Lewis Burner: "Even though information is readily available, what to trust becomes a huge issue"

We spoke to the bluegrass upstart about his heroes, nationalism, and the death of democracy.
Posted: 4 November 2020 Words: Jono Coote

“There are still people out there with hearts who care, 

trying to make the world more just, 

they say they’re worried about their future, 

because their leaders, they just don’t trust.”

In this line from ‘American Spirit’, the second track on Lewis Burner’s first solo record Dark Wheels Turn Above our Heads, encapsulates the dichotomy upon which the album is built; a despair at the manipulation of public opinion and world wide swing to the right which has taken place since the cruel and vicious birth of this new Millennium, alleviated by a genuine optimism and hope placed in the idea that we as a society can free ourselves from this mess. Built around guitar, banjo, and vocals, Dark Wheels.. is an album of Americana roots music which takes cue from not only instrumentation but also from the heartfelt belief in social justice and the essential goodness of man which runs in a rich seam through the work of Guthrie, Seeger et al. 

Chatting to Lewis via email, I mention this and he is quick to point out more recent influences, who were themselves influenced by those dustbowl troubadours in the eternally shifting meanders of popular music; 

People like Seeger, Guthrie and Dylan all have a place in my heart, especially the way they write about individuals to make a bigger point. I’m from a punk background and that’s probably more where I’m coming from in terms of the style. The Clash, although it might not be evident in the sound, definitely helped shape how I write. The song from the album which fits that description the best is probably ‘Commonwealth of Toil’, which is a song by Ralph Chaplin from around 1920 that I reworked. The message is as relevant as ever.” 

Lewis’ jangling guitar and brawling, The Pogues-esque approach to the track gives it a new immediacy; in times like these roots music takes on a new context, removed from the online sphere and redolent of a more personal, socially vibrant time; a music of live performances in bars and pubs, of buskers and travelling guitar players, of the sharing of songs and information on a level playing field. Dark Wheels.. harks back to these musical forms but with an undoubted injection of speed and energy from more recent stylistic implementations:

“I started playing more blues after the heavier stuff, trying to emulate John Lee Hooker and older stuff like Robert Johnson which then opened a whole door of acoustic music. This brought me full circle to music I was brought up on, the bluegrass and country side of things. Doc Watson, Johnny Cash, Leadbelly and Hank Williams were some of the biggest inspirations for me but I knew I couldn’t write like that - it just wouldn’t be real.” 

Talk turns lyrical content and subject matter; the album’s title track, and indeed most of its subject matter, examines systems of power at play in Western society, the insidious nature of control and ways in which we can subvert and move forward.

Manipulation, paranoia, the general sense that we aren’t being told even a fraction of the truth - democracy is pretty much dead. Nationalism is always exploited when times are hard and we’re seeing that all over the world. The shift to the right has been significant, then you throw in dark money, behaviour manipulation via social media, Cambridge Analytica, huge private interests and so on. Even though information is readily available, what to trust becomes a huge issue. I think they see us as essentially an experiment; how they monitor us feeds their next moves. Power is no stranger to studying human behaviours and using them to control.” 

I’ve been reading Woody Guthrie’s semi-autobiography over the past few weeks and one of my favourite passages reads:

“If you think of something new to say, if a cyclone comes, or a flood wrecks the country, or a bus load of school children freeze to death along the road, if a big ship goes down, and an airplane falls in your neighbourhood, an outlaw shoots it out with the deputies, or the working people go out to win a war, yes, you'll find a train load of things you can set down and make a song about." 

I wonder, does this have any truth left in a digital age and will a rise in populist, right wing politics result in a concurrent upsurge in protest music or just in memes and anti-vaccination protests? Perhaps a rise in adherence to conspiracy theories is a result of people no longer being able to rely on music to challenge the status quo and hence flailing for alternative opinions in the labyrinthine media landscape of the internet? 

“I honestly think that even the most fringe conspiracy theories do less damage than the mainstream, accepted narratives; we live in a democracy, capitalism is natural and your government cares about you. It’s simply not true. Power doesn’t operate that way, I think enough people know that and, like you say, many are drawn to conspiracy theories for answers. I think if there was a civilised culture based on openness, true democracy, collective people power, etc. there would be a less fertile ground for conspiracy theories. 

The other thing to note is that some conspiracies are true. White, powerful, insanely rich men DO meet behind closed doors to discuss plans to direct the world and organise society. The information is all there for people to discover for themselves. The huge red flag is that this information can be twisted to lead you down dead ends, either deliberately or because people have questionable intentions.” 

Through this cultural landscape Dark Wheels.rollicks along like a boxcar full of men fighting, drinking wine, and singing ‘Bound for Glory’. Despite its often dark subject matter, the joyous melodies of its title track, ‘We Build Big Brands’, ‘Love Across the Water’ and other songs of the good fight are shot through with a rolling, brawling optimism; music as a tool for change, a vibrant and powerful challenge to the powers that be.

“From lifting spirits at churches and picket lines, to raising funds for striking workers and refugees, music has always played a part. I think for musicians, it’s just a way to help causes we care about by doing what we do. It just makes sense, especially in a world designed to disempower people. It’s my view that music, and all art, is for everyone. So to be for everyone, you have to have no ‘us and them’ between the performer and audience. That’s what punk and hardcore got right, in a big way. And it spread because it’s an inherent truth - people just needed to be encouraged to form a band, express themselves, write a fanzine etc. If you are lucky enough to have music in your life, share it. You don’t need qualifications or any of that made up stuff.”

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