Arak James released my favorite country album of 2020. Chances are you might have missed the limited pressing of Hack the Planet into World Pieces, but luckily for you the whole thing is on bandcamp. You may recognize James as an integral member of both Glue and Institute, and Hack the Planet is some of his best work to date. I caught up with James to learn about what went into the making of this tape and to find out a little more about what it takes to whistle with an accent.
Crunchy Mag: When did you start writing country songs?
Arak James: The first country song that I wrote that ended up released, I wrote in 2015. Probably in the month of August. It’s called “Man on the Moon.” I stole the tune, that much is for sure. I had just built a table out of a birch door that I had also stolen. Didn’t have much money and I was a terrible worker but I was always very inspired.
Can you tell us where you stole the song from? Or the door? Perhaps both?
The song is a full on adaptation of the melody from “Dark as a Dungeon,” the coal miner song. Good renditions with the original lyrics include Peter Grudzien, Willy Nelson, Ben Wallers, The Carter Family. As for the door? I’ll say the employees wear orange vests.
The description for Hack the Planet into World Pieces is pretty amazing. Who is Peter BD?
He would be so happy that you noticed how amazing his description was. Peter BD, he is a legendary writer here in New York. He got into the ‘writing game’ by writing people emails. I met him for the first time at a bar in Bushwick and he said, “Arak, check your spam folder.” That was our first time meeting, like I said, but when I checked my spam, like he said, there was a long ass poem in there all about me and my legend. 100% gas, 30% truth. Pictures included. Naturally he’s my first choice for any press materials these days. Check out his book called ‘Milk & Henny.’
The proceeds for your tape went to Club A Kitchen NYC. Can you tell me more about your involvement with them?
Club A is great. They provide around 2,000 meals per week to the community in need in Bushwick. They’ve grown steadily since their founding. I used to be involved hands on in the distribution of food and in grocery shopping. Now I have stepped off the line and I am studying to become a grant writer. I’m trying to play the long game. Drop them a line on their instagram @club_a_nyc and feel free to donate money at will.
Who are some other country artists that inspire your music?
The GOAT is John Prine. I love the Carter Family. Jimmie Rogers. Elizabeth Cotton. Charlie Pride. Woody Guthrie. Dolly Parton. Lucinda Williams. Roger Miller. Tom T. Hall. Lee Hazlewood. Kris Kristofferson. Blaze Foley. Peter Grudzien. Charlie Tweddle. But also like, George Clinton, Kevin Ayers, Arthur Russel, Link Wray, Arthur Lee, Queen.
How do you feel being a person of color making country music? Does it matter to you? How does your personal experience with race influence your music?
It Matters in a heap. Something I’ve learned as a poc is that I cannot be complicit in the system of my own oppression. If I want to make Country Music, and the only thing stopping me is a racist and altogether too normative abstraction about who I am, then the discussion is over and I’m stepping in and Making some Country Music. No matter how easy society makes it for me to gate-keep myself out of certain worlds, I will not be the vessel of my own exclusion. This applies unanimously to my decision making.
The Country Music industry is now and has always been, commercially, a super-white behemoth. But this I do not blame on the artist or the essence. That blame is passed to the market, its manipulators, and the executives producing the predominance of Country Music. For every Carrie Underwood and Toby Keith, there is an Elizabeth Cotton and Charlie Pride to whom they owe.
As for myself, I am simply an artist channeling whatever it is that inspires me to make whatever it is I hear in my head. But who am I really? By Nature and Nurture— a mixed, middle eastern son of an immigrant and a white southern baptist, with brown skin, a unibrow, and a penchant for shaving my beard. Nature says I’m out, Nurture says I’m in. But it’s still I who really chooses Country Music.
My own experience with race has given me many things— anger, depression, phobia, etc. But the vessel through which it influences my music is definitely compassion. This music, at its purest, is the music of angels. I try to speak that truth through the lens of compassion I’ve learned from understanding my own oppression and its intersection with the oppression of all unfavored peoples. We are not any of us free unless we are all free.
How would you say this tape is different than the Smokers are alive and Smoking tape you released a couple years ago?
I was recording myself exclusively with an iPhone back then. I’d had plenty of experience recording with Institute and Glue in full pro studios prior, but I was just trying to capture the moment when it came to the country music at that time. One take– record it anywhere on any guitar, email myself every voice memo from the last year and play around with it til it all fit on one tape. It was great, but as I got more interested in actually arranging these songs as full compositions I had to upgrade.
I was given a 4 track for Christmas two years ago and I 30% learned how to use it and 70% still record through the microphone on my iPod headphones. Personally, I think the result is beautiful. All I want is to execute what I want and sing loads of my own harmonies. Long story short, it is very different from Smokers are Alive and Smoking and I have learned a lot about writing and recording since then.
Now that the project is more established, any chance you take these songs or new songs to a studio? Would you lose something / gain something if you did?
I certainly would. Nothing but the door stands between me and recording a studio album. In whole or in piecemeal, new or old, I’ve got 50 or so songs. Not a single one of them was designed to be kept in low light. Ultimately I’d expect to gain something fierce by taking to the studio. Finally being able to play these songs with other musicians would be invaluable. My vision is my vision, but any plant might benefit from water by a different pail.
Would you say your music is more influenced by the past or the present?
I been sitting here having written nothing so far on this one for 10- 15 minutes. It’s easier for me to say that all my music is channeled. For that to be possible, I feel like I have to have handfuls of really valid reference points in broad music history, but I also need to ‘bE HeRe nOw’ and drop acid now and then, so to speak. In the same way that a dream doesn’t feel particularly like the past, present, or future, I’d say my music isn’t particularly owed to any of the above. There are plenty of references in my music that in my opinion are easy to notice and trace to their given origins. Be that something history has written or misreported, or something we are thinking about now.
What’s the inspiration behind the song “Whistle with an Accent”
Walk with me— you’re like 17 years old and you’re about to fail a history test, but you know for a fact that your teacher definitely thinks you are kind of a boss. You’ve read more than your classmates and you consider yourself street smart for how much you shoplift and talk to strangers. So you fully fail the test before anybody else has even finished, throw up some back handed devil horns, and tell your teacher you will see them tomorrow.
Fast forward like 12 years— this brand of self confidence, mental resourcefulness, and the ability to pivot in the face of adversity has served you well. You’ve reckoned and reasoned with the consequences of many of your own mistakes, but you’ve come out resembling that boss that your old teacher allowed to fail so many tests. You Whistle with an Accent now, and you always have.
Seems like that teacher may want a copy of your latest tape?
What if I told you that, hypothetically, I sent her one.
I’d believe you. How does one become Heartlessly Wasted?
It can be so easy. Don’t sleep enough, don’t eat right, don’t plan your schedule, lose track of time, abuse drugs and alcohol. Do all of this in tandem and no matter how big your heart, anyone unlucky enough to love you during this time will arrive at the same conclusion: you’re just a heartlessly wasted guy. Ripen does the arc of redemption. Cue Act II.
Favorite movie about NYC?
Men In Black
Desperately Seeking Susan
Favorite quote from Henry Fool?
“Henry, what is this?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I corrected the spelling myself.”
Favorite “NYC” album?
Peter Grudzien, The Garden of Love
The Templars, Return of Jacque DeMolay
Have you ever played live with this project?
As I sit and write, it is the third anniversary of my first live solo set. Valentine’s day 2018 at the Windjammer with Amour Fou and Touch. I had put it off for three years at that point, but it felt worth the wait. I remember making people cry, which was cool. Validating to my whit and whim I suppose. Quite the confidence boost. I’ve played a handful of other times as well, notably once at 10:30 am on a Sunday morning headlining a 24 hour show at the now defunct Silent Barn in Bushwick. I would play many more times if it were to be that I was asked.
Nothing quite as validating as the human tear I suppose.
I also suppose.
How would a country music tour or live dates differ from what you’ve done road doggin’ with Institute and Glue?
I figure it would be quite different. For one, I would probably drive in my Honda Civic. However, I do not really own any gear aside from my strat and I’m not as keen on driving around the country by myself as I used to be. I would need a little help for sure. I’m not so well connected in the world where this performance fits as I am where punk does so.
Come to think of it I actually do not wish to put my civic through this. Nor myself. If I’m to tour as Arak James, there’ll be a band. And a van. And I’ll likely borrow all the same gear I always have playing in Institute or Glue. Mose and Cody will probably be there. The civic will be parked in Queens. This is what it’s like when worlds collide.
How important is the movie Hackers to you?
Between 90% and 100% important. How iconic can a cyberpunk movie be? Hackers answers that question emphatically. ‘Hack the Planet’ is number one on my list of fictional, can’t miss, guerrilla webcasts.
What do you think Razor and Blade are up to now?
They’re on twitch. Live streaming. Probably opening pokemon cards and leading r/wallstreetbets around with a twinkie on a string. There’s a lot of money in all that, money easily funneled back into hacking the planet. However chaotic or devious their behavior may seem, I know they want to see us all eating candy bars just like I do. World Pieces for everyone.
The line “its in the place where I put that thing that time” is something I hope I never forget. Thanks for doing this Arak. Any closing remarks?
HTP! BLM! MUTUAL AID! NEVER FORGIVE THE GOVERNMENT!