Outernational brings punk, politics to the Scene

by Jordan Green

I first met the members of Outernational in a collective house in Durham on Halloween 2004. They’d completed a four-stop leg through North Carolina. They slept on couches and floors, partook in communal meals, and alternately expressed gratitude for the hospitality they received and crankiness with the confining circumstances of their status as guests of the house.

They grooved to an Ozomatli CD that spun repeatedly that weekend. The song ‘“Who Discovered America?’” played like a West Coast equivalent to the Brooklyn, NY-based Outernational’s multiethnic brand of anti-colonial sonic manifesto.

In October 2004, Outernational played the now closed Ace’s Basement with the ghoul punk band Crimson Spectre. During this, their second swing through North Carolina, they’ll play the Gate City with the aggro political folk trio Boxcar Bertha and the indie rock shoe-gazer outfit Dawn Chorus (full disclosure: the band’s bass player, Amy Kingsley, doubles as a staff reporter for YES! Weekly).

The current configuration of Outernational erupted onto the New York club scene in August 2004, and soon secured a place in the leftist political protest circuit as well. At the Republican National Convention that month they played on the streets for the roving bands of protesters that clogged Manhattan determined to drown out the voices of Bush and Co. They grabbed a spot on the bill of an ‘“Axis of Justice’” concert organized by Tom Morello (late of Rage Against the Machine) and Serj Tankian (of System of a Down) that included most of the luminaries of the pop music left including Steve Earle, Boots Riley of the Coup, Spearhead and Saul Williams.

The next month they played at a picket line of striking hotel workers in Atlantic City, NJ with Wyclef Jean at an event hosted by the UNITE/HERE union.

Outernational developed from a concept by vocalist Miles Solay and bass player Jesse Williams. Solay doesn’t hesitate to identify the precedent. The Clash, fronted by Joe Strummer, exploded out of England in the late ’70s. The brash punk group that wore its leftist politics on its sleeve and greedily absorbed the carnival of sounds, including reggae, New Orleans R&B and hip hop.

‘“Rage Against the Machine broke up in 2000,’” Solay remembers. ‘“Joe Strummer died in December 2002. I got together with my buddy the bassist. I said, ‘Let’s start something.’ It took six months to meet a bunch of people. We put together a band. After six or seven shows, we had to switch it up. You can’t do it if everybody’s not on the same page and ready to go to the mountaintop.’”

In addition to Solay and Williams, Outernational includes Leo Mintek, a guitarist whose chunky chording references the ska-punk crossover movement of the ’90s; drummer Alex Garcia, whose blistering technique on the skins has earned him the nickname ‘Turbo’; and Sonny Suchdev, a trumpeter whose lines alternate between lost midnight lyricism and blazing declaration. Suchdev also plays dhol and bongos.

Along with punk and hip hop, the band claims Afrobeat, bhangra, Latin and dancehall influences.

Outernational is almost as audacious as their forerunners in the Clash; the group’s publicity trumpets them as pursuing a ‘“a bold mission to fulfill a great need as this generation’s revolutionary band.’” The Clash was ‘“the only band that mattered.’” Outernational is traveling alongside Ozomatli, and to a lesser extent, their Brooklyn brethren in Antibalas as a band with explicitly-stated political commitments in the first decade of the new century.

Solay explains without hesitation what it means to be a ‘“revolutionary band.’”

‘“The ideas come from more a forward-looking notion of looking above and beyond where the world is today, to the very real possibility, the idea that we could organize the world on a different basis than the degradation and brutality that we have today,’” he says.

‘“We were inspired by an essay by Ardea Skybreak called ‘Some Ideas on the Social Role of Art,”” he adds. ‘“She says revolutionary art can be the harbinger of the future. There are places that you could go in a song that you can’t really go in the world yet ‘— a world without borders, in terms of the meaning of it. Some of us in the band like myself are communists and Maoists. Some are anarchists. Some don’t have any ists. But what we share is that we believe common people can work for the common good.’”

Solay rejects the idea that Outernational’s music is merely an appealing vehicle to carry a political message.

‘“We are unequivocally opposed to the idea that our band is the yogurt to make the pill go down easier,’” he says. ‘“We’re trying to make fine art. It’s revolutionary art in terms of the sounds, dreams, narrative and mood pictures.’”

Solay describes the band’s live show as ‘“a wild-ass rollercoaster ride across the planet. We aim for that potent combination with the audience. Our aim is to go there, and we’re not going there alone; we want to take everybody along. Conceptually, it’s very deliberate. We’ve been pretty consistent in trying to create irreverent, unrepentant music that was in your face but also had a lot of beauty.

‘“We set out to create a new sound,’” he adds. ‘“The influences are very obvious. A lot of the bands that we were influenced by, they sought to mash it up.’”

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