Interview: Canadian Band WHY, Supporters of Make Poverty History and (RED)*

September 11, 2006 · Print This Article

By Devlin Smith, Contributing Editor

(RED), a collaboration of various companies in support of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, recently launched a MySpace page. One of the organization’s friends is the Canadian band WHY, a group that’s been around for more than 10 years.

WHY (Brian Cook on vocals, Derek James on drums, Stephan Makarewicz on guitar and Greg Barre on bass) has supported causes like Make Poverty History and The Global Fund since its inception. In fact, George Stroumboulopoulos of the CBC News "The Hour" interviewed Cook about issues relating to HIV/AIDS and poverty on World AIDS Day 2005. This year, the band is supporting (RED) with the release of an album and single named for the organization. e-mailed the band about its history and connection to (RED), learning from lead singer Cook about how WHY integrated its belief in these causes into its music.

How long as WHY been together?

WHY has been around since 1993. We released four CDs, "The Naked Soul," "Suddenly Bang," "The Rise and Fall of the Question Mark" and, most recently, "Lazarus Effect," which is a CD to help make people aware of Make Poverty History and raise some funds for the MPH campaign. We are currently in the studio recording our next full length album "RED," due out this fall. The title track has been released to radio and we have a free download of the song on our website. We encourage anyone who wants to burn it and take copies to your local radio station and ask for airplay. This has been a great way to infect people around the world with our music.

Where did the band’s name come from?

I was watching a TV special on John Lennon around 1992 and there was a part filmed the day he died and fans were all around his and Yoko’s New York apartment with candles and signs and one sign just said "WHY." No question mark, just three capital letters, and I thought, "That’s the most used word in our troubled world." Henry Thoreau said, "Why is the beginning of knowledge," so it seemed right for a band with so many questions. We still do, by the way.

How would you describe your music?

I wouldn’t, I’d leave that up to you and anyone who listens to it. I find people take our songs as their own, which is very flattering and humbling. They tell us what we sound like to them. So I suppose I could say, "WHY: Whatever the music makes you feel." We get very passionate comments about how, "This certain song really got me through a rough spot" type of thing. That is the best thing to hear as a musician or artist of any medium for that matter.

Who are your musical influences?

U2 have left a stain on us, as have The Alarm, Bob Dylan, The Clash, REM, whatever we heard growing up. I wasn’t ever inclined to sing as a kid., it wasn’t until later I felt like I could express myself emotionally and, moreover, spiritually through music, rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s funny we get a lot of, ‘You sound like U2′ or "You sound like Bono," which is very flattering but I really am trying to be my own person, have my sound, create a new thing and I, in the past, used to get very frustrated with the Bono comparison so I would deliberately sing in a way that wasn’t my range or even try new styles, [like] sing rougher or softer. The more I tried to not sound like Bono, [the more] I’d get, "Hey, you really sound like Bono on that song," so I realized that I sing this way because that’s my voice and no point fighting it, just so happens I sound a bit like the greatest rock singer of all time. Not a bad thing, by the way, people could say I sound like [comedian] Emo Phillips when I sing.

How did your band become interested in the Make Poverty History and (RED) causes?

Well, the whole band is passionate about the destruction of stupid poverty. Speaking for myself, I was very involved with [Christian relief organization] World Vision through child sponsorship, (I still sponsor two children, really a great way to do something to help), and the [international youth hunger-fighting movement] 30 Hour Famine from the late ’80s through the ’90s. I used to go to schools as a rep for World Vision and speak and show films and get kids involved. Kids really believe, if you tell them, that their voice, their actions, their passion can change the world—and they’re right.

We as a band recently decided that from now until we end as a band, we will give a dollar from every WHY CD that is ever made to fighting extreme poverty, for now The Global Fund is who we will send cash to. Our next album "Red" will be used to draw attention to The Global Fund and raise money for them. "Lazarus Effect" is available online [and] we are giving a portion of the money from sales to Make Poverty History. In Canada, MPH is badly under-funded so we want to add our two cents.

I was fortunate to be able to produce a compilation CD for The Global Fund with some great Canadian bands like Our Lady Peace, 54-40, Finger 11, The Trews and unsigned local bands who believed in putting their music where their mouth is. It was called "Rock for a Reason: Artists United for African AIDS Relief." We only printed a couple thousand and it sold well. It raised $15,000.00 for The Global Fund and I got to interview Richard Feachem [executive director of The Global Fund] on a local alt rock radio station.

[Feachem] is on my short list of people to meet and talk face to face. [Also] on that list [are] Prof. [Jeffrey] Sachs, Sir Bob Geldof, Bono, although he and I met in Winnipeg back in 1997, along with Edge and Adam. I would really like to pick those brains on what we in the grassroots movement can do to make poverty history. WHY isn’t a big name band with clout, so our ranting about this issue isn’t as affective as, say, Bono, Brad Pitt and so on, but maybe one day we will be able to be a large pain in the ass of our PM here [Stephen Harper] in Canada or, for that matter, a global pain.

Why did you decide to write a song and name your album for "Red"?

That’s the magic of music, at least for me, as I don’t sit down with a plan, the music is constructed beyond us, it just pours through us. Red just seemed like a great color to touch on as it has so many different applications, for example, red can be a color for anger or passion or danger, sacrifice, heat, joy.

When it was done I was made aware of the (RED) campaign, so we offered it to (RED). No response as of yet, but they can use it for free. We plan on using it to promote (RED) and The Global Fund either way, they are getting the money no matter what. It really fits the campaign, though, doesn’t it? We were surprised how well it works. I guess a little help from the Divine Mover.

What kind of reaction has the song "Red" gotten from fans?

Very positive, people have had a very strong reaction to "Red." People have been downloading for free from us and have been put it on their iPods and, as one woman in Australia said in an e-mail to us, "I can’t stop listening to ‘Red,’ I listen to over and over." That is such a great thing to hear.

Have you gotten the song to people with (RED)? If you have, what reaction have you gotten from them?

We have been in contact with Sheila Roche at (RED) and she has it, but so far they haven’t got back to us. They are busy trying to save lives, mind you, so we are I’m sure [we're] at the bottom of their to-do list. I really hope they like it and use it as we have told them we want to give it to them free of charge if they can to use it.

What are you hoping to accomplish with the song "Red"?

Move people, inspire them. Look, if they just dig the tune and enjoy driving and listening to it, great, but if it can get people thinking passionately about (RED) or MPH and what they can do to help, even better. That’s all we can ask of a rock song, a single, as it were. Hey, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, or is it?

You also have a song called "Lazarus Effect" about the AIDS crisis. What inspired this song?

The actual medical term "Lazarus Effect," which is what happens when AIDS meds are given to a dying person at death’s door due to HIV/AIDS—literally from death bed to up and walking around, working, feeding your family in a month. Back from the dead, a miracle like Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. I found the two images too powerful not to write about them.

Your band gave out copies of the new album at U2′s Canadian shows last year. Where did that idea come from? What kind of reaction did you got from U2 fans?

Well, first off, not our idea. It was a mad U2 fan from Ottawa who was a MPH volunteer who heard our songs on our website and, when "Lazarus Effect" came out, decided to order a bunch of CDs online and give them out. He also got us involved in a poverty symposium in Ottawa. He couldn’t work out a way to get us out to play there, sadly, but had us do a video feed and we were off and running.

As for U2 fans response, mostly great, supportive, very kind. I think some were leery of us, and understandably so. They didn’t know our history with the campaign, as far as they knew we could be using extreme poverty as a way to break the band. But actually we had lost money, not made money so far. We are lifers for this war on extreme stupid poverty. "Keep My Peace" is a song I wrote about this issue back 2000, it sums up our feelings on this front.

I have to say U2 fans are not like any other fans; they really are a community, a family, and if WHY can get people moved and united as U2 has, we will see that as our greatest success. I have met so many bands obsessed with "making it" or what they mean is, "When we’re famous men, then we will blah, blah, blah," that’s the top for them, the pinnacle, the goal. Fame isn’t our goal. Yes, it’s a platform to be heard, a springboard, but it’s not the Promised Land. Our goal is to do music full time and use fame as a tool to continue to push the envelope in songwriting. It’s a tool to use to swing the spotlight off of us and onto our family in Africa, Asia, and the developing world who are dying every three seconds for a lack of what we call pocket change, coffee money. And, yes, I call these people around the world "our family" because we are all connected. If a distant relative is ill or in need you still step up and help. Well, they are our sisters and our brothers as I sing in "Lazarus Effect."

Your band has a MySpace page. What kind of impact is that site having on your band and its mission?

Yes, we have recently taken over a WHY fan MySpace site and it has been almost frightening how fast the world has come to us. It is a wonderful thing. I know some have had issues with MySpace but it has been a great networking tool and MySpace is a big supporter of (RED).

As for "our mission," as you put it, our mission is to keep writing honest songs, no matter how uncomfortable or naked we feel. WHY is a band that has come from the grassroots of this issue (extreme poverty), we are like everyone else who saw the need and said, "I will not keep my peace, cannot keep my peace while this continues." This is a global mission; this is our fight.

Do you believe music can help change the world?

Music can inspire people to change the world. I hope that is the case with our songs. Let’s be real here, people, everyday people, change the world, not movie stars or rock stars or world leaders, regular people have and will change our world.

For more information on WHY, visit the band’s website or MySpace page. More information on (RED) can be found on its website or MySpace page. More information on The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria can be found on its website. More information on Make Poverty History can be found on its website. More information on World Vision can be found on its website. More information on 30 Hour Famine can be found on its website.

Many thanks to John McAuley and Brian Cook for their help with this article.


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