Vocalist, guitarist and lyricist Darren Johns is the elder statesman of the five-piece, with over two decades of involvement in punk and hardcore. Punknews editor Andy Waterfield sat down with him to discuss musical growth, rioting and the potential limitations of 'punk' dogma.
For Punknews readers who aren't necessarily familiar with Crazy Arm, how would you sum up what you lot get up to?
For me, we're a punk rock band. Other people think, "Oh, you've got too much classic rock, or too much country, or too much folk music, to be just a punk rock band," but I think those elements we draw in, those sources are still part of the punk ethos that we try to represent. I've been writing songs all my life, I've grown up on different kinds of music and I've never really closed the door to any style of music. I got into rockabilly when I was really young, then punk, Irish folk, Hip-Hop, country... It all makes sense to me, and I find it hard not to let any of that music seep into Crazy Arm.
I always think it's odd when people put these fixed boundaries on genres anyway, because it's not like punk just sprung up out of nowhere.
Well, it's been widely talked about, the kind of parallels between punk and folk music being music of the people, of working class people and of storytelling, so the similarities are more abundant than the disparities between the two. Same with hip-hop, y'know? It's all music made by people that haven't really got any control, so that's our way of inspiring each other.
Country music is the strange one. I remember when I was a teenager and people used to tell you what kind of music they were into, or you'd read the personal profiles in music mags, and they'd say, "I'm into anything but country & western and jazz!'. Those were the two things everyone hated, and now everyone loves country music. It's kind of strange that that's become accepted in the punk scene as quite a cool thing to be interested in, and obviously a lot of punk musicians have turned to the acoustic guitar and cut themselves as some kind of modern day Woody Guthrie.
This is your awkward, generic, interview question: Crazy Arm released their second full-length Union City Breath last year. How do you feel the band has developed, both personally and sonically, since you released Born to Ruin in 2009?
Personally… I don't know, I feel like I've stagnated over the last twenty years! [Laughs.]
Born To Ruin was a long, long [time] in the making. We started to record that album somewhere else, at a local studio, two or three years before it was released on Xtra Mile. Those songs are so old for us, and were quite old at the time, compared to the batch of songs from the newer album. When we started the band, we never had any idea what we were gonna do. I came out of The Once Over Twice, the other guys came out of No Comply, and we just didn't want to sound like either of those bands. We've now established ourselves as a band that does certain kinds of music within this framework, so I guess we find ourselves sticking to it a little bit, but when we practice or when I write stuff, I try to have a completely blank canvas. I don't sit down to write a punk song, and I don't sit down to write a bluegrass song.
The main progression is that I think we're getting better at learning how to blur the edges between different styles of music, so it doesn't just sound like we've bolted a bit of folk onto a punk rock song. We've tried to fuck it up a bit more, so you don't know where the influences are coming from. I don't know if we've succeeded.
The third album we're writing a lot of stuff for now, and I think it could end up being a far more punk rock record than the first two, but I could be completely wrong. We're very fickle and I get really bored quickly, and songs get dropped quickly.
As people, personally, I don't know… Two years – it's not that long, you know? Do you change much in two years?! I feel the same as I always feel. Old. I'm an old man.
How old are you now?
43. I feel like I'm falling apart! [Smiles.] I think that's reflected in a lot of my lyrics if you look closely enough.
What was the context for the writing of Union City Breath? The country's obviously gone through a bit in the last couple of years; how much of that seeped into the songwriting?
The lyrics that I wrote for the album suddenly made a lot more sense after it came out because we had the student riots, then the summer riots, and there were certain lyrics that seemed to preempt those things. Not that I'm saying I'm some kind of prophet - those things happen in cycles anyway. The national memory is very short, it seems. Civil and social unrest is a constant; it's always gonna be there, especially in a capitalist society, so you're gonna have those things happening every few years, sparked off by something, somewhere. One of my initial ideas behind Union City Breath was that it was supposed to be a pro-feminist record [and while] certain songs touched on feminist themes, that got lost when everything kicked off that summer.
Those inner city riots weren't pretty and they were morally reprehensible in some instances, but you have to have an analysis because that kind of hate, that kind of anger, it erupts and it festers, and it's going to happen until those issues are addressed – and those issues are far and wide, they're global.
I've grown up with anarchist politics, so my take on it is completely different from, say, my brother, or my parents. When I see kids rioting I feel kind of empowered by it. I don't feel disgusted. People are harnessing that pent-up energy, and something's got to give. There are so many reasons why young working class people are angry, it's not just a case of looting sports shops. The dynamic of rioting is far more complex than that.
Ultimately, people don't need to have songs to inspire them to revolt, they do it because their lives and their standard of living instructs them that things have to change. Songs can only mirror those issues, they can't create those issues. I always find it strange when bands say, "I want our album to change the world." Bullshit, you know? It's never going to happen. All you can do is reflect that change. You may inspire people to get into the idea of politics, but people don't need a rock 'n' roll record to tell them how to go out and address their social problems.
Well, that feeds right into my next question: What do you think the role of politics and activism should be in contemporary punk and hardcore?
I think it should be there. I mean obviously, we're one of the bands that are embracing that, but I'd never get above myself and think that we're some kind of spokespeople. I'm not that clued up. I read a lot and I learn a lot, but I don't know how to express it very well. I'm not a Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein or Noam Chomsky. They really know how to connect with people on that level.
I think that all bands are political to a certain extent, no matter what they say, what they do [or] whether they say they are or not. Everything you do from the minute you wake up to as soon as you go to bed are political interactions, so for a band to say they're not political... okay, you know, you kind of are.
Like I said before, these bands don't change the world, but I grew up on Crass, and Conflict, and Flux Pink Indians... The '80s anarcho-punk scene, it was almost oppressive the effect it had on me, what those bands would say and do - so for me, as a personal revolution at least, you couldn't touch it.
I don't know how it is for young people that are getting into political bands now. For me it was a revelation, that whole period. I don't know what the equivalent is for a fourteen year old punk kid now. I don't know how it feels to grow up in the punk scene today, how it feels to listen to bands like Propagandhi as your introduction to that world.
I remember what it was like a decade ago, listening to a song like "Homophobes Are Just Pissed 'Cause They Can't Get Laid"... As a fifteen year old kid, you've come off the back of that window of socially acceptable homophobia, where it's all young lads trying to assert their masculinity, but then hearing that song and thinking, "That's it!"
So, was that one of your epiphanies? I think they're a great band, but I could never get that passionate about them because it was stuff I already knew, or that I'd already been exposed to. I'm not sure it's for me to answer how relevant those political bands are, because I'm not sure I'm connected enough.
I guess we must be quite relevant to some people, politically. People talk to us and say we've inspired them to do certain things and to research certain issues and campaigns, so I guess it helps, but I don't know how it feels for a young kid growing up and being exposed to politics through punk anymore. I get complacent because, as I said, I've had my political punk "awakening" through my teens and through Crass, when [now] there are generations of kids that need to be inspired by new bands. I've been into politics and activism all my life but I don't feel as active as I used to, and I only get involved in certain things now. The older I get, the less clear it seems. Things just seem more confusing to me now!
I don't think bands should be political. I think political people should be political, whether they're in a band or not. My favourite bands over the last twenty or thirty years, half of them didn't have any radical political insight; bands like X or Black Flag were never "political" bands; they lived their own politics but they didn't write about it. They talked about a more internal sense of anger. I relate to that as much as I relate to bands like Crass who were carrying the torch for anarchism.
Without naming names, do you think there are bands out there who do go in for that sort of dogmatism? Everyone's been at a gig where a band will start a chant in a room full of 14/15 year old kids, and you find yourself thinking, "Do all these kids know what they're chanting?"
I guess the idea there is that some of those kids will go home and learn about it. That's the premise. You're trying to plant a seed in people's heads, and it worked when Crass - and before them, the Clash - were doing it. They would just completely overwhelm you with slogans and images and the music itself, and the lyrics. I'm sure a lot of the punks there were just into drinking cider, sniffing glue and getting fucked up but so many kids got it, and I was one of them. It just ignited that spark, and that's what started me off in that direction.
I think you should be true to yourself in a band. There are political bands out there that I don't think are true to themselves; bands that wear the political tag as a marketing tool. But even those bands that are a bit dubious, that maybe don't operate the way their politics should make them operate, even if they're just paying lip service, it still affects young kids. It might strike a common chord; one line, one song, or a campaign a band might get involved in, so maybe it's not for us to care whether those bands really mean it. I think I've just contradicted myself but if they make people question the society they're living in, then that's got to be a good thing, right?
I listened to an interview with Geoff Rickly on the old Issue Oriented podcast a couple of years ago, where he was talking about how Thursday would look at opportunities and go (paraphrasing at best) "Look, we don't necessarily want to do this, but if we do do this, then we've got the money to go and do this. Like, if we get paid for this we can go and do six or seven benefit shows."
Well, there you go. That makes sense to me. Like, with Chumbawamba - they became one of the most popular anarchist punk bands through the '80s and early '90s, and then they signed to EMI and pissed a lot of their anarcho-punk fans off. I liked what they did. I understood the move. I may be a bit partisan because I know them and count some of them as friends, but I loved the fact that they donated advertising revenue to radical groups. General Motors paid Chumbawamba $100,000 to use another one of their songs for an advert in 2002 and the band gave the money to anti-corporate groups like Indymedia and CorpWatch, who then used the money to campaign against General Motors!
You've got to look at both sides of that coin, at least. Signing to EMI... I don't think I would do it, but then I wasn't in their shoes. They'd been a touring anarchist band for 15 years or so, they'd run themselves into the ground, they had no money, why shouldn't they try and see what happens when you do something like that? It didn't destroy anybody. It didn't bring the punk community crumbling down. It was just a band pushing their own boundaries a bit, and seeing what happened.
They also got class politics talked about when no one was talking about it in 1997. I remember when one of the band's singers, Danbert Nobacon, dumped a bucket load of ice water over (then Deputy Prime Minister) John Prescott at the Brit Awards because Labour were selling out the Liverpool dockers at the time. It was passed off as a publicity stunt, but it wasn't. That's the kind of thing that the band would do all the time when they were tiny, y'know? That was their Situationist politics that they always stuck to. I knew them then and I know some of them now and their politics are exactly the same, completely intact. So I think they had more of an effect than any two-bit anarcho band that were just hectoring from the sidelines, and slagging off anybody else that dared to do what punk bands aren't supposed to do.
When I was young, I was really self righteous, and really militant. Everything had to be exactly right, you couldn't fuck with that DIY template, but I don't think that anymore. I'm in my forties. I don't give a shit, you know?! There are things that are more important to me than the punk rock scene, and I'm sure they are to everybody. But, at the same time, the punk rock scene is important.
Have you got any thoughts on the profile and perception of UK punk abroad, especially in America? Do you think they see us as some weird little annex?
No, I don't think that's ever been the case. There's always been a healthy respect between American and UK bands. The very first wave of UK punk was influenced by the first wave of pre-punk in New York, and it's kind of gone back and forth for four decades. I think it's great.
A lot of American bands love coming over here, and a lot of smaller UK bands are now going to America. It's a smaller world than it used to be, in the sense that the internet has brought a lot of people together in ways that they never could have before. We haven't played America. That's one thing we haven't done yet so it'd be nice to see how it is first hand. Soon!