The Madison solo project examines a fear-stricken society on a new album. (Photo by Audre Rae Photography)
There’s always been something dissociative about the way Madison musician Luke Bassuener writes and delivers lyrics for his solo project, Asumaya. The words, like the music itself, are influenced by the multiple long-term trips Bassuener has made to Ghana as a teacher and Peace Corps volunteer, his collaborations with musicians there, and the politics of being a DIY musician and public-school art teacher in Madison. But on songs like “A Game Of Who Names It,” from the 2015 album The Euphemist—as both titles suggest, there’s a lot here about how powerful people twist language to their own ends—Bassuener is clearly dissecting the thoughts of people more cynical and predatory than himself: “Streamline your operations / Call freedom a victim of organization / Casualize, call it flexible / Casualize, call it financially wise,” he chants over a slithering arrangement of looped-together thumb piano, electric bass, hand percussion, and vocal phrases.
“A lot of times I write from an opposing viewpoint trusting that people will pick up on the sarcasm, or see that I’m trying to point out the holes in a particular way of thinking,” Bassuener says.
When he writes from the viewpoint of the oppressed, well, those characters are also wise to the game: “We get given to / We get what we’re given,” goes the chorus of “Import Society,” whose impoverished protagonists receive food aid from the West, but not the kind of aid that helps them grow their own food.
Bassuener gets into darker places still on Asumaya’s third album, Omniphobic, due out on July 13. Everything turns a bit bleaker on this record: The overdriven growl of the bass, the rumbling kicks and prickly hi-hat sounds, the stark pockets of reverb, the brief swells of scratchy percussion. Asumaya’s rhythmic approach—somewhere between the intricate polyrhythms of West African music and the jaggedness of post-punk—can often feel defiant and exuberant, but on this album it’s laced with urgency and dread.
“I was writing all these songs about racism, militarism, anti-immigrant sentiment and all of that… and it seemed like the common thread that was driving all of it was fear,” Bassuener says. “Fear of others, fear of missing out, fear of losing whatever little one has been able to cling to.”
The album’s third track, “Outsider,” which you can stream here, examines the fear of the other and its constant companion in white America, the fear of losing status and privilege. Bassuener calls it a song about American exceptionalism, and he gives that concept a distinctively paranoid twist that suits our xenophobic, reality-rending moment. He needs only a few words to evoke the disjointed workings of a brain that’s been regularly exposed to Alex Jones: “Foreigners, flying saucers, that’s what I’m told,” Bassuener sings in one eerie section of this song.
There are also multiple meanings of the word “outsider” at work here. The song looks at how Americans often treat outsiders with a lack of empathy and curiosity. Intentionally or not, it also evokes how the word “outsider,” and indeed the very concept of alienation, became warped and abused during and after the 2016 election. A politically connected billionaire was deemed an “outsider” candidate, and media narratives often cast white Americans as the truly aggrieved people in our society.
“The song was originally called “‘The Other,’ but i couldn’t get that to flow as well as a lyric, so ‘Outsider’ stuck, even after the term started getting thrown around as a mask for rich, powerful, white men to pretend they weren’t ‘insiders,'” Bassuener says.
Elsewhere on Omniphobic, Bassuener sings about the obsession with borders (“There Is A Line”) and the resurgence of fascism (“Piñata Party Platform”), and turns layers of handclaps and thumb piano into a hypnotic instrumental (“Asumaya”).
The album title, inspired by a repeated phrase at the end of “Only Everything” (“What are we afraid of? / Only everything”), also has more than one meaning.
“I looked up ‘omniphobic’ to see if it was actually a word—and it turns out it is —but it’s more commonly used to describe liquid-resistant or ‘everything-repellent’ materials or coatings,” Bassuener says. “When I saw that definition I liked the word even more. I think anyone who reads the title or pays attention to the lyrics on the album will pick up on the fear-of-everything meaning, but I like the idea of being omniphobic in the other sense—able to resist whatever is thrown at you. I think that might be even more timely in the current climate.”