Wrestling truths from noise with Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires
Lee Bains doesn’t shy away from emphasis. He’s the singer and frontman of Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, and six of the song titles on his most recent record end with exclamation points. They’re like little firecrackers on the end of each song’s name. Bains and his band are barking and shouting because they’d like your attention.
But you can’t expect people to listen just because you have a bullhorn, and Bains is plenty thoughtful about having a message behind the decibels and the exclamatory “oomph.” Bains grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where some of his bandmates still reside, and Bains lives in Georgia now. Bains and the Glory Fires play Greensboro’s On Pop of the World Studios on July 19. I spoke with Bains last week by phone from his home in Atlanta.
“O, children, how do we scrap/globalist American plutocracy,/and build us/a magic city?” he asks on “Sweet Disorder!,” the second track on Youth Detention, the band’s 2017 record. “The Magic City” is a nickname of Birmingham’s. The Magic City is the name of an album by another Birmingham-born musician, the interplanetary jazz visionary Sun Ra. The music Bains makes has little in common with Sun Ra, but both are trying to make sense of their place, to tell stories about where they came from and to imagine a better world.
“I don’t want to be from no place,” Bains sings on “Whitewash.”
Being from someplace, and trying to understand what that means, and how it shapes you, or how you can (or can’t) shape it, all of that plays out in Bains’ music. In his songs, he’s been probing ideas related to being from the South and raising questions about power and history and language. Bains moved up to New York City in the early part of the last decade to go to college. He studied literature there and had a kind of revelation about essentialism and roots. Being a Southerner in New York meant that some people (not everybody) made assumptions about Bains based on his accent or the geography of his birth.
“This was the first time in my life that I had somebody ask me essentially ‘What are you?’ and that got the wheels turning,” Bains said. “I started thinking about the relationship between self and community, and about the politics of power — particularly around race and power and ethnicity and gender.”
Bains and the Glory Fires make hopped-up music — driving, distorted and crammed with syllables. People call it Southern rock, because it’s rock and they’re from the South, and also because they make rock about the South. But you’ll hear as much in common with the Hold Steady and the Sex Pistols as you will with the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The general temperament of Bains’ songs is on the jittery side. It’s pent-up with combustible energy, gasoline and speed.
Bains played in DIY punk bands growing up. He read a bunch of fiction writers, like Eudora Welty, Willa Cather and Flannery O’Connor, who wrote about a sense of place as being a defining force. And then in college, he soaked up a bunch of critical theory, books about exoticism and colonialism, which pressed him to question how he came about his sense of self and his feeling of belonging.
“As I got older I was just kind of absorbing more influences,” Bains said. “I would say a lot of the music that I was making had a contentious relationship to Southerness.”
The songs have references to red clay, to suburban baseball games, to burn piles, to kudzu, to church, to kids sneaking into the woods to smoke weed, plenty of highways, not-quite-thriving cities, and drywall dust. There’s a grit and a beat-down quality to some of the characters and settings in the songs. Bains, 33, might not be exactly religious, but when he ponders the prospect of an afterlife in a song like “The Picture of a Man,” he comes up with a formulation that we get redemption and relief by having something like our spirits drawn away from the suffering of our bodies and of this world. As for damnation, he imagines that it’s crappy people who might just have their essence snuffed out at the end. “If anybody in this world just fades to black, I‘d think it’s the man that lives off picking on them that are being held back,” he sings.
Bains is obviously trying to pull off big things in his songs. They’re not just disposable four-minute bits of entertainment. He wants some punch and transcendence. He wants to conjure a real experience of the South in the 21st century, and he’s trying to write stories that don’t turn away from what he sees as built-in power structures that tend to oppress certain groups and favor others.
‘I’m trying to look at the ways that I’ve seen whiteness and white supremacy and patriarchy and xenophobia and the gender binary operate, not in the whole world, but in my side of Birmingham,” Bains said.
Bains has the good sense not to resort to preaching, but instead to let his storytelling instinct reveal these complexities, like details in the landscape. Writing lyrics that carry all that weigh is a challenge, and Bains relies on the extra power of music — of melody, rhythm, repetition, and harmony — to take things a little further.
“What kind of fascinates me is the point at which language becomes inadequate for expressing something,” he said.
But before he hits that point Bains likes to cram and shoehorn an awful lot of language into his songs. His music requires a lyric sheet to read along while his vocal lines whir by. He’s got the dexterity of a rapping auctioneer when it comes to burning through dozens of words in little time.
Fans of the Drive-By Truckers and the Alabama Shakes might hear some kinship in the music that Bains and the Glory Fires make. Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires are a band that view playing rock ‘n’ roll in sweaty clubs as a possible way of accessing something more than just volume and a good time.
On “Saved My Life!” he sings what amounts to a kind of mission statement:
“Don’t tell me ‘It’s only rock ‘n’ roll when I’ve seen it wrestle truths from noise.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires at On Pop of the World Studios in Greensboro on Thursday, July 19.