Andrew Mandell and Brian Grover of Ballydowse
Date: early August '99
Place: via email
by Josh Spencer

Every once in a while a band comes along that makes a busy music critic pause and raise his eyebrows. It's a band that has chosen not the easy path of imitation but the rocky road of experimentation and creativity. A band that opens a new door to that magical realm of sound we call music. Even rarer is a band that goes further, fitting lyrics of intense poetry and power into the grip of such music.

Although Andrew Mandell and Brian Grover, formerly of old school punkers Crashdog and now leaders of Ballydowse, claim no innovation, their band definitely fits the bill. Their merger of especially social forms of music like punk, Celtic, and Klezmer with a strong sense of Christian community and mission (given life in their JPUSA home) makes for one of the most jaw-dropping albums in recent years, The Land, the Bread, & the People. Add even more ethnic instrumentation like didgeridoos and Tibetan throat singing, hoarse male harmonies and clear female singing, gritty artwork, and ultra-catchy beats that get the feet tapping, and the musical and thought-provoking experience is intense and convicting. We won't even mention Steve Albini's engineering hand (produced Nirvana, Helmet, tons of groundbreaking alternative bands), or their live show with nine or so members. If you were at Cornerstone, you know about the latter already.

So, dig in with us as the Tollbooth speaks with Andrew and Brian over email about the musical and lyrical force they find themselves at the front of, Ballydowse.

PT:  How's the new album doing?

Grover:  Our one and only release seems to be doing well. I don't know any specific numbers, but it seems to be well received wherever we go. One thing that's new for us (as opposed to our experience with Crashdog) is that our music seems to have a pretty broad range of appeal. It's not really 'age specific.' There's a lot of the Punk/Oi thing in it, so many of the folks that were into Crashdog like it, while the added melodic instruments seem to make it appeal to an older group of folks as well. And my daughter's pre-school class enjoys dancing and romping around to it. Really we're just playing what we like to hear, and it seems we have similar tastes with a lot of people.

PT:  How'd you hook up with Steve Albini for recording?

Grover:  Basically, we just called him up and asked him. Steve has probably worked with nearly every unknown band in Chicago at one time or another. He did the last Crashdog album with us, and we hit it off well. And since he really enjoys unusual and experimental stuff, he was more than happy to do the Ballydowse album with us. He's a great guy to work with. He really knows engineering well, and has a good knack for getting a very energetic sound to tape.

PT:  What does Ballydowse mean?

Grover:  We swiped it from the movie War of the Buttons. It was originally a French film (about 30-40 years ago) and was recently redone and set in Ireland. It deals with the lives of these kids in two neighboring towns that have more or less fun-loving battles against each other. It puts things in a light-hearted atmosphere but actually takes a pretty serious look at some underlying social structures when you get beneath the surface. Anyway, Ballydowse is the name of the town where the poorer blue-collar kids were from.

PT:  I wrote in my review that I'd been waiting for this fusion of Celtic/punk since I heard "Bloody Lane" on Humane Society.  When did the idea come about to put together a band playing such a sound?

Grover:  We're certainly not the first group of folks to do this sort of thing, though the specific chemistry we have may give it a unique twist. Anyway, we've always had an interest in Oi music, which has been marrying traditional and garage music since its inception; and Andrew had been wanting to do something where he and Robin could perform together. So when Crashdog wound down, the pieces just fell together. I've always been into unusual sounds, experimental and world-beat stuff, and there were a few other guys here at JPUSA that had been playing some straight-up Oi stuff but could never manage to work things out to have an actual band, so it all just came together. It's great because there are so many different influences represented, and it all seems to meld together so well. A lot of give-and-take goes on during the writing. I don't think anyone gets the song exactly their originally conceived way, but everyone gets their two cents in the mix.

PT:  My understanding of Oi has been that it was a rough form of '80s punk that contrasted with other forms, mostly because of its lack of implicit messages and social consciousness.  Crashdog and Ballydowse certainly don't fit the latter part of that mold, however...so what's your understanding of the term in relation to other types of punk?  Is it a similar situation to heavy metal, where Christian bands took on the musical form but changed the lyrical tradition, injecting hope and truth where before was nihilism and chaos?

Grover:  Oi music has always struck me as more the blue-collar, working class, listen-to-it-in-a-pub sort of music. I don't think it ever really lacked an implicit message--the Angelic Upstarts, as an example, had very politically charged lyrics. I think it had a bit of a different spin on it, not so confrontational in delivery. Anyway, Nate and Andrew are way more familiar with the Oi stuff than I am as far as its history goes. As for us, we just enjoy playing it. Lyrically, I guess you could draw parallels between the most common lyrical content of the genre historically and how we modify it to reflect the work God is doing in us, but it's not a calculated thing. Andrew is just writing what he feels strongly about at the time, and I'm sure he would sing it whether or not it fit into the historical context of the style.

PT:  Explain the title, The Land, the Bread, and the People.

Grover:  Well, the best explanation can be found in the song lyric of the same name. But basically it's the three things everyone needs to survive on this planet:  a place to live, food to eat, and connection with other people. Of course these things can only be truly realized when they are rooted in our relationship with God. Otherwise they get twisted and tainted.

Mandell:  This song is for the people of this world who for various reasons are forced to struggle so hard for a place to live and food to eat. No doubt man has always had to work for these things but, for many today, the deck is stacked against them and the struggle is beyond what they can bear. We believe the Church must see land and bread as the rights of every human and move in a way that secures those rights. We must stop hiding behind pseudo-theologies that excuse tyranny and basic selfishness.

PT:  What are some of the main experiences, readings, and thoughts that have inspired the Ballydowse project?  Lyrically and musically.

Grover:  I can mention a few at least. I think the main thrust ideologically comes from trying to work out what it means to have faith in a fallen world. How does one connect the suffering of the innocent with an omnipotent and loving God? Can we ever really grasp that with our finite minds? Is the answer in the ultimate suffering of the absolute innocent (Christ on the cross)? Even Jesus called out "My God, why have you forsaken me?" If it wasn't easy for Jesus, certainly there are no tidy answers for us. Yet the Scriptures are clear in what our response to situations should be: "Love your neighbor as yourself," "Love each other as Christ has loved you," "Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God." How do we live that out in the midst of our questions? How do we allow God's strength to be made perfect in our weakness?

The writings of Elie Wiesel, Oscar Romero, and C.S. Lewis have been important to all of us in the band in working through those questions. Personally, I'd also add T.S. Eliot, Alexandre Solzhenitsyn, and Flannery O'Connor. And a whole lot of just talking through the Scriptures with each other.

Musically, we're really just playing what we like to hear, but I think it's safe to say that bands like The Pogues, The Oyster Band, The Dirty Three, Billy Bragg, The Bushwackers, The Electrics, etc. have had some influence. Personally, I'd also have to say that the didgeridoo playing of Philip Peris has been very inspirational.

Mandell:  I think that's a fair description. My lyrics are just the struggles and questions I have, mixed with the fights I'd like to pick. Many things I read creep into my songs; I'm indebted to many great writers.

PT:  Even though most of the songs are my favorite kind of poetry--that which speaks clearly yet retains the feel of mystery and power--I couldn't tap into a few of them.  What is the "Didge Song" about?

Mandell:  Believing doesn't come easy for me. I struggle and wrestle through many hard questions that seem to have no answers here. I see so much pain and disease, yet God is good. How can this be? Even Jesus died with an unanswered question: "My God, why have you forsaken me?" That was a real question. He was not acting a part. He was forsaken. God the Son was dying and where was the Father? But still, forsaken and without answer, he said "Father into thy hands I commit my spirit." What else can we do? Where else can we go? Only he has the words of life. This song is about what faith is for me. There are hard questions and no easy answers.

PT:  How about "Redhands"?

Mandell:  I see the need for political and social action and will always stay involved with that struggle to mimic God's Kingdom as we can, but in the end ideologies will come up short and the solution must lie with individual hearts coming to their God.

PT:  The song "Nothing" seems to rebuke the trend of working to turn the nation back to Judeo-Christian morals with the line, "forget those good old days, that's not what they were." Is that a correct interpretation of the song?  What are your thoughts on this issue?

Mandell:  Well, actually Nate Peters wrote that song, but you're in the right ballpark for sure. The same brokenness that haunts each of us today was alive and well all through the history of our nation. There is no going back, only walking on. We wait the arrival of God's Kingdom, however that may come, not some whitewashed kingdom of 18th-century European landowners. Again, I love this nation but I love what is real--not what is a fable. For the Indian, the slave, and the woman, the good old days were not so fine. I am not blind to our present slide. We have lost the sense of ground for ideas like good and evil, and maybe today we could not even pen the Bill of Rights with the present philosophical vacuum. Still, this ground will not be refound in right-wing spin doctors handcuffed to so many principles our Lord Himself despises. We can do better than that and we must.

Grover:  Again, it's the myth of some utopian society. Were things really any better in "the good old days?" You can't legislate morality, it just doesn't work. Now that's not to say that we should just chuck the concept of a legal system. Certainly some guidelines are needed as there will always be those who are out of whack. But what of the vast majority of us? Do the Scriptures say they will know we are Christians because we held the majority in both houses of Congress and were able to force people to follow God? No doubt, there is a time for political action and a time to speak out publicly. But the vast majority of the time God calls us to simply love and really befriend people.

I think the abortion issue is a great example. Suppose we could outlaw abortion, what lasting effect would that really have? Now, what if we put all that time effort and money into helping women in the midst of crisis pregnancies, into getting involved in people's lives so they could learn the value of pure relationships and learn to respect themselves and each other so that they wouldn't end up in a crisis pregnancy in the first place? Getting involved in family counseling and helping single moms to cope and find suitable employment. Getting involved in the lives of family-less children, being foster parents, adopting, being a "Big Brother" or "Big Sister". What if Christians were perceived as those who care rather then those who accuse? Abortion clinics would close down; nobody would want one anymore. You can't just yell "Stop." You have to offer a viable alternative. Though that means sacrificing some of our own precious personal time and maybe befriending those we deem undesirable.

PT:  "The Banshee Song"?  Cool idea, the Banshee as an instrument of God's judgement, but what inspired it and whose viewpoint are the lyrics from?

Mandell:  Thanks. Just liked the stories of the Banshee and thought they would serve the message well. I guess the viewpoint is from any of us who see the powerful tyranny of men pulling others down, especially the underdogs of the world. Sometimes it seems that evil goes unpunished. Don't get me wrong. I have no love of vengeance (as I have many shortcomings and mercy must triumph), but God is not blind. Everything done in secret will be shouted from the rooftops. Jesus said for those who hurt the little ones it would be better to have not been born. There will be a day of reckoning.

PT: Compare managing a band of up to a dozen with the four-piece of Crashdog.

Grover: Showing up and setting up in 10 minutes and playing without any kind of sound check isn't really do-able any more, especially since we have some quiet acoustic instruments alongside some very loudly amplified ones. So things take a little longer and are a little more touchy on that end.

As far as personal interaction, God has really been gracious, and we've managed to be open and on the level with each other; so conflicts have been at a minimum and resolved fairly smoothly when they have arisen. Obviously, we have nearly three times as many personal schedules to deal with when we're trying to book things. But everyone's been real flexible and workable so far. I think the excitement level is still pretty high for everyone, so that helps to smooth things a bit as well.

PT: With so many contributors/members, you obviously can't play too far from home much.  Is there a stripped-back version of the band for distant touring?

Grover: Tony Krogh (the Piper etc.) can't always make it, as his first band commitment is with The Crossing, so the little time he does have for gigging is often taken up with that. Otherwise, we all just cram into a van and go for it.

PT: I hear your live shows are amazing. Describe them from your vantage point(s).  Do you feel people catch your conviction in their own hearts? What reactions do you get?

Grover: It seems like we get about the same amount of comments on the content of what is shared from the stage and the lyrics as we do about the music, so I think folks are really connecting on all levels. The shows at Cornerstone went really well (we were able to play twice). The Coffee House tent show was mostly folks who hadn't really heard us before, but they all seemed to connect. In the end we had to stop because we were out of time, but had we played the set again from the beginning I think everyone would have stayed. It was nice to have a lot of room on stage (a rarity when you've got nearly a dozen people on stage), and I personally took full advantage of it. We could hear things really well on stage, so we were able to play off of each other even more than usual. It was great fun.

The Underground Stage show was really intense, the sort of crowd you could start a revolution with. It was so loud between songs it was kind of freaky. A great highlight was that a bunch of our friends who had come to Cornerstone from Florida had made a huge flag like one of the ones from The War of the Buttons movie. When we started, they forced their way up front and planted and unfurled the flag. That definitely gave us an emotional boost to push things up one more notch.

PT: Future plans?  If another album, do you plan on sticking with the same basic sound, or experimenting further?

Grover: We've got a few new songs and hopefully we can begin recording sometime this fall. I think we may do the next album in smaller chunks, so we can focus more on the individual songs. Basically the same sort of feel musically, but there will definitely be a few new instruments and sounds and more thorough use of some of the instruments we've already incorporated.

PT:  The concept you have of following Christ comes across as demanding and rebuking in a prophetic sort of way...what observations of American Christianity fuel this tone?

Grover:  Hmmm....I don't think that it's "American Christianity." I think we're more shooting at personal integrity. It'd be easy to blame "the system," but when it gets down to it you have to ask yourself "what have I done?" and "what am I going to do?" Perhaps the atmosphere of the Western world in general has lead to the 'compartmentalized' approach of following God. But when it gets down to it, the only way to change the system is to change the individuals within the system.

Mandell:  Of course I make no claim to being a prophetic voice, though we do wish to be a voice for those who can't speak for themselves. Hopefully the demanding part is focused as much on us as on anyone. As far as American Christianity goes, I would say I am uncomfortable with much of the Western coloring of the Gospel. Jesus was not white, wealthy, or Protestant, and sometimes people forget that. Some seem to equate Christianity with America, and this is a shame. America is at best a mixture of good and evil and will be held accountable as any nation for the wrong it has done. That many of our people are good and that we have done so much good is all the more reason to denounce our mistakes, especially when it costs many
so much.
 
 

Josh Spencer, contributing senior associate editor for The Phantom Tollbooth for over two years, is also publisher and editor-in-chief of spiritual pop culture webzine Stranger Things.  Reviews and articles by him are usually simultaneously published in some form at http://www.strangerthingsmag.com.