Interview: The Dreadnoughts, “Foreign Skies”

The Dreadnoughts - Foreign Skies

As regular readers of GDW know, we’re big fans of folk music and write about it frequently.  What you may not know is that L is a history geek from way back… so when an album comes out that is not only terrific folk/punk, but is a concept album about the centenary of World War I, this is a match made in heaven.  The Dreadnoughts have delivered just such a project with “Foreign Skies,” their first album in six years.

Even if I wasn’t already sold on the concept, the delivery knocks this project out of the park.  The band plays with a fiery intensity befitting the gravity of their topic, and their lyrics are hauntingly written and beautifully delivered.  They wrestle with hard questions that we are still asking (and not answering) after a hundred years – is there such a thing as a just war?  How are soldiers to deal with the horrors that they experience?  How does the home front change during the course of a conflict like WWI (or WWII, for that matter)?

The album begins with the mournful “Up High” (listed as a “war chant”), which sets the tone for the project: “We will honour our dead / We remember.”  And this is precisely what the band does, rolling into the hard-driving title track, which captures the (misplaced, as it turned out) optimism of the soldiers who set out to fight in the early fall of 1914, believing they would be home by Christmas.  “Daughters of the Sun” honors the women who were left behind, not merely to sit and wait, but to take up the challenge of carrying the home front on their backs (working in factories and on farms, doing what had previously been considered men’s work).

Given that one of their previous albums is titled “Polka’s Not Dead,” it’s absolutely no surprise that a polka tune appears on the album in the form of “The Amiens Polka,” commemorating those German soldiers who stopped in their exhaustion in cities such as Amiens rather than pushing on to take Paris.  It’s so hard to pick just a few highlights from the album, but I would have to include “Bay of Suvla,” memorializing the men who traveled to what would be a bitter end at Gallipoli in 1915, and “Gavrilo,” about a young assassin who shouldn’t have even succeeded in killing Franz Ferdinand (but did, of course, triggering the chain of events that led to war’s outbreak).

I’m still a month off from compiling my year-end lists, but I strongly suspect this album will appear on them.  A concept album can so easily come off as heavy-handed, unfocused, or boring – “Foreign Skies” is certainly none of those things, and it excels not only at being plain enjoyable to listen to, but also as a catalyst for thinking about the deeper questions the history of World War I raised.  Highly, highly recommended.

We are delighted that The Dreadnoughts took the time to answer some questions about their new album.

This is your first album in several years, and the first comprised totally of original songs… what prompted you to choose the topic of World War I as the central theme of the project?

Honestly, it was just a fascinating and gut-wrenching time in history, full of the most amazing stories.  We thought it would be nice to try to capture some of the themes in song.  We had already written several songs along these lines (“Elizabeth”, “Samovar” and “Avalon”) and decided to push for something more ambitious.

How challenging was it to formulate an entire album around one such theme (which admittedly is a huge topic) and keep the project focused?

It was really, really, really hard. For example, we started developing this great song about Bristol and how much we love drinking real English west country cider, and quickly realized that it couldn’t possibly go on the album.  But, undaunted, we decided to integrate those themes with the war.  The result is “Back Home in Bristol,” a song about a soldier about to be executed for cowardice, thinking of his home in the west country and wishing he was there just once more.

WWI was a huge watershed moment in history, where the changes to modern warfare and the totality of the conflict (not to mention the tremendous casualty rate) heralded a ‘loss of innocence’ for the generation that fought. This comes out, I think, in “Foreign Skies” – “all our lives / have been a cruel secret / all our lives / a tender age in bloom.”  Are there lessons we can learn from that today, do you think?

I think that in general we need to stop lurching from daily crisis to daily crisis, zoom out, and look at the big historical picture occasionally.  I don’t have any specific lessons that I’d want to preach to people, but rather I’d just encourage everyone who is really concerned with politics, culture, etc., to read history and to try to understand where this huge big mess of a world came from.

Here in the US, we observe Veterans’ Day, but overall WWI is not part of the collective consciousness as it is in Canada, the UK, and other countries who were more directly involved. How do you see that memory being carried on in current and future generations, beyond the external wearing of poppies and Remembrance Day services?  What part can your album play in keeping that memory alive?

I’m actually a little conflicted about Remembrance Day and the whole poppy thing.  I wear the poppy to commemorate the suffering experienced by everyone in the world wars, but a lot of people in our country proudly wear the poppy as a pro-soldier, pro-military, or nationalist symbol.

So, in writing “Foreign Skies” we decided to stay entirely away from any obvious political messages.  Rather, we just tried to portray various perspectives.  The invading German soldier, the suffragette, the assassin who started the whole war, the war widow trying to pick up the pieces and move on… each of these people are represented in the album and each contributes to a portrayal of the whole, insane mess.  People are free to draw their own conclusions about it all.  Art is better when it doesn’t hit you over the head with a political message.

As you highlight so brilliantly in “Daughters of the Sun,” the departure of so many men to the front meant that women had to take up roles in society they’d never before been asked to perform – actually, after both world wars. While they were asked to give up those roles after the men returned from both wars, women’s perceptions of their capabilities changed forever.  And yet… we’re still asking some of the same questions about women’s role in society that were asked a hundred years ago.  In your own profession of music, there’s an ongoing conversation about equity and parity of access and opportunity.  How do we get to a point where the conversation is no longer needed?

This might be the best interview question we’ve ever received.  Anyway, there’s a lot to say, here.  The main lesson of women’s participation in the war is simple: when you give human beings a chance to participate as equals, when they are allowed to see options and opportunities, they will never want to go back.  There’s a great line in a suffragette diary I read, it went something like: “For the first time, my life was an open road, and I could never go back.”  The wartime experience should teach us all that human beings can only be oppressed when they are systematically denied the chance to see possibilities and opportunities for themselves.

So in music we need to get to a place where little girls and little boys will equally be able to imagine themselves as rock stars or singers or players or whatever. There was some real progress on this back in the 90s: alternative rock was cranking out tons of female-lead bands (the Breeders, the Pixies, Hole, Julianna Hatfield) hip hop pioneers Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill and Ladybug Viecca were smashing through barriers, and in our own genre the Riot Grrl movement was blowing up.  What happened?  Well, corporate culture re-asserted control over the music industry, and corporations can always, always make more money by selling female sexuality than by selling female talent. Pretty soon all you could see was Brittney Spears, Christina Aguilera and the Pussycat Dolls.  Now even so-called “punk” record labels hyper-sexualize their female performers (every punk fan knows who I’m talking about).

What can we do?  For a start: get the fuck away from corporate music.  Even if it is selling you a so-called “feminist” artist, get away.  Those people are not your friends, and even if you’re supporting an apparently progressive artist, you’re lining the pockets of dozens of rich assholes who don’t give a shit about equality.  Find local bands and artists, find independent record labels, re-build your musical experience from the ground up.  It’s easy to do these days.  Do it.

In your blog post about the new album, you highlight four excellent books you read in preparing for the album. Are there others you would recommend to those who might be prompted to learn more about World War I?

If you’re looking for a nice, easy, accessible avenue into WWI, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast has a great series (“Countdown to Armageddon”).  As for books, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is also great, Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel is a first-person soldier’s autobiography, and Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants is realistic historical fiction about the war.

(Ed. note: The Great War and Modern Memory (Paul Fussell), which is mentioned in the band’s blog post, is a tremendous read as well.)

Do you have touring plans for the new album?

We’re heading to Europe in July 2018 to bash out 6-7 shows in Germany, the UK and the Czech Republic… it’s not set in stone yet but hopefully we will get yet another chance to get drunk and make asses of ourselves… under Foreign Skies, ha ha.

~ L

Visit The Dreadnoughts’ website.

Buy “Foreign Skies” on Bandcamp.

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