Interview with Filter's Singer and Guitarist Richard Patrick

Richard Patrick (second from left) of Filter. Photo courtesy Pulse.

Anthems for the Damned, the fourth album from Filter, directly addresses the war but also talks bluntly about the doubts and demons of the band’s leader, guitarist and singer Richard Patrick. Perhaps not surprisingly, Patrick is just as honest and insightful when we spoke on the phone recently to discuss the album, its politics and how rock music has always been a vehicle to express what matters most to him – whether it be his past alcoholism or the current Iraq War.

Anthems for the Damned deals with current events. It discusses what’s going on in the world.
In the last 10 years, it’s really come to my attention that the world’s getting f**ked up. And it’s mostly because of humans. And it’s so sad, because human beings have the ability to point a telescope at the most distant galaxy and know that that’s a part of our reality. And yet, on another side of the world, we’re trying to steal someone’s oil, and those people are so [mad] at each other because of their religious beliefs that they’re killing each other. It astounds me that we are such a brilliant species, but yet we are so completely reckless right now.

How easy is it to write about political themes within the structure of rock songs?
It’s all based on experience – you write what you know. I know what it’s like to be me, and I know what it’s like to be an observer of what’s happening in the world.

If a president makes a tragic mistake to the tune of 4,000 people being killed – and hundreds of thousands of people from another country being killed – all for the so-called sanctity of the country’s interest, which is oil, then you’re gonna write about it. I can’t sit back and write songs about being Jesus Rock ‘N’ Roll – I can’t do it.

I can’t write songs about having a crib or my gold chain that I’m wearing. I can’t be a part of that scene. But this isn’t a new thing: John Lennon, Johnny Rotten, Al Jourgensen, Bono. Back in the day, Bono didn’t want to write about fast cars.

You don’t strike me as someone who’s ever wanted to write about fast cars. When you were starting out, did you know you wanted to make songs with ideas in them?
There was a period of my life where I wrote from purely an experience point of view. “Take a Picture” [from 1999's Title of Record] was written from the insanity of being an alcoholic. I tried to make sense of it, but I refused to write with any kind of meaning behind it, and I wrote purely stream-of-conscious. And looking back on those lyrics, it was genius because it was not contrived – I didn’t know that the message was that this song was about alcoholism.

I think sometimes the best writing comes out that way: You don’t know what’s going to happen, so you just surrender to your subconscious.
When you’re faced with writing lyrics … I write all this music and I’m like, “Wow, this is really beautiful – what’s this song going to be about?” That’s a daunting task. And so a lot of times what you do is you just go for it.

When I wrote the chorus to “Take a Picture” – “Could you take my picture/’Cuz I won’t remember” – it was just after my friend was like, “Do you remember anything you did last night?” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” She said, “My god, you were throwing beer bottles out of a cab window at a cop car. Do you remember that?” And I said, “Good lord, could you take my picture, ‘cuz I won’t remember.” And that line just kinda stuck. Weeks later, I had another drunken experience – being on a plane and being blacked out and not feeling good and taking my shirt off, half in and out of consciousness – and I’m in the back of a paddy wagon. I’m thinking, “Oh my god, what is my dad gonna think of this s**t?” Y’know, ‘Dad, what do you think about your son now?’ So, the song is this amazing thing for me to look back on now.

Anthems is very proudly political at a time when many artists still shy away from writing about what’s going on in the news.
I’ve done the introspective thing, and it feels good, but at the same time I think it’s important to remind each other that there are 100,000 people that are over there trying to mop up the mess in Iraq. Does anyone care? Does anyone remember? You know, 22-year-old kids are getting killed over there.

People are losing their arms and legs – I’ve met them at Walter Reed. I was at a base in Kuwait for three days while we did 'Operation MySpace,' and I met thousands of soldiers who were amazing people.

You know, I wrote a politically charged record, but there’s only two songs that are really in-your-face politically. The rest of the record is about my trouble with my own demons. I’ve been responsible for inspiring at least a handful of people into changing their lives [in terms of] alcohol and drugs. And just knowing that they can reach out to me on MySpace and ask me how I got sober and then me saying, “Well, this is how I did it,” is, right there, worth the price of admission for all the efforts I’ve made. I let my guard down and I talked about my alcoholism so openly – whether it’s interviews, whether it’s on my own record. The fact that I did that and inspired a handful of people in the world who are walking around that have said to me “It’s because of your sobriety that I’m here today” – that just makes me feel so proud that I could offer up something to my fellow man and save some lives and get these people on a good track.

That seems to tie in to what you were saying earlier that rock music can be more than just a way to celebrate excess.
I just believe there are a lot of people out there who want to be inspired. They want to make a difference with their life. Really, in the last 10 years it’s been amazing for me to sit back and watch the retarded banter of certain rock ‘n’ roll [jerks].

When Public Enemy came out, they tore it up – they were saying s**t.

It’s sad we don’t have more bands like them in hip-hop.
Just like punk. These so-called punk bands that get out there and try to have a fast, heavy sound, and they get out there and talk about bulls**t. Green Day pulled it around with American Idiot, but originally they were doing goofy stuff. It’s like Bono, man – even in “Beautiful Day,” he’s saying stuff. When you say “Anthems is heavy,” and you promote it as a political album, people are like, “No! Put the warm blanket over me! I don’t want to think!” When I introduce “Soldiers of Misfortune” – I say, “This song is dedicated to all the people in Iraq; this is a pro-troop, antiwar song” – there’s almost this [annoyed, whiny voice] “Aw, man!” Not at my shows, but at some festivals [that happens]. But there’s also so many people who come up to me and tell me, “Thanks, I have a brother in Iraq. Thank you so much.”

At the end of the album, there is a sense of hope that maybe things can still be turned around.
If you listen to a record from start to finish, I believe you should be taken on a journey sonically. I’m the kind of guy who cranks my stereo, and I listen to a record from start to finish, and nothing interrupts.

It’s like a movie. Knowing that most people that buy this record will want to be taken somewhere, I wanted them to have a sense of calming after this jarring experience. When you get to song 15 on the average heavy metal record, you’re just bludgeoned – it’s like a blunt instrument. [sarcastic] “Oh god, you’re screaming again, thank you.” I’m not that type of guy – I want my records to be like [U2's] The Unforgettable Fire. You put that record on, and by the time you get to “MLK,” you’re like “Thanks.”

It was important to end with that bit of optimism?
Listen, I do real well. I’m blessed. I have a beautiful wife and a baby and a safe place to live. I’m comfortable, my life is good – and it’s time to give back to the world that’s been so beautiful to me. People pay money to see me sing and play the guitar.

When we leave the stage, there’s a moment where I take the guitar off and I just listen to the applause. Some nights, it’s more applause than others, but think of all the people in the world who don’t get to have that experience. So to make a political record, I think it’s ballsy. John Lennon went “I’m huge – I’m going to start really saying something. It’s not just gonna be ‘She loves you/yeah yeah yeah.’” It’s not just gonna be that – it can’t be. It’s not from my soul. I have to talk about the things that are important to me. If people in the audience can identify with that and be inspired, then I’ve done my job.

It’s funny that rock has gotten away from the idea of speaking out.
I remember being a tiny, little kid and Elvis Presley had a song about the ghetto. And I asked my mother, “What does he mean by the ghetto?” And she said, “Well, that’s where poor people live. It’s tough in the ghetto, it’s hard.” I was 5 or 6. And then later I heard someone refer to “an anti-Vietnam War song.” And I thought, “Yeah, because war is bad, right? They wrote a song because they don’t think the war is good. Wow.” That was one of my earliest memories about music – it’s not all about rainbows.

(Published July 25, 2008)