Interview with Casey Neill of #Earth2Trump: Roadshow of Resistance
Academy of Music Theater, Northampton, MA
April 6, 2017
Story and photos by Kelly D
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On April 6th, the Academy of Music hosted the #Earth2Trump: Roadshow of Resistance show. Featuring hip-hop artist Lyla June, Lakota elder Cheryl Angel, and singer-songwriter Casey Neill, it was a night of music and resistance brought to the public by the Center for Biological Diversity. Through a mutual friend, I was able to get backstage before the show to talk with Casey about the purpose of the roadshow, his own music’s grassroot political origins, and much more.
LMNR: Casey Neill! Welcome to Western Massachusetts! So is this your first time in Western Mass?
Casey Neill: I performed here, oh, a really long time ago- I shouldn’t even say how long it’s been-
LMNR: Oh come on!
CN: Sometime in the ’90s, I played at Hampshire College. And I think that’s the only time I played here unless I’m forgetting something. But I think that’s it.
LMNR: And how’s it to be back here?
CN: It’s really great to be back here. I always wanted to come back and play here- it’s a music hub, y’know, in New England and I don’t know why I haven’t ended up here. It’s so weird that we’re- I travel the world playing, sometimes I end up playing in places really regularly and sometimes it changes and I end up playing places that I haven’t gotten to for years and then doing those consistently […] I’m just following where the work goes.
LMNR: I mean, I wish the weather was better here to welcome you, but ya can’t have everything. (Editor’s note: It was raining heavily for most of that day.) But as long as, y’know, we’re inside, ya got the gang all here, and you’re back in my neck of the woods, so that’s wonderful! So, tell me about “#Earth2Trump.” Is there a hashtag in front of it?
CN: There is. The full title is “#Earth2Trump: Roadshow of Resistance” and it started- I was on tour in November in Japan with a band that I play with that tours Japan all the time called Big Bridges and I get a text from an old friend of mine, Kieran [Suckling], who runs this environmental group, this director of this environmental group called the Center for Biological Diversity, which is a huge group- must be somewhere between 100-200 employees, approaching 200. . . And it’s mostly lawyers, scientists, some activists and organizers, but mainly what they’ve done is sue the federal government over the Endangered Species Act with a blindingly successful rate of wins. And that continues. They just got a win for a pygmy owl in Arizona last week that had been denied coverage over the Endangered Species Act that was just granted coverage. . . So they’re really amazing. And Kieran wrote after the election, [along with] the other founder of the center, Peter Galvin, who’s also an old friend of mine, both came up with the idea to come up with an environmental roadshow which I’d done things like this a long time ago and not done them recently. . . So I just get this email when I’m in Japan, saying “We have this plan to do this roadshow across the country with music and speakers- do you wanna go?” And I pretty much just said yes right away.
There were two legs of it that went across the country at the same time, and one started in Oakland that I was on, and Lyla, who’s performing tonight, and Brytnee, who’s speaking tonight, started in Oakland and went down to Los Angeles and across the whole Southern end of- through the Southwest, to Tucson where the Center for Biological Diversity is located, [to various cities in the south and up to Washington, D.C. for the inauguration]. And we organized that all with five weeks’ notice. Sixteen shows in fourteen states. And it was so good to have people come together and there just seemed to be this hunger for “what the hell do we do?” Every single show we had was at capacity- some were held at small halls- 1,000 people at a show in Florida. And so, the idea now is to continue doing these. And so, this is the next leg of it- we have seven shows in the Northeast.
LMNR: That’s fantastic. It seems like really- not only organized, but also at the same time sort of almost like a get-together. And sort of like a “Human Be-In”- not so much a protest as it is just to focus on love and not so much anti-Trump, but there is that aspect of it. Am I reading that correctly?
CN: Yeah, I mean, also on the last tour, it was very much- it was organized so fast. . . Going forward for this time, we wanted to hone the message a bit more. Last time it was sort of just everyone talking about- y’know, just exploding. *laughs* This time, it’s to talk about environment, talk about
environmental justice; there’s very much an indigenous rights focus on this one- Cheryl Angel is here who’s a Lakota elder- one of the co-founders at a camp out in Standing Rock, and she’s been at Standing Rock for many many months and then Lyla June, who’s Diné and Cheyenne. She’s an amazing singer and hip-hop artist and she’s also been at Standing Rock a bunch and has been a major cultural voice. And so, it’s Brytnee [Miller] talking about the Center and there’s me, playing songs. It’s kind of a little more streamlined now- and like you’re saying, it’s very much about coming together, having it be music. There’s political content to almost all the music, yet […] it’s more about bringing people together and talking about what we can do and ways we can take care of ourselves and taking care of each other.
LMNR: And that’s amazing- and I feel like, as much as this whole political climate is fraught with dread on an existential level, *makes “blah” noise and face* bad vibes- I feel like there’s also a lot of good coming out of it and this is one of the things. Would you have done the same thing if Hillary had gotten elected? Would there still be this huge force to be reckoned with?
CN: Well, I don’t think it would be the same, because we’re dealing with a situation with a person who’s president who pretty much wants to do whatever he wants to do and doesn’t care about representative democracy, doesn’t care about laws- basically just doesn’t care about the First Amendment: freedom of the press or freedom of religion. So basically, y’know, it’s as anti-American as it gets! It’s the First Amendment.
Also his posturing about nuclear war- these are the things that I’m old enough to remember having nuclear war dread as a small child but we haven’t had it for a long time. But it’s back, and it’s back in lots of people’s hearts and minds and all of these things- so many progressive gains over the last 100 years, whether it’s the women’s movement, the labor movement, the LGBT movement, the environmental movement, the civil rights movement- they’re coming to roll back all of those gains. So had Hillary been elected, we still would’ve had many of the same problems- climate change would still be there- the people would still be trying to make Keystone and the Dakota Access Pipelines happen- all of the same work would need to be done and all of us would be doing it, but I don’t think we would be doing it in this way exactly, if that makes sense.
LMNR: Absolutely. [Asks about our mutual friend, Amanda Bellerby, who introduced us before Rush’s concert in Portland, OR in July 2015, and if she and Casey met through environmental causes- through the organization Earth First!?]
CN: Yeah, I met Amanda through [Earth First!], and actually I met some of the people that started this tour through the environmental movement in the 90s. I started playing music kind of a little bit in the punk rock world and the political-folk punk end of the punk rock world, and then started playing in the environmental movement because I had songs with political content about it, and that was sorta the thing that got me making a cassette to sell to people as I played shows and traveling the country and things like that, making me think that I could actually do this as a vocation in life. And then over the years, I’ve done traditional Irish music and steered my music that way, and I kinda went back to having a rock band and spent most of the 2000s as an Americana act. . . There’s always a political thread to what I do, but sometimes it very much there, and sometimes it’s more in the background and there if you’re looking for it. I kinda change my music as it goes on. So in some ways, this feels like a return to things I started doing. At the same time, I found that some of the material from that time doesn’t really apply here. . . How I approach this show is different than how I approach any of my “normal” shows. It’s a multi-act bill, so I have five or six songs to do- trying to figure out what to say and how to say it, figuring out what the best song is to drive that. It’s more about that than “hey here’s my new record, here’s six songs off of it.” If that makes sense.
LMNR: Totally! Yeah, when I saw that you were coming to town, I actually got a BandsinTown email notification, “Oh, Casey Neill and the Norway Rats (Editor’s note: The Norway Rats is the name of Casey’s current band when not on tour with #Earth2Trump) are coming to Northampton.” I was like “WHAAAT” and I immediately messaged Amanda like, “Casey is coming to my neck of the woods!” So what would your normal act be described as, as opposed to this whole sort of “rally, only playing five or six songs”? What would your normal set be like?
CN: It would depend on the number of bands on the bill, but usually between 45 minutes if I’m the opener or two hours if I’m headlining, or if we’re just holding down a bar for the night, sometimes three and a half hours, cuz we have to be able to do all these things. Usually I’m touring with the Norway Rats. It’s a four- or five-piece, depending on who’s available and how we structure the show. Mostly we’re doing that up and down the West Coast- it’s just that there’s big, physical, and thus economical barriers to getting elsewhere. And so I do a lot of touring as a solo act in the Midwest, and here in the East. I have a few musicians along the way, like people in New York City and stuff that I work with, that I drag along on shows. And I play songs off of my last three or four records, and some oldies if there are people there that like my old songs so-
LMNR: Good to know. So you need to come back here now!
CN: *laughs* That’s what I hope- one of my big hopes is that I can get places, when you’ve been somewhere where you haven’t been in a long time. I’m hoping it means I can come back and people will know who I am a little bit.
LMNR: I hope you’ll make a big splash tonight. Well, [Northampton is] a very politically-minded town- we’re one of the sanctuary cities where the mayor’s like, y’know, “Fuck you, Jeff Sessions, we’re not gonna turn out the freakin’ undocumented immigrants here. That’s just not what we do.” So, yeah, it’s nice to have likeminded individuals from other parts of the country come see, because my big thing is that people just don’t realize that this part of the world exists. Especially people from Boston, “Oh, y’know, there’s nothing out there.” Actually, there’s a burgeoning cultural/political scene and a great place to live, I think, so it’s awesome that this huge national act is coming here! I saw that you had started the tour in Oakland and I don’t know if Amanda got to it or not, but-
CN: Yeah, she was there.
LMNR: Oh she was? Awesome! And she was just over the moon that she had gotten to hook us up, like “Ah! It’s all happening!” So I was hoping that there’ll be a good turnout for Northampton if you were saying that all the other stops were sold out, right? Or at capacity, I should say.
CN: Well, the thing about the January tour is that it was organized on such short notice- the election happened on November 8th-
LMNR: *makes audible noise of disgust*
CN: *laughs* Oh I know, sorry. Then, they didn’t have the idea for a little while, they didn’t start to put it into action for a little while so I think I got the email on, like, the 20th of November. It was just so fast. So that we did it, we were sort of out and front of things. Now, of course, there’s all kinds of things happening for the resistance on all kinds of fronts all over the place, which is a beautiful wonderful thing. And ya know, we were going places that aren’t like Portland, OR, where I live, or Northampton that are huge progressive communities that are gonna respond *snaps fingers* like that, so people were so thrilled and really thankful that we were there. And now, we’ve gone to bigger halls, though it’s kind of a test to see if this thing will work going forward so we can- I’m not the decision maker- but I’m part of the team that’s working on it. I think that going forward we can have different pools of musicians depending on the issues.
There’s been talk of doing something around the issue of “the wall” in the Southwest and I think this is gonna be a thing where if we have different musicians and different speakers we can keep it rolling for a long time and be able to respond to events and dovetail into local organizers’ efforts. That’s what we want: we wanna do something that isn’t just “benefit for the ACLU”- that’s not to downplay that at all, but sometimes there’s this feeling of “Ugh, sometimes I wanna do just a little bit more or offer people a little bit more other than just doing my normal thing and giving money somewhere. So this is that. We’re trying to leverage it to a “toolkit” that people get: local organizers, local people from groups are here to table and tell you how you
can get involved and I think that’s the ultimate thing: everyone who wants to make a change, and counter what’s going on. It’s hard to know what to do. If I had not been asked to do this, I’m not sure I would know what to do. So we’re trying to help that in any way. If we can help one person tonight, hallelujah. So I think one of things is that people can feel overwhelmed by it and that [it’s important to] find the place where you fit in or the issue that you care about the most and dig into that one. If you have disposable income or extra money and you can donate to things, do that; if you have extra time but no money, you can volunteer time; if you have a certain skill: that’s why I’m here. I’m a musician and I’ve written songs of a political nature over the years so that’s how I’ve been called into this, because I have this skill set. And I think that’s just as true if you’re an engineer or if you’re an employee at NASA, or the Parks Service! It’s just amazing, right?
LMNR: Just go rogue!
CN: Yeah, just go rogue! Everybody, go rogue!
LMNR: Yeah, pretty much! Yeah, I’m really just overwhelmed in a good AND bad way- and I think that’s exactly the intent of the administration- or regime: just to bombard the public, to make them feel helpless, to keep them scared and paranoid. […] You guys are like Johnny Appleseed- traveling across the country, sprinkling your grassroots movements and just making sure that they happen! That’s also what I was afraid of, with the Women’s March being so massively popular and powerful. I was afraid there was going to be a trickle-off, “Oh I did this, now I’m done for the year. I’m done for the rest of my life. I can say I participated.” But, no, I’m happy to see that now- oh Gawd it hasn’t even been three months-
CN: Oh I know. It’s the longest three months ever.
LMNR: *laughs* I was like “Oh, we’re in late April!” No, April just started. . . Oh yeah, it hasn’t even been three months. Thankfully there’s stuff like this going on. I read in the description that it was not only about Standing Rock but it was also about Flint [Michigan]? The water crisis there?
CN: Brytnee might talk about it a little in her speech. Brytnee and I were just there- the Center for Biological Diversity sent us there to be part of an event called the Water is Life Expo. And it was Flint residents, a lot of Black Lives Matter activists, a lot of Standing Rock activists coming together in Flint. Learning about the situation, speaking to local residents, a panel with a plumber, an engineer, and a water filtration expert- really just talking about the mechanics of what happened and why. A Native guy from Seattle who led the divestment campaign for the city of Seattle from banks that are involved in Dakota Access. There were hip-hop shows every night- there were all sorts of performances, mostly hip-hop- I played a short set, there was poetry, there was African dance. It was amazing. We got a tour of Flint, we went to the water plant, we got to circle the outside of it- saw the situation there. That was about ten days ago and from the moment it was over, it was just getting ready for this and being really busy and I really need and want time to process what happened there because it was intensely moving. It’s heartbreaking but the resilience of the community there is amazing. It was really an amazing weekend and I wanna write something about it and I wanna find ways to follow up in my own life with that, through this roadshow or in other ways. Flint isn’t the only case of it- there’s lead in pipes, we have a crumbling infrastructure across the whole country and it’s happening in Baltimore and it’s happening in Newark, and it’s happening disproportionately in lower-income neighborhoods.
LMNR: Yeah, Gawd, I hope you DO get a chance sometime soon to sort of absorb all that, cuz that must’ve been just. . . I’m sure the Germans have a word for that. Powerful and heartbreaking and outrageous, like “how can this happen and it’s STILL happening?!” Like, again, hat goes off to you for BEING there. Cuz so many people can talk a big game about being an activist but you’re actually doing it. That’s awesome, that’s wonderful, that’s lovely to rap with you about this stuff. And more, once the recorder goes off. *laughs* (Editor’s note: they talked about their mutual love of the band Rush.)
So that about covers it all on my end of things- if you wanna say anything else you want to put on the record. . .?
CN: One of the things I think about, too, we also just need to take care of ourselves. Take care of each other. This stuff can really get under your skin, it can get [into] your head. People aren’t sleeping well, y’know, you hear about this stuff happening all over. I know this would be happening to me more if I didn’t have an outlet- I’m lucky enough to be asked to be part of this stuff and have an outlet. At the same time, I am putting aside other creative endeavors that are really important to me that I want out there that are just kind of “on pause” because this is happening, responding [to the political climate]. At some point it’s like, “Well, I need to do THAT because we need to nurture ourselves and live our lives.” That would be the last thing I would wanna say here: Take care of each other.
LMNR: And what’s more important than that?
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