The Verse’s Tamara Stidwell interviews The Undercover Hippy, ahead of their album launch at Brighton’s Komedia on the 3rd of May.
The Undercover Hippy are a 5 piece acoustic reggae band. Fronted by Billy Rowan with keys, drums, bass, congas and backing vocals these dudes have racked up a fan base of UK festival-goers, free thinkers and soul-shakers. Their most popular hit is catchy tune Boyfriend, from their acclaimed album Monkey Suit. In this interview with Billy Rowan, I explore the deeper message behind the feel-good grooves. WARNING: this interview contains liberal-thinking.
So, you are a deeply philosophical person. This can be ascertained from your lyrics of primordial instinct, thus “My curiosity gets the best of me / Because the look that she’s giving says sex to me”. And also important issues of the refugee crisis, depicted in tracks like Borders. Here you describe people as being “Six billion expressions of the same essential one / The same essential force / That fundamental source / Of energy that manifests itself in oh so many different forms”. You evoke a sense of collective revolution in your words. So, if we all stopped with this “Illusion of separation” business we could free ourselves from tyranny. Tell us Billy, with the Trump/Brexit/May sh*tstorm, what should people do to re-unite?
I wish I knew! I think we should probably start by putting our phones down. I think we’ve been tricked by social media into thinking it’s making us more connected, but as long as we hide in our facebook echo chambers, reassuring ourselves that we’ve got it right and everyone else is an idiot, we’re never going to reconcile our differences. It’s much harder to write someone off as an alt-right racist moron/Neo-liberal fascist/Liberal Snowflake when you’re talking to them face to face. We’re all human beings with different views on how the world works, and I think unless we start actually hearing the views of those we disagree with we’ll just keep becoming more polarised.
On your blog (Undercover Hippy Blogspot), you mention Syria, and the EU’s decision to stop dealing arms, this was posted four years ago! This message of liberating each other to lead to global liberation is prevalent throughout your album Monkey Suit. Does your new album draw upon Syria’s current situation, or even, the current political situation?
The new album covers lots of different social and political topics as you’d expect! I struggled to write a song specifically about Syria though, as there are two narratives about that conflict that are diametrically opposed. It’s as if there are two parallel universes, and as much as I tried I could never seem to get to the bottom of it. As a result I ended up writing the title track Truth & Fiction, which goes “I don’t know what to believe no more / When the truth becomes the fiction and the fiction is all / When the politicians play their games of war / We’re busy watching shadows on the wall”. I think a lot of people have just switched off from even trying to follow world events now as it’s so hard to know what’s true. With regards to Syria, I’m pretty convinced now that we’ve been fed a pack of lies by our government and western media outlets. I believe the jihadist opposition in Syria have become extremely proficient at creating and using propaganda to provoke a response from western media, with the goal of getting military assistance to topple Assad. I think there is every possibility that’s what’s happened with the recent chemical attack and Trump’s response, but it’s also possible that it’s exactly as assumed/reported and Assad is to blame. What I do know for sure is that everyone on both sides of this argument is way too sure of their opinion!
Well as 2016 passes and the metaphorical sh*t has hit the fan, i’m sure being a politically-charged person you’ve had no end of material to chew for your new album. In your track Human Race you talk about a society where the oppressive systems “hold us back from ever thinking we could change tack / and take it back to an older track / Back in the day, when our place was as part of the chain / not a race apart but part of the game”. With notions of anarchy, do you think, like Russel Brand, that it’s time for a big fat Revolution?!
I guess it depends what we mean when we say Revolution. I think the old idea of an oppressed working class rising up and overthrowing the ruling classes is becoming harder and harder to imagine. First we’d all need to agree what a revolution is and who needs to be overthrown! Trump was voted in by millions of angry working class people, while millions of others marched against him. Both sides felt like they were having a revolution against the establishment. I guess in that song I was talking about the need to reconnect with nature, and see ourselves as part of the web of life rather than apart from it. It’s very cliche, but I think the revolution needs to be one of self-awareness, on both the left and right. Of course I also think we need to fight tooth and nail to protect our hard won liberties and progressive ideals!
In The Road to Wigan Pier George Orwell says that “In order to hate imperialism, you have got to be part of it.” From your track Coming to the Gambia, inspired by your travels there, you draw upon a sense of new colonisation; corporate control. Do you feel that Orwell is correct in, being a British lad, you are a ‘part of it’, and that is what drives you further to despise it? Has this got anything to do with the impact of “International Aid”?
Definitely. I grew up feeling deeply ashamed of the actions, both past and present, of my government overseas. And the more I read about history, the more it became apparent to me that we have played an incredibly destructive role in the world. Especially in relation to our arms industry. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is something we should all be ashamed of. I don’t know much about international aid though. From what I’ve read it seems it’s rarely, if ever, given out of compassion. More often it seems it’s used as a tool to manipulate other countries and gain access to their resources on behalf of our corporations.
Now the most important questions: When is the album out? How can people get involved?
So, the album is out on May 20th, but we’ll be selling some sneaky pre-release copies on tour, so if you come along to one of our shows you might be able to grab a copy early! The single Rise & Fall came out on the 14th of April, and it’s free when you pre-order the album! It’ll be out on iTunes and Spotify next week. If you want to get involved, please share our social media posts with all your friends and tell everyone what you think of the new music.