From where Johnathan Coody sits at his parents' house in Brooks County, Georgia, he can see cows chewing cud in a field right in front of him.
The setting in which he speaks may seem inconsequential, but it isn't. In fact, the rural South has made up much of not only Coody's identity, but also the identity of his band Ninja Gun in ways that are both surprising and unsurprising. Roman Nose, the band's first formal release since 2008's Restless Rubes, is both a musical and lyrical reflection of this influence—especially the band's Southern pride.
Coody would argue, though, that his music is also a reaction to being raised in the South, and to a culture with which he is occasionally in conflict. “I'm excited for people to hear Roman Nose just because that type of music isn't supposed to exist in the context that we operate,” he explains, referring to Ninja Gun's punk-rock roots and left-leaning politics in such a “red” area of the United States. “We don't want to be preaching to the choir. If you have something to say, and you're trying to be direct with it in a song, there's not a lot of room for metaphor because you want people to understand what you're talking about. If we just wanted to bash out some punk songs and scream those lyrics, it wouldn't be as accessible to the people that we want to hear it.”
The people that he wants to hear his music is made up of the people around him in Southern Georgia, Coody clarifies. “Punk-rock has the aesthetic of an urban thing,” he explains, “but I think the South is the front-line of punk-rock these days. I mean, look at how it votes.” Here, he chuckles a little, but it's clear by his comments that Coody sees Ninja Gun's music as a means through which he can communicate and educate the people around him—not in a pretentious way, but in a manner that he hopes empower sthe people he has lived with his whole life. “It's not bashing the South,” he adds. “It's saying, 'Hey people, step it up here and take control of your lives,' which, sometimes, is a hard pill to swallow. If I've got the be the guy who stands out in a certain area because I don't adhere to the local mentality, then so be it.”
“Hot Rain”, the second song from Roman Nose, is one such where Ninja Gun encourages it's audience to take control of its life. Beginning with an acoustic guitar that reverberates against the walls of the song like it's an amphitheater, Coody sings in his curly Southern croon, “Oh, you children of the heat just keep yourselves a-moving / Dig the dirt beneath your feet and turn it into something / Purified and free / Believe what you believe.” Slowly, the throb of drummer Jeffrey Haineault's toms builds the song into a soaring chorus—the sort layered with both scalding electric and quiet acoustic chords; the sort steered by the soft, solid thrum of Jacob Sparks' bassline; the sort that releases a subtle steam of harmonized “ohs” which, along with Thad Megow's guitar solo, fills up the once-open space of the song and adds a modest sense of drama to its climactic conclusion.
If “Hot Rain” is a musically and lyrically passionate track, it's because the issue that inspired the song is personal to Coody. “I was born in '78 and I'm kind of the last generation of post-farm kids,” he says. “I grew up on a hog farm chasing hogs through shit. My grandfather, and great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather have all been farmers and my brother and I were the first in the line to not do that—partially because that's not what we were born to do, and partially because those options were taken away from us via deregulation.
“In the early-90s,” he continues, “big corporations like Sunniland and Smithfield came in and bought up these small packing houses that were independently owned and drove the price of number one hogs down so much that it was costing farmers more to feed them than what they made at sale. That pretty much ran every small family operation out of business, and that's the same model that's been implemented in every industry over the past thirty years since Reagan. Nobody works for themselves anymore; everybody has to work for someone else, and there's no future in that.”
Though the band's music doesn't evoke images what a casual listener might immediately associate with punk-rock, Coody argues that this sort of political-mindedness is, in part, what gives Ninja Gun some of its punk-rock credibility. “We've always been part of our local punk scene because that's what we've always enjoyed,” he says. “I guess you could say that punk-rock, in it's root form, is the Ramones—it's loud and it's abrasive—but to put it in that box is to do it an injustice. To me, if the things that are coming out are real and pure, that's punk-rock.”
It's perhaps that reason why Coody calls, “That's Not What I Heard”, Roman Nose's first track, the most punk-rock song he's ever written. Musically, the song features the same bright, warm acoustic guitar strokes featured on “Hot Rain,” but backed with a clean electric that shimmers like sunlight on serene ocean waves, the pitter-patter of bongos, and sunny swish of tambourine. Sung with careful, close harmonies, the song sounds like it could have been written by the Beach Boys or an early incarnation of the Beatles. Lyrically, though, Coody describes the woes of a cursed economy and the impact felt by lower- and middle-class Americans. In the second verse, he sings, “Workers wonderin' why they're coming to take away their homes / The jobless kids who can't get rid of all them student loans / And meanwhile momma slowly dies of some unknown disease / Conditions pre-existing somehow don't sound right to me.”
“I don't want to be a political band,” Coody explains. “I don't want to write punk songs. I get more pleasure out of writing a pop song where I can be as abstract as I want to be. But, like I said earlier, if you want to write about something that people understand—if you care about what you're talking about, if you want to convey an idea, if you have that burning desire to communicate with an audience—then it has to be more direct.”
Though Coody feels a need to communicate with his audience, and he knows who he hopes will hear (and connect with) his music, he doesn't see his music as for Southerners by Southerners. “Anytime you get involved with who's going to hear your stuff, it's detrimental to your art,” Coody says. “You can never aim what you're doing anywhere because it puts up a fence around what you're doing.” Likewise, there's nothing intentional about the Ninja Gun's Southern aesthetic. “We don't try to be Southern. I've spent thirty-two years in this town. Anything we do is going to have that element to it because it's who we are. If we write a noise freak-out song, people are going to say, 'Oh, it's a country noise freak-out song.' If what I've lived my whole life isn't country, I don't fucking know what is.”
Simply put, what Ninja Gun writes and records and performs is a natural extension of themselves. “Luckily,” Coody explains, “what I get off on—what we play and write—if probably palatable to a wider audience. But that's not by design; it's a happy accident.”
It's clear that Coody the musician has been influenced by being raised in the rural South, and that his music is a reflection of and response to that upbringing. But expressing this Southern pride isn't enough. What makes music-making meaningful to Coody is contributing to Southern culture, adding to the significance that the South offers others. “I know when we play here at home,” he says, “I see these dirt road kids—kids who grew up the same way I did, kids who are going into the military because that's their only option—at our shows wearing everyday South Georgia clothes. I have a lot in common with these kids. And, when they come up to me and say, 'Man, I relate to that,' it's like the most powerful thing I can hear and it means a lot to me.”
“I was trying to think today why I write songs,” he continues, “and I think it's to try to relate.” And though that relationship doesn't have to be strictly Southern, these songs, coming from someone who also grew up chasing hogs through shit, exhibits a different sort of significance, communicates a different sort of idea. “That communication,” Coody concludes, “is reassurance that you're not fucking crazy if you live here.”