Strike Anywhere’s vibrant and prescient style of political hardcore has been around for nearly two decades now. Their last release was in 2009 but the songs still ring as true as ever; if not even more than when they were written. I was lucky enough to catch up with singer Thomas Barnett at the final show of their short run with A Global Threat and War On Women to talk about the politics of punk, how age and experience shape your view on the music that changed your life growing up and the current political climate. You can read the whole interview below.
Strike Anywhere’s last record was “Iron Front” in 2009.
DS: It has been a while since you guys have toured the US, how’s it been?
TB: Awesome! Sometimes you feel like absence makes the heart grow fonder, but in general we just couldn’t get it together, logistically or personally…even though there have been many moments where we’ve tried. Like we played Fest a couple years ago and that was wonderful but a lot of times like, half the audience at Fest are from out of the country so that wasn’t that different from the times we’d gone to Europe and played. So we did two shows in Richmond and one in Baltimore and…it just feels like our various hometowns tour.
DS: Speaking of Fest, you had mentioned to me that you were going to do something a “bit different” at Fest this year. I was wondering if you could elaborate or if it is still kind of on lockdown?
TB: We don’t have many more specifics to discuss now. I guess we need to figure it out and get setlists on lockdown. But yeah it’ll be fun. It’s just so special to get to do that and get to play our songs any time to anyone but Fest is special because in some ways it’s a…like a one-stop shop for many eras and locations we’ve visited where the band has made friends that feel like family.
DS: Yeah man I can’t wait to go back.
TB: Yeah but also we get to come to Brooklyn and do these two shows is a rare privilege and this tour with Global Threat is just…to us those two bands are legendary and important and we get to…shepherd them, it’s been awesome!
DS: So you guys have been around for a while. I was wondering what bands you’ve been listening to that are sort of newer that you thin are carrying the torch of political punk well and also do you take inspiration from them in the same way you take inspiration from the bands that you grew up with?
TB: That’s a good question, man, really thoughtful. I think it’s hard because like…none of us are really as plugged in to the youngest, freshest bands cause we’re all a bit older and we don’t get out to shows every night of the week, but hopefully like twice a month. Honestly I think War on Women is really important, in the context of your question. They aren’t all young people necessarily but what they’re doing is really unique and really important and needed. I reside on the west coast now so I end up seeing a lot of really old legacy bands now and finding them still relevant like Subhumans or Angelic Upstarts, has been really nice and important to me. I mean that’s kind of the reverse answer to your question, but rediscovering the old bands, the original bands that inspired and empowered you are as able to be as musically razor-sharp and powerful maybe as they ever were even maybe more so than they were back in the day sometimes because maybe they’re soberer or have more time for their instrument or whatever. With us, if you can say this, we appreciate it even more. We need the songs in our lives even more and it helps us not just mark the time in our lives when we wrote them eight, twelve, fifteen years ago. But sometimes it’s disappointing that that same social evil we were upset about seventeen years ago is…times a thousand right now. In the same way it’s good to know we have a living music culture that stands against the line of history and is a part of it and has its own history too. Yeah I’m sure there’s a lot of bands I need to investigate, current bands. But as you do when you get older you tend to mine some of it. You tend to go deeper on things that moved you in the past. I guess like Burn’s new ep (From The Ashes) that isn’t that new but like nine months old maybe, that fucking moved me. Again, that’s a band of older people but new music and I was really inspired by it; they seemed like they really gave a shit. You can tell they just enjoy playing music together and crafting those songs was a really meaningful thing for them and it didn’t rest on earlier music they made, it felt like something new to me.
DS: This is sort of in the same vein of what you were saying a bit earlier; how does it make you feel that the lyrics that you’ve written are still so relevant five, ten, fifteen years on?
TB: It’s a weird thing. It is gratifying to be relevant and to have songs that speak truthfully about structural conditions that people need to feel hope about and just to channel the revolutionary impulse of the human spirit and look at it. That’s just what punk rock does; what protest music does and maybe what good art does in general. I’m not trying to say ours is that exceptional but we personally…it’s been what we can do; what we can contribute. We were talking about this last night, it’s such a contradiction; if these songs didn’t have the weight that they have now and have maybe even more relevance now than when they first came out we wouldn’t even be a band anymore because a lot of stress and social and psychological and material violence of everyday life wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t have to reflect it and try and solve it and try to hold the pieces of this puzzle together as a part of a counterculture. We’d be playing music for different reasons. We’d be trying to reflect the natural world; we’d be doing the things that were happening before we got to this evolving capitalist apocalypse. So yeah it’s a double-edged sword. But in the same way nothing’s ever…you can’t just claim victory over something because you wrote a song and someone sang it back at you. That’s still the beginning of something. These are just moments where we can be together and just struggle through some confusion and struggle through a feeling of powerlessness and talk about the truths that media aren’t sharing with us and about that culture and everyday life doesn’t necessarily have a handhold on. I think this music and this culture help us.
DS: I think there is an emphasis both in the “real world” and the punk world on PC culture that is maybe somewhat newer to my eyes or is blossoming now and I was wondering what your take is on it? It’s just interesting to me because it creates a sort of ideological clash between the “rebellion at any cost” kind of punks who think in the vein of Sex Pistols’ saying “I don’t know what I want but I know how to get it” and then the political punk of Bad Religion and you guys trying to push forward.
TB: Well I think it’s all a part of the same family and it might even be the left and right hand on the same body. The reason punk exists is because of that sort of visceral shock value, that idea we were going to take symbols and repurpose them to show the hypocrisy of social values. I think what you might be referring to is like twenty-twenty five years ago in the early 90s there was this kind of, well this is my theory, I’m not sure it’s true. I experienced the colonization of punk counterculture and specifically hardcore punk by what was previously just an academic kind of political correctness and far-left identity politics. Back then it went into deepest, most righteous…what we call the political basement of punk. Because it wasn’t the digital age it never really made it out. But it was a training ground like Riot Grrl and that wave of punk feminism and an awareness of the presence of folks who were differently gendered and of all different sexual orientations and preferences having been in the mix in punk rock since day one and being a place for the queer community and trans-folk and even though the vocabulary of it is new, and it is new now and always changing. Being trapped by language though, is a paralysis that can fuck up really good ideas and fuck up how we live the ideas and how we act on the values. But understanding also that language can also oppress us so we have to let it be fluid; let it evolve. Of course, I’m a guy who writes words so that might be why my focus is on that; it’s something I’ve thought about my whole life. We don’t need to get attached to shit and be upset that the language for discussing oppression is changing. What I’m seeing as far as the mainstream backlash against PC is a whiny, juvenile, spoiled extent of status quo white victimization that is really shameful and painful to have to witness. And I see people being manipulated by it all the time; otherwise thoughtful people are manipulated by it; people who don’t have a stake or think they don’t have a stake in the fact that all of us have to free each other; it has to be a mutual liberation society. So I do think a little bit of the stay in your lane stuff. I understand why it is initially there; so people step back and let groups define themselves on their own terms and then invite allies to help them and not just have white heterosexual radicals keep feeling like they have to call the shots and control everything. Because then we just play out the same dominations and oppressions of our parent culture. So that was just what we learned in our little incubator in Richmond, VA. Like in my example of when Riot Grrl came down from DC in ’93 and seeing all the stuff now in the digital age and what people are complaining about now and what they’re talking about not being productive now, feels a lot like conversations we already had decades ago. So I don’t have any new problem with these things but I think the digital age has made everyone a lot less emotionally resilient and we get trapped in this epic hypersensitivity and I feel for kids younger than me, I guess millennials, so I’m like 43 so I’m generation x, if we’re gonna buy into that stuff…but to have the ability for every emotion, every idea, every mistake, it freezes people up and everyone has to double-down on their own embarrassment and their own sense of displacement and that’s kind of what’s happening; we’re in this fucking crazy echo chamber of mirrored responses and it’s just self-destructive. But it’s always been in the corridors of revolutionary thought whether it’s academics or the left-wing of the left-wing or Occupy or whatever is going on the revolutionary community we are way more vulnerable to misrepresenting ourselves to fighting amongst ourselves and to using our tools to tear ourselves down all the fuckin’ time. That’s why we need sometimes to just go beyond words and be in the moment and just be in action together.
DS: I think the part that is interesting to me is…you don’t want to adopt the status quo of your parent culture. It’s interesting to see a lot of that happen.
TB: Yeah, yeah. At this point we gotta be careful relying on any of these words. Like, parent culture, to punks could mean the hateful, misogynist, capitalist, racist status quo or it could mean the quasi-liberal background noise of mainstream culture too. I think that’s where your Sex Pistols example rules because it was sort of apolitical or in some way tried to transcend politics and the false binary choice of politics. I think the way we approach politics comes from not just a different philosophy but almost a sixth sense. To make sure you’re not being manipulated but also not give in to the paranoia of manipulation. So we talk about punk being a strict orthodox of revolutionary politics or just “fuck all the rules, including all the politics” but it has to be both, I think we need these tools to balance the back and forth.
DS: I also wanted to touch on this election cycle; do you think Bernie Sanders’ campaign will have any lasting impact?
TB: I don’t know man. I used to live in Vermont for a spell and he was kinda like the benevolent ruler of the state. He did some cool stuff and because he was an independent people still saw him as one. The entirety of American politics…it’s just so surprising at how much support Donald Trump has and how repugnant of a human being he is. It is just hard to have any belief in that and it feels like you compromise your ethics just by participating.
DS: And now there is a lot of talk about the idea of protest voting. Especially in light of everything that came out about the DNC maybe rigging the primary and all of that. But it’s a difficult idea to me because…you and I are straight white men so if Trump were elected, by and large we’d be fine.
TB: Well I saw that Dan Rather posted about Martin Niemöller’s lament “First they came for the socialists and I was silent because I was not socialist…” and that’s where we’re at. I mean, I think it’s hyperbolic to compare anyone to Hitler but there is a great movement of resonant white nationalist groups emerging, and growing like a mutating, metastasizing cancer right in the wake of whatever Donald Trump does and says. People need to not take their eyes off that ball; that is fucking crucially important. And you have all of the things that are being exposed about the police that aren’t even that new but it’s ratcheting up and being discussed by mainstream media. So it outrages people in the world that we’ve been outraged about in the underground for decades. I mean, come to the party late, just come to it. It will take all of us.
DS: Okay this next one is kind of more morbid on a personal level.
TB: Hah ok. I like that, let’s do it.
DS: Sort of my twist on the desert island album question; if you knew you were going to die and you had time to listen to one album, what would it be?
TB: Oh man, that’s hard. I love it though, I love it. [Long pause] Honestly it’s not gonna be a record that’s like…traditionally punk. I think “Thunder And Consolation” by New Model Army. It begins and ends in a way that you see a microcosm of life and death.
DS: So, I don’t really get into the music video thing, but I gotta say; the music video for “Instinct” is far and away one of my favorite music videos ever. I was just wondering how that happened and the germ of the idea etc.
TB: Aww, thanks man. Justin Staggs, who also made the video for “I’m Your Opposite Number” 3 years later, I sent him the lyrics from a couple songs and that was the one he got attached to. There were a few different treatment ideas but this is the one that made it. It was the idea of making the story of a song that was a…meta-story.
DS: Alright so a lighter question; do you have favorite food spots on tour?
TB: Well, we haven’t been on tour that consistently so everything is new.
DS: What about places in Richmond?
TB: When I go home to visit my parents I usually prefer to just sit around the kitchen table. That’s where a lot of great conversation happens not just with them, but with friends. A friend in Churchill’s kitchen where I sit and eat great food all the time. Be part of their lives for a second.
DS: And finally, it’s been a while since Iron Front, do you guys have anything in the fire?
TB: We have a lot of shit in the fire, maybe like most bands now, a bunch of different little demos and pre-demos and song ideas and fully-developed songs by the dozens. It’s been kind of ridiculous like since Iron Front we still have stuff that’s almost there and now we have like…twice as much. It’s just a question of getting everyone together. Everyone’s got families and jobs they can’t leave, you know just things that happen in life. And touring is different in general. It doesn’t make sense to go and spend half the year traveling, it’s not sustainable. It’s hard to do it and make it work. But we’d love to find time to get together and record and we have songs. We’re still a very active band creatively and personally it’s just that the timeline is stretched out. In some ways so we don’t burn out because the music we want to be a part of our life forever, not just a part of our youth. Obviously, I mean look how gray my hair is! [laughs]
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