The Atlanta-based rocker considers his cultural inheritance on "Dereconstructed."
Lynyrd Skynyrd sang “Sweet Home Alabama,” but other Alabaman bands have more ambiguous relationships with their home state. The Drive-By Truckers made that inheritance—Skynyrd included—the heart of their two-CD Southern Rock Opera, and Lee Bains III and The Glory Fires’ new Dereconstructed addresses his own mixed emotions. Some critics have referred to his music as southern rock, but he’s not so sure.
“Southern rock has been ensconced in the language of genre,” Bains says, parsing out his words carefully as he works his way deliberately through the thought. “It’s seen as a style, and I don’t relate to that notion. At the same time, the idea of southern-ness is central to this record and my writing in general. And we play rock ’n’ roll music, but I don’t identify with southern rock as a style.”
Bains will play One Eyed Jacks Sunday with Diarrhea Planet, and Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers were part of his musical upbringing in Birmingham when he was 12 or 13 and his brother played them, along with Sly and the Family Stone and many of the late ‘60s/early ’70s classics. But by the time Bains was 16, his favorite albums were No Division by Florida punk band Hot Water Music, Definitely Maybe by Oasis, and the first two albums by The Old 97s, which his brother had on one cassette. “I was 17 when Against Me’s first album came out,” Bains says. “I listened to that all the time.”
Today, Bains lives in Atlanta, and he has spent the last few years working through his relationship to the music he grew up with. “I went through that period in my teenage years where I was trying on different styles,” he says. “Oh, this is cool. This is relevant. I listened to only hardcore for nine months.” Recently, he has sorted through those phases to see what resonates and should be held on to, and what to let go. “That thought process has been important in shaping my aesthetic vision, particularly with the songs I was writing for this album. I was very concerned with the notion of identity and culture and the way in which I as a western, post-industrial, privileged person went through that period of considering my identity in terms of commodity. The clothes that I buy. The scene that I associate with. As I got older, I saw an emptiness in that process of self-identification.”
You can hear the host of influences on Dereconstructed, where Bains and The Glory Fires’ songs frequently have durable, Faces/Rolling Stones/blues rock hooks embedded in their code, but the guitars rage and snarl with serrating menace. The songs are propulsive with a punk’s before-the-beat charge, but Biblical language and a working class sensibility shows up in a number of songs including the album opener, “The Company Man,” when he sings:
Hear the poets and professors
Postulate how we all got so robbed.<
All it takes is one wicked heart, a pile of money,
And a chain of folks just doing their jobs.
“Don’t ever bite the fingers that feed you,”
Said Pilate, as he washed the invisible hand.
So, be good, take care, and Godspeed you,
And, lest you forget it,
Don’t ever trust the Company Man.
His South is a contemporary, physical place as well; “The Weeds Downtown” examines urban decay in Birmingham, but not in an elegiac or defeated way.
Consider the weeds downtown, and how they grow:
How the Queen Anne’s Lace covers hot parking lots like snow.
Paris and New York don’t have honeysuckle vines like the ones on 32nd Street.
I know that Birmingham gets you down, but look what it raised you up to be.
Punk is the more accurate reference point for Bains, but in a specific sense. “Punk for me in an ideal,” he says. “I don’t relate to the style of punk rock, but the ethos behind it has changed my life and the way I understand the world.” The time Bains spent playing in a hardcore band and seeing punk shows politicized him at the personal level. He began reading political theory and embraced the need to understand personal contexts and how they shape a person. In his case, that meant thinking about growing up southern and white. “If I were to make music that was vital and challenging and subversive in some way, then I needed to confront my own personal history and context,” he says. “That turned me back around to considering the music that resonated with me growing up, and turned me around to reconciling myself with the place and culture that created me. That I took on or reacted to.”
Dereconstruction isn’t an apology, nor is it a form of self-flagellation, and there’s none of that in the rampaging sound of the band. The title track outlines the myths sold to southerners—“meth labs and mobile homes” or “moonlight and magnolias”—as a way of examining the choices Bains grew up with. To write these songs, Bains had to not only think honestly about his place in his world but how to address it. He has made a deliberate effort to speak only from his own perspective, which means he doesn’t dramatize others’ stories the way many songwriters will. “Trying to speak for other people or assume is another perspective is a dangerous venture, one that will probably result in my misrepresenting a community of which I’m not a part,” Bains says.
While the album is personal first, it has a larger, social goal as well as Bains hopes to broaden notions of southern-ness. “A lot of southern art is made denying the urban experience, denying global contexts, denying the Internet and recent immigrant populations,” he says. “We all have access to the Internet. You can live in a rural community and have access to every bit of ephemera that I have in Atlanta.” He points to communities that were once isolated, rural communities that urban sprawl have made into Atlantan suburbs. “The child of Somalian refugees living in that town is no less southern than the eighth generation north Georgian guy who grew up there.”