Douglas Burns: Vocals/Guitar
Daniel “Hajji” Sayer: Bass
Will Kinser: Guitar
Richie Joachim: Drums
Interview by Dave Williams
Photos by Mateus Mondini
Dave: Okay, so while Red Dawn was undoubtedly a cinematic triumph, it has occurred to me that perhaps you’re less interested in the on-screen chemistry of Swayze and Sheen than you are in the infamous Red Dons or Cambridge Four, the British communist spies arrested for relaying information to the Soviets during World War II. Am I safe in assuming there’s a political significance to your name choice and its “treasonous” overtones?
Hajji: The Cambridge Four are kind of anti-heroes in a paradoxical way. They were trying to do what they thought was the best way to fight the Nazis: informing the Soviets because they were the only ones powerful enough to combat them. In doing so, they alienated themselves from their homeland. They may be considered heroes to some extent in the Soviet Union – but who is going to trust a spy? In reality, they are traitors. Whichever way you look at it, it was a failure. They tried to do their best to save a dying world only to be rejected by it.
Dave: And that’s a notion that hit close to home?
Hajji: In some ways it’s a similar relationship in punk. You do everything yourself, remove the major labels, influences, managers, bookers, and promotion networks. You form an underground, build your own networks, you start to become a cogent movement that is more than just a bunch of kids making music in their garages. Eventually, you become what you despise, tempted by major distribution, using Myspace, etc. Worst of all, if you manage to break out of your town and tour and sell enough records to pay for your gas, you come dangerously close to alienating your own audience because now you’re selling out. In other words, the only way to be a punk is to suffer in obscurity or become a traitor somehow to one side or the other. You just can’t win. The sense of futility mixed with the urge to do something for your music to us resonated with the paradox of the Red Dons.
Dave: Have there been any negative reactions to aligning yourself with aesthetics or ideologies that aren’t necessarily embraced by your typical American citizen? Not only is your name a reference to a band of communist rebels, but also the visual aesthetic employed on all of your releases and merchandise is undeniably Middle Eastern, as is much of your lyrical subject matter… even the evolution from The Observers to the Red Dons involved an incorporation of traditionally Middle Eastern musical scales. What’s the intention there? I’ve personally just attributed much of that to Daniel’s Middle Eastern name and heritage, but it’s definitely prevalent throughout everything you do as a band.
Hajji: So far, I’d say that we haven’t encountered any negative reactions. In fact, I’d say there hasn’t been any reaction at all. It seemed like we fired a shot in the dark. That’s not to say there haven’t been some interesting discussions after gigs. They range from people who are Middle Eastern by descent or have family there, who are excited to see punk touching on issues of the area or utilizing art, language, and historical references. Other people come and want to talk politics; they want to know our stance on some issue. Most though, are just curious and know next to nothing about the Middle East.
Dave: I’m really quite surprised that this approach hasn’t rubbed anyone the wrong way, particularly living and playing in a country whose political climate made a pretty serious shift into anti-Middle Eastern territory less than a decade ago.
Doug: The only place we’ve seen a reaction to our aesthetic was in Germany, not the US. It was completely unexpected, but looking back I can see why it hit a nerve with some folks. It happened when Escaping Amman came out. The artwork uses Arabic and Hebrew text and has references to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Politics involving Israel can be a touchy subject for Germans, what with their history and all. Most punks around the world have leftist politics and align themselves with Palestinians over Israelis. German punks can’t really side with Palestine because that would make them anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic. But as Hajji said, we didn’t really encounter a negative reaction there, either. Mostly people were just curious as to which side we supported.
Dave: Well it’s certainly a pretty unique lyrical and visual approach for an American punk band.
Will: Coming from an outsider’s perspective thus far, I think that it’s really interesting to have themes that aren’t just about Western politics and culture. It seems like very few bands really research what they’re writing about. They seem to stick to the same few topics as the older bands that forged the path so to speak, without putting their own slant on the subject matter or musicianship. It’s even better if you can put personal experience to work in your lyrics. We all live in and have traveled to a lot of different places across the globe, so it seems only befitting that we’d use those experiences to try to put together a new angle or perception in our lyrics and songwriting.
Doug: I agree with Will. Our personal experiences are definitely a focal point of the band. These experiences inform and change the songwriting, so that could explain the differences between the Red Dons and our past projects. As a guitar player I’ve always been influenced by Eastern music, surf, and psychedelic stuff from the 60s. But before writing music with Hajji, I kinda limited my use of Eastern scales. Working together has encouraged me to explore those interests in a more obvious way.
Dave: Injecting elements and exoticism of an unknown “other” immediately adds this sort of confrontational mystery to a band – to me, much in the same way that the early avant-garde European “punk” bands did, Einsturzende Neubauten for example. I feel like Red Dons really harkens that multi-level other-cultural association that those bands represented – an aural, visual, and lyrical window into a situation that, historically – at least within the genre – has been ignored or misrepresented.
Hajji: Early on in the formation of the band, Doug and I had been talking about the total lack of knowledge of the Middle East in the States even though we were embroiled in a second war and had so many troops and associated government, NGO, and general civilian workers there. How could it be that we had hundreds of thousands of people going back and forth, their lives impacted and influenced – yet nobody knew anything about the place? I had just returned from studying in Jordan and wanted some kind of outlet for my experiences, especially to bring an Eastern slant to punk, which I felt was severely lacking or non-existent. So we set about writing music. It’s not just about my experiences or politics or what have you, but a more total view. We were looking at art, music, literature, history… in other words: life. We are not a political band; we are trying to explore our existence and the struggle to live it. It just so happens that it involves politics, you can’t ever get away from people manipulating your life. So the development of the band is intrinsically intertwined with our exploration of all things Middle Eastern.
Dave: Hajji, maybe you could lay out some specific instances during your time in the Middle East that became lyrical subjects for Red Dons?
Hajji: Well, “West Bank” is about a trip I took to Israel. To start with, the region was going through some difficult times. I had arrived in Jordan just ten days before September 11th, 2001. Pile on top of that the war in Afghanistan and the second Intifada. I had a trip planned to visit Israel – as well as Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. This, of course, freaked out my host family and they didn’t want me living with them anymore. So right before I was supposed to leave, I had to find a new place to live. I had to change all my tickets, including my bus ticket to the north. During the move, the bus I was scheduled to take, and still held a ticket for, was bombed. Everyone inside was killed. “West Bank” is written from the viewpoint of a pilgrim, the bomber, and myself all collapsed into one.
“Hajji Takes a Ride” is about getting caught in a riot in Amman. I was in a cab, crossing town on a Friday. Oftentimes, Friday sermons are usurped for the purpose of politics. Sermons are typically tightly controlled in Jordan to keep a thumb on radical clerics and the conservative religious movements that crop up from time to time against the government. One such sermon was being given at a mosque near the road I was traveling down. Social unrest in the country was at a high because of Afghanistan, and there were lots of anti-American demonstrations. The government had sent riot police either to control the situation or to stop it, I’ll never know. But, as often happens, it was like gasoline on a fire and in no time flat it was a running battle. Eventually, the police were on one side and the protesters were on the other, with the police firing teargas over the road and cars. Here I was, in the back of a cab with tear gas flying overhead and a crowd shouting “down with America” a few car lengths away. People had been violent with me before when they found out I was American, and in a situation like this anything could happen. If they found some poor white guy in the back of a random cab it very well could have resulted in death. As I was sinking into my seat, trying to look inconspicuous, the driver turned around to look at me. His look was one I’ll never forget. It said, “You’re not getting any help from me.”
Dave: So you had been personally attacked by people who realized you were an American in Jordan?
Hajji: Ya. I had also been the subject of several bomb threats. When you’re one of the few Americans living in Amman, news spreads quickly. Everybody knows who you are and where you live. I got a message on the door of my apartment saying there was a bomb attached to it and that it would go off if I opened the door. I had grown quite desensitized to these threats, but this was the first time I was in control of the bomb’s activation. I had a choice: to ignore the note and open the door, either proving or disproving the bomb’s existence, or make a big deal out of it and run away. I ignored the note and opened the door, though I knew I could possibly be choosing death. That moment of psychological terror, of fear and trembling, is the kernel of the song “Land of Reason.”
“Unheard Words” is about a disturbance at my school, the University of Jordan. There had been weekly demonstrations on campus, with parades, rallies, and occasional flag burnings. Police were not allowed to enter the grounds, so the students were safe to protest to their hearts’ content. Things had been escalating and the pressure had come to a head. The main street in front of the school was lined with police vans as far as you could see. There were countless rows of riot police in military fatigues, wearing balaclavas and holding rifles with tear gas cylinders affixed to the end. My Spanish friend and I had come down to see what was going on since everybody was saying that Aljazeera had started reporting on the disturbances. The protest was going full bore and a lot of my friends were there. At some point – I don’t know what sparked it – the police began firing tear gas at the students over the main gate. Now, if you’ve never been gassed before, all I have to say is that you will do anything to get away from the stuff. Coughing and blinded, I ran inside the nearby library. I went up a floor and lay down between the stacks. The windows were open so the tear gas kept wafting in. I could hear the disturbance going on below. When I could finally get up and look outside, all the people were gone. There was an abandoned ambulance. People’s shoes, purses, personal effects were scattered about. The song is attempting to describe that moment stopped in time.
Dave: How does someone even carry on living a normal life, let alone studying at university after living through experiences like those?
Hajji: When I came back to Portland, I had a number of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder problems. For years, I had this reoccurring nightmare where I died. “Room 322” is basically about my life falling apart while I was back in the US. I had been working in the Middle East studies center at Portland State University. The office where I worked was in East Hall, room 322. Eventually I lost it, dropped out of school and checked out of life. It’s the theatre of my failure, if you will.
Doug: Hajji and I lived together at the time. Despite barely leaving his room, he seemed perfectly normal. Neither one of us realized the extent of his PTSD until years later, after everything had fallen apart.
Dave: Hajji, had you spent extended periods of time there prior to studying in Jordan, or was this your first experience of living in the Middle East? Do you have any family still living there, or is your Middle Eastern heritage from well in the past?
Hajji: No, I had not. I had visited Turkey before, but Jordan was my first long stay. I had some family living there in the past but it wasn’t permanent. My connection to the region is from well in the past, but my father always had an interest in the region and it was a frequent topic and area of study in my house growing up.
Dave: Doug, you’d also mentioned something once about your and Hajji’s grandfathers being co-workers and the two of you having some other strange connections.
Doug: My grandfather owned the first truck stop in the Pacific Northwest. Hajji’s granddad was a tire salesman and sold tires to my grandpa. Besides that we just have a lot of things in common that are atypical for two American kids. Both of our families moved around a lot when we were younger, and so as children we each spent a lot of time in Europe. We both went to school outside of Stuttgart – Hajji during junior high and I for part of college. In our early twenties, we each lived in third world countries – he in Jordan and I in Thailand. Nothing bonds two people together like having wiped their asses with their own hands. [Laughs] Mostly, we’ve just been close friends for a long time. We’ve lived together off and on over the years. He even lived with my parents for a while. It was like Henry Rollins living with Greg Ginn’s folks. He’s pretty much a part of the family now. We joke that our grandfathers made some pact with the devil to make this all happen.
Dave: At the risk of bringing up a touchy subject, what’s the story with Red Dons’ original drummer Romeo’s departure? Was that a product of you guys kinda being scattered across the globe or was that something entirely separate?
Doug: [Laughs] It was something entirely separate.
Hajji: At the time we had the most normal of band arrangements. Practice space, band practice at regular times, local shows, a tour planned. I think that maybe it was the pressure of the normal situation that may have helped push him over the edge. [Laughs]
Doug: Yeah, we actually functioned like a proper band. We all lived in Portland, practiced several times a week. No, Romeo (Derek Skokan) missed his girlfriend so he flew home in the middle of our first tour. They had been dating for a little over a year and the two weeks that we’d been on the road already was the longest they’d ever been apart. To them, spending another two weeks away from each other was unbearable, so he went home. The problem was that he never told us about his wonderfully romantic plan to leave us stranded on the other side of the country. “Just Write, Romeo” is a true account of how it went down. Immediately after playing a set in Brooklyn, Derek put his sticks down, walked out to the van, grabbed his bags and hailed a cab to the airport. No one saw him leave so we spent hours looking for him after the show. Then, I received a text message from him as his plane was taxiing on the runway. The gist of the text was that he had no hard feelings toward any of us or the band. In fact, he even encouraged us to continue on. He just couldn’t risk losing his girlfriend over playing in the band.
Dave: It’s pretty safe to say that being on the road isn’t for every personality type…
Doug: Yeah, they were broken up a year later anyway. Derek’s a good guy. It was just an unfortunate situation. That was his first tour and I don’t think he really understood the ramifications of his actions. The funniest and most awkward part of the story is that Derek and I worked together, so we had to see each other every week for years after everything went down. One last tidbit about the song “Just Write, Romeo,” the reggae sample at the end of the song is a recording that Derek and I did together before starting the Red Dons. We wrote the song together and the lyrics are about being ashamed of your actions. It seemed appropriate to include. Derek’s departure was serendipitous, however, because it ushered in Richie as our drummer and the band really jelled after that.
Dave: Ya Richie, how did you end up joining the fold?
Richie: When Escaping Amman came out in 2007, the lyrics, imagery, and music commanded my attention. Seeing this new project surface, coupled with my short-lived involvement with The Speds and an early incarnation of The Observers, I made it to the first Red Dons show I could. It was a tour kick off show; the bill was Red Dons, Clorox Girls, and Warcry. After the show I walked up to Daniel, Doug, and Justin separately, and I spilled my guts about how I wished I had never quit working with Doug. I was fed up with what I was doing in other bands and Red Dons felt refreshing and new. So, I told them that if ever they needed someone to fill in on drums, I’d be there. I said my peace, but figured my words were five years too little, too late or that they had fallen on deaf ears. Two weeks later, I get an unexpected email from Doug titled, “Urgent Message For Richie” with his phone number enclosed. I didn’t believe it. Funny thing is, I called him minutes after he had written the email. Their drummer had left the tour and they wanted to see if I could meet them in New York. I couldn’t, but with the tour cut short and studio time scheduled, Doug hopped a flight back to Portland. The next ten days in a row he and I practiced Red Dons material all day and night. Justin and Hajji returned to Portland on the eleventh day and we went directly into the studio and recorded Death to Idealism. Those recordings are the first time I played with the band.
Dave: Okay, so now not only is Red Dons international in terms of its lyrical and thematic scope, but both core members and collaborators live in quite a few different locations, correct? How does that even work? What does that constrained availability bring to the table in terms of contribution?
Hajji: Yes, we live in quite a few places indeed. Doug is in Chicago, Richie in Portland, Will in Hamburg, and I’m in London – not to mention all the other people involved in the band in some way. How does it work? No idea, but I suspect it has something to do with a similar view and goals, and a freedom to be a creative person in your own right. Each of us works very hard at their own part to make it creative and the best that it can be.
Will: As far as I can tell, it hasn’t seemed to really effect much, other than that we would all really like to play together in a studio once or twice a week. Of course, it would be more productive to have a regular band situation – practice, local shows… although, I’d be frightened to see how much material we’d have if that were possible [laughs].
Doug: Being apart from one another actually gives us time to be influenced by a lot of different things, formulate many different ideas, and edit those ideas down before presenting them to the band. When we finally get together, each person truly presents the best stuff they have to offer. The best part about all of it is when all these different ideas come together. There are many unpredictable combinations that turn out to be really cool and form something greater than the sum of its parts.
Will: I think what Red Dons is best at is being able to make any sort of style our own. I have a different guitar style than Doug and I’ve brought riffs to the band which I thought wouldn’t fit. After a very short time, we’ve fashioned them to match the band’s sound. I came into the group thinking I’d basically be just a live rhythm guitarist, and right away that proved to not be the case. In six short months I’ve been able to contribute riffs, arrangements, leads, and ideas. That’s without ever really being in a studio with the rest of the band more than the three days we practiced before tour.
Hajji: I think that learning how to operate in this process is what took us a long time to do the second record. Part of it is throwing away your ego and part of it is perfecting your own art. Yes this can constrain what gets brought to the table. Sometimes I feel like we lose some of the random fun and spontaneous music that happens when you spend a lot of time together, but when we are on tour it just makes that time so much more important and fun. On the other hand it forces you to think about the overall project more and refine what your doing. Now I think the band has finally achieved a personality and that helps people contribute to it whether or not we’re all in the same room. Not to mention that Doug, Richie and I have been working together for many, many years now.
Doug: That fact alone is a large part of why this works. Our history together provides a lot of stability in an otherwise unsteady arrangement.