with Ryan Acquaotta
Ryan Acquaotta, lead singer of Karikatura, discusses their new EP SPEAK NOW, the early formations of the band, and how Black Lives Matter and global politics changed their music.
How did you personally get into the music profession?
I’ve been in bands since high school. I don’t know that when I was in high school I thought that it was something I would do professionally, but it’s always something I wanted to be doing in some capacity. When I first moved to the city I would go to Jersey and play with some friends there. It was a ritual but we weren’t making any money. During that time, that band was going through a dry spell so I reached out on craigslist to some different bands and Dima, the guitar player of this band, was one of the people who got back to me. A lot of the band’s ambitions were initially driven by him. He went on a soul-searching trip around the world, sold his stuff in New York and went to Europe, Southeast Asia, and he parked in India for several months. The journey inspired him and he wrote all these songs and when he came back, he wanted to create a band that would travel with him. I sort of got roped into that mission and we started writing songs together and booking shows and everything has grown since then.
What are the main musical influences of Karikatura’s sound?
When we started out, the bands Dima was showing me that influenced his music were sort of gypsy punk, like this group Gogol Bordello or Manu Chao, reggae, Latin punk globetrotter music, Balkan beat box, and other New York multiculti stuff. That was what he was into, and I was sort of into that stuff from going to DJ parties and listening to Cumbia reggae and stuff like that. Our first trombone player was really into ska, and our first drummer was playing in Cumbia punk bands. Our current drummer Morgan has studied music in Cuba and Ghana and he’s a percussionist, so he’s got a wide vocabulary of rhythms and traditions. So its really multifaceted based on whoever’s involved. There’s jazz cats, cats who play in salsa bands, and we all bring a bit of where we come from.
Is it a challenge to bring all of those influences together and make a coherent sound?
We argue a lot [laughs]. But also, I think one of the ways it works is that there are multiple people in the band who are songwriters, so they are capable of bringing a somewhat formed song to the process. It’s hard if we all get together and try to jam out of nothing and form songs, so how it works is people plunk out things on keyboards, guitars and make demos. We make songs and share them with the rest of the band, and then everyone can bring their flavor to the song. As the singer, I’ll listen for the sentiment of what they are trying to say and put my spin on it. It’s a cool tension, and trying to reconcile that tension is what I think gives a band any uniqueness it has.
Are there any challenges to being in a category that’s difficult to define?
It’s very challenging. We don’t fit into a lot of easy boxes, so a lot of ways we have tried to promote ourselves so far is just touring and getting in front of people and letting people see us. But when we reach out to bookers or PR people, being able to have a clear genre would make some things easier. But in other ways, we’ve encountered bands where there’s a real ceiling if you are too specific, if you are too much of one kind of thing. I think it serves and it hinders in different ways. I’ve also learned that the weird mixture of our music is a very New York thing. There’s a lot of culture of real mixed up dance parties in New York dating back decades. I was checking out electro and garage compilations from clubs and DJs in New York in the 70’s and 80’s, and a lot of that culture was steeped in mixing things. New Yorkers have a short attention span…as opposed to European DJs who maybe focus more on maintaining a trance and a mood and a journey; New Yorkers get bored really quickly. Also, the multicultural environment we live in requires that you give everybody a little bit of something, so I think embracing that as part of what makes us sound like New York City has proven helpful in figuring out how to market ourselves.
How has traveling together as a band through international touring influenced your music?
A lot of songs are written on the road, while we are driving or waiting for something to happen. There’s lots of time for creativity. Dima was born in Ukraine when it was still the Soviet Union, and there were some experiences on our most recent tour in Europe that interacted with that aspect of his identity. Somebody came up to us and spoke in Russian and was like, “Are you for Putin’s administration or against?” We played a Russian party in Frankfurt and the promoter told us that their crowd has split apart in the last two years. The Ukranians were mad that their DJs were playing Russian songs and the Russians were mad that they were playing Ukranian songs, and now he says most of them don’t come anymore. At the same time, there’s also this huge rise in fascism across Europe, and every night I was ranting on stage about Trump and that message was really hitting home in every audience because all of those countries are experiencing huge resurgences in their far right parties. These travels and conversations we have on the road give new resonance to things we are thinking about, they open our minds past the limited perspective on identity politics we have from living in New York. A lot of the time I feel like there’s a sort of hole in my heart when I am away from Karly [his wife] and my home, but when I’m on the road is when I feel most aligned as a singer and a human being, experiencing the world.
On this new album, there is more social and political commentary than on your previous albums. What was the inspiration to address those themes more?
There were two different decisions. The first decision was around the time when the verdict came out for Eric Garner’s murder, that they weren’t going to indict the officer. We were often busking in the subways underneath Union Square as Black Lives Matter protests were happening above ground, and the day that verdict came out, we were supposed to busk and we all had this experience of being furious, putting these signs up and kind of [feeling] suffocated. Up there, protests were happening, and down where we were, life was just continuing as normal. What was going on seemed to not be registering, and we had no way of addressing or expressing that. None of our songs were about police brutality or racism, and the idea of just continuing on doing our job really hurt. All of us felt this urge to compose material that could give voice to these feelings we were having. “Ghost Town” is an old song by The Specials about urban blight, but as we play over the years, it can be about gentrification, violence and death. I read an article about how many black men in this country are locked away or murdered by our criminal justice system, missing from the streets, and singing that song in the subway I started to wonder how many people are missing from my view? Dima had written this song about Ukraine that felt to me very much about identity. It’s called “Miesto" which means “Place,” which is about him feeling like he’s from Ukraine but not from Ukraine. Now it’s being torn apart by war, and he and so many others are wondering, “Is this my home? Whose home is it? Whom does it belong to?” It felt very resonant to me with this conversation our country is having about immigrants and refugees. Who is “from” America? What does it mean to be from America, and whom does this country belong to? I guess we weren’t ready to make an album and we felt like these songs were really connected thematically, so the second decision was to record something shorter and put that out and see how that goes. Dima was also about to lose his rehearsal space where we record, so we were like, we have to do it right now because we’re not going to have a chance to do it again. That ended up not happening, but that was a sort of catalyst for the recording.
It’s interesting that coming from a particular influence and climate in America, you are finding that this is resonating on your European tour. How do you connect that to Trump fascism?
There’s a hugely unequal situation internationally, in the amount of power wielded by different countries, and intra-nationally, different peoples within our countries. That’s been the case from the get go. There’s ways in which racism works differently in Europe than in does in America, because America was sort of founded on racism in a way that Europe’s class inequality and other issues have a longer history and many more chapters than ours does, so its sort of complicated for me to try to draw threads between them, but geopolitically, when we’re talking about refugees, this situation is largely created by our countries and the companies that feed off of the resources and economies and so much of the instability that we’ve created, that we are now trying to accommodate by accepting refugees. We’ve created a pretty fucked up situation, and we are reconciling with the consequences. It’s creating a lot of tension. America is not just unequal on a racial level. It’s always maintained itself by being able to convince poor white people that they’ve got something because they are white, and they will do the dirty work of rich white people to keep people of color on a lower level than themselves. The people who are hearing Trump’s message and are really believing it tend to be people with less education, and not always just poor—I think the correlation to income is not a strong as I would think it would be. It’s a lot more like people who really buy racism as the reason for what’s wrong with the country, and he’s really mobilizing people against Mexicans and Muslims. In Europe, they are taking on all these refugees and there are people who, similarly to those in America, are feeling that the presence of these people, regardless of whether they assimilate or not, are fucking up the identity and the culture of the country. Whatever larger economic contractions or issues are causing countries to enact austerity policies. I think they are having more trouble in Europe than we are in America right now, economy-wise, especially in places like Greece. So whoever is feeling the pinch of that is being convinced by far right demagogues that it’s because of the refugees, and its not because of these huge companies and really wealthy mega billionaires who are hiding money, its because of these Muslims who are here to take away your Danish-ness or your German-ness or whatever. It’s such a ruse, it’s such a trick, but it works so well, and it’s always worked. On a personal level, I’ve just felt myself awakening to it in the past few years, and trying to really puzzle with the question of how do you change that? I think there’s a lot in our history and in our culture that we don’t want to reconcile with. It’s easier to just blame people with less power, because it’s easier to step on something smaller than it is to fight something more massive than you.