Rathbone: Soundtrack to the Class War

On the window sill of Rathbone’s small apartment living room and studio space are the words “raw ssalc a ni era uoy.” It’s written backwards so that the classical pianist turned anti-capitalist talking head can always have his ethos above him when broadcasting political commentary from his phone. That ethos is what led Rathbone to release four albums between Fall 2022 and Spring 2023. Beneath the communist meme lord persona is a talented musician bluntly messaging over deceptively cheerful tunes with tracks like “Apartheid Clyde,” “Send in the F-16’s” and “So Many 911s.” Despite the online popularity, few details about Rathbone’s existence exist. A ViaNolaVie interview from 2017 boldly asked him, “How would you train a dog?” (“With love and patience and kindness, and a lot of petting…”) I met with Rathbone in the most cliché of New Orleans locations, Cafe du Monde in City Park, to learn more about his origins and why he makes the music he does.

There’s not a lot of information about you around.
I know. I guess you can help get the word out.

Well you seem to have a big following on Instagram and TikTok.
TikTok, I just started an account. Actually, I got banned on TikTok for releasing my music videos. They banned me for some of the anti-imperialist, anti-American stuff. So I hated TikTok. And then I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll just make another account and I’ll talk about it.” I recently wanted to start talking about it rather than making songs about it. So I just switched to that and did prompts. I’ve been getting more of a following, much quicker than on Instagram. It’s been hard to share my music on Instagram. I’ve been doing it for years but getting a following on Instagram, when it’s such a visual app, people don’t go there to listen to music necessarily. I’ve been blocked on Instagram, too, ever since I became more political.

What made you want to get more political? Was there a specific moment?
The pandemic definitely—as it has a lot of people, pushed us to different camps and for whatever reason, looking at the state of the world—pushed me further left. During the pandemic, you had more of a chance to reflect. You couldn’t do anything. I started learning about leftist politics or just seeing the way that the world was going and then trying to make sense of that. I just started reading and watching a lot of YouTube videos. My music, before it turned political, was more writing love songs and stuff from my personal experience. I was just kind of tired of writing about that and I wanted to talk about things that I thought were important. I think with music, you’re using that to talk about things you find interesting, so I just started talking about how much I hated capitalism and tried to put that in a song.

So on your recent album, Burn Pits, it seemed like you were back to more personal songwriting. There’s still an anti-capitalist, communist sentiment but it seems more subtle. Was that the intent?
Definitely. I don’t know if it was the intention, but maybe it was. It’s hard to say. When I started writing political songs, I really started to like being blunt with the lyrics and not mince words. I stated very directly what I thought was happening using events, dates, facts, because you don’t normally hear that in a song, you know? Of course I love being abstract, but I was just trying to be more literal and disseminate ideas and have the message of the song be understood. Whereas more recently I’ve fallen out of that and wanted to go back to being more abstract, but still retain that subtlety of politics in the message.

It seems like you come from a background where the music was first and then the message. So tell me a little bit about you as a musician. How did you start playing music?
I grew up playing piano. It was the first thing that inspired me to play music. I loved classical music. I still love Mozart, Beethoven, and all those. For the longest time I thought I wanted to be a composer writing for an orchestra. I wrote for films and tried to make music for that, like indie films. One of the films I worked on [Do U Want It? a documentary that follows Papa Grows Funk] won an award. So there’s some award out there for some indie film fest that is an obscurity.

Yeah, that’s a whole world.
Right, but also just taking that piano background. That is what got me into joining bands and living in New Orleans playing jazz music.

Are you from New Orleans?
Yeah, so, I played with jazz bands and blues bands and had residencies as a hotel pianist for years. That’s more of my background. I was also in other kinds of bands. I’d try to start my own bands and it would fail. It was always tough keeping people together. Over the years I got frustrated with depending on other people to get my ideas out there. I never thought of myself as a singer but I liked to write lyrics and songs, so I gradually shifted while trying to discover my voice. I was always giving my ideas to other singers. It’s taken me some time to figure out how to sing, really. It was a lot of torture.

Well it seems like it paid off. It also seems like you use a lot of effects to layer and expand your voice. What do you use?
I do Melodyne occasionally but I’m trying to not do that as much, but I definitely afford myself every tool I know how to use.

Right. It’s just another tool in the toolkit. Backing up though, did you play in jazz clubs or stuff like that?
Yeah, for sure. It’s gonna sound like I’m bragging but I’m not. I’ve virtually played every venue you can think of in New Orleans, aside from like Jazz Fest or something. For a time I really wanted to master the art of playing jazz, even though it wasn’t my favorite thing. I would listen to other jazz pianists in the city and be in awe of them. I had to give up on that dream because I just didn’t love it as much as some people. For some people that’s just their world and I could never justify it. If I was going to try and master that, I would always be thinking in the back of my mind that there’s something else I should be doing.

You seem to have found your own sound and style. How would you describe what you’re doing now?
I don’t know because sometimes I want to write really orchestral songs that are pretty sounding, but then other times I want to have a guitar and scream over a distorted backbeat. Just a real simple and maybe fuzzed out bass, you know?

I hear that variety in each album. Is it just you playing?
It is just me. I’m on everything. I’m doing this all in one room. I might be sampling drums or maybe programming a drum beat and layering them, but whether it’s guitar or keyboard or whatever, it’s all me. Then I mix and produce it, which I’m not great at, but at this point I just don’t care. I’m just gonna do my best and release it.

How have you streamlined the process? It seems like you use simple drums and things like that.
That’s another thing, drums. If you want to get a good drum sound you have to go in the studio, hire a drummer, an engineer, and all that. I love a great drum which is why I sample some that were already produced. At the end of the day, it’s just drums. I don’t want to obsess too much on the drumbeat. I want to get to the other stuff.

I think the quality is definitely still there.
I appreciate that. It’s not like I’m mixing it at Sun Studio or wherever, but that’d be nice. I wish I could pay a professional mixing engineer and we go into the studio and do it like real. I don’t have that but my point is I’m not going to let that stop me.

It all sounds very DIY.
Oh, for sure. For a time I sold off all my equipment because I wanted to have my options limited. If I had a keyboard line, I was going to go to one thing rather than having a bunch of shit where you don’t even know where to start. It just made things simpler for me. Whereas if you limit yourself and keep it simple, you get things done quicker.

You churn out so much stuff. You’re putting out tons of music and music videos all while also being active on social media. How do you keep up with all that?
A couple years ago, I got tired of people not knowing that I did this. So I just made it a point to, if I’m going to start an idea, today is going to be about this one idea. Whatever thing I woke up with in my head, by the end of the night that was going to be on Instagram or on YouTube or it was going to be done. It would be written, recorded, everything was gonna be produced and out there. That was my philosophy. I just wanted to get it out there. It wasn’t gonna be perfect. It was just gonna be done. I like the simplicity of: I did all this and now people are reacting to it. That was kind of cool to me. Somebody liked it and that meant the world.

I’m a person that struggles with perfectionism so I understand the feeling of never getting anything done. Having that mentality sounds liberating. If it’s crap, whatever, I have tomorrow.
Yeah and just doing a new idea the next day and then I would get feedback and that would help. I would go through and make mistakes. I think that’s just part of the process. Not to sound selfish, but if I was satisfied, at least I could say that. I was proud of it and I finished it and it was done. That was the main thing. I worked on that for years. I think progress is the important thing. If you’re stuck on an idea, you’re not progressing. I know because I’ve done that. I’ve spent years where I’ve had this song that I was working on and it’s just, you’re not progressing if you’re still thinking about that idea you had three years ago. It’s like you’re not actually moving. The motion is the important part.

Did living in New Orleans influence your music or political take?
Living in New Orleans influences me as a person growing up here and living here. It can’t help but influence the things you see every day and especially the music. Even subconsciously, if it influences the way that I talk then I’m sure it influences the way that I sing. Me being a jazz musician for so many years certainly influences how I see music. Being a piano player. I think it’s all connected.

Were you classically trained or studied in college?
I did. Studied music and even won an award for classical piano. But like I said, classical piano was my first love for music. I’m a theory nerd and like to know how things work in music. I obsess over that. I would read books on orchestration and counter-point and all this stuff. At a certain point you’re like, “I don’t need to know all this shit.” Especially thinking about how classical composers made popular music in their time and now popular music is this. Music has progressed for hundreds of years and that’s where we’re at now. I like to take stuff from classical music. I’ll think of a classical melody and I’ll put anti-capitalist words to it or talk about war crimes. So you have this cheesy, classical melody but it has devastating themes. It’s an interesting juxtaposition I like to explore.

Have you ever played live as Rathbone?
I have, yeah. I don’t play many shows but I used to play with a friend of mine. We would go and play at The Starlight. We had a residency there every week and it’s like a three-hour gig so you’re playing a lot of covers. I’m throwing in songs that I wrote as well. I did go to L.A. last year and play a show. I put together basically all the songs that I had worked on and then made a live set for them. And actually, I’m starting to get back to that as well now.

Why is it you don’t perform live that often?
I’ve played out a lot and I know what that’s like. Going around, playing venues, it doesn’t really entice me. I’d rather write and record in my studio and share those songs. I feel like there’s more of a thing happening online. You can stream now. I’ve done that as well and I find that more appealing because I know that maybe 30 people will show up on the stream, but all those people know my songs and I know they care. They care about what I’m doing. I’d rather play to those 30 people that are just random strangers spread across wherever than go to a bar here in New Orleans where nobody knows my music. That’s not as interesting to me.

I noticed you tend to reuse parts of your work, not necessarily recycling content, but reworking it. Like the many different Elon Musk songs. Can you tell me a little bit about why you do that?
That’s true. I don’t like that guy. I did recycle some lines I guess because I dressed up the song differently or I did it some different way… I mean, you know, because there are no rules. Who am I competing with? If I want to recycle stuff that I’ve already done and change it, then who the hell cares?

I noticed some songs that you put out as singles you would change for the full release.
Yeah, yeah. We haven’t talked about Buddyhead, but Buddyhead is the leftist meme lord that shared a song I wrote with him one day, that I made a video for, and he really loved it. Then he asked me to join his independent label. He’s based out of L.A., so technically I’m on his label. Buddyhead Records is what it’s called. He wanted to do official single releases where it’s more of a social media thing. He has a big following and, of course, he’s getting banned and blocked. He’s got to do the same song and dance. But he liked the music, shared it with his audience, and offered to post the singles and put them out on all the streaming platforms. When he wanted to do official releases, I was like, “OK, I really need to step up.”

What do you mean?
When I would do it for Instagram, I’d treat Instagram like the bathroom wall. Throw things up there. Who cares? People are going to forget about it in a day. And so now that it’s something I had stuck, I was like, “Oh, maybe I should remix or make it better.” So for some of the songs I did that. Sometimes I would mess it up completely and just go back to the original because I was meddling too much. He had to remind me to just let that be a snapshot of where I was. There’s no reason to go back over it, just let it go. It was fine how it was. So I would do that but then we released a full-length record, Living in America, and that was an official release on his label. The other records I released on my own because I have a DistroKid subscription, so I can just do it.

What sparked the sudden releases? You’ve been putting out a lot of stuff since fall of last year.
Four records within like six months. Living in America was technically the first one but we just waited to release it. All the singles were already released and then he was like, “Let’s make a cover and then just release it as a record.” It took a while to just do that. In the meantime, I was working on other songs, so I decided to put out other stuff.

You said you were exposed to leftist ideas via YouTube and reading. What specifically was the first few things you got into?
Noam Chomsky. I was literally just shoplifting Chomsky and making melodies. There’s one video in particular where he breaks down all the crimes of the presidents. The guy just says, “Okay, Nixon. Okay, Lyndon,” and he goes through all their crimes. I was like, “I’m gonna throw that in a song.” So that was one completely shoplifted idea. I was living in L.A. for some time during the pandemic and I wanted to get some books that Chomsky wrote. I couldn’t find the one that I liked, but the bookstore had one, On Anarchism. It wasn’t like that was interesting to me. I was just like, “Oh, I’ll get it and just see.” I read that book and I was like, “Alright, I’m an anarchist for sure. I’m definitely an anarchist.”

What was it that spoke to you specifically? What made you feel like you were an anarchist?
The way that he defined it really spoke to me, which was that it was a principle of dismantling illegitimate authority. We all kind of live by that principle already. It’s almost like everybody’s an anarchist, whether you know it or not.

Can you explain that a little bit more?
I think it’s just that in every situation, power must be justified by those who use it. Power is not self-justifying. So Chomsky gives this example where he was walking across the street with his granddaughter and his granddaughter ran out in the road and there was a car coming. He grabbed her arm and pulled her back; that’s an exercise of authority. In that case, it would be justified. And so there are instances where you can use legitimate authority and power. It’s also a heavy burden of proof to bear. It’s not on the people that the powers are being wielded against. It’s not their job to legitimize it. It’s your job. When you think about that in terms of like governments and states and how they abuse authority or they use violence to justify, you begin to see that none of it is actually justified. I define the word principally. I actually get into a lot of fights with anarchists because everybody seems to have their own idea about what is anarchism. That was something new that I discovered when I started to share my ideas. There’s a lot of things I don’t agree with. It just depends on who I’m talking to, I guess… I don’t think that the state can be overthrown overnight. I recognize that we live in a world of states—well anyway, this is a whole political discussion we could get into, but there’s a whole beef between anarchists and Marxist-Leninists. To me, I see it as they’re still part of the left. Why are we arguing?

It seems like you’re not trying to make people believe what you believe as much as you’re expressing your ideas while encouraging solidarity.
That’s why I could name every song or every album that I’ve put together as class war. Everything is class war to me. We are united by our material conditions. We’re all in the working class. There’s a very marginal fraction of the population that wields all the resources, has all the political power, has all the wealth of the nation. It’s those people that we need to rest that control from. They use culture war tactics against us to break us up, talking about pronouns and this stuff. It’s a way of keeping working class people fractured and fragmented so that they don’t organize. The ruling class has a lot of class consciousness. They know exactly what they’re doing, and they’re disseminating a message that furthers culture war. They’re not gonna talk about the class war. I want to talk about the class war and if my music does anything, I would want it to instill more class consciousness in the working class… The acquisition of commodities and self-enrichment—that’s what we’re taught. That’s the goal. You want to have a four-car garage and a million-dollar home with a pool and nice cars just for yourself. Everybody thinks just for themselves. I think we’re headed for disaster. That’s something that Chomsky spelled out for me. And people hate or love Chomsky—I can understand everybody has their own opinions—but for me, his rhetoric spoke to me and it was concise, clear, and understandable. It inspired me to want to take that message and put it to all the things that I know about music, all the experiences I’ve had with music. The message is pretty dire. We’re living in a world of finite resources. We have a system that is based on infinite growth. Those two things are contradictions. The system that capitalism thrives on is a contradiction in and of itself and we’re seeing it with real-world effects of climate change. We gotta wake people up about it.

You know, I spoke to a band recently. They’re called The Holy Ghost Tabernacle Choir. They also have a very similar view to yours, I would say, but the lead vocalist is a non-binary person. So beyond just being heavier music, their lyrics address LGBTQ and other minority groups. I bring that up to ask aren’t culture war topics like pronouns worth talking about?
Certainly. Those are the victims of society. They’re victimized by ruling class ideology, so we need to fight for those people. Trans-rights are human rights. It’s still important. I’m just saying that whether you’re trans or cis-gendered, non-binary or binary, you still have the material conditions of a working-class person. And you can’t escape that. So it’s important to advocate. I’m white, male, and cisgender. I’m built to succeed in this world. I don’t have the experiences of a marginalized person in society. I want to advocate for those people. That’s all about why we need to keep punching up.

Rathbone will perform on September 22 at the Marigny Opera House. For more info, check out: @rathbone_ (Instagram and YouTube), @rathbonemakesmusic (TikTok), and rathbone.bandcamp.com.

photos by Dalton Spangler

Verified by MonsterInsights