Interview: The Ex Senators' DMac

There's a famous and oft-parodied scene in the 1976 satirical film Network in which Peter Finch's character yells, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

The scene may have nothing to do with music, but in a different context, it could serve as a perfect summation of the music on the upcoming debut album from Chicago's The Ex Senators.

"When something pisses you off enough, you have to say something about it," says frontman DMac, the outspoken figure who fronts the band and is as affable in conversation as his vocal attack is venomous on record.

Tracks like "Start a Fight" and "The Kids Are Trouble" paint a picture of an America where politics have slipped comfortably into the realm of the absurd while the populace is too distracted and drugged up on pharmaceuticals to notice.

Armed with the simple message of "Wake up!," The Ex Senators is a record that falls firmly in the tradition of The Clash and Billy Bragg while feeding off the urgency of America's greatest social upheaval since the '60s.

With Wall Street Occupied and Chicago calling, I recently got the chance to pick DMac's brain on music, politics and everything in between.

GUITAR WORLD: I understand you guys were in New York recently for a photo shoot. Did you get a chance to stop by Occupy?

Yeah, I stopped by. They moved them. A lot of them are over at Union Square now. I actually stopped through last time I was in town a couple of weeks ago. It's something else ... I don't know, do you want to get into a political discussion? [Laughs]

Sure, why not?

I wish somebody at Occupy would start having a point. I get the idea. I'm supportive of it in general, but I've said it before: How about we start with term limits, or everyone stands up against the decision that came down from the Supreme Court about the Super PACs — any one of those? There's a long list, pick something.

It's good energy, but it's all unfocused.

I agree. I think a lot of people, especially Occupy detractors, forget that we've managed to actually accomplish a lot in this country through focused, largely peaceful protests.

Well that's it. In some cases it's been really good. There was a group in Charlotte who basically marched to the doors of Bank of America and had a great point to make. And look at B.O.A., who basically wouldn't even let people in the door to close accounts. They had armed guards outside.

I'm pretty sure you're free to walk in the door and close your bank account if you want to, unless this is 1929 again.

And Bank of America are suing themselves ... did you hear about that? ... Bank of America sued themselves around 1,200 times this past year. It's just asinine. At this point, there are some Occupy people who are just jumping on it to have something to jump on to, and there's people who are heartfelt and trying to make a point about creating change.

I think there are definitely people trying to get a specific point across, and sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle. But I think the energy's right and the direction's right. People have to come together behind a common purpose to get anywhere, though.

There's so much divisiveness in our national discourse, not just in our politics, just in the conversation between people. It's amazing how quickly we find differences rather than finding something we can stand together for.

As you said, it's happening even within party lines. I've talked to several diehard Republicans who are actually favoring Obama over Romney in the upcoming election because of how that party is beginning to split.

There are a lot of people who are classic Republicans who have a problem with what's happened in the last year with the Republican party in general. They've skewed farther and farther to the right. Look at what the Tea Party did to the Republican party. And then you've got the really far Christian right doing even more to take it away from being the party it once was.

I mean, Nixon was a Republican and he created the freaking EPA. And now they want to repeal the EPA! Repealing the EPA isn't going to fix the economy, but it is going to make a lot of people sick.

I grew up in Chicago on the South Side, and not to dive into this too much, but from an EPA standpoint, I'm very into environmental concerns. I work in a couple community projects promoting solar energy and things like that. But where I grew up, we had a Sherwin Williams plant that was indicted, Shell Oil, three different steel mills — all of which were polluting the area. From all the way in Hammond, Indiana, you could see the sky turn green as you got close to that area.

Gary, Indiana, still looks that way, somehow. I think they got such dispensation from the government to just continue to pollute anyway and just pay the fines.

But literally you could see the air turn green, and it's kind of like when you go down to Houston; there's an area in Houston that's the same way, where the sky's a different color and you can tell there's chemicals in the air by the way you breathe. It's like in China where there is no EPA and they don't care. Because why need an EPA when there's plenty of people to replace you, and that's literally what's happening.

Without the EPA, that's the situation you end up with.

And what I was saying earlier, not to get off track, the Republican party had a president who put the EPA in place. George W. Bush repealed 30 years' worth of EPA legislation during his time, broke the EPA apart as much as he could, although he couldn't completely dismantle it. But during his administration, if you'll look at the Congressional record, he systematically took apart the EPA as much as he possibly could.

I think there are people within the Republican party who look at what's happening this past year and they don't even recognize what they're belonging to, and they just stick with it because there's a certain amount of loyalty to the party rather than to a philosophy of where they want to see the country go. The kind of people who vote straight ticket, you know?

And that's part of the reason Democrats and specifically Obama can be seen as weak. He's been characterized as a moderate and ineffectual president, and sadly I think part of the reason is that he realizes he's not just the president over the people who voted for him.

Exactly! The hard left are just as much to blame. You've seen "Start a Fight," our video. In that video, I'm as annoyed with Nancy Pelosi and I am with Michelle Bachman. I put the two of them together in that frame because they're both nuts. They're opposite sides of the same coin.

And the EPA thing is a great example of why the concept of a "free market" is exceedingly dangerous. What a lot of people don't realize when they start talking in absolutes about market freedom is that that includes things like EPA regulations, the FDA, immigration laws, minimum wage laws, etc.

I think the EPA having some regulatory controls over the free market ... There's nothing wrong with capitalism. I think in Obama's Rolling Stone interview, he had a good way of explaining it. Capitalism is great if you allow it to grow and to foster creativity and entrepreneurial spirit in people and give them a foundation to be on a level playing field and go out there and go after their dreams. Right?

And America's been great at that, and one of the reasons for that is the fact that we have ground rules so everyone has to play fair. Anti-trust laws are a great example of that. It still takes money and a certain amount of risk, but at least there's a fairly even playing field.

The problem is when you get into the Austrian school of economics, which is free market, no restraints, "They're going to be moral because they're people" — you're making these assumptions, but it's never been proven. So Keynesian economics about having a free market that just has some controls and limitations that prevent us from going through what we just went through. Here's the thing: If you have no controls over the free market, then you end up with people who used to the head of Goldman Sachs running our country, and it's happened for generations now that Goldman Sachs keeps getting a bigger and bigger piece of the pie.

And then there's other companies that you never even know the name of that are more $30 or $50 billion that are completely private and are donating to Super PACs. And they want that same model of no restrictions, no holds over it so that when that EPA law gets repealed and, Oh, you can go strip mine the mountains of the Carolinas.

There's a great book by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that I read years ago, Crimes Against Nature, and in the back of this book he's got an insane index of the Congressional record on the dismantling of these EPA regulations during the last few years of the Bush administration. It was just this systematic repeal of EPA laws, and all of a sudden you had entire species of fish disappearing from the Eastern seaboard and the mountains of the Carolinas and Texas. And the attitude is, "So what, it's a fish?" It's some scary stuff.

I do want to get on to the record just a bit. Along with Van and G.J., you're also listed as a rhythm guitarist on the record. How much guitar did you contribute?

Quite a bit. I'm not a lead guitarist. I am from the Joe Strummer school of guitar playing, that's for sure. [Laughs] If it's six strings, I can beat the shit out of it. That's my style.

And then Van and G.J., those two are the fine tuning. Van's got a guitar style that's very much in that Keith Richards, Mike Campbell style. I know they're both heroes of his as a guitar player.

G.J., on the other hand, has played with Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Mary J. Blige and all these people. He brings the funk and the finesse. They're two totally different types of players, and you put them in a room together and they start to talk to each other musically, and I'm in the middle saying, "Here's the song," and just beating on the guitar. [Laughs]

How would you describe the interplay between the guitarists? How do you pack all of that in without it getting crowded and muddy in the mix?

I think it's more of knowing when to play and when not to play. And I think Van is really the glue of the band. If you listen to the album, there's songs called "Psychotropic Love Freak" and "All the Same." Those are a couple of things where Van wrote the whole arrangement of the song and gave it to me and I wrote the lyrics and vocal melody over top of it, so we're songwriting partners.

And then there are other songs like "Start a Fight" that I wrote, that are the more three-chords-and-scream type. And then Van and G.J. will come in and kind of surf on top. And that's the interplay. We're never stepping on each other.

What's your main guitar?

My main guitar is a FatCat, which is a little custom shop in Chicago. An old old friend of mine, Scott Bond. We hadn't talked to each other in a few years. We had been in on Mercury together in another band, then he got into being a luthier and building guitars.

It's funny, I was in L.A. with a friend a mine, Mike Boden — Mike does a lot of Joe Satriani's records. We were looking at guitars and he asked me if I had heard of Scott Bond. So I called him and said, "You won't believe where your name just came up!" And so we hooked back up and I went to his shop and he custom built this Tele for me. It's just a gorgeous guitar with an original '57 Tele bridge.

Then G.J.'s got a deal with Luna. Van plays a relic Tele, and then he's got an SG and a Les Paul custom. So we mix it up for tone, depending on the song. The song sort of tells you where the tone needs to go.

All in all, where do you see your place as a musician? As an educator? A catalyst for change?

First of all, the band itself ... I'm really lucky to have the kind of players I have because they're all able to really move in different musical directions with me as a writer, and my partner Van — I've got two guitar players in the band and between the two of them, they have very different distinct styles, and the rest of the guys do too, so it all comes together in this distinct sound. As we were working on the record in between all these other things, for me, you can't help but write about what's been affecting you, and for me it's been where the world's going, and so I started writing about that.

We had a talk early on in the band about, "So some of the stuff's pretty political, is everyone down with that?" And they were.

You know, two of the guys in the band are black, I'm Irish, Van is Dutch, so we all come from different backgrounds but we're all pretty much on the same page. We're all fairly liberal or Democrats or whatever you want to call it.

But like I said, it's not really a party-line thing. So we started talking about the politics of where we were musically and everyone agree, Yeah, that's where we are.

Now the name The Ex Senators didn't come from politics; it came from a running joke in the band. If you Google the word "ex-senators" you get a laundry list of embarrassment and debauchery, basically. You'll see the senator with $90,000 in his refrigerator and the senator who's trying to get a blowjob in Minneapolis, and all these different things. So it started as a joke, and it just so happens that when we were making the record it started having a political edge to it.

And I grew up with rebel songs and protest songs as a big part of my education in music. Bands like The Clash and The Jam, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and all these people. You're impacted by whatever you listen to. System of a Down, Cypress Hill — there's all these bands out there that have something to say. So for me, where we are, I don't see us as educators, but I definitely see us, I think you used the word catalyst, and I would agree with that.

The song "Start a Fight" is almost a "nah nah nah nah nah" thing toward politicians. "That's what you sound like. You sound like a bunch of fucking babies yelling at each other and there's no substance under any of it." That's what "Start a Fight" is all about. Both sides are wrong. All they ever do is escalate and try to get both sides to hate each other, and you're never going to get anywhere with that.

So for me, this band is an opportunity to express some perspective or some thoughts, or poke the lion in the eye with a stick. There's so much going on right now. There's a song on the album called "Kids Are In Trouble" that we put out as a single that's more about the drugging of America.

That's something that pissed me off one day. I was watching some report on television and I was floored. Number one, I don't think you need to drug kids to get them under control. Some kids need medicine, right? But it's more about the fact that the United States consumes 85 percent of the world's ritalin supply. Eighty-five percent! And what's our percentage of the global population?

And then every ad you see says something like, "Well, this may help you to stop smoking, but it may also make you want to kill yourself and have explosive diarrhea." Why not just keep smoking and take your chances with cancer? [Laughs]

The Ex Senators will release their eponymous debut album on HeatShield Records this August.

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Josh Hart

Josh Hart is a former web producer and staff writer for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado magazines (2010–2012). He has since pursued writing fiction under various pseudonyms while exploring the technical underpinnings of journalism, now serving as a senior software engineer for The Seattle Times.