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(Credits: Far Out / Alan Erasmus / Tina Hartung / Marjan Blan)

Music

Far Out Meets: Alan Erasmus the Factory Records founder on the humanitarian frontline in Ukraine

@TomTaylorFO

“I’ve been fighting bullies all of my life,” Alan Erasmus tells me, “Vladimir Putin is no different.” It certainly seems different from the outside. Russia’s attack on Ukraine represents something unprecedented. The harrowing scenes we have all witnessed over the last few weeks have proved beyond reconciliation. As someone who usually interviews bands on the brink of new albums or directors describing the inspiration behind their latest films, even discussing war seems shocking. It’s hard to imagine what action to take let alone taking action. Culture seems to retreat from relevance when reprehensible brutality subsumes every notion of life we have and reaps only suffering. 

However, Alan Erasmus’ journey to his current humanitarian holding in Lviv is one that asserts a different message and gladly offers up a semblance of hope. It is a journey that began back in 1949. Growing up near the Moss Side of Manchester was tough for Erasmus. “To a five-year-old, racism was raw, powerful, rife and puzzling. In 1954 people hadn’t gotten used to colour. The closest most people came to a black face was the Black and White Minstrels!” 

“There was a pronounced racism. People simply weren’t used to people of colour,” he continues. “I had a hard time at school until the time I thought I’m not having this, and I kicked up a fuss with the chief bully. I wasn’t bothered so much after that. Then in the 1960s people got into Stax and Motown and there was a culture change that affected the way people behaved to colour and it’s got better since.” This notion of a solid backbone and culture as an engine for progressive change is something that has abided throughout his life. 

When he set up the iconic Factory Records – who brought the world bands like Joy Division and New Order, The Durutti Column, Happy Mondays, A Certain Ratio, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and just about every other band you can think of within that scene – activism was the core tenet. “Factory Records was a cultural outlet for change. That was the point. The initial philosophy was about a platform for everything. It was anything. We tried to support artists and tried to find causes,” he explained. 

One person Factory Records identified was Mark Reeder. One of the causes Reeder identified was to smuggle punk across from West Berlin to the heavily oppressed East through daring escapades across Checkpoint Charlie. “In East Berlin, the Punk scene was just a handful of kids,” Reeder tells me. “It was very dangerous to be a Punk in East Germany. In fact, it was verboten!… Punk sang the song of rebellion and the overthrow of the system.”

Eventually, thanks in part to his exploits, the punk scene would grow in the East and the overthrow just about came to fruition. The STASI were cautious of invading sacred spaces like churches, so Reeder struck up a deal with priests who let him turn fake funerals into secret church punk gigs, smuggling guitars in caskets, and suddenly the growing subversive force blossomed. When he recently provided me with a contact to help Erasmus on his own humanitarian mission as networking through music continues to try to promote change and hope, he opined: “After all, music is the only thing that really brings us together.”

That assertion might have seemed paltry and idealist in the face of the truly draconian conflict unfolding currently in Ukraine if it wasn’t for the fact that the cultural changes he helped to effectuate in Berlin really did make a measurable impact. True to the tenet of Factory Records, there are success stories like this throughout the label’s short history. 

Nevertheless, Erasmus isn’t too self-congratulatory about the legacy. “I think we failed,” they didn’t, they were enormously successful on all fronts usurping the stilted status quo of British music and encouraging activism that enacted changes in governance and societal discourse. “And I know a lot of people say we were successful,” he says in purported agreement. “But my aims, in the beginning, were not achieved to the full extent they could have,” he says in asserted disagreement. 

Albeit, Factory Records undoubtedly changed a lot, he wanted it to go further. “It should’ve and could’ve been massively successful and funded many different projects around the world that we would’ve like to unite to, but we had to stick to smaller projects which I guess have still done something.”

This drive for change is what has motivated his current trip. Boldly leaving his family behind and risking his life is something he barely mentions as we converse. “There is something in me that sees something wrong and goes, ‘okay, that’s it’. I quickly packed my bag, got a few things together and went to see how I can help. Think, do, that’s me, just think, do,” is how he simply and calmly puts it. 

Despite the composure he exhibits, there are, however, signs of the situation at hand throughout our time chatting. “There were sirens last night and the night before. I think last night they bombed a military establishment that was about 20 miles from the Polish border. Not far from here at all. I’m not sleeping very well,” he says with a deep yawn. These frequently pop up; he apologises for each one. 

However, he is no stranger to such situations. Following the sort of Manc musical missionary work that was Factory Records, Erasmus looked towards new benevolent horizons. “I came to simply do what I could,” he says. “This is another one of what I have called my ‘Manc-Aid Missions’ in the past. Previously, one was to do with Ebola when I went to West Africa and delivered as many medical supplies as possible and all kinds of things that I could. I also went to the border between Macedonia and Greece. From previous Aid missions I had learnt that what people were always short of was sanitary towels, so I delivered a load of them.”

“I flew into Krakow and I brought with me baby milk and sanitary towels. I found someone to take them all and distribute them.” Thereafter, the extent of his undertaking quickly became frighteningly apparent. Nevertheless, Erasmus remains casual and upbeat in the face of crisis, catastrophe and trauma that surrounds him. 

After making it across the Ukrainian border from Krakow to Lviv, where the huge refugee crisis is occurring, he then had his next mission ahead: finding his hotel. On the coach to Lviv, he called ahead. Both hotels that he had booked in advance informed him that they were now, in fact, full. “It was about half 11 at night. My phone had died.” Stranded without a hotel and unable to contact any of his connections, things looked dower.

He managed to charge his phone slightly at a petrol station and set about wandering the streets in search of accommodation. “I was f—king freezing. I thought, ‘I’m going die!’ I’m going to die on the streets of Lviv, during my mission. I was only two hours into it. It was colder than anything I had ever felt in the UK.” With a laugh, he concludes, “That was my welcome to Lviv experience.” While there is a lingering British dark comedy to his voice when explaining how disaster nearly befell him at the first juncture, the pathos has a terrible undertone. 

The freezing conditions that Erasmus faced while wandering the streets, bewildered, simply looking for accommodation or some sort of reassurance is something millions of people – adults, children and the elderly – are currently facing and are set to face for an indefinite period as the refugee crisis worsens – and not only in Ukraine for that matter – and a return home seems to be beyond hope perhaps forevermore. 

Erasmus, thankfully, bumped into the right volunteers that night and accommodation was forthcoming in the form of a mattress on the floor of a tented humanitarian zone. The following morning Erasmus would witness a tragic vignette that brought a humanised reality to the crisis and what was at hand. He sent me the image below with the following caption: “This young man was in the refugee place in Lviv with his wife and kids. He is about to leave for the front. This is the photo that needs to be out there.”

(Credit: Alan Erasmus)

Such scenes are widespread on the ground level as millions are faced with choices beyond any reasonable reconciliation. The current death toll of both civilian and military personnel is unknowable, but the tragedies stretch beyond the facts and figures still being corroborated amid the chaos. 

As a tired Erasmus tries to explain: “You just don’t know. You just don’t know what the hell is going to happen so in that respect there is a degree of fatigue that sets in. You can see nervousness and anxiety in people’s faces. There is an anxiety out there. Its war and war is unpredictable.” 

However, within the tragic scenes like the young father parting his family and facing up to uncertainty to protect his home, there is also a level of humanity that has motivated Erasmus further. In the weeks he has been there, he has continued to tirelessly identify humanitarian causes, documented them, and set about directing funds.

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So far, the JustGiving page that Erasmus set up at the start of his journey has raised over £10,000 and continues to build as he gets the word out there. 100% of the funds raised will go to the Legacy of War Foundation to support the children of Ukraine. As his mission statement reads: “They deserve safety, security and education.” 

While in Ukraine, Erasmus has also unearthed a string of other projects he aims to support. These include organisations desperately trying to provide wheelchairs to those in need—all too often these basic human rights are forgotten about, subsumed by the atrocity as a whole and thousands of those most in need of support are left struggling. 

Beyond that, when families do reach relative safety further issues await. This is why Erasmus aims to support an organisation currently aiming to provide illustrated Ukraine to Polish and German translation books for children so that when they arrive in a new country hundreds of miles from a home that they may never return to, they can at least attempt to re-enter education and communicate with those around them.

Erasmus has also set up an Easter Eggstravaganza for Ukraine comedy event at Manchester’s O2 Apollo on Easter Monday starring the likes of Jason Manford, Johnny Vegas and Dave Spikey with all profits being direct to the Legacy of War Foundation. Even in my own neighbourhood, local independent initiatives have sprung up. Screen Industries Development Agency: Northern Film + Media have announced that they are welcoming refugees arriving into the North East of England to sign up to their database, in the hope of enabling them to continue to work in their chosen industry and pursue passions once more beyond the turmoil they have faced.

Far Out will likewise be providing any information to Erasmus that comes our way that might prove helpful and we will continue to report back any communication we receive from him regarding humanitarian causes. While the brutality of modern war might make it seem like the might of power takes away our own humble individual capacities, non-government schemes like these ones, set up by everyday folks, are symbols that we can actually enact effectual change and generate aid in the face of this crisis. 

These efforts alone are an emblem of hope—there is hope in the fact that we can all actually help. Alan Erasmus’ story is a paragon of this. He has forever been a bastion of activism and despite all the successes he has had, he continues to try and spread change and progress. As we watch on from afar caught up in our own lives, the fact that a man of integrity has left his family and everything else behind and selflessly embarked on a mission to apply the skills he has spent a lifetime acquiring to bring much-needed aid to those suffering is a beacon of light amid the dark wreckage of war. His story is a truly inspiring one when the world needs such tales the most. 

With Factory Records he wanted to propel culture in progressive directions, and he continues to do so. In fact, Erasmus is already looking beyond, towards the cultural response of the world yet to come. “War creates a different vision. I think there will be some interesting visions that will come out of this. If you want to create something different you have to go somewhere you haven’t been before, and we certainly haven’t been in times like these.”

He continues: “I would think it would release different avenues of creativity because they will be going somewhere they haven’t been before.” In fact, his old friend Mark Reeder is already setting off down that path. Yesterday he released the album Life Everywhere, a collaboration with Alanas Chosnau. “The songs are veiled as love songs,” he tells me, “but in reality, their subjects are taken from the standpoint of what living under an authoritarian regime is like today, or what would it be like if suddenly you found yourself in such a life-changing situation.” Thus, If creative avenues do spring forth then let’s hope that they can entail an acquiescence from the currency of power to the virtue of peace. 

You can donate to Alan Erasmus’ JustGiving page by clicking here and for more information on the Legacy of War Foundation, you can click here. Any donations would be greatly appreciated.

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