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Boy Sets Fire recently switched from a tiny independent label to a slightly larger one. The punker-than-thou faction is casting the move as a soul-destroying sellout. "With our last record, people thought we were sellouts then," Gray complains. "I was like, 'Dear God, we're broke as hell. We can barely make it through a tour.' And now with Victory it's even worse, 'cause they're the great Satan of hardcore."
In reality Chicago-based Victory Records is a tiny insect compared to the behemoth major labels; the best-known names on its roster are Bad Brains and Snapcase -- not exactly Top 40 fodder. Gray just laughs. "We're basically rolling cigars out of the money we're making right now," he cracks.
A record contract, he continues, doesn't mean Boy Sets Fire has been sprayed with the money hose. There is no hefty advance or spiffy tour bus. The band travels in an old van, sleeps on floors, and barely earns enough to return home. But the fans tend to disregard these facts, Gray says. "If they really wanted to know how it works, they could find out, but they don't. They want to be able to have an enemy.
"It keeps them from having to deal with real issues," Gray observes, his voice rising, "which is the most bullshit thing I've ever seen in my life in the hardcore scene. We could do so much, we have so much energy, so much youth, so many ideas, but it's all fucking wasted because we fight amongst ourselves. We talk about who's the sellout, who's a hypocrite, who's not doing enough . And they're too busy talking about it to do it themselves."
The band members share strong beliefs regarding animal rights, but Gray promises fans won't be subjected to songs dealing with that particular topic. "We're all vegetarians," he says, "but it's something that we've never written about, because it's so clichéd. I'm sick of it. What am I gonna say that hasn't been said 300 times? So we try to work with newer, fresher ideas, like working-class ideals. You'll hear that in a Don Henley or Bruce Springsteen song but not hardcore."
Boy Sets Fire doesn't limit its campaign to lyric sheets or literature booths. Gray takes it to the people, using each concert as an opportunity to foment activism -- or at least to upbraid attendees who appear insufficiently enthused.
"If you're going to pay money and come see a show, have some fun, you know? If you don't like the band, that's cool, no big deal, but if you're going to stand in front of the stage, at least smile or nod your head. I don't see the point of being right up in front of the stage and not looking like you're enjoying yourself."
When Gray's not demanding participation, he's explaining the songs and the political orientation behind them. Often, he concedes, these interludes feel like lectures.
"A while back I was watching a video of one of our shows, and I was sitting there like, Oh, my God, just shut up. Jesus, stop talking!" That echoes the sentiments of many of Boy Sets Fire's paying customers, who appear more needful of a shot of mosh pit perspiration than a message about how, exactly, the World Trade Organization affects their lives. Eyes roll, and some kids appear about as pleased as having a violent video game interrupted by a rerun of The MacNeil-Lehrer Report. Having become aware of this effect, however, Gray says the band attempts to avoid fundamentalism.
"Despite the affiliations, we try not to toe the party line of anything," he points out. "That gets dangerous. That's like the freaky Christians: 'The Bible said it, so that's what I'm doing.' That'd be like me saying, 'Marx said it, so that's what I'm doing!' That'd just be ridiculous." In fact Gray is receptive to exchanging ideas not just lobbing them.
"We totally welcome debate," he says. "We're into it. There've been plenty of times I've said, 'Oh, yeah, I see your point. Cool. I'm going to look that up.' And I've actually changed my ideas. You have to in order to grow and learn."
Boy Sets Fire, then, has realized that revolution is a two-way street. "That's what we try to bring up -- communication between people," Gray concludes. "You've got to be able to understand and debate what you believe in and be able to listen to what other people have to say. Because if you don't, you're sort of a dick."