While traveling on a tiny island with a bombastic flock of parrots that mostly sang in five part harmonies, The Salt Riot honed their musical talent while eating various seed and tree nut particles…
Or so says The Salt Riot’s concise Facebook bio. It’s an arresting vignette and one that suits the Seattle trio down to the ground. Insightful, impassioned, sophisticated and harbouring a wicked sense of humour, the band have produced in their most recent album, Dead Star, a visceral collection of holy sonic grace, summarised thus in our review:
Theirs is a cleansing fire of guitar, bass and drums. A warming and potent distillation of an alternative Seattle sound. A trio of artisans with a fuse; a spark; an explosive fuzzed-up invocation of a rebellion against the Boyars who have become bloated in their counting houses, counting out their money. They bring light and love; freedom and purpose. This is their mission.
This is The Salt Riot.
We caught up with vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and lyricist Julia Vidal and bassist, engineer and co-producer Jack Machin soon after the band’s appearances at this year’s North West Folklife Festival and NAMIWalks (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Washington event.
Skin Back Alley: How are the parrots and their five part harmonies, and have you grown sick of eating seed and tree nut particles yet?
The Salt Riot [Julia Vidal]: Absolutely not. Seeds and nuts are the future of food. The only way forward really.
And are you feeling salty?
Saltier than the dead sea!
Why did you choose to call yourselves The Salt Riot? Presumably it has a connection to historic events in Moscow and the citizens’ uprising there?
It is an interesting connection for sure. Primarily the thought process was this common human history of leveraging resources for control and power. Salt used to be traded for money hundreds of years ago (as the latin root “sal” is used in the term salary now), and we found the irony in our time, as salt sits on almost any dinner table as a common commodity with little to no value. Yet at one time people used to kill each other over it. The resources and the wars we wage interchange but this struggle for power and control does not.
In many ways the name could have been “The Money Riot” or “The Water Riot” — but essentially we are seeking to establish a historical connection to our current times. Now we start wars over oil, and who knows, maybe in 500 years every dinner table will have a little glass of petrol you can sprinkle on your bangers and mash (yes that was for you England).
The lyrics across Dead Star have a lovely literary quality to them and cover a wide spectrum of subjects and emotions. What were some of the specific inspirations for the album?
I am lyrically inspired by social/political and historically rooted themes. I personally take a lot of my subject material from direct pain and suffering I see as a result of our shared global ties and human history. It seems broad and it is. But it isn’t. It’s the monstrous CEOs we see getting called into Wall Street for a slap on the wrist. I think I watched the documentary on Larry Hillblom and the generally Western colonial cowboy rampage his life turned into after making a fortune. We are talking about years and years of systematically rooted tragedies and hierarchies. (And I’m almost positive Donald Trump was the piñata in one of the songs, too.)
This album is about universal heartbreak. It directly covers the devastation left by modern colonialism, globalisation, and all the stories we don’t really want to hear because we live in a protected bubble of Kardashian media and popular music topics that barely scratch a surface of “baby” this and let’s “drink” that. Those things can be pleasurable and personally important, but so can engaging with a deeper story. I think modern music and media for that matter is failing its audiences’ and listeners’ intelligence.
As a band you seem to take an active interest in progressive politics, art and culture, playing a benefit to raise funds for Bernie Sanders’ campaign for example. How important is it to you that you engage with these kinds of causes through your music?
I don’t know if you can really separate music from community and social well being. Music is perhaps the only sacred place where people can come together, regardless of political, social, economic, race, etc. Music is where you are a human first, and the rest of the nonsense that’s largely been classified to divide second. It is expression in its purist state.
Bernie Sanders is an important political figure for the US and the world right now. He has taken a stance against plutocracy. The very same structures that allowed events like The Salt Riot to take place.
Every generation, political, and historical time needs this type of figure. They symbolise the uprising. They symbolise the “human.”
Who did you work with when recording Dead Star and how did they help you to realise the album?
Dead Star was recorded with David Miner at Chartreuse Muffin Studio. David knows our band so well I would argue he is the fourth member. There is a lovely feeling of an unspoken connection when we get into the studio. There is no need to do over and over and to explain and explain; it is simply intuitive. David has that touch. He can dissect a band’s music, understand its motivation and cause and he simply brings it to life. He knows exactly where to sprinkle extra “salt” and where to let the main dish shine.
I’ve heard on the grapevine that David Miner is a killer sax player. Digressing for a moment, he (and everyone else) needs to check out a band from Manchester here in the UK called Mask Of Bees. They have plenty of great sax. But back to The Salt Riot…
Oh WE will make sure to tell him. (BTW, we would love to get over there to play!)
Can you tell us how you came together as a band? How has The Salt Riot developed into the trio you are today?
The Salt Riot primarily started when I became disillusioned by the classical world of music in college and decided to stop bowing a violin and start writing songs of my own on guitar. Meanwhile Jack Machin was already recording records at the age of 18 in his dad’s Seattle suburb basement for high school bands, and playing in Jazz Band himself. Nick La Pointe was playing percussion in school symphonies and spending his off time in hardcore metal bands in the Seattle Scene. When the three of us came together to make it work, we could easily see the common classical training that allowed us to “keep up with each other” while also pushing the band in new directions because of our different musical preferences and sensibilities. It is an interesting dynamic for sure. We push each other to hear different areas, styles and nuances all the time. It’s a constant challenge to each of us. and I believe we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jack, if it’s not too personal a question (and tell me if it is!) how did you end up in Seattle after hailing from Reading here in the UK?
The Salt Riot [Jack Machin]: The Microsoft global recruitment Tornado of 1994 swept my family away, and for good! We do visit quite often though.
Obviously your current base of Seattle has a long-established history when it comes to independent and alternative rock music. Do you ever feel any weight of expectation upon you as a result of your geography?
The Salt Riot [Julia Vidal]: You cannot deny it here. This town has heard good music, damn good music. You don’t get praise just for showing up to a venue and playing. The general public has high expectations when they come out to a show. You cannot impress them as authentic with a cover song. The great news is there is a huge appreciation for original song writing and for that which falls outside of the term generic. The blessings are there with the weight, or as we like to refer to it, the challenge and the bar that has been set.
Do you think that your classical training has helped set you apart from other bands or musicians in any way? It’s my perception that your arrangements are more sophisticated and engaging than many other bands.
All of us studied classically, and Jack studied jazz as well. I think this type of schooling lends itself to a developed sense of writing. Two hundred years ago humanity was living without TV, without the internet, iPads, etc. We communicated in song, the written form. You can hear the detail and the agony of a concoction nursed by time and skill at the opera, the symphony. This kind of music was comprehensive and complex. It has been slowly turning into snippets, soundbites, marketing catch phrases. From two hour symphonic pieces, to 45 minute albums, to singles. All three of us love the sound when organic instruments come together in melody and play off each other. It’s organic and it sounds real. At the same time classical training gives that stiff and limiting sense of rules and regulations when it comes to music, we also had to shake these off to write originally. Rules give form but BREAKING the rules gives meaning.
There’s an exquisite juxtaposition, too, between the rock and pop sensibilities of your music and the weightiness of your lyrics. Was there an explicit intention to balance the two elements of your songs in that way?
Absolutely. This goes back to my point about the generally generic and somewhat vacuous lyrics of modern pop. I wanted to have themes that were powerful and global, but play them against the same types of melodies one would hear in a popular song. Part of this was thinking was to get these lyrics heard, to get people engaged with them through a familiar sing song melody. It could largely be a failed attempt. But pop and rock don’t need to be empty modes of expression. Of course many great artists have used catchy melody as a tool to further deeper meaning. Each listener takes away something different, depending on how hard they are listening.
Your music videos have been as visually engaging as your music is aurally. How cold was it for you, Julia, having to fall into Lake Washington in the middle of December in the video for “Get There”?
I boasted and strutted around like a ridiculous peacock after making the plunge. Although for a few seconds in the water there was a moment where my body was so shocked it just stopped moving.
You can’t make an album without taking a risk. This was the physical manifestation of Dead Star in many ways. That and the beginnings of acute hearing loss.
I had a really visceral reaction to Dead Star and tried something a little different with the Skin Back Alley review. Your music inspired some really cinematic and visual vignettes. If it’s not a ridiculous question (and it might well be) do you ever think visually about your music when you’re writing it?
Wow we were floored when we read it. I felt like I was reading the Sabian symbols for each notation, like a psychic vision of each lyric and note I had written. I think it is hard not to visualise music especially as the lyrical writer. You are telling a story and painting it aurally. The art is all there. It was such a great feeling to read someone who not only “got it”, they SAW it. And felt it! It’s the most rewarding feeling as an artist.
Your video for “Angel” has a really strong aesthetic, set against the backdrop of the desert-like landscape of Vantage, WA. How did the visual concept for that video develop?
Honestly meeting Joe Moore and Brain Quarella from Smokescreen Media was an instant match for creative energy. We bounced many ideas around for that idea and after they heard us out they simply said “we have the perfect location, meet us at these coordinates on Saturday.” We tried to get a real address out of them and failed. We ended up following them from a nearby gas station. There was a geology team studying rocks that we had to wait out to film it.
The Gorge there is simply stunning. There is an aura of positive fullness and simultaneous emptiness just by gazing at it. It was such a perfect backdrop for really the only ballad on the album, “Angel.” The song lyrically fits the haunting, daunting and emptiness of the landscape.
Its quite a juxtaposition from Western Washington, you drive over the pass and you loose all your old growth trees and you simply have desert.
Can you tell us a little bit about the cover art for Dead Star? Who created it and what its significance is for you?
There is a local artist here in Seattle. Her name is Tara Lee. We spent months and months going through her collection. Tara is so emotionally engaged with her art. It’s truly special to watch her with it. Tara feels ties to her art in the way we feel to the music. She also had the perfect visual for the Dead Star as the falling modern rock icon… or the political figure for that matter. Her art captures so much emotion and poetry in a visual way. We felt we were prying her baby out of her arms when it was time to publish the album. She took a deep breath. She was ready to let the world see. Please look her up and tell her you love her as much as we do.
Julia, you mentioned in a recent interview about working with Jay Conrad on your video for “Boom”, and celebrating women working together in the music industry. We’ve just marked International Women’s Day 2016, have you yet been inundated with questions about what it’s like being a woman fronting a rock band?
It is actually quite hilarious to respond to the questions over and over again. I don’t think much of having different genitalia from other musicians. It’s definitely a topic many like to explore though. Women have come so far in so many industries. And we have so far to go. Music is one of those industries. Being expected to act a certain way, play a certain way, dress a certain way, it’s all there. Gender roles hurt us all. I regularly like to encourage Jack and Nick to be as “womanly” and “feminine” as they want while I try the opposite. There is no room for limiting identity in a creative endeavor.
Do you foresee a day when a musician’s or fan’s gender simply won’t be a talking point? It certainly doesn’t seem like we’re there yet. It was really disheartening on International Women’s Day to see Baroness having to speak out against a male fan who had sexually assaulted a female fan at one of their UK gigs, for example.
I think its hard to foresee this day when we have a candidate for our highest office who is primarily distinguished by her sex rather than her topics or any of the actual acumen pertaining to the job. It is the same in music. Women want to be judged fairly, we should have high expectations set for us. We shouldn’t just let the “boys” play the instruments and write the songs. I honestly am more concerned about how under-represented woman are in the sciences and math, engineering than anything else. When you prioritise a gender in one area and not another, you literally loose half a population of thinking brains. And it’s clear we need them all. Man or woman, both or neither. WE NEED them all.
Talking of political and societal issues, does the prospect of Donald Trump as President scare you there in the North West US as much as it does many of us here in the UK?
Scared and needing to vomit immediately can definitely be the same feeling. Donald Trump’s nomination makes it absolutely clear you can buy into an election.
I always say we need separation of church and state, but more importantly we need separation of Hollywood and state. There is only so much acting we can take, “BELIEVE ME.”
Trump’s politics seems to be based wholly in fear, whereas whilst your music may have a dialogue that discusses and recognises elements of individuals’ fear, it is essentially grounded squarely in a passionate hope?
You know, talking about this country and how many people perpetuate and live in fear-based rationale, it permeates every level of our interaction. Music is the place people go to heal, to bond, to nurture ties. If The Salt Riot can create any sort of sense or discussion of people living with other people without the fear, the hate or the rhetoric, than we have accomplished more than we could have imagined.
Trump aside, what are your hopes for 2016? Where can we see and hear The Salt Riot next?
The Salt Riot is listening, we are watching and we are creatively dispensing. We are not living under or near many rocks — just a volcano (the perfect metaphor!). This is a great time to be an artist that has something to say. It’s a great time to be putting music out there freely to anyone who might be able to take a second to really listen.
We are hoping this album is just the start, because we have A LOT more in us.
The Salt Riot are: Julia Vidal (vocals, lyrics, guitars, violin, and synths), Jack Machin (bass, audio mixing, co-producer) and Nick La Pointe (percussion).
Read the Skin Back Alley review of The Salt Riot’s most recent album, “Dead Star”, here.