Dead FM (Fat)
An interview with vocalist Thomas Barnett
photos by Alison Krick
In a handful of other magazines, you’re going to get an interview with Thomas Barnett that’s going to focus on Strike Anywhere‘s new album, Dead FM. You’re going to hear all about how things are okay between the band and Jade Tree, their former label. How they love Fat Wreck, their current label. How important it was to be recorded by the same fella who’s been with them since the start. All interesting, all currently very relevant, and all the same old, same old. I decided to focus on a bit of Thomas’ history that could very well turn into his future, and what it’s like for a guy who’s lived in Richmond, VA for so long and had it be such a lyrical focal point, to move to the other side of the country (Portland, OR). Dead FM is the story of today. I chatted with Thomas over the phone before their recent acoustic show back in Richmond to get from him a little piece of yesterday and tomorrow.
You recently moved from Richmond to Portland, OR?
Yeah, I lived in Richmond for 30 years. My wife, the consummate scholar, got her Masters in environmental science and policy, and then she got into law school and chose Lewis and Clark, the NW College of Law in Portland. She does animal rights law there.
How do you like Portland?
It’s so different. I’ve only been there for a year and a half, and that time has been split with me traveling and recording and not being there (laughs). I work at an organic produce market, unloading trucks on the morning shift for organic farms all around Oregon. It’s awesome. Compared to Richmond, there’s so much municipal consciousness, public art and life. And bike paths everywhere! There’s just more consciousness. There’s not the sense of division and isolation and tension that exists in many other cities, especially in the Southeast. I love Richmond, and the way I see the world will always be through the lenses the city gave me. But being in Portland is just nuts. So much counter culture, so much street life; like protests, and culture, and markets. That sense of spontaneous democracy is too much of a threat to the status quo and the psychic engineering of most of America, but in Portland, it’s beautiful. I don’t even feel like I’m in this country anymore. I feel like I’m somewhere else. Cascadia. (laughs). It’s really different, it doesn’t even make sense with the way I used to know the U.S.
We always felt like that traveling and playing shows in the Pacific Northwest. We always felt “We’re somewhere different.” I’ve talked about it to other bands from the Midwest or the Northeast and it’s just a sense of “wow.” Southern California is also like a glittery and surreal place, but it’s so artificial, and there’s that sort of hostility and weird imprisoning of images. When you get up to the NW, you don’t have that. Things seem really dialed in to nature and getting things done and asserting humanity with the practices of culture. There isn’t as much (physical) division in Portland. Like the neighborhoods kind of bleed into each other. It feels like places I’ve been in the Netherlands.
Richmond is difficult to relate unless you were born here. There was an exodus of second generation Richmond punks. Like mid-’80s punk rock people. Like 100 of them got on busses and left Richmond for Portland in 1987. Because, I guess, Portland was the punk Mecca they’d been reading about in MaximumRock’N’Roll. Pre-Internet, pre-cell phone, there was no national scene, it was all little cities. And that exodus left a vacuum for all the 15 and 16 year old little kids like myself, the third generation, to try to fill.
And it was interesting because right around that time Straight Edge Hardcore, positive messages, all these different things started happening. That sort of darkness and nihilism of the second generation of punk physically left the city, and we had to put on big boots and figure out what we were going to do with the counter culture that was left to us. And it was really helpful when Avail moved down. They moved up from the suburbs of DC in ’91, and it added just the right amount of big guys to help us kick out the Nazis. (laughs).
That’s the other weird thing about Portland: I sort of feel like I’m in these weird counter-cultural footsteps of these older men and women, some of whom have passed away from drug abuse. I have one of their leather jackets. Like a scene hand-me-down in my closet. There’s a sense of having walked down these streets in those footsteps, and there are still shanghai tunnels underneath the old bars in the center in the city where sailors got knocked out and they’d wake up hundreds of miles out to sea. Even though it’s sort of a newer-feeling city, it’s got its history and its darkness, and in that way, I can relate to it.
Tonight you’ll be playing some Inquisition songs with Robbie, and I always wondered what happened between Inquisition and Strike Anywhere.
Wow, this is a really different sort of interview (laughs). Let me think about that… We played our last show 10 years ago, September of 1996, at an old movie theater in Richmond with AFI opening for us. We’d met them six months before at Gilman Street in Berkeley. They were really good guys, really friendly. We met them when no one (in Inquisition) was talking to each other, and the little short school bus that we’d outfitted as a touring vehicle kept breaking. Robbie had been in too many death-defying accidents to put up with very many more. So he and Russ flew from the West Coast and left the tour while Mark and I were kind of left with the school bus.
Sort of like Another State of Mind (laughs).
Maybe, yeah. Actually Russ took a bus home and managed to almost get in fights with Vietnam vets, and I think he met a girl and had a Greyhound bus girlfriend for a little while. (laughs) Another crazy chapter of his life. Robbie’s final straw was when we had a tire blow out and the pavement started coming up through the rusting floor of the bus on us while we were sleeping. You might say that was the physical event that broke the band up. That was obviously traumatizing to all of us. Especially Robbie, because he’d just gotten a reconstructed steel pelvis from a previous car wreck.
Things were definitely emotional. The string players in the band weren’t talking, and I was the mother, I guess. They relayed messages through me. It was just crap. Everyone was really exhausted and financially drained. But we had these songs and these 7″ records that had come out and it was that classic thing where we knew that there was something special and we loved it, but we’d suffered so much for this motherfucker for so long.
Mark got involved in the cannabis trade, trying to buy us new vehicles and figure out how we could repair things and go on tours. We met Propaghandi for a Gulf Coast tour, like New Orleans and Houston, and we played these wonderful, sprawling, ghetto community centers in the heart of the fifth ward of Houston. Native American activists and Black Panthers and punks trying to build this place in the heart of the city that had been forgotten. We had all these little moments where we knew it was really special. But we couldn’t live like that, with our vehicles about to kill us all the time.
Mark and I went back across country in the school bus, siphoning gas and trying to charm hippie girls into taking us to Burning Man. (laughs) I think it was the first Burning Man, and we didn’t even know what it was. We went to Salt Lake City, to this underground mall, and saw all these rich ass Mormons, and we were planning on stealing things. We were out of our minds. Mark had to sell all of his guitar gear. His beloved Les Paul, his stacks and his head, and we got ripped, of course, because we looked desperate. And we were. That was how we survived and got gas money and made it back home. It was hard to speak, to talk about what was happening. We all got back to Richmond, and two weeks later, we had that show with AFI.
I think Robbie and Russ wanted to continue the band in some way. At one point, they wanted to have an incarnation with Leer (later of Ann Beretta) playing guitar. No one was really communicating well, and it wasn’t right to continue the band without all four of those guys with me. I could tell that those guys needed to do a band together, so I told them the band was breaking up, and I moved to Olympia for two months. Leslie, who’s now my wife, was starting college at Evergreen, so I moved her out there, and it just sort of left this vaccum from which Ann Beretta formed. Robbie and Leer on guitar, Russ playing drums, and that was the beginning of that.
I was on the West Coast for a while, down in Oakland, and then I drove a van back across the country so Avail could do a tour. For about two and a half years, I just worked a lot, and I had a friend who became a delegate for the industrial workers of the world. The Wobblies. He and I played folk music and did little micro tours around Richmond. We’d play this laundrymat that’s also a bar, Lost Sock, and we’d have like folk rallies where we would talk about being apart of the Unions and organizing labor. Doing that in Richmond is alien to a lot of people. We were signing people up and trying to work with our little red books and trying to establish an anarcho syndicalist consciousness in the city, and on some levels, I think we succeeded. Like we got a lot of people organized at a local natural food market and a few other job sites. It was cool.
I learned to play guitar, sing, and write music in a different way. I was writing a whole lot of words. I’d written a lot during those Inquisition tours, when there was nothing to do but stare out the windows of that deteriorating school bus. But I was still active musically, and every now and again, Ann Beretta would tour, and I’d travel with them for a weekend and maybe sing “Uproar.” I still have a lot of love for those guys, and I was really happy that they were doing what they were doing. I knew Robbie wanted to be a songwriter and play guitar and sing, and I was really happy that Leer was coming back, too. None of those guys were talking to Mark, and it took years for people to heal. I was in touch with Mark. He opened a restaurant. The place where Inquisition had their second show, actually. An Italian place called The Hole in the Wall. I worked there with him. I also traveled to Russia and back-packed and met a lot of punks and had my eyes opened to the world in another way.
My old friend and roadie for Inquisition, Matt Sherwood, moved back to Richmond after getting his engineering degree, moving to Northern Virginia, working for a company that made high-tech surveillance and spy gear, and then having an ethical falling out with them. He slept on Avail’s floor for a summer. We started playing guitar and writing songs, and in ’99, we found Matt Smith. He was kind of a juggernaut and a visionary and helped us find the rest of the band that is now Strike Anywhere. We played our first show at McCormick’s. We didn’t even have a name (laughs).
You were almost in Kid Dynamite, weren’t you?
Yeah. Mark and I went to Philadelphia at different times and tried out with Dan and Dave Wagenschutz for Kid Dynamite. I had a really good time hanging out with them, and I love the songs. I just wasn’t quite ready to move from Richmond. There were still things I was involved in, like the Wobblie folk nights and trying to organize things and be apart of the city. I think I wasn’t ready to be in a band again, also. And those guys were serious! Like “we’re going on tour…
tomorrow!” (laughs). We’d all been traumatized by that, yet somehow Ann Beretta made it work. They didn’t skip a beat, and became a band within a month after Inquisition broke up. For Mark and me, it took longer. I don’t think Mark played guitar for a few months, and then he got back into it. River City High (Mark’s current band) and Strike Anywhere pretty much formed on the same day. We finally felt like we could be functional in bands and put our hearts into it and make it work outside of the Inquisition context. Which was all we’d known. It’d been our only band, you know? I love Mark a lot. He and his wife come up to visit Leslie and me, and we write little songs together.
Tell me about the recent release of Inquisition’s Revolution, I Think It’s Called Inspiration.
It took A-F Records to throw some cash at the problem (laughs). It wasn’t a lot of cash, just enough for a 12-page booklet with all the artwork we wanted, and a chance to re-master that fucker.
Are you happy with it?
I really am. It’s everything we could’ve ever wanted. It’s given us the closure we all needed. That thing, the original Revolution, came out like five months after we’d already broken up, and it was really awkward. I think Mark had never even seen a copy for a couple years after it came out. When I came back from Russia, I gave him a copy, and he was like, “Oh man, this thing came out!” No one was communicating at the time, we were so traumatized by what happened, all the things we’d shared.
I noticed the Duran Duran cover isn’t on it now.
Yeah, we wanted two things with the re-release: We wanted it to be a part of posterity, only for the people who were on board way back in the day, and we also felt like it wasn’t our song. We didn’t write “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and we wanted the Revolution record to be a pure document. Robbie and I had this coversation a lot. He and Russ wanted to put out everything, have it be this completist thing. Mark and I were like, we want it to be that record. That was when we were touring. Those songs were written as a group. It had it’s own tone, and there’s this cohesiveness to that record that I wanted to preserve. There’s enough music on that record already. There’s, like, 13 songs, even without “Hungry Like The Wolf.” It’s got the two singles. It’s got the Bullet Proof EP and “We Got a Bomb,” plus nine other songs that were recorded at a session about seven months later. It’s a document of the time after Robbie’s accident, when he started to walk again and we got vehicles and started to tour. The cover is a drawing that our friend Mary, a riot grrl, made while we were playing, and our friend’s daughter, who was five at the time, spoke the intro. Everything felt so cohesive as a piece of art, and it had all the statements we wanted to make at the time. So adding old demos or live songs or other little self-produced records would’ve diluted or distracted from the message. Not to say that an argument couldn’t be made to put out the really old, early Inquisition stuff, the era of just writing songs and playing shows in Richmond.
Do you think you’d ever do that?
I’ve listened to that old stuff and kind of liked it again. I think it’d be interesting for people to hear, but I think it’d be really hard to convince Mark and other bandmates that it’d make any sense.
There’s a song in the middle of the new Strike Anywhere record called “Speak to Our Empty Pockets.” Matt Sherwood and I wrote that song in 1997 on the porch of an apartment that I had. It’s really simple and bouncy. Like that happy Richmond punk song. It’s definitely the most Inquisition-sounding, because I wrote the guitar and vocal parts. When Robbie heard the new record, he said something very sweet like “Wow, it’s like you wrote the sequel to Revolution, finally.” It made me put on that really old, weird Inquisition stuff that had dub influences, almost like that DC post-revolution summer cock rock. Like King Face. (laughs) Weird stuff that no one besides the guys in Avail understands or remembers. We were listening to a lot of stuff like that. I tell you, there are certain moments where, all the sudden, you have something in you that you create and come out of, and then you do other things that you’ve sort of written off, and they form this line of continuity with this new thing, you know? Like “Oh okay, that’s why that sounds like that!”
Are you going to do anything else with Robbie in the future?
Doing anything with Robbie is so much fun and so relaxing. He and Mark were actually talking about trying to make time to at least rehearse and see how it feels to play together. Unfortunately, all this good love and good vibes happened after Mark moved to London and I moved to Portland.
You couldn’t get further away from each other!
I know! We could try to make it happen in some weird bookend of a River City High tour that meets up with a bookend of a Strike Anywhere tour. Like we all happen to end our tours in Richmond. But with this touring cycle, this year, it’s going to be hard to make happen. As long as those guys can come to an accord and feel creatively compatible, I’d be happy to give it a shot. As long as we can get together and practice a lot. I think throwing together two hurried afternoons practice would be kind of dishonoring.
Would you do this as an Inquisition reunion, or would it just be a “buddies getting together” thing?
It all depends. If it were those four guys and it felt like Inquisition, then it would be. Everyone’s taste is pretty different now. Everyone’s got a little more Americana and roots music and folk music. It would be interesting. Maybe it would be 10 songs that sound like “Hotel X,” that acoustic song on Revolution. Something quieter and more informal, like sitting on a porch, playing guitars. Because that’s really what our musical relationship has been for the last 10 years. Bombastic, aggressive, fast stuff hasn’t really happened with Mark and Robbie and me playing together. It’s always been like an excuse to have a more quiet and contemplative musical moment. We’ll see.