Julien Wilson: ‘Improvised music is political by nature’


If you hear the sound of a saxophone calling you to revolt, you’re not mistaken. It’s Julien Wilson, leading his Autonomous Resilience Collective,featuring Barney McAll (piano/bulbul tarang), Sam Anning (bass), Leigh Fisher (drums) and Javier Fredes (percussion), an outfit born out of necessity, that turns anger into creative energy and a call to arms, to come together and do something for our future. With a gig coming up on Australia Day eve, he had a lot to say. Seriously. A lot.

What is the Autonomous Resilience Collective?

The name, hopefully, says it all: Autonomous – the freedom to act independently and be responsible for your own affairs. Resilience – the power to remain strong and true in the face of overwhelming odds. Collective – a group comprised of equal members working together and independently to achieve common goals. The short manifesto I wrote describes ARCʼs aims. Itʼs posted here on my website.

Itʼs a concept Iʼve had floating between the back and the front of my mind for a long time now.

Back in 2009, I got to play with an Australian version of Charlie Hadenʼs Liberation Music Orchestra, convened for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, with Charlie himself. I first became aware of this organisation in the early ’90s. Firstly, the music really appealed to me as I love all the players and the sound of a larger group.

Secondly, the celebration and manifestation of music associated with revolutionary fervour and resistance to oppression, as a statement in and of itself, spoke to me about the power of instrumental music (without words) to address specific issues. Lyrics are great at conveying meaning in song, but I often find instrumental music speaks directly to the soul and allows for a wider interpretation. Thatʼs not to say that I think this will always be a purely instrumental project; I have plans to involve spoken word in and around the music. But I realised when I started researching material last year that I want the project to be more about resistance music, rather than protest songs per se.

Thirdly, the Liberation Music Orchestra has been through many formations over the years. I like the idea that the Collective can change personnel and instrumentation, radically, from one performance to the next.

2017 was the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It was also marked by a great deal of its own political turmoil around the world, much of which is increasingly xenophobic and aggressively insular in nature. There are now over seven billion people on the planet – almost twice the global population of the year I was born! I understand the protectionist attitudes of the first world nations to preserve what they have, but we need to work together, if we are to survive. There are just so many issues, all clamouring for attention, that I decided I needed to focus my energies on doing my job – expressing the human condition through music, and in the process of manifesting those thoughts as pure music, offering listeners (and the other players too) an escape hatch or release valve with which to deal with the overload of contemporary events and the increasing speed at which they move. I believe that is one of the primary purposes of music: To offer a portal for release and escape, and hopefully healing, even if only for a few seconds. What better way than by celebrating music from around the world and through the ages, whose message is struggle for unification and equality?

How does it fit in with your other projects?

Iʼve always been drawn to music that is staunchly unapologetic. I like bold, declamatory music making. Thatʼs where my regular quartet (B for Chicken, with Craig Fermanis, Chris Hale and Hugh Harvey) plants our flag, as do bands like Assumptions. I also love incredibly delicate, seemingly fragile music that builds itʼs power from subtle, gentle, almost folklike material, like my trio (with Stephen Magnusson and Stephen Grant), and SNAG. ARC is really investigating folk music that packs a punch. A song that can be sung by workers in a field, or resistance fighters in a war, by nature has to be very simple, but also very bold. Hopefully ARC combines those two things together, while offering something new as well.

What should anyone expect from your Australia Day Eve gig?

Fireworks – without the ridiculous expense. Passion – without pretense. Power – without corruption. Unity – without restrictions. Freedom – without chaos. OK… maybe some chaos too.

What does Australia Day mean to you?

Boy. Here we go – I prefer to call it ‘Survival Day’ in its current incarnation. It has only been celebrated on the date of invasion for a few years – since 1994 to be precise. I was fortunate enough to perform at the second annual Survival Day concert in La Perouse with Richard Franklandʼs band Djaambi in 1993 and Iʼll never forget it – I wore the t-shirt till it was more safety pins than cotton. As we drove in to La Perouse, I caught a glimpse of an enormous crowd on the hill opposite; looking closer, I realised they were headstones in the local cemetery. That impression, and what it represents, has never left me. There have been many alternative dates in the past. I like the idea of having a date we can ALL celebrate together. January 26th is not it. Australia Day, to me, in its current format, is a sign that, as a nation, we still have a lot of growing up to do to acknowledge the realities of the past and present, so we can move forward together in to a brighter future where we can truly celebrate people of ALL heritages, as a part of what makes this country great.

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Which names would you want to see in the Australia Day Honours list?

Rinehart, Murdoch, Howard, Dutton, Bernardi, Rechnewski, Hanson… Oh, sorry. I read “Horrors”. I believe honour has been well and truly earned by Gillian Triggs, Kon Karapanagiotidis (ASRC), Josh Wilkins (Onevoice Founder), Shellie Morris, Lynette Irwin, Michael Hohnen, Adrian Jackson and Mike Nock. Iʼm extremely happy to discover just now that Richard Frankland, Julian Burnside and Tim Flannery have already been recognised for their services.

What is the most pressing issue Australia needs to address at the moment?

Grow up. We need to grow up. Australian societal debate, like parliamentary question time, reminds me of a petulant teenager. We need to take some cues from New Zealand and stop being the USAʼs lapdog. Jacinta Ardern is really kicking arse. I hate to use such a childish expression, but I wish we had leaders with balls like hers. She is awesome. Turnbull is a neutered, timid Cockapoodle; actually, maybe heʼs more like a legless, tailless red setter. I know Iʼm only hurting myself by lowering my tone here.

We also need to SERIOUSLY look at renewable energy. We lost all our best scientists and inventors years ago. Now theyʼre building the industries of the future in California and Europe because weʼre too short sighted to support their research at home.

Julien Wilson, playing with Andrea Keller and Joe Talia | Photo: Miriam Zolin

Can music lead to social change?

Well, music with lyrics can be incredibly inspirational and motivational, and deliver a strong and direct message. Bob Marley and Fela Kuti are two shining, burning examples, as are our own Peter Garrett, YothuYindi, No Fixed Address and Shane Howard; and of course Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’; Mavis Staplesʼ ‘Eyes on the Prize’ and Billy Holliday singing ‘Strange Fruit’… and ‘January 26’ by A B Original.

Can music on its own have the same effect? I donʼt know. I like Milesʼ response to that question, that what he can offer is to name a song after Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela. I try not to say too much at the gigs and let the music speak for itself. Often I fail miserably and waffle on forever. At the last ARC event a couple of people told me theyʼd like to hear more about the stories behind the songs. Iʼll endeavor to do that briefly to give context. Every song has a great history and story and message. We play a Cuban song written for Che Guevara called ‘Hasta Siempre’, and an Italian Anti-Fascist resistance theme called ‘Bella Ciao’. Iʼve found it amazing how many people know and identify with those songs just from hearing the melodies.
The very act of performing with ARC on Survival Day eve is perfect in that it makes a statement itself. It also closely follows the ominous dual tragedy date of January 20th; tragic for Australian musicians and music lovers as it marks the day the music died on ABC Radio National; and tragic in a global sense for obvious reasons.

In line with Milesʼ thoughts, Iʼve decided to give this concert a title: Clear and President Danger. I think that says enough.

What would you say to someone who believes that music should stay out of politics?

Everything is politics. But “I just wanna do my own thing”. Sure. I can dig that. Up until the point that someone tells you can no longer do your own thing, or it just becomes unsustainable because you donʼt have any support. What is politics? Itʼs a community discussing what is best for everyone. What is music? Itʼs a community trying to connect with as many people as possible. If we had a functioning Musicians Union in this country… why donʼt we have a functioning Musos Union? Is it because there are too many people who just want to do their own thing and arenʼt community minded? I understand the need to tune out of all the craziness of the world at large to focus on “what I do”. Creating music takes a lot of time and energy. So does being involved and aware of politics. But to a degree, I hear “I just want to be apolitical” as “I donʼt care about my community”.

The songs that ARC are playing were created to motivate and unify people who were often downtrodden and oppressed. Theyʼre songs about forming unions; partisan songs about resisting fascism; songs about dividing up rich landownersʼ properties more equitably amongst the people who work on the land; tributes to revolutionary heros; songs about liberation from dictators. Weʼll play a Syrian revolutionary chant led by an incredible singer called Ibrahim Qashoush who had his throat cut by regime mercenaries to stop him spreading his message via music. Perhaps someone should have advised him to stay out of politics.

The fact is, music is a very powerful way of spreading a message. It always has been, and will continue to be. Music provides a platform that many people never get, to speak your mind in front of an audience. Thatʼs one reason I love Rahsaan Roland Kirk so much; besides his incredible knowledge and execution of such a wide range of music, he used his platform to educate and inspire. Trane did the same thing without ever articulating it in words when he wrote ‘Alabama’ and ‘A Love Supreme’.

Iʼd like to tell certain politicians to stay out of music, especially when they say dumb things like: “As taxpayer-funded Triple J and their ʻHottest 100ʼ abandon our national day for political correctness, weʼre inviting you to cast your vote by telling us your favorite [sic] 3 tracks from our #AC100 playlist” and “My favourite musician is Bob Dylan. But for the music, not the words”.

The last one was from John Howard, who also, when asked what his favourite Midnight Oil song was said ‘Beds are burning’!?! Joe Hockey is a Nickelback fan; Abbott says he likes Savage Garden – in the middle of the plebiscite campaign FFS! Mitch Fifield, after being freshly anointed as the new Arts Minister, professed a fondness for Pet Shop Boys. George Brandis (in his disastrous reign as Arts Minister) said we should concentrate on funding The Classics – i.e. long-dead European composers played by symphony orchestras; hardly a statement of Australian identity in the 21st Century, is it? Conservative politicians donʼt seem to be renowned for their taste in music.

There’s a good reason why conservative politicians tend to shut down government support structures for the arts; because artists (and cartoonists) and musicians are often the first people willing to make a statement about political attacks on those unable to defend themselves, perhaps because they have the least to lose financially. Those in power believe they can silence dissent by attacking contemporary culture. We’ve seen it as a cornerstone of this current LNP government and in the USA. A heightened sense of empathy or connectedness often seems to correlate closely with the ability to play music well, as playing music with others involves a highly tuned and spontaneous level of interaction, cooperation and the ability to compromise and collaborate. So in a sense, interactive musical performance at its finest is a manifestation of the essence of the political process of working together to create mutually beneficial solutions. You could say music, especially improvised music, IS political by nature.

Malcolm X said it more succinctly “A Man who stands for nothing will fall for anything”

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

There are three (of course, Iʼm tripolar):

Ben Salter – Nazi Paraphernalia

Akala – The Thieves Banquet

The Drones – Taman Shud

Julien Wilson and MiniARC (Autonomous Resilience Collective) are playing on Thursday 25 January at Uptown Jazz Cafe.

UPDATE: Julien Wilson and the Autonomous Resilience Collective are playing at the International Peace Day benefit concert for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre on Sunday 22 September at the Jazz Lab.