On the grey Vancouver streets of East Hastings and Main, I had the opportunity to have a curb-side chat with Strike Anywhere frontman Thomas Barnett. In the midst of a tour with Bane, Touche Amore and Lowtalker, Thomas took some precious pre-performance time to talk about the overall reaction to the band's most recent album, Iron Front, how his wife is as punk rock as he is and if the band is starting to slow down. Near the end of the interview, we also had an interesting conversation with one of locals and as always, Thomas was his friendly, thoughtful self.
So how's the tour going so far?
Oh man, real good - it's awesome.
Good to hear...
To be on tour with Bane again is like a touchstone for all of the things we think are relevant - as individuals and with the music that they make. Like, we're fans of that band and we're also friends with them. We have an inconic dozen or so bands that we feel are like family and will take any opportunity to tour with them - Dead to Me is one those. The Lowtalker guys have been on tour with us since Milwaukee and getting across North America from Virginia. That was interesting because the shows were smaller and it seemed like either the scene needed to hit the refresh button or everyone had forgotten about punk rock and were trying to remember- it was kind like a science fiction movie where you're hit with the Men in Black button and your memory is erased.
It's important to play the shows to 30 people and have the same focus and passion as the cities you've played a dozen times and where you have like, dear-old friends and the scene keeps raging with or without you. In my home town of Richmond, when I was growing up in the late 80s, there was this dead spell when nothing was happening. So whenever a band would come through, try to give a shit and stop over in our town, it would be like a holiday because we were so hungry for that moment.
Is that why you joined a band? Because of that hunger you experienced growing up?
That's a good question...yeah, I guess so. I think that is was also because I was writing my whole life and I just needed a place to put the lyrics and melodies and rhythms - it was more like poetry. (laughs) That just sounds so pretentious and intense.
Anyway, a lot of my friends were and still are some crazy musicians and artists of all strifes and so to participate in that was very important and the momentum it's had in my life is something I respect and don't really quite understand - I love it.
So being in your 10th year of Strike Anywhere, has that love changed at all over the past decade? Does it feel like 10 years?
No, not really . It's fun to think about in that way because it is our anniversary and Iron Front came out and touring more around that record, which was released on our 10th anniversary.
Almost to the day, right?
Yeah, exactly. So it's really important to look to the future - we have new songs, new music and it just keeps on rolling. Me and my bandmates, who see eachother all the time, are almost like one frayed conscienceness sharing these tour experiences. Like, last night we had a lively conversation in our box truck about the state of the world.
I mean, you can't just do intense politics every day with your political punk band on the road. You need to relax and be friends, give eachother space, or walk in separate directions when you get out of the vehicle. It's all legit because at some point you have to function with all of the psychology and mechanisms of being in a band together - we're not like a band of brothers, we're more like a weird nuclear family where I'm the mom (laughs).
So last night we had an almost meet-somebody-at-a-bar-and get-really-intellectually-stimulated-kind-of-conversation and it was with Eric (drummer), who I see everyday, you know? So that's what year 10 means to us - our relationships are intact, everything is awesome, we're super-in touch with Matt Sherwood (former guitarist) still - he's working and living in Asheville still and he's going to put on a show for us there. So the lines of continuity with our band are strong and me and Mark have moved back to Virginia as of January 1.
You were in L.A. the last time we talked...
Yeah, just for two years and before that I was in Portland, Oregan for three and before that I was in in Vermont for three years...
So I spent ages zero to 30 in Richmond, Virginia and now I'm back at the tender age of 37.
(laughs) Things have come full circle. About the band, is there a label or term that you see associated with Strike Anywhere that you feel is inaccurate or annoying?
(pauses) That's a great question. People don't use the word, "oi" enough when they describe our band - that's a pet peeve we have.
They do or they don't?
They don't and that's a shame.
Why is that?
Because we love a lot of Oi!, obviously leftist, anti-racist Oi!, and second-wave punk. Even though we don't necessarily sound like that, to us, in our heads, we feel like that - we want people to know that we think we're an Oi! Band.
At heart you're an Oi! band...
But we're probably as much a hardcore band as well - like, from the late 80s. I grew up on the band Four Walls Falling from Richmond and they really pushed me to do this. They were a straight-edge hardcore band, but they had like, Malcom X and Martin Luther Kings samples on their record - a lot of songs about ecological devastation and racial disparity. This was in Virginia, in the late 80s and we didn't have a progressive, radical punk community - we barely had anything. So that was very profound for me and they put me on this path.
(pauses) I don't know. I used say that we were three punk rockers and two hardcore kids. The punk rockers thought they were in a hardcore band and the two hardcore kids thought they were in a punk band, but it was the same band (laughs).
But that hasn't been true for a long time and we've all bled into eachother with all of our different influences.
I think associating a band's sound with a period of record labels or, as much as I love skateboarding, I think skate punk or connecting us to some sort of extreme sport is kind of missing the point. Sometimes people think there's a connection with skateboarding and snowboarding - especially because skateboarding is part of all of our pasts - but I never thought that music should go hand-in-hand with a particular kind of sport.
Fair enough. There seems to be a lot of love for Iron Front. Do you think that the fans' reponse to Iron Front has been more positive than Dead FM?
(shrugs his shoulders) Yeah...yeah, I would say that. With Dead FM?, I think a lot of people loved it and we still love it - everything still feels very real with the statements and songs from that album. It was the right record for that time and it was kind of clean and clear and bright. It was also Sherwood's last musical contribution to us and that was really important because it was so positive.
I think Iron Front. has a little more to do with how we grew together as a live band once Mark joined and things got a little chunkier and heavier and faster. I think part of it has to do with writing lyrics while living in lots of different places. I had a garage set up when me and my wife and some friends rented a house in South Central, Los Angeles right off the Crenshaw Boulevard exit. I would hear police helicoptors all the time - it was like the natural world had gone and was replaced with industrialized, militarized state control over working-class, poor communities.
There was still such beauty and life and hopefulness . It was so wild that there was fresh fruit like, dripping off of the trees 11 months out of the year and you could make an avacado-orange smoothie from your backyard in this house that you rent in South Central where there's bars all over the windows. So there were all of these contradictions about how we have a civilization right now - in America, in giant mega-cities with disparities, between rich and poor and with police brutality and racial profiling.
My wife is involved with public legal aid work and the governor of California gutted the money for that...
She's a lawyer, right?
Yeah, as of only relatively recently. But she does animal rights law and human rights law so it's not like, you know...(laughs) She makes as much as a school teacher, but it's cool...
At least somebody has a job (laughs). We were at my house in L.A. and the band was at my house and Leslie (his wife) was going work....I love how we're doing a punk interview and we're talking about what my wife does for a living (laughs). But I think it's really interesting. She was instrumental in doing the reasearch to build a case for the people of Los Angeles versus the five mortgage banks that illegally defrauded and illegally evicted about 5,000 working-class, first-time home owners from their homes. It was very punk rock - basically she would come home, I would rub her shoulder, spritz water in her face and then she would go back out there and punch a bank in the teeth.
Right on. So you were the trainer then...
(laughs) Yeah, I was Burgess Meredith (from the Rocky movies) and then I would go back into the garage and write a song about it.
So it was a big source of inspiration...
Yeah, and also the contrast of living in L.A. and growing up as a southern punk rock kid. The way I see the world is still through Richmond, Virginia. It's through those cobblestone streets , the sultry hot summers and the insane historic legacy of the middle passage slave trade coming right up the James River and human beings being auctioned off and sent down river. So I see southern California as kind of the end of western expansion - the final moments of this strange, spoiled adolescent dream of western civilization. For all of the criticisms of celebrity culture and heinous dislplays of wealth in California, there is a weird, optomistic, progressive vibe that is missing from the southeast and missing from most of America.
So yeah, there was so much inspiration wrapped up in these contradictions and these pushes-and-pulls in the heartbeat of life. And in my little life as a songwriter in punk rock, all of my bandmates coming back to Richmond, Virginia for I Iron Front. years deep, was a big part too. A lot of it was spontaneous and unplanned so it definitely feels like we're on some kind of path and there are forces around us that want us to continue - even if we're coming home from tour with some empty pockets, but tons of great memories.
Well there's definitely people who want you to continue - just look at everyone who showed up tonight.
It's an honour man. Especially in city that we haven't been to in three or four years. Being able to come back and feel like you have friends here is great feeling.
Last time we spoke, you said you were feeling pretty optomistic about the world and how things were going. Is that still the case.
(shakes his head) No, it's not the case. I mean, I feel optomistic about people. It's always this weird, reversed-optomism where shit is so fucked up that maybe now, there will be clarity as the truth of how messed up everything is comes to light. I hope that people will be forced to listen, to change and to transform themselves out of these isolated little boxes we're put in. The oil spill has a lot to do with it and Obama's fairly impotent presidency has something to do it. I always thought that somebody would recognize that the American corporate system will hijack any sense of fairness, opportunity, intellectual vigor or evolution. This is another cul-de-sac - a dead-end for our species. Like, how we've organized ourselves into these nation states. Like, the way that Obama has his balls in vice because BP probably helped elect him, you know?
This is the kind of moment that we need to ask like, Hugo Chavez, what would he do? He would send in the military because this is an invasion on our sovereign shores. This is destroying, not only human life, but our continued subsistence on fish - especially poor people all along the Gulf Coast, Florida and Alabama. If that shit gets gets up to the Bahamas? Oh my god. I have friend of mine, who was the bassist in Inquisition (Thomas' former band), Leer, and he has been living in the Panhandle for years now with his family. I don't know what he's going to do because he owns a restaurant there - there are stories like this everywhere.
Last night, Greg Bennick from the band Trial got up on stage in the middle of our set to talk about his charity, 100forHaiti.org, Him and some people from the hardcore scene got on a sailboat with medical supplies to give to a doctor in Port-au-Prince and help him out. That is what I'm seeing - people without any other apparatus or institution, joining with their communities and neighbours and saying, "Shit is fucked and we can't wait around."
Anyway, that's my optimism - it's always been this aggressive optomism (laughs).
So with this aggressive optimism, are you writing a lot right now?
Musically, there are some things floating around that are really interesting. Last night, Garth (bass player) showed me some jams that sounded awesome. So even though I thought I squeezed out everything I could from my bandmates for Iron Front. Right now, we're just excited about learning all the songs on the record and playing them live - bring the record out the world. But there's always music floating around I continue to write whenever I can.
Before the oil spill, I had written a song called "New Neighbourhood Atmosphere" and it's about soil contamination in improverished communities where there's triple the birth defects, cancers and where young women's uteruses are falling out of there bodies - and this is in America, in the cancer alleys of Louisiana. I do feel like now is a fertile time for environmental groups to stand up. Like the damn Green Party? Where are they right now?
I don't know why they aren't in the mix, raising a ruckus, you know? Maybe it's time to go beyond that. Go beyond insititutions and political parties and just have motherfuckers commandeering a boat with medical supplies and getting in there to help. It's awesome that there are people in the punk and hardcore scene that are so motivated, so smart, so passionate and so moral doing things beyond just singing songs about them.
We're just the parallel media at best. We love what we do, but we know it's the easy road. We get home and do animal rescue, work at Food Not Bombs, work with the disabled, have our own projects and then roll back out on tour. But the actual activists that strictly do those things, hold it down. That's the weird life of a punk rocker where you're in these two worlds - you talk about things other people are doing and also participate in it, but you're also at a show, singing about it. This is the strange contradiction that bands have been talking about since the middle-80s when political activism and punk rock began merging together.
Cool. I thought that your video for "I'm Your Opposite Number" had a very strong activist vibe - I loved it by the way
Are you planning to do another video for the album and if so, will it be with the Justin Staggs again?
Actually, we've just recently been talking about doing more films or videos with our music involved, but Justin's a busy man and Bride Nine's a smaller lable so that would be difficult to coordinate, but we love Justin's vision - I mean, that guy is a soldier.
For the "Instinct" video that he did, he hand-built all of those lights, we had a generator and we had a guerilla DIY show. It was like the hottest day in Richmond, in an abandoned, oil refinery gasworks and we were covered in graffiti and pigeon shit - it was also a lead-battery reclamation centre so we are all breathing in toxins in the heat. Now, cut to about four years later, we go to Minnesota: it's the coldest day ever, we're outdoors and these crazy dudes are burning like trees and old couches in this barrels while the show is happening for the video. So in the moshpit and on stage, we were breathing in the smoke from all of that (laughs). We went from the hottest day to the coldest day, we were still breathing in toxins and it was all for Justin.
Yeah, so with the last video, he was trying to reference French new wave and (Francois) Truffaut films and I think he succeeded in many ways and we're very proud to be a part of it - it's a beautiful piece of art.
What other songs are you thinking about doing videos for?
We have some friends who are DIY video artists and are interested in doing a mix of live video and audio performances with like thematic compilations of images into a narrative. Originally, we were thinking about doing "Postcards (From Home)" and "The Crossing," but it all depends how it rolls - to have other artists do visual approaches to our songs would be really cool. "Blackbirds Roar" is another song we were thinking about because there are a lot of images in the lyrics and they're taken directly from my time in the garage in South Central.
Are you releasing the next album on Bridge Nine?
I would say yes - unless there are some unforeseen complications. We're really pleased and they seem pretty stoked and happy to be working with us .
It's a good family, eh?
Yeah, and they're growing in ways that are cooler everyday. Like, here's Agnostic Front and here's Lemuria - that's cool.
(we notice an intoxicated-looking homeless man standing next us, staring at myself and Thomas)
Hi. (not sure what he wants)
Thomas: Hi. (looks up at him)
Intoxicated-looking Homeless Man: Holy Fuck! (laughs)
Thomas: That's what I like to hear. (smiles) Give it up (reaching out to shake the man's hand).
Intoxicated-looking Homeless Man: I'm just kidding around, eh. Do whatever you got to do (shakes Thomas' hand).
Thomas: Yeah? I appreciate that man. Have a good night my man (shakes his hand again).
Take it easy man.
Intoxicated-looking Homeless Man: You know where I'm going, eh (looks back as he walks away)
Intoxicated-looking Homeless Man: A beast...
Thomas: A beast...a beast... (he repeats, looking slightly confused)
(I shrug my shoulders)
Thomas: He's going to go see the beast...(still confused)
He's going to see the beast?
Intoxicated-looking Homeless Man: Grrrrrrrrrrr...(laughs)
Thomas: Alright, see ya man.
Take care man.
(the homeless man stumbles away)
Thomas: That was sweet...
Yeah, this is a rough part of town...
The women at the coffee shop near by who made my beverage said this show was a blessing here because it would help bring other people with passionate arts to this part of town. The woman didn't know what our style of music was at all, but she was like a barrista angel - she's like a new-age mystic while she's making you coffees (laughs).
Yeah, totally. Shows here definitely bring some positivity to the area - it can get pretty sketchy. So back to the interview. Do you have any idea of when the next album's coming out.
Yeah, we do have about four or five songs that didn't quite make it to the last album and we have a lot more coming out. We've been in this creative spell since 2007. There's no real explanation for it - we just have been writing more.
When will we see a new album?
Man, we probably won't be thinking about thinking about it for about another year. We'll see and we'll take out time.
Well, on that note, thanks a lot for chatting man - it was fun as always.
Thank you man. We better go inside - I don't want you to miss Touché Amoré.