Silent Uproar: Dead FM is your first album for Fat Wreck Chords—how has the label change affected you?
Thomas: I don't think putting this one record out on Fat has changed us at all. We had worked with them on different political projects in the past (PunkVoter, Rock Against Bush ) and we did a seven inch single of the month with them back in 2000, before we were on Jade Tree. We've visited Fat Wreck Chords on every West Coast leg of a tour since 2000, and built families of two coasts with both they and Jade Tree. We have much respect and pride in our three LPs with Tim and Darren [of Jade Tree], and we see them every time we are in Philadelphia.
We've been really happy with Fat's interest and application of resources for Dead FM. We feel like the folks who work at Fat have a passion for political punk in this particular era in America that we are all dealing with. There is a lot of commitment from them to promote and distribute the record aggressively, but with the independent punk rock ethic secured, and celebrated. We like this.
They seem to understand our band very well, and seek to maximize the exposure of new and old fans to Dead FM. All of this is on our terms, with sensitivity and insight into new,creative, and counter-culturally appropriate ways to get these songs, and ideas, across to more people worldwide.
We all still work jobs when home between tours, and live in the same places. We are just a little more excited and busy with anticipating and preparing to tour for this new record. With Fat it feels like a creative partnership, as well as a great record label family.
SU: The new record maintains the abrasive, melodic qualities of past Strike Anywhere records, though in a more accessible way. What prompted the band to veer towards a catchier sound?
Thomas: Thanks for your compliments. I reckon we didn't intentionally, collectively decide to become more accessible, or catchy, in fact, some of the songs are pretty old school--aggressive, but I think this magnetism towards singalong choruses and harmony is what will grow naturally over time to any songwriting groups or individuals who work together for years. I'm thinking now that the melodic nature of Dead FM (notwithstanding the guttaral breakdown battle cries, my aging vocal chords, and other shouted bits) may have to do with our time of three years writing the songs in quieter, acoustic and spare vocal-and-guitar settings. A lot of porch sessions while off tour, and back room writing while touring occurred. I think we all wanted to expand the number of voices on the recording, since there is a lot of singing from Matt (Smith) and Matt (Sherwood) live, as the songs get played more and change from the records. The record is also a great deal faster than Exit English, as those songs are played sometimes twice as fast live as on that recording.
SU: Against Me! and Rise Against both moved on up from Fat Wreck over the past couple of years--do you foresee any possibilities of Strike Anywhere ever making that crossover to the land of major labels?
Thomas: There were some people trying to sniff around us, find an angle, whatever. It didn't work. We are real suspicious of the major label lottery, and like the sense of Independence, creative partnership, and space we get from working with labels like Fat Wreck Chords and Jade Tree. There has been a ratcheting up of political intensity with Fat that appeals to us, and the sense that this punk thing is still "more than music" to many.
I think we would have to protect ourselves a great deal from parasitic, unsustainable situations with a major, and the sacrifice of independence and operational ethics seems like it would be too much for us to justify. I am hopeful that our good friends, whom you've referenced above, will be able to subvert the obvious theoretical and market-based traps that we all know corporate (and many independent labels as well, let's not forget) music entities are capable of laying, and get their messages out into the hearts of new audiences, those folks who haven't had the window to jump into the underground yet. The "gateway drug" theory of political punk bands using the system against itself. We should ask Chumbawamba how this worked out for them.
Maybe sharing experiences and tactical information in a vertical way throughout the internal conflicts within punk could help bands understand and avoid problems of exploitation. There would have to be a great deal of transformation in the corporate music industry , and a lot of insurances against destroying the things we love about this culture, this art form, for us to feel like extending our songs, and our lives into this arena.
SU: Exit English wasn't as well-received as its predecessor, and Dead FM seems to pick up that record's slack. Why's this one stronger?
Thomas: Time. We took our time, and slowed down the relentless illusion of touring cycles. We took back the pace of our band and reattached our lives to our families and communities, giving roots to our punk experience. We remembered the joy of just playing in a cold warehouse, scratching out new songs on acoustic guitars, singing like lunatics on our porches. We wrote it over the course of three years, sending parts back and forth, visiting each other in different cities, but the process, facilitated in the majority by computers and digital music files, somehow yielded a record which, to us, feels more organic and human than any other we've made. I believe Brian McTernan had a lot to do with this. And also our utterly ruthless songwriting democracy and a rehearsal schedule that was healthy, and patient.
I still feel that , for us at least, Exit English is a vital, desperate and subdued document of its time: our post 9-11 reactions, our first adventures with our music outside of our hemisphere, touring Europe and expanding our cultural connections. Anything that we would've done differently was implemented on this new record. The Dead FM session was way more of the positive, inclusive punk party that we wanted to create this time around. The uncertainty and fractured quality that reality seemed to have in 2001 - 2003, permeated our writing for Exit English, including real life fuck-ups like my lyrics and books being stolen when my car was broken into--while we were finishing up that record. Exit English at times loses its pace with what the songs feel like to play live, and this I feel has been rectified on the new album. Compared to Dead FM, I think it ended up as a darker, and more sterile record, but I still believe in the songs, every word and chord.
SU: How's the tour you're on now with Ignite, Modern Life is War, and A Global Threat? Is the crowd from as many corners of hardcore as the bands they're coming to see?
Thomas: Yes, and in many cities it's exactly the unity fest we hoped for, and in others, it's a work in progress of different gangs of kids switching out on a band to band basis. Some of that is natural, of course, and people have specific tastes and a feeling of identity associated with every aesthetic. We were interested in a multi-regional punk tour with bands representing from three of the four U.S. time zones. And we were really curious about M.L.I.W., after having heard their music. And liking it. We also wanted to see how to fold in the different "factions" within this beautiful mess of punk and hardcore culture, and we will have to wait 'til the Bane part starts in earnest to asses whether we achieved any kind of unity or difference.
SU: If someone wasn't able to hear your music, and you could very briefly express to them the record's sentiments about the state of the country and the world in general, what would you say?
Thomas: I would say it's about speaking truth to power, reclaiming our righteous anger, courage, empathy, positivity, friendliness, and having fun...defying the treacherous self-indulgence of pre-fabricated subculture and the national crisis we call the post-millenial era.
SU: I'd say that Strike Anywhere does a good deal of reading on the road. Anything you care to share with us?
Thomas: [Matt] Smith loaned me the Walk Through Portland Chuck Palahniuk book which has helped me feel the darkness (hidden history, ghosts, etc.--more like Richmond) embedded in this bright green city I've recently moved to. I'm also reading The Culture Of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen, his books are always enlightening, brutal yet vulnerable personal/political memoirs. I am also reading Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. So far it's pretty good. Finally, we raided the AP [Alternative Press] warehouse on tour recently, and we have a great deal of old AP back issues to enjoy in our box truck. Newsprint, black and white issues from the late eighties! It's really interesting to read reviews of iconic records, and feel how different the cultural reference points were back then.
SU: The state of hardcore--it seems like it's chock-full with the fashion-oriented types and the violent, meathead guys. You're obviously neither of those, but your sound is more informed by hardcore than say, early punk rock. Pop-hardcore?
Thomas: This is strange--an old, awkwardly positive HeartAttack review of a seven inch from my old band Inquisition, tried to coin the phrase "pop-crust" to describe whatever we were doing in 1995. We got serious mileage taking the piss out of ourselves for years with that!
As far as modern times go, it's still more of a city by city scene report, I think. Sometimes, you are absolutely correct, there is this cynical brutality, hyper-masculine death grip on what was originally meant to be a positive, pyschologically liberating, and revolutionary youth culture. But, in other cities, a love for what is authentic and inclusive about hardcore prevails, and punks and hardcore kids are just two wings of a movement in flight. I think our band was originally a mix of both of these movements--the big, small town of Richmond thing where, until perhaps very recently, two "hardcore" kids could be in band to play punk rock, and three "punk" kids could be in the same band, thinking they were playing hardcore.
SU: What bands out there are doing an exemplary job of injecting their music with politics these days?
Thomas: Anybody creating something from the heart and in the present, where the attachment to some kind of historical re-enactment of genre is kept down to a dull roar, will be producing some inspiring shit. The debate between what is propaganda and what is purely art will rage on, as long as context keeps shifting, and punk rockers (and hardcore kids) hold on to their own voices, all vulnerability and all courage intact. The above said, I still really feel a lot of the fine punk records (and beyond) coming out today, and in the pre-millenium. I think Propagandhi's Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes record is really goose-bump inducing. As well as the first and second Tragedy records. I haven't got the third one yet. I also love the hot and cold quality, unpretentious vulnerability and tension of Silent Alarm by Bloc Party. I've also found the newest record by New Model Army, Carnival to be an amazing personal-meets-the-political record.
SU: What role do other band members have in the political aspects of the band's lyrics? Are you given free-range to talk about whatever you want, or does the band need to have position when it comes to potentially sensitive political positions?
Thomas: I am almost always, and gratefully so, a "free-range" Thomas. Everyone in Strike Anywhere has a voice in our content, the lyrics are all written by me, but I get all kinds of valuable ideas, assistance and reworking of metaphors into brighter, better things by my bandmates. We are each different, and approach issues of economies, organization, direct action and politics from slightly different perspectives. The only issue where we thought it better to take a different approach, and handle an idea in a specific way would be diet.
The song "Collateral Damage," our only outtake from the Dead FM sessions, approaches animal rights, nutrition, poverty, and strict vegetarianism form a point of view that is mine alone and directly personal. Aspects of the lyrics were considered a bit too militant to represent the whole band. I am the only vegan in Strike Anywhere these days, and, while Garth has maintained his vegetarianism, our other bandmates are on their own paths as far as diet is concerned. We remedied this by contributing the song directly to the animal rights movement, it's on the PETA2 website, and also will appear on benefit compilations for Peter Young's case, and a compilation (with recipes!) for Compassion Over Killing. My bandmates have all been a part of Animal Rescue networks, and have love and respect for the vegetarian lifetstyle, and the animal rights movement--we just needed to stay honest and true to the differences between us, and not fabricate a party line.
SU: I saw you guys a long time ago at The Solar Haus in Blacksburg, back before the Death By Stereo incident. Are house shows still on the agenda, or are they too hard to work into a schedule now?
ThomasWe love a good house show, and, although we haven't played one in a while, we would be open to it in the right circumstances, for sure. They are definitely a huge part of how we started, and some of our best memories playing live. You're right though, it's a bit difficult to work them into a tour these days, where we have strong support, and/or co-headlining adventures with bands who draw another, different 150-600 people than we do. This would require a large house...we played a garage in Indianapolis in 2004 with From Ashes Rise...that was really cool.
SU: You're playing a Virginia Fair Wage Alliance benefit soon that's 21+. How did you navigate the decision between playing a benefit for an important cause vs. fidelity to the politics of inclusivity? Are all-ages politics still a relevant concern, or do you think it's an antiquated ideal?
Thomas: We never play shows with age limitations. It's a huge part of how we feel we need to operate, and a part of the ethics of this punk world that we take very seriously. The Fair Wage Acoustic Benefit, which was in Richmond the day after our all ages show, was moved to McCormack's after the legendary all-ages venue, Nanci Raygun closed (August), and there was no other option for this already-scheduled and promoted event. We scrambled to find any other space to make this benefit happen while out on the road, and Richmond, notoriously hostile toward youth culture and an all-ages environment, didn't make it any easier. So, yeah, we decided it was better to go ahead with this show, where Mac (owner of the bar) had agreed to give all the door money to the VA Fair Wage Alliance, than to cancel it and not have a benefit/after-tour party. As fun, low-key, and successful as the show was, it's still one of those compromises that we don't want to ever repeat.
SU: Have the crowds been receptive to the new material, or are you constantly getting requests for songs from Change Is a Sound?
Thomas: We are actually getting requests split between To Live In Discontent ("Antidote", "Notes On Pulling Down the Sky") and more of the new record. This is exciting for us, and, although we love Change Is a Sound (and still play a lot from it), it's nice to see other material (the new stuff especially) get some love as well.
SU: Is there a certain point where radicals have to cross into the mainstream to make their points known to the masses? Against Me! is a popular modern example, or The Clash, for something that can now be put into an historical context.
Thomas: This is THE question for all of us (you, me, our peers and friends in the punk music community, your readers...) isn't it? I'll try to put this as briefly as I can, but forgive me, I don't have a proper answer, just observations at the moment. The entertainment product and general fashion absurdity of the average Warped Tour show, or other mainstream punk rock event in the U.S. will play into the hands of the focus-deprived, trend consuming youth stereotype, and...politics often becomes a thin aesthetic, not a viable part of a creative counter-cultural communion. If we are patient and flexible with our approach, humanizing the dogma or elitism that often play into the isolation of American life, than the political and social ideas will become a shared part of the collective experience...changing the audience, changing us, and gaining depth in the process. The defining characteristic that gives this art form its longevity, survival, if you will, is transformation and process, not punk rock as another political party with some kind of educational requirement, and ideology checklist at the door to the show. Please don't mistake my words, I do believe that punk needs to retain its intelligence and creativity, and it can only do this by not confusing social revolution with what passes for politics. This error has been committed by too many for too long.
We are honored to share our music and stories with y'all and happy that we can continue to learn and travel and carry all of these ideas and bits of inspiration with us. We always remark to each other that we learn so much more about the sngs we are singing from the moments shared with the awesome kids who sing along. Each show has its indelible , singular mark on the song, and we feel that shit's not truly writtten 'til it gets transformed and adopted by the people in every city we play. Counterculture and music communities still have a lot of regional character, at the level that we prefer to operate.
It's neat and educational, and, of course, socially-rewarding to have more contact, good conversation, and perspective on the changes in the punk community. There is also a soul-numbing amount of conformity, attention span fallout (ahem), and people settling into their prescribed corporate youth culture tribes a little too comfortably. We like to think we recognize it where we can, and defy it when we can define it. There is an important balance between the unconsciously (I hope) elite activist punk shows, with an understandable focus on operational purity--and the howling wilderness of reaching out to people who haven't yet had the access or community in their cities, taking risks to spread a message and find new kindred populations, in the belly of this commodifying, superficial beast. It's an important thing to remember, and we all try and strengthen our commitment to this invisible, but important quality, by knowing that we can redefine ourselves and assert our innocence and personality to smash the temporary and tap into the proper potential of this punk rock thing.
We also are regular jobs-between-tours-having, acoustic guitar porch-sittin', carpenters, motorcycle mechanics, baristas, organic produce market working, animal lovin', good times havin' fellows, who love a good protest march and bit of direct action every so often but also enjoy life, smile a lot and try to laugh with our friends even when the world seems lost . We are honored to help out the activists in our hometowns with a benefit show occasionally, and have fine speakers add content and passion to our shows whenever possible.
Often, it feels like our role is a kind of bombastic, alternative media, and the pychological nourishment and group therapy of a good punk/hardcore show is as important to the delivery of a message as the message itself. We try to remind ourselves of these positive ideals, and try not to get too shrill or stressed out about finessing our strategies as a punk band.
And finally, we realize that mainstream media/American culture tries its damndest to capture political punk and render it into a toothless cartooon of tired slogans and one dimensional rage. We will be happiest if we never give them this opportunity.