Culture Is A Weapon. Join the Fight:

Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires Confront The South and Themselves

The Alabama band continues their critique of southern white ideology on upcoming record 'Youth Detention'

/ March 11, 2017

“I know that motherfucker in the Whitehouse right now – you can see it on him – he is not a good ol’ boy. I grew up and I knew a lot of good ol’ boys in Alabama and in Georgia, and Donald Trump ain’t no fucking good ol’ boy,” says Lee Bains in his live introduction to “Good Ol’ Boy,” an unreleased track off his upcoming album Youth Detention. Lee prefaced the statement by explaining how Trump, Ted Cruz, and their ilk nefariously convince the white working class that they are their champions, while in fact promoting policies that materially hurt them, hurt people of color more, and ultimately ensure that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” It’s a perfect summary of Lee and his band’s rare socio-musical purpose: a white punk rock band from Alabama that uses their particular context to critique southern white suprematist ideology.

Bains was born and bred in Birmingham and got his musical start in Tuscaloosa southern rock outfit The Dexateens. After the group went on hiatus in 2010, he formed what would become his current group, Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires. The band has already released two records of confrontation garage punk, and their next album will be out this spring on Don Giovanni Records. The upcoming record “Is essentially about the process of socialization in youth as it takes place around gender, class, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and the like, as rooted in my personal experience and observations growing up in Birmingham,” says Bains. “We all worked harder on it than anything we’ve ever done.”

After growing up in Alabama, Bains left home to attend college in New York. While studying and learning in the city, Bains realized he needed to take his new insights and apply them thinking about power back in his home state. “I started asking questions of myself and where I called home,” he says. “I started to see on some level what Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to as the ‘erasure within whiteness.’ I started to see that, in the context of Birmingham, I was defined simply as white – essentially an absence of color, an absence of markers, an absence of ethnicity. But whiteness – that idea of white as normal or an absence, or as a transnational culture (rather than just a position of power) – had actually worked to not only crush peoples who weren’t allowed to be white, but also worked to subjugate white workers by preventing solidarity with other workers and to erase ethnic and regional and religious cultures within whiteness. And that led me to think more critically about how I – as a white Southerner – am an heir to colonialism, slavery, patriarchy, nativism, worker exploitation. So, I tried to confront and investigate my own cultural memory.”

The Glory Fires’ previous album, 2014’s Dereconstructed, was a manifestation of Bains’ attempts to grapple with these ideas. On “The Company Man,” Bains condemns Bull Connor and those like him who publicly performed a Christian piety, but all the while profited off racist policies and violently suppressed Civil Rights protests. Bains knows the history of his state is complex, though, having bred both bloody oppression and powerful resistance. He speaks to the frayed beauty and potential of his home on songs such as “The Weeds Downtown,” singing “Consider the weeds downtown / and how they grow…Paris and New York don’t have honeysuckle vines like the ones on 32nd Street / I know that Birmingham gets you down / but look what it raised you up to be.” The album is full of the contradictions of coming to understand, love, and simultaneously challenge the place you’re from. Summarizing his band’s conflict and drive, Bains says, “I’m really fortunate to be in a band with three people who are always stoked to travel around and see different places and meet different folks, but who, at the end of the day, love our hometown and state and region more than any place on earth, and who – not in spite of that, but because of that – are moved to call it on its bullshit.”

On Youth Detention, Bains covers similar themes, with a heightened urgency befitting our current political situation. Tracks like the unreleased “White Wash” hit on a personal desire that more privileged people need to be feeling: “I don’t want to be an absence / I don’t want to be the great silence / I don’t want to be a whitewash / turning places into sets, turning people into objects.” In a live set of the new material at Caledonia in Athens, GA, Bains introduces the unreleased song “Nail My Feet Down to the South Side of Town” with an ode to what it means for him to be from Alabama under the Trump administration: “We as a people and as the engine of a representative government have done a really terrible job at defending the rights of Alabamians. Alabamians of color, women Alabamians, LGBTQ Alabamians, Latino Alabamians, this is about reclaiming that motto… and making that spirit manifest in our policies. The motto of Alabama is ‘we dare defend our rights.’ We aren’t doing a very good job of that.” Lee Bains III’s read on our current moment and his place in it is nuanced, not nihilistic or self involved. His honestly in turn challenges his audience to consider deeply where they are coming from.

The band chose to put Youth Detention out on Don Giovanni Records, the fiercely independent label that’s continued putting out an increasingly necessary set of releases with each coming year, such as Aye Nako’s Silver Haze to be released April 7. “I’m really honored to be putting this record out on Don Giovanni,” says Bains. “[Label head Joe Steinhart] approaches the label with the clear priorities being the art and the ethics, and that is so powerfully inspiring and empowering to me.” Youth Detention is still awaiting a specific release date but will be out this spring, a fitting time since it’s a great soundtrack to a change in climate.

“Being in a band is a very emotional and complex position to be in,” Bains explains. “You’re with a group of people in a small space like a van for a really long time and then your share these experiences away from your home together and it brings you closer. It also makes you less likely to take people’s excuses and you’re able to kind of call each other in or out a lot easier.” That trust, communication, and vulnerability is necessary for a band of white men from the South playing loud rock music with a message that might not be easily read by the audience without the band investing a lot of intention.

So we’re lucky that Bains and his band are so set on coming at their music with a clear purpose, because we need more people with privilege honestly analyzing and pushing themselves and their peers. As Bains says: “If I want to confront the South, I need to confront myself, and vice versa. I don’t know anything about being from a grand metropolis like New York City, so I can’t do a very good job of creating art or resisting in that context. (Although there is just as much for folks up there to make art about and resist as there is down here.) But I do, to some meager extent, know the Deep South, and particularly Birmingham (even though the more I dig into it, the more I realize I don’t know). It’s important to me to be both who I really am and where I’m really from, and to listen to my neighbors (black, poor white folks, latinx, Muslim, women, LGBTQ, etc), who have long struggled under systems that have worked to privilege me and people like me, and to learn from them how to fight those systems. And there are a lot of us trying to do that.”

You can catch the band on tour at SXSW and throughout the South this month.