Last year's protests of the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle were marked not only by a controversial police crackdown, but
also by the hasty formation of the No WTO Combo.
The group, which features former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, ex–Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, former Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil and drummer Gina Mainwal, played on Dec. 1 at the Showbox, a venue just inside Seattle's "curfew zone" during the protests.
The results are chronicled on Live From the Battle in Seattle, a five-track collection that includes Biafra's 15-minute spoken-word piece "Battle in Seattle," the Biafra/D.O.A. composition "Full Metal Jackoff" (RealAudio excerpt), the Dead Kennedys' "Let's Lynch the Landlord" (RealAudio excerpt), and two Combo originals, "New Feudalism" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Electronic Plantation." The album was released May 9 on Biafra's own Alternative Tentacles label.
"[The protest] was profound," said Novoselic, who serves as president of Seattle's Joint Artists and Musicians Political Action Committee. "People started asking questions about how these international trade agreements supercede local laws. It pulled the WTO out from under its rock. Now it's in the people's consciousness."
The protests were a response by environmental and other activist groups who have accused the Geneva-based WTO of catering to the needs of giant multinational corporations at the expense of protecting the environment and workers' rights. The protests resulted in $3 million worth of property damage and 500 arrests.
"The protests in Seattle were important," Biafra said, "not because it was any sort of revolution, but because it may be the shot heard 'round the world that finally starts the long-term revolution against corporate feudalist dictatorship."
'Police Parade' Surrounds Performance
The No WTO Combo came together following Novoselic and Biafra's participation in last year's Spitfire tour, a spoken-word event catering to activists and music fans. Thayil and Mainwal, who'd been collaborating with Novoselic, joined the fold.
Originally scheduled to perform on Nov. 30, the No WTO Combo rescheduled their show when violence broke out during the day in downtown Seattle. Novoselic and Thayil observed escalating tensions between activists and police.
That day it was "almost a carnival atmosphere, a cop-free zone," Novoselic said. "Then [the police] formed a perimeter and, as things started to deteriorate, they started to go on the offensive. I just took off, and left. I wasn't gonna fight those cops."
Thayil said media depictions of the protests were slightly exaggerated. "There were people being brutalized [by police], and there was bad behavior from a small segment of the protesters," Thayil said. "I don't mean to underscore the importance of the protest or the reactions, but in many ways it was not as bad as the situation was described."
When the No WTO Combo finally performed Dec. 1, teams of suburban police, National Guard units and King's County sheriffs had established strict boundaries in the downtown area. In his liner notes to Live From the Battle in Seattle, Novoselic likened it to "a police parade."
"I was certainly somewhat scared about being down there," Thayil said. "To any cop, I look like someone to beat on first and ask questions later. It was very easy for [police] to misbehave when they're armed and anonymous. Many of them weren't carrying identifying badges and names on their uniforms."
No WTO Combo played a short set supporting Michael Franti's Spearhead for about 400 fans at the Showbox. Their performance was recorded by a fan and mixed by producer Jack Endino. The album's artwork was designed by Shepard Fairey, the San Diego graphic artist best known for his "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" decals and posters.
Activist Combo's Other Plans
Biafra asked Fairey to base Live From the Battle in Seattle's artwork on a design that Fairey had sold to the Seattle Weekly. "I was super excited about it because I loved the Dead Kennedys," Fairey said. "I think the third record I ever bought was the Dead Kennedys' Plastic Surgery Disasters."
Biafra has announced his candidacy for U.S. president and is devoting his attention to a lawsuit between his former bandmates and Alternative Tentacles.
After releasing one album with his post-Nirvana project Sweet 75, Novoselic said he is not concentrating on music projects at the moment. "I moved out to the country and I'm taking it easy," he said. "I'm doing some writing and dabbling in film. I don't know when I'm going to do more music."
Thayil recently recorded guitar solos for an upcoming album by the Wellwater Conspiracy, the band of former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron. "I've been living my life like every day was Saturday or Sunday," Thayil said, "being free of the shackles of pop-culture personality."