Culture Wars: Sending Rock to The Middle East

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For Motel Motel it started the same way it does for so many bands. They came together in Brooklyn and it was there that they struggled to get their music above the noise of America’s loudest Mecca: New York City. Keep your heads up. It all comes from the music. “We were just basically shoving our music down people’s throats” vents Mickey Theis, guitarist of Motel Motel. “When I moved out to NYC I realized that you do have to hustle and really promote yourself in a way. That made me uncomfortable at first but I realized that’s the only way that you would ever get your music out there.”

It was 2006 when Motel Motel formed. They grinded away in the big city until the summer of 2009 when something peculiar happened.

“You always hear about artists playing one show and someone is there and they are really established and they just make your career.” The dream, or the “idyllic notion”, as Mickey puts it. “They tell someone at such and such record label that you’re the shit. [Stories] like that just kind of get your hopes up.” The answer to those hopes came from another Mecca on the other side of the world, the Middle East. It came in the form of a woman named Laila Abbassy. What she needed was a Rock band. After just a few exchanges, Eric Engle, Timothy Sullivan, Mickey Theis, Jeremy Duvall and Erik Gundel of Motel Motel found themselves on a plane headed to the American Embassy in Egypt. They were now a part of “Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad”, a government program with the mission of “direct engagement with foreign audiences via workshops, master classes and jam sessions [to] present a positive image of the U.S. and [to] provide a greater understanding of our society”.

“I feel like our kharma had paid off and finally something had come to us as opposed to us trying really, really hard to make something happen” says Theis excited. “This one woman, Laila Abbassy, she works at the American Center in Alexandria, she has had all these classical performers and jazz musicians going to Egypt, but she’s always wanted to have a young American rock band”

Many would say that, at its heart, the global conflict we are experiencing today is one of ideology. For some it is new world verses old world; innovation against tradition, hedonism against prudence even. Others see two sets of values which are not inherently at odds, but, rather, are separated by war. In this, our progress can be measured by the strength of our ‘soft power’. Teens skateboarding in Paris, Japanese hipsters dressing like James Dean, fledgling hip-hop moguls in Mumbai and Britney Spears t-shirts in shop windows in Belize are all barometers for the strength of this power; the worldwide influence of American culture. What we also see are American flags burning in the Middle East, clerics giving sermons on the evils of America the Great Satan and masses chanting “Death to America”. It’s a sobering thought that in many parts of the world, we are not doing so well.

The American government is trying to combat this through programs such as Rhythm Road, the one Motel Motel became a part of. In a sense, they are sending the artists to war for the hearts and minds of the people. Theis is resolved in this, the charge of his trip, saying “it fits into this larger mission that I don’t even fully understand. The west, we’re trying to reach out and the government was kind of using us in this way to spread good will, which I am all about.”

He doesn’t see himself heading to Egypt as a cultural fighter, but rather, an architect bridging the gaps between good people. “Although politically, ideologically, etc. our cultures may be at odds with each other, when it comes down to it, we’re all just people” says Theis. “These political things become so big it puts this divide between just having conversations and understanding each other on a personal level.” When he reflects on his experiences in Egypt, he shares some anecdotes. “ I had these completely honest one on one conversations with people about [ideological differences] and especially with a reporter over there, in particular, about the veil in Muslim culture and what it symbolizes. It’s kind of like hugely contested issues in the US like abortion and gay rights. People start to think about them in such a strictly political way, that they forget to the think about the grey area. There aren’t just radical Christians or radical Muslims. There aren’t just dictators and anarchists.”

As the tour pressed on, music became the currency by which the guys in Motel Motel gave and received understanding. “What was good about it was just bringing people together who have maybe such vastly different world views in the same room to try and enjoy something together and have a joyful experience together,” continues Theis. “Me and the lead singer, Eric Engle, we were walking around one night in Manfalut and there was a drum circle on the street. We just started dancing with the guys. The men dance a lot over there. They dance together. We got to enjoy their culture and what makes them happy and have a joyful experience with them…Just enjoying things together.”

As a band, Motel Motel saw an opportunity to push their music deeper and deeper into a new cultural context. As they traveled through the country performing and leading workshops, they began to see a change in their own personal and musical perspectives. “Though it may not have been understood for all of its nuances, [our music] is very loud and I think that essential quality is what makes it essentially rock music. That’s what people, especially young people in Egypt, seem to respond to: the energy behind it” recalls Theis. He then continues, “It’s funny, some of our songs, playing them over there. I don’t know how much of what we are doing was really communicated. So much of indie music is self-referential. You listen to a current indie band and you’re like, oh man these guys sound a lot like Velvet Underground, but their playing this riff in way that sounds like x, y and z. So there is so much of that in indie music and you go to Egypt and play the same song…nobody there is going to say ‘you guys sound like this and this and this.’”

Motel Motel has since returned home and brought back with them a stronger sense of identity and purpose. Huddled in a Manhattan doorway, Theis speaks over the passing traffic saying, “there’s this current in music that I am really interested in, which is embracing the culture you’re from. We are a rock band. We are an American rock band.” When he reflects specifically on the personal lessons of the trip, he emphatically says “It helped me shift from this idea of absolute into more of a willingness to dialogue with people and talk with people. I think about that more and how that is what is fundamentally important about life.”

Currently, Motel Motel is on a nation-wide tour with These United States coupled with a jaunt into the music festival scene of the United Kingdom. All of this is in support of their latest release New Denver, an album that is generating a truly respectable amount of buzz. Despite this, Theis is already looking ahead, seeing a trip back into the studio to put some of their newly gained values on wax. He explains: “I think about the difference between an album that is a document and an artifact. A document captures how you sound as a live band and an artifact pieces together something that you can’t represent again as a live band.”

As for New Denver? “It’s seventy two minutes long, it’s a lot of ideas that we all had and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t and it’s just this sprawling thing that we made. Maybe that’s what we’ll love about it later on. It’s this artifact of crazy times. Our next album, what we kind of decided as a band, is to make it more of a document.”

The strongest sentiment Motel Motel brought back with them seems to be a sincere value of live music. “Synergistic moments” Theis continues, “that’s exactly why I like playing with my band. I can write a song and record on my own. I can record it in steps and make it sound beautiful. I can put a bunch of strings on it and put a bunch of back-up vocals all over it and make this amazing thing, but it won’t be a synergistic project. That’s why I like Motel Motel because we all bring our artistry to the table and it makes this big thing. It’s not one of us. It’s a thing we make together.”

No more is Motel Motel another Brooklyn band struggling to get their name and music out there. They mean something bigger now. They journeyed across the ocean to represent our culture in a land woven with different threads of history and experience. They learned, on our behalf, the essential and deeply buried quality which all human beings share despite any difference in their lives, history or daily experience. That quality is the capacity to experience joy and it can be unearthed through music. It could be a rock concert downtown, a jam session in an apartment or a drum circle in a market. It does not matter what it is called or where it comes from, so long as it is honest. If it makes us sweat, sing and move with each other until we forget how we convinced ourselves the world is a black and white place then it has done its part. It all comes from the music.

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