In the ten years of its melodic and angry existence, Strike Anywhere has consistently grabbed listeners with a passion that comes straight off of the band members' heart-covered sleeves. Any music fan does themselves a disservice not to see this band live ‚Äď to witness and partake in the flurry of fists all lead by a chorus of one. The raspy eloquence continues with the new album, Iron Front, on October 6, almost exactly a decade after they played their first show ever. Lead singer Thomas Barnett generously took a break from his morning coffee and Patsy Cline to speak to Gen Handley over the phone about the new album, how to evade Nazi skinheads in Moscow as well as some sound advice he received from a fellow punk vocalist.
So have you relocated to California?
Yeah, in between tours I‚??m here. My wife lives here so I come visit her and our adopted dogs and cats (laughs). She‚??s an attorney for the animal protection unit with the city. I still also spend a lot of time in my home town of Richmond, Virginia on the bookends of tours. Things sort of begin and end in Richmond and then the band members all peel-off elsewhere. Matt Smith, our guitarist, lives in Baltimore, Mark Miller, our newish guitarist, he lives in San Francisco and then Eric and Garth live back in Richmond. So yeah, we‚??re all over the place (laughs). It‚??s always great to get back to the home town. We‚??re playing a show called Best Friends Day in Richmond and it‚??s a huge, like, DIY punk carnival across the city, in the heat of the summer and we‚??re doing a release show for our new EP. We‚??re only having like 2,000 pressed but it‚??ll be released digitally too.
Will there be any new songs on this EP?
Oh yeah, yeah. There‚??ll be two A-sides from the new record and there‚??ll be two B-sides from the session. We thought they would make better songs on a seven inch rather than the full record.
They‚??re not like inferior songs because we really brought all of our A-material to the Iron Front recordings. Our album has about 17 songs so that tells you we had like 28 good songs before we started making decisions.
That‚??s a solid number of songs to narrow down‚?¶
Well, there were actually 18 songs that we were happy with because the rest of them needed more work. A lot of these songs have been around for a while. I remember right before the 2,000 Voices tour, we were in Nova Scotia, sitting around in the back of our box truck - which is where we live when we tour North America (laughs) - playing some of these songs acoustically and having beers. We‚??ve had songs before Dead FM that were great, but hadn‚??t had lyrics put to them yet or had only like a really strong chorus but no lyrics yet (laughs). Everyone also started sending me like cheap, poor-man recordings with some guitar thrown down in garage band and attached to an email and I‚??d open it up and be like, "Oh what did Garth do last weekend? Oh he wrote this song! That‚??s cool!" So that process kept on happening and we ended up having oodles of material in the end. It‚??s probably not too hyperbolic for me to say that we could have another album because everyone just got really creative. We used what started off as pieces or fragments, and they became full songs in a way that was really organic and natural. We took a lot of time with them and we love them and hope other people will too.
So that‚??s how Iron Front came together?
Yeah, it was a lot of writing over time, sending ideas back and forth and getting together and rehearsing. We tried to get together as much as we could to pull together some recordings to make sure these songs were real and not just some digital fantasies (laughs). Like, the drum parts work and the guitar parts actually sound good. You know, the feel of it - the invisible quality that music needs to have, not just the theoretical.
How would you describe the feel of the new record?
(pauses) I don‚??t know. I mean this sounds clich√© and I think I say this about every record, but the new record definitely pushes our sound in every direction that we‚??ve every gone, but more. So they‚??re the heaviest, most angular, enraged, thick-sounding songs ever and then they‚??re definitely the most anthemic and traditional, but I wouldn‚??t say "street punk" because they‚??re not as jangly as what is on Dead FM - Iron Front has more soaring, like melodic-hardcore punk songs on it. So they‚??re definitely our most sing-a-long-able songs ever. There are songs that even sound like The Alarm or The Jam or even early U2, but just take that feel and make into a hardcore song (laughs). There is just a lot of rage and the guitars are heavier for sure. Like, there‚??s nothing thin or clean about it. Brian (McTernan), our producer, wanted it to be a mix of low and hi fi sounds with all the instruments. There are even some songs that are bouncy and melodic and have gang vocals singing like angels. I didn‚??t know my bandmates could sing this good, but we all got in the studio, put our arms around each other and sang entire choruses together. I think the new disc is going to feel real organic and heartfelt.
How about thematically? There‚??s a lot of police brutality in the record because where I live in South Central Los Angeles has got different types of racial strife and state control, which were the same kinds of things we saw in our hometown in North Richmond. So there‚??s a sense of rebuilding and repairing outside of the apparatus of politics and maybe some songs closer to a green anarchist philosophy.
Has touring around the world affected you at all?
Oh yeah. We went to Russia recently on the tail end of a tour in Europe and we hadn‚??t gone there as a band there ever - I had been there once about 11 years ago backpacking and hanging out with punks. So we arrived in Belarus and actually got past the border in less time in takes to get into Canada‚?¶
And that can take a hell of a lot of time‚?¶
Yeah, it usually takes like a day and a half (laughs). So we were in a van and we rocket through Latvia and Lithuania and then we get to the border of Belarus - the middle of nowhere, a frozen wasteland - and there are these cute, sweet women at the gates of this dictatorship saying, "It will be a fee of two American dollars per person (Thomas says in a high voice)." I mean, we‚??ve been robbed by the cops in many countries and extorted by people preying on punk band (laughs) so this was weird. We pay our 12 bucks, she writes us a receipt and they let us into Belarus (laughs)! Once we‚??re in, we play an amazing show and the kids there made us homemade collage books that used our lyrics to tell us stories about their lives as punks in Belarus and to thank us for coming - it was awesome and it was the most intense, heartfelt, no-bullshit situation ever. These kids were like 19, 22 years old and they had all been in jail already for just speaking their minds. I swear, there was like, a little hardcore kid who was no older than 12 years old and he had full (tattoo) sleeves. That was a record right there for inspiration.
(Thomas pauses) So then we get on a train and we travel through frozen landscapes and villages to get to Moscow the next day. When we arrive at the station there, there were like 150 punks there to meet us and they started taking our bags and all of our gear‚?¶
Yeah, we didn‚??t know was going on. We were like, "Why are they taking our guitars? What the fuck?!" So we finally meet who seems to be the promoter of our show and it was revealed to us that they were there because there was a threat on our safety by neo-Nazi punks who were going to organize, meet us at the station and stop us from entering Moscow.
Yeah I know! Little old us! It‚??s not like we‚??re Rage Against the Machine or someone with huge international presence. So we get in these Soviet Ladas (small Russian car) and we‚??re racing through alleyways in inner-city Moscow like it‚??s some kind of spy movie. It was so fucking scary but the city was also really beautiful and strange too. We get to the venue and then all of a sudden all of these skinheads roll in, but they‚??re like anarchist skinheads (RASH) who have come to protect us from the Nazis - it was fucking crazy.
So you had anarchist skinheads protecting you from Nazi skinheads?
I know! It‚??s sounds cartoony, but it‚??s true. So anyway, we‚??re sitting around with these skinheads and a bunch of cops come to the venue on a bus. The (RASH) skinheads tell us to hide our merchandise and go lay low in the back. So these cops come in with a German shepherd and because all of us are huge animal lovers, we were like, "Aww, cute doggie." But this dog was here because apparently the Nazis made a bomb threat to this club we were playing and it was there to sniff it out (laughs). But this was a story that had two villains and after the cops searched the place, they went into the (cash) till and took out the money, which came out of the club‚??s pocket, who extorted the money from the promoter, who then extorted the money from us. But regardless, we play the show. It was so heartfelt, so serious and passionate, life-or-death, people-hugging, every-kind-of-dancing show ever. We go back to our shitty hostel and realize that our promoter wasn‚??t coming to get us. Then out of nowhere, a hardcore kid about 20 years old and who was at the show, comes with two other dudes, flags down a car, and takes us to the airport. But on the way there, we stop at a bank, he pays us all of our money back and is like, "Don‚??t worry about it. Next time you come to Russia, it will be me." and he hugs us and leaves.
That‚??s a crazy experience.
Sorry about the long story, but we were really inspired of course and the three years touring for Dead FM has really affected our music.
So has a new president affected your songs as well?
I mean I remember playing a show on election night (November 4, 2008) in our hometown and when Obama won, it was the most amazing shit I have ever seen. Richmond, Virginia was the capital of the confederacy and the hub of the middle passage slavery system. Like, tens of thousands of stolen Africans would come to the Richmond docks, be bid on and then be taken down south by their overseers - that was a part of the economy of Richmond. So to see everyone from every age, from every background and from every neighborhood walking down the streets at midnight hugging each other, it was amazing. I definitely think that it‚??s good to have a moral and intelligent person in that position, but I don‚??t believe the position is moral and the apparatus of the States, the idea of presidents and two political parties are just servants of corporate wealth. So that‚??s why we still write songs about dissent. People are starting to realize that the "American dream" is an allusion created by wealthy men who are making decisions about their lives. People are starting to realize that the system is engineered to fail and to take away our power. Even if a good man and an intelligent man who might actually give a fuck is president, the mechanisms of power that he actually has are very few in the face of who really runs things. But there‚??s all this power that we have in the streets and in our lives and I think the messianic aspects of Barack Obama or leadership in general will be exposed. For a lot of folks it‚??s going to be a wake up call that won‚??t be defeating but empowering instead. The punk and hardcore community has this thing and it‚??s real. It‚??s an international movement - kind of an atheist-secular, but spiritual idea of catharsis coming together, of being unafraid of not looking cool and expressing yourself. There‚??s a feeling that we can all be connected and we can build something and we can heal together. We‚??ve seen it first hand travelling around the world for Dead FM and going to a lot of places where bands don‚??t usually go.
That‚??s really cool. On a different note, are you ever going to chop your dreads off?
Umm, I don‚??t know (laughs). It depends. I mean, they‚??re just there and I‚??ve had them for 17 years - I did have to cut them a little for my job though. Back when I got them - in the 1990s - it was fairly transgressive to still to have, what would be a called a "black" hairstyle, in the American southeast in Richmond. It was another way of just being a punk rock kid and another way to say "fuck you" to the establishment and piss off the racists and show a bit of solidarity. I‚??m already in my mid-thirties and so they really are a part of me now and I hope eventually they grow grey and I look like one of those Old Testament dudes (laughs).
You‚??re not religious are you?
Oh no, but as much as I despise religion and I think it‚??s been used to destroy and oppress so many people, I think the history and anthropology is really intense and interesting - I do know a lot about it and have read a lot and even studied some at a seminary.
Going back to the new album, Brian McTernan produced Iron Front and he‚??s produced all of your albums (Change is a Sound, Exit English and Dead FM), right?
Well he did everything except for Chorus of One. But yeah, he did everything else.
Is he like a sixth member of Strike Anywhere now?
Oh yeah, no doubt. In some ways he knows us better than we know ourselves and he pushes us. He wants our records to flow and feel like a cohesive body of work and to not be influenced by trends of the time sonically. On this record we weren‚??t reacting against anything. I think with Dead FM, there was a reaction with the previous record, Exit English.
What do you mean?
Like, sonically, Exit English was very produced, but the vocals were raw and Dead FM was more minimal and there were more folk influences. With this record, we were like, "Lets make it fucking kill you and make it tear your face off." There are more moments than ever on this record of cool, different dynamics and more hardcore sounds that just crush you. Brian, you know, cut his teeth making some great hardcore records so I think this record is like coming home for all of us.
Is it comparable to earlier Strike Anywhere? Like, back to the sound of Chorus of One?
Umm, yeah I guess it is, but it‚??s also a blend of a lot of sounds too. It‚??s our 10th anniversary record so it‚??s going to come out on the day of our first show that was in ‚??99. So I guess the sound is a mix of everything we‚??ve done and also an evolution of everything we‚??ve done - I think the members of my band would agree with that.
So overall, you‚??re happy with Iron Front?
It‚??s the record we all wanted to make. We really challenged ourselves and nothing is really typical on it. It‚??s also the first record that (guitarist) Mark Miller has performed on and written on and it has his feel - he wrote the guitar parts on the first song. While there‚??s a lot more aggression and heaviness in the sound and approach, there‚??s also souring, crazy part - Brian described it has "punks-in-the-desert-with-acoustic-guitars" songs. There isn‚??t much acoustic, but Brian was describing the feel of the record.
How has the move to Bridge Nine Records gone?
It‚??s been awesome. It‚??s just a great label that‚??s growing and enthusiastic and really clever. They‚??re still really attached to the punk and hardcore world - like the old school. The bands on the label are all really cool, but diverse and we don‚??t sound like anyone on there. They have a sense of intensity and passion, which was really important to us - they‚??re just good folks.
In retrospect, how was your time at Fat Wreck Chords?
Well, we kind of look at a label as another bandmate for our record. Like, Dead FM and Fat Wreck were perfect together and we all are honoured to have been a part of that. We were with Fat Wreck for like four years, even though it was one record, and they were the most generous, cool, good people over there. This record on Bridge Nine fucking rules and it‚??s the perfect mix and partnership. This bond with our labels is really important to us. So being with No Idea, being with Jade Tree‚?¶all of those were really important relationships for us.
How‚??s your voice doing?
I think it‚??s good (laughs nervously). Brian and my bandmates say they think it sounds best on this record, which I‚??m not sure about, but I was singing and rehearsing everyday for about a month so I think I was really prepared for this record. My voice is very imperfect and it scratches a lot. It was really bad at the Harvest of Hope in Florida - I inhaled a lot of red dust (laughs).
Do you drink tea or do anything to help yourself vocally?
I do lots of vocal exercises you‚??re supposed to do when you‚??re screaming a lot and it knock out the dead skin on your larynx (he demonstrates with something that sounds like gargling water). But yeah, I drink tea and I suck on raw ginger root - that‚??s something that Russ from Good Riddance (now Only Crime) told me about. Yeah man, we punk singers trade some weird secrets of how not to lose your voice (laughs). I don‚??t drink much alcohol because it‚??s bad for your voice and fucks up your immune system on the road, but occasionally (Matt) Smith, our guitarist, will give me a shot of whiskey before a show to loosen up (laughs).
What are your favorite songs to sing right now?
We‚??re only playing I think four songs from the new album right now and I‚??m enjoying that. The ones we‚??re playing are called, "South Central Beach Party," "I‚??m Your Opposite Number," "Hand of Glory" and "Invisible Colony." But I guess recently I feel back in love with "To the World." I always loved singing that song and have performed it thousands of times, but for some reason I hit another pocket again with the song live. Songs aren‚??t static and they grow in these incremental and invisible ways the more you play them. When you record the songs, it‚??s just the beginning of something and every time people sing along with you, there‚??s a new moment with it - they‚??re like living things. I don‚??t know‚?¶ I hit a new moment and a new level with that jam on the (recent) Propagandhi tour.
What‚??s the song "South Central Beach Party" about?
It‚??s about how I live in a neighbourhood, a place where there were two "King" riots (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rodney King), there are always cops stopping people of colour and there was a car burning outside of my house last week, But it‚??s also a community where people say hi to each other and look out for each other. When the media looks at the idea of "riot" as senseless destruction of property and vandalism, you need to look closer because riots have roots and they‚??re organized. That song asks if it‚??s violence or if it‚??s expression. It‚??s part of an ideal and part of a community fighting back because this is all they‚??re left with. It‚??s even about how it relates outside this particular neighbourhood that is so different from my hometown. The song‚??s like I‚??m writing letters back home about the stories I‚??ve discovered here. It‚??s also about rich people always being able live close to nature and beauty - like how there‚??s a difference in where the poor and rich are allowed to live. If you‚??re looking at concrete and steel all the time and at bars on the windows, then what‚??s that going to do to your mind? How are you going to feel about contributing to the planet? It‚??s also about that - about sharing the world and this treasury of natural wealth and beauty. It‚??s one of our happier song on the record.
Where does the album‚??s title come from?
Good question. It‚??s the name of the group that came up with the symbol (the antifascist circle) - the three arrows. They started in the 1930s and they were a movement of diverse people in Europe that saw the coming of fascism in Italy and Germany. So they were against all forms of state control, homophobia, racism, nationalism, and antisemiticism that they could see on the horizon. It‚??s a symbol that‚??s often been associated with us, but it‚??s bigger than our music and punk. For our 10th anniversary, we wanted to give the symbol back to that group.
So are you optimistic about the future? Is the future bright for us?
(laughs) I am actually optimistic. I think there‚??s so much creativity and heart in people. You look at the way we can survive every bit of torture that we throw at each other and the way people can collectively organize past barriers like language. There‚??s something that happens and you can see that in history - the people‚??s history where movements coalesce and people agitate and help each other. I believe there‚??s this brighter, deeper social technology that lives inside all of us. I think writers like Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin and all of the original platform anarchists of an era when everyone had beard and top hats are really important. Looking at our psychology, looking at our ability to relate to each other and to build ideas in a community is significant. I don‚??t think we do our best work with a highlighted sense of individualism. I mean, each of us are unrepeatable and unique creatures, but we can only grow and evolve together. So when we see people together and organizing across the world when we travel, you get a glimpse of this hopeful fire in everyone‚??s eyes. It‚??s that fire that we get to capture a bit of, build it into a song and then shoot or reflect it somehow so the kids in Tokyo can see a piece of what the kids in Moscow are doing or the kids in Sidney can feel the kids in Edmonton for a second, you know? Strike Anywhere is just a transport mechanism for this inspiration and we‚??re honoured to have been able to do it for 10 years.
I know this is clich√© question, but if you could describe Iron Front in one word, what would it be?
Oh man, wait‚?¶(takes a deep breath and laughs). One word is hard.
You‚??re a good writer - you can do this.
(laughs) That‚??s very sweet of you, but I‚??m a long-winded writer (laughs again). How about three words?
Ok - love and rage.