Rich Aucoin United States

Photo by Mat Dunlap

Rich Aucoin channels anger and love on his new album United States

The LP and its videos address some of the most divisive issues in the U.S., and protest movements that are uniting the world.

An interview with Halifax alt-pop artist Rich Aucoin about his forthcoming album United States.

The most predictable element of the Trump presidency has been chaos. Ever since the awful shock of election day 2016, it’s been easy to foresee that the road ahead would be broken to the point of putting the whole world in danger. No one knew just how deadly the journey would be for Americans, on American soil.

Two years ago, Rich Aucoin biked across 12 states to raise money for Mental Health America and the Canadian Mental Health Association, writing one song for each state. For the first time, his lyrics became imbued with politics — not the daily goings-on in D.C., Twitter tirades or media feuding, but the fall-out of failed policies and the great “Make America Great Again” con.

His upcoming album United States, which will be released on Sept. 18 by Haven Sounds, is equally inspired by the hope produced by multiple American protest movements that have grown up in recent years, and by the notion of uniting states of consciousness via psychedelics and meditation. Aucoin’s upbeat pop sound remains as universal as ever, and even though on the surface the lyrics and themes on this fourth LP are tied together by something specific, the world is always watching and reacting to what goes on in the U.S. — perhaps especially here in Canada.

“I was approaching it like a third-party observer, seeing it at the most slow-paced personal level that I could, pedalling across Middle America. If anyone is like, ‘What is this guy doing commenting on this?’ my answer is ‘Why not someone with a foreign perspective to look at the system from outside the system?’”


When I last spoke to Aucoin in the fall, he was looking ahead to a period after this record (the contents of which were then top-secret) when he would break from the rigorous touring he’s been engaged in for years.

“Careful what you wish for,” he says now, laughing. “I was supposed to be playing over 100 shows in the States this year,” he adds, sharing that he had high hopes for breaking into the American market with past/future tour-mates Tupper Ware Remix Party (TWRP) and Planet Booty.

United States by Rich Aucoin
Album art for United States by Rich Aucoin

“Their fans are some of the nicest folks I’ve ever met, and so supportive, and just getting to meet them across the States, face-to-face, was something that I thought might be a big game changer. Now that’s not happening for a while, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the album doesn’t do well. (laughs) I’m not trying to be pessimistic but I’m just back to another situation where I’m rolling the dice and maybe I get a good roll and maybe I don’t.”

Aucoin has toyed with some live streaming events but, like many musicians, has walked away unsatisfied with the production value, not to mention the level of engagement, limited as it is to squinting at incoming comments on a screen.

“I’m focusing more on getting ready for whenever live shows do happen again, and on doing a version of my show that doesn’t require us all to be under a sweaty parachute together,” he says. To the uninitiated, a Rich Aucoin show is more hands-on than most — he typically encourages fans to form a circle around him at the front and place their hands on top of one another like a pre-show/pre-game pep ritual, but during the actual show. 

“I’ve been joking with all my music peers and friends that my show is going to be the last thing that’s permitted (because of the pandemic),” he says.

Along with planning more theatrical performances for the future, Aucoin has been focusing on the music videos that will — given the lack of touring — almost single-handedly sell this record to the masses. Visuals have always played a central role in Aucoin’s shows, and his music videos never fail to impress. The United States project launched in mid-April with the video for “How It Breaks,” an anti-Trump song/video that doesn’t mention the heinous President by name, and censors his grotesque face.

“Like Voldemort, you don’t want to give them more power,” Aucoin explains (a Harry Potter reference for anyone who’s wondering). “I wanted the song to continue to apply to any corrupted power and not just one very harmful individual.”

Even more powerful was the video for “Reset,” which dropped in May. The video is a montage of the aftermath of American mass shootings and the anti-gun protest movement, and as with the previous video, the clip does not feature its main subject — there are no guns. Aucoin was compiling and editing the video on April 18, when Canada’s worst mass shooting unfolded in his province — a chilling experience, to say the least.

“I was googling mass shooting and getting all this information about the history of events in America over the last few years, and then Nova Scotia pops in there,” Aucoin recalls. “That day was very surreal because the RCMP really didn’t update people effectively so there were a lot of rumours circulating. The news was trickling in and the degree was getting worse with each update. We always joke with Maritimers and particularly Haligonians that everyone is only one degree of separation apart from everyone else anyway — there are so many connections. There was a lot of worry while it was still ongoing, and it went overnight.

“Working on the video was a way to research and think about some of the problems with gun access and how to ban things in a way that makes sense. Seeing the number of times it’s happened in the States was really eye-opening. It happens so often that the ones with lower body counts are only in the news for a day, or not even. It was a heavy time, for sure, and the community here was making it very four-dimensional.”

Videos for the songs “Dopamine” and “Walls” are still to come, the former on July 17, the latter in September. Aucoin refers to “Walls” as the “main single” from United States, “the one that has the greatest chance to connect.” Fittingly, it’s about breaking down barriers between people, something the video depicts quite literally with walls between YouTube screens being busted, à la Run DMC/Aerosmith. And within each screen is a recreation of a classic music video, a concept that gave Aucoin and a huge crew of friends, musicians and actors (pre-lockdown) the opportunity to play Prince, Madonna, the Beastie Boys, OK Go, Alanis Morisette, Nirvana, Beyoncé and others.

“We reshot 16 of my favourite music videos with over 100 people involved. We just took over this huge filming space where they made The Lighthouse. The funny part is the mash-ups of Beyoncé with OK Go, or having the Beastie Boys with Madonna or Alanis Morissette in the ‘Sabotage’ video, stuff like that. Probably the most fun we had was remaking sets for ‘When Doves Cry’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’”


Rich Aucoin discusses United States in the Cult MTL July 2020 cover story

When I ask Aucoin about the stakes of the upcoming U.S. election, an event that he so wanted to weigh into in a hands-on way by rocking the vote, as it were, with a voter registration drive on tour, he doesn’t refrain from getting philosophical.

“There’s a loss of truth happening everywhere. It’s almost like Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’ — ‘truth is dead’ is something that’s happening right now because of how much Trump has enabled ‘fake news’ to erode the perception of what’s real and what’s fake. That’s why I borrowed the term from wrestling, kayfabe (a song title on the album) — the idea that people are in on the fact that what’s being said is fake but they accept its fakeness as truth for admission to this overall paradigm.

“I’m definitely not saying that as Canadians are absolved of all the things they’re going through (in the States),” he adds. “The struggles that are very much on display in America are happening in Canada and other parts of the world. Maybe one day I’ll bike across Canada again (as he did for Childhood Cancer Canada Foundation in 2007) and do an album that looks at all our problems.” ■

For more about Rich Aucoin and United States, click here.

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