How a Media Studies PhD Birthed Misery Index's New Album, 'Rituals of Power'

Jason Netherton talks the Baltimore deathgrind troupe's sixth LP, social media and the future
How a Media Studies PhD Birthed Misery Index's New Album, 'Rituals of Power'
On Friday (March 8), Misery Index will release their sixth full-length album, Rituals of Power, a record that focuses on the idea of the "post-truth" era we currently live in and that confronts issues revolving around media, political echo chambers, refugee crises and other hot button issues. Over the course of their nearly two-decade career, the Baltimore deathgrind act have focused on political issues with increasing levels of knowledge — in no small part because vocalist and bassist Jason Netherton is about to complete his PhD in media studies.
 
"I gravitated towards media studies as a way to understand how we interpret reality through our media systems and how culture is produced," Netherton tells Exclaim! in a phone interview from his home in Finland. "I started about six or seven years ago, and I'm just in the final stages now of wrapping that up."
 
Netherton originally studied international relations and politics, but eventually found himself wanting to better understand why certain aspects of society operate the way they do. This led him to start researching the history and effects of media — particularly social media.
 
"Our lives are funnelled through social media intermediaries and our information is much more on display," says Netherton. "The bigger questions I think are about what Facebook and these other companies are doing to discourse and public debate, democracy. On a personal level, I do think they kind of change the way people think about themselves in relation to society with the constant attention to themselves, monitoring and self-evaluating, which can be unhealthy."
 
It's bled into the band's work, informing a large portion of Rituals of Power. Rhythm guitarist and vocalist Mark Kloeppel wrote "New Salem," for example, as a reflection of the effects coming from political opposites seeing each other as enemies.
 
"I think he was trying to turn it on its head and take it out of its left-right binary divide so all parties involved can kind of look at what kind of discourse they're having and maybe look back at themselves and question what kind of culture they're helping fuel in that world," explains Netherton.
 
While Misery Index are technically from Maryland, Netherton currently lives in Finland with his wife (and resided in London, Ontario during part of his studies). While living in Europe, the vocalist noticed the Syrian refugee crisis was being covered in the news with very little care for the individuals involved in the issue. The band wrote the album's "The Choir Invisible" to reflect the journeys of the people attempting to leave the dangerous situations they faced.
 
"The issue was never really talked about from the perspective of the individual human lives who are just trying to escape violence," explains Netherton. "The kind of language being used was dehumanizing. That song was kind of a way to put the subject back on the people themselves and talk about the predicaments from their perspective and what drives a person to face those conditions where you very well could die if you get on some boat with your children but there's nowhere else to go."
 
Rituals of Power takes a gloomy look at the political landscape on all sides of the spectrum, with many of the songs acting as a warning of the potential pitfalls of people's actions. Netherton believes the current state of debating important public issues and social problems is fraught, though he doesn't squarely place blame on social media users. One of the major problems the vocalist sees is the growing presence of technology companies and their influence on society.
 
"We're in the middle of it and sometimes when you're in the middle of these changes it's hard to make sense of them until you can kind of crawl out of the muck and look at it," says Netherton. "There's too much power concentrated in the hands of Silicon Valley type companies who control our public discourse and set the terms and conditions of how a lot of public debate is undertaken. It's just like how the oil companies years ago or the telephone companies were too big and needed to be broken up for the benefit of society and economies."
 
As the band have entered the latter half of their career, Misery Index has taken on a part-time role in the members' lives, and though that's slowed their productivity — "that's why this one took a little longer to get together" — it has also allowed their ideas, both musical and conceptual, to marinate.
 
"When it goes like this," Netherton adds, "you have more time to really review the songwriting and analyze whether you like something or not."
 
It's also given Netherton time to look at where he wants to take his career after completing his PhD. He's interested in the possibility of a future as a professor, but at the moment he's still very involved in music.
 
"My interest right now is in the music industry and how recording artists like myself are navigating new media intermediaries to make money in the digital music economy. That's where a lot of my research has been and I'm looking at crowdfunding right now and looking at some examples of how artists are using crowdfunding to sort of make up for lost revenue in other areas," says Netherton.
 
Rituals of Power comes out March 8 on Season of Mist.