Meet Burnt Cross

Burnt Cross are a pretty new band in the punk scheme of things. But you wouldn’t know this from hearing them. In fact, the four year-old duo’s songs often evoke the “instant classic” quality you immediately recognize in songs like Crass’s Banned From the Roxy, Conflict’s mid-eighties rants, and the perennial “some-band-you-know-from-the-early-80s-yet-can’t-quite-place.” With vocals clearly enunciated (you can actually understand the words!), the brotherly twosome from Brighton, England employ a sprechstimme (“talk-singing”) music style that has always worked out well for British bands spelling out exactly what’s wrong in the world. (See, for example, Diatribe’s Stop Dancing or Student Rap for more great examples from this veritable sub-genre of angry British protest music.)

Solidly grounded in the anarchist punk milieu, Burnt Cross have accomplished a fairly astonishing feat: updating political punk to provide a running commentary on current events — from the Occupy movement, to recent demonstrations in England against new austerity laws, to peace punk chestnuts like animal rights and the environment. The difference between Burnt Cross and the morass of crust punk bands that work in similar thematic territory, however, is that Burnt Cross are catchy. They’re even “accessible”! And while most bands sacrifice anger for accessibility, or vice versa, Burnt Cross join a small company of bands (like, say, classic Chumbawamba) that dodge that trade-off altogether, and come out shining, making some of the finest punk rock of the modern era. I spoke to BC’s Rob Mazza, in early November.

OS: How and where did Burnt Cross start? Was there any specific agenda or mission you had in forming the band?

RM: We started in January, 2007. The agenda was the civil rights issues of the then-Labour government, who brought in draconian laws aimed at terrorism, but which were in fact used on ordinary citizens to scare and control them. Our first track on our first CD was dedicated to this. I had been out at a lot of protests, and was seeing a marked change in police tactics towards anyone who dared to use their voice, whether against war or things like animal rights. They started to photograph everyone, raid peoples houses, set up databases, and follow people. It became very worrying, and is still as bad now (if not worse) with the new wave of protests going on around the world. We thought that there weren’t enough bands out there making a political stance against all of this, so we decided to give it a go with lyrics that people could understand, and hopefully fire them up a bit.

OS: What are some of Burnt Cross’s main musical influences? Listening to your music, bands like Conflict or the early 1980s Crass Records bands come to mind. Anyone else you all like that listeners might be surprised to know about?

RM: Well, for Burnt Cross the musical influences were the 1980s anarcho-punk bands. We felt hardly anyone was doing similar stuff and we loved the sound of bands like Conflict, Flux of Pink Indians, The Apostles, Antisect, etc. There are so many crust-type political bands, but the message gets a little lost in that you can’t hear a word they are saying. We wanted our vocals to be clear, and not have too much of a messy sound so as to appeal to punks who also like bands who are not so political. I personally wouldn’t be bothered to do a band if it wasn’t political. I don’t see the point in singing songs that a lot of cartoon punk bands sing about. To each to their own, but not for us.

As for other bands, we love old school metal, probably as much, if not more, than punk! My faves are Celtic Frost, Mercyful FateManowar and all those types of bands — but we also like folk-y stuff like Steeleye Span, Pentangle, and Mellow Candle. Paul is into his Northern soul/ska stuff, so we like many types of music, but felt that punk has a nice punch to go with the lyrics we wanted to write. I’m not a great musician, so it was easier to play. But I have also played in similar punk bands before when I was a teenager, and have always been a punk at heart since I was at school.

OS: You’re located in England. It seems like this past year has been particularly raucous as far as protests go: the anti-austerity protests in the early part of the year, the fires in early August, and now a new round of demonstrations in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protesters. What is it about this year that’s proved so fertile for the expression of this type of dissent?

RM: Simply put, it’s the state of the economy, people losing their jobs, public resources being sold off to private profiteers, food, fuel, and all consumer products going up in price whilst wages are cut — and all the while we see billions wasted on war, or on bankers’ bonuses. They created this fucking mess. Austerity packages are being put in place, people are losing their social support, and libraries and swimming pools are closing down, while the ones at the top wave their bonuses in peoples’ faces. It’s not gone far enough on the streets as far as I’m concerned. I hope that it grows bigger, and some change will come. I think it’s gonna be bloody messy as we can already see with the police brutality going on in so many countries, protecting the wealthy few. It makes me sick when people moan about a few broken windows when they have had their pensions, healthcare, homes, and wages raided. Where are their priorities?

OS: Speaking of the early August fires, “looting,” and “arson” in the London boroughs, what is your take on that? The media seemed to relish in showing a few, isolated instances of people acting less-than-nobly (the famous footage of a man’s backpack being pilfered), but do you feel the broad sweep of the rioters had a point that was not conveyed in the media? If so, what was that point?

RM: There were some really shameful incidents in that riot that I can’t support. But the media also portrayed the rioters as feral gangs,  blaming gang culture for it all. In fact, a new report has just come out that proves that less than 7% of people arrested were in a gang. People from all walks of life where involved — but mainly unemployed youth who are living in deprived areas where there are no jobs and where youth services are being cut or dismantled. Already in the borough where the riots started, seven out of the twelve youth centres were closed down over a  three year period. There were reports from local youth support teams saying this would lead to more kids on the streets, and possibly riots. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, really.

Let’s not forget that when people have no money and live in houses/areas that are run down, and they are being bombarded with images of what we should all have in order to be a part of this society, and which they could never afford, they’ll take advantage of products that they can get for free. The riots started due to a guy getting killed by police. The police ignored the family’s request for an inquiry into what happened. Then, there was a peaceful protest outside the police station; the police then attacked a sixteen year-old girl for simply asking a question. This is what sparked it off. People forget about that.

OS: There was once a point where I felt punk rock music could be a kind of cultural wing/ancillary component to a larger revolutionary movement, similar to the role the labor folk of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, etc., played in the radical union and socialist movements in the early twentieth century. Do you think this is still a possibility? Do you think punk has any large-scale revolutionary potential these days, to kickstart radical action?

RM: I thought that myself back in the 1980s (and even early ’90s) when it was a force that united people and brought us Reclaim the Streets and Stop the City-style protests. Now I don’t think so. I think it plays its part, but what’s going on is bigger than this. I’m glad that all sorts of people are getting out to confront injustice, not just punks. I think the punk scene isn’t doing enough. A lot of the old punks who may not look punk are still involved in the protest side of things, so I think that a lot of people who may not look punk as they did in the 1980s are still punks inside. They just may not be as easily recognisable. I think that seeing all the videos of police beating students, and all the outrage over the banks, etc., are gonna kickstart radical action, not punk.

OS: The Occupy Wall Street protests have inspired solidarity demos in places as far away as Korea, Australia, Thailand, and Rome, where demonstrators used molotov cocktails and bricks. In Greece they’ve waged a general strike. Portugal and Ireland are suffering immensely under the latest financial collapse. What are people reacting to? Is there a way these groups can link up and act in a unified way?

RM: People are reacting to the gross inequality in this world. I think the Occupy movement shows that people are working in a unified way. But not just the Occupy movement. For instance, here (in the UK) last week, the students met up with electricians and construction workers to demonstrate together. They now realise they are fighting the same thing: an ideological attack on the less well-off in society. My hope is that all these movements come together with all the unions. This would create a bigger impact.

We have a general strike here at the end of the month, the first one in thirty or so years, I think. It’s no coincidence that it is happening now – the world is a fucking mess and the gap between the rich and poor is disgusting. Of course, the banks control the governments and are now dictating policy on world affairs, so that needs to be tackled. I love the idea of people taking money out of banks (closing the accounts) and putting it into credit unions or co-ops that only invest in ethical organizations. This is what everyone should be doing right now. Already a million people in one month in the US have done this.

OS: Also about Occupy Wall Street: I found the solidarity actions in foreign countries a little surprising, touching even. It’s not often I see protest movements in Asia and Europe inspired by American dissidents. I’ve aways been under the impression Europeans and Asians would feel America, home of imperialism, might not produce anything folks in those countries felt like they would want to mimic or act in solidarity with. But, it happened. Why do you think the Occupy movement in the US-inspired solidarity like this….?

RM: I remember seeing the first protest on Youtube of Occupy Wall Street and thinking, “Only a couple of thousand people marching? Ain’t gonna change shit.” But then the police acted like thugs and, hey, presto! People were outraged, and rightly so. This snowballed into a movement that finally found its voice, and American cops are pretty brutal by the looks of it. I think people had enough, seeing their kids beaten for stepping off the sidewalk, or women sprayed in the face for no reason with chemicals. I have just watched an Occupy California video of students being beaten for no reason. It was a sustained attack with shocking images now being shown around the world — like in Occupy Oakland I hope that it brings out double the numbers there and that they shut down the city. We can’t be passive observers anymore. The US is seen as a patriotic, slave-thinking country, but I think it’s waking up. As long as people realise that politicians and police don’t give a shit about them, and do not let them hijack the movement, then we might see some progress.

OS: Who do you think some of the better current punk bands are that you’ve heard? Any other bands that are going that are expressing their views in a way you find appealing or intelligent (like you guys)?

RM: Hmm. Well, there are some like Constant Fear, Suicide BombersTotal Bloody Chaos — but not enough in my eyes. We need some more anarcho-style bands to get the message out, to unite together and get the scene growing again. There  is a thing called “New Oi!” and it’s attracting Nazis who are causing problems. Like sieg-hieling pricks ruining shows. The fightback has started, but more people need to make a stand. I get fed up with punk bands singing about getting drunk. It’s just shit. There is so much going on and all they can do is sing crap and moan about bands who have something decent to say. It’s why I personally do don’t scenes. I involve myself with activism, which is more punk to me than jocks who dress punk for the fashion and for the “chaos.” I’ve said before that if that’s what you’re into, fine, but it’s alien to me, no different from your average Joe getting drunk and fighting on a Saturday night. What’s so rebellious about that?

OS: What’s the future of punk? Where next, Columbus?

RM: I don’t know. I don’t speak for the punk movement as a whole, obviously, and there are so many types of punk now. I have no interest in most of it, just the bands who have something decent to say. I hope we have more bands starting up to spread the message, but I don’t hold up much hope. I think what’s more important is for people to get involved in activism, whether punk or not. I don’t care about scenes.

OS: What’s in store as far as future Burnt Cross releases go? I know you all play out infrequently. Why is that? Can we expect more live shows in the future? Any plans for a US or European tour?

RM: We are always being asked to play gigs, but the fact is that we only ever played two locally. We are basically just a home recording project. We got some friends to play with us and it was great to hear the songs live as a full band. We played the first show in a community hall with bands such as Surrender and Larm. It was an amazing gig with a great atmosphere and lovely people. It was the sort of gig where everyone helped out, including cleaning up at the end. It was a benefit for anti-fascists and was run by all. Sadly, the second gig where we played with Inner Terrestrials was the opposite: an expensive ticket price, money-making promoters and rockstar mixing desk-types who took it all too seriously and cut us off ‘cos we went two minutes over our allotted time. Fuck all that bullshit. If we ever do gigs again, it would have to be in DIY venues with people who know what we are about. So, no, there won’t be any tours.

I’m not going to be recording for another six months, since I’ve just moved, and have a few months work to do on the house. We’ve released four CDs and eight 7 inch singles in the last four years, so I think we are due some time out. I not only do all the music, I also sort out labels for releases. I’ve got our stuff on countless compilations, done many interviews, and sorted out t-shirts and patches. I’m also having to sort out all the covers for records and have been packaging hundreds of pieces of merch over the last two to three years. We’ll be back next year. I would just like to get to do another six 7 inchers and two more CDs (which will be made up of those 7 inchers.) We have lots of time to achieve that now. After that, who knows?

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