Soundtracking the Resistance - An Interview with Jake Snider of Minus the Bear

One Step Forward, Too Many Steps Back

Jul 28, 2017 By Stephen Mayne Web Exclusive
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This week Jake Snider from Minus the Bear discusses the future of the right, the state of the country, and his move from one side of the political spectrum to the other. We also round-up a busy and unpleasant week for Trump, particularly when it comes to healthcare and transgender rights, plus there's a little Iron & Wine to close.

The Big Event 

Time changes some things, but not everything. For Jake Snider, lead vocalist and lyricist for indie rock stalwarts Minus the Bear, he's seeing both sides of that coin. The Seattle band formed in 2001 and released VOIDS, its sixth full-length in March. The new record has taken them back on the road. Europe beckoned earlier in the year, and a North American Fall tour was announced this week.

But while all that may feel familiar, life has changed for Snider over what's creeping towards two decades in the band. There's been a shift in the line-up since founding member and drummer Erin Tate left in 2015, and on a personal level Snider is a family man these days. It's back home he goes in-between tour dates, and it's where he's speaking from now. "I've got my kids here so I might be slightly distracted when they come around screaming." For the record, at no stage did they come around screaming.

Another thing that's changed is the political environment in the United States, and Snider is a political guy. His Twitter feed is full of frustrated commentary and defiant retweeting as he fights back against the madness infecting the country. He's happy to stand up and say these things from the stage as well. Not so much in the songs themselves though. "I don't often do political lyrics. Maybe a couple of times on a record there's some shades of it, but I'm not Fugazi." That despite having recently covered Fugazi.

The absence of overt politicizing is borne out on VOIDS, an album that finds the band in the reinventing game after five years since the last full-length. The intervening time saw anniversary records, acoustic versions of old tracks, and a collection of unreleased work. While there's a fresh, more direct feel to the new work, the guitar lines remain as vital as ever and Snider's sometimes obtuse lyrics continue to fascinate. But as he says, there's not too much mixing of politics and music. The two exist side-by-side in his life, not combined.

Perhaps surprisingly, it turns out Snider wasn't always the liberal firebrand he is now. "I was pretty conservative for the first half of my life. The DIY philosophy from punk rock, I feel like I almost misinterpreted it as something you can extend to everything, kind of like an Ayn Randian thing. That whole if you can do it, you can do it yourself blah blah blah."

Born in 1976, he attributes some of this initial feeling to his upbringing. "I grew up in Washington State, in a Seattle suburb, which is one of the whitest places in the country. I grew up outside the city core so it's a little less liberal." Family conversations certainly sounded interesting as well. "My mom was a Republican, but kind of a fiscal conservative, more liberal socially, and my dad was a Democrat."

This early veer towards conservatism, at least fiscally, didn't last. "Travelling and being in an urban environment helped me understand what the world actually functions like. It's not reasonable to have the attitude "if that person didn't want to be poor they wouldn't be poor," or "if that person didn't want to be sick they wouldn't be sick." That's ultimately the current right-wing Republican mentality; that people wouldn't be poor, wouldn't be sick, wouldn't be suffering if God favored them like he favored me. It's hard to argue with that kind of religious perspective."

When this clicked for Snider, he became what he glibly describes as "a bleeding-heart liberal," and not one who has given up all hope in current circumstances either. He certainly sees the country as a more divided place than at any point in his lifetime, but this is more limiting for the Republican Party. "Legitimate Republicans are this specific archetype-you know, the pro-life, Christian, conservative archetype. The thing about the Democratic Party for me is you can be a progressive all the way to a socially liberal fiscal conservative and it kind of covers a broad section of the population."

This poses some real problems for the GOP. "The Republican Party is a shrinking population at this point and it continues to shrink as baby boomers move on to their next life. As younger people, like the Millennials or whatever, start gaining political power, their ideas on diversity or socially liberal things are going to become more important to the population. The right-wing ideology is a shrinking one. They don't really have a future that is going to be sustainable."

Given the general hand-wringing over the state of the country, it almost sounds as if Snider is looking ahead with a degree of optimism. Almost is the key word sadly. When asked directly about this optimism, he puts a hard stop on it. "I was optimistic until election day." Two words explain this turnabout: Supreme Court. He also puts a portion of the blame on the left for the current situation. "Some people on the left are so cynical they'd rather ignore shutting off the GOP in favor of their own kind of radical purity in voting. They don't want to have a candidate they disagree with on any level even if it costs the Supreme Court for 40 years."

That hint of a brighter future has faded from his voice as the specter of Trump's appointee Neil Gorsuch looms up. "Any progressive legislation or issue that gets to the Supreme Court is now much more likely to be shut down with Gorsuch." It also looks likely to get worse as some of the existing Justices are replaced. "There's going to be three more probably in the next four to eight years. They're going to be there for the rest of their lives. We're talking 40 years minimum of regression because not enough people could stomach voting for Clinton to block these bastards."

As for the man at the top, Snider still sees more threat from the GOP itself. "The Republican Party doesn't really change. The thing Trump has given them is the opportunity to force things through while the guy doesn't quite understand what's going on around him. He wants to be more of a figurehead, to enjoy the trappings of leadership without having to understand how the world works."

Not that he doesn't think a Trump presidency isn't a terrible thing of course. "I was scared of Mitt Romney. I thought that would have been a disaster so this is like 10 times worse." Bad as it may be, he's determined not to sit back quietly. "You have to mock them on some level when they have these ridiculous ideas."

But too much focus on the man in the White House is also a potential danger. Snider agrees that with all eyes on Trump, the Republicans could be freed up to do what they want in the background. The media is his answer to this, though he's not overly impressed with the way things have been handled to date. "I wish the media was better at doing their job. It's their job to be reporting on what's going on in Congress and what legislation is happening."

He pins declining standards to the way the structure of news reporting has altered. "The format change has been destructive to the process where you have 24-hour news stations that are focused on profitable content. The news hour was a commercial-free public service provided to inform people, back when it was network TV and we had proper journalists doing news." Snider steps back from a blanket condemnation. "There is good journalism happening, obviously. But the media has to sell things and pay bills and make profit for the shareholders and all this. It's not exactly the fourth estate as it's supposed to operate anymore."

So, the course of opinion seems to be moving in the right direction, but institutional roadblocks are arising that could have a detrimental impact, and the current state of affairs is far from ideal. It's fair to say the world Snider looks out on is a mixed one. As for him though, he's going to keep going, as are Minus the Bear. Their secret is simple. "We see ourselves as a collective. We're friends and we're constantly trying to work through problems and maintain friendships without too much animosity between the good times and the bad. We've relied on each other to create a life for ourselves." It wouldn't be a bad sentiment for the ever more partisan country to adopt.

What's Going On

Just when it seems the will they/won't they game plaguing the future of American healthcare has settled down, it only goes and gets more convoluted. By the narrowest of votes, Senate Republicans came together to agree to open debate on the issue. What's followed since has been a series of failed votes on a number of new measures. Consensus might have been moving around a narrow version of repeal, but that too failed late last night, in parts thanks to Republican Senator John McCain. Ultimately though, no one really knows, other than that if the Republicans get their way, whatever way that may turn out to be, the health of many Americans is likely to be worse off as a result.

Trump got involved in the healthcare debacle by trying to shame senators into action (though as ever with this changeable President, it's never entirely clear what action he wants), but he thought attacking human decency in only one way wasn't enough for the week. The Commander-in-Chief also decided to impose a band on transgender individuals serving in the armed forces. This despite no clear plans on implementation and significant opposition including within the armed forces, and from ex-military Republican senators, some of whom were clear the whole thing is mean and ridiculous. But that's pretty much been the hallmark of his time in power so far.

All this leaves poor Jeff Sessions relegated in importance, despite featuring prominently this week. It seems Trump is angling for his head, unhappy the Attorney General recused himself from the Russia investigation without quashing it. He's also apparently supposed to be targeting Hillary Clinton despite there being no grounds to target her on anything. Trump has been happily tweeting bile at Sessions to the point he's even got some on his own side rushing to defend the man. However, given Sessions' retrograde views on law and order, would it be such a bad thing to see him go?

Speak Up!

Returning to the proposed transgender ban, artists across the music world have reacted with disgust to Trump's decision. Here are a few examples ranging from articulate frustration to blunt fury:

 

 

 

 

Canadian musician Grimes appeared in a video supporting Planned Parenthood this week. The video, directed by Harley Weir and part of a series from New York fashion brand Proenza Schouler, involves personal monologues from an impressive cast of people explaining the importance of Planned Parenthood.

Song of the Week: Iron & Wine - "Thomas County Law"

If you're looking to have your heart gently broken, Sam Beam, better know by his stage name Iron & Wine, is the person to turn to. He's just released a new song from his upcoming album Beast Epic, due out on August 25. "Thomas County Law" comes with a video that has Beam dressed up as a local preacher, setting up for a funeral. In a week where healthcare in the U.S. is in danger of dying, and bigotry, at least from the guy at the top, has overtaken tolerance, it seems a fitting image.

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