Tuesday, September 18, 2012 saw the release of Local H's seventh studio album Hallelujah! Im a Bum. I chatted last week over the phone with frontman Scott Lucas abut the new album and the way Chicago is used as a backdrop for it as well as the band's foray into politically charged fare only months before the upcoming 2012 election this November...
Q. It's been four years since the release of your last Local H album 12 Angry Months... You've never struck me as the type of artist to record an album just to get something out. Obviously you've kept busy with The Married Men (Editor's note: Scott's side project Scott Lucas & The Married Men released their second album Blood Half Moon in June) but there's some pretty clear themes on Hallelujah! I'm a Bum . What motivated you when it came to writing the songs for this album?
Scott Lucas: I think the first Married Men record and 12 Angry Months were both very personal records about personal issues. Things like relationships and breakups. With the last four years, to make another record like that would just be kind of burying your head in the sand. What I really wanted to do was say something, to throw my hat in the ring and convey what I think about what's going on. And I wanted to make this political record that wasn't just flat out a "political" record. I wanted to take these themes and sort of try to figure out how they relate to us on the most personal level. Usually it just seems like politics is sort of out of the grasp of regular people, normal people. I just kind of wanted to figure out how these decisions that people make affect us in our every day lives and just sort of comment on that.
Q. Well, the new album [came out this past Tuesday] but you've been playing some of these songs live for a while now. Some of the tracks could be considered "controversial" given the material and the not so coincidental time of release as we near the 2012 election. How's the reaction been so far?
Lucas: I think pretty good. Sometimes there are people that just think that musicians shouldn't be talking about stuff like this. And I don't agree with that. Some of my favorite bands have been overtly political. And even some of our other songs, older songs... You know, "Bound for the Floor" is a political song. It's about sort of being stuck in the social role that's assigned to you depending on who you're born to. How rich is the family that you're born to? And I think we see a lot of that now. I mean, there's a chance that we might elect another rich dude with daddy issues and I don't really want to see that. I mean, I don't really think that that guy knows f--k all about what goes on day to day with regular people. And the more and more he tries to make us think that, the more ridiculous he looks. There are just certain things you can't fake like that.
I think what the record talks about more than anything is not getting into that cynicism and that hopelessness... that what you say doesn’t matter. I still believe that what people say does matter.
My point is, I don't really agree with the idea that musicians should shut up. I think music is always like Woody Guthrie, that kind of thing. Musicians are supposed to comment and be social critics about what goes on. I think. And I don't think there's enough of that. The only musician that seems to be speaking out is f---ing Ted Nugent! So when he shuts up, I'll shut up.
Q. Well you mentioned that some of your favorite artists were overtly political. You just mentioned Woody Guthrie. Who are some of your other favorites who have spoken out politically?
Lucas: Well, The Clash. I mean, during the eighties, it was like all the underground punk bands were talking about Reagan. And it's just that kind of thing that to me, it kind of gets me going. I respond to music like that. I mean, it's still rock n' roll. It's not like I'm expecting any of these people to sit down and have serious discussions. As serious of a discussion as you could probably get is Sandinista! and that has its own problems.
I'm not trying to be overly didactic with any of this stuff. I want the songs to be good. I want them to be fun to listen to. But I just kind of felt that I just really wanted to make a record like this and I don't really think there's anything on the record that is that crazy.
Q. Let's talk more about Reagan... because there's a track on your new album called "They Saved Reagan's Brain." This idealism and portrait of Reagan as major figurehead in this election is kind of strange to me... What are your thoughts on that when it comes to the new song and in regards to the current political climate?
Lucas: I don't have this nostalgia for Reagan. Here's a guy who basically let himself be a mouthpiece for GE. Here's a guy who we think named names. There are papers that support that claim. And it's disgusting. And here we still talk about Clinton and a blowjob but here's a guy who was involved with Iran -Contra. And somebody gets impeached for a blowjob but not impeached for that? I don't get it. During his time as Governor of California, he was just sending troops into Berkeley. He's just not a wonderful political figure to me.
Is that really what I got into music for? To watch out for the bottom line? I didn't think I did.
Q. Traditionally, when you go way back, music kind of spoke for those who didn't have a voice. In the sixties, there were the protest songs: Dylan, Joan Baez, etc. Today, some of the artists who have chosen to speak out politically via song, and maybe the Dixie Chicks are a good example... it just hasn't gone terribly well for them. Do you think that, lately, in general, musicians have done a good job of speaking out?
Lucas: Well, I think there's sort of an idea like "let's not piss off half your audience." It's that kind of thing... like, "why alienate people?" And it's like, is that really what I got into music for? To watch out for the bottom line? I didn't think I did. Again, I'm from like a working class family and that's the side I'm always going to be on for my whole life.
So, you've got people trying to make sure people aren't gonna vote. What kind of party would do something like that, limit people's right to vote? Who would do something like that? Only somebody who has something to hide and something to gain and is willing to take away freedom to get their way and it's disgusting.
The Dixie Chicks thing though... it comes out of sort of left field with them... which is great. But all these people that are fans, they don't like that. And I don't think a lot of thought goes into why they don't like that, why they don't like musicians talking about politics. They just don't like it. It's sort of this kind of thing like "Oh, you shouldn't talk about that." Like, we're in a bar or something or a restaurant and we're not supposed to bring up these things.
Q. Well it’s weird because obviously, yes, the Dixie Chicks paid a price. But last week at Wrigley Field, you had three of the more socially conscious artists out there right now on stage together and that was Tom Morello, Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen. And you get artists like that, and while I don’t want to say that they get a pass, it definitely seems like they get to speak their mind more. Maybe that’s because they lean a little more left whereas the Dixie Chicks’ crowd leans further right?
Lucas: Well I’m sure that’s what it is. But, for me, if any audience is getting f----d by people like Romney and Paul Ryan, it’s the Dixie Chicks’ audience. So I don’t understand why they would throw their hat in with that group. Why would they be pissed at the Dixie Chicks for talking about stuff like that? It’s just that whole idea of how the right has gotten people to sort of vote against their interests. It’s pretty clever and it’s pretty sneaky. It’s just a weird phenomenon. It’s like, “How did they do that?” How did they get people to vote for policies they will never benefit from?
Q. Getting back to your new album… Certainly I’m familiar with the folk standard “Hallelujah! I’m a Bum” but I can’t help but wonder if your using that as an album title also kind of references or is maybe a symbol for the fact that the middle class in this country seems to be disappearing right now... Kind of that idea of having no choice but to move from the middle class down and make the most of it?
Lucas: Well, right… It’s just the idea of four years ago we were sort of staring down the barrel of another depression. When that happened, I’ve always loved the title “Hallelujah! I’m a Bum,” and so I just decided to take something from the Depression era and sort of insert it here and sort of reappropriate it for our times. I wanted to use a lot of things, like the backdrop of Chicago and the [CTA] Blue Line and sounds of that train and dogs. [I wanted to] sort of use dogs in this kind of [way]... homeless people have dogs… and just sort of make these connections. And that was the idea there. And it just sort of grew from there and became all these different parts.
I’ve never really written a lot of “story” type of songs, sort of like from the viewpoint of a character. And I did that a few times on this record. There’s one song, “Night Flight to Paris,” about a guy that becomes politicized just by the fact that his older brother, who he looks up to, has decided to say “F—k it” to the States and hop a plane and go live in France. And the younger brother’s response, being that this is his country and there’s no reason he should leave and run away from it, he’s gonna stay and become more involved.
And then you’ve got a song on there about a family that is effected by the recession and it being the worst in the winter time when the car won’t start and you can’t get the heat turned on. So there’s a lot of stuff that’s personal to me but it’s filtered through the experience of somebody else. And I’ve never done that before. And it was odd how it succeeded on this record. Bruce Springsteen does that a lot and I never really [did]... Well maybe a few times but not to the extent that I did on this record.
Q. That’s something that I wanted to talk about: Chicago is a backdrop and a theme throughout this album, specifically the Blue Line as a symbol. Obviously you live in Chicago which is a blue collar city. What’s it like for you as an artist trying to make ends meet in a city like this amidst this climate and does that influence a song like “Another February?” I mean, here, come February, people just seem to head indoors until June...
Lucas: Right. Well, I spend a lot of time in bars and I’ve got a lot of friends who are bartenders and bar owners and it always just fascinates me to see how that business is effected by the change of weather. Once the holidays are over, it seems like people have to make it through their sort of offseason and make it through to spring before people start coming back out. And, yeah, it’s interesting to me.
So starting from that point, just sort of going and wondering how this effects other people in their every day lives and their jobs, and just an idea. Trying to have empathy for each other. It just seems that it’s tougher and tougher and no one can cross that divide. Certainly they can’t in Congress. They don’t want to work together. Because if they did and things were seen as going well, then that would totally destroy their argument about why Obama should be denied a second term. And it’s like, is that your main goal? Or is your main goal to help the people who elected you? And when your main goal becomes denying someone a second term simply because you don’t like them… For what reason? It’s ridiculous.
Q. The album starts out with the sounds of the Blue Line and gets progressively more political from there... the train keeps moving so to speak. To me, it peaks with “Ruling Kind.” What are your hopes for these songs as we enter the peak of the political season?
Lucas: I don’t know. It’s something where I knew that I wanted to get the record out before November comes around. And that was basically the goal. We’ve been living with these songs for a while. And it’s only by accident that its come out so close and that its coming out right now as it’s almost like political frenzy in the country.
I think people can see the songs for however they want to see them. They can see them as pro-left… or they can see them as… not pro either side.
So in a way it kind of worked out. But the other thing was I wanted to make sure the record didn’t have a complete "sell by" date. I wanted to make sure that the themes would still be resonant after the election and still make sense. And I think people can see the songs for however they want to see them. They can see them as pro-left… or they can see them as… not pro either side. I don’t think you can really see the record as pro-right but I think you can see it as either centrist or leftist.
... The idea that all politicans are alike, I don’t buy and I don’t agree with. I think there is clear difference.
At this point, we’re working with Rock the Vote and I think I just want to make sure people vote. And that’s it. When you’ve got all these people that are working to make sure that people don’t vote, it’s a real problem. I mean, people can make up their own mind. That’s great! But the idea of the record is to kind of not give into this idea that all politicans are alike and and they’re all crooks. I mean, that’s true to a certain point. But the idea that all politicans are alike, I don’t buy and I don’t agree with. I think there is clear difference.
It is easy to just say, “Forget it. F—k it. Nothing’s gonna change.” And I think what the record talks about more than anything is not getting into that cynicism and that hopelessness. That what you say doesn’t matter. I still believe that what people say does matter. And that is the real thought behind making a record like this and not just making a record about my own little problems.
Q. Well that’s something I wanted to close here with. While, you are right that your new album really can’t be construed as a "pro-right" statement, you have moments on this record where everybody gets called out. In fact, you close Hallelujah! I'm a Bum in that fashion.
“Waves Again” has a lyric that goes “No one rises up! No one rises up!” Well, that’s a sentiment that certainly seems able to be applied to everyone, regardless of political lean, especially when it comes to that aforementioned attitude of “Nothing’s gonna change.”
Lucas: That lyric opens the record and closes the record and it’s sort of meant to bring you around full circle and sort of get that feeling that we’ve been here before and we’ve seen this before. And the idea is: Well, what will we do about it this time?
I really don’t feel cheated about the last four years. I will vote for Obama again. And the reason why… It’s gotta be hard. I have a job but a lot of people don’t so they may not want to hear that sh-t. But for me, his acceptance speech, he did say the road will be hard and all of that and I think he reiterated that last week at the convention. But I heard those words and I think I took them to heart and I realize that it's a huge mess that we need to dig ourselves out of. I'm not too discouraged by the fact that it seems to take time.
Everybody wants what they want and they want it now and I understand that... but you're talking about something that's not just four years. You're talking about something that's been building up over thirty years. You're talking about a problem that has had a long time to build up and this idea, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Well that's not really the question is it?