To spend 20 years doing something you love is an easy-to-understand concept. To spend 20 years as a singer in a band that has never achieved mainstream success or received financial recoupment, well, that is a little harder to grasp.
For Random Order frontman Lynn Phillips, it really is all about the journey, for the journey–as the saying goes–is the destination.
Phillips has been performing music in bands since he was 15. Back then, he was a young trans-man trying to decide where life would take him.
“I was going to move to New York and go through having a sex change,” he says. “That was in the ’70s. In the end, I didn’t have the money. I’m actually really glad that I wasn’t able to. The technology at that time was pretty scary. Even the T [testosterone] was much stronger then.”
When it comes to Random Order’s music, Phillips has found himself in the rare situation of wanting to fully transition to the male gender, but being unable to do so because of testosterone and its effect on a singer’s most important asset: his voice.
“I’m not sure that I will ever start T,” he admits. “The reasons are related to my voice and also to my health. I’ve done a lot of research. I want to wait and see the results 10 years down the road. I have been thinking about having top surgery but it is a question of timing; I’m on the road for half the year. I can’t physically do both. I’m also worried about my age if I hold off too much longer and the length of the healing process. I worry that if I stop, it will slow down what we are working on, musically.”
After spending a few years playing with a few different bands, Phillips founded Random Order in 1989. The reggae-meets-ska outfit was a trio then, but eventually grew to a four-piece. The music grew organically, most especially inspired by the seminal ’70s all-female punk band, The Slits.
“That band, and their singer, Ari Up, was the epitome of what I wanted to do in terms of style,” explains Phillips. “Kind of reggae, kind of punk, kind of really edgy. I had a love of all different styles of music; that is where the name Random Order came from. I like so many genres, but they are all connected. This band, to me, connects the genres together in a unique way.”
Curiously, Random Order has been perceived as a heavily political group who make music with activist-oriented lyrics, but the truth is that very few of the songs touch on politics at all. Phillips says that while his politics are a part of his personal life, he prefers to have the band focus on positivity. “I would say ‘Perfect World’ qualifies,” he explains. “It is about seeing a friend who is homeless, having a rough time and I’m standing there going ‘I’m here for you.’ The other song I would mention is ‘Feel the Greed’ about watching a friend change from being a political activist to getting into corporate stuff and going down that road.” Other than that, he says, “I don’t like to bang people over the head. I’m not an in-your-face preacher; a lot of times you are preaching to the converted anyway. I don’t always write literally; I’m not that kind of storyteller. I write a lot about relationships. My poor exes,” he laughs.
On a personal level, Phillips is proud to discuss some of his favourite activist affiliations, including playing shows to support abortion rights doctor Henry Morgentaler and covering the 2001 Free Trade of the Americas riots in Quebec City for Toronto radio station CKLN.
“I went with the community radio station as an interviewer,” he recounts. “We set up an office there and interviewed Jello Biafra and Naomi Klein, it was pretty amazing, pretty frightening.”
According to Phillips, he was trapped in a media area when the already-tense situation turned, and tear gas started to hit protesters. “We blocked off the door and taped it down so that gas couldn’t come in, taped down the window so nobody knew we were there. It was pretty intense. We were stuck in a room–an 8 x10 room with eight people in it–overnight. Some of us were media with passes, some of us had none, which would have meant instant arrests. I was bringing in old ladies off the streets who couldn’t get to their houses because of the gas. I’d wash out their eyes for them and they would try to get home. For about three years after,” Phillips admits, “anytime I would hear a helicopter, it would remind me of that time.”
Phillips says Random Order is hitting a positive stride that began two years ago–following the release of their second CD, Dimples and Anti-Depressants–and has continued with the help of their heavy touring schedule since then. “It has been difficult, sometimes,” he admits, “but what I’ve seen is that in the last two years, we’ve actually become a lot more known. We’re selling a lot of CDs and we can’t make enough T-shirts. We have a booking agent now and online distributor so that has made life a bit easier.”
As far as the future of Random Order is concerned, the group’s frontman admits to having simple goals when it comes to achieving happiness through music.
“I hope to be able to support myself; I’m living at friends’ houses and travelling around. I would love to pay everyone and for everyone to be able to live off of the music, but the truth is I’m living the dream right now. This is the best thing; I feel really lucky doing what I’m doing. I’m travelling, meeting people, playing music. I’m comfortable with who I am and that’s it.
“Earlier today,” he recalls, “people came up and said to me, ‘You look so happy up there,’ and it is true. On the stage, that is the best that I am.”