The most recent band from former Future Nun Alex Mussawir performs at the Summit on Saturday, Aug. 10
Kneeling in Piss was never supposed to be a band.
While living in Chicago last year, music was the furthest thing from singer/guitarist Alex Mussawir’s mind. At the time, he was immersed in writing a novel, and he would start most days by waking up at 6 a.m. and then going to a nearby cafe to work for six- and seven-hour stretches.
“And it was the hardest thing in the world,” Mussawir said. “I’d sit there and I’d have headaches and I would be uncomfortable and bored. And then I would finish stories and feel ambivalent about them.”
On a lark, he eventually wrote a trio of lo-fi songs he described as “a joke”: “Kneeling in Piss Theme Song,” “Feeling Romantic” and “Timothy Chalamet, Where Are You Going?” He then set them aside to dive headlong back into his novel. But after working through this lingering discomfort for weeks-long stretches, Mussawir finally gave in and picked up his guitar. Surprisingly, the songs started to emerge from him with seemingly zero effort, as though the hard part had been completed in laboring over the novel, unclogging his brain and allowing the songs to flow more freely.Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
“I wrote ‘USA Will Start Another War’ in one sitting,” Mussawir said of the lead-off cut on Kneeling in Piss’ excellent new album, Tour de Force (Fah-Q/Anyway), which the band will celebrate with a release show at the Summit on Saturday, Aug. 10. “And I was like, ‘This is so much more compelling, interesting, funny than anything I’ve been working on, and I did this in 20 minutes. Why is that?’ It felt like I didn’t choose the direction. I really didn’t want to be in a band again, and then I was like, ‘I have to, I guess.’”
Throughout Tour de Force, the characters in Mussawir’s songs experience similar conflict. They pine for companionship but settle into solitude. They accept that the world is in need of repair yet move through their days too distracted to make any headway. They fret that they won’t be heard speaking quietly but that people will tune out if they talk too loud. They laugh at their darkest thoughts but reason that they’re still good, decent people at their core. And they decry humankind’s over-reliance on technology yet start each day by mindlessly checking their phones.
“You want to talk about [technology] because you use it, but you don’t want to embrace it, and you also don’t want to come off as a primitivist, like, 'Destroy it,’” Mussawir said. “We were talking about newspapers, or even with transportation — self-driving cars and blogs — progress is taking the form of those things, and you don’t want to be against that, but also maybe going back to other things isn’t a bad idea. Trains are good. Newspapers are good.”
In past bands Goners and Future Nuns, the conflicts in Mussawir’s songs tended to be internal, but in Kneeling in Piss, this gaze frequently shifts outward, the songs' narrators wrestling with everything from technology to politics. The tense, propulsive “USA Will Start Another War,” for one, references President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, among others, while the loping “What Future?” finds Mussawir singing about a range of potentially damaging forces. “The cops will kill you. Your car can kill you,” he deadpans. “Your job will kill you. Rob Portman wants to kill you, yeah.”
“I didn’t want the despair to be for personal reasons, where maybe that was my instinct in the past. The despair feels shifted outward, whether it’s driven by politics or cultural institutions or whatever,” said Mussawir, who's joined in the band by Alex Paquet (Field Sleeper), Alex Blocher (Nuclear Moms), Kyle Bergamo (Future Nuns) and Maisie Kappler. “I feel like that shift is also something that happens not just within a person but within a culture itself. In the early aughts everything was very personal and self-referential. Now it’s almost 20 years later and you can’t talk about anything without talking about politics or culture.”
To that end, Mussawir said he wanted Tour de Force to sound like a product of this era rather than striving for “timelessness,” a trait often celebrated in rock music that can also make records feel detached or culturally disconnected in a way Mussawir wanted to avoid.
But while some tracks are undeniably political, they’re never reactionary or straightforward, and Mussawir never falls back on broadly bland sloganeering. Even “USA Will Start Another War,” which opens with the central character realizing a privilege shared by a bulk of the country — “USA will start another war/Another war that I’ll survive,” Mussawir sings — toys with the idea that existence is a simulation, with lines referencing a programmed CD-ROM spinning at the Earth’s core and driving human suffering.
“It’s hard, because anybody who says, ‘We’re doing this because of Trump,’ is so annoying. It’s just not good. The second I heard the ‘punk music will be better once Trump is president’ take, I already felt my blood pressure rising because it felt so not true,” Mussawir said. “Obviously, I don’t like Donald Trump. It feels like I don’t even have to say it. But you hear it in the Democratic debates, too. The candidates who say, ‘I’m not him. I’m another guy.’ And that’s not a compelling message. For the rhetoric of progressive punk music to be essentially that is embarrassing.”
While modern times undeniably shaped the songs on Tour de Force, the underlying human element gives them added dimension. Throughout, the characters struggle in social situations, exchanging generic outward pleasantries that often mask jumbled internal thoughts. “Same conversation multiple times … let’s talk about the weather, communism, the police,” Mussawir sings on the scruffy, minimalist “Had a Feeling.” Later, on “Songs about Cities,” the narrator reflects on an earlier, typically vague conversation. “I sat down and told Paul how I’d been,” Mussawir sings atop a shaggy acoustic guitar strum. “I can’t even remember what I said/Probably told him I felt fine.”
“I think I could be happy alone, reading a lot. … It’s not an issue,” Mussawir said. “But to be that kind of person and then choose to be in a band and to play shows all the time, I think it’s taxing and it’s hard for certain people, and I think I’m one of the people it affects. Some people are ‘band guys,’ where they couldn’t be happier having a beer and seeing their friends. And I feel joy in those settings, too, but it is draining in a way that it isn’t for others.”
Ultimately, though, even amid the record’s unending internal and external chaos, there’s ample humor and occasionally something approaching hope, or at least some force that drives Mussawir to continue to create rather than throwing up his arms in defeat.
“That’s been the central dilemma. In the past … you could have a job that paid you well, and a family, and you’d go to church. All of these institutions are falling apart and what are they being replaced with?” Mussawir said. “There’s this idea through the whole album of wanting something, but you’re not sure what it is, and then you know you’re not going to get it. I don’t want to be amorphously floating in the technological void alone. So how do you propose a future, existentially, when you don’t want that tradition thing but you also don’t like what’s being offered to you now? And, for me, it was writing and working on this album.”