By Brent Hill
July 19, 2014
Rock ‘n’ Roll used to be about risk and rebellion. It used to be about challenging The Man, now it’s about making him rich. It used to be about having something to say, now it’s about regurgitating cliches. Where is the risk? What happened to the rebellion?
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment rock music lost its mutinous mojo (insert your list of shitty bands here), but Birmingham, Alabama bred Lee Bains III and his band, The Glory Fires, are poised to reclaim it.
It won’t happen by just cranking up the fuzz and buzz on their second album, Dereconstruction–although that certainly doesn’t hurt– but rather by delivering a message that comes to blows with the past and present sins of Bains’ beloved Southern home. Because as Bains learned early on: when you don’t fit in, it’s better to fight back. “High school was the most difficult and painful period of my life,” Bains confesses. “I definitely did not feel like I fit in. And I felt that the authority figures around me didn’t speak for me, so my rebellion manifested itself in acting up and getting into trouble. I was an after-school special.”
Enter Dr. Cooper, Bains’ sophomore year World History teacher. “Dr. Cooper was the first person to steer my rebelliousness in an intellectual direction,” Bain says. “He taught me that when you have that spirit in you, you need to channel it in significant ways.” And Bains has done just that on Dereconstruction, where you can hear the echo of Dr. Cooper’s teachings. Lyrically, it’s packed with intellectual (and downright poetic) musings on what it really means to be southern and all the baggage that brings (the South’s history of racism, closed-mindedness, and corruption dominates Bains’ lyrics). The album elicits the question: can you still love a place while questioning its ideologies? Bains says yes, as evidenced in the song “The Kudzu and The Concrete”: Repentance and forgiveness/and loving your neighbor as yourself/but what the hell does that mean/when all your neighbors look the same/and think the same.
Bains’ lyrics speak to a bigger, more universal, truth that transcends the South in which he was raised. Context is everything. The places we come from, without a doubt, make us who we are. Whether it’s Birmingham, Alabama or Birmingham, England. Whether it’s Columbia, South Carolina or Colombia, South America. In fact, Bains cites the Nobel Prize winning novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by famed Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez when discussing the importance of person and place on his album. Bains is as well-read as he is friendly, and he gets downright giddy when asked to discuss the first sentence of the novel in terms of his own lyrics.
“What I love about that sentence, and the novel as a whole, is how it perfectly illustrates the importance of context on a person’s life,” he explains. ” In that first sentence we meet a character at the most dramatic point in his life– his pending death– yet we are drawn past that moment into the context of the cultural and familial influences that informed his personhood. Furthermore, the village in One Hundred Years of Solitude is as much a character as the people, symbolizing the profound and lasting effects a place can have on individuals.”
Those don’t exactly sound like the words of a recovering “after-school special” who had the plug pulled on him at a show in Fort Worth, Texas last year for being too loud. Or perhaps that’s what makes his words all that more powerful. It’s exactly the type of intellectual rebellion that Dr. Cooper instilled in him: be loud…but be smart.
After all, rebellion should be as much head as it is heart. Bains recognizes that in order to question his southern upbringing, he must draw strength from it. This paradox is mirrored in the lyrics “I know that Birmingham gets you down/but look what it raised you up to be” in “The Weeds Downtown.” The paradox of person and place rises again on the song “Dereconstructed”: We were whooped with the Good Book/Wound up shamed, sorry and worse/But I yearned to burn the wrath out of every chapter/And water the love in every verse/Water the love in every verse.
What’s interesting about those lyrics is how they question the authoritarian interpretations of the Bible. But Bains sees past the bible-beating fear in those chapters to the hope–digging up the love buried beneath the wrath and threatening to make that love grow like the kudzu in his lyrics. Make no mistake, questioning those who wield the Good Book as a weapon is risky business, especially for a good Christian boy from Alabama. But query is a rebellion’s greatest asset– a lesson Bains, once again, credits to his high school history teacher. “Dr. Cooper taught me that there is nothing wrong with being a skeptic,” Bains says. “And that anytime someone says something with great authority, that may be the best time to doubt what they’re saying.”
Doubt may be a driving force behind Bains’ lyrics, but punk-like conviction is at the center of The Glory Fires sound. Dereconstruction is Wilson Pickett meets Lynyrd Skynyrd in a dark alley behind CBGBs. This 36-minute Muscle Shoals gut punch is do in part to legendary garage-rock producer Tim Kerr. “Our lives shows are louder and more raucous than one might expect having only listened to our first album (There is a Balm in Gilead),” insists Bains. “To me our concerts feel like a cross between a quiet moment of reflection on a river and a full tackle football game with friends. Amazingly, Tim was able to capture that in the studio.”
So what you hear on Dereconstruction is a barrage of guitars, bass, and drums. An all-out assault of rock, soul, punk, and folk cloaked in sleazy southern scuzz.”When I was a teenager and heard music that was more underground, it sent shockwaves through my body,” says Bains. I fell in love with the brashness and imperfection of what I heard. We wanted the album to have that quality of rawness to compliment the message. This definitely wasn’t the album for pretty or sentimental songs.” However, it only takes a few listens before you begin to hear the beauty in the bruises– and sense the “love in every verse.”
Lee Bains III knows that his message is risky, but you can’t start a revolution without throwing a few punches. In the end, his rebellion won’t be remembered for the blood on the walls. It will be remembered for the power of his words. Dr. Cooper would be proud.
Listen to the album Derecontructed on Sub Pop Records