-- photo by John Scharpen, April 2009ReviewsNewsletterMySpace
Ron Sakolsky on Mecca Normal
Ron Sakolsky is a scholar covering the intersection of music, revolution and radio. As of 2005, Sakolsky is Emeritus Professor of Public Administration at the University of Illinois at Springfield. For more than twenty years he taught at the university on music and social justice issues, originally attracted by its innovative and radical courses.
Over the last 25 years, Mecca Normal has consistently turned up the heat on the theoretical relationship between music and social change by furiously stirring them together in the fiery cauldron of artistic practice. In the process, they have boldly created a unique body of work that has challenged the downpressing gravity of the authoritarian life with a yeasty combination of outrage and subversive laughter. In essence, they have defied gravity, and, in doing so, have urged us all to refuse to be held down when we could be soaring to the outer reaches of possibility, or, better yet, demanding the impossible. Their music is not designed to present us with a dry polemic on the “one-best-way” to be politically active or offer a pat answer on how to live our lives according to anybody’s party line. Instead, it is a direct call to see through the bullshit and make our own choices.
Historically-speaking, the house of Mecca Normal that Jean and David have built has been widely acknowledged as one part of the foundation of the Riot Grrrl movement which burst on the punk scene in the Nineties throwing down the gauntlet to male supremacy and laying the groundwork for Ladyfest solidarity. Before that, Mecca Normal was the spark that lit up the radical political landscape of the late Eighties with the Black Wedge tour. That tour was an anarchist antidote to the self-congratulatory left/liberal Red Wedge tour in the UK, which aimed at unseating Boss Margaret Thatcher, but ultimately led to the reign of Boss Tony Blair, who became the staunch Labour Party ally of Boss George Bush in the “war on terror.” Black Wedge, on the other hand, placed its rebellious emphasis on a politically-engaged music and poetry that wanted nothing to do with the electoral realm and focused instead on denouncing systemic abuse and countering the spectacular politics of everyday life.
Many recording artists naively, or perhaps conveniently, believe that music can only be used to change the world by trading on their own status as stars who are recruited to support the least obnoxious political candidate or who involve themselves in do-gooder charitable activities that condescendingly distance them from those that society attempts to victimize. Mecca Normal has never played such shallow celebrity games. Instead, the name of their record label, Kill Rock Stars, says it all. As Jean Smith once explained in an article she wrote about Black Wedge for the 1995 anthology that I co-edited with Fred Ho, Sounding Off!: Music as Subversion/Resistance/Revolution, “The Black Wedge functions/agitates in the crawlspace of resistance, under the big house of capitalism.”
And that original Black Wedge tour has provided a seminal source of experiences and ideas that have animated Mecca Normal’s music, writing and visual art ever since. Their most recent 2009 tour, whose overriding theme was “How Art and Music Can Change The World,” is a case in point. More than a mere retrospective of their work, the tour opener that I caught at the Vinegar Factory in Vancouver was a reaffirmation of their inspirational power and continuous resilience. Both Mecca Normal tours represent plateaus in relation to their ongoing commitment to cultural activism. Yet, the latter, by combining a seasoned performance-based pedagogy with a raw emotional and lyrical intensity, is the culmination (so far) of the rock solid artistic integrity that has made Mecca Normal into an underground legend in its own time. --Ron Sakolsky
Wikipedia entry:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_SakolskyComments on "How Art & Music Can Change the World"
"Mecca Normal at Evergreen presenting 'How Art & Music Can Change The World'– exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the right time."-- Judith Baumann, Faculty, Printmaking and Visual Arts, Evergreen State College, Olympia Wa
"Thank you so much for coming to Evergreen! You two put on an amazing event, one that most of the audience won't soon forget. I enjoy working for those things I care deeply about -- art and music are at the top of my list. I think your message is important and needed -- maybe more so now than ever. -- Judith Baumann
, Faculty, Printmaking and Visual Arts, Evergreen State College, Olympia Wa
"Awesome! Thanks Evergreen State! (for streaming How Art & Music Can Change The World lecture)" -- Laura L. Moody
, Research & Instructional Services
, J. Paul Leonard Library, San Francisco, CA
"Thank you Jean and David for your inspiring, engaging, serious and funny day at Windermere. Thanks for embodying passion for all that you do." -- Donna Lee, teacher-librarian, Windermere Secondary School, Vancouver, BC
"i was at your performance at cal arts tonight. i just wanted to say that it was really inspiring to see you today. i really believe in art and its power. i believe in living truthfully and deeply and always standing firmly for what you believe in. living this way and being nineteen years old, i don't 'fit in' with most people my age, or most people in general. its really really inspiring to see people like you, expressing yourselves, and what you believe in, and holding strong to that. it makes me feel not so alone in this. thank you very much for all of your beautiful work. it really means a lot to me." -- Bavani, student, California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles, CA
"after that show (How Art & Music Can Change The World), my roommate and i went home and talked about it and the ideas you brought up for the rest of the night. its only been a couple weeks, but it feels like longer, because ever since then ive had this flow of creativity that i havent had for a long time. and its been great." -- Bavani, student, California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles, CA
"Mecca Normal was at CalArts today doing a show called "How Music and Art Can Change the World" which was kind of like a combination performance/lecture/art show. It was amazing." -- my myopic eye, live journal blog, Los Angeles
----------------------------------------August 9, 2009Under the Volcano Festival, Vancouver
“Listening to David Lester’s excellent guitar work against Jean Smith’s dramatics is simply cathARTic. She certainly could join a pantheon between PJ Harvey and Diamanda Galas here.” --Buzz (Olympia)
“Mecca Normal really is one of the most original and amazing bands ever to come out of Canada.”--Discorder (Vancouver)Under The Volcano
is proud to present Mecca Normal as they celebrate their 25th anniversary.Formed by Jean Smith and David Lester in 1984, the band merges the personal with the political in their songs. They helped define the sound and spirit of the early diy / indie rock / riot grrrl movements with their art-related activism alongside bands such as Beat Happening and Bikini Kill. Smith writes lyrics and sings in a style that is often confrontational and laced with feminist themes; Lester’s melodic yet dissonant guitar swirls and loops around her vocals. In 1985 they formed their own record label, Smarten Up, to release their debut album and since then have released records on every major indie label (K Records, Kill Rock Stars, Matador Records and Sub Pop.)Lester is a well-respected visual artist with 25 years experience and Smith is the author of two published novels and the recipient of two Canada Council for the Arts Awards as a professional writer of creative fiction.Magnet Magazine Online -- David Lester's artwork paired with text by Jean Smith
http://www.magnetmagazine.com/category/david-lester-art/25th Anniversary Tour, April 2009
-- 25 shows in 25 days in the USA including "How Art and Music Can Change the World"
-- a lecture, art exhibit and performance event in intending to inspire audiences towards considering political content in their creative self-expression.http://howartandmusiccanchangetheworld.blogspot.com/"How Art and Music Can Change the World"
Willamette University, Salem, Oregon, April 2009
NPR, Monitor Mix, May 21, 2009 http://www.npr.org/blogs/monitormix/2009/05/comment_on_the_comment.html
My dad called me last night to ask if I was watching American Idol. I wasn't. He sounded surprised and a little disappointed, hoping that I might be writing a blog entry about it. There, Dad, I just did. Instead of watching AI, I was preoccupied with a recent blog entry written by Jean Smith of Mecca Normal. (I encourage you to read the entire post.) In it, she pondered a series of unusually cruel comments posted beneath a blurb about her band on the Brooklyn Vegan Web site. You can ready the article, as well as the comments, here. From Smith's blog:"There is a comment section after the piece with some of what I'd call typical nastiness that I see on YouTube and elsewhere. I wasn't really expecting this as I scrolled down the page -- to be called a bunch of names. There were positive comments, too -- mostly in opposition to the negative comments. After some time thinking about not taking these comments personally, and acknowledging that this is part of culture -- people participate in media now, and this is what people interject with in this quadrant of culture -- that's rather depressing, to think that there have been a lot of quiet people, and now they speak in comment boxes and type things like -- "hag" -- and I thought about the sad, low state these guys must be in psychologically, and how men in general, have, as well as being socialized to hide emotions other than anger, have also learned to hide misogyny, allowing it to spew in blog comment boxes, anonymously -- it's some kind of barometer."The sentence that stood out for me was about the formerly quiet people who now, thanks to the Internet, have been given a voice and a forum in comment boxes. I certainly think that there is truth to this idea, particularly in certain contexts, and often with a tacit agreement by the site itself, or in places where insolence is tolerated by lenient, sensationalism-minded site administrators. But is it only the timid who have been given a voice? Or are we all using the forums -- even on relatively benign music blogs and fan sites -- to air what we wouldn't utter in person? At my most optimistic, I have always thought of the virtual relationship to be akin to conversation -- as a continuation of real-life discourse, supplanted as only virtual discourse can be, with links. But, as Smith reminds us, within the great expanse and freedom that computer-mediated discussion provides is the diminishing of accountability. Once negativity and snarkiness become endemic to comment threads, the most outlandish are often ignored, either as a tactical method to stifle encouragement or because that brand of comment is typical and thus easily dismissed. Furthermore, as Smith suggests, can we use the nature of comments as a barometer? And, if so, a barometer of what? Evolution? Devolution? Our ability (or lack thereof) to communicate? An indicator of how much free time we have, how much we procrastinate, how bored we are? Do our comments tell other people that we have too few friends, that our parents didn't love us enough, that we're lonely or constantly in need of validation? Or are comments and comment sections merely vessels for every random thought and aside we previously kept to ourselves but can now shout to a small section of the world? I suppose I'm curious because I do read your comments, and I read comments elsewhere. And, naturally, I leave my own comments, as well. But what exactly are we leaving? And, in terms of music, is dialogue good for fandom? When does a comment cross the line from apt to cruel? I know I've posed more questions than answers on this post. And writing about Adam Lambert and Kris Allen might have been easier. (Actually, that's not true, because I didn't watch a single episode of AI.) But sometimes it's nice to step back and ponder the nature of what we're engaged in. Feel free to join the discussion. Or wait around for one of my humorous and less heady posts. -- Carrie Brownstein
Eugene Weekly, Eugene Oregon http://www.eugeneweekly.com/2009/04/09/music3.html
Mention riot grrl, and most folks familiar with that early-’90s feminist punk scene think of the more provocative bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Often left in the shadows is the visionary duo Mecca Normal, who helped define riot grrl’s subversive, do-it-yourself spirit a few years earlier, albeit in a more evocative manner. Forming in 1984, the indie rock two-piece proffered many of the confrontational, feminist themes that would later define the movement, but Mecca Normal has always been less about shoving its politics in your face than simply sneaking them under your skin — sans rhythm section. Jean Smith’s haunting voice and silver-tongued poetry coupled with David Lester’s eddying, often dissonant guitar have the ability to inspire activism, elicit introspection and marry the personal and political in the span of one song. And the duo has done just that over the course of 13 albums released on a veritable who’s-who of indie-rock labels — K Records, Kill Rock Stars, Matador, Sub Pop and their own Smarten Up! label. While their current tour marks the 25-year anniversary of the band, Smith and Lester aren’t celebrating the milestone with a pat-on-the-back retrospective tour; they’re hitting the road with the same mission and message of progressive social change that’s always been central to their music. The DIY duo is only performing in Eugene, but earlier in the day they will present a lecture entitled “How Art and Music Can Change the World” at Salem’s Cherry City Music Festival. What’s more punk than that? Mecca Normal plays with Pony Prance and Yoko Raga at 8 pm Friday, April 10, at Wandering Goat. $4. — Jeremy Ohmes
The Stranger, Seattle -- Twenty-five Years of Mecca Normal
Canadian duo Jean Smith and David Lester have been shaking things up as Mecca Normal since before the riot grrrl movement photocopied its first zine. Though not as brash as some of their peers in that DIY music community, the group combined personal politics, the vibrating grind of Smith's throaty vocals, and the incredible prowess of Lester's guitar playing to develop a deeply intimate yet hard-hitting sound that ultimately made them one of the more memorable bands of the time.
Throughout the '90s, the band released albums at a prolific pace on K Records, Matador, and Sub Pop, but their output slowed considerably in the '00s. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the band's inception, and Mecca Normal are saddling up, taking a break from their individual artistic endeavors, and hitting the road, playing the Vera Project on Saturday, April 4. Their more recent songs are mellower than their early work, with Lester's guitar toned way down for Smith's voice, which is at times reminiscent of folk-great Buffy Saint-Marie. -- Casey CatherwoodBlurt
One of the best things about the recent collapse of the record industry is the virtual disappearance of large advances provided by clueless major labels who expected instant returns for their capital investment, then jettisoned recent signings like slaves dumped mid-ocean when the numbers weren't so rosy. Who needs that! If you want to play music for the people nowadays, you have to find new places to do it.
In the last three weeks, the two most enjoyable Bay Area shows (of a short list that also included performances by Bruce Springsteen and Dan Hicks) have taken place at a tiny Oakland art gallery and a modest-sized San Francisco book shop. It's the way they occasionally did it back in S.F.'s golden psychedelic era, with historic gallery and clothing-store shows by the Mystery Trend, the Charlatans and the Great Society.
With their stripped-down sound and willing eye-contact, Mecca Normal -- an intrepid indie -- rock duo now marking its 25th anniversary (and Smith's 50th birthday) by playing 25 shows in 25 days-is built to thrive in places like the back room of Modern Times Books, tucked away in the shopworn heart of S.F.'s Mission district. It's about as far away as you can get from the corporate realm of Borders or Barnes & Noble, and Mecca Normal, often credited as an influence on the Riot Grrrl movement of the early '90s, looks right at home.
As guitarist David Lester starts to play at a volume that wouldn't extinguish a birthday candle, Jean Smith begins singing in the next room, then strolls through the dozen or so fans in folding chairs in an almost too intimate serenade for some. The walls have been decorated with Lester's eye-catching graphic artwork celebrating various cultural heroes including Paul Robeson and John Coltrane, as well as a collection of Smith's dead-accurate self-portraits, an ongoing series she began as a young girl.
Smith and Lester are also in town as part of their How Art and Music Can Change the World program. "We not only want to play for you but to find out if you think music and art really can change the world," says Smith, between songs. "Don't worry, we'll get it out of you," she adds, as a few patrons shift uncomfortably in their chairs. The pair peppers their lively set with humorous anecdotes that include the tale of Smith's recent excursion into the risky world of online dating. "Attraction Is Ephemeral" from the band's 2006 album, The Observer (Kill Rock Stars), tells of the awkward encounter: "I lie there under him, 230 pounds/He says, 'Am I crushing you?' 'Sort of,' I say."
Mecca Normal in full flight is an exhilarating experience with Lester's extraordinary fretboard work the perfect complement to Smith's poetic vision. Her naked songs can make you uncommonly happy, yet somewhat uncomfortable, both at the same time. -- Jud Cost, Blurt http://www.blurt-online.com/concert_reviews/view/143/Word on the Street
In 2003, David Lester curated and arranged just about everything for an art exhibit that was hung in the moat area of the library during the festival. The show included his work and work by Jean Smith, Carel Moiseiwitsch, Shayne Ehman and Jason McLean.
Mecca Normal did impromptu performances at the same space during the day. They were a wonderful addition to the day and are very well-informed and committed to their work and social change. For this reason, I invited Mecca Normal to our Main Stage the following year. We had Joel Bakan (The Corporation), Raging Grannies, David Suzuki and Rex Weyler (co-founder of Greenpeace) elsewhere on site, so they were a perfect fit with this progressive/political programming. Mecca Normalalso enjoys a devoted following so we had happy audiences.
I cannot honestly say I have heard their workshop/talk, but I would not hesitate to recommend them in any environment where you are looking for provocative, educated, engaged speakers who also happen to be accomplished, talented visual artists. That their chosen media include comix, spoken word and loud electric guitar riffs might also help make them relatable to students, who should come away from their event inspired and thinking. -- Liesl Jauk, Director, Word On The Street Festival, Vancouver, BC
David LesterMecca Normal
Jean Smith — vocalsJuly 1, 2007
David Lester — guitar
Ten Famous Canadians
Canada's best-kept secrets in the arts
Globe & Mail -- Canada's national newspaper
The Observer CD on KIll Rock Stars, 2006
“Musically, Jean Smith and guitarist David Lester have grown far beyond their punk rock beginnings; now their instruments wheel and dip around each other with the dizzying grace of swallows.” -- Bill Meyer, Chicago Tribune
“After turning their talents to other pursuits - painting and writing - Jean Smith and David Lester are back in full acerbic force on "The Observer," one of their best albums.” -- Evelyn McDonnell, Miami Herald
“Smith is a writer of supremely fresh poetic skills and has a keen, keen eye for the basic incredibilities of our most mundane daily rituals and heartbreaks.” -- John Payne, LA Weekly
“…her use of precise language and thoughtful candor creates an unexpectedly mature, graceful tone more reminiscent of a Raymond Carver short story. -- Hannah Levin, The Stranger (Seattle)
“Smith's reflections are smart, funny and -- more often than not -- yoked to music that's spare but inventive.” -- Mark Jenkins, Washington Post
"Attraction Is Ephemeral," which provides the most complete picture of Smith and what she’s about—the way she begins to doubt her own doubts, wondering if she’d be able to spot genuineness in a man even if it were there—is also the most musically moving track on the album. It’s the most romantic too—or rather, it’s most explicitly about romance, or at least the yearning for it—though in typical Mecca Normal fashion, it opens up from there, addressing gender and class inequality, patriarchy, and how they can really ruin a date.” -- Jessica Hopper, Chicago Reader
“The self-explanatory album opener, "I’m Not Into Being the Woman You’re With While You’re Looking for the Woman You Want," is a glowing example of the interplay between her vocals and Lester’s guitar, which is equally distinctive and powerful.” -- Jessica Hopper, Chicago Reader
“…this new CD, full of songs inspired by Smith's online matchmaking experiences, I believe, is incredibly lyrical, musically rich and undeniably fearless." -- Terence Dick, Broken Pencil
December 27, 2006 letter from J. Free
I've been adding archival content to my website, I came across an old interview I conducted with Jean, during the International Pop Underground convention in Olympia, in 1991: http://sonicarchives.com/TASTE/Pages/npr_meccanormal.htm
Take care, J. Free
Simple Social Graces, NY blog:
From practice I went to the Knitting Factory with Brian to see Mecca Normal play and it was such a treat. Mecca Normal is band of complete inspiration to me. First of all Jean’s truly original voice and style of lyrics writing and presentation of it all, and secondly David’s virtuosity on guitar and the sweetness with which he plays. I hadn’t seen them in years and it was so good to chat and smile and hear about what they are doing and it reminded me so much of the first MN 7” I had where inside Jean wrote something like you can’t be a threat when you are numbed which spoke to me enough that I stopped drinking for 4 years because at that time I wanted to be as much of a threat as possible. For the last 20+ years they have lived mostly outside of the music “business” but always inside of the music and this is important to me. Music for music. Because it’s the best thing in the world.
2006's most memorable moments:
The year in movies, music, television, visual arts, fashion, performing arts and architecture
BY MIAMI HERALD STAFF
-- Tanya Stephens, Rebelution -- Covering topics from homophobia to religion to Condi Rice to cherry brandy, this reggae singer proved Bob Marley's spirit lives, 25 years after his death.
-- Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere -- Defying genre-ization and politesse, this album captured the explosion when two brilliant minds meet.
-- Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way -- The Texas trio knows the price of speaking one's mind -- and that it's worth every penny
-- Lady Sovereign, Public Warning -- A great rap and punk record.
-- The Paybacks, Love, Not Reason -- Wendy Case is a great rock 'n' roll singer, these songs pure bottled energy.
-- Jay-Z, Kingdom Come -- Knew he couldn't stay away from the game; glad he didn't.
-- Morning 40 Federation, Ticonderoga -- When the saints don't come marching in, the sinners will.
-- Mecca Normal, The Observer -- For two decades, Jean Smith has been a wry chronicler of male/female relationships, but rarely has she been so tender and intimate.
-- Prince, 3121 -- This survivor success story is the album that should have been titled Kingdom Come.
-- Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions -- Making a history lesson a party, and visa versa.
-- EVELYN MCDONNELL, Posted on Sun, Dec. 24, 2006
Guest lists: What 29 of the Boston Phoenix's music critics liked this year
December 21, 2006
1. Mecca Normal, THE OBSERVER (Kill Rock Stars)
2. Scritti Politti, WHITE BREAD BLACK BEER (Nonesuch)
3. Ornette Coleman, SOUND GRAMMAR (Sound Grammar)
4. Kelis, KELIS WAS HERE (La Face)
5. Mission of Burma, THE OBLITERATI (Matador)
6. Jason Moran, ARTIST IN RESIDENCE (Blue Note)
7. Erase Errata, NIGHTLIFE (Kill Rock Stars)
8. De La Soul, THE IMPOSSIBLE MISSION MIXTAPE (AOI)
9. Wussy, FUNERAL DRESS (Shake It)
om Verlaine, SONGS AND OTHER THINGS (Thrill Jockey)
-- The Phoenix (Boston), 2006
"In the past I've liked the idea of Mecca Normal a bit more than I've liked their music. That said, I would never turn down an invitation to see them live. Watching singer Jean Smith stalk the stage and guitarist David Lester dance (and I mean dance) his manic guitaristics, you quickly realize how little it takes to make impassioned rock'n'roll and how few bands manage to do it. On record, however, I miss the presentness of it. That said, this new CD, full of songs inspired by Smith's online matchmaking experiences, I believe, is incredibly lyrical, musically rich and undeniably fearless." --Terence Dick"Sitting on Snaps" CD
4 out of 5 stars (Posted: Apr, 20 1995)
The most visionary of punk's political bands, Mecca Normal see things in a different light. Because their tactics are more evocative than provocative, the Vancouver, Canada, duo hasn't gotten as much attention as its fans and colleagues in Fugazi and Bikini Kill. But through seven albums over nine years, vocalist Jean Smith and guitarist David Lester have presented a consistent, evolving and luminous challenge to the reigning social order – what Smith calls, on "Vacant Night Sky," "a false machine in motion/Passing through the clouds." Mecca Normal operate so far outside the system that they see it as a satellite. Other bands brag about low-fi production values, but Mecca Normal don't even have a rhythm section.
Yet Sitting on Snaps is full of sounds, colors, shapes and beings. Mecca Normal's approach is spare and self-contained, but long gone is the amateur primitivism of their folkish start; one might call this free punk, as avant and accomplished as its jazz counterpart. Hammered out in studios and on numerous tours, their music critique has achieved an exalted, pure essence, like a transcendent state of meditation. Their feminist and anarchist lyrics, always prescient, have become abstract images. Where Smith once sang about a woman going to Washington, D.C., in a Frank Capra-esque anthem, she now describes someone swimming: "Pamela makes waves/Wider and wider these days." Smith's lyrics have become riddles, written in precise but spare poetry. The messages are worth puzzling out: "Trapped Inside Your Heart" is about a woman living outside the myth of romantic love. "There's always trouble/When you have to invent yourself," Smith sings, her voice stronger in its iconoclastic creak than ever.
Such plainsong, anarchistic credos – the opposite of polemical rhetoric – are common Mecca Normal offerings. They're not afraid of a sing-along; live, they encourage the audience to join in on the DIY take-back-the-night anthem "I Walk Alone." Yet their music – Lester plays guitar like it's a strange instrument found washed up on a beach, Smith's vocals are glass shards melting and crystallizing – is far from pop-radio sensibilities. By twisting the delivery, they place power in individual interpretation, in the belief that one should be strengthened, not seduced, by melody. On Sitting they've added more than their usual minimal layer of sounds, overdubbing vocal harmonies and guitar parts, even playing with pianist Peter Jefferies on two tracks. This sudden expansion after the stark Flood Plain (1993) feels like a celestial illumination.
An inspirational figure to riot grrrls, Jean Smith generally gets more attention than her band mate. But with his playing soaring alongside her imaginative flights, David Lester is crucial to Sitting's brilliance. With few gizmos he turns his guitar into an arsenal of sounds, banging the strings with his fist, peeling off riffs lifted from the Stooges and Led Zeppelin, delicately plucking a chord or, on "Frozen Rain," picking the strings where they're tightly wound up by the tuning pegs, imitating the sound of the song's title. Working outside given structures, Mecca Normal create their own musical vocabulary, one that's experimental but not esoteric, conceptual but also concrete. "Match the colors with the sound," Smith sings on "Beppo's Room"; when you do, you may see a new world. (RS 706)