In the eyes of the Austinities-in-exile who make up the tightly-wound punk band Institute, everything changed in 2016. At least it felt like it did. Even if the ultra right-wing demagogues were already waiting in the wings for a signal that it was now OK to espouse their toxic ideals in public, the string of major global political happenings that year tipped the scales. “Of course [there was] Brexit, then Trump, and then the myriad faux-populist, border-tightening fascists other countries have been flirting with since,” the band’s singer Moses Brown says via email. “People are going to look back and see that year as a huge sea change as far as the perception of the world they live in.”
From their start around a half decade ago, Institute has been band of agitators, crafting tensile and anxious songs—playing grayscale post-punk with a Stoogian swagger. But they used to operate on a smaller, more personal level. Their songs dealt with Brown’s immediate concerns and poetic existential musings. But given the way the world’s turned, he says, he was forced to think bigger. “It felt inevitable, as a band actively recording music right now,” he says. “What are you doing if you’re not addressing this absurd world?”
It’s tricky to tackle that kind of project head-on, without it coming off as, frankly, kinda corny and naive. But Brown—now based in New York, alongside guitarist Arak Avakian—is a perceptive writer and thinker. In a statement about the band’s new album Readjusting the Locks, out May 17 on Sacred Bones, he wrote thoughtfully about the current state of deadlock that dominates American society.
“We are stubborn, despite what we’ve preached our entire existence, we do not possess the ability to create a truly just and sustainable ‘utopia’ on this earth,” he writes. “Nor do we have the time to reassess the future currently in store for us—thus humanity will perpetually be 'READJUSTING THE LOCKS' of our existential crisis in order to socially manage a decline into absolution (as has proven to be the path of least resistance).”
It’s sort of a pessimist's take on the situation, but most days that feels like a reasonable one. Even the most theoretically trustworthy leaders in this country country are beholden to the interests of corporations and banks—institutions whose very existence is interwoven with a history of colonial violence and white supremacy. Brown says his own moments of hopelessness come from mundane reminders of these broader structural problems, like when he’s walking down a street looking at houses, or perusing ads on the subway.
“I love looking at homes but they are also this perfect symbol of middle class American economic stability,” Brown says. “So seeing and appreciating property is just another slap in the face of reality. I’m walking down the block and the widening economic gap is there just lurking in my head. It’s especially bad in Austin where all the houses in the neighborhood I grew up in, you can’t afford without a tech salary.”
That everyday dread is coupled with the march toward another election cycle, in which, Brown says, no one seems equipped to “writing truly effective policy” or upholding existing ideas—like the Green New Deal or Universal Basic Income—that could stand to truly improve the lives of marginalized people in the country and around the world. This is the backdrop for Readjusting the Locks, 13 tracks more anxious and upset than Institute has ever felt before. It’s their third record for Sacred Bones, and it’s the most wound-up and unsettled by a long shot. Press materials cite ‘77 punk as a possible reference point, but that doesn’t really seem to capture the spirit of it—not exactly. Those bands were having a good time, and this record—even at its most “rockin’” moments, like the chugging opener MPS—has this undertone of dread. You can hear it in the way the rhythms sorta unravel, or in Brown’s wheezy resignation. There’s this feeling that everything might not be alright in the end.
According to Brown, it might not be. “The fabric of society has us moving too fast towards environmental collapse without the ability to stop and take care of earth and everyone on it,” he says. “It’s time to stop progressing into the future.”
So then the question is: what do we do? What choices can we make in the face of a world like this?
“Goddamn I don’t think anyone can answer these questions,” he says. “Vote and love the people close to you? I mean what else are we supposed to do? Think critically and take care of yourself? No one has these answers and nobody will.”
One unspoken answer is: make a rock record. It can seem like a futile gesture in some ways. Riffs and amplifier feedback can’t stem the tides of fascism, or turn back the ticking clock of climate change. But there is a role, argues Brown, that music can play in coalition-building.
“Rock ‘n’ roll has always existed as a force in opposition to oppression,” he says. “it’s the prime artistic medium for the celebration of rebellion. It’s also obviously helped a lot of freak communities find people that they can talk to and be themselves around.”
He acknowledges that such thinking has its pitfalls—pointing to the Maysles brothers’ documentary Gimme Shelter, which documents the Rolling Stones show at Altamont, where the Hell’s Angels working security stabbed a fan to death. “The entire veil gets drawn up on everyone in an instant,” he says. “All their faith vanishes revealing this massive violent void. That seems like a pretty good lesson everyone learned. I don’t think rock music really fits into the process of building a better world, especially now where it’s such a niche thing. Rock music can fall prey to the downfalls of ineffective activism, attempting to take on the man but existing in your own dream horizontal world, essentially removing yourself from the problem.”
Brown’s conflicted about the whole enterprise obviously, but its value is apparent on songs like “Deadlock,” the record’s closing track, which is premiering here today. Over oozing guitar leads, Brown’s able to turn the record’s whole theme into a sing-songy chorus, underlining, perhaps the absurdity of the whole exercise, the perversity of reveling in hopelessness, the understanding of how little such personal apocalypsis actually matters in the face of structural evil. The strange thing is, it’s fun too. However clouded, however ugly the state of things that Brown describes is there’s this irrepressible nature to the songs—an energy meant to make kids pogo endlessly in the smelly back rooms of crowded bars.
This makes sense; no matter how much of a downer all this stuff can be, you just have to move forward. Brown does somehow. “I gotta give it to humanity,” he says. “We can have a good time no matter how fucked up the world is.“
Institute tour dates:
May 18 - NYC @ Saint Vitus (Record Release Show)
May 20 - Antwerp @ Antwerp Music City
May 21 - Amsterdam @ Skatepark NOORD
May 22 - Copenhagen @ Korsgade 30
May 24 - Berlin @ An der Autobahn (Bei Ruth)
May 25 - Prague @ Klub 007
May 26 - Vienna @ EKH
May 27 - Budapest @ Aurora
May 28 - Zagreb @ Club Močvara
May 29 - Venice @ TBA
May 30 - Milan @ Casa Gorizia
May 31 - Lyon @ GZ
June 1 - Barcelona @ Meteoro
June 2 - Madrid @ Wulritzer Ballroom
June 3 - Bilbao @ El Muelle
June 4 - Getaria @ Gaztetxe
June 5 - Paris @ L'International
June 7 - Leeds @ Temple of Boom
June 8 - London @ New River Studios
June 22 - Los Angeles @ Zebulon