On February 13, Danielle and I traveled out to the ICC Church in Allston to the Four Year Strong, Strike Anywhere, Title Fight, This Time Next Year and Mountain Man show extremely excited to interview one of the current leading voices in punk rock, none other than Thomas Barnett, lead vocalist of Richmond, Virginia posi-core band Strike Anywhere. As we get to the venue, I decide to give Thomas a call to find out where to meet up. He doesn’t answer so we decide to go into the church and find him ourselves. As we are standing in the hallway of the infamous home of Massachusetts hardcore, I feel my phone vibrate and notice that Thomas is calling me. As I grab my phone, I look up and he is standing right next to me not knowing that I am right next to him. I tap him on the shoulder and introduce myself and the three of us travel to the back of the church into a very small dark room next to the stage. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous interviewing Thomas as Strike Anywhere has been one of my favorite punk bands for a long time now, but lucky for us, Thomas turned out to be the nicest person in the world.

Tom: My first question is, Iron Front was your first release off of Bridge Nine Records, a local Massachusetts record label. What was it that made you want to switch from Fat Wreck Chords to Bridge Nine?

Thomas: That’s a good question. We have nothing but love for Fat and we spent four years touring on Dead FM which was our only record and commitment on Fat Wreck. I guess when we started building the songs that later became Iron Front we just felt that artistically with the sonic direction and sense of impact and aggression that was happening it seemed like it would fit a label like Bridge Nine, and you know we have a lot of love for East Coast hardcore, and maybe even that is more of where we come from as far as roots and culture than the kind of sunny often comedic world of west coast pop punk. It’s not really our thing. We have a lot of really good friends working at that label and they were nothing but fair to us…I just feel like that artistically Bridge Nine is our cup of tea and it feels like more of where we came from and also where we are going.
At some point it does get hard to relate to the weird sense of intoxicated self involved celebrity culture that surrounds some of the more wealthier West Coast punk bands. Sometimes you cant really relate to it and have it make you feel like your part of an actual community of resistance and ideas. I think as far as the way we relate to this counter culture in our ten years of time in strike anywhere it makes more sense for us to move laterally through the underground and working with and building relationships from various labels, people that we count as mentors and friends whether that is Var from No Idea, Daren and Tim from jade tree records, Fat Mike and all those lunatics at Fat Wreck and now Chris Wrenn and Bridge Nine and that family. Its all one thing to us. It’s all about spreading love and building connections. Plus so many of our friends from the earliest stages of this band are now in bands on Bridge Nine. It seems to have all happened at once you know its like you graduate high school and then everyone goes off in all these directions at different universities and then you all end up working at the same place ten years later. For all those reasons and also it felt like something new and fresh and inspired like Bridge Nine’s commitment to Hardcore and Chris’ commitment to music that he loves and just you know artwork and vinyl and packing it with posters like it’s the mid nineties like buying a seven inch or lp or a cd that is packed to the brim with stickers and posters and things. That’s the punk experience that we grew up with and Bridge Nine still seems to pull from that tradition. So we’re stoked to be a part of it.

Tom: Who are some of the bands that you are happy to see as label mates?

Thomas: Oh man, Soul Control, Defeater, Ruiner, I mean all of them! I hung out with Death Before Dishonor last summer at ten bands for ten bucks and those guys are awesome. We played two shows with Agnostic Front and that has been amazing and now there our label mates. Seriously it’s incredible. Like Polar Bear Club, they’re old friends of ours and they’re an amazing group, Crime In Stereo…they’re so many. All of them. Even the one’s we haven’t played with yet. We’re just really excited about the future.

Tom: Yeah it seems like a really tight knit family and it is really cool to see that with labels.

Thomas: Yeah!

Tom: I heard for Iron Front, you did a lot of writing overseas in a space built by Prague Nomads. How did that idea come about and how was that experience?

Thomas: We had been sending these digital footnotes, like guitar and vocal ideas back and forth and building on songs in this way and then Rise Against invited us to tour with them in Europe and we were like yeah lets do that and then we were like hey let’s meet up with our tour manager and friend Ellish, who was part of the early nineties central European otto-noman scene which were kind of like the anti globalization resistance movement counter culture that did a lot of squatting and fixing things up all over Europe and just developing a world within a world against an isolated and divided and capitalist infrastructure of a society. So with all those tactics of like “lets take this old building and get heat and water and get a kitchen going and feed everybody” and anyway that is the tradition that the nomads come from and then they also have a fleet of crazy vehicles to take punk bands around in and they have a warehouse full of gear so whenever you come to Europe you can pick out your guitar rig and drum kit and some kind of weird vehicle that’s surprisingly comfortable but DIY made and that’s how we do our European tour, so Ellish was like “look we have this room with a PA in it and you guys can spend some time and live here and write and rehearse”, so we spent our days walking around Prague in the snow trying to shake off our jetlag and we spent all night in the heart of winter in the heart of Europe trying writing that record in that room.

Tom: It must have been a really awesome experience.

Thomas: It was! It was amazing and it was really good to have something that feels like an adventure. A lot of bands with a huge budget will live in a studio and write in a studio because that’s like the old school seventies major label way. But for us it was like we need to live as punks in this punk filled environment in this ancient and impossibly sad snowy and beautiful European city and wander around and drink cheap beer and have nothing to do but write music from 12 - 6am.

Danielle: How did all of this, Strike Anywhere, get started as an entity? To me, when I listen to your music it seems like it comes from a place so much different than “we’re a bunch of angry kids who have something to say” and that’s really inspiring and touching to hear every album after album and I just wanted to know what was the progression? How did you guys connect on that?

Thomas: It’s inspiring and touching to hear your analysis. That’s what we hope happens and that’s what we hope to project. We started when my band mates were in their late teens and I was in my mid twenties and so I was previously involved in the Richmond punk scene in a band called Inquisition (http://www.myspace.com/inquisitionrva)and me and my friend Matt Sherwood found Matt Swift and Garth because we knew his older brother and Eric and we just started writing songs and playing music in warehouses and basements of punk places in Richmond. It was the kind of thing where it was exciting that we had songs, that we could play our friends house, that we could go to DC and play a show, like everything we did felt like beyond everything we had anticipated like “oh wow, we’re really going to go on a week long tour with hot water music!” like all these different windows that had opened up. And now we just tour and we just go everywhere and its strange because we feel like there are always new opportunities, like we’re going to Costa Rica at the end of March and like we did a eastern European tour two summers ago, we went out to Bella Ruse, Levia and Moscow like a year ago. So all these different memories and moments are resonating with us and its strange, we have just been putting one foot in front of the other, not really having any ambitious career (air quotes)…because its not only not what punks about but it’s also not what we’re good at as individuals, just writing songs that we believe in and tapping into that part of you that is so frustrated in the world, but we’ve been exposed to so many positive communities like fighting for change and also loving towards change and having that kind of interesting human duality that is involved in this counter culture makes this way more than music for us and we just happen to be folks that put these feelings in songs and like the cathartic group moment of singing along like we start the song but it doesn’t end when its on the record, its just begun and so everyone else carries that message, there interpretations and what they need from it and then gives it back to us and then we give it back and it just goes back and forth. I know it sounds intense when its just a two minute hardcore song, but that’s the answer to why it has been ten years because we don’t own this shit its just happened to us the way its happening to you and the way its happening to everybody and its beyond just our little band and the good luck and accident of being able to tour the world and make records and independent labels that we respect and work with amazing groups and people of vision and heart, but there’s this huge part where you just feel like its this aspect of our species like making art and communicating with people and when its honest it’s a revolutionary act…it has to be, and you guys know this because you are doing underground media right now as we speak like you’re fighting against the competition and the isolation and everything becoming an advertisement for a debased and degraded version of itself and to make yourself to fight against becoming co modified, becoming just a product, is really what this whole reaction and revolution is about so for us I think it is just part of our very survival, our psychological and intellectual survival if you will.

Danielle: That is wonderful! And it sounds like it had just been a really exciting progression towards living the dream.

Thomas: (laughs) Uhm…it’s a dream where like our housemates and families all really wish we could just get a job and settle down but this is our calling you know? It certainly doesn’t make any economic sense. Being a middle aged punk rocker and never having any health care or other credentials in life is kind of a scary thing, but I know I’m not the first and that there are plenty of other folks in this legacy of American hardcore older than me and my peers who are enjoying the same absurd reaction and like getting older in America and realizing all you have is your voice on these little records that are various colors . But its beautiful and fun and we are always trying to find ways to operate that are still righteous and moral but at the same time not just play shows to the people who are converted or the people who know more about what we sing about than we do and try to open this up to all the folks that we once were when we were young teenagers like hungry for substance and hungry for truth and hungry for a place where we could go and be a family of outcasts. So being a part of a scene that evolves is huge for us and it would be what I guess I could call spiritual…you know because we’re atheists…you know like its what it means when you cant quantify something and its more than coming home with a few hundred dollars to pay the bills that are waiting for you when you get back, like its much bigger than that and that’s a part of it where we don’t make any long term plans with labels or booking agents we just do what we do when it feels right, and that’s another reason why we haven’t imploded and have the stamina because we’re just living in the moment, but for ten years.

Danielle: Earlier you touched on another subject that I wanted to bring up with you and that’s the kind of multiplicity there is to the music that you make which is something I find very rare in punk music in general where its kind of like the anti establishment theme that you’ve got going on but I never hear come out as just anger or discontent in your songs, like there’s this feeling of dissatisfaction with how things are but there’s always this underlying message of love and understanding and things that can transcend that and I think that is a really important message that you guys give off.

Thomas: No, that was a beautiful interpretation and that is of course what we desire the most. But its something that we also have to live up to as well and I think we tend not to over think what we do or who we are and its important for us to remember that we are just five friends stumbling through life playing loud crazy music and yelling at people and to the outside world it doesn’t make sense but to many people in our community it is way more precious and delicate than it sounds. It is really vulnerable, not vulnerable as in the hyperbolic, romantic, screaming, emotional sub genres of music that almost get misogynist because they’re only about boys yelling at their ex girlfriends, because that’s not doing me any good like where are they taking us with that. I think with the songs that we write and the way that we approach the songwriting process we are all foolish idealists but there is also something real that we have reached. Trying to write the perfect song to describe that feeling, that’s why there are so many records and we keep putting out punk records because we have yet to do it, but we are getting there.

Tom: A common characteristic with punk bands and their fans is to somewhat hate and disagree with the police and I feel like sometimes it gets put on as a gimmick just as a crowd pleaser. But I feel like you guys have a pretty decent message behind your songs that involve anti police force, anti police brutality and all of that. So I was wondering, what are your thoughts on this theme as a trend and do you have any specific examples behind the way you guys put it in your songs?

Thomas: Obviously we try to write from lived experience especially with songs like Sunset on 32nd Blvd which was just me watching a racist police dragnet destroy my neighbors lives in front of me. Its so personal that the song, even though it has a greater political metaphor, is more of just an act of catharsis for the sense of powerlessness and rage that I felt by watching my neighbor being pulled out of his house and being kicked by six cops and when the cops turned and looked and saw me and my partner staring at them from our porch and saw the fact that we were Caucasians they kind of stopped and started making excuses and pulled him into the van and they took him to the hospital to try and clean him and then because they broke the hinges on the door and destroyed part of the house just trying to get him out because he fit the profile of African American male on bicycle, and that’s who they were running down that week in my neighborhood and they’re allowed to do these things with impunity, unless you are there to observe. I would have much rather not had that happen and for us just to write a fun angry you know “we’re the punks and we hate the cops” kind of song, that would have been much better than to have actually had to have witnessed that and the collateral effect it had on my neighbors who were pushed into the projects, their kids given up to foster care, every job lost, every opportunity lost, pretty much they were put in prison even when they weren’t, just by poverty and racist police profiling.
As a band, we have been pulled over, harassed, robbed at gunpoint, incarcerated, let go and occasionally helped, all by police in various profile. In our own, in Japan, in Italy, in Russia. Most of the time, 85% of those things have been corruption, violence, staring at a loaded gun while we know our belongings were getting rifled to and our money and records…you know why would they ever take our punk records!? We never got to ask that question because when our tour manager went up to them and said “you idiots I’ll cut you” and we’re just holding him back saying “Joseph why are you saying this?” And all they said was “Joseph we are the Italian police“, not why…nothing…they just needed to announce who they were and everyone shut the hell up. So all these things were odd circumstances for us, like we played a show in Moscow and there was a neo Nazi bomb threat on the club, threats of violence the entire day we were in Moscow just trying to get to the show, a lot of anti racist skinheads and this awesome women led group of the Rash came out and were there to defend us which was really sweet of them and it wasn’t because we were a band that they knew or liked it was because that was their duty in their minds. Then a bus load full of cops in black armor and automatic rifles came out of what looked like a painted school bus into the club with German shepherd dogs who then sniffed for this bomb that they didn’t find because it wasn’t there and they, the police left and on their way out they extorted money from the club owner who then extorted money from the promoter who then extorted money from us and then we were abandoned in a hostel the next morning with no way to get to our airplanes, no money to pay for our flights or work visas…and then a kid from the show appears out of nowhere, we don’t even know how he knew where we were or that we were abandoned, but he did, and he flagged down a bunch of Russian dads on their way to work on the ring roads around Moscow to be our taxis, to take us to the airport, to get to our flights on time and then he took us to the bank and paid us. All of these things done by a kid who last time we saw him he was wearing a Youth of Today varsity jacket because kids in Moscow and eastern Europe know more about American hardcore than most North Americans do. But they have their own amazing bands too. But last time we saw this guy he was in midair taking the mic and now he was saving our lives literally from rotting in a cold basement of a hostel in Moscow.
So we have had people in the scene and the community rescue us from the collateral effects and avalanche of power abuses and state control by police. And we have also seen people outside of our fairly trivial punk rockers trying to get into different countries trying to play shows or whatever, we’ve seen other peoples lives devastated by racist police assault and class biased police assault and so for us its songs that we wish we didn’t have to write and feelings that we wish we didn’t have to feel but the reality is there. It’s not just coming from a punk band that has beliefs and values against state control and authority and we recognize that law enforcement is there to protect property and the ruling class and there is no humanism in that approach. Now this is not to say that every individual of law enforcement cannot be actual heroes, as much as that has become an inverted joke. There are some really good hearted people out there in every profession and so we have had police be extremely kind to us and help us. Like in Japan we were incarcerated for not having the right work visas that we didn’t know weren’t the right ones the first time we tried to go there and we were just left and forgotten in a kind of persona non grada cell on the ground of the airport, but outside in that weird area where you’re not allowed in a country…we were there… in that middle ground when you’re not anywhere, you’re not a citizen, you’re nowhere, your passports are gone, no one knows or cares where you’re at, and so there were people from all over the world there and after about 30 hours a police officer came up and was like “hey why are you here? I know some English” and so he helped us get out of there and at least get to Australia where we had a tour. So later we went back to Japan and had the right paperwork and made it and now we play shows there all the time and it’s cool.
What we risk and what we sacrifice is meaningless compared to the damage that law enforcement does to working class communities of color and to people all over the world like in the service of the state and the corporate dogma that has rewritten what it means to be alive and to function in our democracies. That’s something we had already known but we have the unfortunate opportunity to not just be there to intellectualize into something that’s a pithy statement and an aggressive punk rock trope but its something that we have lived and experience first hand and we wish we didn’t have to.

Tom: You guys have been around for a pretty long time now, and I like to see that you are playing shows with up and coming bands like some of the bands tonight, Title Fight and Mountain Man, who are well respected around here. What is the best advice you can give to these new bands who are sometimes faced with the decision to keep going or give up?

Thomas: Yeah that’s something everyone has to kind of understand for themselves and for the reasons that they’re doing it. I think the bands that keep doing it, it just means that they still have something to say, the chemistry works and they have managed to strike a balance between having the band eat their lives and having a personal life and a life in a community where you still have honest inspiration. The crappy seventies rock “only write songs about the road because you’ve been in this isolated rock star bubble and tour bus for most of your life”, like there is a punk rock version of that where you can write songs about traveling and having adventures and playing cool venues and connecting, but if you don’t also have a life in your town beyond the identity of the bassist or drummer of this particular band then your only living like a one dimensional aspect of this thing that is meant to be a three or four dimensions. So I mean I would say just be real with yourself and don’t be desperate about needing to be in a band all the time. There’s other ways to contribute, there’s other ways to get it out and manifest your desires. Like our friends in the Beehive collective that are here, they do the visual art component of many of the activist ideals that a lot of bands try to live up to and they have an amazing time and they have a party while they do it. And I think that some of the things, especially as punk is pretty structured even in the independent underground sectors that you can just go through the motions for a while, like I’ve seen bands that forgot they even had to questions themselves, they forgot that they really had to mean it and dig deep and we all have to remind ourselves that that’s what we have to do in order to justify this existence because it’s a little crazy, it’s a little irrational and we rely on the good graces and the belief of other people and we can’t ever lose site of that and take that for granted.

(At this point in the interview Mountain Man has begun to play their set which has filled the ICC church with some of the most chaotic hardcore you will ever here. You can check them out at http://www.myspace.com/mountainmanhc . Also, the pastor of the church, Rev. Lorraine Anderson has walked in on our interview and has started talking to us about how important it is that the church has shows that everyone can go to. She urged us to tell people to email her in support of the all ages shows at the ICC church as she apparently has to constantly fight against the surrounding neighborhood to keep these shows going. You can email her at landerson@icc-boston.com.)

Danielle: I found a quote from you that I found particularly inspiring and I would like you to elaborate on it if you can. It was on the FAQ section on your website and it said “I do believe that punk needs to retain its intelligence and creativity and it can only do this by not confusing social revolution with what passes for politics.” Was that you who wrote that?

Thomas: Yeah, I guess I think that like there is something way deeper than not just the duality of the American electoral fear of democrats and republicans but I also think that just getting caught up in what the state allows, there won’t be much room for real change. It always comes from the ground, it always comes from people, it always comes without an apparatus of law. That’s something you can just see historically and of course Dr. Howard Zinn was the one that made that most clear so I think I will dedicate this answer to him.

Danielle: Thank you for saying that, because I think that that is a really important message to get out to people, especially kids and younger kids who are coming to these kinds of shows that are all ages.

Thomas: The thing is also though, it’s the way that we get Boston to having to join one of these teams and people seem to mimic their parents culture politically for a while and then they rebel against that and join a university or whatever or don’t and there is just a sense that we’re all getting played by that like there’s a much deeper change to engage with each other and to liberate and to understand like that all of us are kind of in these psychic chains and we need to break them. And then we need also for the people who are in the physical chains of poverty and disease and wage slavery and allowing for the rest of us to live in this relatively privileged sphere. It’s really important not to just think about rocking against bush or rocking for the democratic party, it just dumbs it down and it ends up betraying some of the deeper values that this punk rock thing is capable of manifesting.

Tom: Those were some great answers and we really appreciate the interview. Thank you very much.

Thomas: Thank you!

Strike Anywhere is in the middle of supporting their latest album “Iron Front” which was released off of Bridge Nine Records last Fall. The band has plans to be playing the Palladium in Worcester in June. You can listen to their songs and find out about tour information at http://www.myspace.com/strikeanywhere .


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