Vortis Interview

'God Won't Bless America' is the group’s second album on Thick Records, and most of the songs were written in the period between 9/11 and America’s invasion of Iraq. The disc was recorded live before a crowd of fans at Überstudio Chicago and all of the performances were first takes—to better capture the energy of the vortex. The album is filled with guitars that cut, slash and burn from G. Haad, along with the floorboard loosening rhythms of bassist Johnny Los and Chicago Sun-Times and Sound Opinions music critic Jim DeRogatis. I spoke with Mike W. (FT) and Jerry about their excellent new album as well as the current state of world affairs.

Please introduce yourself to the readers.  What is your name and what do you do in Vortis?

Mike W. (FT): Vortis is the vortex of sounds and meanings created by the INDIVIDUAL Contributions of its members, each of whom defines for himself what Vortis is and means. Nobody speaks authoritatively for Vortis. Vortis exists through the unique perspective of each of its members. As a member of Vortis, I am FT (Fellow Traveler) aka Mike Weinstein. I write lyrics, manifestoes and FAQ's; front the band as its vocalist; and contribute musical ideas.

Jerry: G. Haad, and I play the guitar.

In the opening of "Fight The War Again" there's an audio clip that states that the Bush administration has an obsession with Iraq.  Why is this?  Is Bush just trying to finish what his father couldn't finish?  Looking out only for his friends with interests?

Mike W. (FT): Dubya Bush's obsession with Iraq is not his own idea. He is a tool of his teams of advisors who often fight among themselves, so whoever gets his ear has his way. The imperialist adventure in Iraq is primarily the work of a clique of defense "intellectuals" who took over the American security bureaucracies when Bush won the presidency. For more than a decade, they had been saying that the U.S. has a window of opportunity to become the permanently dominant world power if it plays its military card and is willing to fight pre-emptive wars to squelch any potential military threat and to protect its interests in strategic resources, such as oil. After 9/11, this clique got its chance to put its advice into practice by piggybacking its imperial designs on the "War on Terror." The Iraq adventure is their first experiment. Given its dismal failure, it's probably their last one.

By the way, I'm not talking conspiracy. The warmonger clique (think Paul Wolfowitz) has been completely up front about its policies; they are clearly stated in the Bush administration's National Security Strategy, which received front-page coverage when it was released in 2002, but seems to have gone over the heads of the American public.

Jerry: I think any country has an obsession with land and territory; study medieval/warlord societies throughout history.  In World Wars I & II, the United States couldn't wait to extend its tentacles to Europe and Asia, and the results for this country were huge.  Trade and economic expansion secured this country's crown.  Our influence worked in Europe because we shared cultural heritage and mores; they were accepting of our takeover.  We thought Japan's success would naturally continue into Korea and Vietnam, and we all know how those stories went.  Our current obsession is with yet another valuable piece of real estate, and this too will fail.  As "evil" as the Nazi's and Soviets were, we at least shared a cultural heritage that made our authority more palatable.  Our influence and ways aren't accepted in a Muslim society, and they don't have to be, but if there is a potential profit to be made by some, send in the soldiers and give up the ghost for franchise dollars.

What do you think about the United States and their "policing" policy? 

Mike W. (FT): I do not believe that U.S. policy is to police the world; rather U.S. policy is aimed at fulfilling the interests of the segments of the American ruling class that currently hold power. Where those interests aren't in play, the U.S. turns a blind eye to bloodshed and brutality. Does the United States play cop in the Russian conflict with the Chechens, the Turkish conflict with the Kurds, the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians, or the Sinhalese conflict with the Tamils in Sri Lanka (just to cite a few current violent struggles)? Did the U.S. lift a finger recently when Liberia fell apart? The U.S. horns in when the interests of its elites are at stake. Since I take an anti-imperialist stand, I oppose American adventurism.

Jerry: Personally, I feel we're following the failures of Rome.  Rome spread itself thin all over the world.  The state itself began to fall, and all of the rest collapsed.  I feel our policing is an excuse for us to plant flags and establish business ties.  Doing so, we're making new enemies, making sacrifices, and sacrificing others so that a minority in this country can make some new profit.  While some are making huge profits by our imperialism, I mean policing policy, look at the state our our country now morally, educationally, and economically.  Look at the wars with which we are currently involved.  The writing seems to be on the wall.

What are the key steps to have America gain its respect in the world, like we had after World War II?

Mike W. (FT): I'd just as soon see American power taken down a few pegs - so that the international system would be more multi-polar than it is now - as to have America regain whatever "respect" it might once have had. But, if respect is the issue, then the U.S. can try to get it back by taking a cooperative approach toward allies and using diplomacy as a first resort and force as the very last resort.

Jerry: You've got to remember that with WW II we dealt mostly with a Catholic/Judaic culture.  As "evil" as the Germans and Italians were, we at least had a lot in common with them culturally.  We were able to nudge into that war and be accepted.  Not only that, we were asked to help.  We didn't impose ourselves in the same way that we are now.   You'd think that we'd have learned with Vietnam that some cultures don't necessarily agree with or want our influence.  The Middle East and Muslim culture is far cry from the Europe we elbowed into.  So how do we gain respect from the world?  Give it.  As long as we continue to go where we are not welcomed, as long as we continue to disrespect other countries and cultures, we will continue to lose the respect that we could potentially earn.

What do you think of the current generations of young Americans that don't vote?  Are they just spoiled or jaded?  Or both?

Mike W. (FT):  I think that voting is mainly a ritual to legitimate the existing power structure, although on some domestic issues like abortion rights it makes a difference which party wins elections. There are many reasons why many young adults don't vote, among them the feeling that it won't make a difference in how they will live their lives. Personally, I'm no fan of voting. There are lots of other ways to take political responsibility, like joining some movement for social change and working for its cause, participating in protest demonstrations, creating political art, informing the people around you about issues and standing up against abuses like racism in one's own immediate environment - and those are just starters. You can even work for a candidate and abstain from voting. I don't make a fetish out of voting.

Jerry: First, who do you vote for?  What candidates reflect any kinds of views that critique and question the way our society is headed?  The candidates like Nader who do make a stand, what kind of real chance do they have against the Democrat/Republican machine?  Let's be honest; we don't see realistic heroes on the horizon.  So yes, I do think they're jaded, and also lazy.  But, they're created to be lazy.  TV screens do all of the entertainment, so don't work your own mind.  Schools pass students with social promotion, so don't work period.  The mall will sell the "non-conformist" kids their pre-packaged punk rock uniforms, so don't be creative.  I'm sounding pessimistic here, but I know what we face.  This band is all about reality, and we are here to question all sides.  We challenge the current generation to start thinking and acting independently, and we're cheerleaders for those currently on the path.

What reforms need to take place in the United States to sustain our society for future generations?

Mike W. (FT):  I'm not a reformer; I think that the current system under which we live is self-destructive and that if it is left to go its own way, the future will hold in store some or all of the following: nuclear war, severe environmental degradation, economic depression, pandemics and, if none of those disasters occur soon enough, the gradual and willing replacement of human beings by engineered organisms that are better adapted to the technological environment that we have created and that intimidates us than we are. That said, if the present techno-corporate system is to be reformed, there will have to be thousands of different reforms. Among the most important would be policies of sustainable economic growth benefiting the entire world that would be consistent with the preservation of the environment and existing communities. Disarmament would be another. Also, redirection of investment and expenditure from private consumption to public goods such as environmental restoration. I don't expect any of this to happen. The system has to be changed; I don't believe that it can be reformed.

Jerry: Listen to the CD.

Do you endorse any particular political party or organization?

Mike W. (FT):  I do not specifically endorse any particular political party organization, although I have a special sympathy for anti-globalization anarchists and anarchist punks (but they aren't parties or organizations!). I do endorse everyone who lifts a finger to oppose the powers that be and who questions authority.

Jerry: Not really.  The one that intrigues me the most seems to be the Natural Law Party.  Check out John Hagelin's book Manual For A Perfect Government.  Their basic premise is treating government like a body.  A major flaw in Western medicine is that doctors treat illness as opposed to preventing illness.  Hagelin's book and party have the same basic idea:  an overhaul of government so that the government's job is to prevent social problems instead of "treating" them (welfare, jails, Medicare).  Instead of the government being the ultimate caretaker, government should give the populace the right tools (education, preventative medicine, etc) to successfully take care of themselves. I don't know if I'm doing the party or book justice, but it's worth checking out.

What is your take on all the recent anti-drug campaign commercials in the United States?

Mike W. (FT):  When I see the anti-drug propaganda, I think of all the normal and exceptional decent people who have suffered from the phony war on drugs just because they ingested some substance that happens to be illegal at the moment. The propaganda disgusts me. What people put inside themselves is their own business, not the business of the state.

Jerry: When I see the anti-drug propaganda, I think of all the normal and exceptional decent people who have suffered from the phony war on drugs just because they ingested some substance that happens to be illegal at the moment. The propaganda disgusts me. What people put inside themselves is their own business, not the business of the state.

Your new album God Won't Bless America is jaggedly raw, yet remarkably tight considering it was recorded in only one live session.  How did this come about?

Mike W. (FT): Thanks for saying that our new album is both raw and tight. We were able to record it live in the studio with one take per track, because we were well rehearsed and because we were inspired by an invited audience of good friends who gave us their energy and support.

Jerry: Vortis is a live band, that's it.  Some bands use the recording studio as their creative playgrounds and workshops, and I fully respect that.  But there an indescribable energy that happens when you play and lock eyes with the people in front of you.  For us, it truly influences how the songs are sung and played.

We did the first record, 'Take the System Down', with Brendan Burke at Uberstudio, and he really seemed to get what we were all about.  We knew the room, he knew us, we knew him, and we knew we could pull it off.  We just wanted to capture that "live vibe" that naturally happens at shows.  I'd say that we had written and were actively playing about half of this new record when we recorded the first record, so we knew the songs well.  We treated the recording session like we'd treat a show - learn the damn songs!  We recorded the whole thing in three days, and one of those days was simply setting up the mics and whatnot.

How did the special acoustic version at the end of the album come together?

Mike W. (FT): The acoustic version of the song "God Won't Bless America Again" grew out of our agreement that the song lent itself to a "folk" treatment. We're always experimenting and trying out new ideas that one or another of us suggests.

Jerry:  We'd always screwed around with doing our songs as acoustic versions.  We are a pretty intimate, honest band, and stripping things down to minimalist elements is natural for us.  I remember the four of us boozing it up in Dero's backyard - Johnny and I on a couple of acoustics, and Dero on a bunch of percussion pieces (bongo's, tambourines, cowbell, etc), and we just tried all of our songs as acoustic pieces.  Some worked in quite powerful ways, others not as much.  There's a shitty boom box tape of the whole thing lying around somewhere.  Anyway, we incorporated some of these acoustic versions into a few of our shows, and it worked great.  I remember we did a record release show where all of our gear was set up on the stage, and we previously set up the acoustic stuff on the floor by the doors in the front of the room.  We started the set electric, then halfway through marched through the crowd and did a bunch of acoustic songs on the floor.  Then we went back onstage and continued with the loud stuff; the audience had no idea what was going on! We've played acoustically in record stores, on a street corner, and people have really dug it.  This song was natural for an acoustic version, so we just said what the hell, set up the mics!

Where else did you take the other scattered audio clips from?  Is there a particular reason you chose those certain clips?

Mike W. (FT): Our drummer JDR is the master of the audio clips. He finds them to fit the songs, which is an art unto itself.

Jerry: Dero is the media-mister; he finds all sorts of fun stuff connected to the topics we do songs about.  Listen carefully...

Final Comments? 

Mike W. (FT): What I find most congenial about Vortis is that each of us feels free to contribute his special talents to the musical, visual and conceptual vortex that we create. We welcome one another's contributions; indeed, we relish and affirm them.

Jerry: Ha!  I haven't said enough? We'll continue doing Chicago and out-of-town Midwest shows throughout the year.  We won't do another longer jaunt until summer.


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