A few years ago, Ryan Alexander, the leading force behind Nashville-based band CIVILIAN, stood in a crowded supermarket reading the latest issue of Rolling Stone. The place was bustling with shoppers, but Alexander was too engrossed in what he was reading to notice. In that issue was a photograph of the late Pete Seeger with his iconic banjo slung over his shoulder. Around the rim of the head was written, “THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS HATE AND FORCES IT TO SURRENDER.” It marked the first time Alexander understood what music could do not only for him but also for everyone else. He tore out the photo, stuffed it in his pocket, and left the store. He still has it.
Seeger’s death left an enormous hole for artists to fill. He was a musician, an outspoken activist and a countercultural leader. He endured lasting artistic success despite resisting the structures of power responsible for polluting the environment, incarcerating dissenters and, yes, signing musicians into major label peonage. Sadly, there is a paucity of popular artists currently willing to fight the corporate Powers That Be and writing songs for the working-class “everyman.”
Alexander makes clear in the biography on CIVILIAN’s website that he writes music for the “everyman” in a time when other artists cater to the individual. He is direct and eloquent in both his songs and his opinions and is dedicated to fighting for a better world.
“The best protest ever is just saying I refuse to play a game where you have to be politically correct or you have to have all the answers or you have to color inside the lines,” he says.
Alexander has rarely had all the answers, and he has channeled the energy that follows such unknowing into an ambitious drive that doesn’t dictate his every decision. He has learned, since forming CIVILIAN in 2011, to let go without losing his edge. In doing so, he and the band have been fairly successful for a group of Nashville musicians originally from south Florida.
After moving to Nashville, Alexander formed CIVILIAN and released the band’s first full-length, Should This Noose Unloosen. He relinquished control and allowed the songs to form in the studio setting, vowing never again to try and regulate the bafflingly complex process of running a band.
What followed was Nashville serendipity at its best. In January of this year, Alexander and CIVILIAN played a small venue called The Basement for Alexander’s roommate’s birthday. Jordan, a fellow musician and friend of the band, came out to see the show and brought along a studio manager in town. Minutes before taking the stage, Alexander came down with a vicious stomach virus, but at the insistence of his band, he played the set anyway. After the show, Jordan’s friend approached Alexander and expressed his interest in CIVILIAN recording some music at his studio. Alexander, on the verge of being sick, thought nothing of it until a few days later when he realized the studio was the legendary Sound Stage Studios. What was originally scheduled to be a few tunes turned into an entire album tracked in the famous studio. The upshot was an entirely new full-length, You Wouldn’t Believe What Privilege Costs, out Oct. 21 on Tooth & Nail Records.
Privilege is “a direct attempt to stop speaking for people and start speaking to people,” says Alexander. Inspired by the late iconoclast Christopher Hitchens and the current American political climate, the record attempts to bridge the gap between the personal and the political. “There is reason to believe we’re a gun in the hand of a con man, that we’re a brick in the wall around the problem,” Alexander sings on “Reasons.” Elsewhere on “Michael,” the most directly political song on the album, he sings of the horror of exonerated rapists, crimes of hate and patriarchal privilege.
“[Hitchens] talked about how you should never let or trust a politician use the word ‘we,’” Alexander says. “You should be very hesitant to involve yourself with someone who stands up on a stage and says, ‘Well, we think…’ or ‘We want…’ Anyone who’s willing to speak for the masses is someone that we should approach with caution.”
Alexander’s role in this moiling election year is to steer the conversation in a more inclusive, less hate-filled direction—and, as a musician, to have a voice at all in a rather tame, apolitical music industry.
“Art dictates culture,” he notes. “And when artists are quiet or when artists only post on Facebook or Twitter, they really lose their voice.”
Alexander refuses to stifle his voice, even if that means eventually releasing a follow-up EP of songs that didn’t make the full-length cut. That EP, entitled We Can Do Better, was written a few years ago but translates well to the racket of presidential and identity politics. But Alexander stresses that party affiliation—in which so many people invest an enormous amount of faith—is a distraction.
“Your political affiliation has very little to do with what your intent for your neighbor can be,” Alexander notes. “It’s easier than ever to not actually do anything…because people just want to know whether you’re voting for Trump or Hillary. I’m not interested in political affiliation. I’m interested in ideas.”
You Wouldn’t Believe What Privilege Costs is brimming with ideas about the environment, the importance of community, and the empathy for others—no matter their political affiliations. It’s a charge to do better as a country, to push back against the forces that position the bottom dollar above real human beings.
“We as cohabitants of our cities and our planet should feel every bit as justified in being a part of our communities and our friends’ live as advertisers,” Alexander says. “They feel entitled to being involved. Why don’t you feel entitled to being involved?”