L.A. Band Trades Love Songs for Protest Music in Era of Trump
Lead guitarist Josh Fleury and drummer Rick Chapman jam during a late-night rehearsal. (Ashley Eady/KQED)
This story is part of “At Risk in the Trump Era,” a four-month investigation by USC Annenberg advanced radio students, exploring how vulnerable communities across Southern California react to the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency. The series profiles individuals burdened by new worries — looking for work, signing up for school, or even deciding whether to publicly express their sexual orientation or religious affiliation.
Ashley Eady brings us the story of Jacob the Horse -- a Los Angeles band upset by Trump's incendiary stance on Muslims, Jews and immigrants. Rick Chapman, the drummer, is Latino. Josh Fleury, the lead guitarist, is half Chinese. And lead singer Aviv Rubenstien is Jewish.
Before the election, Jacob the Horse didn't play music that was at all political. They wrote a lot of rock songs about women, unrequited love and relationships gone wrong. Like the sweet and slow love song, “Hitchcock Blonde.”
But since Nov. 8, the band’s fear, frustration and anger have come pouring out. They went from writing lyrics like:
“I promise I can make things right if you only let me stay the night,”
“I’ll scream until I’ve got no air left to scream.”
“We had a rehearsal right after the election results and said, ‘Let’s write a song about how angry we are!' " explains bassist Mark Desrosiers.
Lead singer Aviv Rubenstien says the first few months of the Trump presidency have put him in touch with his Jewish roots. Despite having Israeli immigrant parents and growing up in a predominantly Jewish town, he spent his teenage years trying to fit in with his non-Jewish peers.
“I desperately, desperately wanted to be American,” Aviv says, letting out an introspective sigh. “I wasn’t ever Jewish first.”
But since Trump took office in January, attacks on synagogues have spiked. On International Holocaust Day, Trump failed to acknowledge the deaths of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. And of course, Sean Spicer made his infamous comment about the use of chemical weapons during World War II.
All four of Aviv’s grandparents survived the Holocaust. He decides to take a stand at Jacob The Horse's album release party at a local bar.
The room buzzes with excitement as Mark, Aviv, Rick and Josh set up their equipment. Aviv steps up to the microphone and thanks the audience for coming to the show. He's wearing a half-dollar-size pale gold Star of David -- the same star European Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust.
“I think it's a more thoughtful form of protest than just wearing a shirt that says, like, ‘Go to Hell, Trump’ or whatever,” says Aviv. “It also is a reminder for me [that] I wouldn't have had an option not to wear [the Star of David] 60 or 70 years ago.”
Although the tiny star blends into Aviv’s dark denim jacket, some fans notice it. Michael Epstein is one of them. He likes seeing the provocative symbol worn by a fellow Jew.
“I feel empowered, encouraged, and not afraid to do the same sort of thing,” he says.
The other members of Jacob the Horse have also gotten more political. Josh, for example, worries about his Taiwanese immigrant mother being affected by Trump’s policies.
“It's kind of been tough for me to think about,” Josh admits. “If a man like Trump was president back when my mom tried to move out here, she may not have been able to come out here at all, and then I may not have had the life I had.”
About halfway through the album release show, Jacob the Horse erupts into its newest song, the rock 'n' roll battle cry, “Dead by 45.” As the musicians play, brows furrowed and strumming intensely, they radiate the heat of their new fiery style.
Aviv explains the song's title. "Well, [Trump] is the 45th president, and he's going to kill us. We'll all be dead.”
Aviv then gives a lyrical breakdown of the song, because it's hard to actually make out the words of the ballad over the guitars.
I'm a fool now that it's over
But it all will be okay
Because when they drop the big one
We'll all be orange anyway
And forever and forever, when you’re tired every day
'Cause when you're stupid, that's the punishment you pay
Aviv explains, “The people that were positive [Trump] wouldn't win [the election] are dumb, and the people that voted for him are dumb.”
But Aviv says the song has an overall positive tone. “It’s not like ‘I’m so angry.’ It’s like, ‘we’re screwed, but here we go!’”
The most important part of the song goes like this:
I feel fine 'cause we'll be dead by 45
And if some k*** from California can sing about it, then, baby, so can I
Aviv says he uses the derogatory term because he wants to defuse slurs against Jews, and celebrate his Jewish identity through his music.
He and the rest of the band hope that anyone listening to “Dead by 45” will feel inspired to stand up to the Trump administration.