Speaking the truth with Philly punk visionaries Soul Glo

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Soul Glo | photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Soul Glo | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

For many rockers of color, finding films like AFROPUNK — James Spooner’s groundbreaking documentary about minority involvement in punk and hardcore movements — was and is a critical milestone in their development. As a young black and queer punk rocker immersed in the community, watching this film’s scenes unfold, bearing witness to ideas, perspectives, and experiences expressed in the film that were so wildly different, I realized something: each one of those perspectives, from both the youthful, energetic dayglo punk who “didn’t want to be defined by their race” to the raging political hardcore kid using the genre towards black liberation, at some point I had felt similarly, at least in part, to all of the interviewees. The lived black punk rock experience was given a voice. In that documentary’s wake the legions of weird yet still culturally impactful black music has practically given birth to new ways of discovering music through blogs and social media. This wave has infiltrated community centers and Shriners’ hallls, as well as taken to the stages usually reserved for all white bands.

Philadelphia is a city ripe for a black and brown punk reclaiming. Entire movements have thrived for more than a decade dedicated to promoting art and music by marginalized people. Enter Soul Glo, a band etching dark, interpersonal screeds on ancient parchment cut from the skin of the rotting corpse of hardcore punk. Their music travels pedal-driven through lush, dense shoe-gaze forests, bursting out of the other side screaming. Lead singer Pierce Jordan’s voice is an unmatched wail that snakes through the band’s wiry punk orchestration as a truly exhaustive vessel for his trauma-informed lyrics. While their name — taken from a parody product from the cult 80’s Eddie Murphy comedy Coming To America, said to give black folk luscious, wavy jheri curled hair — may come across as comedic, it’s important to remember that the moniker choice is all a part of the intricate cultural interplay and relevancy that truly revolutionary, unbothered and alternative black acts have traditionally embraced. From Parliament’s colorful renditions of life on the mothership to Odd Future’s notorious hyper-cartoon troll Tyler the Creator’s transformation into a living meme, there’s certainly room for jest in this revolution. The sentiment is most aptly put by an interviewee in the AFROPUNK doc when she casually intones: “I don’t feel less black because I’m less normal”

We sat down with Soul Glo to discuss the contradictions, struggles and even empowerment of speaking the truth of the black lived experience to a punk power structure that often values the social capital of whiteness over others.

The Key: Soul Glo is a hardcore punk band. With such a powerful message speaking about gender and race and their collusion under the American political landscape, why did you choose this style of music, where sometimes the lyrical content can be buried under a swell of guitars and dense noise? Do you think hardcore has potential to reach beyond its aesthetic trappings, and if so in what ways, if not, then why not?

Pierce Jordan: When we first got together we were all pretty interested in making “heavy” music and seeing how possible it was to smash up a lot of the different styles of aggressive music that we’d been hearing around us in our own personal ways. I started to get really possessed by the idea of learning about myself and what I believe in by writing about how I and others live and what we see around us during our lives. A lot of what i feel like I really should be talking about is truly foul and ugly shit and I wanted to keep it real by addressing that instead of vague poetry. I like the idea of trying to approach this shit where the vocal delivery matches how hard all the other musicians in the band have to work, how fast they have to play, etc.

As for hardcore’s potential to transcend its aesthetic trappings, if you mean genre-wise, I feel as though it already has. Punks and rappers want to be each other even though lack of fundamental understandings of class keep them from truly being able to relate to each other. But there are still shows happening with both on the bill. Tommy Wright III playing shows with Power Trip and Exotica, for example. If you mean its potential for political change or whatever, it doesn’t really have any more or less power than any other genre. Subversion of the mainstream, of our racist, capitalist, patriarchal, hetero-normative etc. culture exists in all genres of music because that subversion exists on an individual level first. Punk and hardcore postures that it’s about freedom and anti-captalism first or whatever but we all know that is only as true as the lives and actions of the individual people cited to back up that original claim in the first place. If you mean its incorporation of other music forms, I have to point back to the flirtatious relationship punk/hardcore and rap have had for years, and how that’s come to swell the current wave of rappers, [many of] whom call themselves punks and are screaming and shit in their music.

TK: That’s true, there is a decent amount of overlap in punk/hardcore/rap/trap. What do you think is bridging this gap? Is this the future of punk/hardcore?

PJ: Rap and hardcore are both enormous genres with lots of different sets of musicians and cultures and styles involved so I guess it’s like, one of its futures. In terms of what I see bridging the gap, I guess it’s just a matter of time in terms of a historical trend. There was Run-DMC/Aerosmith and Public Enemy/Anthrax doing songs together which sorta laid the groundwork in my mind, then shit like Linkin Park and Atmosphere and Candiria and Death Grips which were acts that sorta straddled the line in their music simultaneously. Now you have people like OG Maco, who experiment with hardcore style vocals and Lil Uzi Vert who literally just went platinum with an emo rap song with “Xo Tour lif3,” which Ruben once called “Taking Black Sunday/” Like it has beeeeeeen happening for years.

And maybe our local shows will be a little more sonically diverse. And then from there maybe the audiences will be diverse with punks and rap heads at each others shows instead of listening to each others music in private. Maybe the show spaces will be a little more welcome to each other since we live in the same cities and are only divided by which uploading platforms we use. Those memes about Soundcloud vs Bandcamp to me are a very real analysis of race and class. Even if [the evolution of rap and hardcore punk simultaneously as one] does happen there’s so much other shit happening in both genres it’s difficult to believe that it will be anything more than another permutation of both cultures. [My view] is sort of utopian but it could be beautiful, and could lead to a better understanding amongst people who have varying interests.

Soul Glo | photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Soul Glo | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

TK: Are there any bands or people or happenings that informed your punkness? Do you feel the urgency to be examples of what hardcore and punk can be in the world? Why is or why isn’t this important to you?

PJ: System of a Down for showing me that protest music in the form of hardcore mixed with nu metal mixed with whatever the fuck you want can go triple platinum. Grace Jones and Prince for introducing me to Black androgyny. Personally, I didn’t start this band to be an example of anything besides myself to anyone, and I don’t feel as though it’s even fully under my control. Nobody has to acknowledge me or what I’m doing. I just write about what I’ve seen and what I feel is true. Whether I’m an example of anything or not, to me is a question for literally anyone else.

Ruben Polo: There’s definitely a few people that have had a giant effect on me getting involved. The few black & Latino people I’ve met at DIY shows. Jane Wonder from the Cove, these buls who were called Nitch from NY, my boy Justin Ortiz. They helped shape my views on how involved we could be [with their] excitement, commitment and just overall passion.

TK: Pierce, your lyrics often focus on a sense of dread as a Black man where there seems to be a marriage of intrinsic violence to the Black male experience, like on the songs “New Humanism” and “untitled 4”. Why do you think this presumed violence exists? How difficult is it to communicate this certain aspect of your music and life to white, or really just non-Black audiences?

PJ: I guess I feel like the presumption of violence for Black people in America exists because of our forced existence into a fucked up context, and how the origin of that context can never be expunged or altered. As time passes, the best we will ever be able to do is build upon it with the knowledge of the evil that existed and still exists as long as it is allowed to. I feel like the presumption of that violence in this country exists because the America that we live in today, the one that eats our flesh even though we feed it our fruit, is just as much ours and our ancestors as any white colonialist if not more, since we are routinely denied our humanity despite our contributions, and that denial is one of the worst forms of that violence.

It’s difficult to find words that I feel are appropriate to describe some of the things I’ve been through in my life and it’s difficult to assemble what I want to say without it sounding tired or corny, and a lot of the time I feel like I haven’t done the best job at that second goal. In terms of expressing it to our majority white/non-Black audience, it’s fucking exhausting. I’m concerning myself less and less with it. It’s much more productive to not make anything for them because they’re always going to be around / in the way regardless. I’ve found it’s much more worthwhile and satisfying to center this shit around Black people, in and out of the scene. I am more interested in building and supporting that audience right now than I ever have been because I am seeing more and more how many people — leaders, artists, and geniuses —  are being left out. Those are the people who can form the most intrinsic connection to our work and are the people who put us on the hardest as a result of it.

TK: Sonically, it seems like Soul Glo is operating at a more unique frequency than the majority of hardcore and punk bands. Was there a deliberate need to introduce stranger elements in your music? Suddenly breaking into sparse moments or marrying confusing, techy blast-beats with uplifting Cap’N Jazz-esque melody seems pretty dramatic. Was this intentional, if so why?

RP: I don’t think it was deliberate. We all come from slightly different musical backgrounds. Writing is more just a melding of everyone’s ideas. Everyone has contributed riffs or drum ideas.

TK: Ruben, you told me a story about “Untitled 7,” how Pierce came to practice with the song fully composed, lyrics and all. Is that how the song process works, this sort of trust that whoever has a song to share it becomes a Soul Glo song? Or is there more of an experimental process where “Untitled 7” was a bit of an anomale construction-wise?

RP: At this point, the songwriting process is whatever idea any one of us has that we all accept and are able to bring to fruition.

Jamie: I would say it’s about half and half. Our songs are written in lots of different ways. Pierce could come in with an entire song written on bass or Ruben could come in with an entire song written on guitar. We will also just put ideas together at practice to form a song. If you pay close enough attention (or know Pierce and Ruben), I think it’s pretty easy to tell where each song came from. Pierce used riffs he wrote in high school on our first album. No matter what, we usually write our own parts and put our own spin on things, and it’s important to us to have that freedom to do whatever we want. We never put a song together without all four of us present because we need all four of our minds to make the best song we can.

TK: Soul Glo tours a lot, do you find that the reception is different outside of this kind of Afrofuturist / Afropunk-friendly cocooon that Philly can be sometimes? Are folks embracing, particularly punks of color? How so or why not?

RP: We get better responses outside of Philly generally. It’s kinda the reason we go out so frequently. I’m appreciative of the people in Philly who have put us on and helped in so many vast ways. As far as embracing punks of color, it’s getting better. Bands who have been twice as good as their counterparts for years are starting to get love across the country. There are some pockets where POC are the majority of the audience in attendance and [participating]. Shouts out to Rami (Oakland), Rock Bottom (Richmond) and The Land Between DIY (San Antonio). As more spaces, acts, and people get involved it won’t be a pocket it’ll just be the norm.

TL: What’s next for Soul Glo? Records, tapes, tours?

PJ: Right now we can say we have another LP being put together, and we are planning on a split release with Amygdala from Texas. Tour wise, we are going down to The Fest in Gainesville in October.

Soul Glo is playing Tuesday, August 29th at Philadelphia Printworks; more information can be found at its Facebook Event Page. The Band will appear at The Fest 16 the final weekend of October; more information here.

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