The protest music of Strike Anywhere goes beyond hardcore, beyond punk to something altogether more simple, honest and straightforward.
Certainly hardcore music followers will recognize the basic kernel of their sound — the hyper-backbeat percussive violence, the dominating guitars, the in-your-face attitude.
But while hardcore all-too-often is just plain brutal, this Richmond, Va., five-piece has managed to harness the chaos of hardcore and fuse it seamlessly with the right amount of rock sensibility to create the perfect noise of joyous dissent.
Their guitars are as influenced by AC/DC and Def Leppard as Avail and Boy Sets Fire. And while so much hardcore vocals is nothing more than a lead singer grunting three-word phrases directly into a firmly grasped, spit-covered microphone, Strike Anywhere vocalist Thomas Barnett actually sings. He understands melody and throws every ounce of emotion behind every note. The lyrics are not only a call to action, but an honest view of a world he knows all too well. In the end, it all comes together because you believe he really means what he’s saying. And by the time he gets to the end of the first song, you’re ready to join him in the trenches.
"It’s an accumulation of the different experiences living in my community and seeing the culture of poverty unfold," Barnett said from the stained-glass studio where he works. "While four blocks south of me is a world of rich, white, wealthy entrepreneurs. It’s a neighborhood in transition."
Translated: Barnett lives in the cross-hairs of an impoverished area of Richmond rife with drugs on one end and undergoing gentrification on the other. His house sits smack on the lines between the upwardly mobile and the downtrodden poor. The constant struggle between the classes is captured crystal clear on one of the strongest songs from the band’s new full-length, Change Is a Sound. "Sunset on 32nd" tells the story of a family trying to survive in a virtual police state:
American justice American dream
Is this what ‘The other half’ means
Half of our lives dissolved in fear
Half of our rights they disappear
Is our apathy so corrosive
Where does the cycle start
Hear the sirens screaming out in the distance
Hold your family close to your heart
"That song is about police rounding up people in my area for bicycle infractions," Barnett said. "Things that they never pull kids over for in the affluent suburbs, such as no working breaks or no helmet. They started enforcing it as an abstract way of cracking down on the drug trade."
The cops were after "runners," Barnett said, though few of the children were involved in trafficking. One day his neighbor was riding his bike home from the store with a bag of diapers when the cops followed the man to his house, broke down the door and beat him in front of his family, dragging him out into the street. Barnett said they took the man to a hospital before throwing him in jail, only to release him the next day.
The song continues:
American justice American lies
A war of words that I despise
I wish the good cops if they exist (the very best)
And a bullet for all theâ€¦
The last word of the phrase is never sung. Barnett has an experienced attitude toward police. He says a number of his friends landed in jail because of their participation in the April 16, 2000, protest of the IMF and World Bank in Washington, D.C., where 1,300 people were arrested, mostly for parading in areas not permitted and crossing police lines. "Being a cop is a hard job," he admits, "and peace and order is in short supply when people don’t have access to a job."
When he sings "I will try everything / To kill the sleeping cop in me" on the title track to the band’s 6-song anthemic EP, Chorus of One, Barnett says he’s really saying that he’s trying to keep his eye on the real struggles around him and not get complacent. "It’s about examining yourself and about how comfortable a lot of us live our lives. Sometimes it’s really hard to stretch your mind and relate to those who are suffering."
Barnett’s sense of justice goes beyond humankind. During the phone interview, a dog barked gleefully in the background — an all-black pure chow named Pearl. "But we call her Blindie," Barnett said. "Someone chained her to a fence and forced her to produce puppies. She’s blind and three years old. We rescued her; we love her."
"We" is a local organization called SOS that actively seeks out and rescues animals trapped in abusive situations. So far this year, Barnett said, the organization has rescued 45 dogs. Many of them stay briefly at his house, where Barnett’s two dogs — Batu and Blue — act as social workers helping the recently liberated hounds understand that it’s okay to be loved. "They’re the go-betweens," Barnett said. "They tell these strays, which have no etiquette skills, that it’s okay to accept food. We invite the neighborhood kids over to play with them. They call my place ‘the dog house.’"
The only reason that Barnett is still "in the doghouse" when he and his band should be on the road is because of the terrorist acts that took place in New York last week. The band was scheduled to play a show in Kenilworth, New Jersey, Sept. 12. With the Commonwealth of Virginia still under a state of emergency, the band canceled the show. They planned to play in Philadelphia the following night, though the CMJ Jade Tree showcase scheduled for New York’s Irving Plaza Sept. 14 also was canceled.
"It was unbelievable," Barnett said of the terrorist strikes. "I was mostly worried about my friends in New York, all of whom are okay. I went right past the national concerns and straight to personal ones."
What will be the fall-out of Sept. 11 on radical protests such as the World Trade Organization demonstrations? Barnett said it was an apples and oranges issue.
"I don’t see it impacting the protests at the Sept. 30 World Bank/IMF meetings in Washington," he said. "I think radical movements that are trying to gain economic justice and clarity for people around the world have nothing in common with terrorist actions. Ours is more about educating instead of agitating. We want to put a face on the World Trade Organization. The main problem with those organizations is they aren’t democratic. They’re essentially cabals — a royal family without a blood link, where the blood is money."
And what about everyone else? What about me? A self-professed member of the corporate machine, I asked Barnett if his music meant that I should quit my job and take up the fight for economic injustice.
"I don’t think the lyrics are saying that we all have to quit our jobs," he said. "There’s a level of compliance in our society. There are choices we have to make; there are battles to choose and battles to lose. I think it’s more important to choose to do that thing that you love that’ll make a difference. Be fearless. Know that there are people behind you, whether they are the dead of generations past or your brother."