Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael landed at MoJo after six years as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He's written for numerous publications, including The Industry Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and Wired. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two kids, four chickens, striped cat, and way too many musical instruments to master.

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Michael landed at MoJo after six years as an award-winning feature editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He's written for numerous publications, including The Industry Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and Wired. He set out to be a scientist, and as an undergrad spent a year in an organic chemistry lab at UC-Berkeley, where he was a biochemistry major, trying to synthesize natural poisons found in the skin of certain tropical frogs. He later earned a masters degree in cellular and developmental biology from Harvard University and a second masters in journalism from UC-Berkeley. In 2009, he was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for public service, as one of five writers in MoJo's "Torture Hits Home" package. The father of two mostly charming kids and an only occasionally charming striped cat named Phelps, Michael lives in Oakland, California, where, after years of classical piano and raucous punk-rock drumming (and putting out more than a dozen CDs on his former DIY label, Bad Monkey Records), he has retired to old-time and traditional music, guitar finger-picking, and more recently fiddle and mandolin. He has four chickens—Lucia, Podge, Cat, and Weed Whacker—but what he really covets is a hedgehog.

Music Appreciation With Rancid's Matt Freeman

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 3:51 AM PDT

Matt Freeman has played bass in some ridiculous number of rock 'n' roll outfits over the years. One of my old bandmates introduced me to him way back when outside Berkeley's famed punk clubhouse 924 Gilman Street. That was in the pre-Rancid days, and I'd recently scored a fun little 7-inch vinyl record of Freeman playing bass with Kamala and the Karnivores. (I still have it somewhere.) He'd also played in the Dance Hall Crashers, Downfall, and various other acts he helped put together. But his real street cred came with his "former" status in Operation Ivy, a band on the Gilman scene that was the first to combine ska and punk rock into a high-intensity sound that spawned thousands of imitators. Even after the band split up, the now-defunct Lookout Records sold enough copies of Energy, Op Ivy's one and only full-length, that its members were able to quit their day jobs.

Rancid—formed a few years later by Freeman and Op Ivy guitarist Tim "Lint" Armstrong, and joined by guitarist Lars Fredericksen and lefty drummer Brett Reed—picked up where Op Ivy had left off. They recorded a series of successful albums on Epitaph records and toured relentlessly, indulging in various side projects when they grew restless. During a Rancid hiatus in 2004, Freeman also did a temporary stint with the seminal Southern California punk band Social Distortion. The boys have since grown into middle-aged men, but Rancid plays on, and Freeman has a new album out with Devil's Brigade, his psychobilly side project with Armstrong and drummer DJ Bonebrake from X—one of my favorite bands of all time. Last month, just prior to the CD's release on Epitaph, Freeman was kind enough to reply to a few questions about his own listening preferences, aging gracefully, and the TV series Breaking Bad.

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Die Antwoord on Cultural Overload, Evil Boy, and the Meaning of Zef

| Mon Oct. 11, 2010 3:49 AM PDT

Last week, I posted the first part of my interview with South African rave-rappers Die Antwoord, which means "the answer." Talented and profane, Ninja (né Waddy Jones) and Yo-Landi Vi$$er—who have a daughter together, although they aren't a couple—have concocted a surreal musical chemistry, tag-teaming in a hypercharged mix of English, Afrikaans, and even tribal languages.

They were largely unknown outside of South Africa until this past February, when their video for "Enter the Ninja" suddenly went viral. This launched a bidding war that culminated in a record deal and the release, this week, of $O$, their much-anticipated debut on Interscope. In the first part of our interview, which you should read, Ninja discusses the record deal and the story behind the group's startling new "Evil Boy" video. In part two, I talked to Ninja and Yo-Landi about the meaning of zef, the documentary that changed their lives, and why they plan to kill Die Antwoord after five albums. 

Mother Jones: You guys like to say that you represent South African culture. How do you view that culture?

Ninja: We like to absorb all the different elements of South Africa that we find interesting and attractive and unique. We're like sponges. There's things about the Xhosa culture that we love, and we love things about the Afrikaans culture; that's very amusing and interesting to us. And then there's the colored culture, which is a whole other thing.

MJ: That's mixed-race?

N: Ja. They refer to themselves as coloreds, not "blacks." The PC-version people try and promote this image of South Africa as a rainbow nation and make it all like pretty and stuff. But it's actually like this fokked-up, kind of broken fruit salad. 'Cause all those things don't mix that well together in the real world. But for us it does mix. That's why we say it's, like, "fokked into one person." 'Cause that's how we feel on a certain level. Like we absorb all these things, but they're not harmoniously flowing together through the air in this pretty rainbow picture.

Die Antwoord on "Evil Boy," Their Risqué New Video

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 2:00 PM PDT

Prior to February, Afrikaner "zef" rappers Die Antwoord were virtually unknown outside of South Africa. Then, practically overnight, their video for "Enter the Ninja" became an internet sensation (nearly 8 million YouTube views to date), launching a bidding war by major labels. The most common reaction to the video may well have been, What the fok? (Read my initial reaction here.) Bumping a South African ghetto style known as zef—which is sort of like a downscale version of "bling"—rappers Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er have created an insanely weird, high-energy chemistry. They push the creative envelope with an absurdist gangsta sexuality, laden with heavy doses of profane slang in their native tongue.

Die Antwoord arrives in America next week to tour in support of $O$ (SOS), their new debut CD on Interscope, which, fittingly, is also home to Lady Gaga and Eminem. Just yesterday, Die Antwoord released the video for their song "Evil Boy." Watch it below, but make sure your boss isn't looking, because it may well be one of the most risqué music videos ever recorded. This morning, I spoke with Ninja, who was chilling with Yo-Landi at a friend's place in Johannesburg prior to the tour. In part one, we talk about Die Antwoord's roller-coaster ride, the Interscope deal, and the surprising story behind "Evil Boy." (Click here for part two of the interview.) Watch the video first, and then we'll go speak with Ninja.

 

Mother Jones: Hey, wat pomp? [Loosely translates as "What's happening?") Did I say that right?

Ninja: Ja, you said it so good! It's the best American pronunciation of it ever!

MJ: I've been checking out the "Evil Boy" video. I mean, man! It makes Lady Gaga look tame. Clearly, nobody's trampling your artistic freedom.

N: Oh, no, no, no. That's why we signed with those guys. They love us.

Unintended Consequences: Green Products Edition

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 10:51 AM PDT

My colleague Kate Sheppard just posted a funny-yet-disturbing piece about how Frito-Lay is ditching it's compostable Sun Chips bags because customers are complaining that the bags make too much noise. And maybe some of you caught this recent piece in the New York Times about how the new low-phosphate detergents are great for the environment, but don't do a very good job washing dishes. All of which reminded me of yet another amusing-yet-disheartening story I heard while camping with my kids in California's Sequoia National Park this past summer.

Besides boasting the world's biggest and oldest trees—some of them have been around for three millenia—the park is home to Crystal Cave, an impressive labyrinth of marble and limestone formations. Last year, the Sequoia Natural History Association (SNHA)—the nonprofit that runs cave tours and takes care of maintenance—teamed up with the National Park Service to rig the cave with solar power and LED lighting, thought to be less disruptive to the cave's sensitive ecosystems. In addition to other grants, SNHA applied for and received federal stimulus funding for the project, which was touted by the Fresno Bee on May 7:

Popular Crystal Cave—home to eyeless bugs and spiders with monster jaws—will be illuminated by the power of the sun starting Saturday.

For decades, Sequoia National Park visitors have toured the marble cave under the glare of incandescent lights that have drawn power from a propane generator.

On Saturday, when the cave opens for tourist season, the lighting will switch over to solar power fed into a system of light-emitting diodes, known as LEDs, which are stingy in electricity use. It is believed to be the National Park Service's first cave lit by the sun.

I'd never seen any lights in the cave. In August 2009, when we first took a tour, were were handed flashlights at the entrance. In August 2010, back for another tour, we noticed the big solar array in the parking area, but after hiking the half-mile or so down to the cave, we were again invited to grab a flashlight from the bin. When we asked our tour guide what was up with the panels, he told us about the whole solar project.

So why wasn't it up an running? Well, our guide explained, it turns out the well-intended project managers had opted for the "green" power cables—encased in soy-based insulation.

Wild animals chewed them up. Lights out.

Wayback Machine: Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 3:39 AM PDT

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are gettin' hotter by the minute. This young North Carolina trio—solid multi-instrumentalists and protégés of 91-year-old African American fiddler Joe Thompson—have set out to revive the nearly extinct tradition of black old-time string bands. In their five years of existence, they've recorded five albums, toured with blues great Taj Mahal, performed on NPR's Prairie Home Companion, were the first black string band ever to play the Grand Ole Opry—not that the Opry deserves them—and have been winning over new fans at a rapid clip.

The reason why was evident Friday at Slim's in San Francisco, where I caught the Chocolate Drops the night before their debut at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass fest. Following local openers The Stairwell Sisters, a thoroughly enjoyable five-woman old-time outfit—complete with clogging by Evie Ladin, who plays a mean clawhammer banjo—the Chocolate Drops got the crowd fired up rousing renditions of "Starry Crown" and "Don't Get Trouble in Your Mind." They followed up with a lengthy set in which none other than Mr. Mahal himself joined them onstage to pinch hit on the banjo.

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