The goal with A Blaze Ansuz was to help give a name to an emerging music scene, antifascist neofolk and related genres that were bucking the trend of far-right romantics taking over our music. The hope was that once this became a real current then more bands would feel comfortable emerging into this space, and Ashera, from Cascadia (Portland, Oregon), is definitely a part of this trend. Created by Deborah and Justin Norton-Kertson, two organizers in Portland, this music was explicitly political from the start.
In this interview we talk about their background, what fuels their antifascist commitment, and how this new project came together.
How did Ashera come together? What was the inspiration to start it?
The two of us have known each other and lived together as partners for almost 15 years, and Ashera is the latest in a number of bands and music projects we have created together. Interestingly enough, this particular project was inspired by A Blaze Anzuz and your attempt to consciously create the genre of antifascist neofolk.
When you first announced the creation of A Blaze Anzuz and this new genre of music, we were excited to learn about other musicians engaging in this work. It wasn’t long though before the thought occurred to us that it had been six years since we had created any music of our own, and for the first time in years we were actually inspired to do so.
During the Occupy movement in 2011 we shifted heavily into activism and found ourselves spending most of our free time out in the streets protesting Wall Street and police brutality. We formed a band from that movement called Patchwork Family Band, but it fizzled out over the course of the next year as we all moved on to other things. After the end of our local Occupy Portland we were disillusioned, broken spirited, and tired. We stopped creating music for a while and became full-time activists. However, we have realized that we have lost a huge part of our identity by stopping making music together, and Ashera is our moment to reclaim that identity and merge it with our passion for social justice and antifascism. It’s a perfect moment for us to channel our energies into music that can change the world. We are inspired again and it feels great. So without trying to sound like a couple of suck ups, thank you!
What history do you have in songwriting? Is this your first musical project?
Well no, this is not our first musical project. As we said, we have been together as companions and musical partners for about 15 years. The first groups we started playing music with together were pagan neofolk bands like Anam Cara, The Music Committee, and Happy Death Band back in the early 2000s. I don’t think though that either of us were particularly aware of neofolk as a specific genre at the time. It was just what we happened to be doing, and in retrospect we recognize it for what it was.
After a few years, we and some of the other musicians in those early projects moved away from pagan neofolk into folk rock, dream pop, and shoegaze with bands like 7 Story Sound and Azure Down. During those years we spent quite a bit of time at a cabin near Lake Gregory in Crestline, CA just jamming and composing music together.
Our band Azure Down came to an abrupt and unwanted end in 2009 when the two of us moved to Portland for work during “The Great Recession.” A few years went by without us playing much music before we helped form Patchwork Family Band in late 2011.
Tell me about the first single, “1,000 Dead Fascists.” What inspired you to use this shocking title? Is there a bit of humor at play here?
We very much believe that it is vital to come together through grassroots organizing and movement building to defend our communities against fascist incursion and stop the rise of fascism by any means necessary, and that is what this song is about, albeit it in exaggerated form. We aren’t pacifists. In fact, we would argue that pacifism is an immoral and unethical philosophy, particularly in the face of fascism with its ideologies of violent ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, and supremacy (most often but not limited to white supremacy) that historically have resulted in mass atrocities, ethnic cleansing, and genocides here in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere in the world. So we aren’t entirely sure that it would be accurate to say humor is at play here.
At the same time—in the sense of shock value, exaggeration, and the unexpected—emphatic irony is certainly at play here in the song and its title. You expect calls for genocide to come from fascists. You don’t necessarily expect people who claim to be antifascists to call for something like a thousand of dead bodies in the streets. And no, we aren’t actually calling for the genocide of fascists or anyone else, we aren’t advocating that people start killing fascists. We definitely want to make that clear despite the purposefully shocking nature of the song and its title. At the same time though, like we said, we believe that we must defend our communities against fascism by any means necessary in order to prevent horrors such as the Holocaust from ever occurring again, and that is what this song is about. Of course, we want to see that happen through grassroots movement building that brings tens, hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to confront and stop fascism before it’s too late, and we actively engage in that kind of movement building work in our community. In the 1930s and 1940s it took a world war, hundreds of millions of deaths through that war, and a horribly atrocious Holocaust before fascism was finally stopped. We absolutely can’t make the mistake of appeasement a second time. We need to draw a line in the sand so to speak. We need to stop this new rise of fascism before another Holocaust happens. So let’s come together and build a movement that can do that through sheer overwhelming numbers so that we don’t ever again come to a place where we need 1,000 Dead Fascists in the streets to become a reality in order to stop them.
Why do you think it is important to bring antifascism to neofolk?
It is important to bring antifascism into everything we do, whether that is music, sports, literature, television, theater, or other kinds of art and cultural expressions. In these times where we are experiencing a serious and rapid resurgence of fascist ideology and organizing, so it is vital that we create an antifascism that comes to dominate the cultural expressions of our society.
We happen to be musicians, and it so happens that we have been neofolk musicians since our earliest projects together. Given the particular tendency of fascism to try and co-opt the romanticism, the dreams, and the vision of neofolk music, we feel a particular responsibility to help develop this extremely important genre of specifically antifascist neofolk music.
We feel that music is particularly important in this new antifascist cultural project. Music has always been a means of eliciting emotional responses, of bringing people together around a common interest and sentiment. If we leave this music to the fascists, that is a victory for racism, xenophobia, and violent nationalism.
With the incursion of fascists into the neofolk scene and their blatant attempt to pervert its vision, it is all the more important that we take back this genre of music and use it to fuel the antifascist movement and to create a deeply ingrained culture of antifascism that can and will be an important factor in beating back the fascist creep and creating the better, more just and equitable world that those of us on the radical left so emphatically and sincerely envision.
What ways do you think people can fight fascism in the neofolk scene?
We must not be silent. We must create purposefully and blatantly antifascist neofolk music. We need to confront and challenge fascists at neofolk shows and festivals whenever and wherever we encounter them. And we need to consciously create a purposeful antifascist neofolk scene that brings antifascist neofolk bands and musicians together in community and confederation.
As we were raising our two now adult children together and trying to navigate how to handle situations when they had done something wrong, one piece of advice we were given by Deb’s Dad was “be sure to get their attention.” This has never been more true than it is right now, and it is part of the reason for the title of our song 1,000 Dead Fascists. If you don’t grab the attention of people when harm is being done, then no will look up and fight back. Too many people are all too happy to keep their heads buried in the sand and go about their lives so long as the harm isn’t affecting them directly.
Look at how long the current immigrant and refugee concentration camps have already existed here in the US. Right now, there might not be a movement to close those camps without the bold, attention grabbing, and (to some people) controversial actions of Occupy ICE for example, which was started right here in our city of Portland, Oregon. We must rage, fight, and scream into the void in order to hopefully get people to wake the fuck up and get involved in the fight to crush fascism before it is too late.
What bands are inspiring your work?
Indigo Girls has been a huge inspiration since they hit the scene in the early 90’s. With songs like Our Deliverance, Shame on You, and Pendulum Swinger, they have mastered the art of combining their folk roots with activism and anti-fascist ideology. In fact, the first song we played together when we began hanging out almost two decades ago was an Indigo Girls song called World Falls.
The other obvious and classic inspiration in terms of antifascism and folk music would have to be Woody Guthrie. He is such a giant in the genre of antifascist folk music that it seems cliché, it is impossible for us not to mention him. After all, who doesn’t love songs like All You Fascists Bound to Lose and Solidarity Forever? Also we must mention Bob Dylan. The first song Deb ever learned on guitar was “The Times They are a Changin.”
Another more recent inspiration is Wadruna, a Norwegian neofolk group formed in 2006 that has also been written about by A Blaze Anzuz. We first saw them perform a few of years ago at a music festival outside Portland, and were blown away by their raw connection to their Nordic roots, which we both share in our own ancestry. In fact, our song 1,000 Dead Fascist is very much inspired by their sound. Apart from their amazing music, we have been inspired by their stance against the use of Nordic culture and traditions to promote fascism and racist, nationalistic rhetoric. When we first heard them we weren’t sure where they fell on this, and we felt that we needed to do our homework and find out if they were part of the fascist tendencies in the neofolk music scene. We were thrilled to learn that they have made statements to the contrary, condemning such ideologies embraced by their some of their fellow Nordic musicians. Their courage to take back their rich musical, cultural traditions has inspired us to do the same here in the US.
Finally, we also feel like we have to mention Pink Floyd and Roger Waters as big inspirations of ours. Waters has a long history of antifascism in the music he writes, and his bold stance on the need for the music community and the rest of the world to support the people of Palestine in their struggle against Israeli apartheid through the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement is more than admirable.
What is next for Ashera?
We have releases two singles (1,000 Dead Fascists and Capitalism Must Burn) off of our upcoming antifascist lullabies EP. We’ll be releasing that EP at the end of this summer or sometime in the fall, depending on how the remaining recording and mixing sessions go. After that, we have a vision for another album or series of albums called Fan The Flames, which will be an antifascist neofolk re-envisioning of labor and anticapitalist songs from the IWW’s Little Red Songbook.
At the same time, we are continually being fired up by the daily news and we firmly believe that neofolk music needs to branch out beyond its Western, Eurocentric roots. We’d like to explore topics such as immigration, the Water is Life movement, the events occurring on the Big Island of Hawaii at Mauna Kea, and do so in a way that does not involve cultural appropriation. Not only are these topics directly related to both the problems of fascism and capitalism, but it seems that time is speeding up and the stakes get higher with each passing minute. We must continue to channel our outrage into music for the unheard masses in hopes that we can do our part to bring real anti-imperialist freedom to every corner of the globe. Lofty goals for sure, but what is at stake is the future of humanity on this planet and it doesn’t get much bigger than that.