White Buffalo: OUT and the Politics of Despair

Not to sound all theological, but there are times when it feels like the Cosmos just has a plan and yall best get out the way. Convenient, isn’t it, that something like Philip K Dick’s fascists-take-America alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle (1968) was finally made into a television series that debuted less than a year before Donald Trump was elected American President with the open endorsement of neo-Nazi’s across the country. Zeitgeist, right?

It is this right-art-right-time-right-place feeling I get when I listen to OUT’s inaugural long-player Swim Buddies (Comedy Minus One, 2017). Emerging from of the indefinite hiatus taken by Kalamazoo’s Minutes in 2015, OUT takes its predecessor’s aesthetic in a much more anthemic, yet somehow darker, direction. That is to say, each of the record’s eleven tracks is simultaneously fist-pumping and bleak—just right for the America to come under Donald Trump—and engage in what Judith Butler once called the “politics of despair.”

Anticipating this record, agricouture contacted OUT singer and guitar player Ike Turner and asked for an interview. He graciously obliged. A Wishek, North Dakota-native with more than one degree from the University of North Dakota, Turner has been playing in punk bands and teaching college students a variety of subjects for over 20 years. The interview was equally wide-ranging, and bleak. To reference an old Lacanian joke, then, enjoy.

Interview conducted in November 2016.

So, this month has been rough…. I’m just wondering, first, how you’re coping in the wake of the post-election news we’ve all been consuming.

I think I’m coping in ways that make me a little embarrassed. Maybe the thing I’m most embarrassed about is that I needed a disgusting, sexist, racist, maybe homophobic tyrant to spur me to see the problems within the refugee community in my own town or acknowledge them as something that I have an opportunity to make better. That kind of bums me out on one level. On another level, sometimes the ends justify the means. In this case, just this week alone there have been a few of us who have mobilized. I should say too—it’s a weird thing to talk about social activism, about what you can be doing and should be doing. Because if you’re just doing anything, that’s enough, if you’re social engaged.

I think many of us here in my community have always been doing social activism in one way, shape, or form. I felt for years I was doing my part as a teacher in a community college, you know, helping poor folks, people who need a little help with certain things—and then also forcing my own quasi-Marxist agenda into class: you know, talking about oppression, talking about class issues, talking about the ridiculous school-to-prison pipeline that we have. We have more people in prison in our country than anywhere in the world, you know? And I can’t stand that. I thought teaching about all that was enough, and I was wrong. I was so wrong, and I needed to recognize that. You know I should’ve followed the example you and your wife set for years by working with people in your own community—immigrants and whatnot—and I’ve always admired that and been in awe of that. It takes people actually doing real work to effect change. So…. I’m not coping with it well, to answer your question.

I appreciate that, but part of me wants to go the other way. I suppose it could be that without people working on immigration or libraries locally things would be “worse” than they are now with racism or whatever, but I can’t help but feel that despite the work lots of people have been doing for a decade, in a particularly red state, this still happened. It’s almost as if all that work didn’t matter. And in some ways things are getting worse. I feel a bit demoralized and defeated by this.

I completely agree. The demoralizing thing was a shock because I think maybe unlike you in a very red state, although you are in a university town, I suffered from confirmation bias for years now. I mean, I only know people who are liberal. And they fight over the particularities of things like using pronouns for non-gender conforming individuals. So they’re fighting for things that are so far down the line in terms of progress…and that’s great, but out of fucking nowhere comes this fucking actual nightmare. It’s awful.

You said earlier that you just got out of class—was that a literature class or music you taught tonight?

Tonight was a music class—the History of Rock and Roll. We covered postpunk and New Wave and the start of MTV.

OK—the reason I ask is I’m wondering if since last week’s election results you’ve noticed a difference in the environment in the classroom and in Kalamazoo generally. Does the place just feel different?

Absolutely. Particularly within the loosely defined goalposts you’d put around what you might call “my community,” people are incredibly, incredibly bummed out. I actually went to a rally last night with about 600-700 people. It was an anti-Trump rally—you know “Hey, hey, he’s not our President, he’s gotta go.” And I actually didn’t feel good about it. Some people may have felt energized by it, but for me it was quite the opposite. I felt we were protesting something that was already gone.

I took part in a Black Lives Matter rally this summer and I felt that that caused waves. That caused the ripple effect of people paying attention to the rally. And it wasn’t this chauvinistic, self-serving jerkoff. It was something that was really important, something where I honestly think people actually changed their opinion on certain things after the Black Lives Matter rally this summer. I don’t think the needle even budged after last night.

Right. I’ve worried about that as well—the usefulness of such strategies, whether we’re talking the safety pin thing or other anti-whatever rallies or events. I can understand people’s desire to act in that way, to do something, but part of it seems a bit impotent. I’m just not sure what the most productive response should be at this stage to Trump specifically.

Yeah. On some level I feel hopeless. [laughs]

Well, that’s what I’m getting at: in terms of the rock and roll classroom where it’s your job to talk about the ways music and art connect to politics, what I’m wondering is how your students are responding to this vis-à-vis pop culture? Are they finding ways to connect the election to the history of rock or talking about protest music in more specific ways now?

What I thought was going to happen was there was going to be this huge backlash. Because over the past year and a half I had no vocal Trump supporters or no vocal conservatives—none. We’re a Red State in Michigan now too. And that’s part of the “blindsided” nature of this election that was so shocking. Honestly many of my students are very solidly working class. Some of them have expressed a little dismay that Trump got elected, but many of them are just living their lives—they’re week to week, paycheck to paycheck. This is just a trifle to them. It’s nothing. And I think when things like [the Affordable Care Act] get repealed, that’s when people are going to start freaking out a little.


In terms of countering despondence with art, are there records you find yourself (re)turning to right now? Anything seem to feel just right for the era we’re entering?

My students haven’t said anything about music personally. They haven’t even heard of Duran Duran, you know, they’re often completely myopic in terms of their musical taste. And that’s fine, that how culture works. That’s how age works. Over the last few weeks I covered the music of protest, ironically. So tonight I started class by playing the performance by A Tribe Called Quest from “Saturday Night Live.” You know their song called “We The People”? It’s a beautiful song and the refrain may seem a bit pedestrian, you know—“All you black folks you must go/ all you Mexicans you must go”—but it’s so poignant. It’s just a fucking great song and I tied it back to what’s going on now, and no one really said much. The class was real quiet. I think they’re just concerned with their own lives right now.

For myself, probably on a bad level, one not good for my mental health, I’ve been listening to a lot of Mark Eitzel this week—the guy from American Music Club. And then I’ve been listening to a lot of Richard Thompson, particularly his record Pour Down Like Silver. I think it’s a perfect album and for some reason I’ve found little solace in that. Before that I’d been listening to a lot of the new Solange record and the new Frank Ocean record. But I don’t find a lot of joy listening to those right now as they’re a little lighter. I’m instead listening to music I probably shouldn’t be.

Yes. Over here it’s Nick Cave’s latest [Skeleton Tree]. To bring this to OUT, then, where does your music fit in with this evolving context? You wrote and recorded Swim Buddies in advance of November 2016, but obviously released the record after the election. Still, the record seems to be a commentary on what we just went through—the songs seem to have anticipated current events, not unlike how Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Fugazi’s The Argument seemed to expect 9/11, or at least a post-9/11 America in some uncanny way.

Well, I agree. I imprinted a feeling after the fact on a lot of this record as well, not while we were recording but certainly when we were playing in practice after the fact. And we played a show a few days ago… And particularly when it came to the apocalyptic vibe of a couple of the songs—like the song about the water going away. We live by the water here and are connected to water in a specific way. There are nuclear power plants up and down the lake shore here and we have to be very mindful of that. And the Enbridge pipeline that burst on the Kalamazoo River and shot hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the river here—it ruined our river. We’re always talking about what happens when the water goes away, even though we live in the Great Lakes Region.

I imprinted a political thing on the back end. When we began writing the record, it was just songs we were writing along the way. And I won’t speak for Chafe’s lyrics, because he does more specific things with his, but with mine I write these small little narratives. The first song I wrote for OUT was a song called “Cyclists,” about a bicycle trip I took. And I have a friend who lives up in Escanaba who works with the Native American community in Escanaba—the Potawatomie Indians. And he believes very strongly in totems and the natural world and he said: “On your trip you’re going to see an Eagle—this will be a totem for you.” I thought that was very kind of him to say, but I never saw one fucking eagle. Instead I saw a bunch of crows, and I saw a bunch of buzzards, and all these other birds taunting me. So I thought that was important, though—I thought that there’s the working class of the bird world. And I took that as my totem. Because I’m a bad cyclist, but I still do it. And I wrote one other song about the Mormans getting kicked out of Illinois or whatever.

And the LBJ song [“Ox Carts”], I was just thinking of Johnson as a character sitting there right before he resigned, wondering “What the fuck is happening?”—people getting all excited. “Who is this Buffalo Springfield? And this Stephen Stills?” And the My Lai massacre. It’s all the same to him—they’re all awful. And they all just get gerrymandered into this area of “enemy” for him that he hates. And by ‘68, he’s done. And also there was this satirical thing done in the National Lampoon in the 1960s that was printed as a “real” history. And in this history there’s an episode there where Lyndon Johnson is supposedly in the back of Air Force One and Jackie Kennedy walks back there and sees him fucking Kennedy’s wound in his neck after he had his head blown off by the Pope or whomever. And people believed that. So there was this rumor even then that this guy was so over the top that he was doing that. And I just love that mix of all those things with Johnson as both a real human being but also as this larger than life character. You know, he was dead pretty quickly after he leaves office. You know, he starts smoking, and he’s giving this speech in Texas in 1970 or ‘71 and he’s popping nitro glycerin pills during the speech—he’s having a heart attack on stage and he finishes this speech popping nitro glycerin.

But, yeah, after the fact we see these songs differently. We want to cling to the hopefulness of it, or the dichotomy between the hopefulness and the apocalyptic nature of them.

Exactly—these songs both sound simultaneously anthemic and bleak—no hope despite the hook they offer, like “White Buffalo.” Was that intentional? A white buffalo in North Dakota just died, by the way.

Yeah, I think it’s because we’re all in our forties now, mostly. And realistically speaking, I’ve lived half of my life. If I live to be 80 I will have lived a very good life, long hopefully. And I should be happy to get to 80. If I make it to 81, great, I’m in stoppage time, And you get to that point and you start to think about all the time you’ve wasted—overeating of sleeping or watching bad TV or jerking off or whatever—all the times you should’ve been talking to your kids when you’re on your phone. And that can’t help but work into the default point of view you write with. When we play, though, we’re very, very happy. Particularly at band practice, it’s just all smiles. It’s strange to be singing these really heavy songs—heavier than Minutes—but it’s just happy anyway. I look at Chafe and Toby and Mark and, you know, we’re tight bros…. The lyrics are kind of depressing, but we’re generally happy. The next songs for the next record, though—oof. Watch out [laughs].

Which is to say, the thoughts you’re thinking now—due to maturity or experience or age or whatever—are just bleaker than when you were 20, election notwithstanding.


I buy that. I feel the same way—I don’t really write songs anymore, but I don’t know that I could write lyrics without frightening my family–

It’s a strange thing because physically, I’m ok—a little overweight maybe. But musically, I don’t think I’ve ever been better at what I do than I am now in terms of thinking of a thing, a guitar part, say, and being able to do it. I’m still not great, but I have a small box I can check off a box that I see as being acceptable as “musician.” I’m 40 now and I’m finally starting to piece some of that stuff together, and I feel really good about it. I love playing music with Mark and Chafe and T.J. And all that is really good, but Even before the election you can’t help but look around and see… [laughs] it’s a rough world man. That stuff obviously sneaks its way in.

On that note, many OUT songs—whether it’s you or Chafe singing—seem more self-consciously minimalist lyrically, there’s just fewer words overall…many short lines repeated. Was that intentional or just an effect of the line-up change, or something else?

For Chafe—yes. He definitely wanted to get into a less “wound-up” mode—not lighter or slower, but a bit more relaxed. And I think it’s for the better. I love his lyrics, but here he wanted to take that approach. Some of these songs are pretty old. Some of them, like “Back that Truck Up,” were going to be Minutes songs at one point—which is to say you would’ve seen Minutes moving in that direction.

For my part, I take every song as it comes. I literally don’t try to think about things and don’t try to force it. I get ideas or words I want to use in the song and build around that. I get a notion of what I want to do and work on it. For example, I have a song on the next record about my family. I just wanted to write about that and that’s what came to me. It’s a bit dark [laughs], but that’s how it came out, and I’m proud of that one too. I think we’re moving to a place where the next record will be more open—a little less constrained. And I know we’re excited to get into the studio to make a record that’s going to be more of a “big” rock record in terms of the sound, where we overdub parts, things are a bit more layered. We have a recording engineer that we love right now, and we’re going to take our time with him and chip away at this next record, sort of labor over things. The interesting thing about OUT is that we think it’s most successful when we all three sing together, so the next record will have a lot of that.

Agreed—those tracks with multiple voices are powerful. And speaking of strong voices, what are each of you all reading now?

I’ll be honest, my taking-in of information in terms of reading is I listen to a lot of audiobooks, maybe one a week, almost exclusively nonfiction. I just finished one on heroin or opiate addiction in America by Sam Quinones called Dreamland. That was really great. Sad, bleak. Very good though. Before that I did the Cure book by Lol Tolhust [Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys]—basically anything about music or related to social ills. The New Jim Crow [by Michelle Alexander and Cornel West] was a face-melter in a lot of ways. At school I read constantly for my job, either student work or a lot of short fiction.

The new Robbie Robertson memoir?

No—that’s up next. I want to do the Bruce Springsteen one before that, though.

I ask about the Band as a way of getting to Dylan and the Nobel Prize–

Oh, man—I think it’s the greatest thing ever. He’s a fucking genius. I was bouncing off the walls I was so happy the day that happened. I made all my English classes listen to him and analyze his lyrics that day, like a typical “cool” teacher. I was over the moon. He’s a genius. He’s our bard. And I saw the reaction from a lot of friends of mine about him being another “old white guy” and for the first time in a really long time I had that feeling of, you know, “Fuck you.” This is BOB DYLAN. And I didn’t like that response on my part—it was a very typical Baby Boomer response. But this guy is an actual genius walking amongst us. And he’s so playful. And if anybody hated that decision I think he’d be the first person to support that—I think he probably hated the decision. His whole life is a verbal and rhetorical game of cat and mouse, you know, and I just love that. So, I was just so happy to see that happen for him.

I agree and I was also surprised at the angry response to the decision on social media—including, or especially, from people on the Left.

That, I think, is symptomatic of the social media culture we’re in now—which I’m deeply involved with. I’m on Facebook constantly because I’m interested in what people are saying, and I have conversations with myself that I put on Facebook constantly and people respond, and I respond to them, and I love that relationship. I’m a big fan of that. But I think that really gives people a way of exploding the deepest, darkest, least well-thought-out parts of themselves in ugly ways, in knee-jerk ways, and in ways that are not well reasoned.

On a much uglier note, a similar explosion happened here in Kalamazoo last week when someone supposedly wrote a homophobic and racist thing on a server’s ticket at a T.G.I. Fridays. And it went viral on Facebook and everyone was trying to find out who did it. Then it came out that maybe it was a Trumped-up thing that the server did herself or whatever. And that brought out, I noticed, the most knee-jerk responses from people who weren’t taking any time to consider what was going on—they were just responding blindly. And when you respond blindly you end up with Donald Trump in the White House. ⍟