In just a matter of months really, Ashera has become one of the defining bands of a new wave of explicitly antifascist neofolk. It is hard to call this a genre since what binds it together is largely not based in the actual sound of music, it is more in a type of negative space. If neofolk has so often been ceded to the far-right, assumed to be a romantic nationalist artform created by and for racists, the very existence of an antifascist neofolk that rejects that world had the effect of being a novelty. Ashera was one of the bands that helped move the concept from a curiosity to a new operative principle. We are now entering an era where hundreds of bands are taking on this mantle, bringing in a massively diverse wave of neofolk, black metal, and intersecting types of music all brought into a kind of (dis)harmony by its disallowal for fascist politics.
Instead, Ashera’s romanticism can be said to be grounded in a type of anticapitalism. Deborah and Justin Norton-Kerston, the two members of Ashera, are both organizers, grounded in the world of labor strikes and eviction defense, so this energy pervades everything they have produced, which has been a lot.
In a lot of ways their new album Rob the Rich shows that neofolk was really just a starting point as they push their way into everything from psych and prog rock to Appalachian hill folk. Genres have a utility, they give us starting points and can spark creativity by allowing a common musical language, but they can also create boundaries that are best when broken. The new 10-song release is a wonderful extension past the limits of antifascist neofolk, which has the effect of both expanding what we could expect from the band and the genre itself. One of the featured tracks, “The Battle of Portland,” is a seamless mix of the noise of the protest confrontations that converged on Portland in the summer of 2020 and the fluid, synthesis driven sound that was the foundation of their first EP, Antifascist Lullabies. Other tracks, such as “All Cops Are Bastards,” feels more like the acoustic “singer-songwriter” melodies that mark the soundtrack for summer hippie festivals and jam-band revivals. Antifascist neofolk is starting to stake its claim not just on a particular lyrical or ideological frame, but also its own distinct relationship with folk music and how it wants to create a 21st century synthesis. Rob the Rich is a vital part of that process.
We interviewed the band about this new release and are happy to embed it here for the first time so that those who have made A Blaze Ansuz something special are able to hear it first. We have also added several tracks to the Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify, which we will continue to update to allow it to remain an ever-growing space for building the space. Ashera has never shied away from a “contested space,” to be open about who they are in a genre that was not immediately welcoming. That principle-first approach helps to drive the space open for all of us, and we need more bands that will follow Ashera’s example.
What was your thinking going into this new album? How did it evolve from your earlier work?
In terms of thematic concepts, Rob the Rich shares a focus on antifascism with our first EP. The idea here though was to explore some aspects of fascism such as white supremacy, privilege and patriarchy more closely, whereas the Antifascist Lullabies EP was kind of more just revolt and burn it down. I mean that stuff is still there in Rob the Rich too, but that ‘fight the war’ aspect takes a little bit more of a backseat on this album to exploring different aspects of fascism, how they are used, how they affect society, and how we can fight back against them aside from, and in addition to, going out and punching Nazis.
You seem to be branching out past the narrow focus on neofolk. How do you think about genre in the project, and do you feel held back by it?
I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it as being held back by genre. I love neofolk music and our roots as music collaborators goes back to the first band we were in together, The Cloverfields, which was a pagan neofolk band that played the pagan festival circuit in Southern California. But it has always been hard for me to stick to any particular genre, and I went into writing Rob the Rich with the idea that I wasn’t trying to force it to be a strictly neofolk album. So I just went with it when other stuff like blues, shoegaze, psychedelic, and classical influences started weaving their way in.
There are still some strong elements of neofolk throughout the album that are meant to help keep it in the family, so to speak. The vocals have a lot of reverb on them, for example, and the whole album has a dark folk kind of atmosphere. “Eat Your Landlord” is a good example of a song on the album that has a lot more of a traditional neofolk sound than some of the other tracks. So I guess if I think about it in those terms. I do feel like genre is a bit confining in terms of the art of creating music, at least that’s true for my creative process and direction. It may be helpful for other people and their creative process and that is totally fair and valid too.
How does the year (2020) play a role in the album? It seems like it is a major character in the story.
This album wouldn’t be the same if it hadn’t been composed and recorded in 2020. I started composing the album in late April 2020. Breonna Taylor had been murdered by police in Kentucky the month before, and it was only a few weeks later that police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement erupted again, and the Portland uprising began. All of that played a big role in the album as we explored themes like white supremacy, institutional racism and police brutality, the revolt against capitalism, the growth of anarchism and socialism, and the disturbing spread of neo-fascism. Musically, a lot of the harmonic dissonance in the album is designed to convey the tension and anxiety that I think we’ve all felt this year as a result of the pandemic and all of the socio-political stress around the protests and the election season. Walk us through your production process.
How do you write music and what does recording look like?
A song usually starts as an idea for lyrics, whether it’s a line of verse or just a general theme. Then I’ll sit down with an acoustic guitar and start toying around melodies. Every once in a while a composition will start musically with some sort of hook that I have running through my head.
The title track on Rob the Rich is a good example of that where I had the idea for the guitar hook before the lyrics. Most often though, some of the lyrics come first, and then I sit around humming a line of lyrics while noodling around on the guitar trying to find the right melody and chord progression for the ideas and feelings I want the lyrics and the song to convey.
Once a song is written, the recording process always starts with the ritual of laying down a kick drum beat that I use as a metronome when recording the other instruments. That happens even if the song isn’t going to have any percussion in it. From there I’ll build the song by recording the rhythm section: acoustic guitar, bass, maybe piano. After that I record at least a scratch vocal track of the lyrics and basic vocal melody, and then I build other instruments like lead guitar, banjo, mandolin or baglamas on top of that. If there is any percussion other than the kick drum it usually gets created toward the end, and then once all of that is there we record vocals over it.
Recording vocals always starts with getting a good take for the main melody vocal. Then we play around with different ideas for harmony vocals. We generally record quite a few different harmonies for each song and then decide what we like and want to use later on during mixing. For this album we had a good friend and old bass player of ours at Unit-42 do the mix. So that process was a lot of fun sending tracks back and forth, talking about the songs and shaping them together. And there is a lot of clean up that takes place during the mixing process too. They come back and say hey I want more of this, or you should re-record that, or you know you can do it better. I really enjoy the collaborative aspect of creating music.
How does anticapitalism inform your creative mission?
An anticapitalist vision has always been central to Ashera’s music and the kind of culture that we’re trying to foster through the music. It’s the soil that project germinates in. Anticapitalism was certainly a theme of our first EP, and on this new album songs like “Eat Your Landlord” and Rob the Rich are steeped in everyday folk resistance to the forces of capitalism. Even other songs like “Consequences,” “Betray Whiteness,” or “All Cops Are Bastards” explore things like patriarchy, white supremacy, and police violence that are all used, shaped, and in some cases even created by capitalism as tools of oppression that serve to maintain the status quo and ensure its continuance. So in a lot of ways anticapitalism has a strong influence on our creative mission.
Check out the full album here, and their music video for “All Cops Are Bastards” above.