dosage MAGAZINE and I love the long-running locals of West Philadelphia Orchestra, and we don’t care who knows it. So deep runs our love and commitment to founding member Gregg Mervine’s WPO, his punk rock roots and DIY ideals, and his wonky folk/ethno-jazzy shifting-size ensemble that we’re awn-and-awn-and-awn to exclusively debut their next single, “Amerika the Grave,” its animated video from Philly illustrator Keni Thomas, and its dedication to the Philly-based, all-charity label, The Giving Groove.
You can pre-order the single HERE with 100% of the label proceeds benefitting Girls Rock Philly, per The Giving Groove’s charitable model.
While 100% of label proceeds from the sale of “Amerika the Grave,” will go directly to Girls Rock Philly, a youth-focused organization supporting a music community for girls, women, trans, and gender-expansive individuals, the sweetly syncopated single and the video itself touch on Mervine’s view of a nation “stained by a legacy of violent racial injustices, past and present,” with lyrics that read “Amerika the Grave / Beacon nation built by slaves / Desecrated sacred land / Put the devil in command.” Singer Mervine closes “Grave” out with a moment of hope (“One love let us find the glory of the sky / Saying it’s time we rise”), but the rumination runs deep and the anger runs high.
Written shortly after “A Clarion Call For Justice,” a protest event on the steps of the Philly Museum of Art organized by Philly trombonist Jeff Bradshaw after the murder of George Floyd, hearing some 200+ horn players (of which West Philadelphia Orchestra was part) gave Mervine the concept of one great roar, and illustrator Thomas an opportunity to pain that rage in digital oils.
I spoke to Mervine and Thomas about who they are, and how their “Amerika” came together.
A.D. Amorosi: How would you describe your ages-old personal aesthetic – the one that feeds what you do as a musician and graphic artist/videographer?
Gregg Mervine: The words I want to use to describe West Philly Orchestra’s sound and spirit have been calcified to mean other things, but those words are folk and punk. WPO is a village band, rooted in folk traditions and playing it with a joy and ferocity associated with punk. The way Balkan and klezmer brass bands play gave us a starting point, but we’ve moved into new territory now.
Keni Thomas: When it comes to a personal aesthetic, I’m a pop surrealist. That means I tend to combine and mashup things that don’t normally go together, creating something new. Also, I’m a huge fan of comics and the vintage style of artists like Jack Kirby and John Buscema.
A.D. Amorosi: How did you the two of you meet, and what do you recall about first talking and moving toward collaboration?
Gregg Mervine: I became a fan of Keni’s work first through an excellent comic he is collaborating on with Jackie Goldfinger (partner of our clarinetist Larry) called ‘After the Fall,’ which is this post-Apocalyptic adventure that’s just getting started. And I love the defiance and eclecticism of his IG posts on social justice, colonialism and environmentalism, so it felt like a really good fit, and it was. I then became connected to Matt and Giving Groove through Mike Baker. WPO and Oolala are collaborating on a “cosmic freak” themed EP which is also a Giving Groove project, and which we’ll be getting back to work on shortly.
Keni Thomas: I was connected to Matt and Gregg via a friend of mine (Jacqueline) I had just started collaborating on a comic series with. I hopped on a Zoom call with Matt and Gregg in which they gave the general concept for the song and video. Upon hearing it I was in. The message resonated with me.
A.D. Amorosi: What and how do you make the most of “Amerika the Grave?”
Gregg Mervine: “Amerika the Grave” is a reckoning song, daring and questioning our capacity to unite against and survive the madness that is racism, colonialism and capitalism. This is, it seems, one of those historical moments when a collective awakening begins, and now it’s getting late and more necessary. Pockets of resistance are fighting from the fringes and margins all over the world and ready to lead, but we’ll need another view of culture and power if we’re going to win. To start, we need to shift our perception of what a country is, need to shift from ‘America’ to ‘Turtle Island,’ and acknowledge the devastation our civilization has wrought and dismantle the systems and impulses behind it.
Keni Thomas: I think making the most of “Amerika the Grave” would be to spread it far and wide. I think everyone should hear and see it, especially ahead of the election. The sentiment in it really should be shared liberally.
A.D. Amorosi: What is that tracks look, sound and feel in all of your minds?
Gregg Mervine: WPO’s art is situational, performative. Our songs belong in a place – usually a sweaty warehouse or a block party – and this song is for a street protest. It’s a ragtag drumline and a bunch of horn players marching with a righteous mob, stomping and shouting a better world into existence. Keni Thomas: The look and sound is one of unity. That unity is wrapped around seeking justice for the crimes committed on a community. It feels like righteous indignation propelled the emotional vocals and churning band.
A.D. Amorosi: Why was it crucial to get it out now, the single and the video for the benefit of whatever Giving Groove was gearing it toward?
Gregg Mervine: There is something in the air. Another form of consciousness dawning. But there are new forms of bullshit distractions too that waste time with keener efficiency. Individuals need to produce their own culture, not just stream it. I hope people hear a song like this and form their own street bands and create their own collectives.
Keni Thomas: This needs to go out before the election as a rallying cry and reminder of what is at stake.
A.D. Amorosi: How do you believe “Amerika the Grave” – its writing, recording vid-making and releasing – define who and what you do at your very best?
Gregg Mervine: “Amerika the Grave” is a return to the defiant impulses that first animated WPO. There’s grit, fury, and an energy of defiance in this music that also invites you to dance, to participate and involve yourself.
Keni Thomas: All art puts down a marker of its time and I believe this will do the same. At my best I am a visual journalist, providing an image of this era with my pen.