"Some people don't want to offend the eradicators:" Ekko Astral's Jael Holzman on leaving congressional media, journalism's failures, and resisting the "political band" tag

The former Axios reporter censures Congressional journalism's entrenched transphobia, and then reveals how her own band's music is a direct response to the horrors she witnessed on Capitol Hill.

"Some people don't want to offend the eradicators:" Ekko Astral's Jael Holzman on leaving congressional media, journalism's failures, and resisting the "political band" tag

The first time I spoke with Jael Holzman, I knew she wasn't like other musicians. Somewhat on a whim, I went to check out her band Ekko Astral play a DIY space in Pittsburgh back in April, just a few days after their debut album, Pink Balloons, had dropped — which I've since dubbed one of my favorite albums of the year (so far). As I wrote at the time, I was genuinely blown away by the power and sincerity of Ekko Astral's performance, and I was particularly awestruck by how Holzman whipped the modest crowd into a quasi-religious frenzy.

I don't remember when exactly, but at one point during the show there were 30 people crouched down in front of the stage, their hands outstretched and their eyes twinkling with devotion as they gazed upward at the band, the whole flock shifting and gesturing in unison like practiced support actors in a Shakespearian production. I'd never seen anything like it, let alone for a band whose debut album had barely been out for 48 hours. It was striking. Ekko Astral were striking. And how Holzman carried herself was, too.

After the set, I caught Holzman shuffling back to the merch booth so I could tell her "good set" and quickly introduce myself. We had briefly interacted on Twitter a couple times during the previous weeks, so I knew that she was a climate journalist employed by Axios, one of the most prestigious beltway publications in the U.S. Not the typical day-job for a punk frontperson. After a few pleasantries, we somehow ended up talking, as I often find myself doing, about the state of music media. It was after 10 p.m. and my sleepy brain was in no shape to be dredging up intelligent commentary, but Holzman asked me pointed questions about the political implications of music journalism and culture writing, and enthusiastically pushed back on my self-effacing replies with astute opinions of her own about the function of my field. It was a quick conversation that left a big impression on me.

About a month before that interaction, I had stepped away from my job at Revolver Magazine, where I had been an editor and writer covering metal et al for three years. One month later, Holzman quit her job at Axios, and wrote about her deeply personal — and distressing — reasons for doing so in an essay she published last week titled, "Why I'm leaving congressional journalism." The circumstances informing our respective job departures are thoroughly different, but I think the two of us recognized some interesting parallels in our decisions, and we were, at the very least, mutually disgruntled about the fields we voluntarily stepped away from.

Last week, Holzman and I picked up the conversation that began that night in Pittsburgh. I asked her about the topics she broached in her essay: mostly, the systemic transphobia that's baked into the way Congressional media publications cover trans healthcare, and really any other issue that impacts the trans population. She was courageously forthright about her experiences in the industry, and articulated many of the ways she believes that class of journalists — even the well-meaning ones — are dangerously failing a people who are right now, in America, being legitimately threatened with extinction.

This was Holzman's first (somewhat) music-related interview post-Axios, so she was also able to, for the first time, explain how Ekko Astral's music directly relates to her time reporting on Capitol Hill, where she witnessed life-or-death issues get tossed off as "too controversial" to cover, while buffoonish court drama that has no impact on readers' lives received front-page spreads. At one point during our chat, which lasted the duration of her train ride from NYC to Philly, Holzman took the reins and asked me about metal media. And then I steered us back to Ekko Astral, and the Q&A ends with possibly the best answer an artist has ever given me during an interview.

Normally, I'd put part of a conversation like this behind the Chasing Sundays paywall, but I feel that the content of this interview is too important to limit access to. If you'd like to support the hours of labor I put into this, and everything else I publish on this site, please consider subscribing to Chasing Sundays at the $5/month tier. This article — and others like these — couldn't be published at any other music outlet, so your support of an independent music publication like mine is greatly appreciated.

You just left your job at Axios and you announced your departure from congressional journalism. How are you feeling about the decision and the reception thus far?

I appreciate that question. And I'm excited to kind of lose a little bit of the self-censorious nature that I kind of layered upon myself for the past, like, I don't even know how many years. Taking a step back, my life feels at this point like a little bit too long of an arc. But I have watched the transformation of national media from within the heart of our country's power system, myself covering literal power systems. And I have seen the reaction to the 2016 election, the media's kind of correction, and then over-correction, and then over-over-correction. Where I think that now there's such a hesitance within the systems — within the media itself, within specific companies — to say truths that are inconvenient or perhaps offend the moral sensibilities, or supposed moral sensibilities, of some readers they find valuable. I've watched that become so perverted.

I've been struck by how many people have reached out to me from my former place of work within the Capitol — reporters — who straight up told me that they loved what I wrote, but are afraid to engage with the post online. And people who are not journalists, across the political spectrum, who've reached out to me and said, "we love this," and they've shared it. I think that what I raised had nothing to do with politics and had far more to do with what has been politicized about a very specific issue. And the response to my [essay] reminded me a lot of the internal conflicts and the specific situations that led to me writing it. It just feels like another story in a longer saga of me trying to raise an alarm and say, "there's something truly horrific that could happen across this country." Just inform people on what this movement is. And then seeing, like The Lorax, people just kind of take it for granted and care more about the most short-term version of their lives.

Which is a shame. I think journalism continues to be, as a practice, one of the most important things anybody can do. But if what you're doing is spending your time asking the country's, if not the world's, most powerful people only the questions they want to be asked, then you're not doing a service, you're servicing them. And that's not what we should be doing.

You said choices are being made across the media landscape to not offend the sensibilities of a particular reader. What readers are you talking about, specifically?

I'm talking about the reader that does not agree with the scientific consensus behind the basis for sex and gender-based affirming care. Readers who do not agree with fact sets that are set in stone. People who deny scientific consensus. Let's compare this to something else that I have written about extensively: climate change. There are going to be those readers who just don't believe that climate change is real. I was in a Lyft recently where I asked my Lyft driver [if climate change is real] he said, "Oh, no, I don't think it's real, the seasons change." And I was like, "Well, every year has been hotter than the past year. And it's been like that for five years in a row, or something. How do you take that?" And he's like, "Oh, you know, that's just normal." And people are gonna say that.

But I think that the job of journalists shouldn't be to be afraid of those readers. What I have found through my own experiences as a journalist in Congress, as a journalist in Washington, and the power center, working for some of these companies. Not all, but some, are genuinely intentionally censoring the ways they [cover that issue to not offend a] particular reader subset. Because during the Trump administration, they went hard at a particular political constituency, and then were accused of somehow being partisan.

When in reality, they were being watchdog journalists, which is the goal. Anytime someone's in power, you're supposed to do that. So the overcorrection has gotten to the point where some publications think that the best way to cover the anti-trans movement is to say that one side says it's OK and one side says it's not, which really doesn't include the science or any kind of facts that can inform a reader who doesn't know enough about this. And instead, people are just kind of left raising their hands and shrugging at the whole thing, which is a terrible thing. It's going to impact everyone, it's not just going to be this tiny sliver of people.

Pink Balloons...I haven't been able to talk about this yet, because I've been in a different occupation. But it's actually really important to say that our debut album is heavily colored by my experiences and struggles trying to get people in the beltway to care about this. Not the whole thing, most of it is speaking to broader themes. But "baetoven," "i90," "sticks and stones" — these are songs where I'm pretty explicitly referencing things I've been through, and I'm excited to finally be able to talk about them.

From what you're saying, it seems like the way the media has decided to combat accusations of "fake news" is to literally start creating fake news.

I wouldn't say fake. I would say flaccid and sterile.

Well, wouldn't you say it's fake to pretend that there's an equivalency between people who deny medical research and medical facts about transgender people, and those who stand with the research? Isn't that a false equivalency?

I don't think it's my place to to speak with specificity on false equivalence. I think that it's specifically related to weight. So if what you're what you're saying is that they're creating a false equivalency of weight, in terms of the voices, then yes. But I would say that the big problem is the writing convention. The way that my former employer, Politico, writes about this now is like, "Every major medical organization agrees but...people who don't want trans people to get health care say they're afraid that children are getting mutilated." And then it's a quote from the lawmaker, as opposed to a quote from a doctor or a trans person.

I think it was the organization Media Matters that said that The New York Times failed to quote a trans person in a majority of its coverage in the past year on this issue. I think that's what I mean. The false equivalency is implied by quoting so heavily people who deny science. You wouldn't cover any other scientific debate this way.

At the very least, if it's not "fake news" in the Epoch Times sense, it's at least creating an inaccurate narrative.

Yeah, it's implied. Like using the phrase "culture war," I take great issue with. Because it's a conversation about healthcare. Culture is what I do with Ekko. Culture is music and art and literature. There's nothing cultural about doctors agreeing that there's a particular medication that a community in need should get. That is not a culture war, and using that phrase, because other people use it, itself manufactures consent. Which is gross.

And I can't tell you how many times I told people over the years that it's gross, and then they looked at me stone-faced. Or they told me that they outright would never do a story that would offend anti-trans readers, or that they would only do it if it got them clicks. I don't want to name specific people, but I think that the blog that I wrote, and everything else I'm probably going to say in this interview and everywhere else, I think speaks for itself. Because it's just grotesque. It's not how you treat people's medical needs.

One specific Pink Balloons lyric I wanted to bring up, because I interpret it as being about the media landscape you're referring to, is: "I have friends still hiding while you throw a parade." Is that about the self-congratulatory nature of liberal media where they're patting themselves on the back for how they're covering this stuff when in fact their coverage is actually failing those communities?

I think the poem that Ari [Drennen, the poet quoted on Pink Balloons] wrote, the reason that we used it in the album — and now I'm able to speak to this — is that it spoke so closely to my experience as a journalist who is trans working in the beltway, constantly telling people that this was happening. And essentially, the most I would ever get — the best I would ever get — is, "Sorry you're going through this." Which is a separate Ekko line that is on "YXI," on QUARTZ. I was just constantly told, "Oh, I'm sorry, you're going through this," and no one would ever write a story. Even when I would be like, "Hey, if I don't get this medication, I'm gonna go into menopause, and then I'm gonna die really early. Don't you think that's a problem?" "Oh, yeah, that's terrible. We don't have the budget or the time to cover that story."

It's like, what? There's a whole movement that's trying to essentially erase or eradicate a population, and they're literally saying it out loud. Michael Knowles said it out loud at CPAC last year, and lawmakers have agreed with him. You would think that there'd be more people trying to ask people in power, "What do you think about this movement to eradicate a population?" But, you know, some people don't want to offend the eradicators. And I have strong words for those people.

Are these reporters you're talking about writers where [trans healthcare] falls under their beat and they're choosing to marginalize it? Obviously, you do climate journalism, so it's not necessarily your current beat. But you're talking about people who cover those sorts of laws but are refusing to engage with this legislation because it's inconvenient?

Well, I'm gonna put my former employer on blast because maybe they deserve it. Before I joined Axios, I wrote for a company called Politico that is a really important institution in the beltway that itself feeds into...like, people go to Politico and then they move on in the industry. So how Politico sees covering the world actually really matters for how the American media landscape covers things. And pay attention closely: their healthcare reporters don't write about this. They never have. Except for very brief features.

I am one of the only reporters who's written multiple features on this topic for that publication. I wrote two stories related to the anti-trans movement and environmental organizations. And then I wrote, I believe, two stories? I wrote a newsletter topper on the anti-trans left and about Women's Liberation Front, and people like Lierre Keith and Kara Dansky. I also wrote a feature on families and adults who are fleeing states left and right to find a safe place to be, where they can actually exist. I've seen very little coverage since I've left Politico, and I'm far from the only out trans person who left around the same time that I did. I think since then, they've largely re-run wires from the Associated Press, and then maybe an occasional story that also calls it a "culture war."

It's very dangerous if there's a full-fledged movement to eradicate a people in this country, and most people, I would say, probably don't agree with what these people want, and don't know what will happen to them if this movement succeeds. And I think news media does the public a disservice when companies like Politico go out of their way not to offend anti-trans readers. Because you could actually teach people about things. I have people in my life, Republicans, who didn't understand this. Who told me that they thought that trans women weren't women. And then I explained what that means to them, and then they went, "Oh, well, that's a stupid way to think."

The logical dominoes, the if this then that, the if X then Y, for those people...once you explain, it's really hard to agree with this very, very fringe movement that is not explicitly tied to a political party, it's very niche and tiny. If you explain it to people, very few people will want this world. But I hope that one day news media finds the courage to take it on in a head-on way and doesn't just write the salacious headline about complaints and culture wars and stuff, because it doesn't help people understand it.

You touched on this in your essay, but do you think it comes down to cis writers feeling like they're not capable of writing about trans issues? They feel it's such a sensitive issue that they couldn't possibly tackle it themselves, and it requires a trans voice to even do it justice. Do you think that's some of the logic some of these reporters use — even the ones who agree it's an issue?

I've heard that verbatim from editors when I've come to them. When I haven't been writing about this — on the side for no money, for my own employer, working overtime for no pay — I would pitch stories to editors hoping that other outlets would pick it up. And I can't tell you how many times I heard that. My thought on that, and this is based off of the conversations I've had with plenty of people, is I think that the whole Roe [v. Wade overturn in 2022]...When the New York Times published a feature on healthcare for trans children, written by Emily Bazelon, a fantastic journalist, I don't know how this happened.

[She] wrote a story that multiple experts who had their studies or research referenced in the story took issue with. And there were clear sourcing representation issues in that story where activists were portrayed as ordinary people with ordinary people complaints. That story has two corrections and another Editor's Note, and led to the Trans Journalists Association, and activists for GLAAD and celebrities, requesting in open letters that the New York Times change the way it covers this issue.

And [A.G.] Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, subsequently published an op-ed in the Columbia Journalism Review where he pushed back on that and essentially said, "We've written about this in all kinds of ways and we're not afraid to cover the debate that needs to be had in this country that doesn't fully agree with this one idea. We're not activists."

I think that there's this reflexive feeling, like, people who are saying this coverage isn't accurate are somehow activists who want activist journalism that is fully-throated supportive of trans rights in a universal sense. I don't think that's what trans people want. I don't think that's what anyone wants. I think that that is a gross misunderstanding, and I think also indicative of some sort of bias against the people who are raising that complaint. Because how many times have Black people in the streets been accused of being activists when they're simply saying that coverage of police brutality is just factually inaccurate?

In this particular sense, I think the flare up with the New York Times led to a severe quieting. And this is public record, the same thing happened at Politico. There was a story that was written by Gabby Orr, it was titled, "GOP Seizes on Women's Sports as Unlikely Wedge Issue." And then there was a book that came out from a right-wing writer who had gotten leaks from employees or something about how this led to, like, conflicts inside the newsroom. And look at what happened since. How much are they covering this?

What's funny is that if you read the coverage in Politico — and sorry to pick on them. But if you read the coverage, there's oftentimes repetitive boilerplate. Like, they will just take the same paragraph from one story that explains the medical consensus behind the care and just copy/paste it into other stories. That's about as seriously as they're taking it, or about how much time they're putting into covering it. And that worries me. Why is the New York Times having someone who covers affirmative action write about, you know, the state of Ohio ripping healthcare away from trans people?

Clearly, people see this as a diversity conversation, and so when the population considered diverse raises their hand and says the coverage isn't accurate, they're like, "Well, this is a debate." Well, no, it's not. This isn't about diversity. This is about healthcare. Even pronouns, even bathrooms, the whole purpose of WPATH [World Professional Association for Transgender Health], the whole purpose of these medical guidelines is: the pronouns are part of the care, it's to reduce dysphoria. The name is a part of the care, it's to reduce dysphoria. It's not a cultural change.

I don't mean to medicalize it, there are people there who are doing it for other reasons. But that's the conversation that the people on the other side are having, because they're getting rid of these options. Anyway, I think it's that New York Times thing of just a genuine fear that getting it wrong once will get them "canceled," and then, "It's too touchy, I don't want to deal with it." Which is a shame, because that's usually not how journalism works.

So when you were pitching these ideas around, you were essentially like, "This is a story I think you should be covering"?

When I was at Politico, I did try to make a very honest and heartfelt attempt to cover this in a meaningful way for the company. And the best I could do was a feature that published after the 2022 election. It wasn't supposed to publish after the 2022 election, it was supposed to publish before. But then I left and I don't know what happened to it. It came out, and I'm proud that I managed to get a story like this into Politico. But I mean, I'm third byline on that story — even though I wrote a lot of it —for a reason. And I'll let that speak for itself.

On top of that, I spent lots of time trying to talk to journalists on the Hill, journalists who are based around the country. Just like source conversations. Like, "Hey, how many trans journalists that are really competent does an ordinary reporter know?" There are so few of us anyway, like in the general population. So I tried to use my clout, I tried to use my reputation, to say, like, Look, I've analyzed this movement, I've looked at it. So I'd pitch a story, pitch a story, pitch a story, to people so that they would take that lead and pick up the mantle. And so often, no one would do it.

I would be like, "Hey, here's a tie from this movement to Russia." Or, "Oh, hey, here's a tie from this movement to conversion therapy advocates." Or, "Has anyone ever thought about what it means to inspect the genitals at a school bathroom?" I would try and get people to see that there's lot to write about this, and no one ever picked it up. And I don't know why. But I think it has something to do with the politicization of the science and the fear that just simply touching it will be a third rail to a certain segment of readers. Whether it be anti-trans advocates or people in the trans community offended by a word choice, which, go figure.

Going back to the, "I'm not trans so I can't authoritatively write about these issues," thought that some journalists hold. As a trans person yourself, how difficult is it for you to write about these things that so directly impact you? Do you think there's actually a benefit to an ally writing about these things instead of a trans person?

Yeah, I don't want to write them. I tried to do the same thing after I got to Axios that I did at Politico and I actually, emotionally, couldn't do it. Because I was finding that there were plenty of examples already across this country of states, without even laws passed. just out of fear, [where] healthcare providers [are] pulling away hormones to adults, or families being separated. I was finding all these examples of things that just terrified me, so much so that I was having nightmares. So I just told editors I'm not going to touch this anymore.

I wrote one story for them for pride last year where I debunked the theory that somehow chemicals in the water are turning people gay or trans. And that was a good story. But if I'm ever going to write about it, I like to focus on the environmentalist angle. That's my profession and my passion. And it shouldn't fall on me, right? People should be assigning the people who cover healthcare and education and technology to actually look at this in a serious way.

It's one of the most talked-about subjects on TV, on radio, by politicians, by ordinary people. People are really curious about this. So freakin' write about it. Assign someone. I was told so many times by people who I won't name that never in a million years would a reporter get assigned to cover this. And it sucks. It sucks to hear it as a member of the community, knowing how urgent it is.

Ultimately, you decided to leave congressional journalism. You were in this space where you were trying to speak up, to make an impact, to raise an alarm, and then you felt like you couldn't do it anymore. Did you feel like you were compromising in some ways by remaining in that field? And existing in these spaces that essentially dehumanize you and a population?

[Long pause and a deep breath]

I needed to do something drastic and say something now. Because look at the clock. It became really difficult for me to know that as I am quietly preparing for the worst case scenarios, and having conversations with my family about maybe having to leave the country, that at the same time, anytime I would bring that up to a coworker on the Hill...Axios actually covers this, I think they do a great job. But I think that they're kind of a diamond in the rough on these things. When I'm talking about coworkers, I'm talking about other people reporting in the Capitol for places like Politico, Semafor, Business Insider, The Washington Post, the New York Times.

I think it sucks when you keep saying , "I might have to leave, I might die," all these things, including [to] people that are your friends. And they refuse to write something and treat it with the seriousness that it deserves. And eventually, it did feel like my presence there was itself excusing it. Like, "Oh, we must be doing a good job if there's a token trans person hanging around here and is able to do her job."

And I will say that, at least one of the authors of a story that I referenced [in my essay], the Philly Community Center story that ultimately was the trauma moment that led me to leave. At least one of the authors has reached out to me and apologized and promised to actually change the way that [they cover it, which I] really appreciate it. But for the most part, it's been radio silence, including from people who congratulated me when I came out. I find it has confirmed my worst suspicions about how these people saw me.

Going back to the album...the poem and "i90" are there to kind of be this very deep and dark pain that I think a lot of us feel, regardless of whether you're [trans]. There are other things happening in our world, trans people are a tiny population. But there are a lot of things happening in our world that we don't see being represented around us. Difficult things. Barely being able to make ends meet, kind of basic quality of living [types of] suffering. You don't even see that represented in the way that the news media talks about the world. And so when you bring it up, it's, like, deeply uncomfortable.

I remember there was a time that I brought up to a reporter...they had been talking about how there was almost a fisticuffs. Senator Markwayne Mullin had threatened to beat up the head of the Teamsters or something at a hearing. And [the reporter] was like, "Oh, look at this flashy, whatever." And I turned to the reporter and I was like, "Do you know how many people can't afford to put food on their table?" And then he stone-faced me and went to talk to someone else about the fight.

For a long time, I had the luxury and the honor to get to ask questions of our nation's most powerful people. And I developed a reputation that precedes me, and I'm leaving with my reputation intact, across the political spectrum. People all over the place are excited to see what I do next. There's a reason for that. It's because I actually ask people questions that matter. And I think that the more we see that the better, and that's what I have to say on it.

Thanks for sharing that with me. I know I asked you a tough question.

It's hard, right? And take another [issue]. There's something profoundly wrong with, like...I'm Jewish, and I wear a Tichel. And I'm up there [on the Hill] all the time and I'm seeing people ask — really, seriously — if people who are critical of the Israeli government are somehow anti-Semitic. And I say that as a Jew who was deeply disturbed by the IDF when they, years ago, just straight up murdered Shareen [Abu Akleh] at Al Jazeera, an American journalist. And no one said anything. No one. And now there's reporters being carried out on stretchers and barely anyone cares here. And I think that says something about biases, but it's also just a lack of focus on the things that the American people care about, and the things that have the most impact. You could be asking people about that stuff.

But I mean, you see that too, right? I mean, in music, you've, at least recently, made a name for yourself by calling out the music media for not more critically scrutinizing the ecosystems of genre and what that means about masculinity and consumerism. And I'm curious if you feel similarly about, you know, not necessarily friends. I mean, I think both of us have friends in the industry that we would probably take a bullet for. But I am curious what you think about the priorities here? And if you think it's serving people?

Yeah, I mean, I think there're a lot of parallels — and the stakes are different. I have several criticisms of music media at the moment. One is simply that I don't think it's critical enough of artists and art, and therefore it's not providing a service to anyone. And I'm just talking about the service of entertaining writing that will engage people who care about music. I think it's very cynical, and ridiculously reductive, to frame all music writing as positive and reinforcing of whatever subject it's covering. Unless it's just a straight news story about something that an artist said or did.

Some of the stuff I felt very disillusioned about at my job, where I left about a month before you left. Completely different jobs, very different beats, but people don't usually voluntarily step away from media jobs these days, so I feel like there's some kinship between where we're respectively at. But I was just so disillusioned with, particularly in metal media, the entire media apparatus just reinforcing the status quo. My job was to news-blog most of the time, so I would just sit on Twitter all day and read through the headlines of all the other publications, and those publications would do the same thing for the one that I worked at. And we were just regurgitating the same slop, fighting for the same clicks, not saying anything about music. Not saying anything about art. Purposely avoiding political discussion.

There're certain issues, like trans issues and trans healthcare, that are seen as issues that shouldn't be touched by people in your field. I mean, basically anything political is seen, by the vast majority of music publications these days, unless it's something that an artist is specifically saying in a profile, as not something worth writing up. That's not to say that there aren't sites that are doing great coverage of, like, Ticketmaster and Live Nation being broken up, or Spotify and how awful they are for artists. But I see that as low hanging fruit.

After October 7th, there were so many artists speaking out in allyship with Palestine and calling for a "Free Palestine," especially in hardcore and metal. And that stuff just wasn't being touched. Unless it was a very basic news write-up about a benefit compilation. And even that stuff wasn't getting written up.

Do you think it's because they're afraid to offend their readers?

I think it's afraid to offend. And my sense, after working in [metal media] for three years, is there's a hesitation to engage with the readers on anything that's even vaguely intellectual. I think metal media and metal readers and metal fans, and hardcore by sort of association with it, is just being treated very, very condescendingly by the industry. I worked at a site where I saw the analytics, I saw people clicked on nonsense clickbait. That's why people write it in every area of the industry. But I would write articles that were the antithesis of that outside of my job and the engagement would be 10 times that of whatever nonsense I wrote up for my job. And then I wrote the kind of article that doesn't get published anywhere in metal media anymore, and I got such a crazy, impassioned response from readers coming out of the woodwork to say [how much they] liked it.

I'm not trying to praise myself, I really don't think I'm doing anything that exceptional. I'm just doing what I thought music journalism was. What I wanted to do when I was a high-schooler who decided to do this, which is just: write honestly about music. Look at things critically. I just became so sick of that being seen as "too risky." I'm not just talking about my former employer, I saw this across the entire board. Even more in metal than in indie-rock, media is just totally arm-in-arm with PR and the labels. There's no such thing as a negative or critical profile of any artist.

It's funny that you say that. And as a member of the music industry myself, too, I will say that I love and appreciate music journalism, more than most other things. Before I went into climate journalism, before I started reporting in DC, before I became an investigative reporter at all, I was a music journalist in college. The first story I ever wrote I covered a Volcano Choir concert, the Bon Iver side-project. And actually, it's a point of pride that the opener at that show was, I believe, the first U.S. run by Sylvan Esso

It was so sick, and I caught the bug for music journalism before I ever caught the bug for investigative reporting or covering climate change. I became well-versed in the blogs, and over the years I kept abreast. And then years later, there was actually this kind of eureka moment that made me start treating Ekko Astral like it was a serious business. When I went Pitchfork Music Festival in 2022 with, now my best friend, Jackie Codiga.

It was the first time I ever met her. She was in music PR and I was working at Politico at the time, and I think the first band we saw was Spirit of the Beehive. And I get them now, and I like them now, but at the time I didn't. And I was like, "What is this? Why are there all these people just nodding their heads all over the place? How are people knowing this music? There's not even a real like strong beat here. Is all of this just that blogs wrote about them, and then people liked the blogs, so they just trusted what the blogs said, and then it tricked their brains into liking the music?"

And Jackie said "of course it is." And I was like, "Wait, that's what political PR is!" How the sausage is made in DC is a political comms shop, or a congressional office, or somebody else, pitches a news outlet on the story. And then a news outlet writes a story. And then it impacts the way the world thinks and votes. And the realization that I had was that somehow Pitchfork and its associations with the industry writ large was somehow like, similar. Very similar to the ways that Politico and the broad national media is kind of arm-in-arm with large corporations and with political offices.

I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I'm not gonna sit here and say that these companies are doing the public a disservice because of these relationships. And in many cases, they lead to great journalism. Access is vital. What does the reader want to see? They want to see the people they care about. And if the way you get access to those people is through these relationships, more power to you. Especially in a time when the media is its weakest form it's ever been. But I do think it's worth being reflective.

For example, the news media's allegiance with oil and gas advertisements. If you're covering climate change and it's next to a Chevron ad that doesn't have fully accurate and representative information about the total carbon footprint...it's just like, "Chevron's doing better." There are people in Chevron who are doing better. But that's not a full picture of what they're doing. When you have those kinds of relationships, at a minimum, you erode the public's trust that you're actually getting the truth. And the minute that that question is even raised...

If what you think blogs are for is force-feeding you music that people paid a PR person to give them. First of all, no one's gonna listen to it. And second of all, the artists aren't getting a good situation either. Who wants to feel like their music is being foisted upon people? I have nothing but respect for these industries, and I love a lot of people in them. But I do appreciate what you're saying about the arm-and-arm thing, because I'm seeing that, too, as a journalist who's now entering music. I'm like, "Oh yeah, it's the same old. Just the names change." [Laughs]

You and I can at least both appreciate that music journalism serves a function. I just fundamentally don't believe, despite what people in the reports about media's general health, that people don't care about it anymore. It's more difficult than ever to break through the noise, that's for sure. But I think a lot of music media kneecaps itself by not making anything loud enough to break through the noise. The writing itself is just not interesting.

I think there's a danger in short-handing too. I see it in climate journalism, too — I see it all over the place. There winds up being these shorthand phrases and media narratives that journalists kind of just hop onto and then reference back to. But there's very little reflection. Like, are the terms that we're using good terms? Should we be calling solar power "clean energy" if it's sited through means that plenty of environmental and indigenous activists are saying is totally not clean? Is abortion and trans healthcare a "culture war"? Like are these phrases even good phrases to use?

Like the phrase "anti-woke." I heard Anderson Cooper say "anti-woke" on TV recently and I wanted to vomit. He's only saying that because he doesn't know what else to say and reporters like shorthand. I'm not trying to blame anyone. Going back to the record as I'm supposed to do, because I'm supposed to be promoting this record, we do play around with that quite a bit. "baethoven" is filled with that. There's this line, "The pain of being myself at the open office/on a Friday when nobody’s around/yellin’ I'll circle back to the cataracts/icymi the earth’s coming down." It's the most, like, "just flagging for awareness." [Laughs]

I do like Ekko quite a bit in how we kind play on the literal echo chamber of it all. I do like that about about the convention that we've fallen into. The next record that we're working on is literally a concept album about, like, the end of America and what comes after. And in my opinion, what comes after is just an empty, vacuous pop culture where, like, Adam Sandler becomes president and Lil Xan is in Congress. I think that's where we're currently headed. Just empty nothing. Unless people really stand up for something.

We really believe in making art that has a positive vision of the future. When we sat down to make Pink Balloons we were like, "How can we make something that actually helps people when it comes out?" Which I don't think happens enough. But, you know, it's also a reason I like Idles. It's a reason why I like Ted Leo. We work with bands and artists that, we think, do the same thing. Like Lambrini Girls, that's all they do. I don't know if you know them, but they fucking rip and you [should] definitely check them out.

In that Line of Best Fit interview, and this speaks to exactly what we've been talking about, you make a distinction that you don't see Ekko Astral as a "political band." Because that's a way of politicizing issues you're raising in the music that are not political issues. And I might've been guilty of that myself when I talked about your band on my podcast, and I apologize if I was, but there's a good intention some people have by saying, "Oh, this is a political band." Because to go back to shorthands, it's a shorthand for saying, "this is a band that sings about stuff that matters."

Except politics doesn't matter anymore to people. Literally, people have never been more disengaged with the state of national politics, and so much of our lives has become politicized by very, very smart communications professionals, a lot of whom are based in Washington, DC, who know that if you politicize something, it instantly becomes a debate. And then the media will debate whether or not it is a thing, which we've seen too often with everything that we just talked about.

It's funny how often were called "political." Pitchfork said that we were "progressive politics," which...gag. Line of Best Fit said we're the new face of political punk. Like, what the fuck? I literally told them that we're not political, and they put it in [the headline] anyway. And I love that article. They did a great job. But people need to find shorthands for people talking about their lives. Like if I say, "this is what's happening in my life," and then you go, "you're an activist." Like, no. Stop it. Stop it. Just don't say that. I just want to go up to some of these writers and be like, "No, please, just please don't say that." Then the editors come in and they do it [themselves].

I'm not bothered by it, people are gonna use the shorthand they're gonna use. But no, I don't consider us to be a political band. I consider us to talk about things in our daily lives that are politicized. I consider us to talk about the world that does the politicization. But we're not referencing politicians at all. Like, I'm not sitting here telling you to vote for Joe Biden or Donald Trump. That would be stupid of me to do because people would immediately roll their eyes and go, "shut the fuck up." I want to sing about the things that matter to you.

Like, I want to talk about the fact that you can't pay your bills. I want to talk about the fact that you need your unemployment check. And if that becomes something that is considered political, then it's debatable. And then you're manufacturing consent for that person to not get paid. That's the media thinking it's not taking a side, but it is.

Another thing you said in that Line of Best Fit that I like is you said you're influenced by a history of bands with "moral clarity." Not "political DC punk bands," which is what most people would say about most DC bands.

The DC frame is often put on to us, and I do consider us to be in the same lineage of bands. But in terms of inspirations, like sonically, I take most of my inspiration from U.K. rock bands and punk bands. Other members of our band have completely different sonic profiles and reference points. Like, Liam comes into it with a very Arctic Monkeys and Modest Mouse affection. Miri is all about Jeff Rosenstock, Guinevere is all about Against Me. Sam is all about Bruce Springsteen and Green Day. And then it all kind of gets melded together. And then I go, "make it dirtier, make it louder, and make it more aggressive."

I think people hear that we're a DC band, and they're like, "oh, that's like another Priests thing." But, like, first of all, Priests are good, but we sound nothing like them — at all. And also, another queer punk band? You're just going to typecast us? What the fuck is wrong with you? Don't do that. I think that there's so much to be gained when you stop comparing yourself to bands that you sound like and you start comparing yourself to bands that care about the same things that you care about and are putting forward the same values.

And that's why I care about Idles. Bands like Shame, Lambrini Girls, Jeff Rosenstock. People who point to what's wrong in the world and are trying to wake people up and energize them to do something to fix those problems. That's what we're inspired by.

This is the last thing I have for you. You were telling me why you left Congressional journalism because you felt like you were screaming for a long time and no one was really hearing you. Do you feel like within the context of Ekko Astral, the messages you're putting forth are resonating with people in the music community more than they were among your journalism colleagues?

Absolutely. And I know why. One of the few things that that Steve Bannon has ever gotten right is that culture is upstream of politics. There's something miraculous about the way the human brain works. There's this great book by a neuroscientist called This Is Your Brain on Music. It's a great analysis of how music affects the human biology. What is it about music that is so unique? And it's so human.

I think music has this way of affecting people that no other activity that humanity does really has. You can write a song in Spanish and it can be an international hit. You can write a song about a particular subject and it can resonate with people, even if they don't agree with the views of the song. Think about the song "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen. I think about a song, as...if we're going to use their shorthands of a "culture war," I think our music is kind of like the weaponry. You can actually be a culture warrior in a way that's not railing against societal progress, but actually trying to fight for it and make people aware of the world around it.

I think what's great about it, too, and this is why I think it resonates so much is that we're not singing songs that tell you how to feel. We're not trying to get you to do a specific thing or get you to agree with a specific viewpoint. We're trying to show you through the most human form of communication possible that we're suffering, and you're suffering, too. And there's so much that can be gained from that, versus a news article. I've written news articles that have led to congressional investigations, Inspector General investigations. I have made people in the White House Press Office freak out. I have done all of that, and not any of it has had anywhere near the amount of impact on people that Pink Balloons has.

And I know that for a fact because I see it in the crowds. I see it in the response. I see it in the visceral emotionality of people who love the music. No one is going to re-read an article three times. They'll learn it the first time and then it's like, OK, well was that article really something I'm gonna cherish for us my life? It's very rare that that happens. But music does do that. And I think there's a reason for that.

And I'm not leaving journalism. I'm really proud that I'm gonna stay and I'm gonna focus on using the skillset that I have to try and do journalism that helps people and the planet without necessarily just simply dictating what people in power say. And I'm proud of that. But I do know for a fact that music can easily be far more impactful than any of the other work that I've done in my life.