Interview: Dustin Herron - Abolitionist

Dustin Herron is the man behind the project that is ABOLITIONIST. Taking intelligence and politics and combining it with the best of Punk Rock sounds, Dustin and his Portland, Oregon band mates have released a number of records; most recently the excellent 'The Growing Disconnect'. Each release has been an improvement, and the new album is the pick of the bunch - so far.

..To start with, tell us your earliest musical memory? What were you listening to before you discovered Punk Rock?
Ha, not sure I should admit to this … but I grew up in a rural American town and my parents listened to a lot of country music when I was really young - my first concert was Hoyt Axton! Fortunately, they eventually moved on to classic rock - Pink Floyd, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, et cetera …
In 1993, right before I started high school, I got heavily into NIRVANA; this was just before GREEN DAY made it big. This combination sparked a heavy interest in Punk Rock, combined with growing up in the rainy Pacific Northwest and having a difficult relationship with my parents. I read a lot of comic books at the time and picked up a free Punk zine one day in my local shop that pretty much slagged GREEN DAY as "sellouts" - which I found intriguingly confusing. From there, I realized there was a whole underground Punk scene filled with all sorts of interesting bands. I even discovered a local band had released their music on vinyl – a dead format, as far as I knew - this was back when CDs were a hot item! That was the eponymous 7" by LAZY BOY, released by the mighty Allied Recordings. Such a great label!
From there, I read a lot of MRR, went to local shows, and eventually started playing in Punk bands when I was sixteen. I found the whole Punk scene thought-provoking and exciting back then. The political flavor of the nineties Punk scene definitely led to the development of my current personal politics - likely due to my obsession with bands like FUGAZI, STRAWMAN and PROPAGANDHI, not to mention earlier UK Peace Punk bands. The rest is history!

..Give us a bit of the band’s history.
I started it back in September 2009. I’d been playing in an Irish Folk/Punk cover band and having a moderate amount of local success in the small town I’d been living in. I got bored with playing songs other people had written and decided to go back to playing Punk Rock, writing my own tunes. It was sobering to play my own music and have the response to it so muted in comparison to playing other people’s songs! But that’s the artist’s struggle, haha.
It’s pretty much been a rotating cast of members over the years, as the band has always been primarily a vehicle for my own song-writing - for better or for worse! In the beginning, the musical influences were FUGAZI, JAWBREAKER and HOT WATER MUSIC. Lyrically, I was influenced a lot by the reading I was doing on the first American Civil War, and specifically the anti-slavery abolitionist movement.
These days I feel like the music is getting a little darker, a little angrier. More political? Not sure if that has to do with the fact I’m listening to more TRAGEDY/ HIS HERO IS GONE, WIPERS, SUBHUMANS, RUDIMENTARY PENI, et cetera, these days … or because there are 7 billion people on the planet, billions of animal lives destroyed every day for no morally justifiable reason - in my opinion, corporate interests dominating and decimating the planet and exploiting us all, et cetera. I guess all that just kind of freaks me the fuck out.
The primary aims these days are seem to be the following: self-expression, human connection, and fun.

..The band has just released its second album, The Growing Disconnect. In what ways is this different from the debut album It Used To Rain?
I tried to write shorter songs, for one. A lot of the feedback related to the first LP was that the tunes were too long, too repetitive, which I agree with. These days I’m trying to keep everything more direct, to the point. Punks have short attention spans!

..Looking at the liner notes, the album is a bit of a concept album based around a couple of things you have read: The New American Militarism - a book by Andrew J Bacevich and an article in Time Magazine, 'The Other 1%'. Can you tell us a bit about the ideas behind the writings and the concept of the album?
Those writings were a huge influence on the lyrics for the album. I’ve found that having a theme helps me focus when it comes to writing full-lengths and I actually didn’t have much trouble coming up with theme for ‘...Disconnect’. I guess maybe it was because I happened to read that book around the time I was wanting to write another LP … but I also feel like the recent wars my country has been responsible for has made an impact on my psyche. The song ‘Little Pieces’ was written with my friend, Eric, in mind; he was killed in Iraq by an IED. I wrote the song from the perspective of a comrade trying to cope with witnessing this pointless loss of life.

..More specifically, can you expand on some of the lyrics, starting with the album’s opener, ‘Thank Them’. How does this set the tone of the album, and who and why are you thanking?
That first track was intended to target the self-righteous citizen soldier who volunteers to join up with the military, gets treated as fodder by his government, participates in state-sanctioned murder, and returns home with a conflicted sense of entitlement and shame. "But I sacrificed for my country! I did it so you could enjoy your comfortable way of life!" Maybe in some cases, but I think overall those particular individuals did it more for themselves and, ultimately, their buddies with whom they served.
This seems to be the case with the heavy right-wing element of the American military, and most militaries, probably. They consider themselves morally superior to the civilian population - despite representing a warrior culture based on domination and destruction, which I think is absurd - and would prefer adulation instead of any constructive critique of their real purpose. What is that real purpose? That’s debatable, I guess, but it sure seems to me that it’s primarily to reinforce the interests of the corporate elite.
How else was the Iraq War so heavily supported by civilian contractors like Halliburton, Blackwater, et cetera? Billions were made at the expense of thousands of lives. It was taxpayer-supported, state-sanctioned murder.
I’m not saying I don’t appreciate an all-volunteer military or think there are many genuinely well-intentioned individuals who join up. I have family and friends who have served, or are serving. I just don’t think it’s fair to expect me to support immoral actions - i.e. the entire Iraq War - because people were simply following orders …

..What about ‘Another Despot’?  Was that written with any one specific in mind?
The lyrics of ‘...Disconnect’ involve with two distinctly separate groups: a group of fundamentalist Christian, right-wing soldiers who stage a coup and a group of ordinary citizens who are able to fight back, despite heavy repression. It’s weird because I expected to catch more flak from people who thought maybe I was making a statement in support for the former group with lines from ‘Another Despot’ like this one: "No time for new leaders, it’s too late for a change/Time is running short to save the nation from shame/Nobody will save us if we don’t act this time/We’ll take it by force, under guidance divine" … but maybe people just got the message?

..It’s clear ABOLITIONIST is a Political band; that’s apparent not just via your lyrics but through direct action like donating proceeds from sales of records to the likes of aiding Rwanda recover after the 1994 genocide. How important to you is politics in Punk Rock? Do you enjoy records by positively non-political bands like DWARVES that espouse hedonistic tales of sex, violence and substance abuse or TEENAGE BOTTLEROCKET that falls more on the fun ram-a-lama side of Punk Rock?
Well, I’m definitely not a fan of either DWARVES or TEENAGE BOTTLEROCKET; they just don’t do it for me. I definitely listen to plenty of apolitical music, although the political stuff tends to grab me more. It doesn’t have to be explicitly political, either. I really just enjoy music with a message. That’s what I strive for with ABOLITIONIST lyrics – not expressing political opinions so much as communicating something meaningful. I don’t necessary want to tell people what to think – that’s not Punk Rock to me – but I do think it’s important to provoke thought, or start a conversation. I think bands have such a great opportunity to connect people, and I guess I feel it would be a waste for me to write purely about my own life. Maybe it’s because I don’t find my own life all that interesting? Either way, I feel more fulfillment in the attempt at conveying some sort of message.

..'The Growing Disconnect' has been released on the band’s own 1859 Records. Tell us a bit about the label. Is it primarily a vehicle for ABOLITIONIST material? Were any other labels interested in releasing the new album? I could see it appealing to No Idea Records.
The vinyl version was actually released with the support of five other labels – Sex Sheets (Portland), Hahaha cool! (Canada), Lost Cat (USA), Tour Van (USA), and Different Kitchen (UK) – which was awesome! But yeah, the CD version, and pretty much everything else we’ve released, has been on 1859; it’s my own little DIY Punk label.
It definitely started as vehicle to release ABOLITIONIST material. Since I started it in 2009, I’ve helped release a couple of comps, as well as tour 7" for NO///SE (ex YOUNG LIVERS, YOUTH BRIGADE, GLASS & ASHES, et cetera). I plan on doing more with the label, but it depends on funds. Its primary purpose is still to release ABOLITIONIST stuff because, as cool as it would be have something on a label like No Idea, I’ve never had any interest from anyone else about releasing our music!

..It was an interesting method you had for funding the album – by asking for donations and in return giving the donator something ‘extra’ in return for the donation, be it a copy of the record, the donator’s name on the sleeve, t-shirts etc. How successful was this? Is it something you would consider repeating?
We did it to help release the CD version of ‘...Disconnect’ and actually used Kickstarter to help release our first 7". That said, I don’t plan on using a crowd-funding site ever again. There’s been an interesting debate about it in the Punk scene – I mean, how DIY is it to ask for money in order to release something most bands save up for and then release on their own? I get it. I felt pretty lame after the second one we did, although my rationale was "Hey, we’ve been a band for a while … we have fans … we’ve given away a ton of music over the years … why shouldn’t we ask for something in return?" I now feel like the band is such a hobby to me; I have a pretty good career as an emergency room nurse, and that I shouldn’t expect anyone else to support it financially. I mean, at least people got something in return for their donations to both projects, but did they really get as much as they deserved? That’s debatable. From now on, any income for the band will come from merchandise which, as it’s always been, will be sold at near cost.

I’ve read that you may be re-releasing the download-only EP Bleeding Kansas but with a "real band." What was the score with the band on the original recording?
That idea has since been scrapped – I’m pretty bored with those particular tunes, except for one. We’re actually gonna be recording that one track, ‘Cut The Head Off This Snake’, in a couple weeks.
The original recording was done after we parted ways with our original drummer and the bassist and I lived in separate areas of the state. It was easier for me just to record everything myself, which I did over a period of several months. I think this may be why I can’t fucking stand listening to it. Ha!

..You also did a fanzine – Brain Storm Zine. How many issues did you do? What was the print run and distribution? Why did you stop?
I only did 3 issues in a cut-and-paste format; it was pretty tedious, but enjoyable for a while. I think I only did 100-200 copies of each issue. This was pretty expensive, but I was able to get copies to distros all over the USA, Canada, and UK and even a few in Australia. I no longer have copies, but I know It’s Alive & Dead Broke have some in the USA, as well as Different Kitchen in the UK.
I got pretty bored with band interviews, actually. I liked all the bands I interviewed a lot, but I think that’s problematic because they all kind of end up sounding the same. Not enough drama?
Also, it was fucking expensive and nobody really bought directly from me … so I focused all my finances on the money pit that is ABOLITIONIST, haha!

..Portland has a long line of great Punk Rock bands – most notably THE WIPERS, POISON IDEA, EXPLODING HEARTS and EPOXIES among others. Has the music of the city prior to ABOLITIONIST been a direct influence on the band? Had you been based in LA or NYC or Chicago, what differences do you think would be apparent in the band’s sound?
When it comes to Portland music specifically, I feel like THE WIPERS are a definite influence. To be honest, though, I heard of them first through NIRVANA who were obviously heavily influenced by them … I think I heard their cover of ‘Return Of The Rat’ when I was about 14 years old? I think just growing up and living in a place that’s cloudy, if not rainy, 250-300 days out the year is more of a direct influence. I grew up also listening to gloomy NW bands, like UNWOUND and FITZ OF DEPRESSION, as well as other bands like JAWBREAKER, STRAWMAN, HIS HERO IS GONE, AMEBIX, so I feel that all directly influences the mood and music of ABOLITIONIST.

..We mentioned Portland earlier, what’s life like in the city? For those visiting the city, what are some of the must-do attractions that are not on the recognised tourist trail?
To be honest, I fucking hate cities. I think this is because of my rural upbringing; I definitely prefer the relative tranquility of a country lifestyle. That said, Portland is pretty nice for a city. There are tons of bridges, which separate the downtown west side from the more residential and hip east side. There’s a huge park with miles of trails - appropriately called "Forest Park" - that’s easily accessible from the west side. On clear days, you can see at least two snow-capped mountain peaks to the east: Mt. St. Helens, which had an eruption in the early eighties, and Mt. Hood. The cityscape itself is actually quite beautiful. Also, it just doesn’t feel like a huge metropolis. Whenever I visit Seattle , which is a three-hour drive north, and come back, I realize how small it is in comparison to that town. Also, as I’ve been a vegan for 15+ years, there are so many vegan restaurants here it’s amazing; nearly every place has at least one vegan option, too, which is cool. There are also great Punk shows every week - THE ESTRANGED and AUTISTIC YOUTH just played a free one last night, before heading to Europe on tour. The downside is that there are hardly any jobs, but that doesn’t seem to keep people from moving here …

What are your thoughts on the Portlandia programme? Accurate, witty, insulting??
Eh, all of the above? I heard recently that they’ve talked shit about the vegan grocery store my friends run, without the courtesy of spoofing of them. So, yeah. Fuck Portlandia.

..What are the best and worst aspects of living in Portland, and on a wider scale the USA?
The best parts of Portland include the numerous record shops, vegan eateries, public transportation, and access to trails and wilderness out towards Mt. Hood; the worst aspects are the gentrification which, honestly, a lot of vegan eateries are partly responsible for, as many traditionally African-American neighborhoods have been replaced with white-owned businesses and condominiums, the somewhat trigger-happy cops, the prevalence of gangs which, of course, stems from social and racial disparities, and the generally gloomy weather.
The best part of living in the USA are the vast resources we have access to, although it’s all the expense of the world’s poor and the sanctity of nature. So it’s hard to get too stoked about it. We also seem to live in a pretty free society, although it’s increasingly obvious this might be just as illusory as George Orwell imagined it to be …

If you could change just one thing about life in the States, what would it be?
That’s a tough one! It’s a toss-up between the elimination of meat and dairy consumption and the elimination of money in the American electoral process. Not sure if the latter would make that much of a difference, though, so I’m going with the former.

..So, what’s next for the band. Any tours?? Planning the next record already? Would you say you are a prolific song writer/ band?
The biggest challenge with this band over the years has been the fluctuating line-up - the curse of wanting to have things your way, I admit it! Hopefully, this current line-up, which I feel is our most solid musically, will be able to tour a bit more. We have a short three-day jaunt up to Washington State in a couple of weeks. We plan on doing a few of those over the course of the next few months, with hopefully some one-week tours thrown in there. If those all go well, hopefully we can do a two-week thing in the UK/Ireland this fall. Hoping to play some shows over there with the mighty GRAND COLLAPSE. We’ll see!
Yes, currently hard at work writing the next LP - titled ‘Pathogen’. It continues our thematic tendency when it comes to full-lengths, this time following two squatter Punks who are lovers, as they make their way across a decimated Portland whose population has been ravaged by a pandemic. It’s probably gonna sound a little darker than previous offerings, but we’ll see. Hoping to record that sometime this summer! We’re about to release a split 7" with our friends, RUBRICS, and also have a split 7" in the works with our Irish-Candian friends, FLAGPOLERS. We also might do something with GRAND COLLAPSE although that’s preliminary …
Prolific? I dunno. Not as much as I’d like to be!

..Anything you want to add?
Just want to say THANK YOU for the interview, Steve! Sorry it took so long to get back to you. We really appreciate the support!