The Story Behind Making a Counter Trafficking Album

This is a transcript of an interview between me and my friend Francesca Torquati.  She's always been great at helping me gather my thoughts.  We had this interview in the studio while recording songs from Remedy Drive's new concept album on counter trafficking and freedom called Commodity.   

—As I sat down to ask these questions a metronome clicked in the background, pieces of the half-finished songs from Commodity found their way under the door from Philip’s workspace so that the air was full of this ambient noise of distortion and incomplete melodies while we spoke, and David knelt down beside me and spoke slowly, pensive, taking his time to say what needed to be said— 

On approaching Philip: 

“I started listening to the Arrows and Sound record when he put it out and my son started asking for song number 5 all the time and he’s always asking and my daughter would say ‘hey can we listen to uncle Phil’s album?’ …and the more I listened to it the more I realized, man, Phil has some talent. He really knows how to pull out emotion through all these, these sonic landscapes.” 

“He always had it, but I never gave him space when we were in the band together. And I realized actually, when we were working on Jack’s birthday cake, that man if me and Phil can just kind of divide and conquer and not both try to do the same thing at the same time we would actually be pretty good collaborators because he made Spiderman and I made the walls that Spiderman was climbing on for Jack’s birthday cake,” (this was a year and a half ago) 

Do you have favorite songs, ones that speak to you more in different ways? 

“There’s three that stand out, Commodity, you know, is so personal to me, and so, and it’s so mean and so compelling when Phil and I stumbled upon this bass sound and it just kind of rumbles through, it just captivates me and it almost casts a spell over me. And then another one is Under the Starlight, and on that one, both of those songs, two years of lyric ideas that everyone told me I couldn’t use got stored away and all of them got put into those two songs, and most of the lyric broke my heart—from articles about boy soldiers or articles about child trafficking and there’s little lines that I pulled out of movies and quotes from articles…so those two, but then Take Cover was a song that, I knew it was a great song, and I was too scared to find a lyric for it because I knew the melody was perfect—and the melody just came out of thin air one day—I sat down and it just came out in 30 seconds and there’s this melody and then I was almost too, I didn’t feel like I could find words for it, so it took me forever and then one day the words just came.” 

What day? 

“I don’t remember the day but it was, it was a day that I’d been reading a lot about these boys in the 90’s in Liberia that were forced into battle.” 

Who are the songs for, who does the album belong to, in that sense? 

“I want the songs to belong to anybody that feels like they’ve been taken advantage of, or oppressed or diminished. Anybody who’s felt like they’re under some kind of control of someone else, some sort of selfish structure that would take our essence and would squeeze out our souls and drain us of our vitality, and hopefully this album is a place for us to acknowledge that that is the dark reality of existence at this point of history, but also hopefully that acknowledgement will be a sort of freedom for any of us that have dealt with that sort of oppression. And, in acknowledging it, but also moving towards hope.” 

The night you recorded Commodity? 

“Well I had been messing around with changing the last line of the second verse, and my dad had told me, he had read from a psalm to me earlier that day, this line that I remembered when I was a kid but I hadn’t thought of it in a long time and it was ‘the sides of the north, the city of the king,’ and so I moved some lyric around and got rid of a lot of lyric so I could say ‘carry me on six wings to the sixth rung on the sides of the north in the city of the bright ones’ and no one had really—it was time to record and I hadn’t really shared it with Phil yet, but I don’t know, it just felt like there was this sense of urgency and sense of purpose to the song being recorded. The whole band was here, me and Phil were here, and there was just this sort of eerie, eerie, haunted, beautiful thing happened where all of us were almost in tears and it was, we all knew that what we were doing was bigger than ourselves, that moment was bigger than anything we could try to come up with on our own, there was an inspiration and there was a muse and there was an importance that was beyond us.” 

You tried to get Commodity on Resuscitate and couldn’t, is it relieving that it has a home now? 

“I think it wandered like a ghost for the two years that it was put on the back burner, but it was still so deep in me, that idea, and even more so because it was a lyric that I was told wouldn’t work, or couldn’t work, or shouldn’t be said, and that it was not positive, it wasn’t encouraging, it wasn’t…so for me to reinvent it, you know I tried to find a home for it several times in three or four different versions of the song and all of them were trying to be a different song—some of them felt too much like Daylight, some of them felt too much like a ballad, and then this chord progression came out of nowhere. It’s not a new chord progression, you know I’ve used it before, a ton of people use this chord progression, but it was just so, it just wrote itself the fourth time around.” 

Why do you think the songs are just coming to fruition now? 

“Sometimes I think that whether or not we know it, it’s time for this album. It’s time for songs of freedom protesting oppression, protesting humans being taken advantage of, a counter-trafficking album, an underground railroad album, it’s time for that to be heard. And I don’t know how many people are going to hear it, but when people hear it it’s going to move our hearts. My dream is that it moves hearts the way that so many beautiful pieces of art have moved my heart and all that inspiration from other artists, I think Philip did such a good job at helping capture that…there’s a story of Phil and myself, the story of child soldiers, the story of girls and boys being trafficked in Southeast Asia, that story is finding it’s way into the melody, in between the notes and in the quiet spaces between the lyric and the beat.” 

What did you learn in the last two years to make you want to go independent again? 

“Well, the biggest thing that I’m scared of is trying to write something that I think somebody wants me to write. You don’t necessarily solve that by being independent because as an artist you want to be true, you want to be honest, you want to tell your own story and tell someone else’s story, but you also can’t help but think about how it’s going to be heard and whether or not someone’s going to understand it so there’s so much pressure on my part to play it safe all the time now. I have a family to feed, I have melodies that I want people to enjoy and I want to get them to people through radio, you know, I want the songs to be liked, but I realized at one point that if I’m just editing myself for the sake of editing myself to try to make a certain subgroup of the population happy, then I’m never really going to be free myself—and how can I sing about freedom if I am subjecting myself to a squeezing of my soul and a diminishing of my art, a diminishing of the words and the melodies that I feel compelled to write?” 

But what do you do with that fear? When you make the art, what do you do with that fear about your family and the future? 

“At some point I think, in this day and age, when there is more and more honest songs being written, the only risk is to not take a risk. And going independent and counting on our community and our friends and our family and the network of people we’ve met over the last decade making music for a living, that’s a road that I’m willing to take a gamble on because I believe people want to hear where I’m at in life and they don’t want it to be watered down, they don’t want me to dilute the blood that I’m bleeding for the sake of you know, some censorship. I don’t want that from any art that I pay attention to, so why would anybody want that from us?” 

Why Exodus Road? 

“Well I had just finished writing this whole record on children being taking advantage of, children being oppressed, boys on the front lines of conflict in Africa, and girls in the dark corners of the red light districts around the world and a counter-trafficking organization called Exodus Road just reached out to me out of the blue and I was so excited. I met with them and when I was sitting there with them you know you feel as an artist that your job is to use your platform and their job is to go do the hard work, but in that meeting with them I realized how can I represent freedom, from the stage, and talk about how it’s important for us to live as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. says with a ‘dangerous selflessness,’ how can I ask that of the people I’m singing to and challenging and trying to inspire if I’m not living with a dangerous selflessness? And I felt compelled, I felt pulled, literally like—compelled—to be part of it.” 

If you could, what would you want to tell June? 

—large intake of breathe— “I’d want her to know, first, that I wasn’t there to sleep with her. I would want her to know I wasn’t there to take advantage of her, because that’s what she thinks to this day, that we were there to purchase her. I would want her to know that I think she’s valuable, and that she’s beautiful, inside of her soul there’s a beauty. And I’d want her to know that she’s not helpless, she’s not hopeless, but sometimes I’m not sure I even believe that myself. Because the magnitude, just in that one country alone that I was in, the magnitude of this evil is too much. It’s accelerating and even though we’re just kind of rising to an awareness about it here in 2014, it hasn’t stopped accelerating, it’s not slowing down because a few people put a red ‘X’ on their hands, it’s moving forwards and I would want, you know in the romantic fairy tale sense, I would want to tell her I’m gonna come back for her, but I’ll never know where she ended up, you know?” —voice cracks on second “I would want” toward the end here— 

When you realize how big the trafficking situation is, how do you maintain hope? 

—uncomfortable laughter after first sentence—“I don’t maintain hope. I have so many questions for why it is the way it is. Why does the king of the universe allow this, why doesn’t he do something about it? Where is he on the streets of Southeast Asia.  I know it’s happening even worse in Brazil and in South America and all over the world—where is the king of the universe? And these children, there’s nobody that’s less protected and nobody that’s more vulnerable than these children that are 5 and 6 and 7 years old or these girls that are 13. But the way that I maintain hope is that I met people. I met heroes. I met girls that teach yoga and do the hair of these girls that are ready to go out on the street that night, saves them that much money, maybe saves them having to sell themselves one time that week to meet their quota. I met a guy, one of the few straight cops in the country that I was in, that’s not taking bribes, and as a result he’s doesn’t make a lot of money but he has a facility for forty kids and I got to hang out with those kids and seeing him gave me hope and seeing these selfless operatives that put their lives at risk every day, that gave me hope too. And seeing other people like myself, just ordinary people giving up a couple weeks of their time to go do undercover spy work on the other side of the world, normal people with normal day jobs, that’s the way they spent their vacation for that year, playing, pretending to be somebody else in Southeast Asia.”