christian uhl gets some deep thoughts from Virginia’s favorite punk sons …
In a punk landscape littered with dumbed-down versions of NOFX minus the sly wit, cutting deprecation and political irreverence, Richmond, Va.’s Strike Anywhere are a bright burning candle of seething social indignation and personal liberation, fighting the anarchist agitator fight for a decade strong. And while their viciously dire music references the impactful, ideological glory days of Crass, they’re emotionally intelligent enough to embrace the simple, transcendent internal revolution that hardcore’s touchstones provide: breakneck beats, sing-along choruses, community belonging, personal salvation.
Pop-Break’s Christian Uhl spoke with Strike Anywhere lead singer Thomas Barnett as they prepare to play at Asbury Lanes tomorrow night with A Wilhelm Scream, The Copyrights and Lost In Society. Social revolution and personal revelation were the subjects, Barnett was the sermonizer.
Pop-Break: Being over a decade long endeavor now, Strike Anywhere is firmly established as a cornerstone of civil-minded activist punk. But rewind a bit to the crossroads, to the pivotal point where this became a ‘serious’ cause demanding full-on commitment to the mission.
Thomas Barnett: Early on, there was a lot of ‘he’ll get a real job soon’ snickers from family, but there was that certain time where we were able to go on tour and have it be sustainable. Truly sustainable. Now in the time of YouTube, it’s so much easier for anyone to experience the authenticity of what we do. We were striving for a certain legitimacy to what we do, to have it be kind of an event. Once that happened, there was a level of respect that came with what I was trying to do. It’s something that’s fun for everyone to make fun of I guess. But then we toured South America and Europe. To break even with such an amazing sustainable event, that bred acceptance — it’s not just a hobby. Everyone was like, ‘Whoa, oh my goodness what’s going to happen over there, you’re going to be in Europe for 6 weeks!’ And I’m saying, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re on tour!’
There was a new level of respect that put us on a certain platform …
PB: Obviously, being a cause-driven band, there are different yardsticks or mile markers used to identify and measure personal or group success. Tell me a little bit about the rewards of your toil as community-minded rebels with many a cause …
TB: It’s always been a lateral kind of thing. I think the reason people get into punk and hardcore culture is it doesn’t rely on the same dynamic as many other things in life, and even other art forms and genres of music. Everything we have done has been on a level of sharing laterally, not trying to achieve some grandiose step. There is definitely something about sewing your community together with songs and having them react and relate on a personal level and having them react with courage, the courage to maybe quit their job working at, I don’t know, a bank and instead starting fundraising for community gardens and maybe having them go back and get their Social Work degree. That not to say your bank can’t claim some influence on that, but that is kind of more what happens when people follow your lyrics and music. And then the culture we’re all a part of — it’s not just a medium for information, data and ideas to challenge the status quo — but it’s more than that. The thing about punk and hardcore that is cool is that it has a certain progressive innocence to it — so there’s spontaneous acts of kindness and defiance.
We get a lot of ‘Hey man, I’m managing a women’s shelter and clinic right now, and 10 years ago, I was skateboarding and kind of adrift and your music got me into punk and those other bands. so I’m hoping to sleep on your floor tonight!’ And yeah, I’m not saying we’re the only band that ever did that, but sticking to it and keeping our message, staying visible and showing up in people’s hometown year after year can sometimes be that certain push that some people need to get inspired. The whole sticking to it and deepening our message can be the push that got you out. It’s still there and everyone is contributing to it and that is big, how we interact with our audience, and the community it has created worldwide.
We went to Moscow in 2008, and that was kind of crazy, overwhelming, beautiful, great, strange and dangerous. And then there are small things, too — like, we played an acoustic show, a benefit for the Richmond chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Anarchist Black Cross Copwatch Litigation Fund, so not only having those two groups share a table and speak, but other people, maybe two generations of folks who’ve gotten into our band, being in our hometown, that was really special, a milestone of sorts. Plus just playing an acoustic show led to some exciting discoveries about our old songs we’ve played a thousand times. Like what would this be like, one guitar, one voice, will it work? So we had that nervousness again. That’s been something we’ve recently been doing when we can.
We played the Ramones museum that’s in Berlin, acoustic. It’s awesome. Hell, it’s awesome they have a Ramones museum in Berlin! Then we played a Polar Bear Club release party in Rochester … a Bridge 9 acoustic affair, with Defeater as well. Funny to think about because Bridge 9 is associated with heavy music — thoughtful, progressive hardcore, but hardcore nonetheless. Just things like that have been recent mile markers. And we’ve had to prepare in different ways, getting to know our songs again in new ways, and the meanings behind them and not hiding behind distortion and a fast drumbeat or screaming.
PB: You’ve come full circle in a certain sense. Protest music in general, thinking of Woody Guthrie with ‘This Guitar Kills Fascists’ scrawled on his acoustic guitar, you’re going back to the source, the roots of where it all began.
TB: People who have been a part of our lives in the Richmond punk scene for literally decades — our friend Tim Barry from Avail, who is now acoustic folk singer, we find a lot of resonance in that. It’s always been that way, like after a hardcore punk show bands would hang out on porches or rooftops with friends — there’s no reason to stop playing music after the show is over, outside of the venue. Also, power outages, when police shut shows down and all that stuff, everyone still stays so passionate about it, we like to have another way to do it, to combat that and not be too dependent on civilization. I think that’s a huge part of it, too. And also tying punk rock and hardcore and the social consciousness and values of personal and social revolution of it behind and beyond rock and roll itself.
PB: Having such a strong ideological bent — Strike Anywhere connects the dots from The Refused back to Nation of Ulysses — what were your inspirations that made you comfortable throwing that heavy of a message into the musical stew?
TB: Well, there are almost two different generations of band members. 11 years separates the youngest from the oldest member in the band. What tied us together was always Richmond punk and hardcore, and D.C. So what’s interesting is, I’m 38, the eldest, certainly Crass And Conflict, but sonically, Dischord Records and melodic punk — Dag Nasty, Gorilla Biscuits — that sense of intense cathartic personal experience that bands like Cro-Mags had. That authenticity was huge for kids like me growing up as a teenager in the late ’80s. Now the younger band members, bands like Refused were huge for them fast forwarding to the late ’90s. Kid Dynamite was a spectacular band. My band before Strike Anywhere — Inquisition — had toured with Lifetime and were friends with Dan [Yemin, guitarist for Lifetime and later Kid Dynamite], so there was this sort of continuity of influence where you realize you buy a record and get really inspired by it. Then. a couple of years later, that person is your peer. That’s the punk rock thing, though — is it naturally destroys power relationships and power differentials and people can really share ideas and collective efforts can be recognized without anyone having to think about it, or like having to have an ‘interest meeting’ — there’s no internal bureaucracy. It’s a natural way people want to interact and represent themselves, and that’s really cool. Certainly D.C. has a huge influence, and Richmond bands like Four Walls Falling- they were the first hardcore band I ever saw, and they were definitely way ahead of their time and the first Jade Tree full-length LP release, second overall record put out on Jade Tree. Of course, Fugazi and all the Dischord stuff including the earliest stuff Deadline, State Of Alert, Teen Idles … really primitive but very honest punk. And no conversation with any American hardcore or punk band would be complete without admitting to a great debt to Bad Brains.
PB: You jumped into the music industry, I think, at a great time when you released your first full-length on Jade Tree in ’01, in that any time there’s profound change in a medium the natural outcome is growth or deterioration, the process of adaptation. The bloated old music industry model being broken down, with the old gatekeepers no longer the power brokers, different means to get recognized then came to the forefront. Different methods to become self-sufficient, a self-contained unit. You used a Tony Hawk video game to earn a huge amount of exposure. Do you look at this industry sea change as a positive or a negative? You can see where I lean …
TB: I agree with you in that it is a positive. We were right at the cutting edge at the end of predictability within the counterculture. Where scenes were trying to figure out how to have an online presence, and everyone having these quick intense arguments about what we were compromising by ‘giving into’ the Internet. Or how awesome and punk rock it is and how it can never be co-opted!
PB: Very polarizing, no doubt …
TB: Totally. There were all these massive swings of opinion on it. And certainly, trying to figure out the Tony Hawk thing, we all like skateboarding ostensibly, and there are problems in anything. Any time you move your own music out of your own head you are going to start having compromises and be faced with things that seem hypocritical. For some reason the Tony Hawk thing really appealed to us. We were like, ‘fuck it,’ let’s roll with that. And everywhere we go in the world people know that song because that game was so popular. No one knew it was the dawn of all this alternate media being a platform for music. And trying to decide what to do with that, whether to keep our subculture really, really precious and guarded. And a lot of kids that may need these ideas, and get a chance to contribute to change, may never be able to hear it because they didn’t grow up in the right town with the right scene.
You have to live your message, you have to be self-effacing, and understand not that you’re just engaging in some kind of angry entertainment, there are realities to the compromises bands make, and the illusion of success. So I’m not saying every punk band should be giving their music to be played at the Super Bowl either. That would not be effective or make any sense, and would contradict a lot of the good work that everyone is doing around the world building a grassroots democratic artistic and political movement that also has a component of being therapy — being a psychological outlet and release, and that’s huge. And something I think everyone underestimates while they’re a part of it. and the thing people miss the most when they haven’t been to a show in a while, when they get older or fall a little out of touch — they miss beyond everything else, that release. That feeling of community, and that your true self was revealed. That’s the title of a Spitboy record, speaking of the early ’90s again! The activist community in Europe before we were even there, in 2000, we were hearing about totally unethical police actions and protests ensued. There was a litigation fund for protesters and we had only recorded demos at that point, so we gave our demos to be pressed on a 7-inch. It was just cool and exciting and crazy that they wanted us, so that feeling of discovery right there, that compelled us to do a tour over there. It’s those spontaneous decisions in being a punk band. It’s not because you’re having business meetings about being in a punk band or because you’re trying to finesse your survival strategy. You should be pragmatic in your choices, but also be able to do things purely out of joyful abandon. And experimenting with the process and changing media, it’s everyone’s job otherwise everyone will be controlled. I think the dawn of the digital age is a very punk rock moment in history — there’s a lot of liberation and anarchic philosophies at work all across the board as far as people trying to make sure the internet isn’t a corporatized and mapped out resource to be extracted and bought into by the individual, but is something everyone can participate in, which in a way is very similar to punk rock.
PB: Well, anything that provokes a discussion and examination of the contradictions, that requires a lot of deeper thought, there’s a value there inherently. As opposed to knee-jerk rejection of the internet, and instead determining how to use it as a tool to be more self-sufficient and self-sustaining and community-minded.
TB: And that said, there are bands that have no Internet presence at all that are extremely popular and loved, like Tragedy, who are also incredibly progressive musically and lyrically and not just a hardcore band reveling in the hardcore sound of the ’80s. Not that I don’t love bands that sound like that, but it’s just incredible that they’re still working on strictly a human-to-human-based realm. I find that amazing and relevant because it shows there’s enough room at the table for all those viewpoints. As long as people aren’t extreme and intolerant in thinking that only their way is the right way. I have a feeling that specific era of punk rock is behind us. I think there are a lot of different approaches and textures that have all had successes and are a good part of the toolbox of what we do with this counterculture we’re working to keep it alive. That’s another awesome thing being that it’s 2011, and being involved in this for a lot of years and seeing the changes and how punk has adapted, and how we made it work for us, just like what you were saying.
PB: Being in bands since 1991, some things grow tired and less meaningful and other things take on greater meaning as time marches on — what do you feel, either surprisingly or unsurprisingly, holds greater meaning to you presently? Is it still having a community of sorts to foster?
TB: Yeah, like when we did that local acoustic show most recently there was still this glowing sense of purpose and connection from that that I probably won’t shake off for awhile. It doesn’t mean there’s any less of a reason to plug in and play loud, fast hardcore! Every moment is extremely precious.
Honestly, it’s also just writing songs with your friends and then having that be something real, that’s played and recorded and having other people feel what you felt when you wrote it. And even discovering new ways to add to it, where the song isn’t dead, it starts there, it doesn’t end when you record it with your band. Whether it’s a fan in Idaho or Tokyo, they add meaning to it, and texture when they bring it into their lives. If you have the luck or tenacity or both to meet these people face to face and share what it means which inspires continually — that perpetual motion and energy is something I’ll never take for granted and I’m barely able to explain. It’s taken me nearly two decades of being immersed in it to try and give it shape with words. And that’s a huge thing that I’m honored to be a part of, and it’s very exciting and always will be.