Interview with Joshua Ellis about Red State Soundsystem

From the Gonzo Squad days:

That’s the song Scarecrow, my fave track off the debut album by Red State Soundsystem, Ghosts In A Burning City.

In continuing our investigation of being an artist in the future-present, I organised an interview with the man behind the moniker, Dr Joshua Ellis.

I’ve been listening to some of these songs for many years now, as you’ve uploaded works in progress to your personal blog.  In fact, I’m not sure when you first adopted the moniker Red State Soundsystem.  Let’s start with talking about why you chose that name:

Originally I was just doing stuff under my own name. But I wanted an identity that could be me, other people — pretentiously, a collective.

At the time, Cansei de Ser Sexy was just coming up, and I liked their acronym (CSS). I wanted something that was also a Web acronym, so I thought about it – HTML, PHP, RSS… hmm. And then it just hit me — Red State Soundsystem.

I also like it because I dig the idea of African/Jamaican soundsystems, those big mobile DJ rigs on flatbed pickup trucks. I liked the idea of a middle American version of that. Of course, to everyone outside of America, “red state” sounds Communist, and that’s cool too.

I guess, ultimately, I just liked it once I’d come up with it.

So you don’t know this, but several years ago you provided the soundtrack to a weekend my then-girlfriend (now wife!) spent in a country bed’n’breakfast.  Your music was the only thing on my iPod she liked.  Have you had any other stories like this?  Does it seem strange that even though you’re only just now releasing the album, some of us have had a long relationship with your songs?

It does seem strange, mainly because my goofy model of releasing music couldn’t have really existed before, say, 1998. I’ve kind of treated this music like software – dropping unfinished “alpha” versions here and there, refining it, and finally putting out definitive versions. I don’t plan on doing 2.0 versions, though. This is the final product.

I mean, hell, it seems odd to me that people have relationships with this music. I’m the sort of person that assumes that nobody’s really paying attention to what I do. Which is what’s cool about releasing this album – the response has been really great from long-standing fans and new fans alike.

I note with much interest that you’re selling digital copies directly over PayPal, and via iTunes and Amazon. Do you think CDs are now a ‘fetish item’?

I think CDs are the last vestige of 20th century ideas about media. They’ll never be fetish items the way vinyl records are, but there are still going to be people a decade from now grousing because they can’t buy new records on CD. But fuck those people, right?

In previous incarnations, such as writing for Mondo 2000, you were part of the team behind Mperia, an online music service that was pro-artist, but ultimately before it’s time.  Watching the rise of iTunes, which disproved all the naysayers that said no one would ever pay for music online, must be a bit rough.

Your interview on the RU Sirius show is something I’ve made several aspirant musicians listen to.  What’s it like reflecting upon that period now?  What lessons have you learnt that you can apply today?

You know, the day after Bitpass’s CEO called me and told me Bitpass and Mperia were shutting down, I went down to the store late at night to buy cigarettes and Diet Coke and the new issue of WIRED was on the stands, with Beck on the cover: THE FUTURE OF DIGITAL MUSIC. I wanted to knock the newsstand over and storm out of the place and turn my life to Jesus.  But I didn’t; I bought the magazine, cut the cover off, and wrote on it with a Sharpie: DO BETTER NEXT TIME.

Mperia was a great idea that was two or three years ahead of its time. And yeah, it kind of sucks to see people getting rich parroting stuff I said at the beginning of the decade, and I was bitter for a long time. But I learned a hell of a lot about business over there. First and foremost: never, ever, ever put anything creative or exciting or dangerous in the hands of accountants and middle managers. They will find a way to fuck it up and file the edges down to nothing.


Micropatronage is something you’ve explored before with your writing.  Have you considered trying something similar with your music, a themed EP perhaps?  What do you think this might look like?

Funny you mention that — the other day I was kicking around the idea of using Kickstarter to fund a trip to Africa to record with local musicians. I’d love to do that. Aside from weird stuff like that, though… I don’t really need patronage to record/release music. I own my own gear, so it doesn’t cost me anything anymore. New gear would be nice, though.

While we’re throwing out naughties-era ‘net buzzwords..  CROWDSOURCING!  You’ve been looking for people to help film a clip for “Scatterlings + Refugees”.  Tell our glorious readers here how they can get involved..  Wait, here’s the link to your post on the subject.. anything more you want to add?

Yes! I’d very much like to do this, and I’d like to do it on the first of February. So wherever you are in the world on February 1st, go outside and film yourself lip-syncing to my song and send me the video and I’ll edit it into the official video for the track.

Let’s talk online presence..  Does MySpace still matter?  What about 8Track?  Or is it just about Facebook?  (People, join the Fan Group here).  Can the kids follow the band on Twitter?  And will you be releasing any remixes of your songs as ring tones?

I don’t think MySpace matters much anymore…except to musicians. If MySpace just admitted it — said ‘Hey, Facebook’s won, let’s focus on MySpace Music and get rid of everything else’ — they might do well. But they won’t.

Social networks matter, but only by default; you have to be on Facebook and MySpace, but I’m not entirely convinced that simply maintaining a presence there is enough. Twitter, absolutely. Twitter is great for keeping yourself out in the world, and I mean that both in the cynical marketing sense and also to keep you connected with the people who are, at least in theory, your audience.

And yeah, I’m probably going to be releasing ringtones, but not remixes — original ringtones. I have a weird fascination with microcompositions, like Eno doing the Windows theme.

You call Vegas home.  How has living in one of the stranger cities on Earth informed your song writing?

Oh, God. Yeah, Vegas has been home for a while, even though I’m not from here – I grew up primarily in north Texas, and I’ve lived all over America and even in Turkey for a year when I was a kid. It’s funny, because a few of the reviews I’ve gotten so far on the album think that the “burning city” in the title refers to Vegas, which it doesn’t. (It’s a line from a Stephen Vincent Benet poem.) The “burning city” is, I think, the globalist world – the endless cityscape of the 21st century.

Vegas is a bizarre place to live if you’re not involved with the casinos, which I’m not at all. It’s like Flint, Michigan without all the bohemian charm. 🙂  I guess it informs my songwriting because there’s so much weird fucking human drama playing out here all the time, on every street corner.

If I’ve been stalking you right, you’ve got something similar to the Gorillaz in the works.  What’s the deal there?

Well, a while back I was playing around with the idea of having Red State Soundsystem be a virtual band like the Gorillaz – never showing my real face, doing narrative animated videos, etc. But I kind of gave that up. Damon Albarn has Jamie Hewlett. I don’t.

You’ve publicly criticized Cory Doctorow’s pushing of Creative Commons, but do you think Bono’s stance of late has been even more annoying/stupefying?

Well, first let me say that I’m massively in favor of the Creative Commons. I’ve released work through the CC licenses and I was actually there for their launch party in SF. I think that Creative Commons licensing is a great choice. But there’s the key word: choice.

What bothers me about Cory’s stance — and the stance of “copyfighters” in general — is that they talk an awful lot about the rights of consumers, and very little about the rights of artists.

Look: it took me around three years to record this album, not counting the almost twenty years before that of learning to play and writing songs and all that. I think that if people enjoy my work, it’s absolutely fair for me to ask them to pay me ten measly bucks for it. I’m not gouging anybody. Nor am I going around suing anybody for “stealing” my music. But I’d very much like you to pay for it if you enjoy it.

I’ve never understood why copyfighters don’t follow the example of the Free Software movement. Open source geeks refuse to use software that has licenses they don’t agree with. And most open source geeks don’t go around trumpeting that you should steal commercial software, right?

So why don’t copyfighters stop bitching at record labels and bands and just listen exclusively to the wide range of Creative Commons-licensed or copyright-free music out there? It’s free, easy to find, and unlike open software, you don’t usually have to hunt down dependent software packages to rock out with it.

Now, Bono: I happen to really like Bono. I think he’s a remarkable and very clever man who has done a great deal of good in the world – not just through his activism, but by simply making music that makes a whole lot of people very happy. People fall in love to U2 songs, and listen to them to deal with the pain of falling out of love; they play U2 songs at their funerals; they crank The Joshua Tree at full volume when they’re driving and it makes them feel alive.

Bono (and his band-mates) did that. Their job is to make music. And I think they’ve gotten deservedly rich doing that job, whether you like them or not. I don’t begrudge Bono one cent of his fortune, and I don’t think he has any moral obligation to not want to make any more money from his work…  any more than, say, Adobe ought to give Photoshop away for free now because they’ve already gotten rich selling it. I wish we lived in a world where that made sense, but I don’t.

So I think the argument that Bono’s a jerk-off because rich rock stars shouldn’t care about copyrights is ludicrous.

Having said that: I think his solutions to these issues are also ludicrous. He’s a smart, informed guy, but he’s wrong here. I’d love to sit and drink a Guinness with the man and talk to him about it sometime, because at this point I think I’m as much of an expert on these matters as anybody else in the world. Bono, call me!

Now, I’m just going to throw these out there..

Who points closer to the future – Amanda Palmer or Lady Gaga?

God, I hope it’s Amanda Palmer. Lady Gaga is a famous person who also happens to make completely unremarkable house music. She’s not bad musically, but she’s not interesting, and I’m really bored with people who exist just to be famous and be icons and fabulous and all that Andy Warhol bullshit.

Amanda, on the other hand, is an incredibly gifted musician and songwriter who is building a model for DIY musicians simply by doing her thing and existing, and I love her for that. (I’m also a fan of her music.) So I hope more people follow her lead.

Do you think we will ever, or indeed should, get off-world?

Yes, but not until we figure out how to offload a human mind into an artificial storage/consciousness unit. The math is all wrong for any other kind of space travel, except to maybe Mars and the Moon. (Did you know I went to Space Camp? I totally did. And I’m obsessed with transhumanism and posthumanism and all that Eric Drexler / Ray Kurzweil stuff.)

In conclusion, paint me a picture of the most perfect gig you could ever possibly play:

Opening for Radiohead, at any time, anywhere.


Red State Soundsystem’s debut album Ghost In A Burning City out now.

Buy it direct from the artist, or via iTunes or Amazon.

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