For anyone who has ever seen hip-hop legend KRS-One in concert, you know one of his famous boasts is: “The real hip-hop is over here!” If a similar boast was made in the punk rock world, it would seem very appropriate to say it in the vicinity of Strike Anywhere, a fiercely political punk band originally hailing from Richmond, VA.
I met up with their frontman, Thomas Barnett (pictured left), on the opening night of their current East Coast tour, and was very relieved to find out that there are still some wonderful souls out there carrying the punk rock torch with great passion and sincerity. At face-value, Barnett does not look like your typical punk frontman–he favors dreadlocks over mohawks, and his on-stage attire of what look to be wall-climbing sneakers and a pair of paint splattered work-shorts (that sometimes ride a good six inches above his knees) don’t necessarily scream anarchy or uprising. But as you’ll soon find out, judging a book by its cover, may be one of the most un-punk rock things you can do.
Jim Shearer: The first time I saw Strike Anywhere, I got the same feeling I had when I first started listening to punk rock music as a teenager. I think you’re one of the few “punk” bands doing it right these days.
Thomas Barnett: That’s really kind of you. We don’t know if there’s one correct way. Punk is interesting, because it’s like trying to push and pull. There’s this tension between getting the word out and the liberating, cathartic quality of the shows themselves–even beyond the academic parts of punk–the messages, ideals, and footnotes. If you had to take it down to the emotional roots of it, that’s the thing that keeps us here on independent tours with our peers in the East Coast punk music scene. All of this stuff at once feels like a beautiful exercise in anachronism, and also, the only thing we have left that feels real–not to be too dramatic.
Jim: You guys seem to be coming at it from a very pure place. Do you see many other bands sharing your ideals, or are they becoming fewer and fewer?
Thomas: They are becoming fewer and fewer. This tour right now–especially–is the one where we wanted to gather like-minded souls, people that inspire us. We also see the necessity to tour with bands that are really different, and show their audiences that we still exist. Not just us, little ol’ Strike Anywhere, but the movement that punk’s about–not being afraid to not look cool and to give a significant amount of your intelligence and your creativity to helping the world–and to being critical of yourself, your own laziness, your own materialism, and all of that.
Jim: 10 or 15 years ago, what was not okay to do in punk, may be acceptable today for a band’s survival–going out on a sponsored tour, having your song in a car commercial, etc. Where you do guys stand on all of this?
Thomas: We tend to take things on a case-by-case basis. I think we would feel more emotionally comfortable if we only stayed in the finessed, operationally pure, basement level of the punk world, but there’s been so many times and so many moments where we’ve played a Warped Tour or some strange festival that a radio station put on that didn’t make a lot of sense to us, but it felt like we broke through and those kids kept coming back to our shows. Not only did they come to our shows, but they engaged in the punk scene in their hometown as well. It speaks to the thing that got all of us into this in the first place–you have to have a “window” to jump through. If you’re not going to have that “window”, then you’re just going to be aching for something different, something that didn’t insult your vulnerability, depth, or intelligence–but maybe you’ll never have a chance to find it.
Jim: Because you’re in a “punk” band, does it ever become tiresome when the purists nit-pick?
Thomas: Honestly, those conversations end up being positive no matter how badly they start out. We think it’s really important to have this critique, even if not every person lives up to it, or if the way you live your ideals changes year to year. All of us can be hypocrites, all of us can contradict ourselves, even when we mean something with our whole hearts. We’re always happy to have the raging discussion by a bond fire with people in the punk rock community that are so underground and off the grid.
Jim: Would you consider Strike Anywhere a “political” band?
Thomas: Yeah, sure. We write songs strongly symbolic about radical history, human uprising, human rights, and animal rights. I think you owe it to yourself, to your ancestors, and to the future, to try to speak the truth.
Jim: There are many bands that make “political” music, but seem reluctant to take their message any further. For example, when Green Day was winning awards for American Idiot–an album which was obviously anti-George Bush–I would have loved to hear them say certain things when they took the podium.
Thomas: Kanye West was the only one–when the big bright lights of the media got on him–that just said it. I wish more people had said it too. A lot of folks in punk bands are shy and they’re only used to having courage in that punk-show environment. I think when you put them up on podiums and stuff–not matter how confident they seem–they’re going to start to remember that they were the outcast kid in middle school that everyone made fun of and lose it a little bit. A lot of people join punk bands so they can express themselves in a raging, furious, and often violent forum where they can feel protected by all that chaos. That’s why I haven’t made an R&B record.
Jim: (laughs) I feel if Strike Anywhere ever won an award, you would have the courage to say something.
Thomas: I would hope so. We always try our best. I think also, sometimes things get so diluted by the spectacle of big media, that no one is really going to hear what you really mean to say in the first place. Maybe that’s the reason why people shy away from it too.
Jim: I want to applaud you for a track on your Dead FM album called “Allies”, a song in which you show support for the gay community. Sadly, it’s still very acceptable in pop culture to use a gay person as a comic punch line. Do you find it happens as often in the punk community?
Thomas: I heard recently about a show that happened in my hometown where a band had a song written about the same issue and someone in the crowd heckled them drunkenly. The band stopped playing and kicked the person out of the show. Those are the kind of things that happened a lot more in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I don’t know? In our community it seems we don’t see that very often. People are pretty dialed in. When we do tours with bands in different genres, that have more of a regular suburban-mall-Hot Topic following, we do see that–people that don’t think homosexuals have rights and don’t want to hear about it. That’s another reason we can go in and play those shows and have those forums–we feel like we make a difference applying these ideas to the reality that these people live in.
Jim: Your band’s logo is the anti-fascist circle. Who discovered it? When did it become your trademark?
Thomas: I guess I did. A friend of mine was living in England in the early 90’s and was involved in a lot of anti-racist demonstrations. I noticed it on a flyer my friend brought back from London. I researched it and slowly found out that it was the symbol of a group called the Iron Front. In the 30’s, in Berlin and other cities when the brown shirts and the proto-Nazi party was heating up, this group was the only one who was trying to fight them in the streets, block them, and to let people know [who the Nazis] were and what they were about to become. Obviously, it’s not just our symbol, and it’s not even a symbol like an anarchy sign, an equals sign, or a peace sign that are used in punk. It’s something that has really deep historical roots and we’re proud to carry it, but other folks should too.
Jim: You always talk about how government and pop culture needs to be improved. If you had your way, how would you improve pop culture? What needs to be done?
Thomas: I think niche marketing and telling different age groups what they should be entertained by is a big problem. I think, obviously, the lowest common denominator is the viciousness of a lot of reality television. There’s not enough credit given to people’s intelligence or the amount of collaboration from the bottom. There are huge arts in working class communities that used to inform the things that everyone else thought was cool. I’ll even take it back to jazz or the Zoot Suit Riots. Now it’s all coming from the top down, it’s just another aspect of the grand consolidation. I wouldn’t tell you what media company I would destroy first or who I’d fire from executive boards of different music television programs. I think there’s people better qualified, possibly at this table right now, that could give me better suggestions about that. I just resent the sense of hollowness, condescension, and distortion of art that is happening. We see it with the youngest kids that come to our shows. They want to be dialed into something real and they’re trying, but the distance they have to go is so much further than we even had to go to find something authentic.