Smoke or Fire
Smoke or Fire appeared out of nowhere in my life sometime in February (2005), with the arrival of their debut on Fat Wreck Chords – Above the City. For several weeks their blend of angular pop music, and simple lyrics, didn’t leave my CD player, so it was only logical that when they came to London to play Deconstruction on Mayday that I was going to catch up with them and do an interview. (Incidentally the band was the only one to actually wish people a ‘Happy Mayday’ at the show) The interview took place within the bowels of the Astoria on Mayday 2005 with me talking to the band’s singer Joe McMahon.
LH: Okay, how’s it going? The past few years haven’t been too good to you – you lost the record label you were on, you were forced to change your name. Is it okay now?
Joe: It’s amazing. We’re in Europe (laughs). It’s been amazing. Getting signed to Fat was like a dream. That was pretty much the best thing that could happen to us. We’ve turned down offers in the past because we wanted to be on a label like Fat, which kept us pretty underground. People at Fat still didn’t know who we were when they signed us, so, everything’s been amazing. We’ve been on great tours, with some great bands, and we’re in Europe right now. So things couldn’t be better.
LH: Is this the first time that you’ve been to Europe?
J: Yeah, this is the first time that I’ve ever been out of the country, out of the US.
LH: Have you never even been to Canada?
J: I went to Montreal once when I was really, really young. I don’t really remember it.
LH: You’re originally from Boston, right? And you moved South, to Richmond, VA, because you couldn’t afford rent?
J: Right. Boston rent is just really high.
LH: Was there also the issue of not finding places to play, because I know a couple of years ago a lot of the clubs were closed down.
J: It was weird. It was a combination of things in Boston that really hurt the music scene. The hardcore scene was really, really big and there was kids who were getting hurt at shows, whilst there were also kids who were just destroying property. When I first moved into Boston – into the city – there were shows everywhere. There was clubs, which were all, all ages. Shows would be held in churches, in temples, VFW halls, anywhere. But they just started to be closed down one after the other, and places started to get sued because of the kids getting hurt. So, by the time that we left there really was no all ages venue left in Boston anymore.
LH: Is Richmond an improvement for gigs then, I know you used to have shows at your house?
J: We did, yeah. The house, we lost. After two years the owner of the house wouldn’t renew the lease (laughs). We did a little damage to the house. But we got two years of house shows there, which were always free, with free beer. Anyone was welcome, we tried to help out touring bands as much as possible, by getting them a show in the town, and just putting people up. It was all donations, so we didn’t charge any money. It worked perfect for two years, no cops, no fights, nothing.
LH: There seems to be quite a lot of that sort of stuff happening around Richmond. Do you think it’s unique in the States, or are there other towns like it?
J: I think there are different cities like it. There’s Gainesville, Florida, with Hot Water Music and No Idea Records, Against Me! etc. It’s sort of like a brother to Richmond. They have the same vibe. Just a real community of punk rock, where people go to shows because there’s a show, they don’t necessarily have to know who’s playing. There’s a real community vibe to the music scene in both towns, and bands are very supportive of each other. In other cities it’s not so much – in my experience.
LH: So I guess you’re happy in Richmond then?
J: I think it was the best thing that we ever decided to do as a band. To really get ourselves together, and just focus all of our attention on the music.
LH: Why did you decide on Richmond and not somewhere else?
J: We actually had never been to Richmond before we moved there. It was partly because the attitude that we had at the time was that, ‘Anywhere is better than here’ for us. And Richmond has a great music scene. And the cost of living there is so cheap that you can afford to go out on tour and still be able to pay your rent.
LH: I was checking out your website, which was saying that you’ve played Food Not Bombs benefits in the past, have you done anything else like that? Why did you decide to support that sort of thing?
J: When we started off, it felt like every show that we were playing was a benefit show. And then we realised that we were so into playing benefit shows, that we never really looked into what it was benefiting. As we looked deeper it kind of looked like the many beneficiary was the promoters pocket. So we became slightly wary about that. But, Food Not Bombs is just amazing. And it always seems that people, and cities, keep trying to shut it down. They say it’s illegal to give away food to people for free, which just seems so ass-backwards to me. When we first moved to Richmond Food Not Bombs was huge. Every single Sunday at 4pm there was just all these people in the park who could eat. And the City was trying desperately to shut it down. I think they still try to do it, but the City keeps shutting it down. I just think that it’s a good cause. There are hungry people, and it makes sense to try and give them food.
LH: Did you do other stuff like that in Richmond? Were you involved with it, or were you just supportive?
J: If it’s a good cause we’ll try and help out anyway that we can. When we were in Boston, something that was big for us was, a place called the Arts Space, which we used to play. It was basically just a place where kids could go after school, and do art, and they would have shows at night. We’d always try to do benefit shows there. For instance there was a girl whose house had burnt down, and the thing that really bummed her out was the fact that all of her CDs had been lost in the fire. So we had a benefit show where everyone was asked to burn a CD and bring it to the gig to give to her. Then there was a girl who was in a drunk driver accident – who unfortunately eventually died – but who we put out a benefit CD for, to try and raise money for her hospital bills.
LH: I was reading an old interview of yours where you were talking about how a lecture by Howard Zinn had influenced ‘Goodbye to Boston’ [a song about bombing Baghdad and the civilians within it]. Are there any other writers and thinkers who have influenced you that much?
J: Yeah, everybody! I’m very affected by the things that I read, so I try to read as much about things as I possibly can. Growing up, I hated politics. I always had to listen to my parents, and my grandparents, and my brothers argue about it. But then I got to this age, where I got to a place, where I realised that politics was something that influenced my life, and wasn’t something that I could just shy away from. So I started trying to read about everything I could – capitalism, socialism, anarchism. Every single kind of politics, and because I’m so affected by it, I try and read it all and make up my own mind about it. But Howard Zinn’s ‘People’s History of the United States’ is just one of the most important books that you can read. Musically, band like the Descendents, Avail, Hot Water Music, Fugazi and bands like those have really influenced me.
LH: Have you come across the Howard Zinn ‘Reader’? The story that I think he talked about in the lecture you heard was discussed in it, where he was making the point that World War Two couldn’t be considered as ‘just’.
J: I haven’t read that, no. I actually saw him in person when he told that story, I saw him immediately after September 11th. And I think that kind of honesty, is very admirable. Whilst everyone else in the US is going, ‘Who do we go bomb’, instead of educating themselves about why it happened, their attitude was ‘let’s go bomb people’. Whilst he had looked at it from his own point of view, and that’s how it had affected him. That had a pretty big effect on how I considered things.
LH: Do you think people’s opinions have changed in the States? Are they still looking for people to bomb?
J: I think people are beginning to get really fed up. It’s weird, I just saw my uncle. I went up to Arizona to visit my grandfather, because he’s sick, and I saw my uncle who I haven’t seen since I was six years old. He was a general in the US army. Very high up, spending 35 years in the military. And it’s kind of funny having these conversations with people in the military, and I was asking, ‘So, how’s this going to go?’ And I found out that he’d just left the military after 35 years because he felt so strongly against the US military being in Iraq. That’s very admirable. And I think that a lot of people in the States are really fed up with what’s going on. I’ve seen the attitude shift, and in a lot of places that I didn’t expect it to. It’s strange, sometimes people outside of the US seem to think that everyone there is really backward and doesn’t know what’s going on. But I’m not sure that’s accurate. I think deep down most people know that it’s wrong, but the American ideal seems to be about, ‘Am I safe? Am I going to have 175 channels on my TV?’ not ‘How am I effecting other people?’ But I think that deep down most people know that it’s wrong.
LH: How did you feel with Bush getting re-elected – did you expect him to?
J: I honestly didn’t. I’m an optimist. There’s others in the band who are complete pessimists who were saying, ‘There’s no way that Kerry is going to win’. I was very optimistic until we went off on tour. We went on tour for the two months before the election, we actually got back the morning of the results. The tour was in the Mid-West. And that’s when I started to get a little scared. I think religion ties into it a lot – unfortunately. Bush is ‘led by god’ – supposedly. And in areas that are very religious his support seems to be a lot heavier. So we’d be driving along the street, on tour, and there’d be the signs sitting outside the church saying things like, ‘You will be judged by God by your vote on November 2nd’. And that’s when I started to get a little creeped out. In different areas, where someone asked, ‘Who did you vote for?’ and you said, ‘Kerry’ the record skipped and everybody stared at you. ‘How could you vote for Kerry?’ But ‘How could you vote for Bush?!’ So that was when I started to become a little worried.
LH: Was that attitude at punk shows too?
J: No, not so much at the punk shows. I think there’s a very small pro-Bush punk movement that I’ve never seen, but I’ve read about. But at punk shows, for the most part, it was pretty safe to assume that there weren’t many Bush supporters there.
LH: What are you planning for the future of the band?
J: Right now we’re just touring non-stop. It’s weird having your life so planned out, for so long. We’re booked up till December 4th right now, on tour. I’m back home for a week in between there, somewhere, to get married and go on my honeymoon. But the day after the honeymoon I’m back out onto the road. It’s weird, we’re completely booked up until December, at which point we’ll come home and take a break for two or three months, and then we’re back in Europe I think sometime in late February. After that I’d like to say that we’d take a break, and go home and write a new record but right now it feels like the tours are just going to keep coming. So for now we’re just going to hit the road, and try and get the record out there.