-Interview Lionel Hill
-Photos Erica Schultz
I got halfway through my introductory spiel when Strike Anywhere’s Thomas Barnett cut me off. “Hey Lionel, it’s good to meet you,” said the small, dreadlocked frontman, flashing an outwardly warm smile. “Let’s have a conversation.” Barnett’s openness is refreshing. His soft-spoken voice and demeanor defer from the attitude problems and pretentious nature of his contemporaries. On this night, his band will close Los Angeles’ F Yeah Fest, a multi-band, multi-genre, multi-venue celebration of underground music and art, with a secret performance at a Downtown gallery. Shows like this are rare for Strike Anywhere, but Barnett is legitimately excited to be playing in a room with no stage, in front 100 kids instead of 1,000. As he speaks of politics, hardcore, and his hometown, you learn very quickly that he’s not a jaded veteran, but a lifelong punk who’s just as hungry for knowledge as he was a decade ago. Sitting under a street lamp on a Downtown curb, Barnett showed me he is every bit the person he is on his records: determined and educated, yet energetic and positive.
Lionel: You guys are in-between albums right now. What's your process for putting one record to bed and preparing a brand new one?
Thomas: We're really excited and thirsty to write this record, so we’ve kind of blended the processes. We're in the final edge of the touring cycle for Dead FM, and we've been writing ideas, and guitar and vocal parts while on tour. However, we still need to get together in a basement in Richmond and play really hard and fast, and as our friends the Bouncing Souls would say, “feel our feelings.” So when we get back to the United States, we’re playing our hometown at an art gallery in Jackson Ward on election night. That’s the last show of this year and the touring cycle, and then we’re staying there and writing the record.
Lionel: What are some of the themes of this upcoming record?
Thomas: There’s a deeper understanding of borders and boundaries of different nation states. We discussed it a little bit when we wrote about being detained in Japan on “House Arrest,” but this record is more about the nature of economic predation, and the lies that countries tell themselves to exist and co-exist with the elites of other nations. There are stories about deserts, and narratives about families trying to get somewhere where they can afford to live, eat, and escape violence. There are also tales of environments in a city, like seeing the oil derricks move up and down, or black helicopters everywhere like strange prehistoric beasts flashing lights into your windows. I live by the 10 Freeway in Los Angeles, and there’s always that kind of activity there. It’s going to be darker, more impressionistic, and slightly more apocalyptic than Dead FM. Yeah, the times are changing, and there’s the possibility of a historic political moment in the United States, but we can’t let go and retreat back to our lives. We have to stay connected and stay involved in our communities. It's getting too expensive just to tour and do all the things that punk bands and people in our community love to do, so you have to choose the right moments to express yourselves. There is not a great deal of energy and time left, so we have to make it count, and that’s a big theme on the record. At this point, there are stories, characters, and narratives, and there are metaphors that are drawn deeply and globally. There are also more songs like "Instinct" that come from a personal place, an autobiographical standpoint if you will. I had a friend almost shot in her house by a stray bullet a couple of years ago, and I finally pulled myself to a place to write about it and the reaction to it. I want to capture what incidents like it mean to people in communities in all these cities all over the world, especially in America.
Lionel: You mentioned a "historical political moment" that we could witness (and hopefully are witnessing as you read this interview - LH) in the coming months. Does any part of you fear that the election of Barack Obama will make people comfortable, therefore apathetic and less attentive to politics?
Thomas: I don't think so. I thought that back in the spring, but as of tonight I think that there's a sense of accountability, and of engagement, that no one's had with the political process before. Yeah, there's obviously an aesthetic, commercial vibe, but I think this election has a cultural hold on people that's hopefully going to make what it means to participate in democracy different for more people than it has before. I don't necessarily agree with all the policies, but I also don't know if we're voting for policies and ideology, or if we're voting for someone who's reasonable and not in the pockets of elite aristocratic wealth. For that alone, Obama's election is important. I have some friends who are tooled up militant radicals, opposed to the electoral system for all of its bloodshed and deception. When I talked with them recently, even they said that everyone's got to lay the fuck back and let something happen, and only then can we hold people to what they promise. We can then start to have engagements with people from all working class communities of the world, the same people that stuck their heads up and said "maybe this can be real, maybe these people are finally speaking for us and we can have a voice too." I'm not necessarily buying into all of the dreams of "hope," but I'm not letting myself fade into hyper-sophisticated intellectual cynicism either. I think it's important to keep your mind open and just remember what you want. Look, larger anarchist ideals, like the end of the international system, are not a part of any kind of any vaguely liberal Democratic agenda, but there will be lives saved, and there will be a more rational national culture, if he's elected. It's important to at least have something that can get us somewhere else.
Lionel: Your music has touched on various political and social philosophies. Is there a certain philosophy you subscribe to?
Thomas: My first experience recognizing inequality, and figuring out what to do about it, was organizing an organic produce market in my hometown with a friend of mine who is an Industrial Workers of the World delegate. Since I've been traveling on tour, I haven't been as engaged, but Anarcho-syndicalism is probably where I fall. However, I think that every ideology and every -ism of the last century is past. There has to be something new that's a fusion of ideas. I'd rather find common pathways to walk with people than I would just play into the identity politics of radicals, especially tax paying, voting, American radicals. Wallowing in that shit is pretentious, uninspiring and unimportant. You still have to believe in what you believe, but keep your mind open. I think our lyrics touch on ideas, and get people thinking, but sometimes we're just saying things we need to say. We don’t want to be automatons living in this theatre of performance and ritual-esque catharsis. We challenge ourselves with what we do and say, much like the whole punk community challenges all its participants. You have to call yourself out on your shit, without getting bogged down in a guilt trip. There's ways to free yourself from that and enjoy everyday life. Some of these ideas have been around since revolutionary anarchism of the 1890's. There's shit to take and re-appropriate and re-contextualize and paint a different color. To be honest, I think trying to nail us down to one ideology wouldn't be honest, or honorable, or even worthy of all the intelligence and creativity of this whole community.
Lionel: So the community has a role in your songs as well?
Thomas: Absolutely. I don’t think a song is fully written until people are singing it with us and incorporating what it means to them. People tell me what they think a song means, and I'm like "yeah, it means that," even if what they’re saying wasn't originally what I wrote about. The way a song attaches to something important in someone's life, like the flickering of sub consciousness, is a big part of our music. For example, I get great catharsis singing about the powerlessness of a racist police assault on my neighbors in Richmond in "Sunset and 32nd," but that song means different things to different people in the different cities that we've played in the 8 years it's been written. It's not for me to say "okay, that's cool, you guys can have your fantasy about the song’s meaning but that's not what I originally wrote it about.” It's all these living things going out there, changing people and being changed by people that help make the song. I don't mean to sound all new agey and lofty, this is hardcore after all, but we do hope we can reflect some of the insight, openness, and optimism of all the good people who've given our band their attention and their time.
Lionel: The underground punk scene has a way of turning its back on bands and people the second they become popular or have any kind of major mainstream exposure. Being a band on a bigger punk label that does large festivals and big tours, as well as small clubs and warehouses, what do you think is the line between empowering yourself to sell your music and ideas to people, and staying true to your roots?
Thomas: We just do what feels good to us. Sometimes we're excited about a weird adventure, like doing a large tour through Europe opening up for some bands that are in a completely different musical realm. We’d love to only be in our counterculture, where everyone at the show knows more than we do. It's a mutually educating and inspiring experience where everyone is dialed in, but there's something almost too comfortable about that. Sometimes we’ll do something that isn't emotionally or artistically comfortable or rewarding, like opening up for some larger band that draws young kids, but I like seeing what happens. Maybe we can talk about our ideas, not because we need to sell more records or we need more people, but because everyone needs to have a window to our community. We call it the "gateway drug theory." If Billy Talent takes Anti-Flag on tour in Canada, then people may be able to listen to Anti-Flag and get into some of their ideas and beliefs. Then Anti-Flag takes us on tour and people fall into us through that window. After that, we go on tour with a band like From Ashes Rise, or Modern Life Is War, or A Global Threat, and then people get into that world through us. You go further and further and all of the sudden, those kids aren't coming to our shows anymore; they're putting on their own shows in the same cities. That’s how we all got into it too. You weren't just born with an Amebix patch or the Minor Threat discography in your hand; you get there through a process. Hardcore and punk is our world, it’s is where we came from, it’s where we're going, it’s everything. Things like DIY shows at art galleries are really organic and fulfilling for us on so many levels, but it's important to feel like you're trying to reach out to people with a message. We want make this more than just entertainment and go into spaces that are not predictable and try and pull some kids out of the impossible, two-dimensional, mindless world of going to see rock shows. We want to provide a bit of a challenge and inspiration. We play these epic "give-it-a-name" festivals in places where you could fit the space shuttle. Europe has these wild events where a bunch of bands, punk and otherwise, will just get together and play. At the end, everyone is left shaking their heads like "what just happened?" These things are really interesting spectacles, but we try to bring meaning, or just shake it up for a second, and blink in those bright lights.
Lionel: It’s like you’ve got a master plan…
Thomas: (laughs) We don't do anything tactical. We don't have a grand aesthetic vision for how to bring the purist, operationally truthful, radical punk underground together with the kids at the mall, but here's no reason to say that those kids are already written off the board and are never allowed in. They are just as worthy of the opportunity to get into this community of radical mutual aid and music. They can have these ideas, and this art, and be more than just fans of a radio band. We see the kids that go to Warped Tour, or see us open for different emo/pop bands, at one of our shows like tonight, and we’ll say "this place has more shows than this one. It's not just about us. It's in your hands too, so let's do this together." So you knock out that hierarchical pop-star presentation, and suddenly kids realize "whoa, this band is playing on the floor, and I just saw them on a ten foot stage with bouncers and it was shitty, but something moved me enough that I decided to come here!" We still believe in that, that's part of our mission. We still get guys who say "I saw you guys on the Warped Tour, and that was miserable because now I know that this shit is here. I would have never known." That's really cool.
Lionel: So are you guys going to play more big shows and tours in the future?
We don't have any plans to do anything like that again. Sometimes wild shit comes up, and we'll be asked to open for a really big band that happens to be our friends from way back, but whenever we have our own ideas and designs, we'll be like "let's do a tour with Paint It Black, or the Bouncing Souls, or our friends in Richmond bands." That's kind of where we want to be.
Lionel: You guys draw a lot of inspiration from your hometown of Richmond, VA. Being a band that tours extensively, and whose members reside in various cities worldwide, how has Richmond shaped the way you see things in these places?
Thomas: In many ways, Richmond is the way we see the world. It was the place where I said "I can step out of this wheel, drop out of school, and be creative with my friends so we can speak our mind, have our say and build something." A lot of people leave their hometown to have that experience, and I got to have it where I was born. There is a remarkable history of resistance in Richmond. During the Civil War, southern abolitionists secretly emancipated their slaves and set them up at positions at the White House of the Confederacy. These African people posing as servants were literate and educated, but pretended not to be and sent coded signals to the North. So these wealthy white Richmonders that did not believe in the Civil War were subverting it from the inside, and at the highest level! These are stories we like to sing about, like the “Ballad of Bloody Run” on Dead FM. There are lots of specific bits of history about people in the Conservative, racist south doing what they could to make a difference. Nowadays, you see historic neighborhoods that have been destroyed by police brutality and the everyday economic violence that happens to the working poor. You have to recognize it and you have to speak out. You don't have to carry all the weight and prejudice of your ancestors, or even the confusion and ignorance of society at large. There's a way to harness your intelligence and your compassion and not just exist in a space where people aren’t meant to have these conversations or work beside each other. We did guerilla community gardens in our hometown, and we see that all over South Central Los Angeles now. That strikes a harmonic with me. Los Angeles is so much bigger and has such a different history than my hometown, but it has these moments of radical mutual aid and revolutionary love that are the same, and on a bigger scale. Our songs are windows to interpret these things. We’ve been really blessed to have this life and we try to give back to it. I know it's a weird thing to say, but after awhile you have to realize that the weird spiritual fabric of punk rock is not just coincidence. It's not just raw ambition either. It’s having some kind of sense that there have been movements in the past before distortion and electric guitars that harnessed all this potential. The jazz age in our hometown that was similar to punk rock. People were putting on shows and trying to have moments of ecstatic experience, joy and connection. They were saying “this is my planet too, and we have to change the way that bosses and Presidents and all of these people with illegitimate power have been oppressing us. They have dictated the terms of our survival for too long.” That's the focus of the lens I use to look at the world, and that's what Richmond taught me.