KILL, THE ICON!’s Dr Nishant Joshi

INTERVIEW: KILL, THE ICON!’s Dr Nishant Joshi on his viral AI music video

Punk bands getting political is nothing new — but how many can say they’ve taken the government to court, or organised the world’s first AI-generated protest? We caught up with Nishant Joshi, A&E doctor and musician, on channelling his anger and activism into his latest project, KILL, THE ICON! — an anti-fascist synth-punk trio from South London.

For the uninitiated, tell us a bit about how the band came to be – and where did the name come from?

For many, 2020 was a year of chaos. But for me, I tried to combat that chaos by getting organised! I organised protests and activist campaigns, to try and get our country back on track. Highlights included BLM protests, as well as taking Matt Hancock to court over the government’s PPE failings.

I realised that change demanded a pincer movement – both through legal and cultural routes. So, I started KILL, THE ICON! as an extension of my activism. I’d been playing in other bands for several years (we were getting somewhere with The Palpitations before lockdown hit). I was musically frustrated, so starting on a new project was my way to release pent-up tension.

As part of our goal to achieve change through culture, we wanted to explore the history of iconography and the role it plays in reinforcing power structures. That’s why we were really fascinated by the statue-toppling and protest imagery in 2020. We thought about ‘The Iconoclasts’ as a name but it didn’t get the required group votes!

People may be surprised to learn you’re a doctor. How do you balance the day job with moonlighting as a punk rocker?

I don’t know why people are surprised, but they are. Maybe it speaks to the extent of which society expects certain professions and people to conform to pre-existing stereotypes? I’ve been playing guitar for far longer than I’ve been a doctor!

If you have a passion, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse. Besides, we already have enough doctors!

But in all honesty, I genuinely think that being a doctor and singing in a punk rock have a lot of ethical and practical overlap. I’m a much better doctor because of punk. And I’m a much better bandleader because I’m a doctor.

So “Deathwish” is the world’s first AI-generated protest – how did that idea come about?

The Tory government have put an awful lot of effort into anti-protest laws in the past 18 months. They saw that our collective protests during 2020 were really effective at embarrassing those in power, and ultimately, bringing about change.

So, I toyed with ways to create an entirely legal protest, while dialling up the humiliation. Politicians care about their public perception more than anything else in the world. So it’s an important angle to pursue.

Although AI’s meant to do things in a matter of minutes, I’m guessing the video actually took some time to create – can you tell us about the process?

It took weeks. I was up until 3am most nights during the month of April, and it was incredibly frustrating and exhausting. The video is the tip of the iceberg – I generated around 3,000 AI images to then have a giant pool from which to edit and narrow down. Thematically, I wanted most of the images to look similar, with a gothic, fantastical air that accentuated sinister vibes.

It took a very long time to reach a point where I was happy. And some lip-sync software automatically blocks images of well-known figures -so I had to work around some limitations.

There are some pretty strong likenesses in there – have you had any firmly-worded ‘cease & desist’ letters yet?

If Nigel Farage thinks that he looks like the man I dreamed up to look like a racist uncle, that’s on Nigel! Yes, we’ve had one rather amusing Twitter DM from a Tory MP threatening further legal action. It was expected, because I know that Tory MPs have fragile egos and supine staffers who are frothing at the mouth to impress their bosses. I learned a lot during my own legal challenge.

I’ve faced a few ‘cease and desist’ letters in my life. I’ll continue to stare them down. I hope other activists won’t be intimidated into silence, either.

While we’re on the subject, what are your thoughts on AI in general (especially as a creative)? Is it a force for good or evil?

I’m still very conflicted about it. I’m well aware that Midjourney and other AI generators are failing to compensate artists for their work. Having said that, there’s currently no legal or ethical framework for it, as it’s all incredibly new. I honestly don’t feel amazing about it. But I felt comfortable enough to make this initial exploration, and then reflect on the ethical implications over time. I hope we can find an equitable way to compensate all creators by AI.

This video has helped me understand how AI might be better used in medicine. So I do try to view it from a utilitarian point of view.

“Deathwish” starts with the notorious ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ line, as found on signs in 60s Britain. You’d like to think we, as a society, have progressed since then, but we haven’t, have we?

I’ve spoken to multiple people who have sharp memories of these signs and the societal norms of these times. It wasn’t a comfortable time for many. When my dad arrived from Uganda in 1972, he was called “P***” on a regular basis. Skinheads would stare him down in the street, and spit at him. It was intimidating.

Fifty years on, those skinheads haven’t all died out. Their ideas haven’t died out. We see that  racism still exists but manifests in structural outcomes. Witness the fact that black mothers are 4x more likely to die in childbirth – that’s a horrific outcome that reflects terribly on where we’re at.

Those skinheads might have stopped spitting and cursing, but their ideas still linger. That’s what we need to interrogate and uncover. And we need to stop being so polite.

The video’s doing really well on Twitter – does that surprise you? Or does it feel like a bit of an echo chamber compared to say, Facebook?

The difference is simple. Twitter encourages native videos, and will boost the longer ones to your existing audience. Facebook and Instagram both encourage you to post native videos AND pay for the privilege of your audience’s eyes.

On Twitter, our “Deathwish” video has been seen over 160,000 times. People discover it organically, which is an indicator of the video’s merit. On Facebook, it’s barely been seen a few hundred times, which is an indicator that we didn’t pay to have it boosted.

What action would you like people to take after watching the video?

  1. Start crowdfunding our legal support.
  2. Share it to their WhatsApp group, preferably full of high-profile music managers.

Your EP Your Anger Is Rational is out now – what can we expect from that?

It’s our debut EP, and we wanted it to be a coherent mission statement. We want to make our first footprint a significant one, and so every word, every phrase, every bit of reverb on the hi-hat has been pored over.

We wanted to tell a story about what it feels like to exist as a PoC in Modern Britain. The EP also revolves around exploring power structures, and how to dismantle them in order to rebuild a more equitable society.

Any live dates coming up? Where would your dream gig be, in terms of really landing your message to the masses?

Glastonbury have a Left Field Stage where they platform activist musicians, which would be amazing to get on in 2024.

We’d also love to play Oslo Hackney, because it has the coolest vibes and I’ve had some great nights and great cocktails there. Portland Arms in Cambridge is also an awesome room, and I hope we’ll be able to play that soon too.

We are arranging live dates for a mini-tour in late summer, so if your readers have any suggestions or requests then please get in touch.

Your Anger is Rational, the debut protest punk EP by KILL, THE ICON! is available now, across all streaming platforms.