“A portrait of greed, taking much more than you’ll need,” decries Human Impact vocalist/guitarist Chris Spencer on the band’s recently released self-titled debut. While it was written before the world went on lockdown over coronavirus, its immediate relevance is staggering.
On March 13, as President Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak, Human Impact — which includes Spencer (Unsane, UXO), Jim Coleman (Cop Shoot Cop), Chris Pravdica (Swans, Xiu Xiu) and Phil Puleo (Cop Shoot Cop, Swans) — released its self-titled debut into a panicked world. Across ten tracks that play like an anxiety-ridden virtual-reality car chase through a bleak human horizon, the band bluntly confronts some of the most dire issues of our time.
Human Impact was scheduled to play the Marquis Theater on Thursday, March 26, but the concert, along with every other one, was canceled. Westword caught up with bandmates Spencer and Coleman to talk about the cancellations and the new album.
Westword: How are you feeling about the cancellation of what was to be your upcoming tour with YOB?
Chris Spencer: It sucks, but at the same time, it's good, in a way. I mean, who wants to be out there? You don't want to be spreading this disease. You don’t want to be adding to the problem here. So it sucks, but it seems appropriate.
Jim Coleman: It’s weird. What we are doing — it shows how little it is, you know? We've got our plans and our goals and what we want to do, and, yeah, it’s a disappointment not to be going out on tour, but in the larger context of what is going on, it’s kind of like, “Okay, it’s a small thing. It's a bummer. It’s a missed opportunity, but you have to have faith that down the road we will get out there and we will have our time on the road.”
The album takes aim at many of the most pressing contemporary issues: greed and economic inequality, political deception, the spread of misinformation and environmental abuse among them. Is it accurate to say that you see our current situation as pretty dire, even before the virus’s outbreak?
Spencer: Yeah, I think so. Who knows what can happen? It’s never really predictable these days. A lot of shit is going wrong. Things are changing in the world. We are obviously living in a different reality than any one of us anticipated right now, right? But you look at the not just possible future, but the almost guaranteed future, in terms of the impact of climate change — and how that is not even a talking point for political debates and platforms is insane. It's like, [putting] the priority of corporate concerns and profit over the sustainability of even the human race is inconceivable, and yet that is where we are.
These issues have worldwide impact and require large-scale solutions. How do we get to the point where we are communicating beyond partisanship and other divisions to find workable global solutions?
Spencer: Part of my frustration lyrically is that we aren't getting there. It seems like the individual does not have much sway or influence in that way. We see how ridiculous our government is in terms of politics and being partisan and nobody getting together. It's all about some fucking reality-show star getting his way. There isn’t discussion about the resolution of real problems. It's more just bullshit from our government. I think so much is clouded by this massive amount of information that is being put out there, that is sort of contrary to what I would think would be a positive way to approach this. I really feel like we are being crushed under the boot of disinformation.
Looking at things in a positive light — thinking that we can change things — we are doing everything we can in terms of our position as musicians to try and say something and use this as an outlet for our frustration. I just really hope that there is a way somewhere down the line. I just don't really see it right now.
Coleman: I think on a larger-scale social and political level, I don't see that happening any time in the near future. But I do think that we can take steps locally and personally. As a band, I feel like that is what we are actually doing: having a voice. There is change to be had through creative self-expression, and it is odd the kind of responses and feedback we have been getting from the music, from the lyrics, from the videos. I am enthused by not just the response to it, but that people understand it. Our little voice is reaching out there a little bit. I don't know if it could be a catalyst for change, but at least it could be a point of connection.
Spencer: To Jim's point, I think it boils down to a localized sort of positivity. I mean, you don't want to just hang with people who have your values or your morals. At the same time, it is very difficult to embrace the other side, which may be the only way, but you know, what do you do? How can you do this? It's a very frustrating thing for me.
Coleman: I think that that attitude of getting out of our closed circuits and developing as much acceptance and tolerance as we can, that is the starting point. Again, that comes down to what we can do individually, while not giving up.... Sometimes, like going out and joining in marches, there could be tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, and you don't even hear a mention of it in the news. That’s happened: Join this thing, and you see what is happening on the ground, and it barely even makes a ripple, right? That feels disempowering. I think we have to keep doing that regardless, but pay attention to our own sense of outrage. And what is going on is outrageous. I guess the question is how do you respond to that rather than react to it? How do I try to build some kind of dialogue of understanding rather than batten down the hatches and be like, “Those motherfuckers!“ which is the first thing I want to do.
For many reasons — environmental impact among them — the relentless pursuit of economic expansion seems untenable. How do we move away from a growth-obsessed economic model to a more local, sustainable one without sliding into nationalism and nativism?
Spencer: Well, that is the interesting question, right? The growth projections for large companies are absurd and unsustainable. Yet that is what they demand, so they just milk it out of their employees, for that 1 percent or whatever to keep getting wealthier and wealthier. But it is totally unsustainable, and what may bring that to its knees is a collection of catastrophes. That may just be the mechanism that we are looking at to bring things into a more local, sustainable fashion. But your point is really correct. How does that transformation happen — and it’s going to be painful — without it turning into this kind of nationalism? That’s an excellent question. I don’t know.
How much blame for the lack of social cohesion and unified responses to universal problems would you put on mainstream or social media and the tendencies that these platforms encourage?
Spencer: I really think the media and social media are being used against us as a tool to manipulate the masses. Hate to be so blunt about that…uh, I don't, actually. I feel like it’s another tool for the corporate-run structure to manipulate people and lull us into, "Oh, I am so important. My opinion really matters.” Lull you into this feeling that you actually are getting your word out, when at the same time you see what it is doing: not much. It sort of gives everyone an over-inflated sense of self-importance, while it's really just being used to manipulate you. You see how Trump is spending millions and millions of dollars to just put up disinformation. It's an old tactic.
Coleman: That is one thing with the mainstream news, and now so many people are getting news through social media. Obviously, [social media] is rife with misinformation, as well as valid information, but both mainstream or social media create closed circuits, and all of that furthers the divisiveness. News is a channel of divisiveness and fear right now, I think, and that is what makes it profitable in some way.
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A friend of mine framed the coronavirus issue in an interesting way: Younger generations have been asking older ones to consider climate change, travel less and change the way they work and consume. For the most part they were told to sit down, wait their turn, and go back to school. With the coronavirus, roles have reversed, and it is the younger generations being asked to act unselfishly, not to jump on cheap flight opportunities and so on. It begs the question, without being prompted by law or something truly devastating — say a plague or nuclear war — are humans capable of feeling empathy at such a grand scale?
Coleman: I do think that the coronavirus is one step toward a natural rebalancing. I will leave it at that. Whether it is ethnic or generational, it shows the need for bridges and connection across the board.
Spencer: That is what I think we are all hoping. If you take a more broad, objective view of things, what it will take for anything to get done is solidarity.
Check out Human Impact's new album, out on Ipecac Recordings, here.