Vinyl Diplomacy: How The US Ambassador Is Using Indie Music To Get Ahead

In the cramped downstairs of Sister Ray, a record shop in London’s Soho, secret-service staff are eyeing up middle-aged men browsing Frank Zappa records. The undercover agents are here, earpieces and all, to keep a close eye on a man in an open-necked white shirt who’s wandering around flicking through piles of vinyl.

Matthew Barzun, the US ambassador to the UK, has a lot on his plate: He’s about to meet Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the ongoing situation with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East. But right now he really wants to find a copy of Seamonsters, a 1991 album by Leeds indie band The Wedding Present.

“Chvrches, I love Chrvches… The Feelies, The Fall…” the ambassador says flicking through the racks of 12-inches. “I do love the early, mid-’90s. Lucinda Williamson. Ah… ‘W’, Here we are.”

“War on Drugs’ is album of the year,” Barzun says, picking up that band’s Lost in the Dream LP. “That is a comment on the band, not a political statement.”

Here’s what’s going on: Barzun, 44, took up the most prestigious ambassadorship in US diplomacy last summer, since when he has set about trying to project a more approachable, friendlier image of diplomacy. And a key part of his soft-power efforts has been through what used to be called indie music, including putting on a string of gigs (Damien Jurado, The National, Belle & Sebastian) for guests at his official residence.

This is what happens when the college kids who sat around in the early 1990s listening to records take control of diplomacy; when soft power becomes about whether you’re up on your Pitchfork reviews and the supposed counterculture goes mainstream.

“Lord Wood [Ed Miliband’s policy adviser] has a similar taste in music – he came to our National event,” says Barzun, who says he personally chooses the bands who play (for free). “And prime minister Cameron and his wife, Samantha, joined us for the Ed Sheeran event at our place.”

A few weeks ago, Barzun hosted a party at Winfield House, his mansion in Regent’s Park. The indiest of indie bands, Belle & Sebastian, played in the entrance hall as smart waiters ran around handing out cocktails named after the title track of their second album, If You’re Feeling Sinister. There were piles of ironic Ferrero Rocher chocolates on the side, and the ambassador gave a speech – in which he talked about making mixtapes for his future wife – called “The State I Am In”, after another of their songs.

At some point Jimmy Carr jumped up on stage with the ambassador to join in on a rendition of “The Boy With the Arab Strap” as Ricky Wilson from the Kaiser Chiefs danced about in the crowd and various members of Franz Ferdinand looked on.

Isn’t it weird that this supposedly underdog, anti-establishment music is now the soundtrack of the guys in charge?

“No…” Barzun replies, a bit baffled.

He seems shocked when I suggest that a few years ago, bands would have rather been seen dead than associating with the US Embassy. “Oh, really?”

Barzun represents a superpower with interests across the world. He went to Harvard, before becoming very wealthy thanks to his role in the site CNet; his wife is an heir to the Jack Daniel’s whiskey fortune. He got into diplomacy as a result of his extensive fundraising for Barack Obama, serving first in Sweden and then heading to London.

You won’t hear him say a bad word about the US president (“incredibly smart, principled, and pragmatic. Humble, learns from his mistakes, moves on”), and he’s happy to defend the US security services, despite the recent US Senate report into the use of torture by the CIA during the “war on terror”. In Barzun’s mind, this is “history, from 10 years ago,” and it’s time to move on.

Even the passages that identified agents as having taken part in “rectal feeding” of detainees?

“We did some things wrong after 9/11. But it’s worth remembering the fear that existed in our country. So let’s change course and learn from it.”

Instead he wants us to think of the “men and women in our intelligence community who, after 9/11, we turned to and we said, ‘Don’t you ever let this happen again’. Look at the events around the world – they are incredibly hardworking and patriotic, trying to keep our country safe.”

And the heavy redaction of the document which left chunks of the report unreadable is justified “to protect our national security”. There’s “93% of it out there”, he insists.

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