“It… Is… Later… Than… You… Think.”
These ominous words, accompanied by the slow tolling of the bell, seep into your ear drums, but in no way prepare you for the onslaught that is about to be visited upon your stereo. A fanfare of trumpets, and the roar of a Gibson SG routed through twin Marshall JCM 800 half stacks sound the final battle cry of the Bay Area’s Mothercountry Motherfuckers from across space and time. “G.I. Joe motherfucker cock rock-n-roll / Mama’s baby blue-eyed boy out on a death squad patrol” There will be no flag waving on Confidential Human Source.
I have a difficult time talking about MC/MF guitarist and vocalist Sarah Kirsch’s bands. There is such a density of things to discuss and explain, it can be difficult to talk about in brief. From the actual music on the records, to the packaging and multitudinous liner notes and inserts, and the incredibly rich symbolism, historical and philosophical allusions, and the ample repurposing of pop culture, there is literally and figuratively a lot to unpack.
If you are familiar with the name Sarah Kirsch, then Mothercountry Motherfuckers need no introduction. But for the uninitiated, MC/MF is the final project of one of the Bay Area punk scene’s most stalwart and prolific musicians. Kirsch died in 2012 of complications stemming Fanconi Anemia, halting the work on Confidential Human Source, the core of which had been recorded but was still largely unfinished. At the time of her death, it was unclear if the album would ever see the light of day at all, but in 2015 rumors surfaced that many of Sarah’s long time creative partners and friends were working to complete the album. In October of 2016, Will Killingsworth of Clean Plate Records began to tease the project’s completion and subsequent release in early December, exactly four years after Sarah Kirsch’s death. In nearly every aspect, Confidential Human Source serves as a tribute to Kirsch’s spirit.
Carrying on in the footsteps of earlier Kirsch projects like Please Inform the Captain This is a Hijack(PICTIH) and Baader Brains, Confidential Human Source is the final chapter in a loose conceptual mythology that was introduced on PICTIH’s self titled 12”. The various permutations of this mythos all tell the tale of group of revolutionaries who travel across time and space fighting against the depredations of Capitalist society. All the entries of this sprawling body of work are told through equal measures of D.C. inspired hardcore and sample heavy agit-pop interludes crafted by producer Crisco Thunder. While certain details shift, the core elements remain the same. Are our heroes the automatons of the Android National Liberation Front, or the Baader Brains freedom fighters, off shoot of the Young Tigers Free Organization? And just what is the role of Dr. Leslie in all of this? Radical leftist politics, revolutionary history, sheaves of supplemental inserts to further educate the listener as the band fights the forces of the bad governments of history and the world. Simple punk rock it is not.
Stylistically, Confidential Human Source sits somewhere between PICTIH and Baader Brains on the spectrum. It’s a tough call to make as the bands all sound roughly similar thanks to a core creative unit of ex-members of the Bay area’s Bread & Circuits and L.A.’s Former Members of Alfonsin, who both dealt in a brand of hardcore heavily influenced by late 80’s D.C. bands like Swiz, Fugazi, et al. This influence has carried through most of Kirsch’s work since the early 90’s (Her early 90’s project Fuel is often jokingly referred to as Fuelgazi due the obvious musical cues borrowed from the D.C. post hardcore progenitors.) and is still evident on Confidential Human Source alongside Kirsch’s signature guitar work. “White Belly Rat” calls to mind previous work in Torches to Rome and Bread & Circuits with its alternating vocals, chord progressions and shouted bridge and lyrical rhythms. Likewise “Tiny Cups” feature’s Kirsch’s penchant for reworking her older riffs into completely new creations. Compare the opening riff here to Bread & Circuits’ “Nuremberg Principles”.
Thematically, Confidential Human Source takes aim not only at the obvious targets (the Deep State, U.S. hegemony and imperialism, corporate greed) but also at the costal liberal elites who often talk but fail to act on their opposition to the status quo. “White Belly Rat” calls out those “activists” who attempt to stimey the diversity of tactics used at protests by pleading for peace and colluding with police to arrest fellow protesters. Specifically inspired by the protests that erupted in Oakland after the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle, this furious track declares, “when the town goes dumb/Some rats will run/To guard the merchants’ fruits/But I salute the Broadway youths/Who held back Hitler’s troops”.
Now 8 years on, “White Belly Rat” still packs a tremendous punch, showing how very little progress the center left bleeding hearts have made. Also at work is MC/MF’s member’s arcane knowledge of political and radical history. Buried in the lyrics of the anti-gentrification anthem “Public Policy Paper” are mentions of the Yolanda Ward, a young African American community activist who was gunned down in 1980 after presenting a paper “Spatial Deconcentration” detailing how the U.S. government orchestrated depopulation of minority and poor neighborhoods in inner cities to freeze land stocks for gentrification. There is speculation in some circles that Ward was not killed during a robbery as police determined but was assassinated to silence her. Add to those references the Spanish fascist Falangist ideology, classical allusions to the River Lethe, Adam Smith, and Rhodesia’s Selous Scouts. This is all in a single song of seven total on the album. To say that Confidential Human Source is a dense work would be a gross understatement. These are subjects referenced in the songs, but none are the actual subject, which is the struggle of everyday people against the predatory capitalism practiced in mush of the global North West. Yet while some tracks are full of things mentally dissect and study, one remains uncharacteristically thin on detail. Consider title track “Confidential Human Source”, which while advancing the overall conceit of the PICTIH/Baader Brains/Mothercountry Motherfuckers mythology, is perhaps the most thematically nebulous song the collective ever put to tape. I have my own theories that I am hesitant to spout off about on the interwebs, I’m happy to share with you in an intimate conversation in my dimly lit hovel surrounded by precariously stacked boxes and CD cases that threaten to collapse at any moment, provided that my upstairs neighbor’s don’t first fall through the ceiling due to a rotted floor joist and years of landlord neglect.
Further filling out the album is a series of sample heavy agit-pop interludes crafted by Crisco Thunder. These are full of both well known sources (Mr. Spock, Joe Strummer) but also full of obscure clips from news reels, tv shows, Sci-fi movies, and so on. These interludes have been appearing on Kirsch’s records for quite some time, most notably on the releases of Please Inform the Captain and Baader Brains. Yet they have their roots in the use of several passages from the film The Omega Man, and Fela Kuti samples that were used on Bread & Circuit’s self titled 12” in 1998. There’s not much to say about them. The beats are fairly interesting, and if you dig them check out Crisco Thunder’s solo work, but depending on your perspective, they either add some character to the seven songs presented, or they serve as filler. I personally think the interludes serve to flesh out the concepts the album presents, and are integral to the Motherfuckers’ vision.
Perhaps the stand out track on the album is “Gates of Renault”. Inspired in partly by the 1947 strikes in France which began when workers effectively shut down the automaker’s factory and set off a wave of strikes across France that would last the rest of 1947, “Gates of Renault” was the track chosen to tease Confidential Human Source. It is really the heart and soul of the album. An anthem of resistance, “Gates of Renault” calls on people to roll up their sleeves and begin the hard work to forge a better future. In these chaotic times when it seems that there’s a march or protest every weekend, it can be easy to forget that the March, the protest, the Black Bloc are the fun parts of activism and struggle. Future generations will judge us not by weather we marched or went to the benefit concerts, but on what our efforts day to day actually accomplished. We must work to ensure at the least, if we fail in our efforts, it was not due to our own apathy. More important are the following lines: “But with language strung between us/ And words that build like steel/ A bridge built between us/ Can sometimes seem so real”. The sentiment that our words matter is one that Kirsch often spoke of throughout her life. Language of some sort is the foundation of our relationships, and frame and enables our understanding of reality. We may use it as a weapon, or use it to heal. It is telling that the Mothercountry Motherfuckers’ logo was a Heart inside the cross hairs of a rifle scope.
In 2016, many fans of Sarah Kirsch’s projects lamented that her voice seemed to be gone at a time when it was needed most. Confidential Human Source has become a final missive to the faithful. Delivered long after Sarah had left this coil for Procyon, the songs here feel like a parting gift, found among a departed loved one’s personal belongings. It is by its very nature nostalgic. We will never hear Sarah Kirsch’s voice again. It is time to take up the banner, and for a new generation to take up the fight.
“Sat down to write this letter/Five years ago today/With the hope that I might find/Something more to say/But the gates have long froze solid/Heroic words are gone/As we wait out our days with cathode rays/That never really numb”