words by guia cortassa
“According to the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), the professional organization in charge of defining Earth’s time scale, we are officially in the Holocene (“entirely recent”) epoch, which began 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age.
But that label is outdated, some experts say. They argue for “Anthropocene”—from anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new”—because human-kind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts.”
This is the unsettling definition of “Anthropocene” given by an article published on the Smithsonian Magazine in 2013. Anyone with even the smallest access to the news knows that, as we type this, a large part of both the Northern and Southern American continent is smashed by major natural disasters, while a climate change denier is in charge of the mightiest government on Earth, playing with nuclear threats and withdrawing from International environment preservation programs.
Peter Oren is perfectly aware of the situation, and refusing to stay silent about it, to the point of making the anthropocene the core concept of his sophomore album, set to release on 10th November via Western Vinyl. Today, he’s revealing the video for the title track, an emotional and intense ballad of lost hope; we asked him a few question about the song, the album, and his vision of the future.
An interview with Peter Oren
“Anthropocene” is the title track and lead single of the album. It bears a disquieting view of the world and, in it, you repeat the word “escape”. Is this a sense of hopelessness towards the Earth’s future?
Sure, I’ll admit that I don’t have much hope for our future as a species on Earth. (I don’t have hope for it elsewhere either.) After writing “Anthropocene” I learned that there have been other suggestions for how the epoch ought to be named, and I think “Capitalocene” is actually a better-suited title, given that it explicitly links geologic changes with the dominant economic system which encourages limitless accumulation and growth. Further, capitalism puts humanity at odds with “nature” and largely fails to consider broader ecological consequences: the logic of the market considers anything apart from its inputs and outputs, its supply and demand, as externalities.
Capitalism even goes so far as to separate humanity from itself by encouraging class and accumulation of power. “Escape” is a critical word for the song because I feel powerless when it comes to shaping economic and political trends. Consumerist “green” solutions supply avenues for individuals to feel empowered, when in reality, they fall far short of making a tangible difference and perpetuate individual isolation in a world orchestrated by the few. “How will we escape this hell we made” is mostly rhetorical. In my opinion, we physically won’t escape the consequences of climate change unless we shift our attention to wielding collective power in favor of a new economy.
The tracks also sound very sweet, almost like a forlorn love ballad, rather than an energized wake up call for the listener. How did you put together the theme of the song and its sound?
I originally wrote the chord progression on piano (but please don’t ask me to play it on the piano!). I’m not classically trained in music. A lot of what I write comes from trial and error and following my ear. The string arrangements were done on the spot in the studio by my good friend Diederik Van Wassenauer. Ken and I wanted the song to sound big and important, given the broad and dire content of the song, so strings made sense to us. Perhaps the forlorn sound you hear is a product of the lost feeling that I tried to inject into the lyrics. A song simply about the Anthropocene without a human in it is likely to feel dry. I felt lost at the time (and often still do). I wanted the song to grapple with the confusion, awe, and horror that comes with a person who understands the shitstorm of climate change and the power dynamics at play in the economy and then has to find a place in it all for themselves. “Where will I go?”
The road is the main presence in the video. In it, we see industrial plants as opposed to natural landscapes, but I feel like in the album, nature’s presence isn’t as strong as man’s. If we think about the ‘Anthropocene’ concept, it feels like you’re concentrating on the cause rather than on the effect. Is that so for you? Is human existence on Earth also your main concern when not in relation with the natural world?
Yeah, I suppose I’m more interested in understanding the causes of environmental degradation on a systematic level than the effects, but they’re intertwined. In this video it felt like an opportunity to shed light on refineries and coal plants that people don’t often see. I find the sight of a luminous refinery in the desert at night to be about as haunting an image as any.
I also find the distinction or divide between humanity and the natural world a bit odd and unnatural. But yeah, as an artist I tend to focus on human relationships and patterns outside of what we deem the natural world. For example, “Chain of Command” is an attempt at exploring authority structures between people.
Your songs have a country vibe and the album was made in Nashville. “Burden of Proof,” the opener of the album, is a typical country song about trucks, road and homesickness and many others on the album are ballads about lost love. Country music is usually quite removed from social engagement, while you are very active on this. What impact do you hope your music will have on the system?
Before I ever categorize my music by genre or whatever else, I think of it as art. I’m not here to entertain anyone. I try to take my experiences and perspective and use them to craft something that holds meaning for myself and others. Coming from a relatively rural part of the Midwest, I’ve listened to and enjoyed plenty of country music, but I don’t exactly consider myself a country artist exclusively.
I’d question your assertion that country music is usually removed from social engagement. It’s certainly very seldom that country artists take up left-leaning positions, but people like Sturgill Simpson have in recent years have (“Turtles All the Way Down”), and in 1973 there was Lavender Country. That said, I reckon country music often takes up more conservative/ patriotic social positions. For example, I was a bit rattled when I listened closely to Toby Keith’s “Whiskey For My Men, Beer For My Horses.” It’s outright propaganda in favor of ruthless military reaction to the attacks on 9/11. Toby Keith is a prime example of someone being hugely active politically, just not in the direction I go.
Even when country music doesn’t take such blatant political positions, those positions are often implied. In “Burden of Proof,” I sing “country radio all rhymes with Bud Lite and Chevrolet” because it seems whenever I turn on country radio, all the songs seem riddled with plugs for liquor. I recently heard a song with a chorus that virtually repeats Jose Cuervo over and over again. It may seem apolitical, but it’s not. It encourages people to drink their problems away and to remain politically oblivious or disengaged. I’d bet that there’s money changing hands somewhere along the way to make all these product placements possible. Or else the industry has seen success with it, and Nashville’s writers are just lazy and drunk.
In “Falling Water” you sing about Columbus, Indiana “Coming from a place so named/ After a killer and a misnomer” anticipating an issue that is headlining the news in these days. Do you consider this protest song? What’s the duty of a songwriter in this society, in your opinion?
I don’t have any pure conception of what a songwriter is, isn’t, or ought to be. I certainly prefer music of unique substance that’s based in reality and that provides a nuanced perspective of the world. That’s what I try to do. Coming from Columbus, Indiana, I know it can be easy to fail to consider the full history embedded in the name of a place. I think most schools tend to glaze over the genocidal aspects of history, in favor of glorifying the founding fathers and those who “paved the way” for the rest of us. Truth is, Columbus and the Spaniards who first came to the “Americas” were insanely cruel to the natives they met, which is well-detailed in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. So, my line is an attempt to call into question the foundations of the society we know. Is it a protest song? I dunno? I guess so? Call it what you want. Do I think Columbus, Indiana should be renamed? Maybe. I fear if it were, the change would only be superficial.
What I want from songwriters is honesty, nuance, details, metaphors. etc. Should we all write protest songs? Only if that’s what’s on your mind. I can’t help but write political songs. These thoughts eat me up, so I grapple with them by writing.
“Welcome/Goodbye” sounds to me like an introduction to the album, not only for the “Welcome to this record” line, but for the themes it tackles, including the naming of Elon Musk. Why did you chose to put it at the end, instead?
In retrospect, perhaps it should’ve been put first. That was the intention going into it, but I feared that the song itself wasn’t engaging enough to keep a listener listening. It’s so plain and straight-forward that if the sentiment didn’t ring true for a listener, I was afraid that they’d stop listening. Putting it anywhere but the beginning or end didn’t feel right, so it ended up at the end. We hoped that sonically, Burden of Proof would be more likely to draw a listener in. Choosing track order for a record is tricky!
‘Anthropocene’ LP is out on November 10th, via Western Vinyl
You can buy it here