Soul Glo are paving the path to punk’s future
"I think I've just always gravitated more towards writing about emotions than writing about politics, simply because I feel like I know more about my emotions than I do about politics," Soul Glo's Pierce Jordan said with a laugh over Zoom in early March. The Philly group have been referred to as a "political punk band" and there are political songs on their excellent new album Diaspora Problems, but Pierce's quote rings true; "emotional punk band" would describe them more accurately. Pierce often sings (or screams) candidly about mental health, suicidal thoughts, abuse -- the album frequently feels like being dropped into the middle of a therapy session. And even when it does get political, like when Pierce rails against the voting system on "Fucked Up If True" or when he criticizes the left's reluctance to militarize on "We Wants Revenge," it feels just as personal and emotional as the songs about mental health. "I feel mad alone out here, and that's just how I've always felt," Pierce says. "And because of that, my personal politics have always been shaped by that -- being expected to show up and stick your neck out for ideologues who don't give a fuck about you, politicians who literally want you dead after you vote."
All of that comes across on Diaspora Problems, Soul Glo's first full-length for Epitaph, their best album yet by a landslide, and one of the best punk albums released in recent memory. It's the best-produced and most accessible sounding album the band have made yet, and that's more due to the band getting better at what they do than to having a bigger budget or more resources. Will Yip (Turnstile, Code Orange, Title Fight, etc) was supposed to be more heavily involved until scheduling conflicts got in the way, and though Will did mix and master it, Soul Glo ended up recording the album themselves in their practice space, with some engineering assistance from Evan Bernard. Bassist GG Guerra ended up taking on the role of producer, though he's hesitant to say much about that, and prefers to let Pierce do the talking. "GG's being a little bit modest but he really did oversee the entire process," said Pierce.
Throughout Diaspora Problems, Soul Glo churn out some of the most ferocious and life-affirming punk songs you'll hear all year, and they also incorporate straight-up rap songs, like the industrial rap of "Driponomics" (ft. Mother Maryrose) and the smoky, soul/funk-infused rap of album closer "Spiritual Level of Gang Shit" (ft. McKinley Dixon and lojii). Even on some of the songs that scan as "traditional" punk, Pierce's vocal cadences owe more to hip hop. When asked about musical influences, the first thing Pierce came up with wasn't a punk band or a rapper but the legendary, genre-defying funk/soul/rock/Latin band War. It's a better comparison for Soul Glo than anyone they might sound more like on the surface. Like War, Soul Glo are impossible to pin down, and they always seem like they're chasing something new, always trying to combine two things that hadn't been combined before. In Pierce's words, that includes trying to picture what it might sound like if Meek Mill rapped on a song by Vaccine, the Massachusetts straightedge powerviolence band that featured Orchid's Will Killingsworth on bass. He also talks about combining metal and hardcore in a way that eschews the typical crossover thrash formula in favor of embracing groovier metal influences like Meshuggah, and you can hear that coming through on Diaspora Problems, an album that's often more groove-oriented than your typical sturdy, militant hardcore.
Diaspora Problems is also one of Soul Glo's most collaborative projects, featuring not just aforementioned rappers Mother Maryrose, McKinley Dixon, and lojii, but also vocalist Kathryn Edwards of Nashville hardcore band Thirdface, Philly rapper Zula Wildheart, and Philly-via-London producer/DJ BEARCAT. The guests come from various musical backgrounds, and the different styles of music all come together seamlessly because Soul Glo are about finding the shared roots of various musical traditions, not drawing lines between them. And as Pierce tells it, that comes down to the fact that just about all popular music can be traced back to Black music. "Black people are inextricably linked to all forms of Western music. Like, that's just the way that it is," Pierce says. "Black people are the true culture and content curators of the entire world, but specifically Black people in America. And what I would really like is just more knowledge and respect of that fact to come as a result of having existed. We're not gonna really be able to be in community with each other the way that we should be until the acknowledgement of that fact is really played out in our culture in like really real and tangible ways that matter, and make people's lives better." With an album like Diaspora Problems putting an emphasis on this history, Soul Glo are helping to pave the path to the future that they envision.
Diaspora Problems comes out Friday (3/25) via Epitaph/Secret Voice. Watch the videos for two songs below, and read on for my chat with the band about musical influences, lyrical references, their boundary-less approach to genre, and more...
What would you say you aimed to do with this album that Soul Glo hadn't done previously?
Pierce: For me personally, I had been thinking about the album for many years, and in the early days of conception of it -- before I was even talking about it with the rest of the band, just kind of turning it over in my mind by myself -- I definitely saw it as being a very complete and self-contained work, but also something that if you were familiar with us previously, you'd be like, "This feels like the culmination of everything they've done so far." And as time went on, we started to have more specific ideas about what we wanted to do -- not even what we wanted to do, but what we felt was happening as we were making music. Through the lens of punk, I wanted the album to feel like it was a very broad look at American music, and highlighting all of the best Black influences of American music, and kind of just combine everything into punk songs. And I feel like we did it [laughs]. I feel very confident and proud of how it came out, and how it sounds. I've never been a part of a project where the songs are unique like this, in my mind. Like, I've tried to go about stuff like this in my own ways before, but this is definitely the best attempt I've ever been apart of. I just feel like, you have rock and roll vibes on there, you have funk influences, you have rap, you have metal, you have punk, you have hardcore. There's definitely more that could have been done, but I feel like those were some of the easiest things to mix with rock music that would not be disingenuous for us. We have a lot of influences, and we all have a lot of aspirations about what we want to see and hear in music, that we feel like we aren't, and that's just what we're trying to do.
What were some of the specific musical influences?
Pierce: I've talked about the band War a lot. Like with the last song, "Spiritual Level Of Gang Shit," I was really interested in seeing if I could write a punk song that had a funk vibe but was kind of more the soulful funk that you hear from that group on a lot of their lesser known cuts. I feel like everybody knows "Tobacco Road" and "Why Can't We Be Friends?" and "Low Rider" and stuff but like, "Low Rider" is like my least favorite War song [laughs]. Like they have so many songs that are kind of like, very, very long jams, but they go through all of these places and sounds and have a very strong Latin influence even though I don't think -- I mean maybe some people in the band are Afro-Latino, but I think the group is just like seven Black dudes and a white dude -- but as somebody who was born in Panama and has Panamanian family and is in a band with somebody who's Peruvian and was in a band with somebody who's half Puerto Rican, that shit was definitely important to us. It's always gonna be important to us: that influence and that musical flavor. But we also listen to a lot of rap and we've been incorporating that shit for a while now, so "Driponomics" just had to be on the album 'cause that beat is fire. But I feel like I'm also rapping on "Jump!! (Or Get Jumped!!!)((by the future))" and on "(Five Years And) My Family," which is like the hardest song to remember for some reason [laughs]. It's not hard to perform, but I haven't gotten it memorized yet. But I was definitely trying to be like, "How hard can I spit on this song?" Something that I've said to the band a lot is, "Man, how sick would it be if Vaccine had a song that Meek Mill rapped on?" Things like that, like putting together artists from different genres who have things in common, like Vaccine play fast and Meek Mill raps fast. Like usually in hardcore you don't really hear bands who play really fast and have fast vocals; usually the vocals are subdivided so it's like "uh, uh, uh-uh-uh" while another person's going crazy on the drums, you know what I'm saying? And from the start, I was like, I don't wanna feel like I'm not working as hard as everybody else in the band [laughs].
And even just with something like mixing metal and hardcore, I feel like the very popular style of metal and hardcore mixing right now is to do stuff that kinda sounds like Slayer mixed with stuff that kinda sounds like Cro-Mags or something. And like, that's cool, and I think everybody's fucking with thrash right now because a lot of the bands who are doing that sound are coming out of the West Coast where thrash was largely born. But I've always liked grooves, I've always liked shit you can throw ass too, like Meshuggah's one of my favorite metal bands because you can throw ass to it. I feel like, if we're gonna approach that, we're gonna do it a little bit more like that: stuff that's less the thrash headbanging stuff, and more like you could headbang to it but you could also body-wave to it.
I love the Cannibal Ox reference on "Coming Correct Is Cheaper." Is Vast Aire an influence too?
Pierce: Oh for sure. Vast Aire showed me that there was like rap that I could be interested in. I grew up in the suburbs, so gangsta rap felt weird to listen to. I wasn't trying to like, pretend to be something I'm not. And Cannibal Ox raps -- I mean The Cold Vein is about living in the city, which I still hadn't experienced at that time -- but it was just the approach, and having it be super metaphorical. Before that, I hadn't really heard any rap like that. And there are a lot of rap references in the album, just about songs that really mean a lot to me and artists who really mean a lot to me. I hope one day somebody writes some kinda article that's like "Every Rap Reference on Diaspora Problems," I would like that very much, to see if everybody gets covered.
Why do you think punk and rap work so well together? In your opinion, what do they have in common?
Pierce: They come from the same social tradition of dissent, and that tradition is also tied up in rock and roll, jazz, blues, and blues obviously comes from negro spirituals, and both of those genres are just late 20th and 21st century permutations of that feeling of dissatisfaction. So it just makes sense. It's just one got colonized before the other, although the other one is well on its way. So that's the main thing, and that's why right now the aesthetics are totally bleeding into each other. Like, punk and hardcore people wanna dress like hip hop fans and rappers wanna dress like punks. I was talking about this, we were at a brewery last night doing a tour of it, and I was talking to this dude who works with the brewery, and he was saying he was in Florida a few weeks ago to see Bjork -- Bjork is one of his favorite artists -- and he was wearing some metal shirt and people were looking at him funny. And it's like, we're all here to see Bjork, we're all Bjork fans. And I was like, yeah dude, I saw Yo La Tengo a few months ago, and I had my grillz in and shit, and I'm also just like, very much a nigga, and it's all these old white dudes from the fucking 'burbs just staring at me. And it's like yo we all have the internet. I feel like the time of people forming identity based around the music they listen to is slowly going away. I think ideology will always be tied up in some form to every genre of music, but as shit gets commodified more and more, people are making shit that doesn't really have any personal ideology or political ideology attached to it; people just wanna enjoy the music for what it is. Like, you can have a band like Blood Incantation, and you can have a band like Cephalic Carnage, and you can have a band like Babymetal -- those are all three very, very different artists, but they're all considered metal. And you know, it's like, different people are gonna prefer different things within the sphere, and their identities aren't gonna be so wrapped up in that shit. I think it's gonna eventually get to a place where it's just like anybody can look like anything and be a fan of anything, which I think is how it should fucking be anyway.
Even in the mainstream, punk and rap have really been crossing over lately. I mean the emo-rap thing is really big...
Pierce: That was when I first started to call it. I'm not gonna lie to you, like, I never was like fucking with Lil Peep, but when Lil Uzi was wearing like Tripp pants to the Grammys and shit, I was like, "Oh, this is happening." Then I heard Scarlxrd like not too much later, and I was like, "Oh this is really happening! This has been happening!" Like niggas are screaming and rapping but it's like, it's both, it's just both. To me it's like, much more interesting. I feel like this is a great time to exist.
Totally. And on a more underground level, where things tend to be more tribal, are you kind of hoping that Soul Glo can help bridge that gap for some people? Maybe help some hardcore kids realize, "maybe I like rap," or vice versa?
Pierce: I feel like, that would be nice. But what I really would like, is for different types of people to be in community with each other, and have an influence on that. There's never been like one scene that's just accepted us with open arms and we were part of that, like it kinda happened with screamo for like an album and a half, but then we just kept putting more shit into our music. So at this point, I just want -- I'm a fan of music, and I really like everybody's stuff, like I don't really like to listen to my own music more than I have to because I'm more interested in what other people are doing, and I'm much more interested in other people's perspectives. Like it would be cool [if we helped bridge that gap], but what I really want is... like, Black people are inextricably linked to all forms of Western music. Like, that's just the way that it is. That's simply the way that history has gone. Like, European musical traditions have come over here as well, and I feel like the European musical tradition is based on symmetry and melody, whereas the African musical tradition is based on asymmetry and rhythm. And, in terms of punk and rap, I feel like it's much more based on asymmetry and rhythm. So as long as we as a people -- and by "we as a people" I mean like, the global community, because the United States is the biggest music market by far, and we have an influence on everything that happens in the world, which really means that like, Black people are the true culture and content curators of the entire world, but specifically Black people in America. And what I would really like is just more knowledge and respect of that fact to come as a result of having existed. It doesn't mean that there's no place for anybody else, because honestly I feel like everything is better when we work together for real, but I feel like, we're not gonna really be able to be in community with each other the way that we should be until the acknowledgement of that fact is really played out in our culture in like really real and tangible ways that matter, and make people's lives better, and we're just not there. GG, do you have any personal aspirations for the same question?
GG: I mean I just hope that people stop gatekeeping and stop gatekeeping themselves from doing something that they like doing. I feel like people are really reluctant to be as authentic as they can, and I hope that with listening to us, they can feel as if they don't have to be shut down from themselves.
Pierce, you talk a lot on the album about mental health, suicidal thoughts -- it almost feels like a therapy session at times. Was it therapeutic to open up about this stuff? Were you at all hesitant to do so?
Pierce: I'm not really hesitant. Honestly I've been writing in this way for a long time because, even before I started doing therapy -- which was like back in 2017 I think -- I was writing like that because it was the way that I was able to deal with stuff and kind of understand myself. But, I think that this album is different from anything that I've ever done specifically because I was in therapy, and had been in therapy for a while when writing this. But also, I'm just at an age now where I think I've been able to realize a lot of things about myself. I've made a lot of connections between my current self and my past self and my habits and patterns, both positive and negative. And like honestly, I think I've just always gravitated more towards writing about emotions than writing about politics, simply because I feel like I know more about my emotions than I do about politics [laughs]. It was therapeutic though, I will say that, it always is. But it's also just like, with the name of the album being Diaspora Problems, I hope people see what I mean when I say "Diaspora Problems" -- well specifically Black people, I hope they see what I mean in that all of these problems are very, very unique to us as Black people in terms of the way we experience them, and there are some things that just can't be translated outside of that path of experience. And that they are very, very specifically tied to our context as a people who have been scattered across the world. But I also am still writing about stuff that I do feel like anybody can relate to in their own ways, because that's just how art works. I mean I've grown up watching so much different media from cultures that are not my own, and I've been able to see myself in it, so I don't see why other people can't and won't do the same thing, but there is a very, very specific way that Black people will hear the album that is just gonna be different for everybody else. It's like in National Treasure, when he goes to the building that's across from the Liberty Bell, he climbs up the shit and he pulls the brick out, and it's got the glasses in it that Ben Franklin made, and it's got the lenses and shit that he can use to read different forms of the map. That's like, like niggas got all the lenses, and everybody else got just a couple, you know what I'm saying? You got the map and you can read it, but certain parts are not gonna be exactly... you know.
You mentioned that you prefer to write about emotions than politics, but there is also a political side on the album. I feel like a lot of political punk is very "us vs them," but this album is more like, "yeah but the left has problems on our side too." Was that something you felt like needed to said within the punk scene?
Pierce: Yeah [laughs], I feel mad alone out here, and that's just how I've always felt, from a kid to an adult really. That's never really changed. And because of that, my personal politics have always been shaped by that -- being expected to show up and stick your neck out for ideologues who don't give a fuck about you, politicians who literally want you dead after you vote. The punk scene is definitely a microcosm of the world at large, so I shouldn't expect it to feel any different and I never really have. I've had my fun, but it's like, some things are deeper than having a good time, you know?
You have a lot of cool guests on the album from various musical backgrounds. How did you choose who would appear on the album?
Pierce: Well, logistically, it was mostly about who is around me. Like I'm friends with everybody who we got featured on the album, except Mother Maryrose -- I didn't really know her well before asking her to be on the album, but I had just been listening to her music for quite a little bit because she's associated with some other people in Philly rap that I think are cool, and she plays a lot of shows around the city. But for everybody else, it's people I'm friends with, some are people where we're just friends with outside of punk and we just enjoy each other's music and go to each other's shows and stuff, and others are people who I met through punk and through touring and stuff. But yeah, it's just all people who I admire, and who I thought would bring out a new, sparkly side of the album... and also just because I don't want people to have to just be listening to me screaming for 45 fucking minutes [laughs]. But I feel like we're moving into a more collaborative time in punk, largely because I feel like people are getting the hang of home recording for punk, which I feel like was way behind hip hop for a long time, like decades. And just really being able to capture a new side of DIY, I think we're gonna see a lot more of what's already been happening with featuring artists and stuff like that, and artists from other sides of the music world being included. I think that's how we're gonna get to these places that we were talking about earlier with like identity not being so tied up in your music.
I very much used to be that way, and I feel like I didn't really grow out of it until we started this band. Like, we've been a band almost 8 years now, but in the time before that, I was just a young, opinionated person -- and I'm still young and opinionated, but you know -- but like, I definitely had ideas about what was legitimate and what was not that were just unfounded, and really like, arrogant, to be honest with you. I don't wanna move through the world like that. It's not constructive really in any way. I don't wanna treat people like their shit is illegitimate. Like my friend Marquis said something to me that really changed my life, he was like, "there's only two genres: bangers and flops." And I was like, damn, that is true! [laughs] And since then I've been feeling like everything has been much easier, because I can just think about things in terms of 'what do I like about music and what do I not like about music?' For me personally, I like super upbeat, crazy shit, or very emotionally heavy shit, and "heavy" just can mean so many different things. So that's just how I'm trying to go through things.
So the album's about to come out, Soul Glo's probably about to tour, but you recently mentioned that Ruben's taking a break from the band, if there's anything else you can say about that.
Pierce: About that? Very little. But what I can say is that yeah we do have plans to tour, we have a touring member and we're gonna have a new fuller time member for the remainder of the promotion of the album. But yeah, we're getting shows and stuff together, but it's been a very hectic and rocky process with that. It's just kind of our lot in life as a band it seems. There's always some crazy shit happening or about to happen.