Richmond melodic hardcore greats Strike Anywhere are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their very first release (the Chorus of One EP) this month, and they're also gearing up to release their first new music in 11 years, the Nightmares of the West EP, on July 17 via Pure Noise (pre-order). The first two songs arrived in May, and it instantly felt like a Strike Anywhere comeback is exactly the comeback we need right now. The anthemic, cathartic choruses made for some much-needed therapy in these uncertain times, and the lyrical content -- which questioned power and authority and freedom in America, as Strike Anywhere songs have been doing for two decades -- felt as urgent and vital and fresh as Strike Anywhere's music has ever felt.
I had planned to call vocalist Thomas Barnett and discuss the new EP a few weeks after the announcement, and then George Floyd's murder sparked nationwide protests against racism and police brutality, and our conversation ended up largely turning away from music and towards current events. As someone who's been very vocal about both police brutality and racism for decades, Thomas not surprisingly had a lot to say. He acknowledged the human tendency to get depressed in a time like this, but you could sense his optimism about the fact that it really seems like we're seeing more actual change this time. And he tied what we're seeing in the streets today back to the long history of punk fighting these very fights. "One of the first things that punk was upset about was racism and the police. Just to be super basic about it, those are two of the original cornerstones of this house, and damn if what's happening worldwide right now isn't about those two things, and it's being looked at through that lens."
We also talked about the role of a punk band during a time like this, the catalysts for Strike Anywhere's long-awaited return (including the death of their friend Marc 'Mates' Maitland, whose band Blocko they cover on Nightmares of the West), Denzel Curry's Bad Brains cover, and much more. Read on for our chat, edited for clarity and length.
I'm just gonna start out by asking how are you holding up and reacting to everything going on right now?
Thomas Barnett: This could be like the whole conversation. You get this sense of like, joy, that we're like on the edge of history, we're on the edge of something that can't be taken back. Like we got to a point of inertia, and pushed past it. It's strange that that's the kind of thing that this could be really be emblematic of, and I guess what I mean by that is like, the scales of suffering, and devastation, and injustice, and double talk, and cowardice by white people -- liberals and everybody. All of that over these years pulls you back and forth, you know? Like, another African American gets killed on camera, it's horrible. And then sort of institutional inertia claws back at everyone after a couple rounds of protest. And rightfully so, black folks in America are organizing and wanting to see sustainable change and not just lip service. It's sort of this inevitable comeback to a status quo that was unaccessible and unethical. And it just seems like, coupled with the pandemic and the pain and disgust of Trump's presidency, that that's another part of this energy. It's no coincidence that, like, the DC protests are fucking so magnificent and the mayor put "Black Lives Matter" on that street and renamed that park right where the president lives. And there's a new thing like this every hour, and a new, like, spasm of joy -- at least that's my perspective, which is completely soaked in privilege of course. But just to be a witness -- and a participant -- seeing this... like the beautiful shit that happened in Richmond, our hometown, to the monuments. Like we're not gonna get back to that, we're not gonna like sandblast them and then have like Daughters of Confederacy cultivating their garden of ignorance and white supremacy anymore. That dynamic is over, or it at least has a really strong challenge that is public and across the political spectrum. Like it's broken out of any kind of niche. There's something about this that feels really different. I'm sure you agree.
Oh for sure. I mean, I think that every time you see one of these instances of innocent, unarmed black men and women being killed, there's going to be uprising, but this -- protests in all 50 states on the same night -- it does feel... I'm hopeful that this is different, that this will bring change. But I agree, it feels like the past seven years since the Black Lives Matter movement began have all been building to this.
Yeah, you know, and even like the risk that we're taking, the torch that was carried from all the other generations of protest movements -- mutual aid, civil disobedience, all of the tools in the toolbox of protecting each other and getting free -- it's like all those tools have been taken out, finally, not just the ones on the top.
It's like everyone's discovering their humanity, like local leaders, mayors, governors... James Maddis [Laughs]. It's so crazy, right? I mean I'm not trying to be too optimistic about it either, but you've gotta really take these victories and really let this shit soak in. Because on a psychological level, humans are just trained to look at the bad shit, stay depressed. You know, if you have equal amounts of good experiences and bad experiences, you will think about the bad ones 90% more than the good ones. You know, like, that tendency that we just have? We have to see the beautiful shit that's working. Also like, all the traditions -- some of them nestled deep in punk, or mutually cultivated between radicals and punk culture work, which is what I would call what we do, what thousands of fucking bands do. "Artist" is too mushy and generic of a word, like we support and build culture, or we try. We report on things that are true, despite the propaganda of the world. And that's been a huge part of punk since '77. Hardcore put a better point on it, I think. But as far as relating this to white punk bands that have been steeped in radical traditions and protest culture writing songs about what they feel and care about, writing songs where the lyrics are still super relevant after 20 years -- which obviously gets brought up a lot, which is sort of a strange point because you can't feel proud about that. You write a song about like, police brutality and then it's like, it's somehow even more awful and horrible after that song.
Obviously we don't have any illusions that we do anything particularly unique or different and that's not even the point, right? But just being able to stay in that traction of contradictions, to look at the world, to look at the sacrifice, and comment on it and support what you can. There's something about this moment -- like, all the stencil-art projects, all the wheatpasting, all of the radical stuff... everything that's been on a table at a punk show that 50 kids were at 25 years ago is now on the table of the world. And it's a part of this -- obviously not the biggest part, but it's all this connected tissue, right? It's all this glue, and this beautiful feedback loop. Like, go down the street and see all the chalk drawings and all the spray paint -- the slogans that were well-meaning, heartfelt activism shot through the punk lens, or punk shot through the activism lens, so much of that is in the world, on the street, in every format. In every format that everyone had a fanzine about, in every like micro-industry of activism and solidarity and learning -- people calling themselves out on their shit. There's so many things pouring into this moment from all these tiny streams to make this gigantic river. It's fucking awesome. I'm moved by it all.
So yeah man, I feel pretty hopeful and exhilarated, and also there's insane amounts of work to do, and there's an exhaustion portal that people are gonna have to deal with, but I also think now everyone can talk about it. I almost feel like because of the shoulders on which this moment stands -- all the reasons why other things may have failed or teetered out or been co-opted or infiltrated, or didn't have enough people with all these different skill sets -- if those were the reasons why things did not sustain and change, that has been opened up. I am seeing so many voices that would have been silent or stilled or covered, absorbed in the establishment, and absorbed in the America that we knew before. I almost wonder if it's gonna be like that, like if there's gonna be before this, and after this.
On the topic of punk songs from 20-30 years ago that still feel depressingly relevant now. Obviously you guys have been fighting the good fight for about 20 years, so for you, now coming back and making music as a punk band -- with white members -- what do you feel like is the role of... like, obviously music helps, music educates people -- especially young people -- but what do you think is the role of a punk band in a time like this, beyond the music itself?
Right, so the music is the platform that carries the ideas, it's the delivery mechanism. The music itself also has a philosophy to it obviously, it's not just like a genre format for easy digestion. And we're not precious about anything that we do, like we know we're not the first, we just know we're us and this is our contribution. But yeah, like, looking at power and looking at privilege has always been a part of this, always been a part of like, "where's our lane? how do we extend solidarity?" And in some ways it helps -- I'm kind of a shy person, I'm not like a natural performer, and that's been kind of hiding in the songs somewhere. So having folks speak at shows, like, we did a benefit show three or four falls ago, around Thanksgiving, at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC, and we had Black Lives Matter speak, all the money went to the Center for Reproductive Rights to give women reproductive services who live in hostile states. And it was like, a bunch of people speaking, and bands playing kinda just to glue the moments together, and that's a recent example of all the shows, all the traditions, all the things that we've been part of -- like before Strike Anywhere started, just me and my bandmates being in the audience or being in previous bands. I definitely feel like handing the mic for black voices, trans voices, women's voices has been part of this forever.
Like here's the thing, there's a bunch of white men out there, you know? And it's just a part of demographics, it's a part of population. And there's also folks who feel trapped by what was given to them -- whatever red carpet was rolled out for you at birth or not -- like, the reason people get into punk, and the reason people get into punk, the reason people get into these counter-cultures is because it feels like this is where truth is. Like I'm not as afraid, I'm not a number, when I'm here. And that applies to all of us, like if we don't get off our feet -- and this is speaking to all of my bandmates who are all white gentlemen from the south except Garth who's Canadian, but he grew up in our hometown -- we got into this because like it's not just a question of dissatisfaction or tourism, right? Or you have to check yourself to make sure it's not only about either of those things, because this is where you are whole. You're challenging yourself, but these are the questions you needed to ask yourself your whole life, and so many people around us never did, and their privilege got a hold of them and possessed them. And that is not a good life to live.
[In punk and hardcore] we talk about all the things that are keeping us from living true and free with ourselves and in our communities. And hardcore has kind of carried the personal banner, right? Hardcore talks a lot about psychology, basically, like how to stay positive, how to deal with your internal problems, right? And both of these art forms, which are a big overlapping venn diagram -- we're in it, not just musically but as people -- both of these art forms work with each other best when they're together and you get this like - punk talks about real histories, forgotten people, racism, classism, patriarchy, and how they fold together and how they double the pain throughout history. And a lot of the best hardcore is reflective on how to get out of your own head, how to deal with your demons, how to be the best person you can be to the people around you, how to know that you're all connected, and then it reinforces that over and over again so you can look at yourself in the world in a better way. And I think that's what we try to do internally as a band, and make sure it's still meaningful, and that we're being honest with ourselves even if shit's complicated. And we try to figure out how to hold that white hot contradiction in our hands -- and that's just one of the things where like, if people do that, then the system will fall.
But yeah, I mean, white radical punks writing songs, observing their communities, jumping off the train of their privilege, and that is a lifelong journey, that's not just one thing that you do when you put on a Black Flag record or an Embrace record or a Gorilla Biscuits record. It seems like it's given -- and I see this in my friends, and the communities too, and everyone we talk to on tour -- like, it gives you the breathing room, almost intellectually, to think more, and to take in more information, and to reason better.
The scene that I grew up in in Richmond in the '80s was definitely informed by the reggae/punk combination and the Caribbean and black populations in my hometown. The shows I saw were in reggae clubs. It was as if the reggae community was hosting the punks with like a bit of affection. And of course Bad Brains embodies the manifestation of this, but it's always been there. So I guess the way that I saw it was like, I didn't see the homogeny and the exclusive whiteness of punk when I was a teenager and in my early 20s because there was so much influence, you know? There were so many Caribbeans and African Americans in the scene, and I think it goes back and forth through generations because it's been, goddamn, like 40 years or something. But that was my introduction to it. And my bandmates who grew up in the DC suburbs -- I don't even have to tell you what that was like, 'cause that stuff's on coffee table books now [laughs] -- but that's also a historic scene that was built by black and white folks, and hosted, almost, by -- you know, the elders of the scene were Caribbeans and African Americans. So there's this stuff that we can talk about too, but unfortunately it can become like a weird laundry list of justification, and that's not my intention. But there's that part where like, one of the first things that punk was upset about was racism and the police. Just to be super basic about it, those are two of the original cornerstones of this house, and damn if what's happening worldwide right now isn't about those two things, and it's being looked at through that lens.
It's been amazing that some of our songs have been a part of the protests, and I'm sure that every fucking awesome song, every song or piece of music or piece of art that moves anybody has been a part of these protests. Protests are like the world now. So, yeah, like, we talked about police brutality in our hometown and issues of race and economics and gentrification, and all of that pain. And, you know, there's always been a chorus or a line in the song that referenced optimism and problem-solving and what we can do and where we can be, and I guess that's been super important -- and also my bandmates are like the best editors in the world. Like I write all the lyrics but they get passed through a gauntlet of my friends who are the best editors. So we've all been a part of this, even the content of the songs is a five-person project and I'm just grateful that we've lasted this long and that we can still write songs about these issues and have a small platform. But again, understanding and not getting in the way of other voices and just being a part of something, just being a part of a structure that can lift people up, and the "white work" of letting people know you can get off that train, you can find truth and courage to not conform, to ask hard questions, to sustain the hard questions. Being a band from the south especially, there are confederate warriors that were in our families obviously -- it's a terrible, strange thing. I can see that history doesn't have to possess us, we don't have to be our ancestors, and we don't have to run away from any of that. We have to face it, and change it, and make this life different, make this life have a positive effect.
So the new EP is your first new music in 11 years. Obviously we've been building towards the moment we're in now for a while -- Trump was elected four years ago, Black Lives Matter was founded even before that -- and obviously you could not have predicted this when you made the record, but what was really the thing that prompted the band to finally make music again?
So, some of my bandmates had children, and they'd be with their kids, just playing guitar -- to soothe them, and to just hang out, and to be a parent -- and they'd record little riffs and their kids would just kind of vocalize... not really sing but just kind of coo and cry and whatever they'd do in the background. And they'd send me these things, almost like, "hey man, what's up?" Nothing formal, nothing like "let's do songs!", just like "check this out." So "Dress the Wounds" was like a duet based on this iPhone recording with me and my bandmate's son. It was just the strangest, most beautiful thing; like he was doing the little things that later became the oohs and ahhs in that song. So, we looked at it almost like re-starting the band. Not in this dramatic way -- we had been playing shows and doing little tours kind of every other year, not really ever ending, and still doing some writing.
We would make little recordings around soundchecks during shows and kind of build a writing workshop within the tour, and we did that for a couple years. We had a bunch of different recordings in various stages, and then, as it seems to be with our existence [...], The Bouncing Souls or Hot Water Music invite us to do something, and lo and behold, we can do it! And that's just kind of of how our [recent] East Coast appearances especially [came together]. So we're at the Warsaw in Brooklyn [opening for Hot Water Music in 2017], and it's also a Polish community center and there's all these hallways and rooms and closets that turn into rooms, it's wild. And so, one of the areas where we were hanging out, we were playing new songs and new ideas, and we started to get that big picture of the record, the idea that all these songs kind of grouped together and made something more than the sum of its parts... if that doesn't sound too pretentious. They have a call and response with each other within the record, you know, like they're related, there's a narrative, there's an energy, there's like a big song that all the songs make up from beginning to end. And that's kind of the way we've always looked at it. We never talk about it too much, but when we know it feels right, it ends up looking like that.
So we're playing "The Bells" [off the new record], and this is, again, unplugged guitars, Eric's playing drums on his lap, I'm kind of just wandering around singing. You know, we're just kind of getting into it, and that's kind of the moment that we would say it crystallized: at Warsaw, backstage in Brooklyn. And by "backstage" I mean deep in the recesses of the little community rooms and classrooms of that particular and unique venue. But yeah, we were just playing "The Bells" and we were writing the bridge together in real time -- not just GarageBand-ing it, not just riffs on a phone recorded while you're watching your child. Those poignant moments kind of turned into something else. It kind of went up a level, and we kind of smiled, and we were like "Cool!" Like we felt like we were on the path [to a new album] which was the kind of thing we never wanted to assume would ever happen again. We're not like in the business of churning out things. And we're always thinking about like what the value of all this is and how much room we're taking up in the world, and like is it important? All the questions you hope bands ask themselves [laughs] ... we try to. And we don't wanna clog anything up. We want it to be something that adds to the conversation and adds to the movement.
So it sounds like it was more of an organic thing within the way the band operates, more than an intentional "Trump is president so we have to make a record against that."
Yeah I mean, it was very important for us to continue writing these songs but it wasn't a direct reaction. Obviously many of the things we sing about are now writ large -- like the scale of these problems is bigger now, it's like a fever is getting hotter. But the spotlight on the pathology of our culture and our country and the desperation of half of our population to hold onto whatever power they think they have or they think is owed to them. We are definitely as disgusted and terrified and mobilized to be a part of this moment and add our weight to whatever we can, and writing these songs and putting out this record is how we can supply people with a touch of peace, or the courage to open up a little bit and stay in the fight. That's why we've always written songs, but it's definitely not lost on us that we needed to do this at this particular time. But we also didn't wanna force it, we wouldn't be good at that, let me put it that way. We couldn't just say, "alright Trump's president, this record's about that!" We can't be creative like that. It's gonna come from this place that's almost like internal within our band to make it work, and to make it right for us. And of course we're gonna be pointed at this moment historically, even though we didn't quite know what it was gonna look like and be like. But as we said earlier, everything was going in this direction and leading up to this. It's gonna be interesting to see when the record comes out in July, like what's happening then. Like the monuments might come down in Richmond that same month, like who the fuck knows? There could be a bunch of shitty lawsuits, and it could be way worse than that too, so I don't know.
You talked about Nightmares of the West being like one big song where everything relates. I've listened to it a handful of times and that's definitely also how I see it -- it feels like a very complete piece of work. It's an EP, but it doesn't feel small. So when you decided you were putting an EP out, was it like "okay this is our complete project that just happens to be short," or was there any talk of there being a full-length after this?
Yeah, the first one. This definitely feels like a complete statement, a complete project. Also the immediacy of it turned on when Marc Maitland died, and that made us want to record a Blocko cover and do something in Mates' memory and for our friends in England who were grieving his death. That was part of the "now it's really coming together, we have to do this." So in some ways, the "Opener" cover was another thing that drove the record. Also, the end of "We Make The Road By Walking" -- that noisy, washy thing at the end was something we all heard in our heads. And we kinda gave it to Brian to do that -- it's kinda the most foray into production that we've ever had [laughs]. It's very noisy and dubby and all the things that we wanted from it to feel like this kind of crescendo of things becoming less separate. And that's another piece of it too. Like once we knew we wanted the end to be like that, and we all started hearing it in our heads. Each of us wrote different components of it, like the drums are all of a sudden gonna become the room sound, and me and Jason are gonna scream but we're gonna mix it into one, so we don't know when one person's voice ends and when the other... like, all the things in there, the layers, that noisy bit, was something that all we kind of orbited around, and then when Brian put it together for us, it sort of moved us. And there are more songs of course, that didn't fit in with Nightmares of the West. I don't know if we're gonna do like a continuing series of EPs that are all kinda cohesive like this. I think that's something we thought about, because this worked, but who knows what happens next? We're still writing, it's as vital a situation as it's always been, and everyone's really happy with it. And I'll say that stopping the relentless touring and doing more curated experiences has been really rewarding. It's also what is possible [laughs], but it's definitely been a little better for us. For every show, you're in a position where if this had to be the last one, it'd be a good last one. And that's where you need to be when you're a punk band thats in its 20s as a band. And that's another thing too. Maybe that's been reflected in this record too, like make every moment count.
There was a period where we were deciding on the name of it and the track order and some of that stuff -- we were in Mexico City in September on a rooftop, looking out as a storm came in over the city, breathing in that high altitude, and looking at how artful the buildings were, and the murals. We were about to play a show where we were sandwiched between Earth Crisis and Wolfbrigade at this big awesome festival in Mexico City [OFF Limits] that we'd never been at before. And we were talking about the mix and where we were at with the songs, and it was just one of those moments you think about with your friends, where kind of all the other stuff that you needed to think about and worry about has fallen by the wayside and you have a chance to bring that in and be like "okay this is happening, we're on our way, this baby is gonna come out." So that was poignant too. So, you know, backstage at the Warsaw in Brooklyn, on a rooftop in Mexico City -- there were all these different locations where we realized that this record was happening. I don't wanna be too sentimental, but these are the personal experiences that relate to your question.
On the topic of being a band who's 20 years old. I think it's not crazy to say that a lot of people look at punk as a young person's game. But I think the new record has that energy that you want out of -- I don't mean this the wrong way, but a young person's punk record. So, for you, being the ones making the record, being the ones doing this for 20 years, what would you say goes into aging gracefully as a punk band?
That's a damn good question. It's almost something that we're gonna have to all witness together and figure out. I can't speak to our peers or our forebears, but I think the further away we get from like, the traps of nostalgia, the kind of rock and roll performance identity -- like punk challenges that, punk is like "no, you're just bringing yourself to this, you don't get to run away, this isn't theater, this isn't performance, this is you." Like that's a big part of what would inform aging gracefully if we're doing that -- or if anyone does that. Just that honesty. And it gets scarier as you get older. You wanna fall into something, you wanna find something that can shield from you all the infection and confusion, all the different things that have always been there. But when you're young, the whole world is in service to your energy. The whole world is also afraid of your energy when you're youthful; it's a really strange contradiction. You drive culture, and it's beautiful. And then when you get older and you still find you can write these songs and play these songs and it still means everything it did in your twenties, or when you saw shows when you were a teenager, and you realize that maybe punk and hardcore are sustaining some aspect of the mix of audacious optimism and the touch of innocence that we associate with youth. I don't know if that's always gonna be what youth is, sadly, but I do think that there's a part of that, and it's a very important human quality. And having that be a part of this music keeps you young -- obviously not in a physical way [laughs] -- but keeps you young at least mentally and in your heart.
And I think finding room for other people in the process. Like you listen more as you get older, and you're also grateful for the new bands, and the fact that there's continuity, and that there's still DIY venues and fanzines and stencil art, and that the people who were all doing that stuff when you were 20 are now running like prison abolition nonprofits, you know? Like we're in this spot right now where we're seeing it all grow up. And I don't wanna speak out of turn, but first-generation punks who were 20 years older than me, they did see some seminal bands and maybe helped start their hometown scenes. And then second generation, like the American hardcore generation, like they're obviously like still vocal and a part of this, and doing good work. And because you had those foundations laid, by the time you get to us, there's just more layers, more ways to build the culture, more ways to preserve it and ways to diversify it. And that's still the challenge. I mean, I get moved when Denzel Curry sings a Bad Brains song and I'm like it's incredible that people are still reaching into this and still adding to it, adding to the ferociousness, the optimism, the joy of it.
[Punk has had its moments in the mainstream] but it's always too rich and detailed and deep for it to get co-opted and blow away in a corporate wind. It'll never do that, it'll always be in the underground and vital and inspiring. And that's another thing. I guess seeing yourselves as a part of this continuum is another way you stay young and still make something that you believe in. Those are some of the reasons I think our new songs are hopefully still good, and hopefully move people -- they move us, and we're really critical of ourselves. We always wanna make sure we're not wasting time and we're not taking up space that isn't ours, that isn't something that we can do something positive with.
That makes a lot of sense. And I also love that Denzel Curry cover.
It came out of nowhere! Like I wasn't ready, I was like "what?! this happened?!" You just don't know. I was just like high off of that, like isn't it crazy? Like music is so important and it does so much on so many levels at once that you gotta kinda let go, you gotta let it take you somewhere.
For sure. Alright, I have one more question. So you guys have been on a lot of really cool record labels over the years -- Jade Tree, Bridge 9, Fat Wreck Chords. You were talking about The Bouncing Souls before. You and The Bouncing Souls have now both just moved to Pure Noise, who to me witnessing from the outside, seem like they're killing it right now -- so many cool new young bands, and now you guys and the Souls. Could you speak to how that relationship started and how it's been so far?
It's good. It happened almost entirely inside of the pandemic -- even earlier this year we weren't sure if we'd self-release or look for a label. Our friend Justin Collier -- who, among many other roles, he's the van that takes us around all the small tours we go on on the East Coast. He also works for the Souls, he also kinda helped engineer the AVAIL reunion. He's just kind of a helper in our immediate world of friends and peers and bands, and he had a relationship with Pure Noise and told us about it, thought it was cool. And it was easy, we were like "this is great!" And our guitarist Matt Smith was in Senses Fail for a few years, and they did some records on Pure Noise too. And I don't know much about that, but he had good feelings about Pure Noise from those experiences. Anyway, so yeah, it seems cool. It's what you said you see -- they're killing it, they have really good energy, it's just like a quality situation all around. And we have love for all the labels we've been on. It's been an honor. And being a part of these different moments with different independent labels, it's a slightly different take on the culture each time. The venn diagrams overlap more now, but back in the day, a label was almost its own scene, and we never liked that. So we thought, in our small way, that working with different labels would maybe help change that. People would come out to shows and things would become a little more integrated, and it wouldn't just be only one sound tied to only one label. Everyone that we've worked with -- Jade Tree, Fat, Bridge 9, and Pure Noise -- have an investment in this that goes beyond a business obviously, they have an investment in the culture that's for life. It's inspiring to work with these folks and see what they do and how they do it.
Nightmares of the West Tracklist
2. Dress The Wounds
3. The Bells
4. Frontier Glitch
5. Imperium Of Waste
7. We Make The Road By Walking
Nightmares of the West comes out July 17 via Pure Noise Records. You can pre-order it here.