Published Jul 26, 2010Thomas Barnett, the perennially dreadlocked crooner for long-running Richmond, VA-based punks Strike Anywhere, is a walking punk rock oral history. Ask this guy a question then sit back and listen to various treatises on subjects that are somewhat related, are not related at all, and occasionally tie back together to the original question. Dude's got a lot on his mind, not the least of which is his band's latest album, Iron Front, which came out late last year on Bridge Nine Records. It's the band's first for the indie hardcore label after spending some time on punk rock mainstay Fat Wreck Chords. But Barnett's not just thinking about that somewhat odd label switch, he's also thinking about the history of punk rock, defying genre stereotypes, and getting contemplative with Tegan and Sara albums. (Not to mention the re-regionalization of bands, the beauty of Canada, and, uh, Gwar.)
What are you up to today?
I'm enjoying a six-day break between the ending of our European tour and the beginning of our Canadian tour. I'm weeding a garden and then I'm painting a boat. I sand and paint boats. I live in Northern Virginia, so there's a lot of water everywhere. The "whatever you can scrape together between tours" hustle is the story of every punk band, but this has been more or less consistent since I moved here; I get to paint these boats. Which I like, working with my hands by the water, it's sort of contemplative. I also work as a clerk at an organic produce depot. Which is the classic job for punk rockers, artists, hippies, and other malcontents.
Now that the album's been out for some time, how are you feeling about it?
We're stoked; we definitely took our time and made the record we wanted to make. To us it feels fresh because we're still debuting songs. All the tracks on it are playable live, and on this tour we're going to bring out more of the back end of the record; we started doing that in Europe. We're also revisiting some of the first songs from the Iron Front sessions that we recorded and released. We have a bunch of other songs that were half-demoed, sonic footnotes that are maybe possibly another full album's worth of material right there at our fingertips waiting to be elaborated on and finished. But we don't have any plans to start recording or get back to writing for a while because there's a lot of touring to do. Anyway, when you are the band and you put out this record, it's the beginning of something, then you move the songs out of the context in your life by performing them, and that's why bands take time between albums. You're still relating to the songs in a new way, playing them live and seeing how people respond, and seeing what happens within the emotional landscape of a two-minute hardcore song.
I can't really place why, but to me the album has a maturity to it that your others didn't. Do you agree?
It definitely reflects the present for us. There's some sort of psychic atmosphere to the record, maybe because there's more storytelling happening lyrically, or more breathing space, musically. I also think we listened to the way we were playing our songs live in the endless touring we did for Dead FM and we listened to the way we were doing little jams and more musical bits and kind of leaning towards more heaviness and more open parts and that made its way into the proper songs on Iron Front. Also we had our only member change, we had [guitarist] Matt Sherwood retire from touring, and his protégé and guitar tech Mark Miller took his spot in the band. So now there's 11 years between the youngest and eldest members of Strike Anywhere. But in some ways we just got back to the fury and mayhem and the sense of barely being able to hold on to the song [laughs].
Maybe part of this change and maturity is a natural thing that comes with getting older.
I think in some ways you're always trying to defy commercial and corporate entertainment with punk. That's the reason anyone gets together and just screams with their friends in a basement. And I think you want to make something that lasts, you want to hold on to a piece of immortality. Like, if you could only have these words, when you shout into the world and you have people sing along with you and you can relate these very personal stories and ideas and they have an effect way beyond the person you are. Having that sense of immortality, it's what everyone goes for with art, and it's very disturbing and strange to think about it with something as fast as punk rock. People look at punk rock as being something that's adolescent ― it's one note, it's based on hormones and blind rage. If you can defy all the stereotypes that are even within the counterculture, that's another bit of carrying it on. It's part of the folk process; it's aggressive and noisy but there's trying to speak truth to power and trying to defy stereotypes or conditions. It's like how there's independent media and journalists who actually speak the truth and ask the hard questions. Many of the traditions running through punk and hardcore are about that too, and not resting on your laurels, but in the meantime, not trying to reinvent the wheel. We know we play a genre, but we love it. It's what we want to hear. It's what it sounds like in our heads. Maybe there's something a little more contemplative about Iron Front, even a little more lost feeling. Maybe there's a sense of open-endedness, like the back end of the record lifts you up into something and doesn't give you any easy answer.
Speaking of stereotypes and working within a genre, and also maturity, do you find it hard as you get older to keep playing punk rock? I know for me, I'm 33 and I've been into punk rock since I was 15 or something, and there are points now where, it pains me, but some of it is too cheesy, the stuff that I've loved for so long. Do you ever fight that kind of thing?
People will approach this in a lot of different ways. It's been diluted; you get people who are doing it and they think they're doing it for reasons of depth and purpose, but the way they approach it feels theatrical, or canned. I think we had a wave of that in the early to mid-'80s. People just wanted to be in bands that felt and sounded like the bands they loved, but no one told them they had to actually bring their own personalities and their own stories to it. Then you get the Revolution Summer in DC, which is what we always look at, what they were doing after Minor Threat. It was like they had made the statement, invented American hardcore, and now everyone's just a carbon copy and it's just macho bullshit, and it's absolutely one-dimensional. Those kids in DC, they invented emotional hardcore, which has now permutated into something totally unrecognizable and painful [laughs] but back in the day of Rites of Spring and Embrace and Gray Matter it was about thinking and feeling and questioning all of the dominant, stale archetypes, even within this art form based on rebellion. Punk has fractured into so many different sub-scenes that it loses its depth.
What do you feel is the solution to that?
What you need is that small town feel, that provincial, not sophisticated, not as connected, feel. Because the internet's made everything so accessible and so specialized, you can just do the things you see and not have to insert your own identity or the horror and joy of your life in your hometown, the things that you want to see that you haven't seen in your community. That's the root of punk rock; with all the specialization and fragmentation with digital media, you're not desperate enough for culture to bring all these different tribes together because they're all you've got, and the rest of the world is a hostile place and rednecks are calling you faggot from the truck. That shit is still a part of people's lives, but some of these kids aren't into punk rock. We've lost the real outcast kids that could be saved by this, and instead there's a bunch of people who are enthusiasts. They're collectors, but the psychological component of the therapy of punk rock may be lost on a lot of those folks, and those are maybe some of the newer bands you're seeing. The environment isn't the same. It can get back to that, if everyone just remembers it has to be about a real experience, like getting all the freaks in your town together, who may not know or like each other, but they're definitely better than the mainstream world and all its violence and isolation. That was a huge part of how we got shit together in Richmond. I don't think it's a question of generation, though. I see kids in different cities starting bands for all the right reasons and doing really impressive things and not losing sight of all these things. I think the Warped tour and just the general commoditization, the business aspect of punk, has made people lazy [laughs]. Artists, promoters, journalists, and the kids aren't feeling hungry about music and aren't feeling hungry about its potential. People just kind of gave up on it, and they didn't bring that to the table for the newest kids to be influenced by. I grew up with the freaks in Gwar [laughs]. They were my older generation, five or six years older. Before they had a budget and before they had their first, horrible-sounding, record, they just made their own masks and they rolled around on roller skates with loin cloths and foam battle axes and scared the shit out of us. I remember coming in the back of a club when we were 15 and sneaking in beer and seeing this freak in a mask and no shirt on and a loincloth, roller-skating, and thinking, is this a punk rock show? Am I in the right place? Am I gonna die? Am I gonna get raped? [laughs]. That was my first show. Ever since then, things have continued to make more and more sense, slowly, over time.
There's no way to go except into more sense from something like that.
Into sanity [laughs]. Anything is more sane than that.
To change subjects a bit, I love that your albums are always 30 minutes long. I get so exhausted with hour-long albums. Whenever I get an album from you, it's inevitably 31 minutes long. Perfect.
Thank you; I love it [laughs]. We could have added more tracks but we never want to put too many on there. Our rhythm section are adamant to not have things get too precious, not get too self-indulgent. I'm like, "What about the poetry?" They say, "People will feel that shit on the b-side of the seven-inch. It's their loss if they don't buy the seven-inch." I say, "Seven-inch record, no one even knows what that is." [laughs] People can go put on an Iron and Wine or Tegan and Sara record and get deep; that's what we do. I'm honoured that our music can be a part of your life or anybody else that feels passionately about it. It's really the only reason why at the end of the day we do this. I mean, to be real with you, the age of punk rock being a proper career is really over, for almost every band except the four or five at the very top ― your Billy Talents, your Rise Againsts. We've had 15 years of independent bands being able to record and tour and make a hand-to-mouth existence but keep it going, but we're now getting into what I like to call the re-regionalization of bands, where everyone folds back into their hometown and their region and gets jobs as social workers or boat painters or whatever and starts to cultivate local festivals and weekend trips and small town shows. It's like the anti-Warped tour. It's not even a tour. It's just a life.
How are things going with Bridge Nine?
It's real good; it reminds us of our Jade Tree [Records] years. A small hardcore label that had a lot of vision and discipline and grew and grew and made a lot of good choices and was really patient. There's no celebrity culture, there's nothing but hard work and a love for art with Bridge 9. Fat was really generous to us from a business standpoint and from a friendship standpoint. They're nothing but amazing people. But there was a slight disconnect between the roots of East coast hardcore punk and West coast California punk. Particularly the Fat/Epitaph world is a little bloated with larger-than-life personalities, and it showcases a strange, weird part of punk. It's not like we disagree with it, we just don't relate to it. With Bridge Nine, there's more of a sense of accessibility and celebration of extraordinary art from ordinary people.
And you've got this Canadian tour with Bane coming up...
I'm very excited. We love it up there. The only thing we don't love are the long-ass drives. But man, there's nothing like the hospitality of everybody in every province. And it's always good to be on tour with inspiring tourmates. All of it, man, Edmonton, Calgary, the 'Peg, Timmins! No Canadian tour is complete without a show in Timmins. Awesome. One thing that I regret is that we couldn't figure out how to afford to get back to Nova Scotia. We loved Halifax, so we're going to miss that. But we will have Banff, as far as the natural beauty of Canada. We won't just be in the cities. Last time the Flatliners and us climbed a mountain in Banff before the show.
That's what it's all about up here. We do that every day.
Awesome. That's why you guys are so healthy and attractive.
We don't really do it every day. We climb mountains as rarely as you guys do.
You could tell Americans anything about Canadians. It doesn't matter. No one here knows you guys exist [laughs].