by Chris Jarvis
In the early 2000s, American punk music underwent one if its periodical renovations on the underground scenes. Bringing together punk rock’s anger, pace and aesthetic and meshing it with the instruments, skill and stories of folk music, folk-punk shifted the goalposts of what it meant to be a punk band. While Against Me! are probably the most famous, Defiance, Ohio the most innovative and influential, Mischief Brew are probably the best. A decade after their first full-length release Smash the Windows they continue to produce rebel rousing and exciting music, with last year’s This is Not for Children shows their ongoing versatility and eclecticity endures.
Throughout all of their music is an underlying political drive – unsurprising given the two genres they draw their heaviest influences from. Speaking to Erik Petersen, founding member of Mischief Brew, he describes the band as “anarchists” and “aging punks in a working class city” and he is clear that it is through music that his politics were forged and developed: “I’ve always been into outcast music, rebel music. I grew up listening to hip-hop; what we call now old school rap, in the 80s – Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC and Whodini and all this stuff that wasn’t popular music you know? It was black, urban music. I grew up listening to motown and this stuff and then I got into rap and rap was like a groundswell. On the streets of Brooklyn or wherever it was these people were setting up boom boxes and making music – you know it was grassroots.
“And then I got into heavy metal and then I got into punk and it wasn’t until I got into punk though – someone gave me a copy of a Dead Kennedys tape and that’s a trial by fire right there you know? You listen to Plastic Surgery Disasters by the Dead Kennedys and it’s like oh, ok, I never thought about any of the stuff. I always thought Ronald Reagan was a great president [until then]! So it was definitely I would say 100% the music.
“Crass and Subhumans – all the bands I listened to were definitely the people that made get into politics and think more critically about the world like that. It wasn’t just these far away bands – these bands they might as well have been on mars you know? What also happened simultaneously was I was in a community. I grew up in the suburbs more or less and there was a really good punk scene with really good people that you know were also kind of figuring out the same things so they’re singing these songs that aren’t just silly pop-punk songs and you know you’re learning from their lyrics but you’re also becoming friends with them because it’s just friends at house shows and stuff like so it was like kinda two parts – these well-known punk bands that seemed inaccessible to me compounded with a local scene and that’s so important. I’m glad I didn’t grow up on Blink-182 put it that way! I will most certainly take Subhumans Worlds Apart over Take Off Your Pants and Jacket or whatever the fuck the album is called.”
Even more so than most of punk’s sub-genre’s folk-punk is renowned for close-knit and small community based scenes. Bloomington, Indiana has become synonymous with the genre, with it’s multitude of bands and the sporadical Plan-It X Fest. Philadelphia has a similar scene, which Mischief Brew are an integral part of, and so I ask Erik how important those community scenes are in shaping politics: “Especially when you’re young and you’re listening to music, it’s like watching a movie. You don’t have a relationship with these people, you have a fantasy of what they are. But it’s another thing when you can hang out with people who are in bands and become friends with them and talk with them.
Direct communication with people changed my mind more than anything. And, you know, in many ways I was a dumb punk kid.
“I always remember, there was a house in the suburbs where we recorded our first 7 inch and it was a friend who had the first punk house and there were bands there all the time and I just remember being there and drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and just talking with people about anything – suburban sprawl or the war the Iraq war or just anything and that opened me up more than any lyric could. Direct communication with people changed my mind more than anything. And, you know, in many ways I was a dumb punk kid. I was still learning, but it’s a start.”
Such dependence on local, grassroots music scenes is at the heart of much of punk music, and it is where Mischief Brew have found their home. Erik runs a record label – Fistolo Records alongside his wife Denise, which puts out releases from other bands and friends on the scene. This decentralised, grassroots ethic and way of doing things has been how Mischief Brew have operated for years, and it’s central to how Erik sees the band developing and progressing.
“It’s everything to me! We’ve always done it ourselves, or worked with friends’ labels, you know? That’s just the DIY ethic we grew up on – not even because it was like totally a resistance but just because it made sense – why are we gonna pay a publicist, to do something we can just do ourselves? Why are we gonna pay a booking agent, [when] you can just network and become friends with people and that’s how we grew. The label when we first started was just dubbing tapes in our house. We dubbed hundreds of these tapes and we sold those tapes at shows, we saved money, and then we had money to make a real record eventually.
“The last record we decided to do with Alternative Tentacles who are our friends, but it also gave us the freedom to do some things on our end. It’s like – DIY is great, but you also wanna do it together. You don’t wanna wear too many hats and spread yourself too thin so you’re going crazy. We used to screen our own t-shirts, [but] it just got too much for us, so now we work with a small business that does all our stuff and we’re friends with them and they’re a DIY business and we’d rather support them.
“Everything we do is all part of that – it all relates back to the politics and the things that the songs are about and we just put our money where our mouth is and we can’t imagine doing it any other way.”
“When you’re in a room with a lot of like-minded people listening to a band that thinks the same way as you it seems like an echo chamber – how is this getting out there? What is this doing?
The unfortunate flip side of this is the oft – referred to echo chamber, an issue facing progressives in different fields in countless different ways. For music, it manifests in these small, grassroots scenes, where like-minded individuals come together to play music to crowds of the already converted. In that sense, they are at risk of never achieving the kind of change they would so like to see. Erik acknowledges this – “When you’re in a room with a lot of like-minded people listening to a band that thinks the same way as you it seems like an echo chamber – how is this getting out there? What is this doing?
“[When I] started to get into anarchism and started to read books by Emma Goldman and going to a local anarchist bookshop and being like: oh this is an extension of the music, there are things that I want to learn more about this as a practical way of life, see what I can take from it and you know just make a reality. It’s not a utopia, it’s not something that can happen overnight so in getting into anarchism and meeting more people and getting involved in politics and different collectives you start to realise that humans are complex. It’s slow, sure steps towards progress and I think the world is making progress. People that are punks and anarchists are always dwelling on the bad like – “oh this sucks!” But I always step back and, look, it’s two steps forward, one step back – it is happening.
“It is changing, I know it is – I see it every day. My mom’s not gonna vote for Donald trump so there’s something. But just to pick something like you know this issue in America with Walmart and people trying to tell transgender people which bathroom to use. I can’t believe were having this discussion in this point in human history it’s just so fucking stupid to me. Like, people are thumping a Bible and trying to govern people with these abstract morals that are just not absolute and I just can’t believe that people [are] like this. That’s something to dwell on that’s bad. But at the same time you look and you think like well, I see friends of mine that might have been transphobic five years ago that are now respectful to people’s pronouns and things like that, you know, stuff they wouldn’t have thought about 5 years ago and it’s seething and it’s bleeding into the world and it is changing people’s minds.
“It kills me to say [mainstream music] – it’s more important, because naturally, by design, it reaches more people. I mean I’d rather see Beyonce making that last record she did than just seeing another like synthpop band that sings about nothing. We all agree that they have more of a voice in it, a strong, a louder voice that can reach across more people. It’s all important, it’s never a bad thing, I guess you know – it’s a role. I’ll take it over some mindless pop song. I think we all would. It gets people thinking, it gets people questioning themselves, questioning privilege, whatever the art is trying to do. Any art worth listening to or talking about or taking in is art that’s been rebellious or critical. Like, there’s not still lifes of apples and bananas on my walls, there’s protest signs that we made, there’s art we’ve done with weird tools we’ve found or fliers or all that kind of stuff. That’s art to me.”
Erik is eloquent and passionate in his advocacy of underground music communities, but also aware of their shortcomings. He recognises that there is only so much that can be achieved through the arts, being clear that “it’s just music, it is just entertainment” and that there are always different and equally important forms of creating progress.
“No I’m not at the community centre cooking, but we always try to do acoustic shows there because it raises money for them and you know we’re friends with these people and we always try and support them. You gotta kinda try and do what you do best. I could never do what someone like Howard Zinn did, where he would stand in front of thousands of people and deliver this amazingly eloquent political speech that would just inspire you. I’m not a good orator, I’m not a good talker, but I can write songs and I can put across these ideas in a song. Not everyone’s wired the same way, not everyone can devote all their time to organising marches and events and all this stuff. You don’t just need activists as we normally think of them, you need people who are plumbers that are also activists or you know carpenters, like me.”
I’m not a good orator, I’m not a good talker, but I can write songs and I can put across these ideas in a song.
Before we finish our conversation, I quickly ask Erik which artists he thinks have been the most effective at mixing music and politics in the way that Mischief Brew and so many others have. Emblematic of the fusion of scenes that their music delivers, Erik name drops folk singer Utah Phillips and punk band Subhumans.
“Utah Phillips, he was a songwriter, he was a train hopper, he was a historian of hobo culture, he was a wobbly, an anarchist, pacifist, [and a] member of the IWW. He would sing songs and he would talk and intertwine them into a story and he would just drag you in with this story, whatever it was about; if it was about hopping trains or if it was about the desert, or about workers being all used up. He’s no longer with us and I never got to meet him or see him live, but my friends giving me tapes with him on it influenced me and Mischief Brew so much. Pete Seeger would maybe be a close second, maybe cause Pete Seeger’s more accessible. Utah Phillips, he was an anarchist – he would go into record shops, anarchist bookshops, he was just a cool old lively guy, unfortunately hes no longer with us, but he’s a huge influence.
And then if were going the punk route, the band that comes to mind who are our friends who we’ve toured with and to this day are probably Subhumans. You know they are the real deal and like everything they say they believe and the way they carry themselves and behave is an example of how all punk bands should be, especially bands that get older, the fact that they’re still doing everything themselves and sleeping on floors right next to us – it’s not just a job, it’s something they are still as passionate [about] and they’re the best, the best live band. They’re my favourite band alive, I watched them every night on tour and never got bored for two seconds.”
Mischief Brew are touring Europe from July through August, including a stop at The Owl Sanctuary in Norwich.