Portland, Oregon is well known for its great punk scene and Red Dons are one of the finest representative. They are nomadic punk band as their members spread out across Europe and the United States. Despite the distance between them, they`ve managed regularly to record and tour around the world. Last week they have published their tenth vinyl, 7 inch record “Genocide/Letters” which is available now through Man In Decline Records.
Interview by: Zgro
Photos by: Pere G Ejby, Dave Forcier, Convertido Photography, Fernandez Serrano (4)
Red Dons is great small band (If I can say that)… Can you introduce yourself and let us know how did the band start and where you have been playing before? Also what is going on with your side projects/bands: The Observers, Endless Column, Thee Spivs, The Stops…?
Douglas Burns – Hi, my name is Doug. I play guitar and sing. As far back as the early 2000’s, Daniel (Hajji) and I talked about doing a project together. We wanted to call it Red Dons. That name was a moniker the British media used for a group MI6 agents who defected to the Soviet Union. Daniel and I began writing songs for the project around 2003 whenhe returned to Portland after living in the Middle-East. However, we didn’t start playing Red Dons shows until 2006. Before that I was busy doing a band called The Observers. Red Dons released our first EP and LP in 2007. I currently also play in a band called Endless Column. We are based in Chicago and hope to have an LP out by the end of the year.
Daniel “Hajji” Husayn – Hello, I’m Daniel. I play bass. Besides Red Dons I have played in Clorox Girls, Chemicals, Suspect Parts, Thee Spivs, Role Models, and MiSC. The bands that are currently active are Role Models with a LP due at the end of summer and MiSC with a 7” this spring.
Ruby Sparks – I’m Ruby. I play rhythm guitar and sing backing vocals. My other band, The Stops, is currently writing songs for a 2nd LP. I joined Red Dons after Zach left the band in 2015.We all like to play and write similar types of punk, I was a reliable person to have on board for the upcoming tours, and we all respect each other. Joining was a no-brainer.
Richie Joachim – Hello, I’m Richie and I play the drums and sing back-ups (sometimes).Red Dons had been an active for a little under a yearbefore I joined. It was 2006. They had two shows booked in Portland right before departing on a North American tour. I made sure not to miss either show. I had previously played for a short while in two of Doug’solder bands and was always a big fan of his art and music. I thought Red Dons was the best thing coming out of Portland at the time and I wanted to be a part of it. Sure, I was playing in other bands and having a good time, but THAT band, Red Dons, was where I wanted to be. At one of the shows, I walked up to Doug and Daniel and told them each about how much I loved what they were doing. I let them know that if they ever needed a drummer for any reason whatsoever,that’d I’d do it in a heartbeat.
A couple weeks later I got an email in my inbox, subject line read: “Urgent message for Richie”. I slid back in my chair in excitement and disbelief. Their drummer went home halfway through the tour. I couldn’t fly out and finish the tour so Doug hopped a plane back to Portland and we started practicing. Daniel and Justin got back to town ten days later and we recorded our first LP “Death to Idealism”.
Douglas – The band has been somewhat nomadic ever since. Justin moved to Spain later that year which started our guitarist carousel. By 2009, Daniel was living in London and I had relocated to Chicago.Richie is the only member who has lived in the Portland area continuously.
As Red Dons has always drawn on an emotional element for the lyrical and musical content. Where do you get your inspiration?
Daniel – A lot of it, at least for me, comes from personal experiences. In a way, it is an attempt to understand what is going on in our lives and in the news. The lyrics can be a study of what we see and hear around us or sometimes simply a look at personal situations we are forever tied to.
Richie – Yes, for example, Hajji survived some pretty dangerous situations while studying in Amman. Many of our early songs are about that. A lot of the other material is from Doug’s experiences over time. There are many songs about moving from place to place, searching for where you belong, or even just relationship stuff. It’s all based on things we’ve all gone through and relate to.
Douglas – Just to expand upon what Richie is referring to by Daniel’s experiences, I’d like to explain how we often use the song writing as a tool for understanding issues in our personal lives. Daniel moved to Amman, Jordan ten days before the 9/11 attacks. As one of the only US citizens in a large middle-eastern city, he became a lighting-rod for anti-America sentiment. Daniel endured intense harassment and when he returned to Portland he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We just didn’t know it at the time.
Eventually we found that the only way Daniel felt comfortable talking about his experiences in Jordan was through music. Daniel and I lived together at the time. He wouldn’t leave his room. He wouldn’t cut his hair or nails. It was supposed to be his last semester of university but he wasn’t going to class. Something was off. Every now and then, usually over a drink, he might tell me something that happened to him. I would then write lyrics around the story. When I read the lyrics back to him, he would nod. He would say something like, “well, that pretty much sums it up”. Then, he’d never talk about it again. Preforming the songs became cathartic and ultimately therapeutic for him. Some of the early examples of these songs are “West Bank” and “Room 322”. Both songs are featured on our first EP “Escaping Amman“. West Bank is about a bus he was supposed to be on that was blown up by a suicide bomber. “Room 322” is about his PTSD. We’ve basically followed that template for our songs. The lyrics tend to be autobiographical and usually focus on subjects that members in the band aren’t comfortable talking about openly.
How do you think your sound has developed through years from Escaping Amman and Death to Idealism to Dead Hand of Tradition?
Douglas – That’s an interesting question. I’m not exactly sure how our sound has changed. How would you describe the way it’s changed?
Richie – I think we’ve just come to a place where we realize that sometimes,”less is more”. Each one of us has a specific style and approach to playing that jived from the get-go. After years and years of making music together we’ve come to a place where there’s no egos, our short comings are known, and we build upon our strengths in friendship,musicianship, and overall commitment to what we do, without struggle.We have a slightly better perspective of what our sound is.
Daniel – I think our sound over the years has developed a lot. There are core ideas to how we write and the approach to playing, but over time we have pushed and pulled and experimented with what is possible and with our limitations. It is not just about writing music but learning about it and playing with the theory and ideas behind it. Experimenting with tempos, time signatures, and other musical ideas has been part and parcel of our exploration of sound. Indeed, I think especially in the studio our music has changed over the years, from wanting open reverby sounds to tight and compressed tracks, to this last album where we were trying much more to rely on the sound of a room rather than the sound of an effect or instrument in isolation.
Few line-up changes have been made throughout years. Ruby got into Red Dons prior to European Tour 2015. She also has her own band The Stops, while Hajji lives in London where he owns his studio. How do you manage to do new songs or rehearsal, who is the chief music writer in Red Dons and is there a specific progress you go through from infancy of the song to it being committed to record?
Ruby – With Doug and Daniel living hundreds of miles away, my only option was to hire two ex-military doppelgangers to put me through Red Dons boot camp. I didn’t even know how to play guitar yet, so I also had a chip installed in my head that gave me power-chord shred ability. In order to learn the back-up vocals, I spoke using only Red Dons lyrics for six months.
I prepared for a partial US and Canadian tour by practicing with Zach and Richie. We all met up in Chicago for a couple days of practice before playing our first show together in Detroit. It was a good test-run that helped to prepare us for a much longer European tour several months later.
I joined this band because I think the music is great and it’s something I can get behind. In terms of the future and song writing, I look forward to contributing to the next record, and eventually going on more tours.
Richie – Doug has always been the primary songwriter, but Hajji and him have collaborated on most of our songs. In the beginning, we all lived in Portland,which made everything easy. For years after Hajji and Doug moved away, we kind of lived off of a large back catalog of songs that they had written together in Portland. Recording “Dead Hand of Tradition” was completely different.There were no old songs to rely on. To develop that album, Doug flew back to Portland a couple of times. He and I would have these all-day practices where we demoed songs he’d written while living in Chicago and Rhode Island.When we weren’t in the same town, he’d send me demos of him playing guitar and singing, I’d listen to them and work on the songs in my own time with a pair of headphones and sticks. When it came time to record the LP, Hajji and Doug flew to Portland a week early. We practiced the songs day after day and did some fine tuning. In the studio, we only tracked two or three songs a day. That’s mostly because we were still learning and writing them. We would basically just practice them for a while and then when we felt comfortable enough, we’d tell Stan (Buzz or Howl Studios) to hit record. David Wolf (Daylight Robbery/Endless Column) flew out during the recording session and added some guitar tracks which really elevated a number of the songs. Jesse Michaels (Operation Ivy) contributed with some lyrics as well.
Daniel – The distance makes it very important for each band member to keep up with their own musicality, in that, you can’t go to band practice and have a part given to you or spend time developing ideas. As demos go back and forth each member has to spend time working with the music on their own. Of course, when we do get together we have to hammer out the details hard and fast.
A “Vote for the Unknown” was recorded with punk legend TV Smith as main vocal. How it has happened and do you play this song live as it is great song? Also, is there any plan to make some new collaboration with him or with anyone else?
Daniel – I was touring with Suspect Parts when our drummer (Chris from the Briefs) dragged me upstairs at the club in Manchester to meet someone. It was TV Smith. We are huge fans and he has been a massive influence on our music. A bit later I wrote him and sent him some of our records. He wrote back thanking us for the vinyl. Hesaid that he had been enjoying our records and wondered if we had any MP3’s he could listen to while on tour. It was such an honor. How often does it happen that one of your idols tells you they like your music?That’s when we had the idea to ask TV Smith about collaborating. We asked, if we wrote a song would he be interested in writing lyrics and singing on it. To our surprise, he wrote back and loved the idea. I have to say the lyrics are amazing, very fitting for the times and such a great fit for our music.
Douglas – There are no collaborations planned in our immediate future. But, we’re always open to working with musicians and adding people to the Red Dons family. Like Richie just mentioned, we collaborated with David Wolf and Jesse Michaels on the last LP. Jesse also helped with some lyrics on an upcoming EP. We’ve also worked with Jonny Cat (Chemicals) and John Nuclear (Insaniacs).
Are you originally from Portland? How you become punk and can you compare your local scene… how it has changed through years?
Daniel – I’m not really originally from Portland, or anywhere for that matter. I grew up around Oregon and California, and then moved to Europe for a large part of my life. I learned about punk by stealing cassette tapes from my friend’s older siblings. Once I nicked “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables” I never turned back. This nomadic existence means that I’ve been coming and going to Portland for a long time. I have watched people come and go and a kind of cycle of bands, ideas, and talent. In the end, I feel like Portland does have a continuous thread of an independent, DIY focused scene that has been a great breeding ground for music and a great educator of musicians in a DIY ethos.
Richie – I live just outside Portland in a small city called Vancouver. In Washington state. It’s as close to downtown Portland as any outskirt or suburb. I’ve been a native Washingtonian and in my own way, an Oregonian for my whole life. I got into punk as a kid in junior high school. I was pissed off, loved music, skateboarded and was eager to be aware. I found bands like Minor Threat,Bad Brains, and Descendents totally inspiring. They offered something I could related to and were exactly what I was looking. As far as the Portland punk scene, all that’s changed over the years to me are just new trends and new faces. What remains the same in this community is that bands are expected to meet a high standard of quality. That has never waned. There’s always been a very talented, earnest, and great group of people doing their best to do what they love.
Ruby – I’m the only one who can speak on this because I’m the only true Portland native. Daniel and Doug are posers so they had to get lost. Richie is from Washington so he doesn’t count on any level. Portland’s population has quintupled a hundred times over since I started going to shows in 2004, so there are a lot more people in the scene from other places than there used to be. When I was young, I knew a ton of Portland natives that went to shows and played music. The output of quality bands has waxed and waned over years since, and this city has consistently produced good music for most of that time. I don’t know what to say about the future, with punk venues going under left and right to, making way for all the really cool rich people coming here to help keep Portland weird. The explosive popularity of Portland is obviously not healthy for the city’s artistic pulse.
Douglas – Haha! Yes, that’s all ever true. Can’t argue with any of it. Daniel and I are both nobodies from nowhere. Richie is technically a Vancouvarian. So, Ruby wins! It’s funny though. I’d like to play devil’s advocate on something Ruby mentioned. I’ve always felt that Portland’s music scene benefits from something most locals say is hurting the essence of the city. Portland is trendy. New people move to the city every year. That’s lead to expensive high rise condos and other developments pushing venues further and further out of the city. The cost of living has gone up too. I agree these are all bad things. But, that influx of new people continues to introduce new ideas and voices to the scene. When I came of age in Portland, the scene was strictly segregated by genres and to a certain extent politics. There were social lines drawn. If you were a part of Group A you couldn’t engage with people in Group B. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s small waves of people began moving to the city. New bands formed that existed outside the previous constructs of the scene. This began to stir the pot. Lines were blurred, walls came down, and great music emerged. So, I’d say the changes to the city have resulted in some crucial positives to the scene along with the negatives.
What values from punk do you apply to your own personal lives?
Ruby – Society at large is focused on assets, money, security, etc. I try to bounce every fretful thought I have against the idea that I am going to die someday. Everybody dies alone, and nobody dies with money. Therefore, the best way I can exist when I’m not a Red Dons cyborg is to appreciate the non-monetary aspects of existing. I think punk embodies that idea in a lot of ways.
Richie – Idon’t wanna sound corny, but to put a basic list together, it wouldhave to be the concept of DIY, political and social awareness, anorganic, “no rules” and also a kind of “everyone’s welcome” approachto music, and a general calling of dissidence and questioning ofauthority and reality.
Daniel – From a young age punk ideas have had a huge impact on my life. From independent thought, to non-conformism, do it yourself attitude, and an adventurous approach to music. Without punk and an ideological support, I would never have had the courage to strike out on my own as a musician, or to found a studio on my own.
Douglas – Ditto.
How important is a DIY punk work ethic to Red Dons?
Ruby – DIY punk is not typically very lucrative. In fact, most people make fairly large sacrifices to be in bands. When I am feeling really amped about playing in punk bands, I just gather all the cash I have on hand and start a fire with it. If you want to tour for example, you better have a job that is ok with you leaving for several weeks a year, and hopefully said job makes you enough money to afford a plane ticket/gas money/scabies insurance. Working nights is also a problem since that’s when you play shows. Basically, you have to be pretty self-motivated to make it happen.
Douglas – The DIY work ethic is very important. It’s what drives us. I think one of the most valuable lessons about DIY is that you have to work hard and be self-determined. We don’t make music or art that appeals to a large commercial audience. Therefore, very few people or institutions in the world have a vested interest in helping us get ahead. We wouldn’t be able to do what we love if we didn’t make it all happen ourselves.
Daniel – I would say the DIY punk work ethic is of paramount importance. Each step of the way from booking, to touring, to recording, to writing, to art, we try to find a way to do it ourselves. Either by learning through mistakes or calling upon the greater punk community to help.
Richie – Everyone may have their own definition or version of what DIY means.In our case, it’s literally us booking shows, booking tours, making flyers and merchandise ourselves. The music, the art. It’s solelyus, and our extended Red Dons family. Every Red Dons record we’ve made, Hajji had a part if not a whole, whether it be mixing,recording, engineering, and mastering. We do everything out of our own pockets, as well. For the ten plus years of being in this band, I’ve centered my life around whether or not my day-to-day lifestyle could afford me the luxury of hitting the road or serving the band in whatever circumstance or capacity it/we needed. We’re married to it.
Doug, you are an artist, am I right? You are making all Red Dons artwork. Each record has some collage with message in different language (Greek, Arabian, Russian, French…). Any explanation of your artistic rebus?
Douglas – Yes, I make visual art as well as music. I do the collages and actual assembly of the art you see on Red Dons records. But Red Dons art is another example of collaboration between Daniel and I. He is far more literary than I’ll ever be. Hajji also studied history in school and has a vast knowledge of the past. The text, its cryptic messaging, and overall template of the band’s artistic aesthetic is really Daniel’s vision. I think we’re a good paring though. We each have a way of getting heavy handed in our messaging. But, we do it in completely different ways. In that regard, our collaborations serve as a good checks and balances for one another. It’s also cool to see the different ways we both approach a particular theme. He’ll do it with text and literary references and I’ll do it visually.
After European Tour (sept/oct 2015) it seems 2016 was pretty quiet… Your fans expected new single or tour. What did you do in 2016 and what are your general plans for 2017 or nearer future?
Douglas – Ha! Yes, 2016 was a quite year for Red Dons. But it was a very busy year for all of us outside of the band. Ruby spent a good portion of the year living in Berlin. Hajji and his wife moved from London to Glasgow. My wife and I had our first child. Our son was born in June. So, as you can see, most of us were unable to tour in 2016. We do however have a new 7” that we are planning to release later this year. The plan is a short tour in support of that release sometime in the Fall.
Rich – Well, actually 2015/16 we released “Dead Hand of Tradition”. As far as other activity, the only thing of mention really, was a gig we played for an old beloved punk venue in Portland, called “The Know”. The Know was shutting its doors and moving to a new venue space, because of the sky rocketing housing and property market, due to so many people moving to Portland. There were a handful of goodbye shows, and we were asked to headline the first of the last three days of shows at The Know. 2017? We should have a brand new, 2 song 7 inch coming out, and hopefully we’ll be able to squeeze in a short west coast tour.
For the end, name us few new bands which you like… any message?
Daniel – I am working on new band’s records everyday. This is really difficult to answer as there is too much good music coming out all over the world. Off the top of my head, spanning some new bands in a variety of styles (aside from our close friend projects) that I have been really into are: The Shifters, Dark/Light, Cold Leather, Aerosol Burns, PISS, Sievehead, Pierre & Bastien, Futuro Terror, Muerte, Padkarosda, The Pacifics, Murder.
Rich – Some of these bands aren’t exactly “new” as of late, but new to me over the pastyears. I’m still super stoked on Bad Future out of Seattle,Washington. No///sé out of Ventura California. Endless Column out of Chicago, Illinois. Acid Wash, Dark/Light, The Stops, Public Eye,and Piss Test. All out of Portland.
Douglas – Witching Waves and MiSC are the two bands that really caught my attention last year. Color TV and LA Drugz are definitely bands to check out too. Daylight Robbery is a band that has been around for a long time and keeps getting better. Their third LP came out last year on Deranged Records. If you aren’t aware of them, it’s time…oh it’s time.
Ruby – I just got into CC Dust, and I’ve been on a Pearl Jones and Chin Chin kick with a side of Devo. Thank you for the interview!
Daniel – Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us!