The Mile High Makeout: Love in the time of swine fluBy | November 27th, 2009 | 2 comments
I spent most of last week in bed. I was so sick that the doctor’s office told me not to come in. They didn’t want me to infect anyone else. That’s sick. After a phone interrogation from a nurse, they determined that I probably had H1N1 — yes, the dreaded swine flu — and should just take lots of ibuprofen and stay away from other humans.
Being the lover of Denver music that I am, when I got this news, my first thoughts were of the Pirate Signal, and its apocalyptic love song from earlier this year, “Love in the Time of Swine Flu.”
The Pirate Signal is one of the leading acts in Denver’s burgeoning hip-hop scene, and has been on the most-likely-to-break-through list since its 2007 release, “The Name of This Band is the Pirate Signal.” The lineup has changed quite a bit since the group’s 2003 beginnings, but has now settled around the rapping and production skills of Yonnas Abraham — who cites Tool, the Mars Volta and Radiohead as his biggest musical influences — and the DJing prowess of Alejandro Martinez, also known as DJ A-What.
The duo made a huge splash with last year’s mixtape, “Of Gods and Gangsters, Vol. 1,” and followed that up with a pair of singles released on September 9, 2009 (9/9/09). One of those was “Col Boi,” a crazy, prog-rap track about being different and proud. The other was “Love in the Time of Swine Flu,” to which I listened obsessively while trapped in my room, missing my girlfriend, the world outside and fresh air. I had to call Yonnas.
“I was falling in love with this girl at the time,” Abraham explains, “and there’s was all this stuff in the news, and this was a way to timestamp it.” In fact, at its core, “Love in the Time of Swine Flu” is about being young, in love and broke. The last line of the chorus sums it up: “We used to laugh and joke about it, but it was kinda true: all I could really afford to ever give you was swine flu.” But, as the title — with its reference to Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera — suggests, this is more than just a love song.
“It’s a disaster song,” he admits. “In our culture, there’s this hunger and fascination with our own demise.” Abraham himself is fascinated with apocalyptic imagery, doomsday conspiracy theories and destruction of Biblical proportions, and this fascination plays out in the song’s lyrics. The Pirate Signal transforms a strain of flu into an amorphous plague that kills millions and destabilizes civilization. The world goes up in flames, and the narrator and his girlfriend climb high above the city to watch it all burn — “the greatest fireworks that ever could be.”
Unlike a Jerry Bruckheimer fantasy of global destruction, however, Abraham’s version resonates with social meaning and real human consequences. When I speak to him, he has just seen “2012,” so the images from that blockbuster disaster film are fresh in his mind.
“You know, when the big tsunami comes and swallows up Denver,” the 27-year-old performer says, talking so quickly I can hardly keep up, “people will say, ‘Oh, I saw this in a movie once.’ We’ve been desensitized to it. Entertainment puts in your face how corrupt the government, but it’s just entertainment fodder. We never once think to ourselves, ‘This shit could happen.’”
I mute my phone to cough up some viral remnants from my lungs and think. I’ve been laughing off this whole H1N1 thing for months, but maybe Abraham is right. Maybe I’m one of the canaries in the coalmine. Maybe I’ve been desensitized. There are conspiracy theories out there that tie the swine flu to 2012, and I even read one in a local smalltown paper that suggested the flu had been engineered by scientists working for President Obama to help usher healthcare reform through the legislature. I mention this to Abraham.
“One of the first things I remember when Obama was first rising to prominence, we were watching him on TV and Ale [pronounced ah-lee - that's DJ A-What] said to me, ‘That guy’s the Antichrist.’,” Abraham says, hardly pausing to breathe. “He fits the f**king bill right down the line, and the most eye-opening trait is this unanimous love people have for him. He’s supposed to be like Jesus Christ, but ultimately, when Jesus Christ comes back, he’s not gonna be hugging and kissing. He’s gonna be chopping down buildings.” Somehow, Abraham’s image of Jesus/Obama/the Antichrist as a vengeful, Old Testament god, tearing down the temples of Mammon, reminds me of the Hindu god, Shiva the Destroyer.
“Yeah, and Shiva the Destroyer is not inherently bad,” Abraham agrees. “He’s just doing his job.” Suddenly, in the course of a brief conversation that began with a love song, Barack Obama has become a kind of Antichristian savior, sent to press the gigantic reset button and destroy the world. My head is spinning — but that could just be the fever.
I turn the conversation toward the Pirate Signal’s new album, “No Weak Heart Shall Prosper,” and find that endtimes ideas persist there too. Conceived after the group’s former partner, engineer and best friend disappeared with the recordings for a never-released album called “One Alone,” this new album — set for release around Cinco de Mayo of 2010, with the first single dropping on Valentine’s Day — explores themes of despair and desire, love and hope. The album is set in a post-apocalyptic Denver, inspired by films like “Mad Max,” and looks for the silver lining in the mushroom cloud. Where previous Pirate Signal recordings were heavily influenced by funk and soul, this new record will be colder, more digital and industrial to echo its lyrical content.
“A weak heart allows negative things to infect it, and prevent it from loving anymore,” Abraham says, explaining the album’s title. “A strong heart is able to love and maintain in the face of catastrophe.” And while he’s talking about the album, Abraham — whose parents fled troubled Eritrea as it struggled for independence from Ethiopia, conceived him in Italy and ultimately allowed him to grow up in Denver — is also talking about the circumstances under which the album is being made. “Pressure makes diamonds,” he says, offhandedly — and not accidentally — quoting General George Patton.
It’s this mindset — the ability to turn adversity to advantage — that just might be the key to the Pirate Signal’s long-overdue commercial success. As he looks around for role models, Abraham doesn’t have to look too far. “3OH!3 has taken incredible care of us,” he says of the Boulder-born duo that has helped to raise the act’s profile nationally. “They’re constantly looking out for us, and that’s necessary. If they wish to bring up the place they came from, then they’ve gotta put a hand down and pull some other people up. The Flobots too. They haven’t necessarily done that for us, specifically, but with them, I have something to look up to – a blueprint and a game plan for measurable success. They created a strong live buzz first, then sold a bunch of records locally, and then started to get radio.”
We’re back on solid ground. We’re no longer talking about “Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars” and swine flu as global conspiracy. We’re talking about music marketing. I breathe – through my mouth, of course, because my sinuses are still filled with what feels like ball bearings. I ask Abraham about how he reconciles his thirst for social change with his quest for major label stardom. His response shouldn’t surprise me, but it does.
“The idea of being a revolutionary is counter to the idea of self-preservation. When you make decisions to preserve yourself, you just become more conservative overall.” I’m silent. I know he’ll get around to answering my question. “My own mind has changed from wanting to shake the world up to wanting to be successful. I still feel like I’m a revolutionary because the ideas come from my own mind and aren’t altered by anyone, but I’d prefer to be successful. I’m adventurous in my musical decisions now because I have nothing to lose, but I make no promises that, when I’m successful, I won’t be smart about it.”
And that’s what “Love in the Time of Swine Flu” is really about – self-preservation. Looking out for yourself and your loved ones. Heading for high ground. Being smart about it.
“I know what’s right and wrong, but that’s not necessarily how I make decisions,” Abraham tells me before getting off the phone. “It’s about what right and wrong for me.”
Eryc Eyl is a veteran music journalist, critic and Colorado native who has been neck-deep in local music for many years. Check out Steal This Track every Tuesday for local music you can HEAR, and the Mile High Makeout every Friday.