LEE BAINS III & The Glory Fires hail from Birmingham, Alabama, and sit loosely in the rock music tradition of the deep South. But the band’s influences are more eclectic than that: listeners will also detect traces of punk, country, blues, Americana, and grunge.
The band has made a name for itself with electrifying live performances and a reputation for loudness (”We’re kind of known as a soundman’s nightmare,” Bains, the front-man, said in an interview with The Bitter Southerner, an online magazine). Threaded through the scrum of guitars, however, are politicised and intelligent lyrics which also set the songs in a time-honoured, rich seam of American protest music.
As soon as we touch on the idea of Southern rock music, we hit the thematic arteries of Bains’s songwriting: race, identity, and place.
“For me, it’s such a weird term for us, because, on the one hand, we are a Southern rock band: because we’re a rock band and we’re from the South and concerned with the South and its history, culture, and identities. But Southern rock has also become like a genre, like a stylistic thing, that I feel like we don’t jive with a lot of times,” he explains.
“The standard bearers of Southern rock would be Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers [Band]. I love both of those bands, and their music was, at the time, subverting a lot of Southern stereotypes and narratives about the South — particularly when it came to white supremacy, but also to gender, politics, religion, and all sorts of things. But I feel like they’ve been enshrined as sort of monuments to this monolithic, stereotypical white culture.”
THE Glory Fires’ latest and third album, Youth Detention, released in June on the label Don Giovanni, is a double album of 17 songs, all penned by Bains. The songs — poetic, searing, ironic, and angry in equal measure — are a meditation on the singer’s life and culture up to this point, where the shadow of the South’s history, including its legacy, looms large.
Tracks such as “Whitewash”, “Underneath the Sheets of White Noise”, “Sweet Disorder!”, “Black & White Boys” and “Commencement Address for the Deindustrialized Dispersion”, served up with gutsy guitars, liberal doses of distortion pedal and supercharged floor toms, ring out as clarion calls to address the inequalities that have been, and persist, in Bains’s Southern landscape.
But Bains is no neutral observer. In Whitewash, for example, he sings:
But I don’t want to be a whitewash
Turning places into sets
Turning people into objects
I want to be
I don’t want to be a whitewash
Don’t want power over anybody
Don’t want dominion over any place
He explains: “If I’m going to try to take a look at my own complicity and involvement in these sort of questions — you know, in church parlance, these ‘sins’, [to] reckon with my stake in that, and the fact that I am a person who is Southern, whatever that means, and defined by the law and society as white, and enjoyed the benefit and empowerment that comes with that, being in the US — [then] I think it’s important not to shirk that, and pretend that it’s not the case.”
There are no overarching narratives, Bains insists: each song is like a series of mini-scenes pasted together. The music is a catalyst for making the political personal. “Pretty much every verse on this record is like a scene, a memory, kind of like an image. All of these songs are taken from my personal experience and memories, and things that I’ve borne witness to.”
His studies as a literature student at New York University also influenced him. “I grew up thinking that a story, or history, is what happened, and it wasn’t until I started learning how to read differently, and reading criticism, that I’m hoping to consider that the story is in the telling: that history is constructed through what we choose to remember and the way we choose to remember it.”
These concerns are evident in songs such as “I Can Change!”, which opens with a chant recorded at a Black Lives Matter rally which Bains attended in Atlanta, where he is now based. The chant, taken from “To My People”, an open letter written by the black activist Assata Shakur, ends with the words: “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
“That chant particularly struck me because Assata Shakur is a character who is currently still on the FBI’s most wanted list,” Bains says. “She’s exiled in Cuba but she was a member of the Black Panthers. When I was a white child growing up in Alabama, she was described to me as a terrorist. The person I’ve come to know as an adult was very far from that.”
Although the songs were written before the Trump presidency and the era of “fake news”, the album feels distinctly topical. Bains sees President Trump as nothing new: “[He is] another version of what we’ve seen, particularly in the South, for a very long time.”
He also thinks that it is fair to ascribe the success of President Trump’s election to the Church in the United States, and laments the way in which the Church has been “co-opted by the political right.
“It’s sobering to think the people who put Donald Trump in power — or before that, the people who put the segregationalist George Wallace in power in the ’60s — were people like me: you know, cishet, white, Christian, secular dudes.”
Bains’s own faith history is typical of growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. “Church wasn’t really an option in our family, it’s just what happened,” he laughs. He went to an Episcopal church and a church school, but also experienced Methodist and Pentecostal styles of worship.
“I had a ton of problems around, because it had a very Evangelical bent to it and there was a strong push to evangelise, and that really pissed me off; stuck in my craw. I remember a teacher saying we have to go and preach the gospel to kids in isolated African or South American villages that have never heard of Jesus, and I’d be like: why? And they said it’s because they don’t know Jesus and if they don’t believe and accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, they’ll go to hell — which is a pretty surefire way to scare the piss out of children, it turns out.”
Over the years, however, Bains has pieced together a renewed faith. “I was very burned for a long time. But there were a lot of things from scripture that kept pulling me back. Now I’m back to being a weekly churchgoer, and I’m in a very different congregation from the one I grew up with.”
Of the four band members — the other three are Eric Wallace (guitar), Adam Williamson (bass), and Blake Williamson (drums) — Bains is the only one who identifies himself as a Christian.
BAINS was surprised to be head-hunted to play Greenbelt. The Glory Fires’ will play the main stage on Saturday evening, the first of only a handful of UK dates in a packed three-month tour. They will also be taking part in Martyn Joseph’s jamming session, The Rising, on Saturday afternoon, and Bains will talk with Jyothi Cross, along with Craftivist Sarah Corbett (Features, 8 June), about faith, art, and activism, on Monday afternoon.
“It’s intriguing to me because [Greenbelt] is obviously geared to host a diversity of experiences and perspectives, and to encourage questions and conversations, which is so completely removed from what I think of as a Christian festival,” Bains says. “Where I come from, what I would think of as a Christian festival would’ve been: ‘All right, how many of y’all can we get up here to do an altar call at the end.’ So the idea of using these spaces to ask questions and to listen, that’s so awesome to me.”
Certainly, the Glory Fires’ music does not fit the profile of the average Christian rock band. Some of the quieter songs have echoes of Bruce Springsteen, REM, or even The Cure. But the band’s main stylistic influence is punk.
He points to American groups such as Against Me!, Hot Water Music, Strike Anywhere, besides older bands such as Bad Religion, The Clash, and The Jam, “who I saw as being really powerful, but speaking to important matters intelligently”; and rappers such as Outkast, who could “make you scratch your head, break your heart, and pump your fist at the same time”.
Alongside this, the Pentecostal church has been an influence: “Where you have these amazing musicians and singers who are just putting everything they have into the music, and are doing it for a higher purpose — to the point where how their hair looks, if the pitch is exactly right, that’s just so irrelevant, because in that moment, it’s so transcendent.”
There is, however, no pontificating or hectoring. If the Glory Fires’ vocation is to speak truth to power, they are going to make sure that they, and everyone listening, gets a buzz doing it.
“I love a lot of music that’s quiet and sad, and a lot of my favourite songwriters go in that vein,” Bains says. “But, I guess, what I feel called to do right now is walk out at the end of a show and think, ‘No, you know what, we can fucking do this. We can do this. Fight the good fight.’”
The Church Times is Greenbelt’s media partner www.greenbelt.org.uk. The Church Times Guide to Greenbelt will be available for free at the festival.