Justin Duerr of Northern Liberties on Creativity and Intellectual Property

A version of this interview was originally published by “The Woove,” a digital and print publication of WUVT-FM 90.7 Blacksburg in 2008.

Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties have been bringing their unique take on punk music to the region around their home city since 2000.  This winter [2008], they pressed and self-released 200 copies of a  12” featuring a single epic song called “Suffocation.”

Singer Justin Duerr is also well-known in the underground zine community for his Decades of Confusion Feed the Insect series, a photocopy-and-staple zine with unusual and intricate pen art, incantations, and often delirious-seeming spiritual notions. When Northern Liberties comes to town, I always look forward to buying the next in his series of interconnecting illustrated posters. This interconnecting “scroll” of posters features extremely detailed geometric landscapes, evocative spiritual iconography, dark and foreboding visions of humanity and mental anguish, and uplifting visions of hope. 

Richard Todd Stafford: First, could you talk a little bit about your song-writing process? Do you usually come to Kevin and Marc with fully-formed lyrics and melodies or do the songs usually emerge from the band practice process? Is the process similar or different when you collaborate with Enid Crow?

Justin Duerr: Both projects are collaborative, and as such, they are shaped by input from everyone involved, in whatever way they feel comfortable with at a given point. In the case of Northern Liberties, we generally follow parallel paths of creativity, and then tie them together as a whole… that is to say that, for the most part, I write the lyrics and invent vocal melodies, Kevin designates what the bass will do, and Marc provides rhythm and rhythmic spacing. Of course, all of these things, when being combined simultaneously, begin to transform and modify the other components — so a vocal melody may cause a rhythmic phrasing to shift, etc. ad infinitum. I also play percussion, so I sometimes steer the rhythmic structure as well

There are no set “rules” however, and there have been rare occasions where I have brought in bass parts, or Kevin has come up with a drum idea, etc. We’re lucky to have a working creative relationship that allows us all to feel totally free, and is mostly devoid of ego-based poisons within the shared musical exploration/activation process.

The music realization process with Enid Crow is very similar, but we’re working with different instruments, and our lyrics are usually collaborative, as well. We normally conceive of the songs as a vocal melody first, then I figure out some rudimentary guitar chords to underline the vocals. After getting all the lyrics set, I’ll go back and overdub keyboard or other instruments. There have been a few unusual occasions where Enid Crow has overdubbed extra vocals, or conceptualized the instrumental element of a song. We come up with a lot of our songs while we’re out walking around, and we’ll just start singing words together about something we saw, or that we were inspired by. There’s been more than one occasion where we came up with a whole song (or a few) while we were out to eat, or walking in the park. We’ll write the words on a napkin, and a few days later, we’ve got a new song!

Richard Todd Stafford: In one of your songs from Northern Liberties’ Secret Revolution album, you attribute lyrics to another writer; are you frequently inspired by the lyrics and poetry of others?

Justin Duerr: One can’t help but be inspired by/influenced by everything one encounters -whether you want to be or not.

I find inspiration all the time, sometimes in the most seemingly unlikely places, and sometimes (more obviously, perhaps), in the creative output of other people. I don’t have any pretenses of “total originality”, or that I am living in some kind of isolated creative bubble — in the case you mention, I lifted some verses from a particular song that I remembered from when I was very young. To be bluntly honest, I don’t even like the song as a whole — but I absolutely love the lyrics to the chorus. I decided to pay homage to it within my own song, and re-contextualize it.

It’s a song about Hiroshima (relayed via the story of Sadako Sasaki), and our song ties together the bombing of Hiroshima with a larger sense of the horror humans are capable of, as well as serving as a paean to people who resisted that same horror with all of their being, such as the late Kathy Chang(e), and Sophie Scholl.

There is also a reference to Joan of Arc, which paints a picture in my mind of this resistance having a transcendent quality – an eventual triumph of life over death. All three of these women were “martyred” in one way or another – Kathy’s death was suicide, but was done to draw attention to her plea for peace, Sophie was beheaded for her attempted subversion of the Nazi regime within Germany. The story of Joan of Arc is well known enough not to be recounted, though I might point out that there are a lot of occulted elements to that story that are worth looking into.

At any rate, there is a recurring theme within all this regarding fire and flame. Joan of Arc and Kathy Chang(e) both met death through fire. Sophie Scholl was beheaded, but, interestingly, her last words were “Die Sonne scheint noch”—”The sun still shines.”

The chorus of the Fred Small song just dovetailed so perfectly with the theme — it was fated to be.

Richard Todd Stafford: What are your opinions on the re-use of your own lyrics, or the poetry from your Decades of Confusion Feed the Insect zine? For instance, would you feel slighted if another artist appropriated words from a song you first sang or a poem you first published with full attribution?  What if that artist became commercially successful, or achieved wide exposure based in part on the derivative work? Finally, would your opinions change if the other artist did not give full attribution, or only sometimes gave attribution?

Justin Duerr: I think would vary on a case by case basis. I welcome the idea of the creative process not being confined in an egocentric isolation chamber. I put my creative work into the world at large because I want to give something to people – and this is not to say I disagree with the idea of an artist making money from their work, etc. – but, for me, the thing that sparks my creative desire is an impulse to make the world as I’d wish it to be — not just for me, but for anyone who wants to share it with me.

It’s hard to imagine a case where I would feel slighted if full attribution was given. I suppose if there was some deep philosophical or ideological chasm between myself and the person(s) appropriating the work, I might be disturbed by it — but even in that case, I would probably sign off on it, as long as my own viewpoint was allowed a voice — even if in a different sphere/context.

As for “success”— again, if attribution was given, it’s hard to imagine feeling slighted. It would of course vary depending on the context etc. I’m not a big believer in the idea that “success” as it’s conventionally understood is the shining golden fleece of achievement in this world. I would much rather have my work spread than my name. The work comes from something beyond/different than “me”, or the ego, so I don’t even fully understand who to really attribute it to.

There’s also the simple idea that if attribution is given within a “successful” work, it reaps “success” for both parties, at least to some degree. In context, it would depend on the circumstances of the person(s), and the (apparent, perceived) motivation. If a Hollywood producer who knew beforehand that a certain movie would net millions of dollars employed one of our songs without asking us— it would make me resent them for not asking us first, and for not attempting to work something out. I would feel the same about “commercial” employment of my music or art — if it’s being used to try to sell something, I’d feel very slighted to have not been let in on this beforehand. There have been cases in Philly recently where corporations attempted to lift creative works and images from “small time” bands without notifying them — thinking, I guess, that those bands would be too lax or disorganized to take them to task for it! That type of behavior is dishonest, and I am totally in favor of such things being prevented, and, if they happen, of the creative parties being exploited to be compensated as fully as possible.

All that being said, to appropriate creative work without attribution — I could imagine being OK with this if I felt like it was done innocently, but if not, I would be upset by it. For example, if a band used a sample of one of our songs, and (seemingly) innocently forgot to attribute the sample — and then their song became a massive “hit”— I wouldn’t be all that flustered as long as they “owned up to it” once it was brought up.

So I guess in my opinion it comes down to a question of fair attribution, and perceived motivation on the part of the appropriating parties. If attribution is omitted, I start to become suspicious of the intentions of those re-employing the creative work.

My reasoning is that it (seems to) betray(s) sinister intentions on the part of the person appropriating the work—it’s very easy to give attribution. It’s a simple thing to do, and it demonstrates that the artist (or whatever entity) is not trying to claim “ownership” of the work – it demonstrates a degree of selflessness. While omitting attribution could just be thoughtless or careless, it could also be an attempt to create “ownership” where there previously was none! I oppose this type of thinking.

Richard Todd Stafford: Can you talk about the role that cover songs play in your performance and creative process?

Justin Duerr: Cover songs come along — it’s a natural process. Sometimes a cover will morph from an original, or vice versa. That’s quite interesting. I always like it when bands or musicians utilize parts of other songs etc., and then add some of their own ingredients/elements as well. To me, that’s an example of how music really grows, and is passed on organically from person to person. No one ever knew who wrote most of the old “folk” songs — they were just organic things that grew over time, with each new person adding slight changes. The advent of recording technology, I think, led to a fetishization of “originality” within popular song — but really, how many songs are “original”, when we consider the similarities in rhythmic phrasing, structure, etc. Why are almost all “hit songs” on the radio within the same time span of 2 to 4 minutes of music? Who came up with the “four four” beat? Should everyone sue them? We place more “points” for so-called originality in lyrical content and melody, but, due to their more abstract nature, rhythmic nuances are rarely felt to be “owned”, unless part of a specific recording is reproduced…. and even this is often considered “fair use”, legally.

So — while I am in favor of attribution being paid, I am certainly in favor of cover songs being played. I enjoy them most when they are manipulated and altered in some way, but “to each their own”, and that’s just my own aesthetic preference.

Richard Todd Stafford: Continuing in the same vein, some musicians, especially in rock-, country-, and hip-hop- derived genres, led by the precedent set under various totalizing legal structures, believe things like sonic textures, melodies, and rhythms are essentially part of the public domain, free for open appropriation, while simultaneously believing that copying and imitating lyrics, titles, or act names is worthy of criticism. Do you think this is a natural division and does it ring true for you?

Justin Duerr: I think I mostly covered that in the answer to the preceding question. It is bit arbitrary that certain elements of song are considered more “ownable”. I attribute this partially to the songwriting industry of previous decades, when it was still uncommon for a performer to also be a songwriter. This made its own kind of perfect sense – within a collaborative musical project, duties are divided by whoever is most apt to accept them – the craft of songwriting would be one of these – it’s actually somewhat surprising that it eventually became common for performers to also write their own material, but so it is. I guess Elvis and The Beatles played a part in that, in that they were some of the most well known musical forces in the era of recorded music, and they were known not only for being talented performers, but would also write their own material (to whatever extent).

Richard Todd Stafford: Northern Liberties, your solo projects, and your collaboration with Enid Crow all have unique and identifiable signature sounds. But, at the same time, respectively each project fits into a somewhat well established underground genre or genres. Can you talk a bit about how genre convention influences your creative process?

Justin Duerr: Genre convention is just something that is ingrained in my creative language as a matter of fact, due to the culture and time period I grew up in, and currently exist in. I don’t cling to it as something sacred (far from it), but it’s a useful tool to convey my own unique ideas. Think of it as a language – within the language there are rules, confines, and conventions. But due to this, brand new ideas can be conveyed by employing it. If you suddenly spoke your own language, you wouldn’t be able to share your thoughts with anyone else.

I certainly appreciate hearing music that is not within the western (or, more accurately, American) musical tradition that I most readily understand.

I’ve been trained (as informally as possible – by radio, recordings, friends, etc.) to have a firm and thorough understanding of the conventions of pop/rock & roll music, and I don’t fight that — it’s a powerful language that draws on all sorts of elements — within a simple rock & roll song there are traces and vapors of musical traditions from every corner of the globe — and then also the combined effect of all of this working together to convey an emotional impact that is relevant to what’s happening right now, or what is timeless. I’m not ashamed to work within that language, but again, I do enjoy investigating all sorts of other approaches. I just don’t feel the need to “push” myself in those directions — to do so would feel artificial, and somewhat pretentious. That’s just my own feeling, from a very individual perspective.

Richard Todd Stafford: Lastly for today:  Northern Liberties has a collaborative project underway. Can you talk a bit about how bringing new musical and creative energy in to your work with the band affects your feelings of ownership, control, or investment in the creative growth of the project?

Justin Duerr: The collaborative project has been a really fun way to spend time with friends, and bounce ideas back and forth. It’s also a way to mutually benefit everyone involved, on all levels — creatively, psychically, and in ways regarding materiality. The thinking (regarding this project) is that we’re all more powerful as a whole than as isolated beings. I think everyone has been benefiting creatively, and I think once it’s all done with there will be a general swarm of psychic magnetism around the project —hopefully people will want to hear it… maybe because they know just one of the collaborators — and that might lead them to discover one of the other musicians work. I hope people who want to hear it just because they enjoy the Northern Liberties music will also be drawn on to investigate some of the other featured collaborators.

As far as my own feelings of investment and growth — it’s reaffirmed to me what a positive thing it is to get together with friends and make music. It’s one of the good things about being a member of the human species.