A few months back, I published a guide to anarcho-punk, which was a real labor of love. Shortly after that, I saw Fiddlehead open for Citizen at the Metro in Chicago. To my utter delight, Fiddlehead's frontman Pat Flynn was wearing a Crass shirt on stage. Now, obviously, Crass is an immensely popular band, but given the details I laid out at the top of that anarcho-punk guide, I know way more people who, in the present day, are quicker to clown on the band than actually cite them as an influence of any kind. Seeing Pat up there in a shirt that boldly claimed "There is no authority but yourself," it made me feel an even deeper appreciation for a band I've long loved.
It was then that I had the germ of an idea to talk to Pat about how punk and hardcore bands kind of pass on a historical record of events, and their very culture, through their music. Given Pat's day job as a high school history teacher, and his presence as a thoughtful lyricist and communicator, he felt like the perfect person to discuss this unique oral tradition with. That said, obviously, we both went pretty long on this topic, so we didn't even touch on Fiddlehead's great new album, Death Is Nothing To Us. Listen to that album here and see the band at their upcoming record release shows. They're sure to be a doozy.
What captured your interest first: history or hardcore?
Pat Flynn: If I’m thinking critically about my life, I think I was desperate for two things. As an Army brat who moved around a bunch, and it’s not a big woe-is-me tale, but it made for socialization experiences that were a little rickety—more so for my brother and sister—but I was definitely a seeker. I think everyone is seeking something when they are young but I definitely stood out from my peers in school because I was really into music in the fifth grade, to the point where I was wearing my brother’s Nirvana shirts. The one that I had to bring home was the Incesticide shirt. I remember Mrs. Grey, that kind soul, she was one of the very nice teachers at this small, Catholic school. She very kindly, instead of hitting me, on a no-uniform day—and as an adult, this is actually pretty funny—but I’m a fifth grader and I walk into class wearing a shirt that says “incesticide” and I’m just thinking now, what would I do? I work with high school kids, and I saw a teacher talking to a student last year because the kid was wearing a Playboy shirt. I overheard the conversation, and the older teacher was like, “Hey, what are you doing?” I haven’t been keeping in touch with Playboy, but they’re no longer what they were in the ‘90s, which was just kind of a nudie magazine.
I think they’ve largely done away with that now.
Pat: It’s interesting, because they kind of weren’t that in the beginning stages, but it kind of developed into that. But whatever it is, they’re kind of hip amongst teenagers in terms of clothing. So this older teacher was like, “What are you doing wearing a Playboy shirt?” That’s a bit of a digression, but anyway, Mrs. Grey pulls fifth-grade Pat Flynn aside and she said, “Hey, do you know what that shirt means?” As I think back to that, incesticide is a made-up word. So I’m like, did she know what it meant? [Laughs] I’m pretty sure it’s just a thing that Kurt Cobain came up with, but she asked me that and I was like, “No!” [Laughs] She was like, “Well, I’m here to let you know that you can’t wear that shirt today and you’re going to have to turn it inside out because some people at the school might be troubled by it.” Then she put the question on me: “Do you wish to trouble people?”
Heavy question for a fifth grader.
Pat: I know! [Laughs] I learned a lot from that, because she put the decision making in my court. I was like, “No, I don’t wish to trouble people, I just like Nirvana.” So she was like, “That’s great, but let’s just get that shirt inside-out and we’ll take it from there.” So nobody at my school was listening to Nirvana, as far as I could tell, not even the older kids at this K-8 elementary school.
So I think: why did I have to wear my brother’s Incesticide t-shirt to school? It was a little bit of my love for my brother, but he also liked a bunch of other things and I wasn’t imitating that. I also remember when In Utero came out listening to “Rape Me,” of all songs, on repeat. I also remember him bringing home Live Through This [by Hole] when that came out, and I remember the song “Miss World.” For some reason, that riff just struck me. I remember putting it in my brother’s CD player on repeat before he came home from high school. The music was extremely appealing to me at a young age and there was something about the fact that nobody—it was maybe a little “Columbus complex”—nobody was doing that at my school and it felt like there was a world that was undiscovered and my peers didn’t know about it. It was my way of being like, I found something. It’s very discordant, maladjusted music, that period of ‘90s popular, alternative-rock. It appealed to me because I definitely didn’t feel adjusted.
My first day of school as the new kid, I had a true Forrest Gump moment. I got on the bus and, hand to God, someone said, “can’t sit here.” [Laughs] I remember one kid saying to me, “This bus ride was fun before you came on it.” [Laughs] It was totally unsolicited! Maybe there’s some memory distortion here, but that was definitely said to me within either the first day, or the first week, of me being on that bus. And they were in my class! It was a small school, maybe 15 kids total in my class, and I just remember being like, fuck, this sucks. This person locked the gates upon my arrival. So there was something of feeling like the outcast there.
I also didn’t know how to read in the second grade. I was behind everybody. My father was Colin Powell’s speech writer, and he was writing speeches during Desert Storm for the president to debrief and his youngest son didn’t know how to read. I was getting taught in the Maryland public school system, and then that had to get figured out upon arriving back in Massachusetts. I had that day one experience on the bus, and then it was first period reading class and I was basically publicly humiliated with the teacher asking me to start off the reading for the year. I don’t think she did it intentionally, she just assumed I was up to the reading level, so that stung. In addition to this kind of desperation for things that spoke to my maladjustment, I was also desperate to find a little bit of an academic raft that I could float on and tout about. I have this memory of being the kid in fifth grade who couldn’t read and missed recess for the entire year because I was learning how to read.
Simultaneously, I was being introduced to essentially what history is in the fifth grade. I remember Mrs. Grey introducing us to, not really the concept of history, but having a unit on the explorers. There was something about the story of Vasco da Gama and Ponce de León. I remember studying for it with my sister on these index cards, and I was the only kid who passed, and I passed with a 97. Mrs. Grey was so fucking pissed off at the rest of the kids because they blew off the quiz. She made everyone stay inside for recess except for me. So the irony was, I had no one to play with at recess because everyone else was the fuck up. Before, I was the fuck up who couldn’t go to recess.
So it was a situation that, when you couldn’t do it, you were punished. And when you could do it, you were also kind of punished.
Pat: [Laughs] Yeah! So that was my first little intro to history, paired with liking discordant sounds and discordant imagery. I don’t know if you can recall the cover art from Incesticide, but it’s not exactly a far cry from the word "incesticide." It’s fucked up and makes no sense. There was this Scholastic company with unicorn art on folders, something Frank…
Pat: Lisa Frank. There you go. Everyone was rocking Lisa Frank gear and I come in with Nirvana T-shirts and was like, this is me. So I found myself being good at history, and I was interested in art history, and I liked the arc of stories. But the big thing for me was that I continued my interest in discordant music. I bought The Crow soundtrack, and I brought in for music class in fifth grade, I brought in the Nine Inch Nails cover of the Joy Division song “Dead Souls.” I played it, and the music teacher publicly humiliated me and was like, “This isn’t music. You’ll go nowhere with this.” I look back on it, and it’s actually kind of a cool origin story for me, to come in with this Joy Division song in the fifth grade and then my teacher publicly humiliates me. But by that point I had kind of had the resolve to be like, "Fuck you, you don’t know what you’re talking about! Your church music sucks!" I didn’t say that, but I’m 38 and I still remember it.
But people never stopped trying to make fun of me about my interests. From all that, and this is a bit of annoying reference but I use it with my students, the Germans didn’t name themselves. The Romans, particularly Caesar, named them the Germans. Things kind of start of pejorative, but it becomes kind of a power-through-disempowerment move, in the way that queer has evolved from being a way to hurt somebody and now it’s a mark of pride. That all has to do a lot with my identity forming.
In sixth grade, I continued my likeness for this kind of alternative music. Then I had Mr. Hall, and he was my history teacher, and he was the history teacher for grades sixth, seventh, and eighth. There are some popular, stereotypical representations of what his history class looked like, but he treated history as a problem to be solved. Picking up from that “explorers” quiz, Mr. Hall wasn’t a hippie, he was a retired World War II vet who just wanted to live out his retirement teaching history to middle schoolers. The first unit of study was on Columbus, so it was kind of picking up from the so-called explorers, and he said, “Do you think we should call him an explorer?” I remember being like, “What else would we call him?” He took what the textbook said and was like, “Maybe this is bullshit.” [Laughs] Or, not “Maybe this is bullshit,” but more, “Do we have to agree with what this textbook says?” I do this with my own students.
He had this one lesson, and the question was: "Was Columbus scared when he arrived in the Caribbean?" It’s about tapping into the historical figure’s emotions. We had to be a little speculative, but we also had to use the close context to come to a decision as to whether or not he was scared. The class had been dealing with all these contextual facts and we were like, there’s a pretty good reason to believe he would be scared, yet this textbook makes it look like he’s triumphant, saying “I have found God and I am God.” It’s total retrospective psychology on my part, but he did this for like three years. In eighth grade, we had this entire lesson about the atomic bomb and whether or not it should have been dropped. That was crazy. I hadn’t really thought about this in a long time, but we basically had a lesson that was: Did the U.S. government know that the Pearl Harbor attack was going to happen, and did they let it happen so they could enter the war? None of that was in the textbook, but he was bringing in primary sources of evidence and we were the decision makers in that process. I didn’t do anything like that ever again until I got to my upper-level courses in college.
There was something that really gelled together about listening to music that was observably not going to fit with the rest of the world and also this refusal to accept a take on history that fits those people’s vision of the world. Does that make sense?
It definitely does. You mentioned your Catholic school upbringing and, as a person who went through that myself…
Pat: Oh, yeah. Sorry.
Yeah, apologies all around. [Laughs] But I had to turn shirts inside out and all that too, so I’m curious if this was also true for you: You were a searcher. You were looking to outsider art, and you were interested in questioning the dominant interpretations of history. Did having the Catholic perspective pushed into your schooling make you sharpen your inquisitive nature and make you feel like you had to challenge what was being presented to you as fact?
Pat: Oh yeah. What this reminds me of is an old friend of mine, and we’re still good friends—she came to one of the [Death Is Nothing To Us] listening parties, so it’s okay for me to speak about this—but we had different upbringings. Her parents were both pretty hardcore atheists. My teachers, with the exception of a couple of them in high school, were theists. They were Christians, but they were also Catholic.
One teacher reduced my sister to tears because my sister refused to write a pro-life essay. It just so happened that my father worked at the school and reduced that teacher to tears for reducing his daughter to tears. [Laughs] That speaks to my parents. They were interesting in the sense that they both came up pretty Catholic. I’m pretty sure my mother had an old-school, hardcore Catholic experience of nuns with rulers hitting kids, demoralizing kids, eternal damnation, all that. My father left Catholic school fairly quickly because he got into Boston Latin School, which was a public school. My take on my upbringing from my parents is that they respected the ritual, they respected the concept of faith, and they believed it was important for someone in the world to not only be exposed to it, but because it’s such a part of human history—and a part of the present—someone should have a meaningful opportunity to make a decision about it. Given that their closest proximity to that experience was Catholicism and not Islam or Judaism, the opportunity was going to come by way of them taking their children to church every Sunday and having them go to Catholic school. Which might have been more of an academic decision than a faith-building decision.
The Catholic high school I went to was likely attached to the grade-school one I went to. I just remember that a healthy percentage of the students were coming from a pretty impoverished place. There were lower-middle class kids like myself, then some upper-middle class kids, so it had this economic diversity to it around the Catholic mission of outreach and preferential options for the poor. So that was good, but it kind of changed in my high school setting. But I work in the public schools, and I’m a proud member of my teacher’s union, which has helped me out a lot in the last few years. I’m on a digression but, often, public schools are held to the demands of the town, and the demands of the town can be conflicting with a teachers union. In the private setting, a lot of that noise is cut out. But what’s also cut out is anybody with any kind of learning disability. It’s on my mind because I have to start figuring out where my son will be going to school, and odds are it will be Montessori, but I’m just thinking about my own schooling and why my parents put me where they put me. Blah blah blah blah, my parents were pretty libel-minded. They were of the Vatican II era stain of thought, where it was like, we have to kind of catch up to the rest of the world. They are of the era where the Pope forgave Galileo because of his 300-year-old claims. My parents were fairly liberal about it, because it was important for me to have some agency over it.
Back to my high school friend, she would have these very, what I thought were, superficial takes on religion. It wasn’t so much that it was offending me like, “Hey, my mother goes to church and she’s not an idiot!” It wasn’t offending my Catholic upbringing or Catholic-ness, it was more like, “You sound like a Catholic right now making fun of atheists or Jews or Muslims. You sound just as certain and determined in your logic as the side that you’re criticizing.” Her parents totally raised her to be cast as an image of them. My parents, I’m really grateful for it, really said that you have to try and become your own person. They were going to give me the option to say no to God as opposed to not even giving that chance. Not that everyone needs to go through fucking 12 years of Catholic schooling to reach that decision, but it felt like the decision was totally mine. In those kind of interactions with that friend, I remember thinking, here’s my Catholic-ness coming out, but it’s in the form of a pretty skeptic-minded, secular thinker. Not that that’s of any higher moral value or fiber, but I just remember being really put off by this certainty that felt unscientific in many respects, even though she thought she was of this scientific mind.
Take me through the next step in the merging of these two worlds. I can very clearly remember the first time I heard a song that took that kind of questioning to the next level, of really interrogating history, religion, and the various stories we’re told about the world. Do you have a memory of something like that?
Pat: Before I answer that, I want to comment slightly on the previous question. It wasn’t just the atheist community I was at odds with. The punk music upbringing made it so that I wasn’t this very protective guy with the Catholic or Christian community. I came to by way of history and music to really be like, “Yo, fuck this thing! Let’s just completely destroy it.” [Laughs]
If I’m being super careful in my thinking here, I do remember Sinead O’Connor ripping up a picture of the Pope. That was a subject of conversation that, to this day, is burned into my mind. I didn’t watch that episode [of Saturday Night Live], but I remember it being talked about, and it was so important to me. Rediscovering that, it was like, why are we just focusing on her ripping up this photo? Why are we not focusing on the Bob Marley lyrics that she was singing right before it as an act of protest against child abuse from an ancient institution that’s so protected in the world? That was pretty stunning.
One of my only non-negotiables for the Have Heart reunion was that the first show back had to start with that sound clip of her singing that. I will say, I’ve never had a more transcendent moment in my life than just listening to that, with the emotions of returning to songs that I had no idea meant so much to so many people, and I, for a variety of reasons, thought people didn’t give a shit about at all. So that was big, and it kind of spoke to me, this idea that music can be a powerful political storytelling force.
My father was a huge Woody Guthrie fan, so the story of folktales like John Henry, and Bob Dylan picking that up, and the story behind “Hurricane” comes to mind, the concept of Maggie’s Farm. Everything really clicked for me when listening to “Take the Power Back” by Rage Against The Machine. I don’t know how you listen to that song and not go, “Whoa! What the fuck?” That whole first record is unbelievable. It’s a punch in the face. In “Wake Up,” he says, “You know they went after King when he spoke out on Vietnam.” I remember being like, “Wait a minute.” Honestly, because Mr. Hall was in that role, it wasn’t too much of a shock at this alternative take on history, but this was a meaningful way for music to be significant in the world and matter beyond just a good tune.
Sinead O’Connor, Rage Against The Machine, but then things become very specific and detailed with bands like Flux of Pink Indians and Crass. I got into Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords, I had a little phase there, and there was something about that catalog where in all the records came this little, very detailed description of almost every one of their records. I remember reading it and getting the vibe that Bad Religion was the most legit of all of these bands. There’s nothing slapstick, Fat Mike, NOFX-y about this band. And their name is Bad Religion. So I crawled down the Bad Religion pipeline. I remember getting Suffer and being like, “I have no idea what this fuckin’ guy is talking about. ‘I am the government?’ What are you talking about?” But the vibe was, hey, all of this other shit that’s not talking about problems in the world is poser-dom.
Looking down a little bit further on the pipeline, I just remember being at record stores and seeing other shit that just looked like it was made by primitive beings. Is it Penny Rimbaud who was the Crass artist? It was so detailed and also really crude, it looked like graffiti but also classic art, and I remember really thinking this must be the most legit shit. I bought Best Before and it was like, there are so many fucking lyrics here and I have no idea what he is talking about. I knew what Nagasaki was because in my history class, with Mr. Hall again, we were talking about the dropping of the A-bomb and I remember being like, “This is a really disturbing take on this.” The song “Shaved Women” really spoke to me. There was some joint record with Crass and Flux of Pink Indians that I got into and I was like, oh, they must be friends, they have basically the same artwork. It looked way more involved, academic, and astute, their take on what anarchy was, than anything Rancid was offering. Those U.K. punk bands were just very strong takes. “Punk is dead.” What do you mean it’s dead? It’s 1979! Didn’t it start two years prior? What a take! The imagery on Penis Envy that’s a sex doll, and the cover of Christ: The Album. Not to make this all about Crass, but even the Subhumans. I remember getting The Day The Country Died and what a story. It was this very historical, but also widely unrelatable, thing to a 14-year-old who was living in the suburbs of Boston.
What I think connects all these artists is that I think they made people who liked their music learn about causes they otherwise wouldn’t. Whether that’s child abuse in the church or Leonard Peltier or the Falklands War, all these things were kind of viewed as fringe causes or old news, but they brought them back in some meaningful way.
Pat: You know, with any of the projects that I’ve done that have been more popular—Have Heart and Fiddlehead—I really haven’t been “political.” But this other project I have called Wolf Whistle, which is more of a powerviolence thing, that’s really where I had more of the straightforward, specific takes. I bring it up because the name Wolf Whistle was very much born out of writing my thesis on Emmett Till in college, which ended up being about the Scottsboro Boys, but it was originally on the historiography of Emmett Till. In the topic choosing days of that year-long process, I went further back in the timeline and I came across the story of the Scottsboro Boys and the historiography seemed more curious to me, and less documented, so I wanted to carve that up. I came to know the story of Emmett Till, of him wolf whistling at a white woman in Mississippi and then effectively being lynched as a result.
I named the band that and was very much taken by that band 97a. To me, it was amazing. One of the opening songs talks about this ‘80s preacher, and I just remember it being this youth crew, straightedge, powerviolence band and I found them at the height of my love for youth crew straightedge and the kind of thrashcore stuff that was booming at the time. Wolf Whistle started off, as a consequence of that, being a little more specific and less general. I wrote this one song called “Slow Chariot” and it was about a conversation in my thesis class my senior year of college. One of my classmates, who was Black and living in Boston at the time, was remarking on this story of a Black girl living in Paris, Texas who got sentenced to seven years in prison for getting into a fight with a teacher. Which, that’s not great, but seven years in prison for a minor seems pretty crazy. On top of that, my classmate was like, well, the same judge gave a girl in the same town probation for setting her family’s house on fire. This is 2007, this is the end of the Bush administration, and my first reaction was, “That can’t be true.” Not in a cynical way, I didn’t doubt her, but that sounded like something out of the 1950’s.
I decided to write the song “Slow Chariot” as a way to address the slowness of change in American race relations and racial justice. Recording the vocals, one of my band mates said, “You’re writing a racism song?” And I was like "Yeah, I am." He said, “No one does that anymore.” It was like I was doing something lame because it was a trend that had died out. I just remember being like, that’s weird because, to me, that kind of speaks to how hardcore, for a moment, really tried to carve this apolitical identity out of itself away from punk. That wasn’t the height of it, but it was enough for a pretty musically inclined person to be like, “You’re writing a racism song?” That wasn’t what was on the mind then. What was on the mind was a lot of, “You stabbed me in the back! You’re not straightedge! Fuck you!” [Laughs] Not that I’m this wise, old sage who chose to speak out against racism, but I’m just sort of commenting as a way to answer your question that I didn’t really see that more political take. Never mind my more mainstream pop-culture peers, but even in hardcore it wasn’t a thing.
Around that time, there’s also a Have Heart song called “Watch Me Sink,” which is a very direct address to this weird malaise amongst people toward the world. I very much gravitated more towards hardcore and, partly, that was because in 1999 when I first started going to shows, there was a really strong street punk scene. This was as bands like Aus-Rotten and The Unseen were pretty big in this world. I had to make a choice, because they were so fucking different. It honestly was overwhelming. At punk shows, there were all these pamphlets for Food Not Bombs and Anti-Racist Action, and there was this overwhelming feeling that nobody actually gave a shit about what was in those pamphlets. Everyone’s perfectly pinned leather jacket and hair was of the utmost importance. There was this moment of church-like, get-on-your-knees-and-listen to this 75-minute speech that someone was offering at a punk show, and it was all a monologue with no room for dialogue, and everyone was just kind of apishly clapping. On top of that, I just looked like a Pennywise fan. I was wearing a Volcom hat and no one would fucking talk to me. I was like, what the fucking fuck?
At the hardcore shows, there were significantly less pamphlets, but there were Riot Grrrls still there. I feel like a dinosaur saying this, but you could look and be like, “That’s a Riot Grrrl.” [Laughs] They were so nice to me, and I loved their confidence and their sense of principle. Kendra Bakerink is one of the huge reasons I stuck around. She asked me my name and was like, “I haven’t seen you at shows.” She told me to check out Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill. It was friendly and involved, then listening to Bikini Kill and being like, “This kind of reminds me of the bands like Crass.” I think I ultimately chose hardcore because it felt like there had to be a choice. It was integrated, so to speak. One was more accepting, friendly, and had a come-as-you-are vibe. Then the Riot Grrrls kind of phased out and it did become pretty bro-ey for a while. Youth crew feels inherently bro-ey because part of the aesthetic is varsity jackets, but I always kind of liked the varsity jacket vibe, not because it was so I could be cool and hangout with the jocks at school, but because the jocks at school would be pissed to see me looking like them knowing who I am.
There just wasn’t a lot of conversation about it. Where it was happening, it didn’t feel like a conversation. It felt like a monologue. Not that I was this seasoned person looking for discourse, but I wanted to talk to people. Mr. Hall, along with my parents, implanted this reflex in me for questioning and discussion. I just didn’t see it. To be perfectly frank, and I hope I don’t come off as dismissive of all the bands, it feels like it didn’t come to bare, at least in my observation in Massachusetts, until G.L.O.S.S. and Firewalker started really just being present, and being very unapologetically present. Conversations about what is hardcore, what isn’t hardcore, and the pandemic wiped away a lot of the gatekeepers that held the lines between punk and hardcore.
Long story short, I didn’t really see much of the questioning, and definitely not in the more mainstream world, but it just wasn’t in the subculture world I expected to find it but did not. That probably has to make sense. Rage Against The Machine was playing at the DNC and nobody knew what Zach was talking about mostly. Or didn’t care. My interpretation is, and I could be wrong, actually, I hope I’m wrong, their fan base of the time was very much super-fringe extreme music fans. Maybe a little bit of the rhetoric about Leonard Peltier and AIM [the American Indian Movement] were, but I remember Paul Ryan, the congressman from Wisconsin, he was a big Rage Against The Machine fan. I think that speaks to who their fan base was, so I think it’s not terribly surprising that in the mainstream world, I just didn’t feel those conversations. I think, to a certain extent, it signifies how hardcore trying to be a separate thing from punk was kind of bereft of those conversations too.
To share a story that builds off of that, in 2016 I went to see Los Crudos. It was pre-election and Martin was doing banter about Trump. As he’s talking, a guy behind me says to his friend, “Low-hanging fruit. Who cares about Trump?” I was kind of shocked, because obviously this a queer, person-of-color talking about very viable threats to his personhood and some doofus white guy is just scoffing at his concern. So even in an ostensibly enlightened hardcore crowd, there were still people who just didn’t want to engage with it. So that divide between punk and hardcore, even then, still felt like it remained.
Pat: I mean, that’s about right. There were definitely bands that walked both worlds, and now it’s way more common. Hearing you talk about that person at the Crudos show, I can’t be more annoyed at the pseudo-academic pissing contest that comes with this. “Don’t talk about Trump. You have to talk about something more politically obscure.” You add the likely blind spots of your average white boy Joe dude, that says nothing of this legitimate presidential contender calling all Mexicans rapists. I tend to bite my tongue a lot because I just can’t enter in on it, but it’s in moments like this where I’m like, God, I can’t fucking stand those people. Whether they’re at the show or they’re in the grad classroom, it feels like it just gets us nowhere.
Let’s pull this back to the divide between punk and hardcore. To use tentpole examples, I’m going to reference Crass and Minor Threat. What I find most instructive about both of them, is they each have a very simple ethos that you can take from their work: “There is no authority but yourself” and “This is not some set of rules.” Both bands were building archetypes for scenes that still exist today, but at their most fundamental level, they were singing about how the political is personal, and the personal definitions are what matter.
To tie this all the way back to that Incesticide shirt, that record was the one where Kurt wrote in the liner notes: “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us—leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records..” So whether it’s “Rape Me” or “Out Of Step” or “Shaved Women,” these songs all have a political message, but they center it on the individual. How important is it for those elements to remain present, at least ideologically, in modern punk and hardcore?
Pat: I have this desire to not really start a podcast, but I want to record interviews with people. I’ll record them, and then I’ll put them away for like 15 years. I’ll tell the person I’m interviewing that I’m going to do that, but the collection will be called Rhyme & Punishment, because I want to interview people Chris Farley-style with questions that only I want the answer to. [Laughs] I had to interview Al Barile for the reissue of The Kids Will Have Their Say, and I was wicked nervous because I’m not an interviewer. The only way I could feel it out was if I really went in only wanting certain questions answered and it was like the audience didn’t matter.
One thing I’ve always wanted to ask Penny Rimbaud or Steve Ignorant or Ian MacKaye, and I hope to do it before they pass, is what did you think of Minor Threat and what did you think of Crass? I’ve never heard their takes on that. Those are things I’m always really interested in. They are two extremely pivotal bands in my life whose messaging is embedded in my brain. As much as I like to think of myself as a freethinker, I’m pretty sure their fingerprints are on that brain of mine.
I tend to talk a lot to help myself make sense of things, so bare with me, but the last part of your question is to what extent is it important to pass down that tradition?
That’s more or less the root of it, yes.
Pat: I’ll answer your question with something that’s been on my mind lately. Hardcore is weird right now. I’ve been doing it for a while now, since 1999, and it’s now approaching its fiftieth year if you want to mark it at 1980. Unless you want to be like, “Well, actually the Middle Class 7-inch came out in 1979.” We can put it at 1979. [Laughs] So it’s coming up on 50 years. Historically, that’s kind of a big deal. For one, rock music, where are we starting rock music? The 1950s? There are people who walk the earth who are older than rock music. So 50 years is a pretty long and historical continuity. There have been many other weird, little developments out of rock and music in general that have come and definitely gone. Also, many of them have come, and maybe they’re still around but, last I checked, the ska scene doesn’t have a global network that sets it up so any fucking ska band can get a show in Jakarta, Indonesia. That’s fucking crazy. There’s this band Pacifist in India that’s a hardcore band, and that’s starting to pop up. Point is: it’s continuing, and it’s weird that it’s continuing.
Some people are like, what caused this change? My big question is what is causing this to survive? Something I’ve always been fascinated with: the early Christians, that group, it didn’t just pop off. Islam, when that popped off, that popped off. It was empire building from pretty much day one. Those early Christians were getting lit he fuck up for not just a couple decades but at least a couple centuries. It wasn’t cool. You could be killed. So why did that continue to survive for so long to the eventual point that somebody was like, this seems durable and we’re now going to use it as a political instrument for holding state power over people?
I think my question is: Why has hardcore continued to go as long as it has? I think I am sort of finding the answer.
Before the pandemic, six or seven years ago, I was really troubled by the lack of young people coming to shows in Massachusetts. Amongst my friends, all of this is just fun to talk about, but I came up with this theory that I took very half-heartedly serious called “The Rapture,” which speaks to my Judeo-Christian background. But I was like, this shit is done by 2025. By 2025, hardcore is effectively done. It’s like the ska scene or the street punk scene in Boston. It was there, I saw it, but then it was gone. I’m telling you right now, not as a doom-and-gloom warning but as a cautionary tale that you need to have more young people around. You need to get these fucking snotty gatekeepers out and tell them to shut the fuck up.
To prove that I wasn’t just this “hardcore’s gonna die” mentality, I actively sought out stuff like the Anxious demo. I thought that was kind of cool, and they were playing in Nowhereville, Massachusetts, so I checked it out, met them, then pleaded with Sam from Triple B to let me put it out. His deal was that they’re all 14 and struggling, and he’d put it out if I helped them out and gave them some pointers. I met up with them at a practice, and I was doing my part working with the next generation, because I didn’t want to see it totally tumble. Then I saw the Have Heart reunions as an opportunity to get the younger bands some more visibility. So yeah, great job, Pat, you get your awards, but what I’m trying to say is, I said that at a show and some band was like, “Yo, I heard fucking Pat Flynn say that hardcore’s dead. Well I say look out to the fucking crowd, this shit ain’t dead.” People were distorting what I said. For one, I didn’t say that. But also, yeah, let’s look out at that crowd of all aging, white, bald dudes in their late thirties. How is this going to continue on?
The crowds weren’t receding but the hairlines sure were.
Pat: [Laughs] Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being bald.
Oh, I’m speaking from personal experience, I’m not taking shots.
It’s happening to me. I went gray first, but now it’s happening to me. But you know the archetype I’m talking about. That’s why I’m trying to explain myself here. It’s not that I think it should die, it’s that I think we need to get into some torch passing. If we think about history, nothing in history is inevitable. There is no guarantee.
The pandemic happened and then someone said, “Pat, I think you’re wrong about the rapture,” but I don’t know. Because maybe the rapture actually did happen but what I got wrong, what I misinterpreted, was the actual understanding of what the Christian New Testament take with what the rapture was. It’s not that everything dies, it’s that all the sinners will be removed and all that will be left are those that are right in the eye’s of God. So maybe I was actually right. The pandemic, at least in Boston, all the gatekeeping, elitist, fucking assholes that choked out the Boston scene, they’re gone. They’re gone because they don’t like the wokeness of it. They don’t like the youth of it. They don’t like that a band like Scowl is considered a hardcore band. They’re gone. What I see now is a bunch of people who don’t give a shit about the gates who are very much in for the moment. That’s pretty cool. The only worrying concern is that big music, big labels, are kind of creeping in on the game and I worry here that there’s an illusion here that we’re just packing in the mainstream world. I don’t worry too much about that, because I think hardcore will still remain appealing as long as it’s youthful.
But there’s always that fine line, because you ask about that tradition and passing it on, I’m not touchy about it, but there’s a fine line between this kind of conservative take that there’s some values and principles that we set up that we might want to conserve here. What I think is the most important one, and the lightbulb went off for me trying to answer this question of why has hardcore survived, and it’s all on the premise that it was founded on the concept that there really are no rules. There are no sonic rules. There are no rules that you have to be presented and have listed before you can start it. You make it what it is. As long as that is the guiding principle of what makes hardcore what it is, and that’s one I think it’s worth being pretty conservative about, as I feel that’s a principle worth holding onto for human society. Those are things worth preserving, but not to the point where you are snuffing out any new ideas that could come from the present moment. Does that make sense?
I think it does. It’s basically saying that you can be a hardcore kid that’s not listening to Minor Threat or Warzone, but if new bands are communicating those same ideas, principles, and thoughts, then maybe the same message is still coming through. It's just a question if those things are getting communicated by osmosis?
Pat: That’s a complicated question. I don’t know if I have a great answer for it because I can think about it, and will think about it, for months. It’s hard for me to say because just watching the evolutions of hardcore over the last 25 years or whatever, I’ve seen eras that have no regard whatsoever for the history, and I’ve seen that be excellent in terms of having new, fresh takes, new energy, new atmosphere. But I’ve also seen it go the other way, where some good ideas are just kind of lost.
For example, in the so-called straightedge youth crew revival of the mid-to-late ‘90s, it bequeathed upon us a lot of excellent things but also some shitty, boring things, to the point where everything was just about straightedge and the belonging-ness of it, and not the there-are-no-rules thing. I kind of mark the Embrace Today Fuck You I’m Edge 7-inch as like, “Oh, that’s a low point of my culture.” [Laughs] Some of my friends and I are like, "Which records are low points and which records are high points?" You can kind of chart it out. Not to talk shit on that band. That band Embrace Today have a very superficial, slapstick, positive 7-inch called …For The Kids that they did before that, and I liked that because I thought it was the tradition of 7 Seconds of being radically inclusive. Then in a couple of years they put out this militant, beatdown straightedge thing. Everything just felt pretty hollow. It felt like the ideas that were offered in the second recording of “Out Of Step” from Ian of the very explicit, “There’s no set of rules," it felt like that tradition was lost. It wasn’t lost on me, but it seemed to be lost on a whole lot of people. It made me wish that people listened to X, Y, or Z bands, because they might be less dick-ish, cliquish, violent assholes at shows. Maybe that puts me in the more conservative side.
When Steven Blush’s American Hardcore book came out, it didn’t have an observable impact for me. Then the movie came out and, suddenly, everyone was into Urban Waste. It was like, holy shit, wow. On top of that, it was what I thought was a very annoying era where suddenly the kid who was up front stage diving to Have Heart sees me at a show and thinks I’m some kind of poser because I’m not rocking a JFA shirt. That sounds very petty, but what that bred was this very bullshit, let’s-make-the-past-repeat-itself philosophy. You should really not try to recreate the past because you’re going to be very upset to find that you’re not actually in it and it’s going to feel weird. That, to me, was overly obsessing with the past. The spirit is best found in the moment.
The likes of Ian MacKaye or Steve Ignorant or Penny Rimbaud, those ideas came from people who had no blueprint of what to do. That leaves me feeling some faith in someone who knows fuck-all about the past, and as long as they’re in an atmosphere that offers the full, free exploration of the self, if that atmosphere is there, you’re going to have that kind of tradition without some asshole historian in the back telling you what to listen to.
I think that actually kind of explains why hardcore has continued to evolve. Hardcore is an adjective. It’s a spirit. Because of that, it’s rather impervious. You can’t shake it.