Originally active – musically and politically – in the 1990s,Chicago hardcore band Racetraitor re-formed in 2016. Earlier this year, Hellbound contributor Garren Ustel had the chance to speak with Racetraitor vocalist Mani Mostofi. Their conversation unfolds below.
Hellbound: When I first encountered Racetraitor you were a different animal altogether, musically at least. The songs were ultra short, violent implosions of politically charged mayhem. How did this early version settle on a sound?
Racetraitor: When Racetraitor started, we were more or less a follow-up to the band Hinckley. All the guys in our first lineup were in Hinckley except me. I had put out the 7-inch. That band was just like political dissonant noise with blast beats and groovy breakdowns. Really a good powerviolence band, but one that was more influenced by Groundwork than say Infest.
Early Racetraitor was basically the same but we made two very clear decisions: turn up the politics, especially on race, and turn more metal, which at that time was basically using more double bass; it really wasn’t that much more metal at the start.
Hellbound: How did you come up, or evolve into the more metallic style on the bulk of your releases?
Racetraitor: Metal was always this underlying influence. All the dudes in the band grew up metalheads, except for me. I went to junior high school with Brent and Dan, and I always remember them in Metallica t-shirts and talking about Slayer. Also don’t forget when Racetraitor was active it was the golden era of death metal, and our drummer and later guitar player Karl was getting us all into the key metal bands of that era: Deicide, Suffocation, Meshuggah.
If you listen to our demo, there are several songs on there that later made it onto our LP and you can hear the evolution, you hear the way we were incorporating death metal into our powerviolence sounds.
When Karl suggested we get Andy to play with us he just said, “I found this straight-edge metal drummer.” And once we started practising with Andy it was clear that he was amazing. He was just 15 and soft spoken still, but he had crazy chops at that point. So we threw away nearly all our songs and wrote much more technical metal songs, while still trying to maintain a healthy level of noise or punk feel. At that point, there were few hardcore bands, minus maybe Abnegation, that dug deeper into metal than Slayer and Pantera.
Hellbound: I recall a time when you guys were known as much for your politics as your music. How has that changed now under this political climate?
Racetraitor: I still think we are known more for our politics, but the people that care the most about us seem to be just as enthusiastic to the music. But we came back for the exact reason that we make sense politically in the Trump era. I think the reason we have been well received is because people seem to get this is not a reunion in the traditional sense. We are choosing to be back as a reaction to increased xenophobia, white nationalism, and militarism of this time, but also to be part of the resistance. To be one of the many voices that says “no” and also to be on the side of those movements and communities that are on the forefront of the fight. The music we are making is a channeling of all that.
Hellbound: I’m old enough to recall Dan’s old band Hinckley. It seems politics were always in the nature of your band members. Care to discuss this? Chicago itself seems to have ties to many bands that have ties to subcultures or alternate lifestyles—Los Crudos comes to mind. Any thoughts as to why this is?
Racetraitor: Our approach to punk and hardcore was very much shaped by a tradition of political bands we grew up around. In 1992–1993 there was this sub-scene in Chicago built around these shows in the basement of a guy we called Big Roy. Those were my first shows. I saw bands like Angerhouse, which was members of Billingsgate and Dillinger Four, and Los Crudos. Endpoint played there. Many of the bands were ultra-political, anti-authoritarians, and talked a lot between songs. There were some PoC kids. So that really shaped what we thought about punk and hardcore. When we meet people for whom hardcore was not a political thing it was a bit of a shock.
Hellbound: Chicago is a hotbed of racial turmoil. I remember it as a very multicultural metropolis and yet there was a distinct division between peoples. Was I imagining things or is Chi-town really so segregated?
Racetraitor: My early childhood was Southside of Chicago, Hyde Park. That’s where University of Chicago is and where the Obamas later lived. It is literally a neighbourhood where wealthy, mostly white, academia is inches away from one the poorest, most underserved black neighborhoods in the city. And I lived there when it was the late ’70s so all the race politics of the time was in the air.
Like I said, I was super young, but I was very aware that all of that was going on. I knew instinctively some of the kids in my area living near me had a different existence.
Sociologists invented the term “hyper segregation” to describe Chicago. If you look at any indicator related to health, economics, education, or safety you will find sharply different outcomes formed on race and class line. White, black and brown people live in radically different realities in that city.
Today, the relationship between police and communities of colour have never been worse. And the city refuses to adopt strategies that put the communities and community needs at the centre. So, when it comes to the tragic homicide rates in the city, the only solution anyone in power ever seems interested in is pouring more money into the police so they can go to the corner and bust heads, just adding to the violence already there.
Hellbound: What is it like to have such a powerful message that in many ways goes against the grain of the voice of the majority?
Racetraitor: I have never felt we were a normal band. Like when we were playing THIC I was talking to Tara in Disembodied and told her I was nervous about people’s expectations. She said, “You will be fine. People just want to have fun.” But I think with RT people want to see what we will say and do. And some people love what we have to say, but not everyone. And I think a lot of kids in punk and hardcore want us to say things they might not have the platform to say. I often feel we have an added level of pressure in that regards. We are under a microscope, but I admit, willingly so.
Hellbound: What spurred the band’s, well, say, hiatus?
Racetraitor: I think a lot of young male confusion and an inability to communicate. LOL. Racetraitor is not a normal band. We play shows and sell T-shirts like everyone else, but it was also had a mission and political platform. That makes things more intense, and when you are young and still trying to figure out what your life purpose is, none of that is easy.
Hellbound: What was the impetus for the band to become active again?
Racetraitor: I think back in the day we had no obvious home in the punk/hardcore scene. Musically, we’re too noisy for some; for others too metal. More to the point our overt focus addressing white privilege, institutionalized racism, and American power was not something everyone was prepared to hear. It was too technical or too personal for a lot of individuals to digest. We didn’t always make it easy for them either.
But then sometime in the last five years those ideas became part of the mainstream debate. We started having friends commenting, “With all that is going on, Racetraitor should come back now.” When Michael Brown was killed and Ferguson became a focal point of the Black Lives Matter movement I was pretty angry and pretty inspired at the same time. I remember messaging Dan and Andy and saying I wanted to do something. They were feeling the same things. So we began talking seriously about it. Fast-forward a tiny bit, Trump’s campaign is framed all around white nationalist xenophobia, Islamophobia, law and order. Racetraitor made sense.
We began remixing our 1998 LP Burn the Idol with Dallas Thomas from Pelican and planning a comeback show. Then we got together mid-summer 2016 and began writing a song about the election, partly at the urging of Clint Billington, who runs Organized Crime Records. That song became six and we released a two-song flexi on ORC last September and played a handful of shows in Chicago, Tampa and the Northeast.
This past July things really picked up like crazy. We released a new five-song EP with Organize Crime called Invisible Battles Against Invisible Fortresses, which is just a mean angry burst of songs about racist policing, resisting Trumpism, and perpetual war in the Middle East. We also released our Burn the Idol remix with the UK Label Carry the Weight records. We did a European tour with SECT and played This is Hardcore and Fluff Fest.
We continue to write and record songs. We are just really inspired. The band feels relevant, at least to us on a personal level, and hopefully it gives others some music that helps them channel their own sense of desperation.
Hellbound: How easy was it to get into the game after such an extended break?
Racetraitor: Musically it was much easier than I thought it would be. The guys are all even better musicians than they used to be and they gelled immediately. They have never sounded better. These vocals I do, however, are not exactly normal human sounds and I had not done them in a decade. The first sets of practices were so hard. My vocal power was not there. I got some bits of advice from Rob Fish (108) and that helped a lot. He said he sings with his whole body. Once I started doing that I broke through the wall and most of my vocal power came back. But I am still re-learning the craft, which is cool.
One thing that was harder was designing the political stage banter. Really, what was the right tone to take? We want to push the audience, but not alienate them. In the era of rising global fascism we need as many people as we can get, so that was really what we wanted people to hear.
Hellbound: What has the reception been like to the return of Racetraitor, both locally and abroad?
Racetraitor: Honestly, could not have been better, better than we ever imagined. The fact that people still care and that new people are coming on board is great. At Fluff Fest in particular you had people that traveled across Europe just to see us, but you also had a lot people that had no idea who we were that we won over after playing.
On one hand, the songs hold up well. We don’t sound too dated and we have new records and we play those songs live. One the other hand, much of it is the politics – in an era of hardcore where less bands have political positions and even less spend time talking about them. So I think we are addressing a need the hardcore, metal, punk kid has. People are pissed and they want to talk about what to do next.
Hellbound: Were you always interested in politics as a young man?
Racetraitor: Always political and focused on race and racism in particular. I’m the son of immigrants from Iran, not America’s favourite place. My family came here just before the Iranian hostage crisis was happening. I was an eyewitness to the Iranian revolution. I was only like 4 or 5, so I couldn’t process it all, but I knew politics were big and powerful, if that makes sense.
In the U.S. I didn’t feel white, even though I looked it. I related more to the black kids in my elementary school in that way. I knew I was an outsider and the subject of discrimination, but I also knew that I had privileges the kids down the block didn’t have. I was acutely aware of all that even though I didn’t have the words for it as a child.
So all of those feelings followed me as my family moved to the suburbs. In the suburbs, I was bullied, in part, for being Middle Eastern. Kids would say, “Your father is a terrorist” and I would reply, “He is a dentist actually.” But I always was viewed by others, and by myself, through a political lens. And when I hit high school and college I started get into activism and radical politics, all at the same time I am discovering hardcore.
Other band members also had a political development that spanned years. Brent, who also writes some of the lyrics, comes from a family of activists. He grew up going to Latin America in the ’80s and ’90s with his family to work with local communities. This was a time when the U.S. was training and arming death squads to kill the various lefty and indigenous movements. So he was deeply plugged into political activism and racialism early on.
So much of what we sung about was personal to us; it was not abstract. We witnessed these things. And our approach included a message around privilege, precisely because we knew we had it. We knew how horrible the world can treat others, and we knew we were benefiting from that treatment directly.
Hellbound: How does this current POTUS resonate with you as a American Muslim?
Racetraitor: You see yourself with a target on your back… or at least a target on your community’s back. My family is from Iran, one of the countries targeted by the Muslim travel ban. So that is my cousins, uncles, aunts, grandmother. They are not allowed to visit me. I know human rights activists that have fled persecution in Iran that are being blocked from coming to the U.S. as refugees. So it keeps you wondering, what is next? Where is this going?
I see the Muslim ban as a provocation… one that feeds into the bullshit propaganda of groups like ISIS and can be used to get some idiot lunatics to do something horrible. So, if we see another major terror attack in the U.S., what will happen to the average boring Muslim that is just trying to live a normal life? Internment camps? Deportations of non-citizens?
What do all these heavily armed and unstable Alex Jones listeners do? How many people need to get killed for looking Muslim?
It is a very uneasy time. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty. Feels normal day to day, but you are always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Hellbound: Do you feel any pressure being a minority? Does this affect your daily life in any way?
Racetraitor: I look white and have an upper middle class life. So day to day, no, not in a normal way. But in other ways…
Hellbound: Does Racetraitor affect any of the members’ outside lives beyond the boundaries of playing shows and making records?
Racetraitor: Well, it has always been awkward for many of us going out into the work force. Imagine explaining to your co-workers why your band is called “Racetraitor.” It is not something easy for a lot of “normal” people to understand. Dan, Brent and I have jobs in public health and non-profits. So these are places that really care about the public profile of their employees.
Once, I had just started this job with a big organization that was undergoing a public scandal at the time for the private hobbies of one of its staff. My boss comes up to me and says, “I heard you were in some bands. You need to send us the lyrics.” That was a really nerve-racking moment obviously. Someone in the organization must have Googled me as part of some vetting, and Racetraitor came up. It turned out okay, but that is the type of thing that we face.
Hellbound: Do you plan on doing this project full-time again or is this sort of like a weekend warrior thing?
Racetraitor: We all have jobs and bands and family commitments. But we consider ourselves an active band, not just a band that plays special events. So not full time but something more than weekend warrior.
Hellbound: What inspires you to create your art? Are there any bands, movies, websites or books that have directly influenced you?
Racetraitor: I am really inspired by near-future dystopia fiction and film like Children of Men or Handmaid’s Tale. The imagery and narratives of that genre just really stimulate my political imagination and are increasingly feeding into my lyrics. Things I have seen in Iran or the West Bank could totally fit right into that genre.
Our new record has a reading list and listening list on it also. We recommend a bunch of things including “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. Work like Alexander’s obviously fuels us and we try to translate it into art for people that like blast beats.
Hellbound: Some people argue that politics don’t belong with art. What is your take on this?
Racetraitor: Obviously I disagree and so does history. Was Picasso’s Guernica art? Because that was overt political activism. Art has been part of every social movement and it is vital that it remain so. One of the jobs of the artist is to push the imagination, test the boundaries, to motivate people to do something more, reorganize society. Music can be a soundtrack to people’s struggles, to provide emotion and humanity to concepts. Those are some of the reasons why we are a band. Otherwise we would just set up a blog.
Hellbound: Ultimately, what do you hope to achieve with Racetraitor?
Racetraitor: We have plans to follow these current EPs with a full length. Maybe play some more shows and fests. Overall, I guess we want to be part of an alternative to a negative and hateful culture. All the issues we used to talk about are on the forefront for today’s debates. We want to be an example to other bands that you can take risks, explore big ideas, and stand for justice.