shane as well. What were the reasons behind your struggle during the recording?
Substance abuse, mental fatigue, political ennui, lack of vocal exercise (past rock efforts had seasoned my voice, between 1997-1999 there was no such outlet).What was the nature of this alternate approach in the studio?
Live recording as a trio (guitar, bass, drums/tympani), followed by live strings (violin, cello, double bass). Several different guest/backup vocalists. This approach regained something of a Lullaby for the Working Class flow once Mike began production in November 2001. Until then-namely the first session of recording in May 2001-it had a feel of something entirely it's own.Is there an adjustment to be made to go from primary songwriter to 'band member' when you're working with Cursive or Bright Eyes? What are the relative benefits of each?
Playing with other bands has made me a better guitarist and accompanist, a better listener and player to back up my friends and their songs. Applying that to my own writing is only beneficial.You mentioned people leaving Nebraska as one of the reasons for Lullaby dissolving. Have you made a conscious decision to remain there?
I've struggled with the same lust to relocate and wander. Luckily, touring has now got that out of my system. I'm currently looking for an apartment so that I can root myself once again in the Omahas.Saddle Creek suggests the existence of a healthy music/cultural community in Omaha. What's your view on this?
Omaha has always been the main influence on my listening and writing. Saddle Creek has tapped into a portion of this energy. Good things have passed and will come again unnoticed by those outside of Omaha, even those outside Saddle Creek's audience. Are you happy for Mayday to be seen as a continuation of Lullaby for the Working Class under another name?
Will I ever be happy?
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002