Published online 19 April 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.191

News: Q&A

Brewing up identity with Billy Bragg

The singer-songwriter discusses why who we are is more than genetics.

Billy Bragg.Adrian Brooks

British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg kicks off a string of unusual appearances at the Wellcome Collection today as the play Pressure Drop opens its run in London.

Pressure Drop, by Mick Gordon, is the current centrepiece at the Wellcome Trust's art venue and part of the Trust's Identity Project, a nine-month collection of events and exhibitions exploring issues surrounding identity.

The plot centres on two white, working-class English brothers — one of whom moved away from his roots while the other stayed — as they meet at their father's funeral. The returning brother tries to dissuade the other from standing for a political party that opposes immigration, and the "part play, part gig, part installation" explores the question "what makes me who I am?"

Where does the play's title come from?

Pressure Drop was a reggae song by Toots and the Maytals, dealing with life in Kingston, Jamaica. In the play, love of this song is passed down from father to son, like musical DNA, even though they're white and the son is bowing to pressure to protest against black immigrants. And that's an interesting thing about racists: a lot of violent, racist, ugly people with violent, racist, ugly views have really loved reggae. Which goes to show that they don't even have their own ideas about identity straight.

Are you worried that the science of identity can be abused?

If there's any science that's been abused, then it's genetics. You lot mess around in lab coats behind closed doors — but what happens when you announce your scientific knowledge and take off your white coat? It goes out into the world, where it can be subverted. That's why this project is so important: the science is only one side of the story. We want to show that there's more to identity.

So what does identity mean to you — is it cultural or scientific?

“You lot mess around in lab coats behind closed doors — but what happens when you announce your scientific knowledge and take off your white coat?”


Belonging goes beyond science. It's very tenuous. Is identity genetics, or is it a fundamental personal construct? I believe it's a construct: DNA can tell you things, but it can't define you. We have choices. I'm not interested in identity itself — this thing you construct for the public like a mantelpiece — but in what it does for you. It gives you a sense of belonging. That feeling is an important emotional anchor in your life — whether you've moved to a new place or, maybe worse, you're in the same place but it's changing around you, as in the play.

Are you curious about your own roots? Would you have your DNA tested?

Genealogy intrigues me but it doesn't define me. I've researched my own family, and could trace Braggs back to 1742. I would consider having a DNA test, but when I was researching my family tree I wasn't so interested in how I got these freckles. What really interested me was what people did: I had a great-great-great grandfather who was a Baptist and helped form a union for dissenting churches. I'd rather know that than whether he had green eyes.

Do you think about science a lot?

I'm intrigued by science, and sometimes baffled. We've got this cappuccino maker, and some days the froth works and sometimes it's not right — there's got to be a scientific explanation for it. We even talk about science in the band, on those long journeys in the van. There was this one time we were talking about [thought experiments in physics and the idea] that if you fill a bucket with water and spin it around, some of the force acting to hold the water back comes from the edge of the Universe. We were on tour in the Netherlands, and when we got to the venue, backstage someone said, 'let's try it out'. So we yelled, 'Oi, bring us a bucket and some rope!' They did and we made an awful mess.

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Why are science and art so separated in our society?

Many scientists speak in absolutes, try to take something complicated and define it. But with us [musicians and playwrights], things are ambiguous and are always contested. You would think that science would retreat from topics like cultural identity, but Wellcome is taking it on. It's encouraging. We wanted that ambiguity too in our performance: is it a gig, is it an installation, is it a play, is it an experiment? What can we achieve with the mixing up of a cultural play in a scientific venue?

Have you written songs about science?

I've made a few references. For example, in Richard there's the line "every alpha particle hides a neon nucleus". I know the neon nucleus thing isn't accurate, but otherwise it didn't scan. Unfortunately, nothing rhymes with 'mitochondrial'. I have a half-written song about the Large Hadron Collider too.

Jennifer Rohn is a cell biologist at University College London and editor of LabLit.com.

Pressure Drop, from On Theatre and the Wellcome Collection, was written by Mick Gordon with music and lyrics by Billy Bragg. It is showing at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, from 19 April to 12 May.  

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  • #61315

    Doesn't even matter that it came late! I think this album has a beautiful backstory, and is my favorite album. Unfortunately it is extremely rare and has always been far too pricy.

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