Dead Pioneers to release self-titled album on 16th August on Hassle Records

“Being embarrassed to be a white American has never been a bigger visceral, laugh filled, joy than when I’m listening to Dead Pioneers. If you think truth needs a great soundtrack… look no further than Dead Pioneers.”  Shepard Fairey

Who were the first punks? Do The Damned have more of a shout than The Sex Pistols? The Stooges or Ramones? Gregg Deal, the acclaimed visual and performance artist behind his new project Dead Pioneers, is making a claim that Indigenous Americans were the first real punks.

Deal suggests that the overarching theme of the album is “an introduction to the band itself”. Created with a DIY disposition and the “love of a scene that saves lives”, they reel off a roll call of marginalised groups and protected characteristics: “Indigenous rights, Black rights, Brown rights, Asian rights, Gay rights, Trans rights, Workers rights and beyond…”. This is central to their identity and focus, saying that “with a North American Indigenous person as the vocalist, being unapologetically upfront on the social, political and cultural side of things doesn’t seem necessary, but paramount to the overall tone of the band.”

This self-titled debut, coming in at a lithe 22 minutes with only one of the twelve tracks exceeding three minutes, is almost over before it begins, but covers a huge amount of ground in that time. 

Blistering opener ‘Tired’ sets out their stall; as with the whole album, it is passionate, but never preaching. Capitalised ‘Political Music’ can be hard to land without coming across as hectoring or earnest, but Deal’s literary, humorous lyrics effortlessly cut through complex issues of marginalisation and colonialism.

‘We Were Punk First’ is a prime example and a fascinating concept. “So much of the punk ethos is individuality, standing out, fighting against injustice, power structures and oppressive ideas meant to conform you into a state of complacency”, says Deal. “Is there a better way to articulate the struggle of Native peoples in the West against colonial powers?” 

“While early punk may not have been talking about us specifically, the overall feeling is the same. But if we are talking about individuality, personal identity, carrying things that are offensive to the popular styles or mores, in what we call the United States of America and Canada? Yeah, we did it first. First Mohawks. First fights. First disenfranchisements.” 

Musical touchstones are varied, ranging from Black Flag and The Minutemen via Suicidal Tendencies and Rage Against The Machine through to La Dispute or Idles. Thematically, as much as sonically, it channels the taut energy and directed rage of Fugazi or Henry Rollins at their peak.

Spoken word interludes serve as connections between songs as well as linking back to Deal’s extensive art career. Tracks such as the lead single ‘Bad Indian’ with the lines: “A woman once asked me my Indian name and I said “ It’s Gregg ”. She was so disappointed she was like “ no it has to be Red Eagle, or two Rivers ”, “ or Greyskull ” I said. “ Yes, wait, is that for real? ”. “ No, no ” I said without her realising my brief but generationally relevant He Man joke, the kind of joke that would tell her while Indian, I’m also having an American experience too ”.  Deal uses humour as a way into complex, knotty themes. “I have learned in my visual work that humour has an incredibly powerful effect on how things are seen and heard.”

“Stereotypes and tropes are an easy introduction to understanding the basic place of what affects Native people on a daily level. This is a good entry way into the more nuanced issues”, he continues. “It’s no small thing to use that kind of thing deliberately, but also important to note that Native people of North America are funny. We will poke fun at you always, and almost exclusively if we like you. We talk, we make fun and always see the power of our words.” 

As well as the drollness embedded in tracks such as ‘Bad Indian’ and ‘The Art of Savagery’, the band acknowledge that others such as ‘Tired’ and ‘Political Song’ are “pretty forward, confrontational and even unapologetic”. They propose that “all of those things together make for a strong combination and stance of existence in a world gone wild”.

The genesis of the band came from a performance art piece created in 2020 called ‘The Punk Pan-Indian Romantic Comedy’. “A sort of one man show around how I grew up with music, my experiences, and connections. It is funny, and sad, and incredibly personal”, says Deal. “I was able to secure a grant to expand this piece, to specifically produce music that would exist in the performance.”

“It became clear we had something to work from as a viable band” notes Deal, along with “the audaciousness of my own artistic practice in believing I had a right to stand on stage and say these things out loud.” 

The band is made up of guitarists Josh Rivera and Abe Brennan, drummer Shane Zweygardt and bassist Lee Tesche (who is also lead guitarist for Algiers), with Gregg Deal on vocals.  For the creation of the album, the songs were written together, “all bringing something to the table and working through it, just the excitement and desire to write”, with most of the lyrics contributed by Deal. “We are together in all we do. Our process is one of unity and no ego. Obviously I wouldn’t be here without them. The shared vision is paramount to making this work properly.”

‘Political Song’ stretches out over nearly five minutes: a rallying monologue set to music, asking questions, seeking answers. Perhaps the album’s centrepiece, this modest epic is, according to the band, about “the absurdity of political discussion over the past several years”. 

The scope of the lyricism is literary and visual, evoking images of ‘tiki torch whites’ alongside the ‘train wreck that is late stage capitalism’, whilst probing ‘how dare you want anything from a country that you owe everything to?!’. The key refrain at the heart of the song – ‘This is not a political song. It’s possible everything we believe is wrong’ – is used “to point out how much these politics change. That often political discourse isn’t real, or is only real in that moment”. As with much of the album, it is rousing though never feels particularly ‘angry’, but rather informed and balanced, making the case for change. 

Closing track ‘No One Owns Anything & Death Is Real’ takes a slightly different tack and is an environmental song: “About corporations that are stripping us down, taking away resources and ultimately destroying our planet for their own gain. It is profits over people, and at no time is this more true than right now.”

The band reiterate the purpose that underpins their work and suggest there is much more to come: “Carrying ourselves unapologetically in our music and in word is the only true and honest thing we have, and we have deliberately chosen to do just that. It also sets the stage for our second album.”

“I see the existence of Dead Pioneers as an extension of my own visual and performance art work”, concludes Deal. “Having used spoken word in my practice, this is a new medium that is not just satisfying as an artist, but empowering to unapologetically say the quiet things out loud.”

Regardless of who was really punk first, Dead Pioneers are here now, continuing to ask questions and stand up for the voiceless. And in a post-Albini world, perhaps such a sense of integrity is more important than ever? 

Gregg Deal is an artist and activist and a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Much of his work includes exhaustive critiques of American colonialism, society, politics, popular culture and history. With this work – including paintings, murals and performance art – Deal critically examines issues within Indian country such as decolonisation, stereotype and appropriation. He has exhibited his work at cultural centres nationally and internationally, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Venice Biennale. After living in the Washington DC area for 17 years, Deal moved his family to Colorado, coinciding with his time as Native Arts Artist-In-Residence at the Denver Art Museum.

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