Artist Interview: Jesse Barnett of Stick to Your Guns

Posted: by The Editor

Stick to Your Guns is an institution in hardcore, and one listen through the band’s seventh LP Spectre will demonstrate why. It’s the band’s most fully-formed album yet, a half-hour of blistering anti-capitalist metallic hardcore. It’s got a number of curveballs, too, that help the record stand out in the band’s catalog: the grungy post-hardcore stomp of “Open Up My Head,” the nostalgic melodic hardcore of “Weapon” and “A World to Win,” the haunting ballad “Father,” the intimate acoustic closer “No Way to Live.” The band’s never before balanced so well their dark and their light, and as a result Spectre is their most impressive record yet. We caught up with vocalist Jesse Barnett to discuss the themes of the record, the politics of hardcore, and where to find hope in this bleak moment.

This is record is called Spectre. Why did you decide to name it that? 

I’m a socialist. One of the most important texts among socialists, the first line of the book is “There is a spectre haunting Europe.” That’s kinda where it comes from. And people get upset with me when I call myself a socialist, or even the c-word, and they say, “Not everyone believes what you believe.” That’s not my goal. I don’t need to convince everyone to believe the things I believe. I just need to convince people they’re more powerful than they’re led to believe they are. That’s all I care about. I don’t care what your ideology is. I want people to understand how society is organized, and we have to be honest about that. That’s the spectre I think is haunting everyone. A lot of people have become aware of class politics these last couple years, and the pandemic has put that under a microscope. It’s shown that, oh, this society isn’t random as much as we want to believe. We want to believe you can wake up one day and be lucky. It’s like in Toy Story with the claw picking up the aliens. We like to think, “If I do this right, work hard, and pull myself up by my bootstraps, then I’ll be catapulted to the top.” I think the pandemic shone a light on the way that society is actually organized. I think that was awakening for people, and that’s what I want to continue working on. The spectre is the looming idea of a new world that’s possible. Now, in a very real way, we have the devil and the angel on our shoulder. The devil says, “Don’t worry about it. Just keep going. It doesn’t matter that people are dying needlessly, that the planet’s being destroyed. Just worry about you and you alone.” The angel says, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” And I’m not talking about a utopian society at all, the idea that we need to always be happy, that’s what we’re living now. It’s why self-care is the biggest thing everyone’s talking about. It’s important, but if we divorce self-care from the political reality of the world, we’re running in circles. No amount of facial cream or therapy will help us–we just can’t divorce it from material conditions. No one can afford a place to live, and that’s probably got a lot to do with what’s going on in your head. I see these people everyday who don’t know where they’re gonna get their next meal from, and that takes a toll on someone’s mental health. These are things that weigh on us, so let’s solve those things. That’s the spectre, and it’s scary, and the idea of building a new world is even scarier.

Was that why you put out “More of Us Than Them” last year before you even announced the record? It sounds like, then, that’s the sort of thesis for Spectre. 

I think so. Another thing, too, is Spectre‘s been finished since December 2019. It was supposed to come out December 2020. We felt like “More of Us Than Them” was such a strong song, and a way to honor our friend Tom from Architects, and it was also later on the record. We were getting antsy, wanting to get a song out, and it was something we could release without giving away the record. I think that is kinda the overall thesis, though, recognizing that. It’s dumb and simple, and a lot of people misconstrue it–or they adopt it to mean what they want, and that’s fine. The band wanted to call the album More of Us Than Them, but I felt it was too classic. A hardcore album called More of Us Than Them, it’s too on the nose. [laughs] Spectre has an air of mystery. A hardcore band putting out a record called My Friends and Family, you almost don’t even need to listen to it. That’s how I felt. It’s definitely a saying from the album that sums it up.

“Liberate,” in the lyric book, comes with an excerpt from Thomas Sankara’s The Upright Man. What resonance does that passage have with you in the current moment?

The reason I have found Sankara so powerful among revolutionary leaders is the simplicity of his campaign. We can talk about Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel, Che, and there’s always going to be anticommunists who can point to their mistakes to discredit their entire movement. Sankara, to me, is unimpeachable. In Europe, I got interviewed by a French person, and that was a French colony. Sankara couped the French and got them the fuck out with military force. They call it a military regime change, and at the end of the day, it’s like, of course they used military force to take their land back. It was their land! They’re the indigenous people of the land. This idea that, with enough weapons, you can coup a country, and the people will just say, “Well, they won,” that’s happened nowhere. In a place like Burkina Faso, you need a popular people’s movement. You can’t just show up with tanks and guns and outgun them–that comes second. You need the support of the people, and Thomas Sankara had that. These people were sick of being colonized. He took back the country, vaccinated millions of people, brought the literacy rate from maybe 11% to something like 80%, and turned a military barracks shop into the first supermarket. He brought more women to heads of state than ever before. He ran it so clean. He planted millions, millions, millions of trees to stop deforestation. To me, he’s someone you can lift up as an example. And of course he was killed four years later by this guy Blaise Compaoré, this French puppet. Anytime you hear someone talking about nationalizing their country’s resources, they’re about to die. You get these countries who decide to nationalize their oil to help their own economy, and then we in the US hear in the news about all these human rights abuses. If these countries dare to use their own resources instead of letting the West extract, there will be a media campaign about how these people are monsters. There’s all these books about it, Vijay Prashad’s Washington’s BulletsManufacturing Consent, Michael Parenti’s Inventing Reality. This idea we have more in common with CEOs of Halliburton than people working in rice fields is ridiculous. We should be in solidarity with people working in fields and mines, not their slaveowners. There is an awakening I think is happening. I think people are saying, maybe, “Communists are annoying, but they might have a point.” I don’t need for anyone to call themselves that, like I said, but, look, there’s all these buildings, and we’ve got people living outside. Sometimes one plus one can equal two. That’s all I’m trying to do, and there’s millions of people across the world trying to do this too.

You’re pretty outspoken about this, and you have been since, what, 2005?

We put out our first record in 2003 or 2004, then it got rereleased by Sumerian in 2005.

So you’ve been open about your politics for about fifteen years. Is that ever controversial in the hardcore scene?

Hardcore, like anything, is an organization. It’s a scene, but it’s an organization. It’s whatever it is at the time. It seems to be a controversial take, although I learned all these things from hardcore! That’s the disconnect that I can’t really understand, the idea that politics are too radical for a movement that’s supposed to be counterculture. I think it’s intimidating. I think there’s a lot of suburban kids–because, let’s be honest, that’s a lot of what hardcore is–I came from the suburbs, and I hated it. I felt caged in, so I got into hardcore, and it allowed me to break myself out of there. Nowadays I think the hardcore scene is, like anything, an aesthetic. It’s been washed of political or organizing potential. And maybe that falls on us. It’s like Gramsci says, the burden of proof to convince someone of socialism falls on socialists. I get told by a lot of people that they’re worried about me. I don’t get that. Sure, the world makes me angry, but this is hardcore. That’s not surprising. [laughs] But I truly believe the world can change, and to me, that’s the most corny, optimistic, rainbows and unicorns thing to believe. My friends say that to me, and I don’t know. I see some people that these hardcore kids look up to having garden parties, moving back to the suburbs–and if that’s what you want, I think you should have that–but don’t come at me after having a finger sandwich at a garden party telling me I’m too gnarly. I’m not trying to shit on anyone, but I think you could put an ad for a hardcore album in an issue of Better Homes and Gardens and it’d be great. [laughs] Maybe it’s controversial to be a leftist in hardcore, but the only way to stop it is to stand there and do it. You always look crazy at first, but then someone’ll see you and say, “Damn, he’s still standing there? Maybe he’s onto something.”

I’m not trying to gotcha here, by the way. I’m just interested in your take as someone who’s seen hardcore shift over the years. 

No, no. Like, take Turnstile. They’re my friends. They’re a band that started in a garage and made it to fucking late night. That kind of success story, that happened in the ’80s, ’90s, early 2000s, and I thought it disappeared. I thought it was just “This band knows this press person who knows this person.” I never thought a band could just be good and have the style and the things necessary to reach those heights. That gave me hope. They didn’t change themselves to fit the moment but they were what they were and they created this moment. Go wherever you can go and try to push that line wherever you can. To me, that’s what’s important and that’s what’s needed. For people to worry about the communists and socialists, you’re wasting your time. We’re not the problem.

The only bands I feel like in hardcore who are super vocal politically–and maybe I’m not looking in the right places–but it’s you and Stray from the Path, and you’re bands who’ve been around for a while. It’s just interesting that bands like Earth Crisis were a dime a dozen in the ’90s, and that isn’t the case now. 

For sure, and I think that’s got a lot to do with aesthetics. You’re always supposed to lead with your politics, and when you stop doing that, you leave yourself susceptible to getting coopted. Stick to Your Guns has been coopted a billion fucking times! It’s as if we’re this band who’s just like, “When you fall down, pick yourself up!” [laughs] It’s literally on a Hallmark card, and metalcore has turned into that. I’m not saying that’s a bad message either. It’s a great one. But what do you do when you pick yourself back up? Let’s go further. People always say to me, “Bro, it’s not that deep.” And maybe it’s not! [laughs] But I’m not like that. I don’t do things just to do them. When it comes to me expressing myself, it’s like Nina Simone said. I believe in what she calls an artist’s duty, and that’s to reflect the world as it is, not how we want it to be. The first step to solving the problem is admitting there is one, and that’s always been the purpose of Stick to Your Guns.

You also run Other People Records, right?

I run it with Tom from Stray from the Path. He’s great at the business side of things, straight-up. We’re like the heart and the head. I’d rather die than handle that business stuff.

Something I like about Spectre is that it feels like it’s got a lot of influence from some of the bands on Other People, and it feels like it’s got elements of Ways Away and Trade Wind too. You just put out “Never Mind the Dog” with Ways Away, and that doesn’t feel super far off from some of what you guys do on this album. Do you ever feel like your other projects influence your writing on Spectre?

It’s interesting, especially with a song like “Never Mind the Dog.” Chris, our guitar player, is probably the one who engages with me the most in the Stick to Your Guns songwriting process, whereas Josh engages more with Chris. It’s always been clear to me, when I go in to write for one of my projects, which box the song goes in. I never think a song can work for both. Chris does that sometimes. “No King But Me,” that Trade Wind song, he thought could’ve been a Stick to Your Guns song. “Never Mind the Dog,” in a different context, could’ve been a Stick to Your Guns song. I don’t see it that way, but Chris does sometimes. I like that, because it’s a big compliment to me. I think the biggest thing about this record, because I agree with you and it’s my favorite Stick to Your Guns record, is that this is the one captures what happens when Stick to Your Gun plays live. A lot of my friends like us, and a lot of my friends can’t fucking stand us, but they all agree that there’s something special when we play live. The big thing is Wizard Blood, our producer, captured that essence in a lot of these songs. Even the melodic shit’s got a grime to it. It sounds urgent and angry and it’s got that live feeling that I always felt was missing. It’s never too clean. It’s a monster of a record. I’m so proud of it. I think at this point I’m bored of it. [laughs] I’ve been waiting two and a half years for this.

Because you said that, I have to ask, have you already started thinking about the next Stick to Your Guns record?

Yes, definitely. I think Chris too. He’s always working on songs. He’s got a studio in his basement. Josh does too, but he’s always doing something. Josh and I say variety is the spice of life. Chris–and this isn’t a diss–if someone said to him, “You can only eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the rest of your life,” he’d be like, “Okay.” I’d rather not live. He’s cool with things. He finds his zone and he cruises, but Josh and I like to bounce all over the place. We’re definitely working on new music constantly. I’m always writing lyrics.

“No Way to Live” is your first purely acoustic song not on an acoustic record, right?

Right, correct. I did that EP, but that’s about it. This is the first time it’s just me and a guitar.

Even off Disobedient you’ve got “Leave You Behind” with that big explosive climax. What was behind that decision to close this record this way?

That song had been written. I did an acoustic tour in Europe that was massively successful, and I did Trade Wind songs and Stick to Your Guns songs, and I used the opportunity to introduce Wish You Were Here, my acoustic project. I played “No Way to Live” every single say on that tour. To tie back into what we were talking about, I didn’t know if it was a Stick to Your Guns song or a Wish You Were Here song. It has that political viewpoint so I presented it to the band. If they didn’t wanna do it, then it would’ve been a Wish You Were Here song. They were supportive of the song. I think, sometimes, if you’ve been in the studio for a long time and you’re the drummer or guitar player or bass player, you’re like, “Oh, we have another song and I don’t have to do shit? Go for it!” Like, for example, “Father” is about Chris losing his dad. He wrote all the music and the lyrics and he sang it. He did everything. He wanted me to sing it, but I felt it was important for him to do that. It was a cathartic moment. At the end there’s that talking part, and that’s me, but all the screaming is Chris.

What do you want listeners to take away from Spectre?

It’s tough, and I’m sure each of us would have a different answer. For me, we might get into the weeds with the subject material, the Sankara shit, but that doesn’t matter. I’m always questioning everything, and I know I say that in “Against Them All.”I think a lot of people like Stick to Your Guns because we mean what we say. I think a lot of people don’t like Stick to Your Guns for that exact same reason. It’s like I was saying. People say, “It’s not that deep. It’s just hardcore. Just be heavy and scream.” I genuinely understand that, especially as a Marxist from a material analysis. If you just got done drywalling, you wanna drink a beer and headbang, and I get that. That’s what that space is for. It’s meant for a release, and I’m all for that. I just don’t want another escape. Capitalism is so great and creating escapes, these pressure valves to blow off steam without getting to the roots of the problems. I hope someone can take that away from the record. I hope someone can question it. Question how much you’re getting paid. Question why you can’t afford where you live. Let’s talk about these things and support each other and figure out how to move forward. It’s not about ideological purity or about being dogmatic. It’s just being open to different ideas. Hardcore’s become riddled with reactionary bullshit. I view that in a material way. Of course it is. Here’s people offering the easiest solutions, so of course: “You’re poor because Mexicans are taking your jobs.” Easy. Done. You hate Mexicans now. I know we like to think hardcore is an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic place, and I think it’s believed to be that way, which is good, but I think it’s important to listen to the people in our scene who are experiencing racism and sexism and homophobia. Let’s talk about it. Let’s figure it out. We live in a system that creates monsters, and I don’t want people saying, “Can you believe it?” Of course I can. This system creates monsters, so you can’t exhaust yourself screaming about every monster you see. Just turn the machine off. Let’s make something new. That’s, hopefully, what I want someone to get out of Spectre. 


Spectre is out now on Pure Noise.


Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison

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