Strike Anywhere take their name from their vocalist Thomas’ former band Inquisition. Thomas Barnett, along with the rest of the band Matt Smith, Matt Sherwood, Garth Petrie, Eric Kane have since 1999 being creating awesome melodic hardcore with clear roots to the Richmond, Virginia scene which they formed out of. Their logo, the international anti-fascist symbol, sums up their message as well as any other: solidarity, resistance and equality.
Back in 2003 I had a long and interesting conversation with Thomas when the band played London’s Garage, which was published in Rancid News #6. I returned to the Underworld in Camden in November 2006 to follow up the interview and see what had changed in the intervening years. In the time the band has released a B-Sides album, and moved to Fat Wreck Chords for their new album Dead FM. The new album is a progression on Strike Anywhere’s previous outings. Most notably the much more personal lyrics, not least in the song Sedition, which discusses Thomas’ grandfather’s work on the Manhattan Project and how that has affected his family’s life.
We chatted for an hour about rural America, moving to new cities, taking part in the Warped tour and of course Thomas’ experience of the Manhattan Project.
LH: I interviewed you back in 2003 when you played the Garage. What’s changed since then? It seems like there’s been some pretty big shake ups.
Thomas: Wow, has it really been three years! We toured a lot throughout 2004, and when To Live in Discontent came out we, successfully for the first time, toured Japan. We did more in Australia, New Zealand and Tazmania. We came back to the States, gave the Warped Tour a shot, which wasn’t fun, but based on the passionate urgings of our friends and other political punk bands who weren’t going to be on it – they wanted someone on there who was on ‘our side’ so to speak. Someone to speak against the military recruiters who were setting up shop at the Warped Tour and all sorts of other strange, culturally poisonous, corporate, superficialities which are hugely part of the Warped tour, with punk just being a small part of it.
We got our chance to go to really rural isolated areas and try and make a difference, to offer a window and be like, “This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you have a moment to dig deep then you’ll find something more interesting.” It also gave us a chance to organise the non-profits at the non-profit tent there.
We ended up in a psychic whirlwind after that, and we realised that, though it’s a cliché, that we needed to regroup and try and figure out, ‘Do people need another political punk record? Do people need another record from us?’ There’s plenty of other bands.
Then we moved to other cities for other personal reasons, and just how life makes you end up moving to other places. Got involved in other movements in our communities and then had a damn good time writing the rest of the material for Dead FM and felt like we were really reconnected to everything, our passions and spirit and the way to write these songs to offer them the authenticity, in the personal qualities, that we wanted to inject. For us it’s a victory; we’re really happy with it.
LH: You’re not all back in Virginia then?
T: I’m in Portland. My wife is up in college there, she’s doing animal rights law in the law school. Which, of course, would have to be on the West Coast for that to exist. We’re out there, and Matt Sherwood has moved to the mountains in North Carolina to a tiny little art college there. Matt Smith has been moved away for about five years so that hasn’t changed and the rhythm section is still in Richmond but they’ve moved to different places.
Everyone has become more solidified in their different places. I was involved in the different legal observations for the peace protests and counter-recruitment work. It’s an interesting world when you get to the grassroots green anarchists and the civil rights lawyers and there’s this incredible tapestry of working together. The things that are closest signifiers of that kind of relationship would be old radicals, and Caucasian punk kids marching side by side with the elder democratic left clergy who had once marched with Dr King. On the West Coast there’s just national guild lawyers getting gassed by police and then having their colleagues getting them out of jail, defending activists and talking about free speech and defending robust speech and trying to use law within that spectrum. Obviously it’s insane to say these are ‘anarchist lawyers’ because it’s the most contradictory, convoluted, making Crass roll over in their graves – when they’re not even dead – kind of thing. But if there’s something that can be built based on contradictions then it will happen in America.
I’ve been involved in some of these enlightening moments and writing probably the most personal lyrics of my life, which hopefully have the same expansive political metaphor, and probably even more depth. That was what my band-mates challenged me to do. There was also the linear notes, it was like, “We’re on Fat Wreck Chords, we can do a twelve page booklet with an eco-friendly digi-pack. Let’s write a lot of essays!” Before we hadn’t really had a chance, with the budget, to really work on a layout that has all of the depth and the footnotes that we wanted from the songs; this gave us that opportunity.
LH: It’s really obvious from listening to the album that the lyrics are much more personal. Sedition [which discusses Thomas' grandfather working on the Manhattan project that created the hydrogen bomb] especially is really personal stuff. Were you were worried about putting so much of yourself out there because it’s a pretty scary thing?
T: You never stop being worried. It’s like this child that you release on the world. It’s like the family secret that’s pre-occupied my mind ever since I had to have surgery, as a child. Just to speak right, to swallow right. It’s a huge part of my experience with reality; having a clef lip, having a disfigured situation that required surgery, and wondering why. The song.. it took me 33 years to write it, but it just leapt out of me. It was the right moment to put those lyrics on there.
I corresponded with my family about talking about it. It seems to have brought a lot of joy and catharsis to my family and to other folks as well. On the west coast tour, when we just did our headlining tour there were a lot of Japanese kids at the San Fransisco show, and there was this one kid who floated to the front and toward that last bit we held each others’ heads and sang along in that hardcore fashion but also very tearfully too, as an undercurrent to that moment. And I feel like there’ll be more of that with that song, which you can never be ready for.
LH: Have you ever made contact, or has your family ever made contact with other people who were involved with the Manhattan project?
T: No. There’s websites and there’s all these discussions about it now. My grandfather was one of 10,000 Union seamfitters. He was a sergeant in the army corps so he had men under him, but he mostly had faceless men over him and blueprints that he was never allowed to see, and that was probably the nature of him. He died when I was 9, so I never really got the chance to discuss this with him. It’s still missing a lot of pieces for me. In fact interviewers for this record have done more research about it, and told me more about the specifics; like what building the yellow cake was made, and more than I even knew about it.
LH: I didn’t realise that you guys had played Warped tour. How did you find it? I know that a lot of bands that I’ve spoken to recently – like Chris and Hannah from Ghost Mice – who had specifically tried to make a tour to follow the Warped tour to show the alternatives to Warped tour, had fairly strong views. I was interested about whether you felt you had been able to make any impact on people who were going there, or had an effect at stopping the recruitment stage?
T: We got in a fight with navy officers. I think a part of it is creating an alternative to the American spectacle is a fiction. I think trying to engage with it, if you’re trying to fight it, is really important because you’re giving this other option to people that don’t know they have it. They’re not part of the progressive, university-basement college environment of punk, and they never will be.
We definitely talk about the ‘gateway’ theory a lot, and about how more mainstream bands will trickle down ideas and culture to other bands as it were. We open up the door to the radical punk world, and the same kids follow through and trade in all their Green Day, Anti-Flag and Strike Anywhere records and will only buy Tragedy records. Eventually they’ll only distro Tragedy records to friends and there’s this friendly preciousness, but which is also a really stagnant and selfish way to look at counter culture. These ideas need to be sung out hardest on the level where it can save people’s lives, that’s the bottom line. It’s not about keeping punk well defended and maintained like some religious cult. That’s bullshit and I think a lot of people would be happy to see it maintained in that way.
That said we definitely wouldn’t do the Warped Tour again. We needed to know what it was about, and we needed to see that we could meet some people and find America. Find kids in Montana, or isolated bits of Canada, like Calgary or Alberta. We would never have been able to afford to get to those places as a traveling punk band. We’re trying to roll and keep it independent, and boycott Clear Channel and not use sweat shop merchandise. These are the physical things we try to do to live our ideas. As far as who we play to, and how to give many, many kids, the ignorant, mall-punk kids, that we all were when we were 15, and give them a chance. That’s really important to us. Even more so than our own philosophical comfort which see us playing in every basement and every squat and see us doing it that way. I think it’s a part of our consciousness to try and grow this thing. But it’s complex and it changes case by case.
We’re now talking about the same thing that Ghost Mice wanted. Building a, ‘It’s about punk culture’ alternative summer festival tour that doesn’t support Clear Channel, that doesn’t have military recruiters, that doesn’t have corporate intrusion. It would probably have to have selected sponsorship so that we could afford it, but we’d have to figure out why and who and how it’s presented and work within the spectacle and promote it and make it something viable.
LH: What it’s been like moving to Portland? There’s a few Strike Anywhere songs that are specific to Richmond, and as a band you have that ‘Richmond’ sound? I was wondering how you thought geography had affected the way that you wrote lyrics on this record or how they might effect in future records?
T: Having been in Richmond for 30 years I’ll never see the world in any other way. The things about social justice, hope and the positivity and even the way that we approach punk culture is all from Richmond. That can never change.
It’s interesting to live in new cities though. I think that everyone should. Portland is really cool, extremely different, but aesthetically they’re similar with the same sort of industrial waste and bridges and rivers, and there’s so much counter culture and more of a progressive outlook and a municipal optimism which would just never work in Richmond, which is so stagnant and corrupt. I still draw on it for inspiration, and I always will.
LH: You mentioned Crass earlier in the interview, and you mention them in the linear notes and I was wondering essentially, do you like the band?
T: Oh yeah, we love Crass.
LH: But it seems whenever you mention them, you use them as an example of the punk archetype that you feel people should move beyond.
T: No, no, we have nothing but love. It’s not them, or what they did, it’s just the way people hold them to a particular ideal and don’t allow for any transformation or particular modernity in the way that we try to harvest these jewels of counter culture from bands like Crass or Minor Threat and Positive Force DC and all these groups. Lets also question what resources that we have to take this forward, or what historical moment do we have to capitalise upon or ignore, and what would that mean to us? I think it’s important to look back at these sort of figurative ancestors of this counterculture and communicate with them, even if we don’t know them. We can’t do this in a vacuum, we have to look back at all the mistakes, and all the insular bitchiness, dogmatic mistakes, as well as the operational creativity and purity that created all of this.
LH: Do you feel that we’ve backed ourselves into a three-chord corner – to be slightly glib about it?
T: I think Fugazi was trying to rail against that, I think Refused tried even more spectacularly to rebel against that. I think even that is a corner, you know? Trying to expand on the genre, but leaving all the musical trappings behind is also a cliché. Getting too conceptual, and too shrill and precious about what you’re doing to move on the counterculture can sometimes backfire.
LH: Do you still consider punk a counterculture?
T: It’s both a counterculture, a sub-culture and even less. It has the right to be all of those things. I think that’s part of its strength. The fact that it can be as shallow, and ephemeral and fleeting and that it can be as rich, and deep and fierce. Those are all really important parts of the same beast.
LH: You touched on it briefly when talking about the Warped tour, but do you think within the USA there’s the coasts, and then the centre, as being distinct social areas?
T: There’s a really dangerous over simplification of the political histories of those states in the mid-west. Kansas, for example used to be the most socialist, agricultural-labour, almost straight anarchist state that we ever had. Now people just regard Kansas as somewhere where people are all just religious morons, and bigots burning homosexuals, fighting against science.
I think there’s a lot more intense geographical specialisation about all the parts of the time zones of the USA. As big as it is, it isn’t just this homogeneous mess that it’s presented to be and that’s why we try to get to as many places as we can to talk to those people.
LH: People always talk about whatever some state is supposed to be about, and then I’ll get some letter from some infoshop in one of these places saying you know, ‘We’ve just set up a zine library, can you donate some zines’. But it’ll be from Texas or wherever. How have you found the experience of playing these areas?
T: It’s recently been very, very good and we’ve actually seen some growth on some level. People have come out and brought their friends and there’s been folks from infoshops in towns that we’ve never even heard of, in places like Missouri, Kansas or Nebraska, coming hours and hours to see us. Those have been some of the most engaging, refreshing and important shows.