Breakaway on chronic illness, punk rock, music as practice, and the wisdom of do-it-yourself ethics. His eighth solo album “No More White Bread” will be released in July.
Is it still possible to find music? Does anything escape the The Algorithm? Have you heard everything there is to hear?
When I met Joe Kujawa a lifetime ago, we were in high school and he was in a nü metal band. Seventeen years and a half dozen ensembles later, he’s still making and performing music. Today, he’s releasing music as Breakaway – a dark, psychedelic solo choral project he calls a slow-motion opera riot.
Breakaway is hard to explain and is as much a psychological landscape as it is a sound – I’d say, somewhere between a witchy Kate Bush and the uncanny disorientation caused by making sense of a Catholicism-themed Met Gala. Throughout his music career, Kujawa has also driven large-scale distribution of anarchist literature, produced artwork and events, and toured the country’s circuit of underground radical spaces many times over.
Recently, Kujawa moved to Bushwick from a studio in a Minneapolis garage – we sat down to speak about his life as an underground musician, radical politics, struggling with chronic illness, and making music as a life practice.
When I imagine being an underground musician in the midwest, I picture an archipelago of little islands too small to be seen by the Internet – the age of the algorithm, the trending subcultures, the DJ sets – what was it like to be one of those? Playing in garages and basements, living in garages and basements ...
A few years ago, some friends converted a garage into a space where bands could record. Dozens of bands – maybe even some you’ve heard – have recorded in that space over those years. When a friend moved out, I kind of inherited it. It was great. But not a very legitimate setup ... I can imagine the landlord wouldn’t be happy to find out about it. As far as being on an island, I’ve gotten used to being overlooked and have been fine with more-or-less working in a vacuum.
You came up in a small-town DIY music scene, and it seems pieces of that history are still present in your music.
I still think of it very fondly. When I started going to punk shows, it was so inspiring to hear people talking about new ideas and to find zines about them on a table nearby. It felt so accessible – I remember thinking, “I could do this too. I could be just a part of this.” Soon after I was making zines and making flyers for the shows we were throwing. Especially in a small town, where we had to create our own fun, it helped to be part of a DIY scene. Like, wow, we actually really can do these things, and do them together in this really intentional – maybe even clumsy – way. I like thinking back on that. I hope there are still teenagers that have that in their life!
I started writing a zine in maybe 9th grade, or 10th grade, I don’t know. It was cute, and weird, a sort of happy-go-lucky zine. But really I just wanted to create music. So the third issue of my zine was an audio project. I felt more comfortable making political music than I did writing political essays. Music became a way for me to express my ideas and how I was feeling about the world. The next issue after that was also an audio zine. I guess I consider those to be the first two albums I put out.
Did those early experiences with radical politics inspire you to start making your own music?
One thing I always appreciated was when you had these punk bands talking in between songs – they had to, because otherwise you couldn’t understand their words or anything else! But between songs they’d be like, “this song is about fuck the police,” or “this song is about earth liberation. Rah-gra-rehgud!!!!....” I wanted to have those sorts of songs, and have that kind of approach to music and performance.
How does a punk rock diatribe translate to a softer, gentler solo act?
— Well, I started to explain my songs more in depth as they became less lighthearted; in between each song I would speak to what my music is about. I was bringing up all kinds of intense stuff: being generally heartbroken in an abusive world, the collapse of civilization, state repression, or my own personal struggles as a survivor of sexual abuse. I would also have zines around to help better articulate some of those ideas. I’d maybe be in some living room, or basement, with twenty people, and it would be like, silent. They’d be really reverent about it. You could hear a pin drop – it was pretty intense. I learned a lot from doing that, from putting myself out there and being vulnerable in that way.
I imagine by making and performing music throughout your entire life, it has to change and transform with you. Do you ever look back at your older work to see what has changed and what has stayed the same – about yourself and your music?
Those early days very much set the stage for my understanding of how infinite music is. I used to limit myself to only acoustic instruments, primarily an acoustic guitar, and my voice. Once I allowed myself to bring in electronic sounds it burst open this whole new landscape to play in. On the album I’m working on now, it’s less electronic, more vocal, sometimes just a cappella. Though I’m not that into using the word “experimental” to describe my music, I think something that has stuck with me is a willingness to experiment. Within that experiment, I like to challenge myself. Over the years I’ve learned that you can’t force music, it can be challenging but it shouldn’t feel like a chore.
Music is one area of my life where I’m maybe the least hard on myself. In that sense, it’s a space in which I can really love and appreciate myself. Also, the do-it-yourself ethos of it has been consistent. I’m still recording and producing it myself, doing all the artwork and screenprinting the shirts and all that. It’s me doing this, it’s my process and my self-discovery. Music is my way to deal with whatever it is life has me dealing with. That’s my go-to, and the thing that really gets me out of bed. Another thread running through my work is – I think this is probably true for a lot of art, I suppose – that music helps me understand and critique the world. I still feel like “fuck the police!” You learn things in radical subcultures that are sometimes best translated into music.
One thing I’ve always admired about musicians is the practice. Returning to work on the same piece again and again. What’s it like to have something creative like that you can return to?
It’s very therapeutic. But it can also be very terrifying because music is a thing that has to happen. When symphonies and clatter are playing in my head, I have to externalize them. It’s the only form of art where I can really let go. One of the most satisfying, most fulfilling things I know is finishing an album, having that be. And then move on to the next thing, not being afraid to just go into really terrible, bleak places, or to really uplifting, amazing places. To really just not be afraid to explore the many aspects of myself.
This past year I was dealing with a more serious illness than I had ever dealt with. I was basically in bed for many, many months, pretty out of it. I channeled what little energy I had into my music, which is the album I’m working on now. During that time, I wasn’t feeling very lyrical and so the music I made was even more ambient and spacey than previous albums because that’s how I felt in my body.
I remember one time, while first coming to terms with the new illness, I had a pretty wild panic attack. Minutes later, I scrambled to the record button and recorded myself as a way to physically externalize the attack, and, like, get it out of my body. It was me just screaming, more or less. This is one example of why music has to happen for me. It’s healing.
Amazing things can happen when you’re not afraid to tap in to whatever is going on within yourself, even when that’s super scary. Sometimes, I’ll just press record and see what happens, and have no idea. Then five hours later, I’ll have this whole new song that just kind of came out of nowhere. And that’s incredible. Other songs are much more intentional than that. It’s just such a big part of my daily life, like cooking. Whatever is happening in my life is inevitably part of it.
What’s the name of the album you mentioned?
No More White Bread.
Is that because you can’t eat white bread anymore?
That’s one of the reasons. It’s also a nod to those trying to confront and destroy white supremacy in an actual way in Minneapolis, and everywhere else. The image on the cover is a picture that I drew of a cabbage. I had to give up gluten, dairy, sugar, and alcohol while sick so I didn’t have any of that for about fifteen months. So I ate a lot of vegetables like cabbage and beets. It’s a pretty sober and somber album.
I understand you’re not putting it out through a label. Do you prefer that?
Yes and no. Not having a label is advantageous in the sense that I can do whatever I want and I don’t need to suck up to anybody or censor myself. I used to book my own tours and do everything all myself – that part is hard and I haven’t been doing that as much lately, partially because of illness. Sure, having the support of a label to lighten the load of that logistical work would be amazing. Doing everything yourself is definitely challenging. But I like most of those challenges, most of the time. It would be amazing to tour more. I used to play a lot of house shows and radical spaces and DIY shows, it’s definitely where I’m coming from and I don’t want to lose that world in any way. But I’m ready to go on tour, to open for other bands. I’m ready to learn the new things. I’m going to be making music for as long as I’m able to. A label in Cincinnati called Realicide Youth Records released a couple hundred cassettes of my last album, Unsettle.
Back in 2007, CrimethInc. put out one of my albums. Through that, I went on tours around the country to different radical spaces, which was great. No More White Bread will be my eighth solo album. As far as its release, I usually just throw the new album up on Bandcamp and iTunes without doing much to hype it. It’s not a very good model. I certainly have social media anxiety. I don’t have many followers. I’m not good at that whole game. As far as being a DIY musician or whatever, for me, my focus has been much more on putting out music, keep creating content, rather than swiftly maneuvering social media or strategically marketing myself. If it catches on, that’s cool and amazing, but I don’t expect it to. I’m intending to share this with the world but it’s really for my own personal development. It doesn’t need to be anything more than that.
What does Breakaway mean?
It has different meanings to me. I think of it like an invitation. It’s like, hey, come over this way, break away. In the context of a street protest, sometimes there are breakaway marches that don’t pander to permits and permission. It references the black bloc as a contemporary tactic that I saw as something inevitable – something that was happening and is going to continue to happen. I’m inspired by people fighting back in a decentralized way and wanted to shed light on that as a way of life, so as not to erase that history. This isn’t just a word to glorify confrontational street tactics. It’s also a word that keeps challenging. It’s important to break away from being too set in stone about anything. To let yourself – and your own tactics – evolve. It’s about being open to trying something else. It’s about confronting what prevents or denies you agency, and reclaiming agency over your life.