Art & Events Interview Caro Meets Music Interview

Reverend Billy: Earth Riot 21

By | Published on Friday 29 October 2021

New York based Reverend Billy and Savitri D – leader and theatrical director, respectively, of activist performance community The Church Of Stop Shopping – are headed to the UK this month for probably obvious reasons: They will celebrate their twentieth anniversary of using songs and diversity at the forefront of resistance with a UK tour, the ending of which is timed to coincide with the final days of COP26 in Glasgow.

The ‘Earth Riot 21’ UK tour promises shows featuring a cloudburst of rhythm, melody and message, a unique blend of performance art, theatre and singing, courtesy of the Stop Shopping Choir. The London leg of the tour takes place on 6 Nov at Toynbee Studios.

I spoke to Reverend Billy to find out more about him and The Church Of Stop Shopping, and what to expect from their upcoming shows.

CM: Can we start by talking about you and your history? Who is Reverend Billy and where does he come from?
RBT: My name is Bill Talen. I was a failed actor with a stew of personal problems living in New York. Around 9/11, I felt compelled to sing and preach in Times Square – about the evils of Mickey Mouse and consumerism generally. Advertising made me feel lonely and depressed. I started the Church Of Stop Shopping and shouted at tourists from the front of the Disney Store, where I had Mickey nailed to a cross.

CM: Can you tell us about the Stop Shopping Choir? When was it formed and what was the impetus for it?
RBT: Disney, the New York Times and then mayor Rudy Guiliani were arresting all the characters in Times Square, the Jimi Hendrix imitators and actors who would freeze for hours in green Lady Liberty robes. I began to love preaching, and I developed a big voice because police were taking my bullhorns – or megaphones – and I needed to project into the white noise, and so I studied with an opera singer from the Met. After about a year of this I got my Whoop, as the preachers say, and I noticed that people were singing with me, shouting “Earthalujah!” as I praised the Earth and began creating a “secular spiritual faith”. After a while there was a regular church choir singing in harmonies, led by a striking woman.

CM: Can you tell our readers what to expect from one of the choir’s performances?
RBT: We all create the earth church service – a chaos of opinion comes together – but no-one more so than our director Savitri D. We have on the one hand the prayer-song, ‘I wish you vastness, I wish you unknown-ness, I wish you peace…’ And then we have the song ‘Extinction is real. Extinction is here’. I would say that our show – coming from all of us – is a lot like the world. It is desperately hopeful and full of despair.

CM: What made you want to focus on environmental issues? What other issues do you campaign on?
RBT: If you have “stop shopping” in your name, then you are arguing against over-consumption. So we were always an ‘earth church’. In Times Square, 20 years ago, I was aware that the sky was the only nature there, a crack of blue up there between the five storey images of Kate Moss.

The thing is “consumer society” is most of our culture and economy, and we make a good parade, so we are asked to help many advocate with many issues. In the last three years our work in immigration abuse, LGBT defence, and Black Lives Matter… all that work made sense because human rights and earth rights are the same thing.

CM: What made you think that mixing activism with performance would work? How do you find the right balance of both?
RBT: Bringing humour and music into freedom-fighting – we didn’t invent that. The Civil Rights Movement and ACT UP come immediately to mind, but go back to the Labour movement’s music, and forward to the humour of the alternative comedians, you see everywhere in the history of social change that activists knew that singing and laughter open up peoples’ hearts.

CM: What prompted you to visit the UK?
RBT: We have been coming to England for 20 years. I think this is the sixth tour. Many of our singers are from England and Ireland. We find comrades here.

CM: What do you hope that audiences will take away from your performances?
RBT: We need to create new ways to present alternative life choices. When society is congealed into old monuments and rituals – and congealed also into the empty dazzle of pixels – we need to go back into the complexity of nature, of neighbourhoods, of peace. It’s a hell of a time, just now.

CM: You’re celebrating a twenty year anniversary: what have been the highlights of the last two decades? What are your greatest achievements?
RBT: Oh my. Some of my favourites…. There was an afternoon ritual against BP’s sponsorship of exhibits at the Tate in London. The choir was magnificent there in the Turbine Room. Helping with fracking resistance in Northern Ireland. Praying to a Redwood that was toppled, but touching the 30 ft across stump. Our opening for Neil Young on tour and taking the stage with Joan Baez. Kicking the pesticides out of New York City parks.

CM: What aims do you have for the future?
RBT: Well we are not in the era of designing your career, are we… The Sixth Extinction is dictating so much of our lives now, through storms, floods, virus, starvation… We believe that the Earth is a conscious being, and that we will learn what to do from instructions in the wind and waves.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
RBT: Our 20th anniversary celebration at Joe’s Pub at the PublicTheater in New York, an independent non profit venue that is dedicated to supporting artists. Earthalujah!

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir’s ‘Earth Riot 21’ tour calls at London’s Toynbee Studios on 6 Nov, see this page here for info and to book. The show will also tour to Colchester, Norwich, Birmingham, Liverpool and, of course, Glasgow for the final two days of COP26: a full tour list with booking links is available here.

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Photo: John Quilty