Rifflandia 2016: Music overcomes divisive ‘shock politics,’ says Michael Franti & Spearhead frontman

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Michael Franti & Spearhead headline Rifflandia’s main stage tonight, and they’re ready to bring people together. Photo by Chelsea Klette

Since the release of their new album Soulrocker this June, Michael Franti & Spearhead have been touring through the United States, spreading good vibes and inspiring countless crowds. This Friday, the “I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like)” hitmakers are bringing their act to Rifflandia’s main stage, and the band’s eponymous frontman took the time to speak to the Martlet about orcas, the new album, Donald Trump, Port-A-Potties, and so much more.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Martlet: Rifflandia is the last stop for you in North America before you head over to Australia and Europe on your Soulrocker tour, so what prompted you to visit our corner of the Northwest?

Franti: We love it up there. I’ve had some of my favourite experiences on tour playing in Victoria. One time we were on tour, travelling by ferry, and this pod of orcas came and did a circle around the front of our boat as the boat was going full speed . . . Then later in the trip they came back over to our boat and I was like, holy fuck, in the last half hour these things must have swam I don’t know how many miles, three or four miles. And we keep them in tanks . . . But it just gave me this deep appreciation for seeing them and for nature and so that was one of the most incredible things that we experienced on our way to Victoria.

What can fans expect from you at Rifflandia?

Well, we love to break down the barrier between the stage and the audience. I always grab my guitar and my headset microphone and I go out and play songs from different spots in the crowd. In the band we always say, “How can we make this show as 360 as possible? How can we make the audience feel included?” So we get fans to sing along and dance . . . When I go to a concert, there’s always a point where I get really inspired creatively [to take on] whatever’s happening next in my life that I’m chasing. [After a concert] I’ll have the courage and the ingenuity to approach it in a new way. And my biggest dream is that our shows do that for other people the way that it happens for me when I go see other bands play.

Soulrocker’s electronic production contrasts much of your previous acoustic work. What prompted you change things up and enlist the help of [producers] Di Genius and Supa Dups for this album?

Ever since I was a kid I loved electronic music . . . The first record I ever had was a seven-inch of Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express. Kraftwerk were like the very first German electronic band to really have mainstream success. So I’ve always been inspired by them and I’ve always used drum machines and samplers in the studio. But on this record we wanted people to dance, and I guess that’s the main reason that we enlisted Supa Dups and Di Genius. I’d loved the records that they’d made before and I really wanted to be able to focus on playing acoustic guitar and writing words.

Now, to bring things back a couple decades, when you were with the Disposable Heroes of Hipophrisy, you had a song called “Television, the Drug of the Nation” that called out TV for its negative effects on the US population. How do you feel about that song’s relevance today, and do you think that the internet is having a similar effect?

We are all way too believing of what we see on screens. There’s a certain, “Oh, if I see it on screen, Dad told me or Mom told me it must be true.” But at the same time social media has created a different dynamic where any one of us can put up media and that’s a good thing. The bad thing is that instead of it just being controlled by corporate money like it was in the ’80s and ’90s . . . now it’s dictated by clicks. So whatever’s most shocking is going to get clicked and going to be shared more and the advertisers are going to go to where the most clicks are. That’s why you see the craziness of somebody like Donald Trump getting so much attention. It’s like watching a train wreck. People can’t help but to click on whatever crazy-ass thing he’s saying. Hopefully that doesn’t translate to votes in the ballot box, but at the moment it’s translating to millions and millions of dollars that are being earned by the major news outlets, so they keep putting him at the top of their feed. It’s a very dangerous precedent that’s being set right now by shock politics.

With the likes of Spotify, Apple Music, or even less legal means of downloading making it easier than ever to listen to artists, why do you think it is that concerts and festivals still remain such a major attraction for so many people?

With the world so divided and with so much in the media every day that tends to divide us, having any reason for people to come together and share something that’s really good is amazing. The only other time that it really happens . . . is at sporting events. But at sporting events, half the people go home feeling bummed that they lost, whereas at a rock concert or a nightclub or a festival, everybody goes home feeling great, like we shared this magic together. You just can’t duplicate that with the most incredible CGI or virtual reality goggles or smell-o-vision or whatever you can invent. You just can’t recreate going to a festival, listening to a great band, and then going and shitting in a Port-A-Potty.

Michael Franti & Spearhead play the main stage tonight at 7:45 p.m.

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