I first spoke to Jason Aalon Butler on October 21, 2015. “I’m in the highest of spirits because it’s Back To The Future day,” he told me, and even though he was on the end of a phone, I could hear the smile dancing on his lips. The fact that he was about to go and watch all the Back To The Future films in one consecutive session wasn’t the only reason for his good mood; he’d recently finished recording his band letlive.’s fourth album, If I’m The Devil… and was audibly excited about it. The release date hadn’t been set yet so, understandably, Butler didn’t want to reveal too much. But when he started telling me about string quartets and “soundscapes we hadn’t explored [before] as a band”, I was intrigued. He confirmed there would be “a disparity” between this album and the band’s previous release, 2013’s The Blackest Beautiful, but didn’t elaborate beyond saying that “R’n’B and hip hop and soul is what taught me about music. It’s kind of harking back to those times”.
When the first single from If I’m The Devil… dropped six months later, it didn’t mince words. “Good Mourning America” opens with what sounds like audio from a protest punctuated by gunshots, before a gospel choir come in singing “We ain’t so different now are we? / Said the cop to the killer inside of me”. It’s a blatant and bold protest song about police brutality against black Americans, partly inspired by the Ferguson unrest that began in August 2014 after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer. The timing of the release is pertinent, as weeks after If I’m The Devil… was released, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot dead by police, sparking protests across the US and UK.
Butler has called If I’m The Devil… “the most thought-out and multi-faceted and textured record [of the band’s career], and also the most confronting”. Certainly, the band have made an incredibly detailed and layered record, coalescing the sound of punk, soul, and hip-hop tinged ballads into the most cinematic yet ferocious album in their discography. The semantics of the record takes on a number of themes too: from heartbroken despair on “Foreign Cab Rides”, to internal suspicion on “Nü Romantics”, to the importance of acceptance on “I’ve Learned to Love Myself”. For the first time, Butler is talking about his upbringing in searingly honest terms on record, while also building on a bedrock of far-spread influences. So what’s his story? What part of it played an integral role in the forming of this new record, and why is it so important to the cultural foundations of today’s punk rock scene?
Growing up in Inglewood, California to a black father - Aalon Butler, a soul singer - and a white Glaswegian mother, Butler found himself aware of systematic oppression from childhood. “I’ve got a white mom and a black dad, and, very simply put, I’ve seen it from both sides,” he says. “I’ve always struggled with this idea of exceptionalism; trying to be better because everyone was telling me I wasn’t.” Encouraged by his parents, who hoped he’d win a scholarship and become the first in his family to go to college, Butler channelled his desire to be exceptional into sports. Music practice had to be conducted in secret; an exploitative record deal years earlier had caused Aalon Butler to lose a considerable amount of money, and he was wary of his son following him into the industry that had left the family on the poverty line. He gave in eventually and bought Butler a guitar when he was 11.
As Butler was nearing the end of middle school, his father was sent to prison for a crime he doesn’t disclose, and he’s adamant that his race played a part in the length of the sentence. “When I studied it, most white men in America only went to jail for maybe six months tops, but I didn’t see my father for four or five years. Why? Same crime, same country, same judicial system, completely different outcome.” A simple but honest commentary on this unfairness is given on If I’m The Devil…’s title track. “It’s what you think, therefore I am,” sings Butler on the chorus. “If I’m the devil, you’re the reason”.
Looking for a visceral outlet for his frustration beyond sports, the volatility of punk provided an outlet for Butler’s discontent. “I was a lot more of a violent and aggressive child than people would believe, [and] I didn’t have any place to put that,” he says. “That’s why I played so many sports; that’s why I started skateboarding, and I guess why I started to enjoy more hazardous activities. I needed to put that negative energy somewhere and try and make it positive. That’s what punk rock did for me; I saw that you were able to run around in circles, if you go down, you get up and shake the dude’s hand and keep going.”
In 2007, two years after letlive. released their debut album, Butler found himself on the receiving end of what he describes as racial profiling, when he and a Hispanic friend were stopped by a police officer as they left a party. “We were a very different background to the police officers, and all of these people that were similar to them, they were letting go. They were drunk, they were high, they were making a ruckus, and they were letting them go. But my friend, for some reason, was profiled, or what I believe to be profiling.” Butler says he had a heated exchanged with the policeman, who put him in a chokehold. To free himself, Butler headbutted him, and was arrested for assaulting an officer. “The district attorney looked deeper into my case, and she found that this guy was totally in the wrong, so I was dismissed,” Butler explains. “My charges of three to five years for assaulting this police officer were dropped because it was a civil injustice.”
Drawing on this experience to write lyrics for If I’m The Devil… was Butler’s way of casting off the shame he once felt about the incident. On one track called “Reluctantly Dead” he alludes to an innate fear of the police, that he says has grown in black communities from years of having the finger pointed at them. “I put both my hands up and I started to pray / That you ain't like me and that you'll let me walk away / But I'll understand it if you choose to kill me”, he sings. Of the decision to open up on the record, he says: “This is my way of telling people that you can’t judge simply because the authority has said that this person is wrong. I used to feel ashamed and not want to talk about it, but now, I don’t give a fuck.”
“When I started liking punk rock there were very few people of colour,” he says. “So my idea of it was straight hair and mohawks and tattoos and fair skin. For me, making an attempt to look like that was impossible. My hair was too curly, my skin was too dark, my nose was too big. I didn’t come from that, I came from, quote-unquote, the ghetto.” I ask him if bands like Dead Kennedys and Body Count finally provided the representation he was looking for. “Yes, you’re my girl, that’s my shit!” he exclaims. “Dead Kennedys, there was a black drummer. Union 13, all Mexican dudes, amazing. Bad Brains, Fishbone, Body Count, Angry Samoans. Those were representing a side of me that I just didn’t think was getting represented when I first started liking punk rock. Those were the [bands] that really showed me that it’s OK; these are bad motherfuckers. Bad Brains are one of the best punk bands of all time without question.”
Butler formed his first band, Fubar, at the age 14. Two years later, it would become the first incarnation of letlive. I ask him if his experiences, not to mention the social and political commentary permeating the corners of the music he was gravitating towards, meant that he always knew he wanted his band to make a statement. “Great question,” he replies. “I’m gonna be straight up with you. I wish I could say that I was like just having fun and playing with my friends, but no, it wasn’t like that. I knew what I wanted and how I wanted to be represented. From the very moment that letlive. started, I knew exactly what it was to be. To deviate from that would mean it had to stop; there’s no way it can continue on without exercising the idea that it started with, and that was this idea of freedom, an open forum to feel whatever you need to feel and are told you can’t feel. It’s about trying to be better, trying to feel different, trying to feel uncomfortable at times. Letlive. was a way for me to start feeling I was worth these sort of benefits and privileges that you get as a human being.”
“To me, the idea of subversion existed in punk and hip-hop,” he says. “They may dress a little differently, but it’s the same thing to me.” I think back to our first conversation on Back To The Future day, and the time-travelling 80s film suddenly seems like a good metaphor for where Butler and letlive. are currently at. In order to write the next chapter of the band’s career, Butler had to revisit those feelings of otherness that confused and infuriated him in the past. In turn, he recaptured the epiphany he had when he realised that finding his place in music, and, indeed, in the world, didn’t have to be decided by race or class. As a result, If I'm The Devil… sounds like the manifesto of a man who is aware that ideologies transcend musical genres.
“Freedom in a place where you’re not allowed to feel free? That is some dangerous and attractive and beautiful shit,” he says. “When you’re able to feel free for a moment in a world that tells you you should be in chains, that’s punk rock. I think this record is our best effort to open up the largest conversation that you could ever have with letlive. I feel like there’s a void of representation for different intersectional demographics – women, gays, people of colour – and in this record I would hope that, while empowering some to feel as though they finally have a voice or consideration in this subgenre of rock and roll, I’d also like for people who already have representation to consider the things being said on this record, because it affects all of us.”
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