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The Expanded Story No 1 - Robert Raymond
As we reflect on our first two issues, and work towards the third, we want to start peeling away the layers of the stories we’ve already published, showing a little more of the inspiration that brought them to light. “The Expanded Story” will consist of interviews and conversations between our team and contributors. The cultural artefacts and moments already elucidated upon will be given even further vital context: why that particular thing? What about the texture of these interactions sticks with us so potently? How else have these formative cultural engagements seeped into the writers’ lives?
The first person I had the pleasure of interviewing was Robert Raymond. Robert is a freelance writer, audio engineer, and co-producer of the incredible Leftist economics podcast: Upstream. His piece, in our first ever issue, chronicled his enchantment with punk, specifically Propoghandi’s record Less Talk, More Rock.
The collaborative nature of the project reminds us of the pillars of Leftism that must be nurtured. In fact, Roberts says explicitly that when he refers to the ‘we’ or ‘I’, he’s “really referring to the project as a whole” because Upstream is him, his “co-host and also the many, many amazing guests that we have.
You can listen to Upstream here
When I asked him generally what his biggest inspiration was for starting the podcast, he tells me a story of a workshop he attended around 2015 with his co-host Della:
“put on by Joanna Macy in West Oakland [...] one of the exercises that we did at this workshop was to really envision our right livelihood. Like, what would we do if we didn’t have to make money, or make a living, if that wasn’t a thing. And what popped into my head was some version of Upstream!”
The idea behind the podcast, like Left Cultures too, was to “marry art and political education” but in a way that privileged high quality production and sound.
This is where Robert’s background as a sound engineer comes in. Not only does this lend the podcast an edge of slickness but actually helps to legitimise the ideas contained within. Talking more on the pod’s inspiration, he talks about Berkeley based radio show KPFA that had “great left leaning programming” but because it is “completely listener funded, they don’t have a tonne of money” meaning the “audio production quality was” he says kindly, “let’s just say, not always what you would hope it would be.”
Combining this with him realising how “liberal and right learning a lot of the NPR affiliate stations are” (National Public Radio), it was obvious that there was a need for well produced channels with the integrity of radical ideas. Robert points to a study which suggested that not only does the better production value add to the listener experience, but:
[it] demonstrated how people’s actual credulity or belief in the things that they hear on the radio is tied to the audio quality. So like, if something sounds really polished, people are more likely to believe it versus if it sounds like shit. And so [...] that was really inspiring to me in terms of wanting to take a turn with this new project and make it sound really good so people wouldn’t dismiss it.
I ask him how that attitude towards sound production translates to music - do we have a purer emotional response to music like punk, where the point is to be unpolished, where its rebellion is marked by its rawness?
Robert confirms that he does “hold completely contradictory views on the two”. On the one hand, with political education, our ideas are legitimised to a diverse audience when there’s some polish to the quality of the audio. However, for Robert, “with music, it’s completely different [...] I actually love unpolished raw music”. And this doesn’t just apply to punk strictly, but “with all music”.
Robert begins to expand a little on what he loves doing with his own music production. He tells me that “one of the things I’ve always tried to do is this marriage of really masterful production, but with a sense of raw genuineness behind it.” What this looks like is leaving things in that a process of polishing would usually erase:
So, for example [...] if you’re recording ten tracks, a guitar or bass drums etc, you’ll erase the dead space. So, if there’s vocals and you have your headphones on and you’re listening to the other tracks, then you’re waiting for your vocals to come in, then you start singing, and then you take a break and you’re listening to the rest of the track and take a drink of water or something.
He cites the band The Microphones as a prime example of leaving in these moments of pause, offering “the sounds of the music being made, in a meta kind of way”. This gives listeners what he describes as “the authenticity and the real, human part of recording and making music”.
These moments of contextual sound, those “meta” and “real, human” parts of making art in general, are found throughout cultural history. I mention Andy Warhol’s ‘divine accidents’ in his screen printing process, Robert bringing up filmmaker Werner Herzog, who “talked about certain scenes that he’s captured being a result of being in the right place at the right time and just a lot of luck”. In general, for him “those accidents and that happenstance is such a huge part of art.”
Returning to music specifically, I ask Robert about some of the other formative bands and records throughout his life. He mentions “Fugazi, Dead Kennedys, Gray Matter, Hüsker Dü, Minor Threat” as other particularly inspirational bands. It’s not just punk though; it’s clear throughout our conversation that Robert just loves music, anything where “the lyrics and the melody and the music itself speaks to me”. This is clear when the conversation goes from The Beach Boys to this collection of formative punk titans, through to The Weakerthans, who are “still one of my favourite bands”.
This is because music in general, art in general, and our emotional response to it, is something that runs counter to the systemic restraints of neoliberal capitalism. As Robert says, “music that speaks to your soul and which evokes human emotions that are continuously being flattened and exhausted within capitalism…that kind of music can be really extremely political. Because just the act of feeling something other than greed or productivity is sadly, I guess, somewhat radical at this point”.
When we move on to what else we can do as leftists, other than continuing to feel these human emotions and engage with art that speaks to our souls, Robert provides both a sense of hope and practicality. He tells me, “I’ve been reading a lot about the Russian Revolution [...] and one of the big shifts” was that people were saying “we need to stop writing these long ass fucking incomprehensible books and we need to move to pamphlets, because our audience isn’t other coffeehouse radical and the intelligentsia. Our audience are working people”.
But this is not to say theory should be avoided. Robert and I agree that Lenin was right when he said “without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement”. He says that “familiarising yourself with the theoretical foundations that underlie a lot of work that we do is absolutely crucial”. And this is what Upstream does: the accessible dissemination of important, theoretical ideas.
He explains “I don’t know how conscious this was necessarily. Or deliberate. But I think that our role in this ecosystem is connecting with people who are unconsciously, or maybe superficially, sympathetic to anti-capitalist ideas. People who know there’s something wrong, but they don’t necessarily have a language for it, don’t fully understand it.”
We end the conversation with an extended compliment from Robert as he tells me how he sees Left Cultures being a project much like what we’ve talked about earlier:
“The pairing of stories and artwork in cultures is really, really important. And the way that art can complement radical texts and round it out and make it whole, just speaks to you in a way that simple words can’t. And I think that’s profound.”
Completing this interview and getting to speak to Robert about his politics, his influences, the passions that continue to shape the podcast, I’m inclined to agree. It’s a pleasure to be part of an ecosystem that allows for this cross-disciplinary engagement, getting excited with other leftists about the things that shaped our leftism.