“My only weapon is my pen” “Poet,” Sly & the Family Stone
Twenty-five years have passed since front man Dave Darling and Boxing Gandhis released their self-titled debut album on Mesa Blue Moon Records, including the Top 5 Billboard Triple A hit, “If You Love Me (Why Am I Dyin’)”, and the magazine’s Video of the Year award for its Brian Lockwood-directed clip. Getting the band back together for Culture War, its first full-length album since 1996’s Howard on Atlantic Records, was about a great deal more than just the music. In fact, this reunion is a prime example of the band’s long-cherished belief in creating activism through its art.
For a group once dubbed, “the thinking man’s party band,” Boxing Gandhis were, and remain a multi-ethnic outfit, the perfect rainbow coalition to make a statement for today’s turbulent political times. Musically influenced by similar socio-politically, racially-mixed groups like Sly & the Family Stone, War and P-Funk, Darling has continued to make records for a quarter-century with artists like Brian Setzer, Janiva Magness, Jack Johnson, Nikki Sixx, Meredith Brooks, the Temptations, Glen Campbell and others.
Seeing the effects of the current immigrant border policies, Darling called up one-time bandmate Ernie Perez, a longtime Chicano activist now heading a music ministry dubbed House of the Common Thread, and suggested addressing some of these issues in music, handing him a demo of “Disappear,” a song which dealt with children who couldn’t even speak English separated from their parents and placed behind a chain-link fence.
“It’s amazing how these things come around,” says Ernie, who had been politicized since the age of eight, when his brother took him to the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War in August, 1970, where L.A. Times reporter Ruben Salazar was killed. “When Dave sent me ‘Disappear,’ everything just started rolling from there. Even though we came from all walks of life, it was all about love. At this moment in history, we have to go beyond our differences and come together on things we can agree on. As artists, we ring the bell, and provide faith and hope for the future.”
Darling and the rest of the original band members – including Perez, Dave’s wife, singer/ drummer Brie Darling, co-producer and film composer Dave Kitay and the late sax player/multi-instrumentalist Alfredo Ballesteros, who passed away on the very day the album was completed, and bassist Carl Sealove – decided to donate all proceeds from the release of Culture War on indie Blue Elan Records to the American Civil Liberties Union and various immigrant legal defense funds.
Boxing Gandhis live up to their name on Culture War, combining a feisty aggression against the enemy with a tribute to its namesake’s notion of passive and civil disobedience. The dry, reverb-less production also echoes that very first album, which prefigured the H.O.R.D.E. jam band ethos, and sent the group out on successful tours with the Dave Matthews Band and Big Head Todd and the Monsters, before Darling left the road after bouts with addiction problems.
Recorded mostly in his San Fernando Valley home studio, the new album features contributions from virtually every member and former member of Boxing, with new songs that attack the current state of domestic and world affairs with ferocity.
“This album only exists because we felt the need to address what’s going on right now,” says Darling. “For no other reason than we wanted to speak out about what’s on our minds.
‘I believe in individual, social responsibility. And I’m feeling a little more fight than love right now. There’s a real enemy, along with people and ideas that must be pushed against, not tolerated. Out goal is to make things a little better. And music is just a good way to get those messages out, a head-fake, if you will.”
Culture War offers plenty of ammunition, from the opening of “Yellow Scooter,” a plea for all those “too busy” to take the time to make a difference, “Disappear” and “Brown Man,” a harsh, three-headed indictment of racism delivered by half-Filipina Brie, along with Mexican-Americans Perez and Ballestreros, to the hell-bent fury of “Shut Me Down,” in which Brie Darling unleashes an Aretha-esque howl of protest, inspired by attending a protest in downtown L.A.
“What made my performance on that were the lyrics,” explains Brie, the original drummer for groundbreaking Sacramento/Folsom girl group Fanny, who married Dave right around the time the first Boxing Gandhis album was released and has been with him, and them, ever since. “When somebody says you can’t say this or do that, I’m going, ‘Yes motherf**ker, I can, and I will. With every ounce of blood pouring through my veins. You can’t shut me down.”
Other songs, like “Whippoorwill,” featuring Dave’s omnipresent falsetto, “Home Darling” (in which Dave Kitay takes his first lead vocal) and the gospel-inflected call-and-response of “River Keeps On Running,” take a more reflective, spiritual turn.
“Tell Me,” a song Darling originally wrote for Grammy-winning performer Janiva Magness’s album, reasserts itself here as combination of “For What It’s Worth” and “What’s Going On,” with the ominous quality of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
“King of Nothin’,” while it inadvertently references a certain orange-haired demagogue, actually was the first Boxing Gandhis song ever written, though it never made it to record. The vintage blast of ‘60s/‘70s soul/R&B recalls the likes of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” or Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round In Circles” and “Nothing From Nothing,” all touchstones for the original iteration of the group formed by Darling.
Culture War will be available as a digital download file, part of a magazine that offers both liner notes and resources to guide the political novice.
“In a world choked with negative misinformation and gnarly politics, this is all we could do as musicians,” says Darling. “If we’re not putting out clean oxygen, we all choke to death.”
With its patented multi-part vocals, funk tropes and retro-soul sound, Culture War is a Trojan horse that pulls you n with its music, then subtly delivers its radical message.
“We’ve grown into this name,” says Darling, a reformed pugnacious brawler who originally sported the moniker. “We’re not violent, but we do believe sometimes fighting is necessary. This is a rowdy, killer band… Nine people whose feet never touch the stage, singing about peace and love.”
Alfredo’s unexpected death after the album, now dedicated to his memory, gave the proceedings a bittersweet feel.
“He was the band’s biggest cheerleader,” says Darling. “He was always urging us to put Boxing Gandhis back together.
“As artists and creatives, we’re the ones who need to keep those stories true,” adds Perez. “People need to know what’s going on. This is from our guts and hearts. It’s real and it took place like butter. It feels like our truth.”
Culture War is not just another comeback album, but a band finding its collective voices and using them to draw attention to injustice.
“Music and art are great ways to make a statement, to say what you feel, and to find people who feel the same way and can share the same vision,” says Brie. “Once Dave started writing, he was on fire. He was writing like a mad man, and just couldn’t stop.”
Boxing Gandhis’ leader summed up the radical approach: “We’re all pretty invigorated right now to do some live shows, too. We love this record. It gave us a chance to vent a little bit. It makes us feel better to be involved and able to put more time, energy and effort into being socially helpful. This is us taking a stand. Don’t buy for us, but to help these important causes. Everyone brought a ton of themselves to this project. This is more than music for us… It’s a mission.”