D//E Interviews: Friendship Commanders

Fresh from a very spirited two song release that was Stonechild/Your Reign Is Over, Nashville's Friendship Commanders discuss their creativity, their process, what inspires them and motivates them to do what they do. 

Buick Audra and Jerry Roe have been releasing music as Friendship Commanders since 2016, and 2020, although with smaller in scale releases, found them at a creative peak.

How important is activism to you as artists, and how do you approach your social and political affairs in relation to your art?

Buick Audra: I’ve been an activist for all of my adult life, so it’s very important to me. The activism doesn’t always make it into the music, but social and political commentary certainly does. No matter what, we have an ethos about who we are, what we make, and who we’re willing to work with (and who we’re not). That’s pretty consistent. And we’ve been a band that contributes portions of our sales to various social justice groups from the very beginning.

Only recently has true activism emerged in our work in an unmistakable way. And it happened organically with the song Stonechild. While we’ve definitely made protest work in the past, this song required us to get the family’s permission; it moved us to collaborate with Cassy Fowler, the Suquamish woman who speaks in Lushootseed on the track; and it has since generated conversations with members of the Suquamish Tribe. In that way, it feels purposeful and specific to the loss of this man’s life. We moved from talking-about to talking-with. That’s been a major shift, and one we’ll continue to learn from.

How did Friendship Commanders come to be, and what do you consider to be the band's mission?

BA: We started the band on a lark, really. I had some songs that seemed to want to sound a certain way, so we demoed them and casually decided to call it a band. We were both doing other things at the time, so it started out feeling like a side project. It took a couple of years for it to feel like a central project, but it’s been both of our main project for over five years now. In that time, we’ve evolved quite a bit, from the way we sound to what we make work about.

I think the band’s mission is to tell the truth, loudly. Whether that truth is personal to us, or about a larger story or issue, the goal is to amplify the truth, for sure (and we like big amps). We very much believe in putting light on things that sometimes live in the dark.

Are there any other specific real-life events that have moved you as much as the case of Stonechild Chiefstick, in a way that you felt compelled to write and compose music about them?

BA: Yes, but Stonechild was the first song for us that really stood as a protest to a very specific injustice. Something about the way he was killed really grabbed ahold of me and my mind couldn’t let it go.

Right now, I’m somewhat obsessively consuming work about the (innumerable) abuses of the Catholic Church; specifically the rampant sexual abuse and lack of sufficient response to the ongoing crisis. This is an issue I’ve been hung up on for years, but I feel like some work about it is likely forthcoming. I was raised in the Catholic Church, so I have some connection to the culture, and I lived in Boston when The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team broke the stories about the complicity of the archdiocese in allowing abuses to occur in Boston for decades at that point. I find it appalling that not much has changed in how the Church operates to this day, many years later, and I want to address it in the music. Why can we identify injustice but not do anything about it?

What do you consider to be the biggest injustices in the world today?

BA: Wow, there are too many to list—or even know about. The systems that maintain inequity, white supremacy, patriarchal paradigms, misogyny, and general fear of equality are alive and well—and constantly creating imbalance and injustice. I live in America, and this country—this continent of North America—seems to straight-up rest on injustice. Certainly, the way Indigenous peoples have been treated and continue to be treated is unacceptable. The most pervasive lie among white people on this continent is that the problem is over, solved long ago. But clearly, that’s false. We need only look at the ongoing crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women to understand that we have a long way to go, and the work needs to start immediately. And what’s more, the way this country has treated immigrants, especially during this last president’s term, has been horrifying. Many of those people are also Indigenous to this land. It’s a mess.

As written above, the abuse of power of institutions like the Catholic Church stuns me. I’m laser-focused on that right now.

The worst part of all of the above examples is that they’re normalized and accepted. We have normalized real-life horror. I’d like to be part of changing that, in whatever way is possible. Get angry! Get activated! Take reasonable but real actions where you can!

How do you feel about woke culture?

BA: I think it means different things to different people. The term “woke” really doesn’t belong to white people, so as with many things, it’s my opinion that the Black communities who use the term are saying something that white people likely miss. 

All of that said, I very much believe in accountability, personally and culturally. I think white people in America are late to many realizations about the imbalances that exist and how they (we) benefit from them. One of the major problems that I observe with many people feeling like they’re “woke” or aware, is that they seem to think the work ends with the awareness. I don’t think that’s correct. Knowing about genocide doesn’t mean you’ve done anything to stop it. Knowing about rampant abuse doesn’t save a life. We have to move beyond the endless scroll and engage—and when we do, we need to follow the leadership of People of Color.

How different is the latest EP, Hold on to Yourself, compared to the band's earlier releases?

BA: I’d say it’s very different. To us, we feel like we turned some sort of corner—both sonically and stylistically—and almost started anew with that body of work.

From a writing perspective, HOTY was about being an abuse survivor, specifically. And the record was dedicated to other people who have lived with abuse. It was a deeply personal record for me. All of the work we’d made before had been looking inward and outward, both. Hold On To Yourself was a real declaration of self. I also think it’s cleaner, perhaps simpler writing, which has a different impact.

From a musical perspective, I think it’s much heavier than the releases that preceded it. Much. And when we recorded it, we went for all kinds of big guitar layers, and even some vocal layers. We wanted a big, full sound. The record we’d made before it was BILL with Steve Albini which was much more raw, and very live. We went the opposite direction with HOTY, all around, and then had Kurt Ballou mix it, which really brought out some different energies and elements. He did such cool things to the vocals, in particular; it really changed our whole sound.

Two of the band's recent videos, Stonechild and The Enemy I Know, were directed by Jerry. How do you approach creating on the visual front?

Jerry Roe: I really just trusted my gut with both videos! The Enemy I Know was a learning experience as I initially had very grand aspirations for things that would have been way too costly and ambitious to shoot, and would have taken too much attention away from the music. So, I thought about what Buick was singing about, and since our lives are so closely intertwined it turned out that I had a lot of deep feelings on the subject matter! I just channeled that into it however I could, and then I looked to inspiration from the more stripped-down, single location videos of the '90s. Those say and do a lot with very little simply by changing what's in the frame as much as possible and using color and film damage effects to add energy. We decided to have it cut back and forth between us playing and a couple of actors all in the same location. Everything else came together from there and in the edit. 

Stonechild was a much more delicate thing to handle as there definitely is a contained, singular chain of events that happened in a small amount of time, so there had to be a beginning and ending to the non-performance part of the video. Again, I followed my gut. I think your natural gut instincts will tell you a lot and give you a clear narrative even if you don't understand it at first, and that's definitely what happened. I saw the visuals and had the idea of a person in a sort of "transitional" space between life and death, walking around holding something in his hand. Without ever really verbalizing it to myself or anyone else, it became clear that what he was holding was supposed to be his own mortality, and that the video would need to end with him leaving it behind. I also wanted it to be in a natural location with at least some water around (we ended up filming by a creek), to tie it in with the lyrics as much as possible. I definitely didn't want it to be obviously Stonechild, or even really look and feel like where it happened or anything resembling the events so as to not re-injure anyone connected to the story. In the edit, we used color treatment to better differentiate the "transitional" world of the Stonechild stand-in from the live performance shots. If you look at it, the outside footage is very purpley/blue, and the stuff shot at Exit/In is very red. Hopefully, it worked!

How has it been, working with such acclaimed producers, like Steve Albini and Kurt Ballou, compared to self-production?

BA: We actually co-produced the record we made with Albini, as Steve primarily identifies as a recording engineer. We loved working with him at Electrical Audio. Our songs didn’t change once they were brought to the studio with Steve; he really captured exactly what we sounded like then, from our rigs to our energy. He did contribute creatively, but the biggest thing about working with Steve was having an expert run the session and the equipment so we could just perform. We’d never had an outside person contribute to our tracking process before that, so it was huge. And, of course, his sounds are so great. Loved everything about it. Also, he’s very organized and aware of the schedule. He kept the session moving in ways that we would have let lapse if we were on our own.

And we haven’t yet worked with Ballou as producer; he mixed our last two releases, Hold On To Yourself and Stonechild / Your Reign Is Over. We recorded and produced them ourselves in Nashville and sent him the sessions which he then mixed in Salem, Massachusetts. Truth be told: we’ve never met him in person! But, we have loved working with him. We’d like to record with him at some point. His mixes have been truly pivotal for us this year, for sure; they’re a huge part of the sound we’re working with now. Both he and Steve are so easy to work with, so professional, so ready to serve the music, the process. We feel grateful to have had such awesome folx to work with.

What is the songwriting process usually like?

BA: I’m the primary songwriter but Jerry and I have collaborated on the writing of a few songs in the band’s catalog over the years. He definitely arranges and shapes the sound of them with me. But, often, the writing is just me listening to the music in my head and trying to learn it with my body.

I write music and lyrics together in one shot, often in one sitting. Sometimes I hear the music in my head for weeks—or even months—in advance. Stonechild and a song of ours called Women to the Front are both examples of that. I tend to write from a place of fevered discomfort, like whatever the message is can’t live inside my body anymore. I try to not judge whatever comes through, knowing that I can always edit and shape the work later. If I judge it early on, it can shut the music down.

Once I have the basic song together, I take it to Jerry and we build the sound of it together.

What comes next for Friendship Commanders?

BA: We used to be able to answer this question with more certainty than we can today! We’re definitely going to keep writing, releasing, and recording music over this next year. Not sure if we’ll be able to play any shows with people in attendance, but we hope so! We’ve enjoyed releasing the smaller bodies of work this year and might continue on like that for a bit, instead of tackling a full-length album. Seems like peoples’ attention spans are short (and ours are, too), so smaller groups of songs might be the way to go for the next little while.

Band photo by Jamie Goodsell

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