With their anthemic brand of melodic hardcore and Thomas Barnett’s informed and impassioned vocals, Richmond Virginia’s Strike Anywhere have earned themselves a reputation as one of the most inspiring political bands of their generation. In their ten year existence the band have released three full length albums—Change Is a Sound, Exit English and Dead FM)—and three EPs. What with the current fervor over Barack Obama, the collapse of the global economy, and the ever-present issue of climate change, now seems liked the perfect time to get Thomas’s thoughts on our politically uncertain era. This interview took place in the Bielefeld Ringlokschuppen venue, Germany, on February 9, part of their European tour supporting Rise Against.
Interviewed conducted by Rob Kent and John Miskelly.
Photos by: Jörg Rambow, http://www.terrorverlag.de/
John: Have you played many venues of this size before? (The venue’s capacity is 1,300 but feels even bigger, thanks to the multiple bars and food stalls. It’s mammoth-sized compared to the size of venue one expects to see an independent political punk band.)
Thomas: With Rise Against, yes, and maybe on the Deconstruction festivals. We did the Give It a Name tour in Earl’s Court and Sheffield Arena, but, in our lives, generally, no. With Rise Against, the tour’s exceeded all expectation.
John: Is it harder to get an intense atmosphere going and get the energy and message across in a big venue?
Thomas: It can be, but then it can also be easier. It depends how people are reacting off of each other. There’s, generally, a lot more people in these spots so the chances of people knowing you are less because it’s often not a very dialed-in deeper subculture. For these kids it’s, maybe, their first or second concert and they don’t even know there’s a small venue punk scene. But this is a part of that. It’s an exploded version of that. That’s what all the bands kind of want.
John: How much hope and optimism have you invested in Obama?
Thomas: Seeing him elected – we were at home in Richmond, Virginia, it’s the heart of the historic South. The South East was the capital of the confederacy in the American Civil War. It was the place where Africans, when first enslaved in ships, were brought. The overseers from the plantations down South from Georgia and North and South Carolina would come up to Richmond to purchase the human cargo. That is such an intense aspect of why any of us got into punk in the first place and how our ideas work and what we know about life. After Obama was elected that night, we played a show. After we loaded our stuff out, we saw the streets alive with people, strangers, jumping up and down, holding each by the shoulders. Hundreds deep, black and white marching to meet each other in the center of the city,everyone together. We were filled with such joy. I don’t have much faith in the American system or nation states, for that matter, I think that even an intelligent and moral person being president is already entering into a great deal of compromise.
John: The fact a black man becomes president is incredible, but I was thinking more of the progress it represents in terms of changing American politics and the effect American politics has on the world. I’ve noticed in the first few weeks, he’s done quite a lot of positive stuff.
Thomas: He has, even if it’s just symbolic, like saying, “We’re closing Guantanamo,” when really it’s going to take a year and a half. Saying we’re fighting for a stimulus package, and then having to wrangle with Congress, talking like it’s an everyday event, instead of something that could actually save lives. In the end, the American effect on the global economy is a life and death situation, which is immoral and something that we stand against as a band. I think Obama feels a sense of faith in the entrepreneurial system, that it can be reformed and rehabilitated, and I disagree.
But, I also feel he is trying, in a way, outside of the normal realms. Our government is owned by transnational wealth. Your government is owned by transnational wealth. Really, a lot of democracy is just a theatre to keep us pacified for generations, but there are moments when real choices and real change can be applied and you cannot delude yourself thinking that that is the only way that we are powerful, because we are often betrayed even by the things we believe in. It’s all about symbolism at this point. It’s always been about symbolism, but maybe more people who are now paying attention for the first time in history of generations of populations, are voting for the first time. It’s like, “Wow, we put our faith in the system because of this man, and now we’re holding him accountable, and now we’re looking at everything for the first time, not just saying that it’s out of reach and that these people don’t care about us. We have this voice, so let’s see what happens”. All of these people are now entering the game, staring at media, talking in a different way with their families at dinner tables. This is something in American life that doesn’t happen across the board, especially with the millions of working poor and citizens of every color. It’s almost like even if Obama fails, we might win, because everyone’s consciousness has been provoked and stimulated. Even to be disappointed, even to be like, “Is this all I get?” there’s this almost messianic quality that Obama has. People realized that, “Man, he was such a good man, but he became president. He was neutered. They castrated him and all the things that we loved about him just seemed to become paper thin.” I hope that doesn’t happen, but I can’t imagine on some level it not happening. From our analysis as a radical punk band, we see things through the lens of transnational wealth, economic imperialism – in a historical way. Other people – for example, left wing democrats – they may have a more optimistic view, but I can’t be more optimistic about this symbolism…How’s that for my answer?
John: Has the election been featured in any of the songs you’ve written in the past year or so?
Thomas: Well, we’ve written a whole new record in the past year. We’re playing new songs tonight, and we’re going to record the new record in May. It’ll come out in September!
Rob: Will it be out on Fat Wreck Chords?
Thomas: I don’t know. We only did that one record with Fat three years ago, so… maybe, but I’m not sure.
Rob: So you’re shopping around for labels?
Thomas: We’re not that deliberate of a band. We’re just touring, but we have relationships across the independent community. We’re the kind of band that likes to have relationships with different labels. We’ve done records with No Idea, Jade Tree, a seven inch and album with Fat. So, we’ll just see. In some ways, going into a relationship with a label is like having another band mate. You want to do this as an artistic collaboration and maybe it’s not the place you want to live forever. It’s just something you do. Especially with the state of the economy, of independent punk labels, spreading the love around is important. Honestly, we could be on Fat, we’re just not sure.
Rob: Do you feel that the credit crunch – is that what you call it in America?
Thomas: Yeah, we do. Everybody is talking about it backstage.
John: Do you think the causes have, in a way, vindicated your own views?
Thomas: Well, I was afraid that it would be the easy way to say that it has.
John: You don’t want to be, say, smug about it…
Thomas: “Everyone’s starving! I’m right” [laughter] But we can’t just go back into the mid twentieth century to look for our solutions. Although I’m heartened by some aspects of Chávez and Morales and the Bolivarian revolution (The Bolivarian Revolution refers to the Hugo Chavez-led Venezuelan Socialist movement. Chávez was elected president in 1999 with the aim of creating an independent Socialist state free from U.S. interference and alleviating Venezuela’s then huge social inequality. The name refers to the 19th century Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolívar, who fought in the South American War of Independence. Chávez remains a controversial figure. Elected in 2006, Juan Evo Morales Ayma is the current Socialist president of Bolivia; its first fully indigenous head of state.), there are aspects of it that are just an oil-backed historical re-enactment, like if people put on costumes to fight the English Civil War.
Rob: It’s also pretty terrible environmentally, isn’t it?
Thomas: It’s regressive on some levels, but then there are many people who are not starving anymore.
Rob: And at the same time, Chavez is practically a dictator. It’s hard to know what to think about him.
Thomas: It’s that idea that corporate wealth for its own purposes will easily corrupt a democracy by owning media. That simple sentence really blows the roof off of people’s faith in the moral certainty of the democratic process. When it gets to the point where maybe a tyrant makes better decisions than people’s votes, you’re really in some strange waters. When it comes down to it, a lot of these problems are put to rest by saying nation states are the problem. And that’s still where I stand. We’re going to end up doing this thing where everyone nationalises their economies to save themselves from the global recession - because there was never a globalized morality about global economies - so then we all march backwards a little bit into the mid-twentieth century. Then, militarily and foreign policy-wise, different little cold wars and hot wars can pop up and it’s bad. So I don’t really know these other solutions.
A friend who is a hardcore kid from the ‘80s, an older gentleman, who always comes to the shows in Western Germany, is also a financial market speculator and a businessman. He’s also very leftist and is seeing this firsthand. So I asked him the same question you just asked me: “We’re all punk rockers. I don’t have much education. I read a lot and I talk to people, but we’re a subculture, so I don’t have any illusions. I don’t know all these answers.” He, Frank, just told me minutes ago that, yes, the free market system is chronically injured. Stimulus is only a band aid. Transnational wealth will pull governments to just put the band aid on this machine. It is irretrievably, chronically malfunctioning. It was never meant to function. And he works within the system. He’s not just some random socialist in a university or at a squat. He is a guy who works, travels, and talks about transnational wealth all day long. He’s also a base jumper.
John: In that sense, what does he expect to come out of it?
Thomas: I don’t know. We were talking about that right before I came out here, and I was like, “I’ve gotta go and do an interview with some British guys!” He said, first of all, the end of Thatcher and Reagan’s pre-eminence over political economy has happened and now we’re trying to figure out what to do with volumes of ideas that have been compressed since 1993.
Rob: We were thinking - with the economic situation at the moment, and a little further down the line, the potentially devastating effects of both peak oil and climate change - what could possibly emerge out of all that? Do you feel things could get seriously bad, some kind of collapsing event? A breakdown into smaller, anarchistic communities?
Thomas: The problem is a lot of anarchism is working outside of the industrial system, which is awesome, but it only works for smaller populations.
Rob: A kind of green anarchism?
Thomas: Yeah, like a green anarchism. The strange partnership-slash-tension that exists between green anarchism and anarcho-primitivism…I had a lot of friends who left the urban red and black anarcho-syndicalism movement and left straight for the forest – to the North West. I just moved from Portland to South L.A., and I’m seeing that we can’t just get everyone to go back to the woods. There are billions of people in dense industrial centers who are going to need to survive.
Rob: It’s almost as if the primitivists in places such as Oregon are acting selfishly. You know of all the problems and you move to the woods to help yourself. What about the rest of the world? They’re a bit fucked.
Thomas: You can look at it that way, but I have some great friends in those movements and they are not selfish people. I do see it as being contained in a certain way. Trying to get people to bypass a group identity and nationalism is almost a question of privilege. If you are already a part of the Caucasian majority, you can rebel against all of it. But if you are a part of a minority, in a culturally oppressed group for a thousand years, having identity politics is your strength. There’s a certain continuum that cannot be interrupted. I think it should be, but I’m not sure how, to be honest… We’ve written songs about everything we’re talking about on the new record: the desert apocalypse, the ice caps melting, and the water apocalypse.
Rob: I live in Seville in Andalucía and that’s almost the epicenter of Europe for desertification, with each year getting drier and drier.
Thomas: Exactly, yeah. Our drummer lived in Madrid for half a year and he says the same thing. The desert is encroaching every year. And in Southern California as well. It’s going to be, like, “No water,” and then, “Oh my god, too much water, we’re all drowning!” I think the new record is going to be covering a lot of these topics, both from a psychological point of view and maybe expressing the post-political ideas.
[It’s unclear how we got on to the following topic. Our tape recorder was drowned out by the background music, but the conversation turned towards civil liberties and surveillance societies.]
After the Madrid bombings, (The March 11, 2004 Al-Qaeda inspired bomb attacks on Madrid’s commuter train network. 191 people were killed and José Luis Rodríuez Zapatero and the Socialist Workers Party were consequently elected into power. He immediately withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq, a move many described as a concession to terrorism) Spain was like, “We’re still going to have civil liberties, You cannot crush them.” There are moments of strength and courage, even within modern nation states now, trying to react and recover and take care of people. We may see some of that in America. But there is traditional corporate greed which has made rich men and CEOs emotionally stunted as a culture. No one is going to know how to back out of this unless we really change where the power is. That’s still what we stand for, and Rise Against, too. Obama puts a different face and maybe a better brain on the same power. It’s cosmetic, and there might be moments of good change and a moral compass, but the best part is that everyone’s paying attention.
John: Obviously, you are influenced by The Clash and Crass. Are there any more modern British bands that you admire?
Thomas: There’s a band called Pilger from the South Coast. Any bands that our friend Lloyd Chambers is in, we think our brilliant. He was in Ruin You! (Also Blocko). A lot of the mid-‘80s bands like Discharge and Conflict, I love. Especially, I love that weird Words Of Warning label that came out of Newport, Wales. They had the early Dub War records, which is strange, because, later, Dub War became not aesthetically pleasing. That weird mix of hard ragga, anti-fascist dance music and ska. It was from a mix of the crusty traveller scene and the urban punk scene, the West Indian…the way that U.K. hip hop has a lot more of a Caribbean influence because of the way black Britain really is, as opposed to the way that African American culture is. Those things are really interesting to us, too. I really enjoyed Capdown. We toured with them and we felt those guys really had their shit together. We love all of the U.K. bands from the 70s: Eater, Red Alert, Angelic Upstarts. Mainly, the band that myself and our drummer have followed for so long is New Model Army. Another band that is insanely influential would be Subhumans. They’ve never really made a tactical mistake. There’s a band called Only Fumes and Corpses (from Galway, Ireland) that we toured with. It’s almost like an Irish take on Modern Life Is War, D beat American anarcho crust and heavy hardcore. They’re awesome.
Rob: Do you think America gets a very different perspective on British music?
Thomas: Well, there seems to be a very quick processing of musical culture in England. Everything in Britain moves so fast, like blindingly. America’s still really big and diffuse, so there’s a level of taking something and feeling like it’s slightly exotic and we don’t really have any background to understand. British people go, “This band came from this scene. Those people are wankers.” [laughter] The way you guys will automatically process everything, we’re kind of like “yeah this sounds cool.” We’re more ignorant, I guess. Ignorance is our bliss when it comes to British music. You guys are like, “Well fuck that because those people suck,” and “He did a Kate Moss,” and “I don’t like that whole side of London.”
Rob: How did you find Gainesville and The Fest last year?
Thomas: I had a number of negative presuppositions about it but none of them happened. My jacket was stolen from the backstage room. Someone found it on the street, called one of my bandmates, and they gave it back to me. It’s like all the cops leave the city and give it over to The Fest. There are house parties around the clock. I saw Star Fucking Hipsters and Leftover Crack in a house show. It was amazing. The swampy streets with Spanish moss – the quintessential weird Florida, almost like The Caribbean. I didn’t discover any chaos or machismo. The only violence that occurred was people being too drunk to process events and occasional fighting. It was the first time we’ve ever participated in it and it was really wonderful, beyond any expectations.
Rob: You’re playing Harvest Of Hope (a huge festival in St Augustine, Florida, held in March) too, that looks absolutely incredible.
Thomas: It fucking rules because it’s a benefit for migrant workers. It’s become this epic event that we don’t even understand! It’s going to be so much fun. I think Wizzo (I think he means GZA/Genius) from the Wu Tang Clan is even playing. It’s beyond punk now. It’s this huge thing now. I feel there’s a certain amount of cultural mixing that’s going on musically, where people’s passion – it only could happen in the nearly post-corporate music world. Now, no one’s trying to hi-jack or dictate identity politics of youth culture so everyone can actually come together and – I mean it hasn’t happened completely and, certainly, there’s going to be stopping and starts – but digital downloads and just those wild connections of people remixing their own music and sharing play lists. Everything is now so instant that people can get into things that they never would have had a chance to before. They make cross references that have always been there but music corporations would keep that separate from people.
John: I’ve never heard someone use the term “post-corporate” before.
Thomas: It’s a little optimistic of a term, but a lot of things are happening underneath that corporate control of music because of the digital age that surprises us constantly.
John: What do you get up to outside of music?
Thomas: Half our band rescues animals. We do pit bull rescue and other things. I visit my family, my wife, and I rescue animals. We have rescued dogs and cats in our house. We had a starving, homeless kitten walk into our house through our cat door the other day, so we were like, “Okay, now we have an eighth cat! We don’t have to go out to rescue cats anymore!” Garth, our bass player, has rescued many, many big pit bulls. One of them he couldn’t part with – they call it Big Head – it was from Hurricane Katrina. It was rescued from a roof. It had been kept in a cage for two years.
We also go to Richmond and we all write songs in my friend’s basement and hang out there in our hometown scene. Half our band still lives in Richmond and the other half lives in different places on the West Coast. In L.A., I’m also a legal courier. I have a job where I drive documents between court houses. I’m like a stage hand for the legal system!
Rob: This is your tenth year as Strike Anywhere. Are you going to celebrate it somehow?
Thomas: We’ll play Richmond and D.C., too. D.C.’s like our father. Richmond’s like our mother, as far as the punk scene looks at you. London’s like our Granddad!
Rob: Okay, I think you need to head off. Thanks for your time.
Thomas: No problem. Maybe we’ll sing together during the show.