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“Now I Sit in This Stinking Cell”: Mark Will on “Three Little Jailbirds”

Mark Will: As a student of Dostoevsky, I’ve always been concerned with matters of crime and punishment, and I thought the stories I had heard about people incarcerated in Taiwan would make an interesting song.
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Three Little Jailbirds

This is the sixth in a series of interviews with American expat Mark Will, the songwriter, vocalist, and bassist of the Taipei-based musical collective [ai]. In previous conversations, we have discussed “Dystopian Theme Song,” “The Kinkster,” “Now I Know You,” “Lonely God,” and “Sister Dragonfly,” the first five singles from [ai]’s debut album Carmina Formosa. I recently had dinner with Will at his flat in Wenshan to speak with him about the band’s sixth single, “Three Little Jailbirds.”

What was your motivation in writing “Three Little Jailbirds”?

As a student of Dostoevsky, I’ve always been concerned with matters of crime and punishment, and I thought the stories I had heard about people incarcerated in Taiwan would make an interesting song.

As a student of Dostoevsky, I’ve always been concerned with matters of crime and punishment, and I thought the stories I had heard about people incarcerated in Taiwan would make an interesting song. I changed some of the details, but the basic outlines are authentic: a gang of Taipei punks really did attack a Southeast Asian laborer (although I think he was from Thailand rather than the Philippines); a South African of my acquaintance really was busted for drugs; and the KMT really does have a history of using the law to persecute political opponents in the DPP. I wrote the lyrics to go with the main riff and the dirge-like chords which I had written about five years before. The song was originally called “Jailbird”—like the Kurt Vonnegut novel—but when someone pointed out that the demo sounded like a Bob Marley tune, I decided to parody “Three Little Birds.” Hence, “Three Little Jailbirds.”

Who are the three men pictured in the video?

I found that old photo in the Creative Commons, which has an endless supply of fascinating images. The men are Indian prisoners of war who were captured by the Japanese during World War II and sent to a prison camp in Singapore. They have nothing to do with the song, but since there were three of them, I thought the parallelism was intriguing.

The United States makes up about five percent of the world’s population but a quarter of its prison population. What are your thoughts on the American policy of mass incarceration?

I feel disgust and outrage. It’s utterly revolting that the country which calls itself “the land of the free” has so large a percentage of its population locked up. There are more people per capita behind bars in Police State America than in the so-called repressive regimes that the US routinely demonizes for their violations of human rights. The sordid history of this hypocrisy has been well documented. See, for example, the film 13th, in which Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, describes how the prison industrial complex is really just a continuation of slavery by another name.

Are you in favor of the war on drugs?

Of course not. It’s as stupid as all the other wars the US is currently engaged in, including the so-called war on terror. The only war I’m in favor of is the war on war. I recently signed David Swanson’s “Declaration of Peace” and pledged to “engage in and support nonviolent efforts to end all war and preparations for war and to create a sustainable and just peace.” It’s probably too late to prevent humanity from destroying itself, but I want to be on the right side of history and at least try. If we are successful, most of our other problems will be solved as well. The militarization of the police, for example, is a direct result of the militarization of society at large.

Do you think drugs should be decriminalized?

Absolutely. Drug abuse should be considered a health issue rather than a criminal matter, but America’s Puritan heritage prevents rational thinking of this sort. The moral bigots want to punish the sinners by sending them to the penitentiary—which is literally the place where the penitents go to do penance for their sins. This is grotesque and perverse in the modern world of private for-profit prisons which are supplied with inmates by a fundamentally corrupt judicial system. But I would go further than mere decriminalization of drugs. I think they should all be legalized as well. No statist authority should have the right to tell people what substances they can and cannot put in their bodies. I recently reread Gore Vidal’s brilliant essay on this topic. It is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it in 1970.

Have you yourself had any run-ins with the law?

Not recently, but that may be because I haven’t lived in the States for more than a decade. Every time I visit, though, I rent a car and wonder whether I’ll be pulled over. And if you get stopped by the police in the US, who knows what will happen? As we’ve seen time and again, cops can harass, assault, and even kill with impunity. Of course, as a middle class white boy it’s less likely I’ll get shot than it would be for certain others, but in Texas, where I usually visit, anything is possible. Back in 2005, a Houston cop driving down the wrong side of the road smashed into my car and totaled it. Although the accident was clearly the cop’s fault, his buddy blamed me for it in his report, and since I didn’t have any insurance—because I couldn’t afford it—they tried to get me to pay out of my own pocket for the damage to the cop car. I told them I couldn’t pay and they revoked my license. Fortunately, I left the States for Korea around that time and it didn’t matter. Then, a couple of years later, they reinstated me for some reason. I guess their insurance paid up and they didn’t care anymore. But I’m proud to say that they never got a penny out of me for the cop car.

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I love Oren Avni’s guitar solo on this song. It is, by far, my favorite on the album.

It’s pretty nasty, isn’t it? He’s using a slide, like he does on “Now I Know You.” He told me that before he started getting his chops up for the Carmina Formosa sessions, he had never played slide. I guess he must be a fast learner.

I understand you recently attended the Taipei International Book Exhibition.

Yeah, I was there with the Taipei Writers’ Group. We had a little booth where we sold our books. I did an interview and a reading as well. The great Chinese-American author Ha Jin, whose story collections I used to read in the early 2000’s, made an appearance too. The expo was a wonderful opportunity for our collective to celebrate literature and independent publishing and to connect with readers.

What’s the subject matter of your literary work?

At TIBE, I was promoting the first part of my epic poem, Of Letters and a Man. My translation of Fernando Pessoa’s Message is coming out in the next month or so. I’m also working on a translation of Aeschylus’ Persians. I think the time has come to revisit this classic, especially now that the US and its “allies” in the Middle East are conspiring to escalate tensions with Iran. The Western powers would do well to heed the Greek tragedian’s warnings about the hubris of imperialistic overreach, but I doubt they will. Lonely God help us all!

Where can I find your books?

Of Letters and a Man: A is available in paperback from Amazon and as an audiobook from Audible. There is no e-book yet, but I’m working on that. I hope to eventually make the other publications available in all three formats as well.

Can we expect a new video from [ai] anytime soon?

Kevin Kewley and I are still working on the video for “Dystopian Theme Song.” The basic plan for the newsroom scenario remains the same, but it’s taking longer than I anticipated to finalize the text of the headlines, the news ticker, and so on. I’m using the Burroughs cut-up technique to maximize the effect of disorientation, but quite a bit of thought must be put into it the arrangement of the various pieces. Once that’s been completed, however, we can shoot my performance during the verses. For the choruses, I will be performing with a band consisting of mannequins.

What about live shows?

That’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. Oren has told me he’s not interested in playing live at the moment. I may try to arrange some shows with other musicians, but more and more I’m beginning to think that [ai] might just be a studio band. Both the Beatles and XTC did their best work after they stopped touring, so we would be in good company. I’ve still got two albums worth of songs to record, and that takes priority over any kind of live performance. After those albums are done, I would love to start writing new material. I recently revisited the entire Pink Floyd catalogue and I now know for certain that I want to include keyboards in the arrangements of my songs. I want a bigger sound, more layered, more mysterious and complex, more dramatic, more dangerous and experimental, with more instrumentation. I will continue to explore and expand [ai]’s sonic palette.

These are interesting developments. We’ll talk more about them next month, when the focus of our chat will be “Let Me Do It.”

Sounds good. I look forward to it.

Nick Danese