Four Small Ways Skateboarding Can Change the World

crossfire_world_skate_logo_large

Every sub-culture believes their people are better than the bozos on the outside. Skateboarders have a notable tendency towards exceptionalism. We collectively fail to distinguish between good and terrible skate art. We believe authority should leave us be, whether we are respectful or pig ignorant towards other users of public space. If we see the world differently, with unique expectations of life, work and the city – is this potentiality ever realised? If it isn’t, we may as well be any other group of beer-chugging jocks.

Almost half-way through 2017 and the world is still chain-barfing 2016’s dirty pint, exhausted by elections that serve only the politicians who call for them. If we engage (and you should engage… please vote), it is more out of habit or forlorn hope than genuine belief that things can change for the better. Optimists see hope in the millions galvanised to protest, choking up airports to make Islamophobic travel bans unenforceable, filling town squares to hear a man that looks a bit like Obi-Wan Kenobi speak of good, old-fashioned socialism. But we’ve been here before. Although hyper-capitalism has failed in its pledge that each new generation will be better off than their parents, its Randian high priests still sit at the very top of the hill. The sadly departed cultural critic Mark Fisher, known by his blog moniker K-punk, noted: “From the G20 protests, to the millions marching against the Iraq war, to the Arab Spring, to the short-lived student campaign against fees in the UK – the narrative of evental politics since the late 1990s has been reliably repetitious. Euphoric outbursts of dissent are followed by depressive collapse.” Big acts of resistance fail because we cannot imagine any serious alternative to the current way of things.

Illustration: Jason Lennox.

THEY-LIVE-Jason-Lenox-Low-ResI was too busy failing to broaden my flip repertoire through the early 2000s to pick up on the radical thinkers that clustered around Fisher, and am now reading their ideas on ‘hauntology’ with neophyte zeal. This describes a state in which, with no impetus to create anything genuinely new, we are haunted by past visions of the future. Nagging memories of how things should have been are whispered by the ghosts of the 1960s, when man dreamed of space travel and the vast, imposing architecture that brought the modern to the everyday. In contrast, today’s pop culture, politics and economics recycle the past in ever more rapid loops. Baggy-as-hell, light-ass-denims are back, y’all. We are detached spectators, ironically curating, rather than actively reshaping our lives.

Skateboarders are avid consumers and hoarders. We commodify nostalgia’s warm snuggle. But skating is also all about practice over theory: playfulness and participation, which has the potential to be radical (in both senses of the word). We inhabit the city and the everyday with piss and vinegar, and yet, in the most urbanised century in humanity’s existence, still wait to have politics done to us – buffeted along by the story instead of framing the narrative. Long Live Southbank helped change this, doing what Surfers Against Sewage did for surfing in the early 90s: taking responsibility for our environment with an infectious energy and globe-spanning visual language.

I hate Trump, May, Farage and their ilk more than the generation of failed ‘moderates’ (read neoliberal ideologues) they usurped, and am truly terrified for the future. Although most big fights feel lost, despite what the entrail reading of recent UK election polling may suggest – now is exactly the time for little, local and everyday actions that can help push humanity’s stalled jalopy back onto the Enlightenment’s journey towards new and better. Skateboarders can do, and are doing, more to be part of the resistance: these are four things to start with.

SKATE THE STREETS, ALWAYS

Skateboarding imbues the city and our leisure time with purposes beyond consuming or spectating. On Swedish radio, Sidewalk’s Ben Powell and Skate Malmö’s Gustav Svanborg Edén declared skateboarding “inherently political”, which made me want to high-5 the pair of them. Street skating claims our ‘right to the city’ in an age of privatised space and demonstrates, in public, what the human body is capable of in an age of sedentary work and leisure. We know this to be true since the opening frames of ‘Welcome to Hell’, and know in our bones when we are 17 years old, but forget by 35. In an interview with Sidewalk, one of the coolest fucking things I’ve read came from Andy Wood, the owner of Endemic, Huddersfield’s skateshop. In his 40s with a young family, he skates fast, pops over handrails and describes skating the streets as a responsibility for older skaters: how can we complain that the kids, with their abundant and accelerating skillsets, never leave the park if scene elders don’t set an example? By continuing to street skate alongside real-life responsibilities, we change what it means to be an ‘adult’ – and no diggity it needs changing.

joshmIn the EU Referendum and US Presidential election a generational chasm opened to leave poor Wile E. Coyote flailing in the air. The media characterised those who voted to turn the clock back as old, white and resentful of an unknowable future, whilst the young, who by and large voted differently, were smug, consumerist, over-educated ‘metropolitan elites’ (who simultaneously can’t afford to pay rent). Mainstream sport is little help, separating coaches from sullenly obedient players and audiences from participants. In skateboarding, kids shred with salty seadogs old enough to be their parents. Ordinary sports, or Britain’s inefficient and hierarchical businesses (where senior managers fail to say “hi” to lowly co-workers), remind you just how potentially powerful our little world can be.

If you want to see the sort of respectful negotiation of space no longer valued in the UK after 40 years of “there’s no such thing as society” (Thatcher) or, if society does exist, it’s “broken” and we are somehow to blame (Cameron), go skate a Scandinavian city or read our article on the scene in Malmö. Street skateboarding produces authentic, inclusive and active urban spaces, which we must negotiate with people of totally different ages, occupations and interests (in contrast to being penned in skateparks with people just like us). Every time you disprove the prejudices of a pedestrian, you win a small victory that reverses the erosion of our collective social capital. If we’ve given up on education being primarily to “make a man ethical” as Hegel believed, we can bring a small part of his ideal classroom to the sidewalk: by not being dickheads, and not ever quitting.

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL

Thousands of words have been written on the role of skateshops as youth clubs, first and last sponsors, community hubs and cottage production lines transforming civilians into skateboarders. We can all agree on their importance, but have no idea how to save them.

mackey If Lost Art can run aground, the challenges facing the Skater-Owned-Shop look insurmountable. Liverpool One (a new generation of sinisterly clever neoliberal shopping centres, erasing the line between high street and private property) forced independent retailers from the centre. Then rents soared as the rest of the city gentrified and the fickle patronage of Nike turned to Janoski-stacked JD Sports and Sizes. Mackey sees future survival in terms of fundamentally re-thinking what a skateshop is for: back to hardgood basics and building links with other local independents – bars, tattoo parlours, book and print stores. Similarly, legendary Athens ripper Vassilis Aramvoglou has kept Color Skates running amidst Greece’s recession and sovereign debt crisis, focusing on similar fundamentals and building a relationship with a local bicycle courier to provide their sole means of goods delivery, sacking off tech utopians like Deliveroo (blinkered to the misery they bring to a precarious labour market) and keeping scarce wealth circulating between firms that genuinely support their city.

But this is still less than half the solution. We punters need to earn our mates’ rates: organise events, art and photo shows and video nights, think how your business, employer or townhall can work with your local SOS. In Huddersfield (again), an assortment of tweakers self-publish Achezine, drawing on skills and facilities from the town’s higher and further education establishments, working on an exhibition, a bespoke ‘no-comply’ lager brewed by the independent next door, and a film premiere in Huddersfield’s lovely Victorian shopping arcade: locating Endemic within the heart of its community. Or Boston’s Orchard, who worked with like-minded social enterprises to keep a free-to-use skatepark running through the harsh Massachusetts winter. Once upon a time, in proud industrial towns, customers, workers and owners came together as cooperatives. With never-ending austerity promised by an Old Etonian from a golden chair, our cities are not going to be regenerated beyond the fire-sale of social housing and green spaces and token ‘creative quarters’ that are often anything but (see Southampton). Shop staffers and lurkers who moan about their scene, as the till rusts shut, need to stop seeing themselves as ‘just’ a shop or ‘just’ customers.

START SOMETHING

The West worships the entrepreneur: on TV and in the Whitehouse. Skateboarders have marvelled at Rocco’s saga for 20 years. But while the wider world reveres modern day robber barons as ‘job creators’, the only jobs skateboarding creates in any volume are in retail or yet more sponsored skateboarders. The production of skateboards – luxury items which are predominantly purchased in the world’s richest countries – survives not through differentiation, but on the lowest possible marginal costs. Economists warn that competing on price alone results in a ‘race to the bottom’, jobs hemorrhaged to low cost countries that tolerate shittier labour conditions (a practice that is in turn threatened by Trump’s protectionism, to the benefit of no one except perhaps the Chinese or Mexican workers who may end up in less stupid industries).

As in decades past, the indie start-up has changed and enriched the face of skating. Soccer-mom friendly logo boards are a minority amid weird, cool and beautiful offerings from Polar, Magenta, Hopps, Scumco, Welcome, Weekend, Evisen, Blast, etc. etc. But we’re still failing to visualise how this can benefit actual skateboarders. Some who’ve recently disrupted the market, like Bronze’s Peter Sidlauskas, counsel others to “just work the job you hate.” I can sympathise with wanting to pull up the drawbridge, but this is terrible advice. It assumes markets are fixed in size (think of the ubiquity of Palace, trading to kids with no prior exposure to skating), illustrating what economists call the ‘fallacy of the lump of labour’. The number of jobs is not finite: a newly employed person spends money, creating the need for more jobs, and so on (btw this is also the best way to shut down your racist uncle midway through his seasonal “coming over here, taking our jobs” rant). More urgently, such thinking keeps late capitalism dependent on bullshit, low pay, debt-subsidised jobs in a bloated service sector. If you have an idea, for pity’s sake run with it, for the good of us all. The internet enables you to launch from your bedroom, with minimal risk, whilst keeping up the 9 to 5. In the face of permanent global depression, skaters taking a punt at something new will provide them job satisfaction (and skills acquisition) and help kill pointless, precarious work.

corbyn

Most importantly, your thing doesn’t have to be a board brand or Instagram-driven streetwear bollocks. Surely this is not the limit of our imaginations. Collect boards, do you? Think about what Deckaid has done, exhibiting skate geeks’ collections to aid youth-based charities. Have a massive magazine stash? Rent them out to your local shop. Think you and your mates have skills, enthusiasm and patience? Look what Ash Hall, or John Cattle, or Paul Regan have done with different iterations of socially-entrepreneurial skate schools. Know some artists/are one yourself/know a distributor? Check out these dudes and their ‘refugees welcome’ board project.

All this can be linked together and scaled up. There’s a good chance funders will listen, but they need something tangible to listen to. For that, my friends, you need to organise. If you go to their skatepark consultation, their ‘active in the city’ event, you’re reacting. We can set the agenda. A rabble of voices gets drowned out: but a lean, focused machine that can access and direct resources is hard to ignore. Bryggeriet/Skate Malmö as well as LLSB show us that this doesn’t have to equal endless committee meetings and ‘county council rrrradical’ faux-graffiti branding. They can be super cool, inclusive, and get things done. If you want to link and grow your projects, protect your DIY or streetspot, get a new park built, access charitable and public funding, and eventually employ other skaters in meaningful work, organising is key, and skateboarders tend to be terrible at it.

In the UK, you can get free advice from your local Community and Voluntary Service. Then you have several choices. You can stay small (limited to £5,000 per year) but start tomorrow with a Small Charity Constitution. To do bigger things (including holding premises and employing people), you can become a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) or a Community Interest Company (CIC). A CIO is more attractive to funders, but must be approved by the Charity Commission, who will then monitor you closely. A CIC can be created rapidly and is lighter on the paperwork, but may be less attractive to big funders like the National Lottery. And when you start something, and it grows: remember why you did it. Even if you can earn a living purely selling boards and t-shirts, you can still be more than ‘just’ a board brand – take Real skateboard’s projects with Humidity and Uprise shops in support of the American Civil Liberties Union.

MAKE WORLDWIDE CONNECTIONS

Magenta say it, and they mean it. Who would have thought Bordeaux, with its cobbley-ass streets, would be a destination? The end game for all the above – filling in forms, busting your ass skating and filming – is to put your city on the map, boost your scene and making the world a better place. The biggest of big pictures is that this helps roll back the creeping nativism stoked by right-wing demagogues and the tabloid media across the world. Sixty-five percent of the French electorate can’t hold the line on their own. If big politics tells us that internationalism is a thing of the past – what of all of us brought up to think globally? Prime Minister Theresa May told those who “believe you’re a citizen of the world” were instead “citizens of nowhere”. Let that sink in for a moment: millions of us, the first in our families to stay on in education post-16, who went on school trips and took GCSE French, who were told by careers advisers to imagine working anywhere on earth, who have quite literally done what we’ve been told, are now “citizens of nowhere.” Fuck right off, Theresa May: a sense of internationalism is one of the few things neoliberalism gets right.

Luckily, nationalism and skateboarding are not productive bedfellows – and we can do more to unlock the power of this. Skater-led NGOs have brought skateboarding’s unique ability to engage young people to Afghanistan, Palestine, South Africa and Myanmar, alongside projects building or repairing skateparks in quake hit Australia and Native American reservations. And doing something closer to home doesn’t mean limiting your international horizons. Bruce Springstein, proud son of New Jersey and global traveller, says, “My localism is something I want to use as a strength, rather than something to get away from.” A great example is the Rios crew, putting Budapest on the map by skating and filming in a distinctive way, all whilst xenophobic, nativist strongman, Viktor Orbán, increasingly locks Hungary into an imagined past where everyone looked and felt the same.

Without trying to, the Rios guys have delivered one of the clearest rejections of everything Orbán, and May, and Trump, and Le Pen, stand for – and skaters the world over journey to Budapest to share this with them.

Written by Chris Lawton
Illustration by George Yarnton

If you would like to write for Crossfire we are looking for a news editor and two feature writers. Get in touch here.

Brexit Through The Gift Shop

brexit_skateboarding_eu_referendum

With an eye on clinching that (whimsically imaginary) Pulitzer Prize for skate journalism, we set about writing on the EU Referendum with impartial balance. We hit up friends in the industry, hoping for both pro and anti-Europe positions, but probably shouldn’t have been surprised when, being both skateboarders (tending towards internationalism) and businessmen (concerned with buying stuff and selling stuff), they overwhelmingly came down on the side of ‘stay in the EU for the love of God’.

This created a quandary. Should we, hungry for all the prawn-cocktail and cocaine dinners our journalistic prowess would surely bring, find a Brexiter at random to contrast with our friends at Keen Dist, or should we make a clear argument for voting one way or another? Pissing away future work for News International and a soul-sick early grave, we opted for an honest attempt to influence wavering voters. Because, quite frankly, being stuck on an island under the sole direction of gazillionaire Old Etonian xenophobes is too awful to imagine.

Thinking about something as small as skateboarding or, even worse, writing about it, can feel like the ultimate exercise in spoilt disengagement: sweating the small stuff whilst the wider world goes to hell. But knowing a lot about something little, and caring about it deeply – even something as ridiculous as grown men making four wheeled planks balance on two wheels – provides a microcosm within which we understand the consequences of those big, nebulous issues. I know shit all about the minutiae of European treaties, but do know something of the skate brands and individuals they affect, having spent twenty years soaking up otherwise pointless information from magazines and, latterly, social media feeds. That’s why skateboarding matters every bit as much as the stuff proper adults care about. If TV pundits claim to know all the ramifications of Brexit, they’re bluffing.

Some arguments for voting ‘leave’ on June 23rd are good, logical and are not incompatible with compassion and internationalism. Putting aside the Brexit campaign’s ugly stereotyping and opportunistic manipulation of communities decimated by the forces of global capital (blaming EU migrants for low pay and the loss of good jobs is like blaming oil-covered sea birds for the Gulf of Mexico disaster), the EU and its decision-making apparatus, the European Parliament, Commission and Central Bank, are deeply flawed and have acted as brutal agents of neo-liberalism. This is particularly the case with Greece, whose popularly elected left-wing Government (ordained on a pro-EU but anti-austerity mandate) have been forced into a succession of impossible situations. The EU have demanded brutal cuts, which prevent Greece recovering from recession, which in turn prevent it from paying its debts, requiring yet more cuts, and so on.

There is also the libertarian argument, with which many skaters sympathise. If national governments are bad enough, taxing our hard won wealth and demanding we live as service-dependent weaklings, pan-national government is even worse. But there are also good responses to these arguments. The EU may be flawed, but it’s easier to change, and to support our friends in Greece (and Spain), by staying in. Secondly, leaving may rid us of one layer of unwanted government, but we’re still stuck – and even more exposed to the whims of – the UK Government we currently have (quite apart from the fact that the libertarians tend to believe they are strong enough to independently protect themselves and their families – one bad slam and we’re suddenly very weak and very thankful for the health service our taxes pay for and the workers’ rights our EU membership protects, such as paid sickness absence and protection from arbitrary redundancy).

xray_zac_elbow

This leads us to one of the most offensive claims made by the Brexit campaign: that the UK sends £350 million a week to the EU that could instead be spent on the NHS. Quite apart from the fact that this figure has been proven false (it’s not only a significant over-estimate, but it also excludes the funding the UK gets back), think for one moment who is leading the ‘Leave’ campaign. Press moguls, right-wing Tories and UKIP, all of whom have advocated accelerated privatisation of the health service and the end of free healthcare at the point of use. The likes of Nigel Farage support an American-style insurance systems that actual Americans have fought hard to reform (only partially achieved with Obama Care). NHS spokespeople have argued that Brexit would cause a terminal staffing crisis. This is because real terms pay cuts and reduced funding for trainee nurses alongside Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s war with junior doctors have caused an unprecedented exodus of UK-trained health professionals. Without being able to recruit from across the EU, the NHS could not currently function. In the last few years, almost every skateboarder I know, myself included, has been put back together by the NHS.

Trade is both the biggest, most frequently cited argument for the UK to remain in the Union, and the argument that makes us most likely to switch off in drooling boredom. We shouldn’t: the EU is the UK’s most important trading partner by some way. Of course it is – taken together, the EU is the world’s biggest economy (it exceeded the size of the USA in 2003). The independent Office for National Statistics estimate that more than 40% of UK exports of goods and services go to the EU and for more than 50% of imports come from the EU.

No wonder the Americans are so keen for Britain to stay in. Owner of Keen, Mike Halls (who distributes the likes of Quasi, Polar, Welcome and Hopps amongst others) told us: “We’re seen as a gateway into Europe for a lot of US brands, whether that’s direct selling to stores or simply working with EU distributors. If we leave the EU who knows if we’ll work out a new trade agreement, and if so what time frame? If we don’t, I know ourselves as a business will have a dramatic change on the export side definitely and one or two of the brands we work with will almost certainly skip us out of that ‘gateway’.”

brexit_skateboarding

Brexiters have tried to underplay the impact on trade or argue that, because the UK runs a ‘trade deficit’ (the value of EU imports exceeds the value of exports), leaving the Union would “hurt them more than it hurts us” – as if noses cut off to spite faces is something worth celebrating. In a free trade area, which is what the EU fundamentally is, we get those skateboard decks and fresh Magenta t-shirts cheaper than we would from elsewhere (where distributors have to pay trade tariffs – either increasing the mark-up they have to pass to shops and then to customers, or reducing the profit margins that keep them in business).

It has been argued that, in the short term, a £ sterling weakened by a ‘Leave’ vote would be good for British products, because it will make the stuff we sell to our continental friends cheaper for them to buy. On the other hand it will make imports more expensive. As A Third Foot are Britain’s only skateboard manufacturer, in skateboarding we import an awful lot more than we export (most of our decks and other hardware, a large share of soft goods, and all skate shoes). Even if the £ recovers strongly and quickly, it creates a lot of uncertainty, which isn’t helpful for our industry – which of course needs to think long term (how much of next season’s range to buy in, etc.).

At a time when the skate industry is in flux, in both a good way, with the rise of the indie brands (many of them European), and a bad way, in the consolidation of the footwear under the sportswear giants, increasing the cost of trade with our biggest trading partner could be extremely damaging for home-grown distributors and skate shops. On this, Mike adds: “Look at UK stores which are currently buying some rad brands direct from Europe. Would they still order in knowing they have to be paying duties and taxes from our friends in France and Germany? Same again for European brands, us as distributors wouldn’t be able to soak up the margin and pricing would definitely have to be evaluated.”

jbgilletOf course it isn’t just goods and services that EU membership guarantees free movement, it’s the other ‘factors of production’ – particularly labour. This gets us to the most controversial part of the debate: immigration. The ‘right to free movement’ means any citizen of an EU member state can work, study or retire in any other EU state. This has costs and benefits – but is only a problem when we have vast inequality across Europe. You don’t leave Spain for Britain for the weather, you leave because Spanish youth unemployment is over twice the rate of Britain. That’s why we have experienced high levels of in-migration from other countries in the EU: British employers need more people to work for them than Spanish, Czech or Polish employers. Reduce the inequality, and you reduce the movement of people. Britain leaving the EU will not help those southern and central European countries recover from recession – and if they don’t recover, people will still arrive at Dover, Heathrow and Gatwick. The refugee crisis shows that desperate people will try to risk everything for a better future regardless of whether or not they have a legal way into that country. If we work together to ensure that there are fewer desperate people in the UK, in Europe, and in Africa and the Middle East, immigration will fall off the newspaper headlines.

As it is, skateboarding has benefited massively from free movement. How many amazing European skaters have you got to hang out with? In Nottingham over the last few years, we’ve had welcome additions to our scene from Poland, Italy, Spain, France and Germany. What would the Long Live Southbank desk have looked like without European free movement? Anyone who’s tried to spend time living and working in the US, or Australia, will know what a horrible nightmare a restricted visa-based immigration system can be. Skate lore is full of legendary characters like JB Gillet separated from their sponsors for stupid-ass visa reasons.

This leads us back to the cultural argument. Skateboarding is inherently internationalist. It celebrates travel and interaction with new scenes alongside localism. It enriches our lives through ‘worldwide connections’ in the words of our French bros at Magenta. This is not dissimilar to the original dream of European cooperation, seeded from the horror of the Second World War by idealistic British as well as continental politicians. The dream was to strengthen links and common interests to make future apocalyptic conflict impossible. Turning away from that dream requires a very cold heart, even if the current reality of the EU falls so far short. The people who reject this dream aren’t just the suit wearing, smooth-talking politicians, but scary looking white dudes who march through Athens, Stockholm, Cologne and Paris waving Swastikas.

Photo: David Lagerlöf

Photograph: David Lagerlöf

Finally, it’s worth thinking what the UK’s public realm would look like outside the EU. British politicians of all parties have been unwilling to invest public money in cities and towns outside London and the South East since the 1970s. Instead, the ‘regeneration boom’ that started in the late 1990s, gifting skateboarders across the North, Midlands, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with skateable spaces, was largely due to European funding – known as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and European Social Fund (ESF) to their mums. Britain may pay in to the EU each year, but it gets millions of Euros back through these two funds and, rather than being spent exclusively in London (where private investment is overwhelming concentrated), the funds’ rules mean it has to be spent in areas of need. The skatepark revolution in Scotland is largely funded by Europe (the Scots claim that, if we leave the EU, they’ll try again to leave the UK in order to re-join Europe).

Take my usual day’s skateboarding. I get a tram into Nottingham city centre (funded by EU money). I meet my friends to skate the blocks in the vast, open area of the regenerated Sneinton market plaza (funded by EU money). At the end of the day, we may eat good, affordable food and watch the sun go down outside Broadway arts cinema bar, which puts you face to face with the 12 stars of Europe on a plaque acknowledging the funding that paid for the place. In total, more than £100 million of EU funding has gone into the regeneration of Nottingham alone since the millennium – and like Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool or Manchester – this Northern town, hammered by the de-industrialisation of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, now looks like an optimistic place to live, work or study, rather than the barren, dilapidated ‘Shottingham’ it was in 1996 when I first moved here.

Of course, you should make your own mind up – but you should think about it carefully. It’s not hyperbole to describe the EU Referendum as likely to be the most important thing you ever vote for. And for pity’s sake, please get out and vote on Thursday the 23rd. Current polling suggests only half of people under 35 expect to vote. If this is true, it’s your future, your right to travel, work, trade and study anywhere in Europe that people at the end of their working lives will be deciding on.

Written by Chris Lawton
Illustrations tweaked by Scott Madill.

If you have strong views, skate and/or music knowledge and would like to write for Crossfire, please contact us.

Red Dons Interview

I was having a drink with a good friend of mine recently, and that all important subject of the season came up – our favourite albums of 2010. The general consensus was it has been a great year for punk platters, with one of the big standouts being the latest offering from the transcontinental collective known as Red Dons. Rising from the ashes of Portland, Oregon’s The Observers, the Red Dons have truly come in to their own with second album ‘Fake Meets Failure‘, a collection of incredibly well structured and passionate songs, spiked with intelligent lyrics, all played out to super catchy music. Razorcake Magazine recently went as far as to consider the Red Dons “could very well be the best punk rock band on Earth”. I’m in total agreement.

This interview was conducted for Crossfire by Pete Craven with Hajji Husayn (Bass / Vocal), Douglas Burns (Lead Vocals / Guitar) and Will Kinser (Guitar).

Photos by Mateus Mondini

Your band name is inspired by the infamous Cambridge University professors (inc. Kim Philby, Antony Blunt and Guy Burgess) who it transpired had been Communist spies. The discovery of what they had been up to, and their eventual defection to Soviet Russia caused uproar in Britain at the time, and dragged on through the Cold War. What so interested you in these men, and their motives.

HH: Paradox I suppose.

DB: They tried to do something they thought was noble, but by doing so they completely alienated themselves. Giving the Soviets secret information helped defeat Hitler and end World War II. They helped save England from Nazi occupation but still lost their homeland because no Englishman could trust ever trust them again. Who could trust a spy? In the end they still lost. That lose lose proposition is something that we draw many parallels to in our own lives.

I’m just reading the excellent book ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’ (by Barbara Demick) and it’s fascinating how the propaganda machine that dominates the people in this hard line Communist outpost, is often not so different to the mass-media and ‘entertainment’ broadcasts that we have in our (free) Western Countries..

HH: I agree. It’s the same thing but delivered in a different way. It impels you rather than forces you, make it sweet and appealing, soft power. It is essentially what is being discussed under the rubric of cultural imperialism; applied to your own populace. Rather than take over a country outright you sell them a lifestyle that influences them and puts them on your side, influences their social institutions. Coca Cola, Levi’s jeans, the American Dream, a car, are much easier to promote values and structures than the end of a rifle. In that way you start to export goods, educate their elite at your universities, make them desire your life, and in the course of it make them your allies or even try to outright control them. It informs your worldview, your discourse and sets the framework through which you interpret things. Not only is America a purveyor of cultural imperialism to the world but to its own people. Its very easy to let anything go if you’ve got just enough to make you placid.

What’s the fascination you have with The Middle-East, a theme initiated in your first EP (‘Escaping Amman’) Hey, Hilary’s banging the heads of the Palestinian and Israeli Prime Ministers together again. Peace is surely around the corner!

HH: Having grown up around it and realizing as I got older that nobody in the US had the faintest clue about it nor any kind of educational opportunities. I mean I had US history all through school and absolutely no international history. Once I started university I immediately went into history. The more I studied the more I saw the dire need for people in the USA to understand the region or they would continue to treat it the way they have. Having played music my whole life it was natural to start to incorporate it into a band.

Ok, it’s been almost 3 years between the last album ‘Death to Idealism’ and ‘Fake Meets Failure’. I read (and saw some footage of a Brazilian tour) but what else were you up to in that time?

DB: The last three years have been pretty crazy. Hajji moved to London, I moved to Chicago, Richie is still holding down the fort in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve also played with a number of guitarists. Justin Maurer, who played on ‘Death to Idealism’, left the band when he moved to Spain in 2007. In 2008 Andy Foote joined the group. That year we toured the US with The Estranged. Andy had to stop playing us because he was no longer able to tour. So Zach Brooks began playing with us. In 2009 we toured Brazil. After that we met in Portland and recorded ‘Fake Meets Failure’ and the ‘Pariah’ 7″. Like Andy, Zach wasn’t able to continue touring with us. So, about six months ago Will joined the band. Since then we did another US tour and recorded some new 7″s.

And Will is from BORN/DEAD. Doesn’t he live in Germany right now?

WK: Yes, I live in Hamburg Germany these days. I moved about a year ago away from the SF Bay Area. I don’t really think living in another country has much of an effect on my ability to be a contributing member of the band since I am just one of many who lives far from the rest. I have a recorder so that I can send everybody ideas and I have Skype for any other problems that should arise. It’s not a traditional band setup but we make it work.

DB: At first it seemed strange to ask someone in Germany to join the band. But like he just said, we were already spread out all over so it didn’t really matter. Now the Red Dons live in three different countries on two different continents. Richie and I live in the same country, but there is still 2,000 miles between us. I don’t think that three years ago this would have been possible. Now with high-speed internet and digital recorders it is easier to be in touch and exchange ideas.

WK: “Welcome to the age of computer technology, but still you’ve got your brain psychology.” -One Way System

How did the Brazil tour come together? The footage I saw looked amazing!

DB: Brazil was mind blowing. The whole thing came together thanks to our friend Mateus Mondini of Nada Nada Discos and Fodido e Xerocado. He and all his friends organized the tour. They did an amazing job.

HH: We met Mateus through Justin. He came with the Clorox Girls to take photos when I was touring with them in Europe. He had set up the Clorox tour in Brazil and asked the Red Dons to do the same. He also came with us on our most recent US tour.

DB: Yeah, Mateus is basically a part of the band now. If you think about it, he’s done more tours with us than several of our members. Haha! But back to the Brazilian tour. The shows there were incredible. The people were a lot of fun. I expected to get to Brazil and not really play for anyone. It was unfathomable for me to think that people that far away would be familiar with the band. I was just excited to see South America and hang out with some fun people. I don’t understand how Mateus got our stuff all around the country, but the shows were really well attended. People knew our songs and sang along. It was totally unexpected. There is an outstanding punk scene in Brazil. The people are genuine, motivated, and hungry for good music. They also dance and have fun at shows, which once again seems to be on the decline here in the States.

So, back to ‘Fake Meets Failure’. when did you have enough material to feel confident to record a new album?

HH: Oddly enough we always had plenty of material, in fact once we started working on the record we ended up writing a bunch more. The problem is we have a lot of older stuff that still needs to get recorded. It was a matter of putting things together the right way to give the album a cohesiveness that was lacking on the first album.

DB: Like he said, we have a ton of material. We have at least two albums worth of songs at the moment and are constantly writing new ones. What took so long to record Fake Meets Failure was logistics obviously, but also that we waited until we had ten songs that sonically and lyrically formed a cohesive narrative. Some of what I’d consider to be our best songs haven’t been recorded yet because they haven’t fit well with other songs to make it on a record. If we all lived in the same town we would have so many EPs out by now. We also have two Revisions LP’s that need to get recorded.

There are a lot of musicians on the album, including various guitarists, and a few backing vocalists! How quick was the recording process itself, did you get everything down on one hit?

HH: The recording process in the studio took about a month? Not including the time it took to polish the material. At the same time we recorded some old songs and tracked another LP for a band we were doing with Johnny Cat on vocals called the Chemicals. It took about 10 days to track both LP’s and extra songs and maybe another 10 days for mixing and other odd overdub experiments. The core tracking was done all in one go with drums bass and rhythm guitars. After that it was overdubs and vox, and then some experimentation. All the while we had people coming in. It was a revolving door of sorts. Having lots of people contribute helped to stimulate creativity and to refine the recording.

DB: Collaboration is important to this band. We try to have a Collective type atmosphere around the project. We definitely don’t want the Red Dons to be an exclusive unit comprised of four dudes. The more people that work with us the better it gets so we tried to include as many people as possible. Some instances like the strings were planned well in advance but others we completely spontaneous. A lot of the people included in the back ups just happened to be hanging around the studio at the moment we were tracking. Keith Testerman (The Estranged, Hellshock, Warcry, ect) owns a record shop that is connected to Stan Wright’s studio so there was often someone around that we could get involved in the project. A.I. from Japan is on the Chemicals album singing “Chemical Burn” thanks to that scenario.

And I couldn’t help but notice (Operation Ivy/Common Ride/Classics of Love vocalist) Jesse Michaels getting lyrical credits. How did he come to be hooking up with the ‘Dons?

DB: Jesse and I did an art show together two years ago in San Francisco. We hit it off and have stayed in touch ever since. One night we were talking about song writing and how I sometimes struggle with writing lyrics. As we all know, Jesse is an amazing lyricist. I had no idea how prolific he is. Sometime after our conversation he sent me a big stack of lyrics. These he had written over the years and had never put to music. Jesse told me to use anything I found in there. It’s pretty remarkable how so many of his lyrics coincided with what Hajji and I were writing. “Land of Reason” is an example of the three of us writing separately, with different motivations, and amalgamating them to form one thought. That was one reason for putting the song first on the album. Everyone associated with the band added something to that song. Each person’s contribution is featured, but as a finished song those components form one cogent expression. That is what we enjoy about collaborating with different people, all the similarities that pop up. I hope we are able to work with Jesse more in the future.

Doug, your artwork has covered the sleeves of Observers and Red Dons records… and I saw you have also had some public exhibitions of your work… Is this a full time gig? Who are you inspirations? And what’s the story with the cover for Fake Meets Failure cover?

DB: At the moment art is pretty much a full time gig, but that’s only because I’m in art school full time and work part time at a gallery called Corbett vs. Dempsey. I have been showing my work pretty steadily though. This year alone I had work in seven different exhibitions in Chicago, Madison, and Richmond, Virginia. I’ve sold an ok amount of paintings but nothing that I could really live off of. Like music, I’m pretty much influenced by everything. If it’s good art, I’m a fan. Artists that I’ve been looking at recently are Arturo Herrera, Vernon Fisher, Thomas Hirschhorn, Albert Oehlen, Christopher Wool, Julie Mehretu, Ray Yoshida, Mark Bradford, Ghada Amer, and Ralph Arnold. I could continue making a list of stuff I like so I’ll try to stop there before it gets too much longer. Believe me, there is more. It’s like if I were to start listing bands I like. We’d be here all day and I’d still feel like I forgot a bunch.

The “Fake Meets Failure” painting focuses on the life altering decisions we are forced to make. Each of us in the band have made serious choices about our lives in recent years, but for people in their late 20’s and 30’s that is pretty typical. One of the choices we’ve all been confronted with has been whether to take a more conventional path with our lives or continue living a more “bohemian” existence. I don’t see either as a right or wrong option. People have to do what is right for their unique situations. The problem is that both choices engender negative connotations. Those choosing the conventional route of a steady job, a house, and health care are labeled as fakes for selling out or compromising their dreams. The artist who continues living outside popular society is label a failure, because in most cases they are completely dependent financially on other people. The cover art depicts the meeting of these two schools of thought. The model for those paintings is a friend of mine. He was in the best band to come out of Chicago. Next time you look at it see if you can tell who it is.

Do I sense a certain amount of cynicism at American Paranoia in the likes of ‘Secret Agent’ and ‘Enemy Ears’?

HH: I would go further than cynicism. A large part of Secret Agent is the embassy warden messages I received while living in Amman intermixed with inspiration from Conrad’s Secret Agent which was the most quoted/referred to book in American media after 9/11, not to mention the Unabomber’s favorite book. I myself have avoided bombings by turns of fate (West Bank) and have been the subject of bomb threats (Land of Reason). In Amman there were several bombings while I was living there and in Lebanon right after I left. But really it deals with alienation. As we continue to define the other and push them away, they become alienated and lash out. We then push further and the cycle continues and deteriorates not only on a macro scale but also in our personal lives. I often feel alienated from the punk scene. I look to it as an alternative to society and because of that I tend to put it on a pedestal. A home from home for people who had not encountered success and don’t expect it. In reality it is more like a high school click. If you don’t wear the right clothes or listen to the right music or go to the right show or know the right people you’re not cool. There are so many scene parasites that push to occupy key positions in coolness that it’s very easy to be locked out if you don’t do all the things that make you cool. Enemy ears is really a calling out to all the people to reject everything and follow us into uncoolness, into oblivion, into true anti establishment. It’s the paradox of failure that can truly lead to some success. The choice between hell or disgrace.

DB: That all goes back to why we are interested in the Red Dons/Cambridge 5. When putting together all the parts for “Enemy Ears” we were thinking about the moment that Philby, Blunt and Burgess were crossing over the border to the Soviet Union. They must have known there was no going back. They would disappear into obscurity. Their history would be written by those who felt they were traitors. Yet, they still did it.

One additional track “It’s Your Right” was included on the “Pariah” single, is there any other non-album material to come out this time around?

HH: Two more 7″s are in the works at the moment.

DB: Yes, we’re in the process of finishing up some songs we recorded this summer in Chicago with Mike Lust. As for more songs recorded during the “Fake Meets Failure” recording session, there is that Chemicals album that has yet to be released. I just need to finish the art for it and it should be ready to see the light of day.

To me, your music manages to capture a multitude of influences from across the decades, and then compact these sounds in to your own highly distinctive songs . I’m thinking classic melodic Southern California, dark and heavy Portland. grim up North UK (early Eighties). and even a a splash of Sydney, Australia (yeah hup!) Would you care to share some of the key bands that helped shape your Punk development, and subsequently the musical direction of the Red Dons.

DB: You basically nailed it. Everything is an influence. What I’ve noticed is that a lot of the first punk I was exposed to like the Adolescents, Misfits, Adverts, and Wipers still dictated how I write songs today. I feel our core punk influences are pretty transparent. The influences that are more difficult to place are the non-punk ones. Bach, Erkin Koray, Fela Kuti, and Dave Brubeck are a few that might not be as apparent to the average listener. It all blends together anyway. Sometimes we’ll try to reference one influence and it comes off sounding like another. In the song “Enemy Ears” we tried to do a Fela Kuti breakdown but it came off as sounding like the Dead Kennedy’s. That’s ok though, DK is a huge influence too. Who knows, maybe they were listen to Fela too?

HH: You know, as Doug said, all the standard stuff is an influence. Dead Kennedys, The Who, The Clash, the Wipers. I think more importantly it’s the different types of music and the bands they had to offer. That did the most to influence me. Anarcho punk of the early 80’s, hardcore in the states when I was a kid, ’77 punk, Portland punk bands, jazz, classical, fela kuti.

You took to the road this summer to tour North American; how did that go? Didn’t (bassist) Hajji injure his shoulder badly?

WK: Except for Hajji injuring himself the tour was a success. For me it was like being on the road again for the first time, playing smaller gigs to a more intimate crowd. I think that is a good thing, you cut out most of the scenesters and hangers on. I like to play for new audiences that are interested, not a bunch of people who think they have seen it all. I had a great time with the band and I think the next time will be even better because we know what to expect from each other. The best moments for me were whenever we nailed a live set, that, and when the whole band shared an experience that we all enjoyed like the City Museum in St. Louis, inner tubing in Austin, or hanging out in the train yard next to the Mississippi River. I had a great time recording in Chicago for the upcoming records and can’t wait to record more with the band in the Spring. The drives are long in the US so I look forward to our first European tour together.

HH: The tour was great, the first half went well and we had easy drives. The second half was the most difficult/easiest tour I’ve ever been on. In Raleigh, North Carolina I fell off the stage and got injured quite badly. I had a separated Acromioclavicular Joint in my shoulder, a sprain neck, and a separated Sternoclavicular Joint in my chest (which took months to diagnose properly). This has left my collarbone out of whack sitting pushed down and into my sternum and may remain dislocated for life. Of course this meant I couldn’t use my left arm at all and I was stuck in a sling and heavily medicated. Thanks to the love of my band members, or out of necessity, they helped me change my clothes, tie my shoes, all the mundane stuff you take for granted. They also set up all my gear, plugged me in, wrapped my arm to my chest so I could immobilized my shoulder to play, carried everything, and gave me the best spots to sleep every night. In that sense it was easy, nothing to do just show up and play. On the other hand it was hell to be in so much pain on the road, the guilt of not pulling my own weight, and feeling guilty for hurting myself made it the most difficult tour I’ve ever been on.

We have been reading a bit about (American) The Tea Party over here recently… I’m guessing these are not free thinking people sitting around drinking Earl Grey…

WK: I think that a lot of the Tea Party movement has to do with a majority of Americans’ ineptitude at grasping domestic politics in a broader sense. People looking to go back to a (not so) quaint time when problems weren’t so massive, to a cozy time when America had an upper hand on industry as well as foreign policy. The entire world is faced with the problems of today due to the global economy built by liberal and conservatives alike in our government and the west. From what I can tell the tea party is the infiltration of fear into an overtly white demographic who feel the carpet is being ripped from under their feet. They think they are being progressive but really are being taken advantage of by fear mongering, would-be politicians with unproven credentials or at best flimsy libertarian platforms who once in office mainly side with mainstream republican values. The problem with the Tea Party movement is that it has no platform that can be surmised, it can easily be manipulated. Well, that and the fact that it is overwhelmingly populated by bigots, anti-abortionists, religious zealots, and self-proclaimed patriots. Rebels without a clue.

DB: I think it is hilarious that they originally called themselves the Tea Baggers. I wish they had were never been clued in to the sexual innuendo. Wouldn’t you love to hear people like Glenn Beck say, “I’m pleased to report that the conservative senator and his fellow tea baggers sit firmly atop the polls”?

HH: I think I’m in accordance with the British, utterly perplexed to what the fuck is going on with these people.

It’s been 3 years since we last saw you in Europe. Any plans to return?

HH: Yes, this spring we have a European tour planned with dates for the UK.

Crossfire actively promotes skateboarding. Is skating an influence at all on the lives of any Red Dons?

HH: If it weren’t for skating I wouldn’t be into punk. My uncle owned a surf shop when I was kid. He gave me a skateboard and that was all I did. I saw that picture of Darby Crash holding his skateboard with the Germs written all over it and over night I was into Punk and had a Darby haircut. For me, in the early ’80’s punk and skating were synonymous.

DB: Skateboarding was the first counter culture thing I got involved in. Unfortunately, I was a lousy skater. I took to snowboarding much better. Eventually I got into surfing too. I still do those activities whenever I get the chance, but not skating. Early on I road Ventures trucks but my favorite band in Portland call National Guard had a song about the superiority of Independent trucks so I switched. That might be the moment I realized that music was more important to me. It would be nice if I still skated now that I live in Chicago. There is a skate park by my house and no mountains or oceans for thousands of miles. Either way I’m probably better suited behind a guitar.

WK: Skating caused me to break my leg in half, haven’t done much of it since other than commuting once in a long while. My old band got interviewed in Thrasher magazine and that was the highlight of my skateboarding career.

DB: Hajji has a pretty epic story about being a little boy in Czechoslovakia and having his skateboard stolen by a Skinhead.

HH: Not just a skinhead, it was a skinhead who looked like Mr. Clean; the biggest and the baddest of the bunch. Everybody knew his name. Golas. Maybe 20 of us had been skating at the square where the Lenin statue was. It was the spot where all the skaters would meet. One thing the Soviets did was create great skate spots. A massive square completely made of granite with curbs all around. The middle platform for the statue that was about knee height and perfect to wax up. During the course of the day ambulances and police cars started showing up and parking around the square. This did not seem odd, as it was a busy area of town. Round dusk talk started spreading of a fight that happened nearby. Some of the punks and skaters had caught some skinheads and had done them for revenge over some other fight. This in itself was not a big deal as this kind of shit was going on all the time, especially since there were a lot of Nazi and Nazi sympathizing skins around. After communism fell everybody went Right, as it was the opposite of Left. In fact České Budějovice even hosted a Neo-Nazi rally at one point that the mayor of the town spoke at. It was fucking crazy because all these Austrians and Germans came. They can’t really do it in their own country, so the Czech Republic became a sort of Neo-Nazi resort; a place where you can take your top off so to speak. Anyway, this kind of stuff was going on all the time, more like tribal war with feuds and truces, especially since some of the skinheads were drug dealers and we all know how uniting drugs can be. The talk continued and rumors started to spread that something was going to happen. What my cousin and I didn’t realize, but the Skins got jumped on their way to a hockey game on a few blocks away. As the square and surrounding roads started to fill with traffic and pedestrians leaving the game, we noticed a din coming from the direction of the stadium. It was about 50 skins running and screaming, the sound of boots and battle cries.

Holy shit! At first we thought the numbers were even, as more skaters had shown up and the group mentality decided to stand firm. How these things get decided I don’t know, I guess the military calls it esprit d’corps. Unfortunately, as soon as the human wave struck all bets were off. Everybody started running in fear, especially since the Skins were a hell of a lot tougher than us, had a score to settle, and were boozed from the hockey game. At first I was ready to fight and stood my ground as the vast majority ran past me. Right in the middle of the hurricane I realized that most of the skaters and punks were running past me. As I turned around I realize I was deep behind enemy lines. I took to my skate and tried to push off full speed. That is when Golas got me. He pushed me from behind and I fell but held my balance. As I turned he had picked up my skateboard and took a swing at me with it. I ran about 10 paces off and turned and yelled at him to give it back to me. He just laughed. If you can imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger in a flight jacket and boots with a Czech accent, there he was saying “come and get it”.

Naturally, I ran for my life and collected my cousin along the way. The entire square had broken out into fighting. It wasn’t just us vs. them. Everybody was having a go. Away fans, home fans, punks, skins, skaters, normals all having a fight. I now understood why all the police cars and ambulances had assembled around the square. Snap, that’s right police cars. My cousin and I ran for a parked police car, not to get them to save my board mind you, but for protection. We were on the verge of getting the snot kicked out of us at every turn. We ran up and pounded on the window. Two coppers were inside and both slowly turned their heads to look in the opposite direction. Shit we were running again and everywhere I saw people crawling under cars for protection or running down alleys. We ran past an ambulance. Someone I knew was hiding underneath. Then we shot down a side street. People were chasing and being chased everywhere we went. Eventually we met up with some friends. A few of our skaters friends were Roma (gypsies, as is said in a more derogatory fashion). They told us to stay with them and they would take us somewhere safe. We followed them into the Roma section of town. Out of the doorways a whole pack of older boys materialized; some of them were our friends brothers. We explained to them what was going on. They already knew and told us not to worry. Then one of the boys proceeded to pull a fucking katana (or some kind of Japanese sword) out of his fucking shirt. I still remember the moment in slow motion. He reached into the neck of his shirt, grabbed something, and pulled out. It just kept coming and coming until his arm was fully extended over his head. I remember thinking fuck it’s huge! And how did he walk with that thing hidden? It must have gone down his pant leg as well as the front of his shirt? They told us to go into the stairwell of a building and wait. Down the road they went with a drawn sword.

We waited there a long long time. Eventually we summoned enough pluck to look outside, and decided to walk to get the bus back to Hluboká. The streets were dead silent and it was a frightful walk. Needless to say we made it home. From that day forward and for as long as I lived in the Czech, Golas would send messages asking me if I wanted my skateboard back or asking me when I was going to come and get it. He and his crew would even come down to the square with it and stand there watching us, taunting all the skaters, he was after all to scary to fight. To this day he still has it. Yes skating is an influence on my life. My skateboard hanging over Golas’ fireplace like a trophy will forever be an influence on my life.