‘Burning’ Questions For Brian Peterson: A Conversation About Hardcore Punk And Beyond
They say if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there. Well, the opposite can be said for straightedge punk in the ’90s: After all, if you were trooly into hardcore, you were cold sober the whole time.
There’s little debate that Brian Peterson not only qualifies as an authentic fan of the genre but has, over the years, become an authority on it. Case in point: “Burning Fight: The Nineties Hardcore Revolution in Ethics, Politics, Spirit and Sound,” his recently published, six-years-in-the-making chronicle on the genre, as told through interviews with musicians, critics and other key voices. Spanning almost 500 pages, one word adequately sums up the tome: “definitive.”
When I caught up with Peterson last summer to pick his brain about the book and beyond, the Chicago-based author was biding his time in one of the more decidedly un-punk locations in America: a so-called “micropolitan” city called Minot in North Dakota. But that was hardly the only immediate surprise: A veteran punk scribe (Thrasher, Punk Planet, etc.), Peterson is now teaching high school English.
I tossed him the obvious questions – and then some. And I learned that no one values an enlightening conversation more than Peterson does.
So you’re back home right now?
Yeah. I actually grew up in Minot, with about 35,000 or so people. The whole state of North Dakota is only like 500,000 people. Living in Chicago and driving up here is kind of culture shock, but since I grew up here, I’m used to it.
How did you manage to get into hardcore living in that area? Did you have a cool record store nearby or were your friends responsible?
We did have a record store, but how I got into it was a friend I grew up with and went to school with in the second grade. By the time he got into the fifth or sixth grade, he was into skating and BMX’ing and stuff. He had some older friends who were in junior high, and they turned him onto punk and hardcore.
I was really into hip-hop when I was young; I still like it, but that’s all I listened to [back then]. It’s weird, looking back: Here’s this kid in this little town in North Dakota, and I somehow was listening to KRS-One and Public Enemy and Rakim.
I really liked that stuff, ’cause there was so much substance to what they were saying. [With hardcore,] I thought the screaming was kind of crazy at first, but as I got to hear the lyrics, I was like, “Oh.” It took a few years to get used to the sounds.
So it was the message that spoke to you more than the music, at least initially.
Yeah. I like music that’s beautiful-sounding or interesting-sounding. Obviously, it’s music, so you have to appreciate it on that level. But I’m often drawn to music where there’s different layers of meaning – in the case of hip-hop, social or political or ethical issues.
I’ve always liked reading and learning, so reading those lyrics, it was like reading an awesome book. You’re hearing about all kinds of things that maybe you heard about a little bit but didn’t really [understand]. Especially living in North Dakota.
Literature can really speak to you when you’re younger, as you’re trying to identify with other people.
Yeah, and when you’re young, you’re very idealistic. When I was a kid, [I thought] everyone meant well and people should try to help each other and so forth. But then [as I got older,] I started to realize, “Wait a minute, most people don’t care about anything. What’s going on?”
I remember reading Malcolm X’s autobiography when I was in junior high. Somehow I heard about it – probably through hip-hop records – and that opened my eyes to things. Art, literature, music, all that stuff can really get you inspired to get active in some way.
Is that also a limitation of hardcore and other artistic mediums: Beyond raising awareness and inspiring you, what more can they do?
Yeah, hardcore – or whatever kind of music – is a sort of catalyst to provoke you into thinking about something. [But] you have to be the one who chooses to take action.
For me, hardcore was so much about being involved – whether it was a band or a ‘zine, or even just having a discussion with someone at a show. I was a pretty shy kid growing up; I opened up a bit by getting involved in hardcore. Part of it was because I could walk up to anyone and just have a conversation based on a band T-shirt. But I guess I felt respected for the first time by other people. I felt confident enough to share my views with others without being laughed at – which often happens when you’re young.
Being a teacher now, it’s interesting: Kids are really insecure about what they think. They’re struggling, trying to figure out where they’re coming from or what they’re interested in or what they want to do. They’re afraid of being judged by others, so they’re often afraid to speak up in class or talk about what they think. I was the same way, so hardcore was something that boosted my confidence a bit.
It’s funny that you say hardcore is about getting engaged and doing things; it’s also very much about not doing things, about abstaining. No meat, no alcohol, no drugs, no sex.
In some cases, nonaction or refusal to act can be an action too. When I was a kid, I tried drinking a couple of times. It was something that was pushed by almost everyone; it was something that people did. And then I heard about straight-edge when I was about 15 and thought, “Wow, that’s interesting.” Other than maybe certain religious people or people who were in AA, [I'd never heard about people who] abstain from drinking alcohol. I found that the couple of times I tried to drink that I never cared for the taste of it. I also had friends who did crazy things when they got drunk, and it seemed to cause problems. ‘Course, that said, I also have close friends and family members who do drink but who are responsible about it. [But] it made me think, “Why do people do this?” That’s stuff I’d never thought about before.
And growing up in North Dakota, there’s a lot of farmers, and I don’t think I knew a single vegetarian growing up. Actually, the first time I heard a really serious positive spin on vegetarianism was the Boogie Down Productions song “Beef” on the Edutainment album. It came out in ’90. That kind of blew my mind, but I never took it seriously. But as I got into hardcore within the next couple of years, I actually met people who were vegetarian, vegan. And suddenly, “Whoa, this actually makes sense.” Meeting people who have chosen to live a lifestyle and can actually give you real answers, you can engage in a dialogue.
Are you vegan, then?
Yeah, I’m vegan. I can’t remember what year I became a vegetarian – ’94 or ’95.
So you walk the walk.
Yeah, I guess. A lot of these things are personal choices, although it was interesting to see militant approaches to these issues. I think those conversations are important to have, in that, if nothing else, they force you to figure out what you think. If someone comes at you with an extreme viewpoint, you may disagree with it, but it makes you think, “Here’s this person saying this extreme statement; well, I may or may not agree with that, but what do I think?”
There’s always extreme bands pushing boundaries, but I remember going to shows and seeing all these intriguing viewpoints. The singers were usually very charismatic, and they would talk about these things between songs, and you could get a sense of their anger or frustration. You kind of snapped into attention to hear what they were saying. Like I said, you may or may not agree with it totally, but at least you can understand or respect the fact that this person was trying to address something that was important to them.
I think it’s awesome when people manage to get things off their chest. What’s even better is when a discussion takes place after or during a show, and a bunch of people are engaged in a dialogue about it. Maybe that was a slight downside of the ’90s: It was a little too serious at times. But I’d rather have something serious than [something with] no thought. I think you can have fun and also learn and exchange ideas with others, too. And at most of the shows I went to, that seemed to happen.
Can you talk specifically about some of those serious moments? Do singular events come to mind, or were there certain bands whose shows were more characterized by seriousness?
Most bands I saw had a serious message of one kind or another, so I could almost say, in a way, almost every show I went to [had a serious aspect]. Still to this day, I go to shows and bands talk about things that matter to them.
But as far as extreme types of things … I saw Los Crudos a bunch of times, and I was always captivated by them and Martin [Sorrondeguy]. He explained things so eloquently, and he talked about issues that were pertaining to immigration, pertaining to gentrification in neighborhoods where he and his friends were from in Chicago. I learned a lot. It was almost like going to an amazing college class or something. There are shows where people might yell, “Shut up, play music,” or whatever, but I don’t remember anyone ever yelling at Martin. People were very captivated by him, and he really had a charisma, and he really knew what he was talking about.
Which bands do you think are regarded as the most serious?
I never saw them play, but people talk about Downcast as being a band that talked in a serious way about issues pertaining to gender, class [and other] political issues. I’ve heard stories – in fact some are mentioned in the book – where at shows they would often tell people to sit down while they played. There were a lot of bands that were concerned with the whole “macho” stuff going on in the mosh pit and wanted people to have a safe experience. But at the same time, there were other people who were like, “Well, wait a minute, hardcore is about having fun and going nuts too.” A lot of people seemed to have pretty strong opinions about them or the whole Ebullition scene.
Another band that was really polarizing, I’d say, was Racetraitor from Chicago. They were talking about issues pertaining to race and class in a way that was super-extreme. Their early shows were totally antagonistic; I remember them calling people “crackers” and pointing at people and saying, “You’re the reason there’s poverty in the Third World.” [He laughs.] [Some] people were really pissed off, or other people were like, “Wow, this is blowing my mind right now.” I remember some of their shows, seriously, stopping [abruptly]. The show would end and then this whole debate would erupt just based on what they were saying.
I suppose you could say the same for bands like Vegan Reich or Earth Crisis, with the whole animal-rights stuff. I never got to see Vegan Reich play, but I remember hearing a lot about them, and you read the lyrics, and they’re pretty extreme. [He laughs.] Earth Crisis wasn’t as wildly militant, but the song “Firestorm” [was] really controversial because it talked about going into the ghettos and firestorming [drug dealers] and stuff. I think they were just using imagery to get their point across, but I remember a lot of people felt there was almost a tinge of racism or something. And they spoke about abortion and all these really hot topics not just in hardcore but in mainstream society.
A lot of people forget about this, but Shelter and 108 were pretty controversial too.
You mentioned to me prior to this interview that issues hardcore dealt with became much more specified in the ’90s than in the ’80s. Why was that?
It seemed like in the ’80s, a lot of people seemed to feel there was a really suffocating thing happening in mainstream culture. Reaganomics, there was a lot of jobs closing and the economy turning sour. It was really good for a lot of people on Wall Street, but a lot of working-class people were losing their jobs. … There was this ever-present fear of nuclear war. I remember literally doing those duck-and-cover exercises in class, and growing up in North Dakota, we actually had missile silos in the middle of nowhere.
So there was a lot of general social tension in the ’80s.
On top of that, there seemed to be a lot of conformity in mainstream society. A lot of kids [who were] into punk and hardcore obviously dressed differently, so they’d get picked on. It’s not like now, where I see a lot of popular kids – even jocks – wearing stuff that looks “punk.” They might have a mohawk even, whereas back then, you’d totally be an outcast for dressing differently.
A lot of these punk or hardcore kids were fighting for their survival, fighting to have a voice amidst all this stuff. By the late ’80s and into the ’90s, it seemed that the economy started to get a little better. Maybe there wasn’t as much of a drastic overall rebellious tone because things weren’t as drastically frustrating. People were able to have a bit more time and energy to focus on [specific issues]. Of course, bands in the ’80s did that too: the Dead Kennedys [for example]. But in the ’90s, some stuff had been talked about for a while – the whole vegetarian thing and straightedge, all that stuff came from the ’80s – and people started to have new and more specific takes on those issues.
In terms of the economic climate and Wall Street getting rich, you could just as easily be talking about right now. So are the same hardcore trends happening again?
There are a lot of bands out there that are saying just as powerful things, [but] most of those bands tend to stay under the radar and play more DIY venues. Whereas on the other hand, there are a lot of hardcore bands that have gotten popular. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just almost like there’s distinct, separate scenes.
I remember going to shows in the ’90s, and it was awesome: A metallic hardcore band might play with a melodic “emo” band – before that term was bastardized – and then an old-school band might open. It was really diverse. Towards the end of the ’90s, there were all these shows where it [was] only these emo bands or only metal/mosh bands.
But there’s still a dialogue. Like, there’s a band from New York called Cipher that has amazing lyrics. They’ve been around for several years now.
It seems there’s an overall sense throughout all types of music that artists shouldn’t be speaking up, and it surprises me that caught up to hardcore, because hardcore was supposed to be the antithesis of whatever else was going on.
There is a sort of culture war going on in America. It’s been going on for a while. So many issues in life are all about shades of gray.
I think some people in hardcore got burned out by the dialoguing. By the end of the ’90s, I remember people were just tired of it. They were tired of getting yelled at during shows by bands, and they were tired of having to explain why they ate certain products to someone else, or having to justify themselves.
I think a lot of people who were more activist-minded in the ’90s who really pushing those issues, most of them just went ahead and got involved with those issues outside of the scene, whether they pursued them through academics or being an activist. Many of them left hardcore behind. “Well, if people in the scene aren’t going to care about this anymore, then I’m going to go ahead and just do this, because it’s more important.” So then a lot of people who were left maybe weren’t as involved or didn’t care about those [issues] as much. For a time there, I think there was a backlash. A lot of people started to move on. A lot of “anti-PC bands” started to become more popular [too].
It was frustrating for me, because I always liked it when there was a dialogue. Yeah, at times it might’ve been over the top or whatever, but it’s better to talk about something than nothing.
For me, [with] hardcore, one of the essential requirements is you gotta talk about something, whether it’s personal or political. Something honest and true. It’s almost like you’re searching for answers, but when people stop that search, hardcore then suddenly just becomes … if you’re a heavy band, maybe you just become a metal band or something.
You mentioned “shades of gray,” which is striking because hardcore seems all about absolutes. And you also mentioned religion. What about the age-old argument that hardcore tends to be as dogmatic as the institutions it’s fighting against?
That’s a good question. I remember getting into conversations like that, ’cause … a Christian or some spiritually motivated band would come through town, and people would yell at them … and then they would come back with, “Well, hardcore is a religion too.” I get into that in the book: Hardcore is like a religion for a lot of people. There’s a spiritual text or themes are the records, and the bands are the preachers. [He laughs.] There are some interesting analogies.
At times, there are rules, but at the same time, that dialogue [is key]. [In the Quad Cities,] there was a handful of indie-rock kids and a handful of punk kids and a handful of hardcore kids, and in order for us to get any shows, we had to all support each other. Some of us were straightedge, some of us were not. But we’d discuss [issues]. I guess that’s what I meant about shades of gray: We all thought about these things a lot and had conversations but were able to agree and disagree on different things.
At times, it maybe felt that there were some rules, but at the same time, hardcore is about thinking for yourself and coming to your own conclusions.
Spoken like a true teacher. When you’re in class thinking about your book, do you say to yourself, “I’m way more punk-rock than these kids will ever be”?
I try not to have that attitude. I’ve never been a super-animated or aggressive person; I’m pretty laid-back. But I know what you mean. I was sitting in the computer lab earlier this year, and these kids were crowded around a computer on YouTube, and one of them was playing N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton. And they were like, “Oh, this is crazy.” And I was like, “Guys, no Straight Outta Compton.” And they were like, “What, you know what that is?!” And I was like, “Yeah, I heard that album when it came out.”
I’m always curious to see what kids are listening to. I may not like a lot of it, ’cause a lot of it unfortunately tends to be mainstream stuff and has no substance, but some kids [have] turned me onto some pretty cool music too.
Get yer copy of “Burning Fight: The Nineties Hardcore Revolution in Ethics, Politics, Spirit and Sound” directly from Mr. Peterson right here.
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