Album: If I’m The Devil...
Label: Epitaph Records / Indigo
Once Jason Aalon Butler gets going, his ambitious nature take him to extremely lofty places - on a basic level, he acknowledges that letlive. is a punk band and one that reflects humanity as a collection of emotional, frontal-lobe beings. Every member of letlive. experienced their “before and after” moment with countercultural music: producer/guitarist/musical mastermind Jeff Sayhoun was a New Jersey jock before moving to Torrance and discovering SoCal skate culture. Immersion in polemic hip-hop and punk rock opened the political conscience of bassist Ryan Jay Johnson beyond his admittedly upper-middle class white upbringing. After years as a scene fixture and a drum tech for Of Mice and Men, Loniel Robinson has taken the throne for letlive. and imparted a more aggressively rhythmic, almost Afro-beat undercurrent to the band’s already furious momentum.
At the same time, Butler fully believes that letlive. can access that utopian, inexplicable transcendental quality that allows art to reach buddies revolutionaries the way books and other oratory cannot - that it can have the effect of a Malcolm X, a Martin Luther King, Che Guevara.
He’s seen it happen with Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Kendrick Lamar, artists who likewise fuse incendiary political lyricism with the dynamic urgency of metal, avant-garde noise and jazz technique. Butler will admit these are his heroes, even if he wants to consider them to be peers in the near future. “Even though it’s overly ambitious, it’s what I want to do.” letlive.’s fourth album, If I’m the Devil… is the band’s most unapologetic work, yet it recognizes the most important quality shared by the letlive.’s forerunners: they forgo pop but they’re all popular.
“We’re not trying to get on the radio,” Butler clarifies, and it’s their most lyrically abrasive and difficult work to date. However, Sayhoun and Robinson have created a Trojan horse with their most accessible music as well. “The next level for us is being heard by everyone from the indie kids to KISS FM,” Butler states, but even if he wants letlive. to reach the masses on If I’m the Devil...the band wants to do so on their own terms. “We’re trying to get a record out that if it offends people, we’re doing it in the right way. So that they at least prompted to think about what they were offended by and be open-minded.”
To even get to the substance of If I’m the Devil…,talking about it in terms of its music seems ultimately limiting. There are the qualities that have defined letlive. since their formative 2003 EP Exhaustion, Salt Water and Everything in Between: aggressive melodies, layered guitar riffs and Butler’s forceful rapping. But the time between 2013’s critically acclaimed The Blackest Beautiful and 2016 are more defined by Butler’s engagement with the griot lineage of Saul Williams and Ta-Nehisi Coates, the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown, the social pathologies that led to Ferguson, Missouri and Donald Trump and divisive redlining policies that are functionally domestic terrorism. “Our music is very left-leaning,” Butler states. Which, of course. “It’s very clear I have a large disdain for the way a lot of systems are working and our society’s incapability to unravel.”
Note the first person pronoun in If I’m the Devil…: Butler cuts through his own self-loathing to earn epiphany on the bristling opener “I Learned to Love Myself,” personifies liberty and grace as flawed human beings on “Nu Romantics” and seethes on the closing “Copper Colored Quiet.” letlive. serves as a political and personal activist, taking on interpersonal injustice and systemic injustices. “What perpetuates the cycle is that we don’t talk about it,” Butler muses. Sometimes, it’s ignorance, other times, it’s a lack of knowledge or, consequently, an overload of misinformation. “I’m not jaded, i want to advance the conversation. The most influential figures to me, they’ve died for what they believe in, whether pacifist or militant.” When Butler chastises empty posturing on “Another Offensive Song,” he’s got a firm platform to stand on. “I need to be about it. Ever since my early days of crust punk and political protests, I’ve been shot with rubber bullets, I’ve been put in jail.”
But if If I’m the Devil…necessitates a genre, the band would posit “revolutionary counterculture music” - a four-man Run the Jewels, a more emotional Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy with more inclusive politics and crazier rhythms. If I’m the Devil... is Butler’s most comprehensive meditation on his self-described “double agency.” Born to a black father and a white mother, Butler grew up in the Inglewood Section 8 housing on welfare while attending school in the more affluent Westchester. He’s variably passed for both black and white as an adult, getting jobs denied to his fellow blacks because he could straighten his hair, but getting pulled over three times in one day when he drove a Buick through Inglewood with a shaved head. letlive. toured with exceedingly popular metalcore bands like Bring Me the Horizon, Deftones and Enter Shikari, while trying to bring a political message to the captive audience of pop-punk fans at the Warped Tour.
Throughout it all, letlive. continually refused to be constrained by the ideas of “scene” - whether letlive. is punk, metalcore, indie, rap, whatever, Butler finds these labels to be another form of systematic oppression. “Punk is more an ideology than a scene dictated by what pants you wear. What are you saying, what do you believe in? That’s to me a better identifier.”
If I’m the Devil…is a strident, principled and heavy work for certain. It’s also perfectly suited for someone who just wants to pound on the steering wheel after a hard day at school, work, or whatever institution happens to command most of your waking life. Just consider the name “letlive.” - it’s meant to be life-affirming above all else. “I’m grateful for the platform to say these things,” Butler declares with his usual devotional tone. “I let people know it goes both ways. There was a time where i didn’t have representation so I didn’t know how to express these ideas either. Rather than being told what to say and how to say it. letlive. can counter that by trying to speak our own language, a language we own.”