Melbourne band Mallee Songs released Suburban Horse, their quiet and focused third record, late last year on Dusty Tracks, a label run by Lucas Harwood (King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Atolls). The dark-folk outfit is led by Lucas’ brother, Michael Skinner, whose wry, melancholic songwriting exhibits shades of David Berman, Jason Molina and Galaxie 500. The new album brings some Tex-Mex polish to the band’s introspective style, with flashes of trumpet, piano and pedal steel rounding out Michael’s fingerpicked melodies.
In March, Michael travelled to Palestine’s West Bank with SkatePal, a UK-based charity that runs skateboarding classes for local kids, building skateparks and bringing in equipment. It’s an attempt to provide a semblance of normal life for Palestinian children, who suffer disproportionately under the brutal Israeli occupation. Kids as young as 11 have been arbitrarily detained, beaten and shot; just the other day, a nine-year-old boy was killed by an Israeli sniper. The journey to and from school is hazardous. Random attacks by bored IDF soldiers have been reported, and the route home is regularly disrupted by gates and checkpoints. Schools themselves can be the target of IDF actions, and an appalling number of children experience conflict-related trauma.
Suburban Horse single ‘Drinking the Sea’ was written as ‘an expression of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom’. Set somewhere in Palestine (‘The pull of the ocean/Rust in the well/Endless white houses/Stretch out on the hill’), the song describes a dawn raid on an Arab family – a random act of terror that’s become routine across the occupied territories:
I saw a crowd around dawn
They gathered and swarmed
Tore all the wood from your door
And then you were gone
Dragged through the fog on your back
The awful sound of the rifle crack
Michael shot a video to accompany the track while travelling around the West Bank – from Asira, his village base outside the northern city of Nablus, to Ramallah and Hebron. Alongside familiar images of guard towers, razor wire, armed foot patrols and long queues at checkpoints are scenes from the old city, the skateparks, hillside bonfires and quiet olive groves outside of town. It’s an eloquent summary of the strange and cruel dilemma of life under occupation.
I spoke to Michael about his time in Palestine, writing ‘Drinking the Sea’, and the political scope of protest music.
How did you get involved with SkatePal, and what were your impressions of the project? What do you think it meant to the kids? I love that girls are a big part of the program. There’s a great video on your Instagram of one little girl in particular who skates like a demon.
I found out about SkatePal by following similar projects on social media, and I applied when their volunteer applications came up in late 2018. They’ve had some great exposure recently, particularly after an episode of ViceLand’s Post-Radical, a series documenting outsider skate scenes around the world.
I did have some reservations about participating in “voluntourism” or whatever you might call it, and there are for sure NGOs out there that operate as a more palatable form of imperialism. Plus there’s the long and recent history of Western intervention in the Middle East, so you have to ask yourself, am I just contributing to a colonial project? Maybe you can’t fully escape this, but after a point you’ve got to ask if, on balance, the thing has a positive impact.
I really think SkatePal does, for a few reasons. They’ve done a great job of partnering with local organisations in Palestine; they appeared on the scene just at the right moment when the first few kids were getting into skating in the West Bank; and they’re part of a broader movement working to push skateboarding away from its hyper-macho, sometimes weirdly libertarian roots. New skate scenes have been cropping up all over – across Africa and the Middle East, in Cuba, even in Gaza – and most of them have involved Westerners bringing over gear or helping build DIY spots; at this stage it just seems necessary to kick things off.
Plus, somewhere like the West Bank the only practical way to get boards in is via the monthly changeover of volunteers. Israel makes it extremely difficult to bring equipment into the West Bank in bulk; SkatePal once spent four years waiting for the approval of 30 complete skateboards to be sent into Palestine. As you can imagine, this means the project has had to remain outwardly apolitical to stay afloat.
The skatepark in Asira felt just like one at home; it had quiet moments and sometimes it was really packed. There were a core group of kids – mostly girls – who went along as often as they could. The girl in the video is Sedra (check out her Instagram, @sedrathefearless), and she’s definitely the star of the park. She absolutely shreds! She can drop in from this one spot where I didn’t see anyone else go: a two-foot vertical drop into a really zippy quarter pipe that shoots you out over a flat section and then off another five-foot drop!
What was your impression of daily life in the West Bank?
Normal life persists as much as it can under occupation. People have a rich and generous culture they want to preserve and share. You can buy delicious food and a locally brewed beer in Ramallah. I milled about in cafes, barber shops and gyms in Hebron. The pace of life is quite slow and relaxing most of the time, everyone seems to know everyone else in their home cities and towns and will welcome you into these social circles without a moment’s hesitation. There seemed to be a real building boom in Nablus, and most people drive late-model cars. If there’s a wedding or two on in town, you’ll be invited at least one and it won’t matter if you accidentally stumble into the other. People study law and comparative literature and medicine. And they do all of this in the face of the world’s longest running military occupation.
Even in Asira, a village that, on the face of it, may seem relatively unchanged by the occupation, the IDF still carries out its routine campaign of targeted violence and intimidation. For example, a few days before the first group of SkatePal volunteers arrived in March this year, the IDF arrested Abu Ali, one of the village’s most talented skaters, and hauled him off to an undisclosed military prison. As usual, they raided his family home in the middle of the night, trashed the place, and left his parents terrified. We found out shortly before I left that he was being held for three months in administrative detention, without trial. A teenage skateboarder poses no threat to the IDF, of course, and it sounds like they don’t even bother justifying these kidnappings on their own absurd terms half the time. It strikes me as just the blasé operation of the military-industrial complex, finely tuned to constantly punish a minority population. I’ve just seen on Instagram, though, that Abu Ali has just been released and the whole village of Asira is celebrating his return.