This interview is part of a series discussing mandates, restrictions and censorship with musicians and music fans—read more of these interviews here.
Mike Lerner is an accomplished photographer and co-host of the "I'm Doing Great" podcast, where he discusses pop culture and current events with co-host Gina Bontempo, along with a wide range of fascinating guests.
The interview below was transcribed from a phone call that took place June 30th, 2022 between Camelia at Music For All and Mike Lerner. Edited for clarity and brevity, and because Camelia says "like" too much.
Music For All: For a little context, I've worked for a lot of different indie record labels over the past 10 years and I was just really bummed out by how neglected musicians were lately. There's also a lot of gatekeeping that record labels are doing with things musicians could be doing themselves. So I wanted a way to share more DIY tutorials and also help musicians and music fans feel less alone for thinking that shutting down live music was a bad idea, and try to build a community in that space. There's so many problems and I don't really know where to start, but I'm just trying to help.
Mike Lerner: Well, thank you for thinking I'm cool enough to talk to.
MFA: I've been digging into more conspiracy leaning things with regards to government involvement in counter culture movements. So, I did think of you — as a photographer. Have you been watching this over time with musicians, where the way they seem to be sincerely kind of getting further away from what they present to the public?
Mike: Of course, yeah. I mean one of the first conspiracies that I've ever heard was in the music industry — the government involvement to further the reach of gangster rap in the early 90's by partnering with private for profit prisons. There was a positive black, almost like Back-to-Africa movement, that was going on in New York. At the same time, gangster rap was getting more popular and these entities figured out if we get more people in prison, we can make more money.
I think you hear like people in N.W.A. talk about these things. I always thought that was interesting. If it's true, I have no idea, but it's not far out given what we know about things like MK Ultra and Operation Paperclip and all this stuff, the government can be devious.
MFA: I've been able to find some stuff around the 70's of like Laurel Canyon and things like that.
Mike: Oh yea! David Crosby's dad was in the CIA or something like that? I know what you're talking about, my wife knows a lot about that stuff. Yeah and Charles Manson was a part of MK Ultra and his involvement in the Canyon and stuff like that.
MFA: It's so interesting, but then it kind of just dies off around then. There is no way they didn't keep doing stuff like this. Especially with rap or with punk, like it being pro-peace or super anti-war. That's the kind of stuff that seemed to really get nipped in the bud.
Mike: Well, that's probably why hair metal became so popular.
MFA: I'm the biggest emo fan, but I've been just devastated over the past few years. I can't go to shows. Pedro the Lion started doing living room tours, which I've gone every single year, and then I see you can only come if you have proof of vaccination. It's just been really heartbreaking. You just wonder how all these seemingly anti-establishment people could do this.
Mike: It has to do with money. You know, these guys were probably upset for however long they weren't able to make money by touring because they don't make money off of streams, record sales and barely even their merch. So, they need to get out there and tour and they were probably upset that they couldn't. When they finally had the opportunity to they were going to do anything, regardless of how idiotic these rules were.
I got blocked on Instagram by a venue here in Nashville called The 5 Spot. They were one of the first venues in East Nashville — you know, of all places, that are supposed to be pretty liberal and just knowledgeable about science. They love science so much. They were saying, "you have to have proof of vaccination."
Given what we know about the vaccine not necessarily stopping the spread — why are you requiring absolute proof of vaccination, why not just require a negative test? I mean, it doesn't make any sense.
They said they were trying to mitigate the spread of it. But having a vaccine doesn't stop the spread. They're saying, "if we can take any precaution for someone being injured or not being hurt then we're going to take those precautions."
I said "well, you better stop selling alcohol." And they blocked me.
I mean you saw who is the most vocal proponent in the punk or hardcore movement that ended up getting shadow banned — it was John Joseph from Cro-Mags. Everyone is labeling John Joseph as a nut now, which is so weird.
I don't understand it, but what I do get is that they are just needing to make money. And they're spineless. People like fucking Neil Young saying that he's taking his music off of Spotify. Okay, big deal. You made 60 million dollars off the sale of your catalog. It doesn't effect you at all.
People are turning on Eric Clapton when he said he had an adverse reaction to the vaccine which pretty much almost stopped him from being able to play any type of music. He's labeled as a conspiracy theorist.
These guys — like you said, they're not who they claim to be or what they represent anymore. They have fallen in line with the corporate talking points. It's kind of sad to see.
MFA: I do understand people wanting to make money, and that kind of leads me to something else I've been talking to a lot of people about — if it's even possible to make a living off of your art and still stay principled. It seems very rare.
Mike: It depends. It depends what your principals are. Today in America, in 2022 there's a certain set of principals that can help you become pretty successful. Once you turn against those, what happens? You're canceled. It's very hard for you to come back from that. The easiest way is to never apologize and then you gain a whole new set of fans. Look at Ariel Pink! Look what happened to him.
MFA: He was doing that huge reissue campaign too — but also like, y'all have done pretty well by just saying what everyone's thinking? Right? Or are you getting like death threats and stuff.
Mike: The reason why we do so well is we give a voice to the people who are critical of the people in their own movement. We're highly critical of people on the Right, probably more so than we are of the Left. The Left is predictable, but what the Right is doing is so counter productive, almost self-sabotaging.
One of the things that stuck out to me, I remember the lead singer of Eagles of Death Metal with what happened to them in Paris, the dude starts to come out and talk about how important it is to be able to defend yourself and they get labeled as these gun nuts and Islamophobes. I remember that was like a big turning point for me too.
MFA: I think what a lot of people are doing like with not having labels and creating content that's aesthetically pleasing is very important. There's just been a real lack of that, and I feel like that is what's actually going to shift things.
As much as you can tell people they're being hypocrites or they're being stupid, that doesn't work. It has to be something that's cool and interesting. Do you think that will be how things actually start to shift just through more culture like what you guys are creating?
Mike: I mean, we're very abrasive. We're very confrontational, and we will label ourselves, 100%. We're Conservative. It's Paleo Conservative — or New Conservative or whatever it is. Yeah, I guess applying labels like that isn't really helpful or necessary, but — do we fall under that kind of Conservative banner? Yes. So, not Republicans. Not Libertarians. But, Conservatives.
Leftist playbooks work. They work. If something doesn't go the way that they planned, they have a back up plan and a back up plan for that. They constantly fight for it. So what we're doing now, we're fighting back — you know?
When I talked to Gavin McInnes back in 2017 he was like, "yea conservative is the new punk. It's the new counter culture. It's the anti mainstream. When you have every corporation and Fortune 500 company backing your ideology, you are no longer mainstream." I have to agree with him. Obviously, it made sense look what happened to him.
It's kind of cringe to say things like, "we're the new counter culture, being Conservative is punk rock." I mean Johnny Lydon is now a Trump supporter. There were bands that always existed with a Conservative bend like early 80's "Kill A Commie" by Gang Green. I think they were like a Massachusetts punk band.
MFA: I never felt like I fit in with the culture at the record labels I was working at. I would say things I thought were really funny and no one would ever laugh. I never thought being offended was sincere. That always just felt really strange and then got ramped up so much. I don't want to be in an echo chamber. I try to hang out with people that are not aligned with me, but it's still very strange to hang out with people that don't even think anything that's going on is weird. I can't even relate to that anymore.
I feel like this conversation, even — whats going to happen to the culture — I feel like that's almost played out at this point. Then there's people that haven't even thought about it! It's like... oh, God.
Mike: People don't really think about it, people don't care, people are black pilled, super nihilistic. That's fine. But you know things like Greta Thunberg at Glastonbury. Phoebe Bridgers saying, "fucking fuck the Supreme Court." You wouldn't be saying fuck the Supreme Court if they decided in your favor, right? It's so lame. It's so predictable. It's not even fucking cool.
It's all blatant, like Lil Nas X making music videos where he's putting in Devil imagery. It's like, "oh I'm sorry, is that supposed to be edgy?" Yeah dude we know, we know you signed a deal with the Devil. We get that. It fucking sucks.
You know who kind of let me down, because I was into them for a minute. This band called IDLES. I heard them on like an NPR Tiny Desk or something. I thought these guys are weird, this is cool. I listened to maybe like their second album. I was watching a couple of their live performances and the lead singer was like, "let me just stop and take a minute to thank the NHS." Come on guys, what the fuck.
Then they started talking about like toxic masculinity. Anyone who uses the phrase toxic masculinity is toxically boring. I hate it. I hate it so much. I just couldn't even listen to it.
MFA: Well IDLES is a good example of something else I felt kind of destroyed punk. There's a lot of working class principals in punk and IDLES are one of those bands cosplaying as working class, but saying all of the same party line shit.
It's insincere and if you actually are a working class musician you're completely shunned. If you want to work at a record label you couldn't. When I worked in Brooklyn I was making no money. You have to be rich to work at these labels!
Mike: Yea, of course. You can't survive on that.
MFA: It's so stupid because like my entire life was working in this industry and now I'm like, "Oh no. This was like really bad and fake."
Mike: Yea and these people are subservient to those labels, which are corporations. The whole leftie commie take about economics is totally fraudulent. You know, "every ill of this world can be attributed to capitalism and the evils of capitalism."
I don't know how you feel about this, but this is a hypocritical thing we found over the weekend. Your company will pay for you to get an abortion but they won't pay for your maternity leave.
MFA: As soon as I saw that I was like — that's the cheaper option!
Mike: Yes, exactly, and they're exploiting you. For your labor, for their profit. So if you're a capitalist you say, "ok, that makes sense." Maternity leave would effect their bottom line, they would be happy to be paying less money for someone not to get pregnant.
The fact that people on Twitter will say, "I'm so thankful so and so will pay for this." I'm like, you're not getting this are you? You're not getting it. That same corporation also employs slave labor in third world countries. Are you getting it yet?
If I were to have a talk with one of these guys I'd wreck their fucking world because I would just completely nuke their identity and they don't know how to deal with that.
MFA: Have you been able to persuade anyone to be more open minded?
Mike: My wife. I mean she may not admit to this but she was working for a non-profit in Brooklyn, well in Manhattan. We've lived in Brooklyn, not together but she's lived in Brooklyn I've lived in Brooklyn. She's lived in SF, I've lived in LA.
When we had our daughter she had this moment where she stopped working — well, she got forced out because she wouldn't get the jab jab. She said, "you know, I've kind of been lied to over the past 8 years I'm so much happier raising our daughter. I was married to my job. The job was like my husband. We had a nanny in the house and I'm sitting here working knowing that a stranger is in the next room raising our daughter."
I think she was one of the more important people in my life for me to maybe red pill a little bit, or even white pill.
I have some like literal communist friends, we have points of agreement because he sees the hypocrisy in what a lot of people are doing nowadays. Especially with blaming people for certain things like, it was completely the Democrats fault that they weren't able to codify Roe.
Just seeing the idiocy of gun control measures. I have a friend in Canada who is pretty socialist, but he doesn't understand all the gun control measures. He's like, "listen, I live in a place where we're not allowed to have them and I want them. You guys are allowed to have them but can't in certain areas. It doesn't make much sense to me." Welcome to the reality of what we're dealing with.
There are a lot of people that we aren't ideologically aligned with that have started to see the light. Like Jimmy Dore who used to work for the Young Turks is one of them.
MFA: I just want everyone to come together with a common distrust of the government.
Mike: Listen, I don't promote anarchy. The anarchists bother me a little bit. Heavy distrust of the government is fine but you have to acknowledge some sort of hierarchical system that needs to be put in place because without it, it's chaos. What society has ever employed anarchism and has worked?
MFA: That's a good question. I've thought about anarchism a lot, and I am more leaning towards that. However, I do think everyone would have to share the same values for it to work well and that doesn't seem likely.
Mike: Anarcho-capitalism and anarchy in general lends itself well to the punk movement. But like you said, we're all human and you know the Conservative finds morals in Christianity. So, for a moral relativist and maybe anarchists identify more with moral relativism, where do you guys find your morality? If it's subjective, then I can rape you if I want. You know what I mean? I can steal from you if I want. Anarchy is a slippery slope into chaos.....
I have a heavy distrust of the government, as you should.
MFA: I wonder what we will think 100's of years from now when we look back on this time period. I don't know what the answer is, but it's certainly not this.
Mike: You know what the beauty of that is though? We're not going to be around. I'm not going to be thinking about it. I'm going to be floating off somewhere happy. Given my new entry into Christianity, I hope I'll be somewhere nice.
Someone asked about Global Warming, "are you worried for your grandchildren's grandchildren?" They'll figure it out. Technology has advanced pretty quickly in the last 100 years, so I'm not worried.
MFA: I worry a lot of the Global Warming discussion discourages people from having kids.
Mike: Someone asked Yoko Ono and John Lennon when they were on one of those late night talk shows, "what do you think about over population?" Yoko was just saying,"that seems like a pretty elitist problem that you think the biggest problem in this world other people. Especially other poor people. So, no I don't think that's a problem, and that's really discouraging people from having kids."
John Lennon pretty much agreed. I was like, "whoa I think John Lennon was secretly based."
MFA: Yeah! That's why they killed him. Anyone promoting peace dies.
Mike: I remember hearing that he would have met with Reagan if he could or something like that.
Well here's the thing, they always kill the people who were highly critical of the Vietnam War. Like JFK. The rumor is that the military industrial complex killed him, assassinated him. Maybe they got John Lennon for that.
MFA: My boyfriend and I watched a lot of "Firing Line" during lockdown. William F. Buckley was so condescending to people. He was such a dick, but he would still talk to people. I'm not well versed to know if he's like a problematic person though, he just seems funny to me.
Mike: I guess you can consider him a Neoconservative of the time, not necessarily a Paleoconservative, but you know one of these older Protestant WASPy guys. I think that sort of platform couldn't be done today because it's too agreeable. He would have on black militants. He would have on communists. People like Woody Allen, you can't do that anymore now.
Don't go to a protest and try to talk to someone on the opposing side. That's not good. Don't try to freakin' be friendly with Antifa. It's a waste, it's a waste. Find someone one-on-one you're able to talk to. You have to see their face. You have to be able to have a calm discussion, and then that's where real change can happen. It sounds so corny.
MFA: It's hard because all this stuff is so polarized, but I've been trying to not use divisive language. I think just having more of a focus on ideas instead of using little trigger words that tell people what to think about something.
Mike: It's like thinking objectively, you know? For years I was laughing at people who thought vaccines caused autism. Seriously. And then I'm like, "wait there are 25 year olds like dying in their sleep for no reason... what?" The whole, vaccination schedule for a 10 year old and then that 10 year old is diagnosed with some form of Autism, I guess it kind of correlates. I can't just write it off and call someone a loon. When the source is Jenny McCarthy, how seriously can you take it, but still it begs you to go further.
MFA: There's just a lack of curiosity. I honestly think hormonal birth control and SSRI's turn peoples brains off. It did that to me! I didn't want to read, I didn't want to do anything.
Mike: Gina says birth control is one of the most dangerous things you can do to your body.
MFA: It's so sad more people don't realize that. It's very strange how defensive people get when you try to help them. I think people just have to come to these things on their own.
Mike: It's not even when you try to help them but when you say, "hey, why don't you think about this a little bit?" When someone tells me something I don't necessarily agree with — right away, I'm very intrigued to try to learn more about it.
MFA: I can't imagine being appalled by something someone says and not also being like, "hmmm. I wanna look into that."
Mike: Right, exactly. It's this sort of cowardice. If you're wrong, your whole identity is fucked. Your whole perception of the world, you might have to take another look at it.
MFA: And you lose a lot of friends and sometimes they kick you out of Thanksgiving. It's not fun.
Mike: Is it really important? "Oh my god my friends unfollowed me on Instagram because I'm posting based memes." Who cares. If they know you in person, if they're your true friend they mute you so they don't have to see it. My buddy posts so many things that I disagree with, but he still posts things that I laugh at and he'll still laugh at things I post.
You know the friends you don't want to necessarily talk politics because you have other things in common.
MFA: Are there any Nashville musicians or venues that have been particularly good with resisting covid restrictions that you would recommend?
Mike: Well it was all dependent on the artist, especially at The Ryman. My wife went to go see Lukas Nelson and he didn't have a vaccine requirements. They let the artist decide for the venue, that's kind of lame.
MFA: I think what they did is the most agreeable because they have a page that shows all the artists that do have restrictions. It's like a Wall of Shame.
Mike: The venues in East Nashville are trash. I remember I went to go see a friend play the tinniest room. It was like above a bar, but also a thrift store? I go in, and I'm the only person there, I'm sitting at the bar. I order a drink and they were about to ask me to pay the cover and are like, "hey, by the way are you vaccinated?" I'm like, "no" and they're like, "uh, well we're requiring people to be vaccinated."
I'm like "there's nobody fucking in here — I came to see my friend who is playing here. Who is not from here. I will be the only person in here. I will buy a beer from you." They were like, "no, sorry."
I told my friend and just left. All those venues were stupid, spineless
MFA: I always wondered if people actually enforced it because these people are not getting paid enough to enforce shit like this. That's the thing I don't understand. It's so high conflict for no reason.
Mike: Well, it was Davidson County. Williamson County I think dropped the mandates earlier than we did. I'm pretty sure that's the case. Well hey, The Legion — I don't think they had a policy ever. Why would they.
MFA: We went to Station Inn. It's great, it was really wholesome. That was the first place we went when we moved here. I almost started crying. I hadn't seen live music in so long and I used to go to like three or four shows a week. They had an old lady at the door taking the money and it was just so nice.
Mike: It's pure. That's how they should all be, none of this fucking virtue signaling for the sake of it. It's so stupid. There's no data suggesting that that's how it was spread.
People didn't catch it in restaurants. People didn't catch it on planes. You know, it's over. I'm happy that its done with. Until the next one comes along...
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