The Wobblies put the fun back in socialist dogma
In addition to having a good time, The Wobblies have yearned to start a discussion. As the name may suggest ("Wobblies” is a nickname for the members of the Industrial Workers of the World union), the Corvallis/ Portland, Ore.-based punk band is mainly concerned with the working class and its place in society. Brothers A.J. and Ty Smith (vocalist/guitarist and drummer, respectively) were both history majors who now teach in Oregon schools.
“We’ve always been socially conscious, pro-labor,” says A.J. Smith, a registered member of the socialist party who says he keeps his political views out of the classroom. “[Studying history] sort of gave us an in-depth perspective on the whole thing.”
The Wobblies formed six years ago upon A.J.'s return to Oregon from England, where he had attended school for a year. While there, he taught himself how to play guitar and started writing songs.
“I needed some kind of background music that I could write lyrics to, so I bought a cheap little acoustic guitar, and I learned a couple of chords and started writing music off of that,” Smith recounts. “When I got back, we got the band together. I didn’t even know how to play guitar standing up.”
It was this simplicity, however, that lent urgency to the band’s sound. Fast, loud and, most important, fun, The Wobblies aren’t your typically acerbic politically minded punk band. Instead, they offer something much more melodic that Smith says stems from their songs’ acoustic roots.
“As we’ve progressed, we’ve written heavier songs and louder songs, but that folk influence is there in all of our music,” he says. “That’s fun for us, because it provides a little more space for sound, and it’s kind of unconventional.”
Though the music is easy on the ear, the message contained in the lyrics doesn’t lack bite. The Wobblies’ pro-labor ethos permeates many of the songs, but as the war in Iraq has trudged on, the group has also added a fair share of protest songs to its catalog. Over the years, their strong opinions have been both accepted and reviled by audiences—and either reaction is fine by them.
Their socialist beliefs once got them banned from a concert they were slated to play at an Elks Lodge. ("On their statement of intent that was written ages ago, it said that they would not permit communists, socialists … it actually said Wobblies, too,” he explains). Marines also have protested their shows because of the group’s anti-war stance. The latter of the two incidents, however, led to the type of discourse Smith hopes his songs will incite.
“Eventually, we made pretty good friends with one of the Marines,” he says. “After a while, they switched over and became Wobblies fans after one simple discussion, and they’re still coming to shows.”
American Bliss, The Wobblies’ latest album, was released earlier this summer. Smith describes it as “a mix of anti-war, pro-working-class, some life songs and some drinking songs.” It was recorded with Tom Van Raiper, who worked on the group’s previous release, and contains 16 tracks, the most the group has put on an album. In another first for The Wobblies, American Bliss also features guest musicians.
“For a while we were like, ‘Let’s just keep it as a three-piece [The Wobblies’ lineup is rounded out by Pope Charles on bass]. We’ll only do what we can represent live,’ “ Smith says. “But the additional musicians didn’t really take away anything from what we do live, and it was great to get some friends in there on the CD.”
Thematically, the album focuses on Smith’s hope that the American public will wake up and pay attention, but those looking for heavy-handed diatribes—either committed to disc or in person—will be disappointed.
“We don’t want to preach,” Smith says. “We don’t feel like our shows are sermons.”