The re-emergence of Tim Holland Jr., aka Sole, as one of the more fearlessly inquisitive podcasters in the independent music world is more revealing than surprising. Since his earliest days, Holland’s career has been defined by his restlessness. He co-founded the iconoclastic avant-indie-rap collective Anticon in the late ‘90s, pushed the boundaries of hip-hop in Sole and the Skyrider Band by collaborating with artists like Xiu Xiu and The Notwist’s Markus Acher, and, more recently, has extended his DIY ethic to his own imprint, Black Box Tapes.
He’s a student of revolutionary politics, putting independence and autonomy at the core of his real-world practices. On The Solecast, he’s as eager to gain insight from anarchists and activists as he is to talk shop with other indie rappers. In fact, he established the series as yet another way to build a knowledge base that the internet’s relative independence could help nurture. That’s a double-edged sword, though. Over the course of our conversation, Sole was frank about both the benefits and drawbacks of working independently in the social media age, when artists have been increasingly forced to go from “Do It Yourself” to “Do Everything Yourself.”
When you started out, working independently was a real brick-and-mortar operation, for the most part, and you’ve been around long enough to see that transition to more of an online context. How has the opportunity to use that space and freedom changed over the years?
It’s changed a lot, and I’d say mostly not for the better. The biggest difference that I’ve noticed over the years is the lack of institutions that promote art. When I was coming up, if you got a write-up in the Next 100 of URB, or if you got in The Source’s “Unsigned Hype,” or played on John Peel, or written about in The Wire, these little things could dramatically alter the trajectory of your career. Back then, those were actual institutions—those were tastemakers. Even record stores were institutions. You could walk into a record store and say, ‘Hey, I like Pinback,’ and the buyer would say, ‘Oh, if you like Pinback, you should check out Pavement,’ or whatever. And that relationship is just gone now. With that is also a loss of all these various revenue streams. You used to be able to just press up 10,000 CDs and you could sell them with no marketing. You could live really well off that. Over the years, everything has shifted away from that. Even magazines—it’s no longer by the month, it’s by the minute. In the end, music suffers, art suffers, and artists suffer. And unless you’re really, really ahead of the game, and willing to put in all this extra work to cultivate an online presence, and do all these things that don’t have anything to do with [your art]… None of this is really what I signed up for. Being clever on Twitter, or trying to defeat a Facebook algorithm to get people to buy my music—it’s really challenging nowadays. So I really empathize with up-and-coming artists trying to make it in today’s world.
Yeah, to me, the current era is like if every ‘zine that came out in the ’90s was the size of a phone book. The algorithmic stuff is also a stumbling block. Do you think that there’s more of an imperative to self-promote in order to really make a living?
Nowadays, I’m looking at art like it’s a cultural institution to be preserved. People who decide to support art, any kind of music—that’s a political decision. Because you don’t have to—you can just go on YouTube and see everything for free. So when I think about things like crowdfunding, I see that as an attempt to preserve art. I’m the kind of person who buys Democracy Now! mugs because I like Democracy Now! If I like some media, or some anarchist online platform, I’ll give money to those things, because I want to see those projects exist. Because they need to. Capitalism, our system, doesn’t place a value on those sorts of things.
Do you feel like you have more freedom in this current mode of business to work on balancing the artistic aspect of your work with the label work of Black Box tapes? Doing those dual roles, does the social media and crowdfunding model make that easier or more difficult —balancing the art and the extra stuff?
In a way, maybe. But to be honest, I’ve never been someone who wakes up in the morning and makes art until 4 a.m. I’m someone who makes art in really concentrated bursts of time. When I’m really inspired, I make art. I really enjoy that flux of work, and that connection. I like making art on Monday and Tuesday, and then on Wednesday, I don’t feel like doing shit, so I’ll do a mail-out and write a press release. It’s a challenge to figure out a healthy workflow that allows you time to be creative, but it’s never been wise for artists to be 100% artists. That’s a sure-fire way to end up in someone else’s pocket and get screwed over and ultimately become irrelevant. And because I’ve never shied away from the business, I’ve been able to do this as a job for 20 years. It’s a matter of the amount of effort you put into something versus the amount you get back from it. So if I find that I’m putting too much energy into social media, I’ll experiment with automating those things. If I find I’m putting too much effort into PR, I’ll get someone else to help me. It’s just a matter of figuring out sustainability versus mental health versus creativity. I guess the big challenge, what makes it interesting, is that these major shifts happen every six months now, where things change dramatically and the ground you’re standing on isn’t what you thought it was. So it’s a constant reevaluation process.
I know a few creative artists and writers who’ve really made a point of emphasizing that being ‘on’ 24/7 or constantly feeling like ‘I have to be working, I have to be doing things’ is a good way to burn yourself out.
Yeah, I have a clearly defined workday. I wake up at 9 in the morning, I do my work until 6, and I don’t work on the weekends. That means music, activism, label stuff—otherwise, I’d just burn out.
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It’s kind of ironic—doing the 9-to-5 and not working on the weekends used to be the standard day job situation, and it was only artists who were expected to work constantly. Now it’s almost like the other way around. If you work in an office, they want you to stay overtime without extra pay and just be on call all the time, while being an artist actually requires that sort of time off that everybody used to feel they’d earned.
Well, we all deserve that. It’s a super privilege where I can be at a place where I can do that. But it’s also that the line between play and work has been blurred a lot. These games like Minecraft or World of Warcraft, even when people think they’re engaged in play, they’re still working for Facebook. They’re still generating [content]. Almost every second of peoples’ lives is monetized in some way.
It’s funny you bring up games, because on the other side of that coin are games where people start out as a consumer, and then they wind up getting involved in the mod scene and use that to spring off into doing their own things—this thing they originally treated as a product became an inroads to find some creative expression.
Yeah, that’s amazing. Like that game No Man’s Sky, for instance. I knew not to buy that game, because I knew it was going to be boring. But now I see that people have already started improving the game, and that’s amazing.
Where did the notion to start a podcast come from, and how have you been able to make that mode of expression to work for you?
When I first moved to Denver, I was working at a radio/TV station called Denver Open Media. And when I was there, I talked to them a lot about doing a longform TV show where I’d interview academics. I guess the truth is that I never really went to college. I’ve been in a self-directed education process throughout my whole career, just reading and trying to understand really heady philosophical concepts. So I wanted to create a podcast that explored really radical philosophy, postmodern revolutionary ideas that seem really unapproachable and over-the-top to a lot of people, because a lot of that culture really uses language that’s insular, and people don’t relate to it. You hear a lot of jargon and a lot of bullshit. So when I read those books, I’d think ‘What the fuck am I reading?’ But then when I’d listen to interviews, they’d step out of the ivory tower and sound like normal people.
So I kind of just wanted to make something like that, that explores these really radical ideas and exposes people to more revolutionary politics, but in a way that’s more approachable. But I think it’s more of a selfish thing also, because when I’m washing dishes or cooking, I like to throw on a Zizek lecture and just listen to it. There aren’t a lot of podcasts like that, so I wanted to make something like that. Plus, I wanted to bridge the gap between music and revolutionary politics, because I felt like I was having conversations with artists like Busdriver or Pat the Bunny or whoever, and I’d [realize] that, Oh my God, artists are never asked interesting questions in interviews. It’s always, ‘What’re your top influences?’ Just stupid shit. So, I wanted to do something that would get artists to talk about real shit, because everybody has an opinion on these things that’re happening. They put a lot of energy into thinking about these things, but they rarely get the opportunity to talk about those things. So it’s a combination of that, and inverting that—making radical theories palatable for normal people.
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Right, getting as many perspectives out there as you can to get every angle at it.
Right. And again, it’s also super-selfish, because in another way, I’m just continuing my education. And it’s like getting to cheat, pulling the professor or someone you’ve got a deep admiration for aside and just asking stupid questions, or really hard questions. I love that. It’s awesome. At first, I didn’t really know what I was doing. But as I kept doing that, I started to love it. It’s really fun.
Yeah, it’s going into the idea of exchanging ideas with someone as more of a student than authority or an interrogator.
Absolutely. And the other thing about it is that I don’t feel the need to pump out content all the time. I don’t make a podcast every two weeks or every two months. But when I’m moved on a subject, or something I’m researching, it’s a way of documenting it and furthering my education. But I’m not constantly trying to produce content and making it some big thing. It’s more a body of work I’m accumulating over time.
Have you found your approach to making music changing now that you’ve had this long run of podcasting that’s put you in touch with all of these people?
They absolutely creep into my life. I think of scott crow or Doug Gilbert, who have really influenced the way I think about revolutionary politics. Or McKenzie Wark—all those people are influencing what I’m doing. It’s becoming part of how I’m thinking, it’s part of my research now.
You use the term “revolutionary”—could you define that specifically?
What I mean is anarchistic, anti-state, non-reformist politic that moves towards an egalitarian society without rulers. So I guess people call that ‘anarchism.’ I identify as an anarchist. But these ideas are part of a long tradition, and they’re constantly evolving. You get the process of what’s happening in Northern Kurdistan—there’s a common thread, a revolutionary process that’s been happening over the years through Tahrir Square and Occupy and Black Lives Matter. I use the word ‘revolutionary,’ because I feel like if I say ‘anarchist,’ there are all these associations that come up, and people shut down because think they know what that word means. And they really don’t a lot of times.
When I think revolutionary politics, I mean thinking beyond elections, how to rebuild power where we live and work towards building towards a liberated egalitarian society, and asking those really hard questions. OK, let’s say we have a revolution—what do we do with [criminals]? How do we keep the lights on? How do we not revert to barbarism? And in my podcast, those are the kinds of questions I’m exploring, thinking ‘What do we do in the now to propel these politics?’ And I think art has a huge role to play in that —culture, writing, music—but what actions can we take now? I was thinking recently, because I’m doing this project around the election: how much money have normal working people invested in the election? I would estimate, I don’t know, let’s say it’s $200 million. I’d think it’s way more than that. But what if people, instead of investing in that, used that money to set up health insurance, co-ops, grassroots medical care? Because Obamacare’s a fucking nightmare; we’re being forced to pay for useless medical insurance. Just trying to push the bar forward a little bit. There’s enough people out there telling you to vote for Hillary Clinton or Jill Stein. Let’s think a little further—how do we stop developers from destroying communities? How do we stop oil and gas from polluting our water? How do we stop fascism?
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Think globally, act locally, like community-minded autonomy.
That’s the word, man. Now, the next-to-last interview I did, with one of the people from Crimethinc, the whole discussion about democracy. Is democracy what we even want? What does that word even mean? We invade countries to spread democracy, dictators say they’re democratic, North Korea says they’re democratic, the Soviet Union called themselves democratic, and us imperialists. And again, that’s why I’m doing this podcast. Because I’m trying to ask the really hard questions. And I don’t think it’s as simple as getting 100,000 people to stand at the Capitol building and then we’re liberated. But I think that’s a worthwhile project—figuring out what has worked, and what we can do to make this world worth living in.