Strike Anywhere Interview | ThePunkSite.com
|Band: Strike Anywhere
Fat Wreck Chords
Avenue Skate Park - Edmonton, Alberta
Friday, June 27th, 2008
This was my second time talking to Thomas of Strike Anywhere so
this time I knew what I would be getting from him: long, thoughtful, compelling
and passionate answers. I went in with a set of questions that I thought would
spark his interest, and by the way he answered them I'm sure they did. While
it is a long read, it is also a fascinating one and well worth the time. The
conversation was a lot of fun and I encourage anyone to try and have a conversation
with Thomas if Stirke Anywhere comes through your town as
it will be one you won't soon forget.
Editor's Note: While Thomas was telling me about the "With
justice we cure this nation" festival in Taipei he mentioned two bands - one
from Japan and one from Hong Kong; the band's names may be misspelt here. Sorry
for any confusion.
I guess starting with the basics; you guys have been on tour with the Flatliners
for about two weeks now, how’s that going?
Thomas: Oh, great. They’re awesome, really relaxed, talented, good people.
Bobby: Has there been any really memorable moments from the tour so far?
Thomas: Oh, every night there’s some craziness. Like last night there
was this torrential downpour in Saskatoon and the entire staff of the club
we were playing were totally out of the Devil’s Rejects. There was a
giant frog-like woman who just sat in the back, smoking eerily; some crazy
half reptile half human. The other was this fifty or sixty year old man wearing
bondage pants and there was a dude who never had his shirt on even though it
was really cold. There were so many different people with crazy hairdos and
braided bears and that’s not even the half of it.
We had a great show in Ontario. We set up on the floor of this pub and all
these people came and it was just like a celebration. People were dancing so
hard and with such drunken passion that one of the young women, her top kind
of fell down right in front of Chris from the Flatliners; and then again in
front of me. It was the strangest thing. She was too drunk to care and one
of her friends had to point it out to her and the whole thing was just amazing.
And there’s been a lot of other moments. We went to Peggy’s Cove,
which is an hour south of Halifax in Nova Scotia. One of the most beautiful
places I have ever seen in my life and we’ve had the privileged to go
to a lot of places. There was some incredible volcanic rock laid out, a lighthouse,
a fishing village of about fourty people and we invaded with about fourty punks.
Hostage Life was with us then, the Atticus minivan and The Flatliners. We had
cookouts and shooting stars, it felt like there were landscapes that you dream
in dreams where there are impossible stones on the greenest hills everywhere.
It was a really beautiful and almost surreal time, like a day off where every
moment was kind of poetic; and everyone was kind of quiet with reverence for
the natural world. That isn’t the natural thing for punk rockers who
pull into the dead side of town to load into a warehouse where people’s
parents don’t let them go or whatever. The venues that we play, the world
that we travel in, is never side by side with the natural world or the things
of beauty that aren’t man made. And rarely do we even see things of beauty
that are man made and this place had them both and it was awesome. Yeah, it
was just a really good time.
Bobby: So one of the better highlights of touring is being able to
go out and see all these amazing places…
Thomas: Peggy’s Cove was fantastic. Most of the highlights are walking
around blown out towns in the Maritimes and talking to people about what they
do for work and seeing how the economy of Canada is shifting out here to Alberta
and so many poor folks from, for example, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are
trying to get work out here in the oil fields doing whatever: domestic, cooking,
roughneck. The same way that two or three generations ago all the people who
couldn’t hack it in farming out here were travelling east to the coal
mines. So it’s like this crazy world of exploited populations of Canadians
working for corporations that are destroying the earth in the name of profit.
The same thing happens in our country and we’re just seeing this kind
of tragic, economic narrative occur. Yeah, it’s not lost on us. We try
to get to talk to people and get the stories of their life. Have a moment in
these towns where it’s hopefully not just about ... You know, of course
we love the singing along and slam dancing and all that shit; but at the end
of the day, the memory that you take home is the time you spent with the people.
Bobby: Last time you guys came up to Canada with the Bouncing Souls,
your roadie couldn’t get into Canada. Did he have any troubles this
time getting over the border?
Thomas: He didn’t even try because he had so many problems and that
was actually the second time he was repelled from Canada. We even talked to
an immigration lawyer and we had a lot of people that were willing to advocate
for him and work it out but it’s such an expensive mistake. Like we had
to send him back from the wilderness of the border by Maine, taking two different
plane flights and a hundred dollar cab ride to get back home to Virginia. He
was yelled at, harassed, and insulted by the Canadian border guards, and Americans;
so I think the thing’s pretty traumatic and it’s happened a number
of times. We would love to have him come up with us, we miss him, but we would
have to have some guarantees and a real idea that if we produce documentation
they will honour it at the border because we did and they didn’t.
Bobby: Let’s talk a little bit about your latest CD, Dead FM.
First off, in your artwork you guys went into a lot of detail, writing and
what each song was about. What made you decide to go into that kind of detail?
Thomas: Our drummer, Eric, came up to me and was like “you know, we
have a budget where we can have a booklet for the songs; like pages where we
can write text and have lyrics and photographs.” He asked me to write
some footnotes and some summarizing paragraphs about some of the ideas. Some
of the songs are autobiographical and obviously they’re still political
songs but they’re about specific family instances. The song about us
being arrested in Japan and all these little moments where maybe it would require
some explanation or, on the other side, it would add a bit more depth into
people’s experience. So I went for it and during the time we were in
the studio I just kept writing and writing and writing and sending paragraphs
back and forth, seeing what everyone thought and we included them.
Bobby: Like you were just saying you were sending stuff back and forth,
I read that when you guys were writing the record you were actually sending
back and forth when you were all located in different cities. Was that difficult
to get the record to sound the way you wanted when you weren’t actually
all together writing it at once?
Thomas: Well no. All together writing it at once can be just as frustrating
as a mess and just as inauthentic as a creative expression. I think there’s
something about everyone having the chance to hold onto a piece of music or
vocal idea, kind of chew on it for a while and then add what you want to it.
It lets you get a real feel for the song. Since none of us live in the same
cities anymore, it would be extremely economically impossible to get together
and rehearse and write for too long. So I think it works. We’re going
to spend some time this fall together; face to face in a basement, rehearsing,
writing and making pre-production demos. That’s when you always get to
kick it back to that. You can have some seed ideas for a song with some cool
chord progressions and vocals and you can talk about it back and forth; but
to get together and actually play it loud and fast is very important. We do
that this fall.
Bobby: Throughout the years you guys have released a collection of acoustic
songs. You did Chalk Line on Punk Goes Acoustic and Hollywood Cemetery on the
Fat Wreck Christmas compilation; you even did five acoustic shows on this tour.
Thomas: We did; well, we did three. We tried to do five. Five were planned.
Bobby: Is it hard to strip down your fast, electric songs to the acoustic
Thomas: A lot of the songs started acoustic first, so it’s almost of
like we build them up to become the songs that are loud and fast on Dead FM,
or any of our records. So we kind of strip them back down to the way they were
born. Chalk Line, Hollywood Cemetery, Prisoner Echoes, those songs were all
written acoustic first. So in other words, it’s more like taking it back
to its roots.
It’s another way to show artistic expression – it’s kind
of weird to say artistic because we’re punks of course, everyone has
to remember that – but again, it’s another way to express the same
mood but give it a little more depth. I think on some levels songs like Chalk
Line, Hollywood, and Prisoner Echoes, they have maybe a mournful quality as
well as an anthemic and aggressive quality and we can extenuate that part.
Talking about theatre for a second right, it’s like getting a different
director to direct the same play; or in classical music, in that tradition,
getting a different maestro to conduct an orchestra of a piece. Giving it a
different feeling; in some weird way that’s how we feel about those acoustic
performances. Plus, we don’t have to load all this equipment up. That’s
really essential; and the rhythm section can just stay drunk and hang out.
So really, sometimes it’s just about that – it’s more convenient.
Sometimes we just pick up and play on the streets or hang out at house parties
and play and stuff like that too.
Bobby: One acoustic show you did well over a year ago was on the Alternative
Press radio show online. During that show you were also doing an interview
and there was one thing you said that kind of stuck out for me. You said “Political
punk is, at times, in danger of becoming a very captured, one dimensional cartoon
of itself despite its best interest.” Can you explain that? Why is it
becoming a one dimensional cartoon?
Thomas: Well, I think that’s what happens with perception. The media
engineers a spectacle and we all kind of participate in some sort of strange
passive agreement of what culture is but we’re not given very many choices
and we’re never given an authentic means of being creative. That’s
kind of what punk was invented in response to; to take the piss out of bloated,
contrived rock and roll and to bring back a sense of the surreal and a sense
of being efficient and bringing back working class blues and protest folk music
and making it as distorted and as raging as industrial societies really are.
I think punk still has the closes aesthetic to the disassociation and frustration
of city life. It starts off as just a psychological freak out, like a bunch
of weird poems by Johnny Rotten about taboo social topics and then it instantly
goes into talking about class issues and forgotten lives of oppressed people
worldwide. These are the people who helped invent this music; like African
Diaspora bringing the blues which invented rock and roll into America and,
of course, the reggae aspect of it too.
I think it’s important to engage what you’re doing even if it
seems that you can plug in and play and be a punk rock band. There are chord
progressions and drum beats already written for you kind of but there’s
a moment where have to recognize that this is still yours and this is your
own personal involvement in the world. These songs have a life way after you
and it’s really not about you. At the same time, it’s really not
about anything if you don’t use the courage and stretch out and really
become vulnerable and put your heart into the songs. That’s what’s
different between punk and what’s commercial, easy music. Whatever’s
happening on the radio; dance music, the mainstream hip-hop, the mainstream
rock and roll, the flavour of the month screamo band. Those things, even if
originally those musicians wanted to have some heart and soul in their product,
eventually the product ate them and they become working for a plantation of
their own product. That’s the way capitalism infects even art. So yes,
another class critique dotes on just trying to be truthful and just trying
to do something within any art form. Kind of like the way you’re a journalist
and you’re trying to step off the beating path and ask serious questions
and speak truth to power in your own way. That’s kind of what we try
to do with this as well.
Bobby: I was interviewing someone a while ago and he was saying that
once you call yourself a political punk band you end up aligning yourself
who have their own agendas and try to use you to further that agenda. Have
you ever ran into that problem? Do you think that it’s true?
Thomas: We go home and we work jobs in between tours and all that stuff. We
have to figure off how to pay off health care and student loans and the other
things that are plaguing us, the other things that we kind of run away from
when we tour in our band. We’re barely a self sufficient business. We
do these tours because we believe in it and we want to play our songs and we
love coming to the cities and having these irreplaceable, unique experiences.
But everyone has a different idea of what punk is and how our band and these
songs relate to your particular politics. We don’t even all agree on
the same things. We’re not like one hive mind or one giant robot made
of five people. We have disagreements; I think even across the band, at different
times, we’ve have different interpretations of our songs. That’s
important; everyone kind of brings their own vision and catharsis to the table.
We travel to places and people have had such a set idea of who we were and
what we have to do to justify ourselves. These are things that we couldn’t
possibly understand or live up to and there’s nothing we can say. We
can’t even really apologize for offending someone’s perception
because it’s what they brought to us as well. Like on this tour we’ve
been very proactive in inviting radical press, anarchist tables, anti-racist
action, cop-watch, anti-poverty groups, anyone. We put the word out in the
digital world; we put the world out in the cell phone world. We had people
just trying to get these groups to come. So we’ve had a bulk load of
different people with different ideas table our shows and that’s a hugely
important part of this for us. A lot of times we don’t have the contacts… We
had a friend of ours from Indiana from Microcarpa Publishing come for the first
five days and then at that point we were “oh man, we don’t know
if people are going to table anymore and things are going to feel weird.” Then
in the Maritimes, in our first show there in Fredericton, we had someone come
out and table, a kid from Knowledge is Power. It was like “oh awesome,
can you call all your friends across Canada and let them know they’re
welcome to come and table the shows.” We want to connect our songs to
the greater ideas and not just some academic, scholarly, historic work on anarchism
and labour struggles; but the hometown, the local issues, what’s happening
now. Like Maritime kids trying to fight Atlantica and the energy corridor that
is going to open up markets and destroy the earth out there; and what’s
happening out here in Alberta with the oil industry and the rise of some fascist
groups and all this other stuff. These are things that we don’t necessary
know about. We’re not as dialled into these far away places as we’d
like to be so having people from the hometown come and use our show as a platform
is what we love. So in one way, yeah, come and utilize what we’re doing,
what we’re singing about.
Like in Taiwan, we were invited to play for the first time ever. It was in
Taipei and it was a festival which was cool because we could afford the plane
tickets to get there and all that. It was a festival with a bunch of bands,
like a cool all girl punk band called Akihacana from Japan – they played
a Clash cover – a band from Hong Kong that had been expelled from China
for being critical, as a punk band should be. They’re called Punk Kong
and I think were living in Sweden and they were invited to play in Taipei.
It was a human rights festival with extremely polarized political opinions.
But there were men who were supposedly not supposed to be alive and had been
imprisoned that were out holding banners in mandarin and crowd surfing while
we played; and these were sixty year old men. Kind of like if you mixed Nelson
Mandela and the Dalai Lama.
This was about human rights. It was an Amnesty International event. There
was a political massacre that happened in the eighties that was covered up
and not official history and never allowed to be taught that people were talking
about at this. It was in a soccer stadium and the band Muse from England headlined.
So it was crazy. The president was there, the opposition candidates were there,
the human rights watch, anti-racist groups, pro-China groups, anti-China groups;
there was just this insane stew of intense opinions and we played it. Some
of the punk kids in Taipei were upset that we did, some people were happy that
we did because these were human rights ideals.
We still don’t even know - there were so many layers and complexities
to it. Like we didn’t walk in blind, we knew we were playing a human
rights festival. At the time that we agreed to it, it wasn’t funded by
any one political party but by the time that we got there, apparently it was
funded by a coalition of pro-West parties somehow. So anyways, there are things
that we still don’t know very much about but there was some controversy
and some of the Taipei punks were boycotting it and angry with us. Again, there’s
a lot we didn’t know and maybe that’s our fault but it seemed like
at the time, with all the research that we did, that it made sense. I mean,
it wasn’t like we agreed to play a festival in Croatia and when we get
there it’s a white power festival and we still played; it wasn’t
like that. It was more subtle than that and we met a lot of great people. There
were these human rights activists imprisoned and there was this sense of awareness
and there were tons of table, like the tables that we have at our shows but
the crazy Taiwan versions of it.
Anyway, that’s an example of people misunderstanding our band or… I
don’t want to say expecting too much of us, but maybe in a way. We’re
not scholars, we’re not professors. I don’t have a high school
education. We read a lot, we tour but we’re basic punk rockers and we
just sing songs that reflect stories from our community and hopefully the metaphors
can expand and people can take them to heart.
Bobby: Like you were saying before that the band isn’t a hive,
you have five different opinions going around; so how do you choose which
groups to work with?
Thomas: Everyone agrees that we’re either far left or post-left. So
there’s a lot of things we agree with. I think one of the examples of
where we had to make choices was about the song “You Are Not Collateral
Damage.” That was an outtake because I’m the only vegan in the
band and it was written by me about my feelings about dieting. My band mates
are sympathetic and they’re down and there’s some vegetarians among
us as well and we’ve all been a part of the animal rescue network; so
there’s a lot things that we agree on. But it seemed just a little too
militant for everyone to agree with even though they back me and support me – and
I’m thankful and grateful for that – but that’s why we left
it off the domestic release of the record and made it an iTunes exclusive and
also donated the song to animal rights benefit CDs. Benefit CDs for litigation
effort on behalf of imprisoned animal rights activists.
Bobby: Peter Young?
Thomas: Yeah, Peter Young was one of them. Then Compassion over Killing out
of DC with a neat booklet full of vegan recipes was another. So we decided
to make it dedicated to that cause and keep it off the record. So that would
be the only moment of any contention really. The other things are just like “yeah!!!
Play the mosh part!” Should we play this song faster? “Yeah!!!!”
We also like to have a good time. We see a lot of bands that become haunted
by their own political identities. They become self loathing, political, rock
stars. That is too complex a life for us to want. We need this to be street
level and as humble and as honest as we can make it. Sometimes that honest
path is a complex path; and we’re not going to pretend to have all the
answers or to live up to all the things we sing about. Basically, the people
in our community know more about a lot of the stuff that we sing about than
we do; and we like to think that we know a lot. But there’s people that
come to the shows and can quote footnotes and chapters and verse from the things
that we reference and that we’re inspired by. In a way, punk rock is
a collective art form. Songs start with us but then they move quickly outside
of our range and when we see them again it’s like “wow.” It’s
like seeing your child grow up, “oh, you learned that? You have that
haircut?” I don’t know, that’s a strange answer.
Bobby: Political punk is no way new in the scene; it’s been a major
part in the underground scene for years and years. But nowadays its becoming
more popular and major labels are starting to pick up on it. You’ve been
asked countless times about your opinion on bands like Rise Against, Anti-Flag
and Against Me! all signing to major labels. You’ve often said that it’s
hard for you to say because you haven’t walked in their shoes and you
don’t know what they were thinking.
Thomas: Yes, that is what I’ve said.
Bobby: In one interview I read you commented on Against Me!’s fans reaction;
how they slashed their tires and how they held anti-Against Me! protest shows….
Thomas: And the weirdest thing is I know some of those people. People who
put on some of our early shows and are still friends of ours and are dedicated,
amazing, social workers in their communities are some of the people who put
on the anti-Against Me! shows. I mean this is all back five or six years ago
but it just astounded me. On one hand, the passion that people related to Against
Me! was awesome. I think they’re a great band, I love them. We listen
to their records a lot, like I love that band. They’re good friends of
ours. Me, and Rick from the Casualties and Andrew had a bowling tournament
and then we played a show with the Casualties and Against Me! in New Jersey.
I mean, we’ve had good social times with them and good times playing
I think people feel about that band like they broke a promise to them. I wasn’t
there in the early years of Against Me!. I actually only got into them when
they put records out on Fat because we were busy touring, I didn’t pick
up on it. Like if I was in my hometown in a basement when they first played,
those kinds of moments – if I had those electrifying first moments with
Against Me! like so many people had than maybe I would understand the feeling.
But it’s vicious and inhuman. I don’t know, I don’t know
if people are pulling lyrics out of context and making people justify their
choices or even if Against Me! are pulling a total Sex Pistols. Like, “Fuck
you to you because you believed in us! Fuck you to the major labels; we’re
taking your money!” Whatever, whatever it is I think it can still be
genius and it can still be punk and it still can be a righteous artistic moment.
I also don’t think people should attribute the beginning or something
or the end of something to their love affair with one band. We’ve probably
lost a lot of people because they’ve felt particularly, personally burned
by Against Me!. I don’t me “we” – Strike Anywhere.
I mean “we” – you, all of us because they were just like “fuck
all this shit.” I think that’s a problem. It’s kind of like
telling people to enter a monastery after they get their heart broken. You
can pull back a little bit and still participate in the scene. You’ve
got to try and forgive people; people in bands are just human. I worry that
messages get diluted and bands that proclaim and operate in principle from
a place of intense righteousness is really hard to continue to live like that.
I mean, from a psychological point of view. People are going to invest a lot
in you if you portray a sense of purity. Look at straight edge for example
and there’s got to be some metaphor there. [If you’re in a] DIY
band of extreme principle, you either break up after your first record and
second tour because you’ve got colitis and giardia and things that we’ve
gotten on tour – and we travel in the independent community which means
we have a booking agent, who is our friend, and we try to do things that we
think are right when we can and other times there are decisions made nearby
us that we don’t always agree with. We just have to fucking deal with
it and make the apologies to the people that we hurt and move on. Luckily we
haven’t had too many of those times.
Look at this tour in Canada. It’s kind of fucked up because it’s
not all ages all the time. Every province, every city in every province has
got its own hellish laws about how to have a venue and how to have it where
it’s nineteen and up or how to have it where everyone can be there. So
like tomorrow in Calgary we’re going to die because we have two shows,
two different venues, two hours apart on two different sides of the city -
one all ages and one nineteen and up. We had to do it that way.
Bobby: You gotta hope it’s not rush hour.
Thomas: Yeah, exactly, everyone’s gotta hope it’s not rush hour.
But we wanted to make that commitment and we had these acoustic shows specifically
for any one that was all ages in the towns where we couldn’t have an
all ages show. Those are just things that we try to do. You can never be sure
that you make all the right decisions and everyone is still kind of learning.
I guess I don’t have that much more of a coherent opinion of Against
Me!’s relationship with their fans but I wish everybody well and I hope
that the people who feel depressed and pissed off can get through it and still
hold on to the things that they love about that band they’re inspired
by. Just find that in themselves and move on, start their own band. I imagine
that’s something our friends in Against Me! would also say.
Bobby: At the same time, with political punk being more mainstream do you
think that could have a positive spin on it as it could create a gateway for
kids to get into the more heart and soul of it?
Thomas: Sure, we’ve talked about this, the gateway drug theory. Yeah,
we know this because we try to take bands on tour that we love but are also
at a deeper level than we are. Like we go on tour with Coliseum and From Ashes
Rise and bands that are from a community that is often more invisible than
our awesome mix of skate punk, hardcore kids, punk rockers, whatever. So having
this thing where you kind of mix the layers of punk is really important. I
think Anti-Flag, a couple times they took us on tour and it felt the same way.
They were bringing people to us and through us people get into something else
and after a while no ones coming to us anymore because they’re starting
their own DIY community. You just keep jumping through these windows and that’s
totally good because that’s how we all got into it as well.
Bobby: Earlier today you guys were supposed to, I’m not sure
if you did or not, have you teeth done by Doctor Bob.
Thomas: We did; half of my mouth and my face is numb as we talk right now.
Bobby: I’ve only talked to him once but it was a pretty cool talk. One
thing he said to me when I asked him about why he gives all the teeth work
to touring punk bands was “punk pretty much changed me and made me who
I am. How can I give enough back to that?” Do you think that ideology
of giving back to the scene is still inherent in the punk scene or has it changed
with today’s “me me me” society?
Thomas: I think Bob’s response was to the hedonism and kind of just
intellectual and emotional retardation of America’s hyper individuality
and it’s effect on the world, including the UK and Canada and Western
Europe and stuff.
But yeah, I think there’s a part of punk that is rebellious because
it’s compassionate and rebellious because it’s not a hyper inflated
sense of self. It also glorifies the individual but at levels that are antithetic
to what is expected in society. The vulnerability of people, the power of the
voice and also the power of the collective. Basically anything that can be
powerful or affect the status quo or affect the cruelty and isolation of everyday
life, especially with the working classes, is going to be taken out of art.
Taken out of any form of expression that could get loose in society. This is
a self regulating mechanism of capitalist societies and also controlled culture
of media which is, make no mistake, how we’re living right now. It’s
what we’re underneath.
It is a boring life being selfish, the way that we’re taught to be,
the way that Americans are taught to be selfish. It also means ignoring your
emotional health and ignoring the health of the people around you and the community.
Honestly man, I think brutal, human self interest is actually taking care
of everyone around you as well for your own good. I think that’s a big
part of what people are missing out of libertarian philosophies, out of aggressive,
entrepreneurial capitalism. I don’t have any beef with people being creative
and building something new. In fact, our former band mate who retired from
touring with us – Matt Sherwood – he’s in Ashville, North
Carolina right now helping to open an anarchist co-op free space, info shop
café called Fire Storm in the mountains of North Carolina. So it’s
not like you can just take one thing to help society and then you kind of let
go and pull back into your box and watch TV until you die, there’s so
many other things you can do. Punk rock is maybe one of the easiest things
that you can attach yourself to and try to make a go of yourself and try to
keep it real and touch people and be touched by people. Fight for things that
need to be fought and show the courage that you maybe never had. That’s
the one thing that this gave all of us, just a sense of collective courage.
I think that’s just an aspect of what’s missing in community and
why people don’t look out their front door when they hear sirens and
when they hear their neighbours scream they don’t think about what it
might mean. When they see police beating down a protestor they think “well,
that must be the protestor’s fault.” I think getting people out
of that mindset is in their individual self interest. I guess that’s
my take on it. The “me me me” society; yeah there is a hyper inflated
individuality but it’s just so you can play yourself out into the hands
of the machine with the idea that it’s your own choice. It just feeds
on people’s stupidity and ego. If you free yourself from that then you
can just get down to business.
Bobby: I guess that’s about it, thanks a lot. Do you have any final
thoughts you’d like to add?
Thomas: It’s so good to talk to you again. We should do it every year.
Bobby: We should, every time you come by.
Thomas: Every time I come back.