As a perpetual touring musician, Thollem McDonas knows a thing or two about sharing a collective experience and feeding off fellow musicians’ energy. Currently McDonas is on the Private Poverty Tour with his band Tsigoti — it seems difficult to explain his sound, so we here at Smile Politely have decided to give it to you straight from the horse’s mouth.
Thollem McDonas: We are really glad to be on this tour, of course because we like hanging out with each other and sharing these experiences, and because people like our music, but also because it means people are craving the message which is that ‘war’ is killing us and we can’t afford to do it to ourselves anymore.
Which bands do you think are having the biggest influence on the political music scene right now? Why?
This is a difficult question for me to answer because I am involved in music primarily on a personal level. I don’t pay a lot of attention to national or international trends. I hear the music of people I’m playing with which is a really diverse cross-section of musicians; noise, free jazz, contemporary classical, free-improv, avant rock etc. I don’t even read music magazines. It’s not that I’m not interested, I’m just too involved in making my own music and interacting in immediate ways with fellow musicians along my travels. Also, to be honest, I feel that there is a level of too much attention. When one person or band gets elevated to such huge degrees of influence I think this is bad. I’m not interested in playing in stadiums, or anything close to that size, and I think it’s ultimately bad for music and everyone involved (except maybe the fat industry executives).
Describe your typical audience in a sentence or two.
People interested in non-commercial culture, rich and poor, old and young. I find my music is somehow accessible to a wide variety of people which is not by design, and that satisfies me a lot! In the first week alone we played a typical rock club in NY, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a May Day festival. So, the venues are different from one to the next and the audiences are as well. On my solo travels, I play in dive bars and concert halls, streets, forests, rooftops, and basements.
Describe yourself in 100 words or less.
Tsigoti is 3 parts genuine Italian, 1 part American mutt! A semi-acoustic completely anarcho party avant-punk band of pre-dead post-birth men who are sick of war, totalitarian regimes, and violent religious extremes!
For those not familiar with your sound and lyrical intention, how might you frame it?
Our sound comes from our attitude, the types of instruments we are using, and our individual and collective experiences both musical and hyper musical. I have a scruffy voice that seems to be able to take a beating. Our songs are social/political diatribes that express our anger and our sense of humor despite it all. We’ve got melodies that will haunt minds like a healing massage torture for days, maybe years, after last hearing it and we have a bunch of songs in 4 as well as in 7…We’re loud and much sweatier when we finish a show than when we begin.
I saw a comment on your YouTube video that read: “If Primus & Gogol Bordello spent a weekend listening to Jello Biafra & Noam Chomsky.” It seems like this is the recipe for Tsigoti. Would you agree? If not, what/who do you believe are your musical influences?
I think that’s pretty good, however I really prefer to never compare myself/ourselves to others. Not because we are so unique, but because if I started a list I would never finish. My brain doesn’t work well in this way. There’s been too many influences of amazing musicians, thinkers, and life experiences. My brain says, “Well, it doesn’t sound like Tuvan throat singing or West African drumming. It’s really western music (not country) with some spice whipped into it and reminds me of something somewhere between early french baroque salon music and Stockhausen…but really nothing like either…” It’s certainly not an insult however to be compared with these bands/people mentioned above, and we are in a lineage of music that is trying their best to say something integral to the human world that we feel is at a crucial moment.
You used to be named Waristerror Terroriswar. How did you get from that to Tsigoti, your current band name?
We changed our name only because we felt it boxed us in too much. Originally we had three days together with a studio in the house where Andy and Jack live outside Florence, Italy. We wanted to express our anger at governments in general and make some aggressive music in this particular way. We had no particular intention to push this as a band. Then when we started getting attention almost as an accident, we decided we preferred a different name to give us a bit of liberty in what we sing about. I’m part Cherokee and wanted to use a word from this side of my ancestral heritage in honor of it and the historical struggles of indigenous people in general. Tsigoti means ‘I see’. For me it means to bear witness, to look at the world as it is without glossing over it and/or looking away.
It looks like you have solo albums going back to 2005 — what are the main differences between writing about music in 2005 and now?
I have solo albums and duo albums and group albums of compositions and songs, structured improvisations, and free improv. Before 2005 I had spent most of my energy in grassroots political activism, guerrilla urban farming, and as a piano accompanist (a totally schizophrenic lifestyle). Then I was kind of smashed over the head existentially and realized I had to focus on my own music and nothing else for a while. Now I feel I have brought together all of my interests and skills and feel that I am somehow doing what I am supposed to do while roaming this planet in this body. I don’t know if there is much difference in the past 5 years. I try my best not to pay attention to the arbitrary names we’ve given, or accepted to what we call days. There are cycles of time that have been happening for billions of trips around the sun and 5 years is ultimately not enough time to even warrant a word in comparison. I’m not trying to be evasive, it’s just how my brain works, or doesn’t work…
Looks like you’ve performed in a plethora of places. Do you feel like performing at the IMC, a highly politicized space, enhances your performance? Or do you prefer politically neutral locations?
Tsigoti is a political band, and it would be hypocritical if we were shy of politicized spaces or if we were shy of any spaces. Also, I’m not sure there are politically neutral spots. There are places and people who don’t express the political views, but silence is a sort of politics. It’s an affirmation that you believe things are moving in the right direction, that you agree with the status quo. In this perspective there is not one involuntary action that is not political. We’re very much looking forward to sharing our music and energy and sweat at the IMC. We very much hope it is reciprocated by folks so we can continue to move this energy around from one note to the next note, one town to the next town, person to person across the universe. Something like that…
Tomorrow (May 8) at 8 p.m., Tsigoti will be performing with Tree Thump at the IMC in downtown Urbana. Tickets are $6.