British artist L.A. Salami is a guitar-slinging troubadour, a man for whom words are the primary currency of his trade. The words spill out of him, a cascade of words that spin and tumble from his lips, vivid, piercing and acerbic. When he straps on the guitar, he uses it as a vehicle to help him convey to the listener the words that pour out of him. The words embrace the personal, the political and the profane, another day at the office for Salami, who finds himself surrounded by a world that provides endless material for his observational wit and wisdom.
On “Generation L(ost)”, a song from his 2018 album, The City of Bootmakers, you can imagine Salami performing it in a tube station, with overflowing crowds, and overflowing coins, spilling out of the guitar case in front of him, the commuters singing and clapping along with every strum. He’s wry: “I’m ageless/But I’m out of time/I’m thoughtless/But I’ve got a lot on my mind,” and the contradictions are suffused with irony; he is an observer of the human condition, who consistently reminds us that he is utterly human, and yet he remains befuddled by that human condition, in all its vainglorious splendor.
Or consider “Terrorism! (The Isis Crisis),” also from Bootmakers. The song was a response to a terrorist attack outside the Palace of Westminster in 2017, in which a man plowed his car into pedestrians and then stabbed a police officer to death. The facts of that story are important but the context is important, too. Salami ends the song with this: “I heard that the Middle East/Is where the terrorists are bred/But that’s where most the oil is/We need to make our bread/And if you need to convince a Middle Eastern/Dictator to leave his home/You can hire Isis to do some terror you condone.” It’s the kind of pithy, nuanced observation that recognizes most problems lack easy answers and absurdities can abound on both sides of an argument.
Then there’s “England Is Unwell,” another Bootmakers track, with a jaunty melody and a sing-a-long chorus that pokes fun at his home country, but is tinged with sadness, too. The song is a lament on the failings of liberal democracies, many of which claim to embrace diversity and equality, but fall woefully short in practice:
“Shagrinda came illegally but that’s beside the point/He was sure that he’d be clean of sin once he had been anointed/By the sun and the rain of England/And he’d be able to sustain in England/And maybe he would gain in England/But he was soon to see the pain in England/He saw a woman beaten up by roadmen in dark tops/And high on English chivalry he gave chase and stopped/But when he did catch up with them they stabbed him and he dropped.”
At this point in the story, Salami adds the kicker: “He never rose again/but a country swelled/Where a hero rose and fell/He’d grown to know it well/And he could tell that England was unwell.”
The song bops along, the chorus rousing in its simplicity, the kind of chorus in which patrons of a pub can hoist their pints and sing, maybe even without understanding the point. You can imagine a guy bellied up to the bar saying to his friend “that Salami bloke really knows how to write a tune, I tell ya.” Substitute “bloke” with “dude” or “mate,” and the reaction would probably be the same, anywhere in the world, if you weren’t paying attention to the lyrics. Salami’s not condescending; he just wants you to give his art the attention that it deserves, and then you can draw your own conclusions.
Now, L.A. Salami releases his new album, The Cause Of Doubt & A Reason To Have Faith. The wit and humor are still there, along with finely detailed observations about ordinary lives and mundane struggles, and those of big ticket issues, too. But this time, he’s added more experimental and atmospheric flourishes to the mix. It is an excellent and compact record, it contains only seven songs, but, like the songs of any great lyricist, the words that Salami sings require repeated and immersive listening. Or perhaps, as the artist himself has suggested, listen when you’re relaxed AND stoned. It is a literate and sophisticated album, accessible, but also resistant to easy classification.
The title track opens the album, and it almost like a suite, with several movements, at times punctuated by ragged guitar and the turning of a radio dial. It begins softly, with a gently plucked guitar, and Salami’s plaintive voice. According to Salami, this was originally a demo for a side project and, once he began to build it, the music came together and represented almost a “psychological rebirth” after a “long, dirty dark period of thought.” “I could be a soldier in a chess war,” he sings, over a reverbed guitar and loose syncopation. An amplified harmonica begins to weave in and out of the mix, until the song’s end, when it becomes almost the last sound we hear, and then a radio segues us to the next song.
In “When You Play God (The 2018 Copyright Blues),” Salami sings “maybe Kanye West is insane/But maybe he’s not always wrong.” And then this about Vladimir Putin: “A man you could say likes to play God/And if you want to play it safe over there/I guess it’s best to play along.” Salami describes this song as about “the power that people claim to have, seem to have, are known to have and know they have over themselves.”
L.A. Salami says that the song “Thinking of Emiley” was one that simply sprung forth and was recorded on the first take. It is a short beautiful interlude, and the piano seems to reference “Old England,” a song by The Waterboys from their 1985 album, This Is The Sea. “Dear Jessica Rabbit” comes next, another enigmatic song that appears to address a lover. It is a waltz, with loping drums and creaking sounds, like a sailboat drifting on the open sea, and it also features a vamping piano and pointed lyrics.
“Things Ain’t Changed” picks up a recurring theme, that “things ain’t changed” and “the play’s the same,” even if the players themselves have changed. The song references Bob Dylan in its title, and it alludes to another Dylan song in its instrumentation, but it’s not mimicry: it’s homage, perhaps, but also an update on the state of the world, that’s still relevant and worth arguing about. Maybe the point here is that as much as things change, they remain the same to those living through a particular epoch.
“The Cage,” which Salami describes as “a song about feeling like you’re crazy,” begins with what sounds like a looped flute, and a hip-hop beat. Salami doesn’t exactly rap the lyrics, but he delivers them with a rhyme artist’s flow, in a conversational tone. He carefully articulates the words and there is no denying them: “the devil rides the back of all the new ideas that we’re exposed to.” And then: “Abraham asked God how many good men he killed to get his point across.” His voice is distorted in the chorus, and the song ends in a blur, with a martial beat, and its orchestration a swelling, like chaos in the void.
The final track on the album, “The Talis-Man on the Age of Glass (Redux),” is a continuation of a song and a theme from Bootmakers. It begins with the haunting, electrified harmonica that has cropped up throughout the record. Salami sings: “As I get older/ideals fade away/Doubts get bolder/My fears learn to stray.” A mournful piano taps out a counterpoint to the melody and he sings “There is no evil/In the age of glass.” Salami says that the song is about a wise friend and about the time through which we are now living, “where we can see an un-detailed reflection of ourselves, in a fragile pane, as we look out at the stars on a rainy night.” The melody chugs along, contemplative, piano and harmonica doing a call and response, then guitar joins in, until the sounds become more dissonant, and then fades into the ether.
The harmonica trails off, and the album ends, the music replaced by the solace and disquiet of L.A. Salami’s words. He’s a bard of the human condition, and a reason to have faith, even if sometimes, doubt grows bolder, a fitting coda to a deep and satisfying record.
L.A. Salami sat down with Backseat Mafia to discuss his new album, Black-out Tuesday, God and the state of the world. The interview has been edited for publication.
Backseat Mafia: I hear a variety of influences in your art. Cabaret music, Lou Reed, the Kinks, Dylan, early Springsteen, British drinking songs, Billy Bragg, Woody Guthrie, Garland Jeffreys, even pre-Ziggy Bowie. When did you become an active music listener and who were some of the artists who provided you with early inspiration?
L.A. Salami: I think I’ve always been an active music listener, I just didn’t grow up in house hold that had a particularly passionate relationship with music to pass on to me. I just got it where I would randomly find it. I was a blank slate of sorts – I was much more of an active music listener when I was a kid, in the same way I would be a more active observer of ant colonies in our back garden – it was just easier to do and you had more time to completely immerse yourself into these worlds. The most consistent relationship I’ve had with music when I was young, like a six year old, was dancing to it – Michael Jackson and James Brown at parties, Apala music at Nigerian Presbyterian church, that’s really the stuff I grew up on.
BSM: Did you have an “aha” moment when you thought to yourself, “I want to be an artist, I want to create music,” or was this a more gradual process? Under what circumstances did the artist, “L.A. Salami,” come into being?
LAS: Not really – I’ve wanted to make films ever since I can remember, and I’ve always believed that film is the amalgamation of all the major art forms that had been popular until that point – Fine Art, Music, Literature, Dance, etc; so I’ve actually always found sanctuary in music. L.A. Salami, my initials and surname, was simply the name that I planned to use if I was ever published for anything.
BSM: You’re a wry observer of mores and manners, and society at large, and your songs are lyrically dense. You mentioned in your notes about the new record that some of the songs were written on the spot. Does it work that way for your topical songs? I’m thinking about a song like “Terrorism! (The Isis Crisis)” from The City of Bootmakers.
LAS: It can do, but more often than not, if it’s a song like “Terrorism! (The ISIS CRISIS),” they can come out fast, it isn’t until I understand the concept well enough for it to come out clearly and concisely. Sometimes, understanding your own stance on something can take time, sometimes condensing complicated subject matter into simple, easy to digest language and sound can be the thing that takes time. Same thing goes for personal songs. They’re one in the same thing to me. You’re just working out how you feel about something.
BSM: I’m putting this in an inarticulate way, but some British and American singers have no accent when they sing. To my American ears, it almost seems as though you are emphasizing the Britishness in your singing voice. Is that deliberate?
LAS: Ha! No, that’s just my voice. I actually had a code about singing in my own voice since I started doing this music thing. Bands such as the Kinks, Blur, Beatles and The Libertines were a massive inspiration to me growing up – I essentially grew up in the Brit-Pop 90s and post-punk era of the early 2000s. All of these bands were very unafraid to be “British” in style and sound. To be a product of the land they’re from – an authenticity. Most English people singing in American accents actually annoy me… It takes me out of the listening experience… Even the Rolling stones were very British – I’d say Mick Jagger sang in a British voice but delivered in an American style, which makes sense because they were very directly inspired by American blues music.
BSM: Listening to “England Is Unwell,” I could imagine a group of people in a pub somewhere, hoisting their glasses, and singing along with the chorus. Is England less unwell than it was when you wrote that song?
LAS: Yea, that’s kind of the aim of the melody actually! To sound very ENGLISH – It’s one of what I call, my Kinks songs (I really really loved the Kinks growing up) – I have a few that no one’s heard. I think England is better than it has been, but people are just more aware of it’s problems than ever before, and since we’re the last great empire before America, coupled with the fact that we may be living in (due to modern technology, modern comfort, and the commonality of higher education) the first truly self reflective age – the delayed emotional recompense towards past deeds is happening whilst we clamber through the fog of the tail end of imperialist residue.
BSM: On the music industry’s Black Out Day, you called out the industry for hypocrisy and you pointed to something that I describe as “genre segregation:” the desire of the industry to put artists in boxes for marketing purposes. I think this is damaging to the careers of many artists, particular artists of color. For me, Van Hunt, Garland Jeffreys, Cody Chesnutt and The Veldt come to mind. I’m old enough to remember that Vernon Reid of Living Colour created The Black Rock Coalition to combat just this problem, in 1985. Afro-punk, the same. The Bad Brains succeeded almost in spite of the industry’s desire to “label” them. It feels as though not much has changed. What’s your take on this?
LAS: Yes, I didn’t really think about it too much until I started making my way through the music industry – I’ve slowly found out behind the scenes that it’s a very real thing. Rock and Roll / Folk, both genres essentially created by Black culture, have moved so far beyond their sources, that people, especially here in the UK, seem to find it difficult to associate black faces with the music anymore – It actually makes me sick to my stomach. Even Punk, which is another musical element I love and incorporate in my music a lot, was created by Black people (The band called Death) – but people associate the birth of punk with the Ramones and the CBGBs NYC crowd. The industry likes to sell blackness – It’s easy to sell Beyonce – RnB – Hip Hop, etc – Anything where they can overtly sell your color, or the story of your color, to people, they can digest – Anything where they can lump you into a category – Anything more nuanced than that and they seem to get confused – Not the necessarily the audience – The people behind the scenes – The “Gate Keepers.” It makes me ill. You’re Black, so that means you’re “this” or “that,” and doing “this other thing” doesn’t make sense. It’s cool to laugh and joke about on the day to day, but when it means you’re getting overlooked in favor of some trash artist who fits their current Woke-Quota for the time; it starts to wear you down a bit. Some of the conversations I’ve had with these morons have been unreal; it’s hard not to be overcome with bitterness sometimes.
BSM: The title of the new record is to me both optimistic and pessimistic, as if the jury is still out on which way the human race will go. In the US, things seem pretty bleak. What causes doubt for you? What gives you a reason to have faith? Ultimately, is the new album hopeful?
LAS: I’m an optimist personally, and things of this magnitude have happened pretty consistently throughout human history – But it does get pretty disheartening to see just how quickly things such as these current events can descend into complete partisan stupidity. It gets pretty tedious hearing people talk about how doomed the human race is whilst communicating with each other on mobile phones, in the comfort of their well furbished homes that have central heating, whilst ordering food from Uber Eats.
BSM: We’re focusing on granular details…
LAS: Getting caught up in these moot details…inflames the type of hateful resentment that got Trump and other neo-demagogues elected in the first place, and too often in history, self righteous movements been fueled by the hatred of the systems they wish to transcend, replacing them with yet another system that is selfish, short-sighted, hateful, and ultimately murderous.
BSM: Demagoguery is on the up-swing at the moment. But…
LAS: I find the trajectory of the human species to be undeniably positive. Even the climate change issue is discussed as if humans should have known that fossil fuels would speed up the changing of the earth’s climate back in the early 1900s. How exactly? Weren’t public hangings still a thing back then? It’s like people forget how time works. Hangings as capital punishments in the UK would be seen as barbaric now, but the last one was in the 1960s, which isn’t that long ago. Our morals evolve the same way everything else does. This is trial and error, and the Christian God has been holding our hand for the last two thousand years. [A]s Nietzsche pointed out, we’ve outgrown god, and the only useful fuel moving ever forward in time is love… consideration… affection… reason…
BSM: But still…
LAS: Be kind to our past in order to make a better future for ourselves, otherwise we’ll just end up repeating our past mistakes. Isn’t that what a therapist would say to a patient? America is the first empire to have existed in a truly self reflective age – it has to grow into its own ideologies – ideologies, revolving around equality, that were born when slavery was still a thing – And, in what is essentially a godless era, the ideology of egalitarianism is essentially what God has always been, so we’re trying to build ‘heaven on earth’ same as we always have been. So, I’d say, yes, the album is about hope, and positivity, and growing the fuck up, collectively and individually – Learning how to think, critically, for yourself whilst considering the valid thoughts of other individuals.
BSM: Your “thesis statement” about the new album is beautiful. You seem to say that faith, particularly faith in God, (whomever your God is), is important for us to remain hopeful about the future. Religion seems to often divide us. Religion was used to justify white supremacy and slavery. In the US, some churches use their particular brands of faith to dehumanize people not of their own faith and Muslims are demonized. Are you talking about religious faith? Belief in God? What are you driving at here?
LAS: God is love. God is us. We are god. We are each a god. We are each the center of our own universe. We each create the universe that we inhabit. Religions are organizations akin to banks… or Google… or Scientology…Organizations tend to dehumanise people who work for them, or work against them. Christians and Muslims, for example, have been known to dehumanise each other in different ways, to meet the agenda of the state of which they are born.
BSM: What is faith in God?
LAS: When I say to have faith God, I mean to have faith in humanity – I have faith in the universe’s craft. I have faith in what we’ve discovered of the universe, I have faith in the symmetry and consistency of the universe. [W]hat seems obvious to me, is that the more capable the brain is of self reflection (i.e. a dog compared to the average human being) the more necessary it becomes for it to define what “good” is, and what “evil” is for its day to day existence and forward marching evolution. And we judge other conscious beings of the same capability accordingly. To believe in God is to believe in love. Love is “good”. To have faith in God is to have faith in love, to have faith that ‘love conquers all’. Love is the big picture, religions, ideologies, they seem like they’re the messy details that come with living in a dimension where time exists.
BSM: Is “The Cage” about “genre segregation?” Or am I being too simplistic to interpret it as an artist caged by an industry that doesn’t understand him or doesn’t care? You said about that song that you don’t think that “the state of the world is separate from the state of the modern human individual’s identity with themselves.” What do you mean? How do your many “identities” inform your art? You also wrote about the song that it’s about “feeling like you’re going crazy.” Going crazy how? What is it that making you crazy?
LAS: I guess the style of the song itself is a comment on the genre segregation thing – I’ve always been interested in being anti-genre – exploring every genre I love – “The Cage” is a style I can turn on at any time I feel like doing so, but as with all the other genres, some things are just simply said best with certain sounds – cause it’s usually what I want to say that comes first; then “how best to put this?” You could see the song as me rattling my metal cup against the prison bars whilst yelling profanities at the guards, if you will. We’re currently in a social situation where people I think have begun to realise that in order to change the world you have to start with yourself, you have to get your own house in order. We’ve had protests before, but nothing changes because people tend to let the system take the lead. [I]n order to change a system that’s made up of people, the people have to actually change themselves first. You have to be mindful of your own thoughts and feelings… Isn’t this what Buddhism has been saying for time immemorial? The process of getting to that point of change can simply be the act of doing everything so wrong – driving yourself crazy in the process – until you finally come to terms with the fact that in order to make positive progress, you have to do things differently from before. That can apply to an individual, or a collective.
BSM: “Things Ain’t Changed.” I think that in the US, this is particularly, and sadly, true. It’s almost as though Black Americans are in an endless loop of death, that’s repeated over and over again, and death often comes during mundane tasks that white Americans take for granted. What hasn’t changed to you? What needs to change? Are you evoking Dylan here? Sorry, Bob, the times didn’t change?
LAS: No, I don’t think the times changed very much – the scenery did though. But the game remains ever the same because the game is built into our system of living. What we’re seeing today is no different from the story of the plight of the Israelites in ancient Egypt, or how Charles Dickens wrote about the underclass of the 19th century, only the underclass of the western world is now made up of a lot of dark skinned people, so you have your centuries old classism mixed with rampant discrimination. The thing is, the game is the game – the game of living. And though that hasn’t changed, it can actually be played by better individuals. We’ve managed to build a fucking democracy out of remnants of royal blooded nepotism, which I personally find amazing. So using that democracy to actually create a society that has equal opportunity for everyone seems perfectly plausible. Dylan was right, it’s just a slow process.
BSM: Do you find solace in reading? Are there writers you come back to, again and again? Writers who have influenced your development as an artist? Favorite writers? Are there other types of artists who inspire you? Dancers? Painters?
LAS: Sometimes. I always feel like there’s a never ending reading list, so it actually makes me anxious more than anything these days. I’ve found great comfort in reading about Henry Miller’s sex habits and Tom Wolfe’s family life recently. I’m inspired by all art and many artists – but mostly film. Otto Dix is my go to visually at the moment. (Editor’s note: Otto Dix was a German painter and printmaker.)
BSM: Who’s on your Spotify playlist?
LAS: Conway The Machine.
BSM: What else would you like readers to know about the new album?
LAS: Listen to it at night whilst relaxed and stoned, if you can.
Get your copy of L.A. Salami’s new album, The Cause Of Doubt And A Reason To Have Faith, here: https://sundaybestrecordings.bigcartel.com While you’re there, pick up a copy of The City of Bootmakers. Then, blaze a fatty and listen.