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Reflections on “Dystopian Theme Song”: An Interview with Mark Will

I’m not sure “we the people” ever had much power, but certainly in the last 40 years or so in the States all but the extremely wealthy have lost a good deal of economic and personal freedom.
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Mark Will is the songwriter, vocalist, and bassist of the Taiwan-based musical collective [ai]. I recently interviewed him by email about “Dystopian Theme Song,” the first single from the band’s debut album Carmina Formosa.

dystopian

What inspired you to write “Dystopian Theme Song”?

I’ve been interested in the concept of dystopia ever since I read 1984 and Brave New World as an adolescent. My early fascination with Orwell and Huxley eventually led me back to Plato and Sir Thomas More, because I realized that the roots of the dystopian nightmare are to be found in the original dreams of utopia. Later I read Zamyatin, from whom Orwell borrowed liberally, and then more modern dystopian writers like Burroughs and J.G. Ballard. I’ve been influenced by dystopian films as well—Blade Runner, THX 1138, A Clockwork Orange, 2001, Brazil, Alphaville,The Man Who Fell to Earth. All of these currents came together when I decided to write a political protest anthem from a dystopian perspective. The result was “Dystopian Theme Song,” which I conceived ironically as the music for a futuristic reality TV show.

You specifically mention both Orwell and Huxley in the song. Which of their ideas do you find most compelling?

I think Orwell and Huxley both correctly prophesied the future—that is, our present—in their own distinctive ways. We see evidence of both dystopian trends on a daily basis. Drugs, entertainments, and propaganda of the Huxleyan variety are usually the most effective and preferred means of pacifying an unruly populace. When these methods of control fail, however, governments and other power structures do not hesitate to employ the Orwellian boot in the face.

Was “Dystopian Theme Song” written in reference to the United States or is it more about the world at large?

It’s difficult to make a clear distinction, because in this age of the Pax Americana whatever the US does affects the entire world. But in the first verse of the song I associate the Orwellian type of dystopia with Asia—in particular, North Korea. In the second verse I associate the West—especially the US—with the Huxleyan type. Of course these categorizations are a bit simplistic, as there are elements of both types of dystopia in both East and West. And actually, in my experience, the most characteristically Asian style of dystopia is more Kafkaesque than Orwellian. As an expat in Taiwan, I have often felt like K. in Kafka’s The Castle.

For as much as “Dystopian Theme Song” is a commentary on repression and the curtailment of personal freedom, it also plays like a wake-up call to the masses. What do you think needs to be done in order for the people to take the power back?

I’m not sure “we the people” ever had much power, but certainly in the last 40 years or so in the States all but the extremely wealthy have lost a good deal of economic and personal freedom. At this point, it may be an irreversible trend. But I think we should resist in whatever ways we can. At the very least, we should educate ourselves about the true state of the world. We must combat false consciousness, deprogram ourselves, reject the lies of governments and mainstream media. Even if we are doomed, I think it is important that we see the situation for what it is and remain clear-sighted about it.

What do you think is the most frightening aspect of the current global political situation?

I’m not sure “we the people” ever had much power, but certainly in the last 40 years or so in the States all but the extremely wealthy have lost a good deal of economic and personal freedom.

There are many reasons to be concerned: obscene wealth inequality caused by the rise of a neo-feudalistic economic order, unwarranted surveillance of citizens and the consequent rollback of privacy rights and individual liberties, the ruinous war on drugs and the for-profit prison system which is one of its by-products, police brutality (overwhelmingly against people of color), gun violence, religious fanaticism, and climate change, to name but a few. But I feel that the single most dangerous threat to the planet is American imperialism and militarism. I think MLK’s words are as true today as they were when he uttered them shortly before his assassination: the US is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. Even Eisenhower warned against the increasing power of the military-industrial complex. This, in my view, is the root of almost all other problems.

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“Dystopian Theme Song” seems particularly relevant now, when the two most unfavorable presidential candidates in US history are running for office. Which do you see as the bigger threat, Clinton or Trump?

I am appalled by both of them. Together they represent the utter failure and futility of the American political process. The neo-fascist Trump must be feared and rejected for obvious reasons. He encourages the worst aspects of the American id: bigotry, vulgarity, xenophobia, jingoism, white supremacy, and anti-intellectualism. Clinton, on the other hand, represents Wall Street, corporate elitism, free trade neoliberalism, humanitarian interventionism, regime change, and potential war with China and Russia. Either, if elected, will be a disaster and may very well hasten the impending global collapse.

I know you’ve lived and worked overseas for many years and have traveled to many different countries. How have these experiences shaped your world view?

When I left the States more than a decade ago, I felt I was abandoning a sinking ship. I feel essentially the same today, but my perspective has changed somewhat. Although I still prefer living in Asia to living in the States, I am now acutely aware of the dystopian aspects of life in the Orient. I also appreciate more the genuinely good things about life in the US: family, friends, certain aspects of the culture, certain places. My worldview remains fairly pessimistic, however. I am not hopeful about the long-term prospects of humanity on planet Earth. But I am still pursuing my own dream of utopia, a psychological and perhaps geographical escape from a seemingly ubiquitous dystopian nightmare.

“Dystopian Theme Song” has a great classic rock feel. It reminds me of the counterculture songs that came out in the 60’s and 70’s during the Vietnam War. Who are your musical inspirations?

The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix—they are all part of my musical DNA. From the time of my adolescence, they represented for me a kind of spiritual striving through music. Later I came under the influence of Dylan, who introduced me to a more literary approach to songwriting. The Stones and the Velvet Underground taught me a more confrontational and direct approach. When I wrote “Dystopian Theme Song,” I was listening to a lot of early Bowie like Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World. But the primary influences on the sound of the track were Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Killing Joke. I consider the latter to be the most important band currently active. Though they are a product of the post-punk era, I think Killing Joke represent a continuation of that great classic rock tradition you mention. I am in awe of what they achieved on their last three albums.

Where was “Dystopian Theme Song” recorded?

Like the other 8 tracks on Carmina Formosa, “Dystopian Theme Song” was recorded, mixed, and mastered at 112F Studio in Taipei. Zen Chien, the owner and engineer, has worked in the US with artists like John Zorn and produced numerous Taiwanese bands as well. Because he is a musician himself—the drummer of the band Doodle—he has a great ear. We very much enjoy working with the “Zen Master” and we consider him our George Martin.

Who came up with the name [ai] and what does it mean?

Guitarist Oren Avni and I thought for a long time about an appropriate name for the band. We had a list of well over a hundred possibilities, but none of them was quite right. I finally stumbled upon [ai], the phonetic transcription, with brackets and lower-case letters, of the homophones “I,” “eye,” “aye” (“forever” and “yes”), “ai” (“love” in Chinese and Japanese), “Ei” (“egg” in German), and “ay” (the Spanish exclamation). As a student of linguistics, languages, and literature (especially the works of James Joyce), I delight in wordplay of this sort. Oren liked the name too, so that was it.

If you knew the world was going to end tomorrow, what would you do with your last day?

I wish I could say that I would cultivate mindfulness and accept what I could not change, but I think that is unlikely. I imagine myself struggling to the bitter end, vainly trying to prevent the inevitable catastrophe. Maybe I’ve read too much Camus or maybe it’s an indication of my spiritual weakness, but I’m not prepared to cease to exist. I want to rage against the dying of the light.

Nick Danese