Fire Glows Red
Hardcore act Boy Sets Fire, by its own definition, is a group of politically active young men. The band regularly turns its volume-heavy, slam-dancing live shows into forums about the future of the nation. But the drug history of George W. Bush and the wooden pronouncements of Al Gore rarely enter the discussion -- not even this close to November. That's because at least two members of the quintet are planning to cast their votes for Gus Hall, presidential candidate for the Communist Party U.S.A.
Guitarist Josh Latshaw and singer Nathan Gray are the two official Communists in the Delaware-based quintet, which visits Fort Lauderdale on June 29. But Matt Krupanski (drums), Rob Avery (bass), and Chad Istvan (guitar) are also down for social change. As high schoolers living along the New Jersey/ Delaware border, Latshaw and Istvan gravitated to the writings of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn while cultivating a strong antiracist mindset. Deciding to form a punk band with some radical ideals, they set out to find the right -- or left, as it were -- participants. Gray, Avery, and Krupanski fit the bill, musically as well as politically.
The five then-teenagers released Consider shortly after the band's inception in 1995. Raw as road rash, the album found a middle ground between Hüsker Dü and Fugazi and tilled it -- hard. Two years later The Day the Sun Went Out continued the energy level, and the lyric sheet (a necessity if you wanted a clue as to what Gray was shouting about) showed that the band's anger wasn't average middle-class rage but a rage against the class system in general. In Chrysalis, from 1998, began to slow down the frenzied pace and added melodic elements to the roiling brew.
In April, Victory Records released After the Eulogy, which offers more coherence and diversity than its predecessors. The title track explodes with swashbuckling dual guitar work, while Gray screams, "Where's your anger/Where's your fucking rage?" He doesn't have to look far to find his own. "One of the biggest things that pisses me off in the world today," he explains from his home in Wilmington, "isn't famine, hunger, war, or anything like that -- it's people who are keeping themselves and others from taking care of the issues."
Gray often emulates a drill sergeant barking orders. "(Compassion) As Skull Fragments on the Wall" begins with his command, "Front and center!" But closer inspection of After the Eulogy reveals at least three sides to Boy Sets Fire's sound. There's the mosh pit-ready material characterized by Gray's ferocious, vein-popping bellowing and the pummeling, regimented rhythm section. There's an in-between mode where Gray's voice downshifts from a bawl to a near-soothing smoothness, as the band discovers harmony and seems to temper its rhetoric with Ritalin. "The Abominations of Those Virtuous," for instance, starts with an a cappella vocal intro. By the album's ninth track, "My Life in the Knife Trade," Boy Sets Fire's melodic aspect fully asserts itself. "All the worst of enemies are somehow always friends that used to be," Gray sings, adding an almost sweet yearning to his voice, while the guitars originate from a locale closer to Hootie than Henry Rollins.
But that's a temporary digression. When the angst resurfaces on "The Force Majeure," Gray is back to bullhorn mode, shouting, "Behold the capitalists bathing in the blood of the working class!"
On the liner notes for After the Eulogy, Web, e-mail, and mailing addresses for Anti-Racist Action, Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, Michael Moore, Sexpanic, and Refuse & Resist! are referenced. But Gray acknowledges that the communist affiliation is often met with skepticism and disbelief, especially when it's as hard as ever to look around the globe and find an example of the system actually working. It's easier, in fact, to point to its smoking wreckage.
"People always throw that in my face," Gray says. "Russia, Vietnam, all that shit." He's slightly defensive as he adds, "It's a theory, it's an economic system, it's an idea. Those countries didn't perfect communism or do it well. I'm not going to try to justify Russia or Vietnam -- or even Lenin or Mao, who did a lot of horrible things. But I will justify the idea of communism and the idea behind where it's supposed to go."
Of course Boy Sets Fire's music appeals primarily to a certain demographic -- angry, young, suburban white males. When informed that different groups (Birkenstocked liberals, perhaps) might well go for the message if the music were less harsh, Gray appears baffled.
"It doesn't bother me, really. I wouldn't even know how to react to that. If they don't like the music, then they don't have to listen to it."
In fact the members of Boy Sets Fire (still in their mid-twenties) bristle at being labeled a hardcore band, since they lay no claim to punk puritanism. The band has come under fire, Gray claims, from hard-to-please followers who hear any tinge of melody as a coerced concession to the Man.
"If we came out with a new album that was more melodic, everybody would say, 'Oh my God, they're selling out.' But that's just how we are. It's not like we write a pretty song to get a radio hit -- we write a pretty song because we like it."
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."
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