Strike Anywhere are one of those odd bands who are intensely political without trying desperately to force weightless polemics down your throat. Their music is about their world and their life, they talk about it without granting it undue brevity, whilst at the same time refusing to co-opt it’s power. It’s how music should be written, and how politics should be communicated. We finally got to catch up with Thomas, the band’s vocalist, when they played the Garage in December 2003.
RN: Ok I guess first question being that this is your last show how’s the tour been going?
T: It’s been great. We’ve played a lot of shows, and it’s been fairly long for a UK tour, I think we’ve played like twenty shows. We’ve been trying to go to as many towns as possible, like we got to play places really close together like Norwich and Cambridge, Leicester and Nottingham, that’s like a 25 mile drive! We got to come to people, they didn’t have to come to us. We played four or five shows our first time here, and people travelled, it was all regional, like, ‘The only midlands show’. The only place that we didn’t play – where we always have played – was Southampton. So people that didn’t have to travel to see us there are gonna have to travel to tonight. We played Exeter too last night and it was fantastic. It was the first time we’d been in the Devonshire area, getting a feel for that was great! We had a really, really good time. We’ve been playing with some great people: Tony from Suspect Device and his band Pilger, and … we’ve just been having great luck with the bands we’ve been playing with. We had this re-union show with Bouncing Souls and Tsunami Bomb in Wales, at TJs, where everyone was awesome and very drunk. We hope that those guys ask us back. We love playing here, and we’re sad to leave because it educates us more and more. It gets it through our thick skulls what life is like here from region to region. We finally got to see Stonehenge…
RN: It’s not very spectacular.
T: Yeah I always hear that from people in England. How like there are barriers to it, and you can’t get into it, and… that was all crap! It was totally clear and beautiful, and I could totally get an idea for the ominous geography and ancient signs, and that was all really clear for us, and it wasn’t too commercialised… I think though what your idea of what’s been commercialised and what’s been captured is so different from what really happens when something gets commercialised! (laughs) Because when something gets captured you get some kind of like strip malls sponsored by Disneyland, Clear Channel and Coca Cola. Like our demons are big, ugly and obvious, and not to say that it’s not the same threat over here, but you definitely don’t have that that much infiltration, or that kind of physic toxicity in your culture. Not yet anyways. I’m sorry I don’t want to sound like …
RN: It’s the not yet bit that scares me. Especially – selfishly – the Clear Channel thing.
T: Yeah, it’s fucking hard in America. Like there’s some cities where Clear Channel even owns the basement! The independent punk rock promoters are owned by Clear Channel. You can either choose just not to play Detroit or you can play a Clear Channel show.
RN: That’s insane.
T: There is actually a new group of kids who’ve made an anarchist collective there, and they have this mad warehouse, where they’ve started to have shows, so hopefully we’ll be able to play there the next time we want to go to Detroit. There’s people who are active who are fighting against it, but it’s a monster.
RN: Yeah it’s kind of like a tough decision a band has to make, to boycott a whole city…
T: If people are willing to take your vision of punk, and it’s the right for every band to do whatever they want with that, but we don’t want this to become… a lot of these ideas and things that move us, and the things that punk was originally built on, got kind of taken into the elitist, impotent, white middle-class university activist sub-culture, cult. And like it didn’t really proliferate to the kids that really needs it. Like you need to know you’re angry and have a place to be angry, and try to understand why you’re angry, and all of that’s really important to us. For us, and at the same time we don’t want to dilute it by making too many compromises, but there’s got to be balances. There’s got to be a way to push it forward and to get kids interested, to bring alienated suburban and city kids into this, so that they don’t just have Nu-Metal or mainstream Hip-Hop… or the things that they listen to that give them really poor choices and identities, and gives them poor choices of how to combat all of the like… not just the bitterness of the portrayal of the American Dream when everyone realises that they’re not going to be a superstar, and that they’re going to have to have two jobs and not have health insurance, and not have a pension, and not know what to do with themselves. When you vote and that doesn’t make a difference, and when you march and that doesn’t seem to make a difference, like you wonder like, what is the option? That is the view… that’s what a lot of Americans are feeling. But at the same time there’s so much optimism and so much organised activism now, and it has broken through the white-middle class frat-boy subculture. And I never went to college, I dropped out of high-school, and kind of self-studied articles like a lot of people do. A lot of people can take anarchist the power ideas and apply them to your day to day life, where you maybe kind of have to have a job, and kind of have to have health insurance and there’s not a lot of public transportation in America, so maybe you have to have a car, or at least live somewhere where you can bike to work, and there’s always going to be compromises. But at least as far as your mind is concerned, you don’t have to let it be captured. You can choose what ideas come in. You can choose your passions and your motivations. And that’s kind of what it means to us, and it’s why we make many of the choices that we do as a band and what it means to us as people. That’s where we fit in, in the spectrum of punk rock and ideology, and try to bring these messages and these stories, you know because really it is just our stories about our neighbourhoods and our lives that we sing about … I mean you can take a passage out of Emma Goldman’s autobiography and it wouldn’t be anything that we’d lived, except for the enjoyment we’d felt whilst reading that. We want to try and make things that are personal and important to us, and then the politics will come through that, because it’s the nature of writing art. Art has to be political, and has to reflect goodwill to everyone.
RN: That’s interesting, it kind of raises a lot of points. Do you think it’s not just American society that’s feeling this general sense of dissatisfaction and do you think that’ll ever actually lead to something? If people got angry enough, and go find their satisfaction and whatever that it’ll actually lead to some sort of change?
T: I think it kind of already is. I think there’s definitely that people are finding punk rock and they’re finding a place that will give them… not the answers but a place that gives them a mechanism to unravel their own answers. Of course there’s Clear Channel owned media and Rupert Murdoch owned media who take a couple of zeros of the end of any protest that happens and knock out the importance of it. But I think people are feeling it in their communities and in their homes, and I think a lot of people are feeling the economic recession also. I think in a way it’s a microcosm of that betrayal of the American Dream just within the time of George Bush’s presidency. And I think that will begin to swing the pendulum and make people want something more, and then maybe find the resources to teach themselves about their own tools.
RN: Like can punk effect what’s happening in the rest of the world though?
T: I mean I think that it’s an educational force at best, and maybe that will enable kids to find a place to express your emotions and expand your consciousness. It’s just art and music, but it’s also like our lives, and it means so much for so many people, and has done for over twenty five years now. It’s come back with it’s original themes. A lot of the anxiety and madness and absurdity of our culture, the Western Consumerist Capitalist Culture, and all the lies of democracy and of equity. And all of this is just coming back into punk with more strength. And I think there are links between the anti-globalisation movement who have done a pretty good job at uniting the previously isolated leftist issue orientated groups, into one giant, ‘Here’s the fucking problem. Let’s have it’ kind of a group. And that’s more than a start, and I think that’s really important. Like we have lots of friends who are involved in travelling to protest the WTO, the world bank and the FTAA, especially the Treaty of Americas, which is the one being most exploited by George Bush and by the people that he serves, and by the wealthy that he serves. Like that was really inspiring in Miami last week where they were all organising, from the Student Groups, to the Black Democratic groups, Gay and Lesbian alliances, ALF… you know all these different people came together to organise and to protest. I don’t think that, that would have happened ten years ago, or twelve years ago. I think there’s been a coming together of a lot of people. And I think that the internet as much as punk music can be credited with people getting connected and for people becoming more organised. And I think that’s the important issue. And I mean it’s helped the punk and hardcore communities become more connected. I mean we put all our music up onto the internet for free, it’s been good.
RN: I think the internet’s sometimes a bit of a double edged sword though. There’s the exclusivity problem of it, which creates a kind of boundary… but there’s also the issue of it being a distraction.
T: I think it’s mostly a distraction and definitely a waste of a lot of peoples time and a lot of it has been capitalised by those who want to try and sell things. But I think… I don’t know, I think somehow the people that we were talking about at the beginning of this conversation, the middle-class kids, the disaffected suburban kids, who don’t really know what they are, or why they feel the frustrations that they do… They probably have internet access. And that’s at least a way to potentially get them on the team! I think… in the community that I lived in, in Richmond, for six years, a traditional working class African-American neighbourhood, on the borderline with the projects. There wasn’t even a public library for like fourteen square miles. It was insane. There’s so much that people don’t have in the States, and it’s compounded by how big it is, and how big the cities are, and how big these deprived wastelands are, where people are forced to live and can’t get out. And it’s bus lines that don’t go anywhere, except maybe a couple of factories, you know, or a couple of industrial areas. They can’t even go and visit other people in their family who might live in the suburbs. Like they can’t even go and see prettier parts of their own city. It’s insane.
RN: It’s weird because it’s still sold, and even I fall for it, as this Hollywood image…
T: It’s weird because when you go to Los Angeles… we’re 1,000 miles away from Los Angeles, like, and when you go there it’s just surreal. But there’s an activist community there, there’s a lot of intelligent and amazing people there. But it took some kids from Richmond, who used to tour with us, and do shows with us, who then went and did law, the kind of law that challenges corporations, the kind of law that doesn’t make much money! (laughs) And they went out there, and got a house, and we go out there and stay there, and get to see Los Angeles through their eyes, which are the eyes from Virginia, and from the punk scene in Richmond, so now we get to see the good stuff. Because before we were like, ‘What’s this plastic world’. You have to take a shower after you leave the place. It’s crazy!
RN: It seems like Americas just controlled by these huge corporations that are like these monsters that if you poke them, they’ll grow two times bigger and bite your head off!
T: Yeah you’ve almost got to fool them, and pretend you don’t exist, and then organise around it. And there’s always a way, there’s always a way around it, especially … especially because of the easy, intelligence-insulting, avenues that there corporations try to take us to try and make us these marketable people, and make us exhausted. It’s kind of like what the CrimethInc kids say. They say that they’re turning your life into an engine of looking into the shadows, in looking around the buildings, and around ideas and seeing the negative space in the world as being the most fertile and positive place to be, because the positive space is owned by these horrible corporations, you know? And umm I mean thinking about the Situationalists and stuff, I think that idea about the society of the spectacle is really important, especially in America at the moment.
RN: I mean talking of CrimethInc… it seems to be this very American idea… it seems like quite a few people don’t like CrimethInc much.
T: Yeah they’re a bit like the Michael Moore of the Anarchist scene. I am a bit older than CrimethInc, like which shouldn’t matter, but it kind of does. You know I think that they’re amazing, and I think that the people that I’ve met from them are brilliant and fantastic, and I really do wish them every success. But like anything it’s a little shrewd and a little self-aggrandising, and it’s not like… what they could be, their tone is strange to us, because people haven’t worded it like that for a long time, and it’s almost like, to me, they’re saying, and maybe this is the American part that you’re referring to, where they’re advertising this why of life, and give it such a sense of identity as theirs. Like, ‘This is ours, we’re these glorious explorers, who are daring to do this’ and it’s kind of sometimes feels as though they’re just stroking their egos, which for us puts us off as being not productive, it starts to become more cultish. And we’re really sensitive to that, and I don’t even know… we could be being over-sensitive to it. But it’s just like we’ve seen such great movements become so shitty, and not even mean anything to anyone outside of the underground. We’ve seen the punk community turn on itself so many times, with things like Riot Grrrl, which turned into a feeding frenzy of gossip and malice. We’ve seen other elitist, revolutionary, creative collectives; all of whom have burned in fires, because they’re not sharing with anyone. They’re just so stoked on how bad-ass anarchist they are, and they’re not thinking about the kids that don’t have that political background, and haven’t read the right books that they’ve read, and haven’t made those connections like… And obviously you could counter that argument on me, and my band, and say, ‘Well what about the kids that don’t have the Gorrilla Biscuits record, what about the people that have only heard mainstream radio, how are they going to relate to your shit?’ You know? And I guess in the end my reason would be that we play music, and we have a message, but we won’t dilute it or end up sounding like N*Sync or something, because we can hide behind punk rock as our institution. We can be like, ‘Well this is something that just about everybody knows how to get to’, and people can go further, you could see a sticker on a guitar from the guy from Rancid and be like, ‘Oh I wonder what that band is’, or see a patch on some dudes leather jacket or whatever. And you can find out about shows in your local area and all of that, but it can be done gradually. I’m not sure whether you can do that with something like CrimethInc. Like you need to have the leisure time to invest in the reading list… I don’t know. I was attracted to punk rock because of the simplicity and I approach it with a lot of humility, and I think a lot of these ideas are just too important to not approach them with humility, and to not make extremely available to people who need it the most. And the people in poor in the projects and the trailer parks, way outside of the sophistication that we forget that you require to have access to most hardcore music, Crimethinc or whatever. It is still a culture of leisure and sophistication and we know this. And going outside of this and trying to organise a march where you’re not discriminating, it’s not a black bloc only march, it’s not a ‘my-politics-only’ march, it’s not a ‘this-isnt-going-to-make-sense-unless-you’ve-read-anarchist-theory’ march. It’s, ‘Here are some catholic workers, here’s people from the Democrat party…’ and I probably hate them, but I’m going to support them and defend them from the police whilst they’re on the street with me because it’s enough. I don’t know… when I think… these questions are really good, and I’m sorry that I don’t have more precise answers for them. All I have are opinions and impressions about them. That doesn’t make us stronger or even superior. Like again I’m happy that CrimethInc exist and that doing what they do, they’re the best. And I think that the growth… like Evasion… I mean I’ve read all their books and I appreciate what they’re doing. But I just worry because it has this dangerous problem of being the American creative anarchist collective because they always turn on themselves and they become a feeding frenzy of bullshit and malice. And I see that in a lot of great scenes too. Luckily zines can pull out of it, because zines can kind of like turn onto something different with different people getting involved, and it’s kind of like a new band has formed. It ends up with people with more heart, and more optimism take over, and that’s kind of like what happens when a new band forms, and because of that a new movement in hardcore happens, and it’s brighter, it’s fresher and it’s optimistic. And that’s possibly what should happen. That’s part of the cycle of nature, where shit happens, but I think it’s important to realise that no matter how dark and commercialised, apolitical and depressing that punk music gets, and the zine culture gets, and the activist culture gets, there will always be a dawn with some new people, and some cool old people standing in the back of the room still rocking out! (laughs) I hope to be one of those people.
RN: I was going to ask, do you ever worry that being on tour that you’re almost preaching to the converted, or at least preaching to those who have already considered most of what it is you’re talking about? Granted lots of people here possibly won’t have heard of CrimethInc or considered some of the more oblique things that are in your lyrics, but can you connect with them in this situation do you think? I mean do you ever worry that you just further the spectacle, acting simply as more entertainment?
T: I don’t know. Umm we definitely say that we don’t feel like we entertain, because we’re just jumping around playing. I mean we have heard from so many people almost every night that they don’t feel like there are a lot of bands speaking out about what is happening culturally or politically… like there’s not a lot of other bands that, in their eyes, have the courage to speak out. We hear a lot of very flattering, friendly things from people. But it doesn’t feel like people are ‘converted’, and it’s less now than ever before because punk rock has become pretty commercialised and pretty ritualised, even in the underground, that it’s really important… It seems to be that the people that come to our shows are often inspired and they want to know more about what it is that we’re talking about. And we’re like, ‘Hey talk to these guys at the table from the collective’. (laughs) ‘They can tell you far more.’ I think when we go on big tours, and when we support big bands in the States, it’s weird because it’s either we’re just this weird band that people have to stand through before they get to see AFI or before they get to see Bouncing Souls. But there are kids who are really vulnerable to what we’re singing about, but have never been exposed to it before, and they don’t even know what genre of music we’re playing. Like, ‘What was that?’ Not to say that we play anything special, or even amazingly original. It’s weird because of the size of the shows and it’s through just luck of being friends with AFI from when they were a small unknown band, and I was in old bands, and the same with the Bouncing Souls. And unless we’re playing with Anti-Flag or Propagandhi kids just don’t seem to have been exposed to these ideas. And even if they have, they don’t seem to be quite with it. They’re just wearing the Mohawks, but then they kind of think and go, ‘Oh yeah’.
RN: I don’t know, I still sometimes wonder if a political band just gets marginalized as being that and is allowed to just shout and scream and people are able to just kind of ignore them almost.
T: I don’t know. I mean as I said earlier really we just write songs about our communities and I hope that we’re not necessarily just a band built on slogans, and we’re deliberately not. We… we try to tap into the optimism and personal quality of hardcore punk, which is a big part of us, as much as the political ideas, but we never wanted to be one of those bands that sees the world in black and white terms and to present our ideas in some ready made format be it a poster or a bag or whatever. That’s not the way that I write words, at least it’s not how I want to write words. I’ve just been touched by a lot folks and write about it. I mean I don’t think that we’re this ‘gateway’ band for kids to get into and then into punk in the way that perhaps Anti-Flag are, where kids get into them without knowing anything of what’s up and Anti-Flag do their stuff and whatever. Not to imply that they’re cartoony or anything because we care about them very much, but I think that the perception of them is that they’re a band for the younger punk kids, and for maybe the fashionable drunk punk kids. For us though we’re not an inherently political band. That’s just kind of the natural progression of where our personal stories take us. Like, I hope. I mean is that your analysis of our music, that it could be like that?
RN: I kind of find Strike Anywhere really uplifting, but I kind of am coming from it at the perspective of knowing, or at least feeling I know what you’re talking about, and then having the knowledge of how to channel it through the various political stuff that I do. But I don’t know. I mean you have that song about the fear of streets at night for women because of billboards and advertising, and I don’t want to feel that fear, and so I have to actively stop that fear from being allowed to be there.
T: Right, right. Like I mean on the build up with ‘If we take our strength to market and trade the ugly beauty, watch us go to war’. I was trying to like talk about the cultural roots about the sickness of women’s oppression and rape and sexism, and if we choose to contribute then this is what we get. But we can walk away from it, and develop better ways to communicate and understand each other, and that’s what I wanted to talk about with that song. I was inspired by a group of radical women who did in chalk lines, on the sidewalks of Richmond… wherever a woman was raped they did a body outline, like a police outline. So you’d walk around and you’d see all these body outlines, and it was the most profoundly moving and haunting thing that I’ve ever seen. So it was just about my world but trying to connect it to the rest of the world, but to say how we don’t have to buy into this kind of world, how we don’t have to buy into this patriarchal system, how we don’t want to communicate and interact with people like this. I’m not sure that it’s a question of burning every billboard [though it'd be nice - edd] or any extremist idea like that, it’s just don’t be effected by it, and don’t contribute to any culture like that. Live your life against it. It’s also built on the positive… I mean it’s frustrating, but you can only really go so far with rage. I mean I’m thirty, I still always have a lot of rage, especially if the world keeps going into the toilet, but having a solution means that we can have some future that we can take out into the world with us.
RN: I mean you were talking earlier about how you like to critique everything. I mean have you ever wondered why it is that things like Riot Grrrl formed and then eventually will always kill themselves?
T: I think it’s deep rooted. I think that people who take the short view will just say, ‘Oh it’s just human nature’. There’s that idea that people will get together and destroy each other through a competition of will and intellect. That’s BULLSHIT. (laughs) I can never believe that. I hear it all the damn time, even from people who I really admire for being incredibly clever. I think it has to do with taking yourself out of your roots… like, ‘Why did you get into Riot Grrrl?’ ‘Because I liked punk and hardcore but it’s all so male dominated, and I felt like the ideas that punk had the power to address weren’t and wanted to create a space for female to fell space’ and they addressed that, and that was great. But then it became the only place where women could feel safe, and they weren’t making any connections, and also not even making connections with feminists beyond just perhaps a college and biography level. I don’t want to talk about it though very much though, because I’m not a woman and I’m not sure whether I have any business to have a critique of Riot Grrrl, but that’s personally what I saw from the outside as a sympathetic friends to people who were involved. I mean I’ll take it to hardcore music… I mean hardcore music became really white and really sanitised of it’s soul and it’s meaning, and became almost like about stab you in the back style toughness. And this is in cool, fast, traditional hardcore, I’m not even talking about metalcore or something here. Because it forgot it’s roots, and it’s ethnicity in the black culture, how the Bad Brains in DC and everything. I mean if you check the old coffee tables of early hardcore shows you’ll see a lot of black faces. Almost a third of the crowd was black, latino or Asians. And people contributed to the movement. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about this, who are older than me, about where this cultural diversity went. How did it disappear? But it was something that was outside of record collecting or punk fashion or whatever. But punk has all these diverse roots and I think that’s what these specific groups perhaps should learn. I mean maybe they should form come up and highlight something and then meld back in. But you know I think Riot Grrrl might have done that. I mean a lot of people survived it. A lot of bands survived it. They took their time, and what they learned. I mean Jessica Hopper, of course our wonderful PR friend, who is still Riot Grrrl and stands for a lot of really important things, and still talks out about really important things that continually need to be highlighted. I don’t know there are a lot of people all over the US that have taken what they’ve learnt from an imploded sub-culture and sown it back into their own scenes.
RN: The structures in wider society still exist. Even the people in punk are conditioned into believing in the structures of wider society. But then you kind of said that you’re not a woman so you don’t really feel confident to talk about women’s issues, but punk is a male dominated thing so how can… If the men don’t feel they have the place to talk about women, and women aren’t being represented then how can women ever get their foot in the door? Apart from doing something like Riot Grrrl which turns into something beyond punk?
T: I think what I meant was, obviously I can think about certain women’s issues having female friends, a mother and sisters, and also because I’m a human and it’s my right and it’s important and it would enrich my life if there was more equality, and if there was more discussion and consciousness of this obviously. But what I meant was that I wasn’t going to speak more about my theories about the implosion of Riot Grrrl because I wasn’t in it, and I wasn’t involved with it. But that doesn’t necessarily, I’m not trying to walk away, or get out of talking about sexism. What is interesting is that we always notice the shows where there are women at the front, and women dancing. Leeds and Exeter were amazing, and Newport in Wales. I think actually I’ve seen more girls and women involved in punk recently in the past year, and I don’t really know why. We’ve been to Australia and it was 60% girls, and we had girls grabbing the mic, and doing all the ritualised macho parts of hardcore. It was really awesome and breathtaking to see. It’s just great because that’s the way that it should be, and I mean these songs aren’t just written for men at all. We have a few songs where we talk about that separation, where there’s that sexist reality coming in, and not only ruining our fun, but also ruining our counter culture, and it’s something that I’ve been aware of for my whole life. It’s what my family life is about, or relationships, and it’s how much stagnant, toxic psychology that we’ll accept, like you say about the dance floor. We come just short of saying … and I don’t why we feel conflicted saying that girls should come up front. I mean we’ll sometimes say, ‘why don’t you guys let the girls come up front and dance or whatever’, but like it’s … I guess it’s a weird thing. I think the bottom line is that we don’t feel that we have the right to talk for ‘women’, and that’s something we take seriously, but we can address sexism and we can try and promote shows where there’s a harmony. I think that what we sing about, or talk about, and I’m not just saying that it’s at our shows, but at lots of shows there have been more women, and the scene seems to have become more open for women again, and I think that’s great. But that’s just my optimism and my perspective. I hope it works. I hope it’s right!
RN: Ok I really gotta go I’m already thirty minutes late!
T: OK well thanks a lot for doing the interview.