Old Trees: Folk Punk Beyond Borders

Old Trees is a DIY folk punk band rooted in eco anarchist, vegan and queer feminist beliefs. They started in late 2011 in Portugal, and eventually became a nomadic collective of musicians and activists from several parts of Europe. The band started out of an inspiration to share songs of resistance while directly supporting radical communities and projects. Old Trees is for lovers, for warriors, it’s a scream of rage against the capitalist patriarchal machine. The interview was conducted after their show in Sofia on their Spring European tour.

So what’s the story of Old Trees? As far as I know it started as a one-person project and now it’s three of you.

Gui: When I was growing up I was always closely surrounded by radical politics. So it was kind of a natural feel to me to discover punk, i.e. discovering punk as a tool to express political ideals. When I did discover punk it was kinda like the best thing ever. I’ve been listening to punk for many years and also folk… folk came a little bit later but for me It was always connected how it is the people’s music and I could do it, I could express my views and everything through it. And I started doing stuff with the punk and DIY community in Portugal, and eventually I created Old Trees three and a half years ago when I was tired of being in bands in punk and crust. I was basically just listening to folk punk at the time and it was like a breath of fresh air for me when I discovered folk punk. It was the outlet to me at that time to talk about my activism and my views.

Alicia Edelweiss: I met Gui around a year ago in Vienna, we were both playing the same show in the city. And then I actually haven’t heard anything of Gui for a long time, we were just friends on Facebook, haha. Then in January I saw a post that their old line-up is breaking up and Gui is moving out of Poland, they are looking for accordion player or any other kind of musicians. Actually I wasn’t even planning on joining the band, I was just “hey, I could play a concert somewhere where you are, I play accordion” and Gui just wrote me “oh, come and tour” and I was like “yeah, okay.” Now I think I will stay in Old Trees for quite some time but in the future I don’t know. I really enjoy being in Old Trees because I was never been in a band before, and it’s really cool.

Goś: I also never played in a band before, it’s my first band. I joined three months ago. They were living in a squat in Warsaw and we met at this antinationalist march in Warsaw last November. After that I started learning to play washboard and that’s how I joined the band. Because I really like their songs.

Do you think that there’s a big interest in folk punk on the Balkans? We have a tradition in folk music while in the West folk punk is just another subgenre of punk with tons of bands. Although here we don’t have many folk punk musicians and we see a big variety of people at shows while on other places there are certain type of punks who enjoy this particular style.

Gui: Well, I don’t think there is a folk punk scene in Europe in general. If you compare it to the United States where it’s gigantic and it’s one of the biggest punk scenes right now. I don’t think in Europe there is a folk punk scene, there are people who listen to it but there are no bands. There are some bands scattering around but there is no big following for this kind of music. I think this problem with people just focusing on I just wanna listen to d-beat and crust or straight edge or neo-crust, and if it’s acoustic I’m not interested in it, blah, blah, blah… this kind of attitude is, I think, all over Europe and we experience it all the time. On the other hand on Balkans they don’t have a folk punk scene but they have a big folk scene, and Balkan folk is really good. I myself, as a musician, I’ve been influenced by Balkan folk. I think that in some parts of this region some people reacted to our music much better in terms of like dancing, because they are used to express themselves through dancing to all this folk thing while in the other parts of Europe they are more closed inside their own thing, “I just listen to hardcore” mentality.

Alicia Edelweiss: I must say I haven’t listened to folk punk before joining Old Trees and every time when I listened to band like that on a concert I just think of it as folk actually, I didn’t even know about this categorizing as folk punk and folk punk scene. I don’t know, the people here have been really nice but I know that for example in the UK this thing is really big, there’s folk punk there I think. Like much bigger than here probably, but from what I’ve heard from Gui, in Portugal they hate it. So yeah, West-East-South-North.

Goś: For me it depends to the person, as Gui said, it’s just an attitude, like “oh, I listen only to hardcore” but you can also just never heard about it before and when you hear for a first time it’s something totally new but you enjoy it. And you can enjoy the show if you listen to totally different stuff on a regular basis.

There were quite a lot of queer people at the show tonight who never come to the usual hardcore punk shows, do you think that your music is more accessible to a wide audience, not so aggressive and macho-looking as the hardcore? Also you can play pretty much everywhere, in places without a PA or without even electricity.

Gui: Yeah, I totally agree because for me this kind of experiences where queer people come to our shows and they are not used to this kind of music, and coming to our shows is amazing. It’s exactly why I play this kind of music because I play music not to convert people but I play this kind of political music for people who identify with what we are saying and we encourage them to keep fighting and stay on their path, that they are not alone and playing folk punk or playing acoustic music in general means that you can basically play anywhere, from a behind bridge to a living room to anywhere and this is exactly what I love about playing this kind of music. I can just do it anywhere and it’s so personal and so emotional. Like tonight, we were playing acoustic without mics and there was not just our voice but there was just one voice and everyone was part of the whole thing. And amazing that these queer people came to our show but they’ve never been to a hardcore punk show. So when you ask if this music is more accessible, perhaps they are not knowledgeable about what folk punk is but there is a stigma about hardcore that it’s a very macho environment. So I myself, as a person who listens to hardcore punk and crust I felt a lot of times not safe at shows because it’s not always inclusive, because it’s really macho environment and I think it’s great that people are feeling safe in a space where they are enjoying themselves and feeling a connection ideologically.

Alicia Edelweiss: I just wanna talk about the thing being able to play everywhere. As a musician I always thought that people are so used to be on stage with microphone but that’s a thing I really hated, I felt so uncomfortable. I couldn’t get into the moment, like where my face is, where the mic is, where my accordion is and where is my hand. With Old Trees I now realized that I don’t have to adapt to the technic but the technic should adapt to me. In the end, I don’t have to adapt to anyone. It’s much easier to experience the exact moment when you are not amplified.

Goś: I didn’t see it before but now I can see that this amplifying is like a barrier between the musicians and the people just coming to the concert. It’s kind of limiting.

Do you think that Against Me! was the band that made folk punk popular and also a punk band who speak about trans* and gender-queer people on a broader level? Do you think they are doing a positive thing or they are also sell-outs?

Gui: Personally, as someone who is being listening to Against Me! ever since they started and they are one of the bands that I grew up with, I really love them and I have to admit that musically speaking their demo and “Reinventing Axl Rose” really influenced me as a person, musically speaking. I love the music that is there and I was also one of those people in bandwagon saying that when they released “White Crosses” and when they released all this stuff that they are sell-outs, posers, that I’m not interested in them anymore. And now when I grew up a little bit actually I like that they did musically, I don’t like that they had to go to a major record label to do it, but actually musically speaking I do like it. But one thing about what Laura is doing now, okay, they are a big band, they are making a lot of money, they are commercial in a sense, but one thing that people who are outside of the trans* and queer and gender-queer LGBTQI community don’t understand is that, like a lot of anarchists say “oh, they are selling out and they are talking about these things on TV” but we as trans* people and gender-queer people we generally don’t have a space in the mainstream media. There is no representation of this, where there is a representation of us it’s basically as transvestite freaks and this thing with Laura is the only small representation that’s really positive and I really love what Laura is doing. I have a big respect that she is talking in mass media, in mass television in America, and she is talking seriously about trans* issues and gender-queer issues to a mass audience and I think that is really good. As a gender-queer person I don’t care that she is doing it on a commercial level because at least it exists, we’ve been represented and people are being informed that these people exist.

Alicia Edelweiss: I have nothing against anyone. Hahaha.

You said your message is not focused on converting people but to people who already share your ideas and values. So do you think that DIY political music should stay in safer spaces like social centers and being done by the communities for the communities, instead of trying to reach to the masses like with Against Me! or Chumbawamba?

Gui: As an activist I think all kind of activism is important. There are people who create alternative spaces and create them in different models like squatting or eco-villages, doing direct actions, directly in their own communities and I think this is the kind of activism that I identify the most with. And when it comes to direct actions like resisting and smashing property which for me is not violence, I’m fine with. But there are also people who inform other people who are not so conscious about these issues about them. And this kind of activism is also really important. Personally I’m not so interested in doing this because it’s so mentally draining and exhausting to me, but I think it’s very important that some people are doing it. And they are bringing this kind of information to people who don’t know it. But as a musician what’s important to me is that I’m not trying to preach, I’m not trying to convert people, I just want to play political music for people who are political, for people who identify with what we are saying and that they don’t feel that they are alone, that they feel encouraged. And I think that’s what is important for me as a person but everyone else should do the type of activism that suits their resources and their individual goals.

Alicia Edelweiss: I think this is not so on point to the question but I just want to say that with my solo musical project I was always being scared of being political because I was afraid of singing about things that are really important to me like veganism or feminism, because I was always playing to people who are tipped on that, hahah. I was just really scared that they wouldn’t like my music if I come up with this and I think through this thing of making music for being liked by people I totally gave up on my political beliefs. I just realized that. I’m really thankful to Old Trees for really waking me up.

Goś: I think it’s important to reach to people who don’t have the kind of knowledge you have or like access to feminist issues, to queer issues, to knowledge of what’s going on with our planet, why veganism is so important, but when I realized that I was really unconscious person for years and the machine was keeping me in its works so strong, but now I’m able to play to people who have similar views, I want to be in safe spaces, in community social centers and right now I don’t have time nor patience to explain to other people about these things. Maybe I could start to reach out to more people and inform them but right now I need to rest in our own community, I want to meet people who think like I do.

Do you think that Total Liberation is an appropriate term for the intersectionality between the social movements? How do you define the concept of Total Liberation and do you think it’s more holistic than let’s say ideologically bagged words like anarchist or antiauthoritarian?

Gui: Absolutely and million times YES. For me the most important thing in activism is intersectionality and for me anarchism is basically identifying systems of oppression and as you identify that they exist you fight against them. It’s destruction of nature, patriarchy, capitalism, hierarchies, destruction of other living beings and all the speciesism, racism and sexism, all of these things are just systems that were created by and to serve the privileged in power to keep their power and let them to divide and conquer, and it’s the realization that all of these things are interconnected and the only way of reaching a real social change and liberation, and realizing that we are all connected and that all of these oppressions are bad and that we need to liberate each other and all others to liberate themselves. And only through this connection we can actually reach, I don’t know how to say, just and fair community.

Alicia Edelweiss: I think it’s important always to see the bigger picture. I think that opening our hearts is the most important thing.

Goś: I strongly believe in supporting each other, in intersectionality. And I realized that I think a lot about many issues but at the same time I have this voice in my head which totally oppress me and that’s where I put my attention lately, just to that very personal liberation. It’s kinda like a liberation of your mind.

Anything to add?

Gui: DIY Conspiracy is really cool website and you are such a cute person. Check out their stuff frequently. Thank you so much for this interview and for supporting us on this tour, for giving us food and a place to sleep. Help each other and build communities, respect other people’s existence and a big high-five and support for all the oppressed queers out there and vegan activists, and people in jail for activism and thank you so much.

Goś: I didn’t have time to check out much about Sofia but Varna in Bulgaria is really cool city if you are a vegan. You have a raw vegan restaurant, you have a lot of things to choose from in the stores and in the usual places like for example in my home country Poland you don’t see much things vegan but in Varna it’s full of vegan stuff. Go Vegan!

[Gui shouting] Let’s shoplift some vegan stuff!

Alicia Edelweiss: I think Sofia is very good for vegans too. And it’s way cheaper than Varna and you can get 13 mangoes from Jenski Pazar (Women’s Market in Sofia) for 6 leva (€3)!

Goś: And if you want to chill there’s a nice park called South Park.

Gui: And Social center Adelante where we played tonight is a really cool social center and it’s one of the few political spaces where you can go in Sofia.

Keep fighting the good fight and see you!

Mittens XVX

Positive person bringing a small fragment of warmth and light in a dark and cold world. Editor of Tigersuit Zine. Founder of DIY Conspiracy webzine. Contact him at: mitkoxvx@gmail.com