“Listen To The Lyrics, It’s All There”: Jono Sri Talks Hip-Hop, Politics & Media

Dreamland talks Bris-hop, ISIS and ramming things down your throat with Jonathan Sri: Greens candidate (now councilor) for South Brisbane and frontman for the cerebrum tickling, spoken-word act that is Rivermouth.


D: Has your latest track, “Propaganda – You Can’t Trust the LNP” gained much traction on mainstream radio stations?

J: 4ZZZ have been really supportive and have played it quite a bit. Triple J liked the track, but they are part of the ABC,  which is concerned about being perceived as politically partisan so they don’t want to play anything that overtly political. I’m not surprised because politicians are always calling for funding cuts to the ABC and people are always criticising Triple J for not acting in the public interest. So while I strongly feel government funded radio stations should be playing lots of political music I’m not surprised in the current political climate they opted not to air it. It’s the same with all the mainstream stations who are just too afraid of the backlash in one form or another. It’s disappointing but does speak as to the era we are living in.

D: Is protest music as poignant now as has been in the past?

J: People say there isn’t enough protest music anymore. I think there are heaps but it doesn’t get covered. It gets drowned out in the clutter. There are competing strands of protest music. Some of it is so overt with the message it’s to the point where it’s not that interesting anymore. I’ve definitely heard particularly singer/songwriter folk protest musicians who basically just rant while playing the C chord. It’s hardly surprising no one wants to listen to that. But there is some really good hard hitting protest music which is thoughtful and also musically innovative, but it’s not commercially viable. They don’t sell records, but that speaks to the music industry more broadly.

It’s kind of hard to do protest music well. You need to take the time to get an informed opinion, research your views, back up your argument. Whereas if you just want to write a pop song about partying you can just churn it out really quickly. Writing good protest lyrics can be time-consuming, and I’ve certainly found that with Rivermouth.

D: How long did it take you to produce Propaganda?

J: I would have spent 60 hours on writing the lyrics, which is fairly high. I don’t think many rappers or songwriters would spend that much time just writing lyrics. And then, of course, hours and hours rehearsing with the band and composing the music. We had a really long shopping list to begin with – five or six verses of things we were pissed off about.  We just ranted for a while and had to narrow it down, then narrow it down again.

Normally our songs aren’t quite that overt. We’re definitely a political band but we like music which says, “hey maybe you should think about this” – that offers a perspective and doesn’t ram it down your throat. Whereas Propaganda definitely rams our opinion down your throat.  We don’t hold anything back.

D: I did feel a little bit rammed…

J: And we were conscious of that. When you’re really preachy people stop listening, sometimes an issue is just so important there’s no other way to talk about it you just have to be direct.

D: Well you can’t be afraid of alienating one group if you want to cover so many issues…

J: It’s part of building that broader conversation. You’re never going to be able to have a really nuanced discussion in a three or four-minute hip-hop track. All you can do is raise issues and then hope people will have deeper discussions. You have to trust that people will be engaged enough to go away and talk about it amongst themselves.

D: If you had to choose between: only being able to listen to spoken word poetry but being able to produce music, or only being able to produce spoken word poetry and having the ability to listen to music, which would you choose?

J: Good question! Damn! Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’! I don’t want to choose! I guess I love playing music and that’s what I make my money from as well so I’d have to choose only listening to spoken word and playing music. But that’s ridiculous… what sort of life would that be?

D: Has music always been a big facet of your life?

J: I think year four they sit you down and you learn recorder and it’s awful. But it was like the next year I started clarinet and it was just interesting enough to keep me on board. Then each year in high school I learned a new instrument so by the end I was playing trombone, euphonium, sax, and guitar. I was quite lucky to go to a school that had a pretty decent music program.

I have real problems with the way school music is taught. It’s quite regimented and students aren’t really encouraged to express themselves they just play what a composer has written for them which kind of sucks the life out of it.

But high school music was good – it gave me the basics and by the end of high school I was really into reggae. Me and some mates started a reggae band which didn’t really go anywhere. Then I played in a funk band, a soul band, jumped around from different genres. I’ve been into spoken word for a while.  I’m really interested in that crossover between spoken word and hip-hop because a lot of hip-hop can be almost so rhythmic that you don’t even listen to the words. There’s this tendency that the lyrics are so on the beat you don’t even focus on them.  Whereas spoken word has rhythm, but it breaks rhythm just enough to catch your interest and keep you listening.

Propaganda is a bit looser. And some of our other stuff is even more poetic, that’s one of our most hip-hop-esque and rhythmic songs, but on the overall hip-hop scale, it’s still quite loose. I like that, I like playing around with rhythm because you have to be really conscious of the beat. If you’re too loose and all over the place it just sounds like rubbish. You have to have a really strong grasp on the beat.

D: When was your last performance?

J: We played a gig yesterday in support of the Refugee Action Collective and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre over at the Globe in the valley. That was a fundraising gig which is pretty dope and we have a few more gigs coming up. We have a fundraiser for the People’s Summit which a whole bunch of people who are concerned about the G20 and the way it’s been organised and it’s motivations and ideologies. So they are organising a People’s Summit to coincide with that to talk about the issues that really matter.

D: Do you mind playing fundraisers?

J: It certainly doesn’t pay the bills but it is part of the ethos of the band. You have to practice what you preach as much as possible. That’s the easiest way we can support – we don’t have any money, but we can donate our time.

D: Speaking of donations and awkward segues, we hear you’re a Greens candidate?

J: Yeah I’ve going to run for South Brisbane in the next election. I’m a little bit cynical about conventional politics but I figured I’d have a shot and see how bad it is. And maybe in a seat like South Brisbane, it’s possible for the Greens to win.

D: What’s your biggest failure as far as a gig goes?

J: One of the worst gigs we ever played was at a pub in Caxton Street. People weren’t there for the music, they were in the bar talking really loudly which is what bars are for. This gig wasn’t paid entry either so we were getting paid by the venue and people just happened to be drinking in the venue. they weren’t there to see us. That’s not the niche for Rivermouth. You can nod your head to it but it’s not really fulfilling its purpose being background music in a noisy bar. But the one guy who was listening to us was really offended by some of our lyrics. We were talking about racism in Australia and our concerns about the fact that Australia is still quite xenophobic. After one of our songs he came right up to the stage and was right up in my face. I was holding the microphone and that kind of was all that was in between us while he shouted at us, “You better watch what you’re saying you can’t disrespect this country like that!” It was quite aggro, and then he just stormed out.

That was one of our most memorable gigs because we antagonised someone directly. I don’t think he would have changed his mind though. He was drunk so that was probably half the problem.  That guy really hated our music – but isn’t that the point of protest music? You have to piss people off.

It’s good to play outside your comfort zone. It’s easy to play a gig in West End where all the hippies come out and say, “Yeah! We hate over resource exploitation too!” but if you’re playing a gig where you’re reaching out to people that haven’t been confronted with your politics before that can be more interesting.

D: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about hip hop?

Back when Rivermouth started I was playing bass and rapping at the same time.  We were a three-piece with a drummer and keyboardist which was awesome because it was really easy to organise rehearsals and I could hold down a bass line while rapping pretty convincingly. But I was talking to Earth Boy from the Herd and he said it’s a cool gimmick to be able to rap and play bass at the same time, but at the end of the day, you’re a lot more engaging on stage if you don’t have that between you and the audience. So we got Caroline on board to play bass and that’s definitely freed me up to be more adventurous both vocally and in how I interact with the crowd.

I used to look at singers who just sing and don’t do anything else like, come on, pull your weight, you can play an instrument as well. But now I have an appreciation for the dedicated front man or woman who can bring the crowd along and engage with them. That’s just as important for the live experience.

D: How long has Rivermouth been together for?

J: The start of 2012 was when we played our first gig and we added Caroline in early 2013. We haven’t been together that long and I guess we took a while to get our first recordings together. That always slows a band down – jamming and playing local gigs for ages – until you have recordings it’s hard to get other gigs and reach a broader fan base. Often to get good recordings it does cost money. You can do it cheap but it’s hard to do it free and do it well – that’s one of the biggest barriers for bands to get started. If you’re a live band and you have five or six musicians, finding the time and money to put some recordings together is quite difficult. But it’s worth the trouble.

We released our first EP in April 2013. It was a big success, we released it on USB instead of CD which was kind of cool and the novelty of that combined with our general awesomeness sold a lot of copies. That was a six-track EP with a couple of poems and stuff tacked onto it called “Etchings and Scratchings” and we still have a few of those left.

So this year when we released two singles, “Propaganda” and “Are We Cool Yet?” we were able to just add those on to the existing USB as well as making CD singles.

It’s nice to be able to update your merch. It’s a novel concept that previous media hasn’t allowed you to do. It’s kind of sustainable. We’ll definitely put our next release on a whole new medium, and we’ll have a new medium when we get around to doing our first album. It’s kind of nice to be able to say well we have these old EPs and these new singles, let’s just put the singles on the EPs. We changed the cover a bit too.

Fan Question: “What do you think about the announcement that we are going to be sending some troops to “destroy ISIS”?

J: It’s screwed up and I think a lot of what motivates it is this white-savior-complex from western nations, which starts from the assumption that we have the ability to save other nations. How many times have western nations invaded the Middle East and screwed it up? I think the rise of these really extreme and screwed up groups like Islamic State is a consequence of these western inventions and a lot of the motivations to send troops can be unpacked in terms of ‘why do western countries decide to intervene in some conflicts but not others?’

There are major human rights abuses and horrible things happening in a lot of poorer nations, in Africa and South America, where the West has said we don’t want to get involved.  But when it’s in a region that has western interests at heart, oil in the Middle East, we jump in there! We are just so gung-ho about it. Nobody stops to say, “yes this is really bad what’s happening over there but is running in with a military solution actually going to make it any better?”

I’ve talked with law friends about this sort of stuff and they talk about the responsibility to protect which is about evaluating to what extent one country has a job to go into another country to protect citizens of that country. There’s no clear answer to it but I think it speaks to the way our broader global systems are set up that our first solution is a military solution. We never stop to interrogate why these conflicts are occurring and to interrogate capitalism and to say maybe globalisation and hyper neo-liberalism is part of the reason these conflicts arise in the first place. We don’t stop to change that. We just send in the weaponry and the military. And bear in mind that at the very time we were sending troops over to Afghanistan and it was clearly a conflict zone and Afghani refugees started to come to Australia we wouldn’t let them in! It drives me mad.

Look at our lyrics, it’s all there.

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