Passionately political Oakland Oi-punk/hard mod outfit Hard Left release a new 4-track EP this month, so big fan Glenn Airey fired a few friendly enquiries across the pond.
Hard Left exist at a gloriously rowdy collision point for punk rock, class politics, pop art and skinhead stylings. Their debut album We Are Hard Left was packed with insurrectionary Oi anthems, and snatches of bootboy terrace chants of the kind last heard echoing around England’s long-crumbled post-war football grounds. Perhaps the least predictable aspect of this socialist street-punk package, however, is that they’re doing it all out of Oakland, California: a pocket of resistance in this ever-more gentrified region at the heart of late tech-capitalism.
The band’s terrific new 4-track single Economy is available now, at name-your-price in fact, so it seemed a good time to ask them about the possibilities and contradictions posed by their paradoxically populist yet confrontational approach. Ever wary of reprisals from the forces of reaction and repression, the band members refer to themselves only as Comrade T, Comrade D, Comrade M and Comrade N.
As much as I enjoy Hard Left’s music, I’m equally in love with the idea of the group. You know what I mean? Mod/skin fashions, socialism and Oi-punk just seems like a powerful blend to me. Then to be doing all that in California in 2016 adds up to a wonderful incongruity somehow. How much do you see the band in ‘concept’ terms, or am I overdoing it?
Comrade T: I definitely see it in ‘concept’ terms. For me, it’s an ‘art project’ through and through, and I’m not ashamed of that in the least. I don’t know what the opposite of that would be. What would be ‘authentic’? If we were a product of the original moment, or original social milieu? Or if we stuck closely to certain lyrical conceits (e.g. drinking, a certain pre-political type of working class rebellion), or if we had more tattoos?
I get that, in the sense that we would be performing an ‘authenticity’ that would be legible to people who are looking for certain stylistic markers. But when you decide, as we did, to play left-wing ‘Oi’ punk in California in the 21st Century, then, as you point out, we are making a decision to be out of step with our peers in every possible way.
I think that unless you have a history with the scene and the music stretching back to some ‘definitely authentic’ time in the past, the concept of authenticity is meaningless. I mean, obviously, a band like Hard Skin is always talked about like they’re a joke band, but what if the joke band is actually the best band going? I guess we’re kind of getting into postmodern territory there; but I would simply say that when we decided to imagine this alternative universe in which working class subculture and football terrace jams becomes a site of socialist politics, that’s definitely a conceptual rather than an organic thing, at least in our place and moment. But at the same time, we’re absolutely serious about the politics.
Comrade M: I think that Comrade T captures the art/artifice vs authenticity argument and where we stand quite well. While I think we all appreciate the conceptual side of Hard Left, I don’t think that it would be nearly as satisfying if we didn’t think that the music lived up to the ideas, and further if it wasn’t as fun as it is. I don’t think someone should need to “get” the concept to like the band; I like the idea of the records and shows being great, but the ideas behind them being there for those that want to dig into them. So, yeah — the concept is important, but I want the music to just work as music as well.
On a related note, I was once asked whether Hard Left was serious or a parody. I’ll hand that directly to you without further comment.
Comrade D: Our politics are serious, yet we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Fun is a very important part of Hard Left.
Left-wing skins have a marginal but ultra-cool history in the UK, from SHARP to the Redskins etc. Is there a US precedent to Hard Left? In the sense of bands promoting ‘orthodox’ Marxism or Situationism, rather than the more usual, less focused punk anger and nihilism?
Comrade T: There are some good socialist politics in some of the bands we play with, and in some of our fans, but it’s often not made very explicit in the former. We had some RASH (Red and Anarchist Skinheads) show up at a show in NYC last summer, which was fantastic, and we have an interview coming out in a RASH Mexico zine sometime soon I think.
Comrade M: There was a cool socialist band from Chicago called The Strike. A lot of the leftist political bands in the US/Canada tended to be punk and hardcore: DOA, Dils, MDC, The Proletariat, The Pist. I do think that there’s always been a strain of leftwing, working class politics amongst the fans, but I don’t see it as explicitly in the music.
I guess the next question is which bands if any do you see/have you seen as kindred spirits?
Comrade T: In the Bay Area we’ve played with Suede Razors and So What, both of whom I like a lot. I love the Australian band Shandy, although they don’t really have the political angle. But I don’t know if many bands do….
Comrade M: We also played with a band from Salinas (central CA farming country) called The Lonely Revolts who have solid politics. Again, I find that when we play a lot of people come up to us and seem very excited about the politics. I think there is an interest there, so who knows, maybe we’ll inspire more bands to be more upfront about their politics.
Comrade D: And don’t forget the show we played with the Downtown Boys who are a very political punk band!
Hard Left remind me a lot of the English Oi bands from the early ’80s, partly because of the punk/skin crossover I guess, but also that very basic punk sound. Do you see that distinction or is it all just punk to you? I know you’re aware of Oi because you’re sussed, but it can’t have been a big deal in the US. It wasn’t even a big deal in the UK!
Comrade T: This is all a product of extreme and possibly-embarrassing Anglophilia on my part, ha ha. I do come very much out of punk of the Damned and Generation X variety. The ‘Oi’ angle with the terrace chants and gang vocals was more of an ‘obscure object of desire’ for me. We just got this idea in our heads, ‘why not? we’re gonna do that,’ and somehow it all came together.
Comrade M: It’s hard to remember for sure, but I don’t recall Oi being a big deal over here in real time. The records were plenty popular around DC where I grew up, but the skinhead scene was very small until a bit later. I always liked the records too, but I’ve always liked a lot of flavours of punk and I think that is reflected in what we do. As much as we try to fulfil Comrade T’s desires, our other musical influences inevitably leak through.
Tony Wilson once described Factory Records as an experiment with Marxism in the marketplace. Of course, he was working in a very different time for the music industry, but how optimistic (or otherwise) do you feel about the production of worthwhile music and art in such a rapidly-changing commercial environment?
Comrade M: I think there are always going to be people who want to make something personal, something that we might call art and there will be people who still want to consume it. But for music, I don’t think we’ll ever get back to the place where people are willing to buy physical formats in enough quantity to sustain a vibrant ecosystem of independent labels, distributors and shops. The market is so small right now that it’s constantly whipsawed by the vagaries of trends and tastes, and the impact of that tyranny of mediocrity extends all the way down to the pressing plants themselves, such that you can barely even get a record made now. Some of my pessimism springs from running a small label for a long time, but even with our experience of Hard Left, I think it’s fair to say that if we hadn’t given our album away as a free download that very few people would have actually heard it. Or *fewer*, I should say.
The two tracks you’ve recorded with [East London] poet Tim Wells are great. How did that collaboration come about?
Comrade T: I went to see Tim when I was in London at this bar he hangs out at and we hit it off nicely. It was a night to remember. He’s a great chap. His tracks are brilliant. “Artists are the rats that herald the plague.” Well dread.
The tracks in question [Hoxton Market Forces and a superb take on D.H. Lawrence’s The Oxford Voice] are quite a development from the Hard Left sound. Do you envisage the music evolving more in the future?
Comrade T: I don’t think the tracks themselves are so terribly different than some of the incidental material on the We Are Hard Left LP—the sort of feedback over Keith Moon drumming thing; but yeah, the spoken word thing is a departure. I do think the sound will evolve. We occasionally verge in the direction of hardcore, but I’m actually tempted to adhere even more closely to the Oi script on our second LP. Actually I’ve been listening a lot to the original Strength through Oi compilation lately and thinking how well that stuff has aged. On the other hand, we may well get into some dubbed-out stuff, which would be a cliché direction of course, but possibly cool nevertheless. Beyond that, I really like the idea of chants, heavy built-up rhythm, Rock n Roll Part II-type things. Maybe there’s something there…. [note: the Hard Left cassette ‘Version Excursion’ already includes some brilliant dub and jungle mixes of a couple of songs, if you can track that sucker down.]
Comrade M: I could see us incorporating a lot of more of our non-punk influences — glam, mod, dub — and still remain quite true to our overall sound and concept. For the new singles we recorded very quickly in a pretty lo-fi fashion, and we had all only played the songs together a few times. I think they sound rough and ready in a cool way.
It’s election year in the States of course. Are you surprised by the support Bernie Sanders seems to be getting?
Comrade T: It doesn’t surprise me at all.
And Donald Trump? We kind of think he’s hilarious in Britain, but of course the prospect of him getting any real power is terrifying. Are so many people really prepared to turn their backs on serious politics?
Comrade M: I’m not surprised by the support that Sanders or Trump are getting. People have, rightly I think, realized that politics as usual doesn’t care about them, so maybe they shouldn’t care about it. Of course the way that’s being manifested on the right is frightening and becomes scarier by the day, but it would be foolish to dismiss Trump’s supporters’ anger. While some might be hardened xenophobes, there are a lot drawn from the masses who have been victimized and left behind by the scorched earth neoliberal policies favoured by the mainstream of both parties. The right are experts at mis-directing [those people’s] anger, but it seems like there could be opportunity for them to see where their true interests lie.
I know you’re massive music heads, with tastes that extend way beyond punk. What is it about punk, then, that leads you back to it after all your experiences with other forms?
Comrade T: My earliest love was the Who, followed closely by punk. It’s what comes natural to me.
Comrade M: I was lucky to have parents with an interesting and varied record collection, so I grew up listening to stuff like doo-wop and 50s R&B, 60s soul & jazz, 70s funk. When I first heard punk records on the radio around 1978/1979 I was into it immediately. It just seemed right to me, and way more fun than all the boring 70s rock shit everyone else was into. Since it was already 1979 I was able to branch out pretty quickly into the post-punk explosion – post-punk itself, power-pop, new wave, 2Tone, US hardcore, etc. On many days I feel like all the post-1976 rock music that I like has *something* to do with punk, and I continually return to it as a source for musical and political inspiration.
Comrade D: Punk is the basics. And for me: bubblegum. And Oi, at it’s best, is popsongs.
And the other strong element within Hard Left, certainly stylistically, is the mod influence. What are the bands or attitudes you’re drawing on there?
Comrade T: Well, as I said, the Who is a formative influence, and I’m just sort of fascinated with post-war British youth subcultures, Mod in particular. Obviously I love second-wave, the Jam, etc., too. The whole “clean living under difficult circumstances” thing appeals to me, especially when it is apparently so easy to live shabbily under easy circumstances! I do also like the idea of ‘Modernism’ as a commitment to seek out what is happening that’s new. I’m not much interested in Mod-antiquarianism; it’s more appealing to me to try and follow the inner essence of what I think Mod is about. As far as the band is concerned, I’m sort of interested in the idea of planting the flag, and see if anyone gathers around it. It will be all 5 of us in Oakland, ha ha.
Comrade M: I’ve always really liked the way Mod was open to other styles of music than pop-art rock racket — like their embrace of ska, soul and jazz. As a musical magpie this (and the color blindness that goes with it) really appeals to me.
Comrade D: I’ve always been mad about Mod for all the same reasons, but I must admit it’s the fashion really that brings it all together for me.
What kind of reaction are you getting on the road and how pleased are you with the debut album and its reception?
Comrade T: We’ve had really good reactions, although I think people are often puzzled about what to make of it.
Comrade M: Yeah, other than the shows with hipster 90s revivalists I think we’ve generally gone down pretty well. Given our past we do get a lot of interest from indiepop people [note: Hard Left have a Slumberland Records connection] but I think our album is tuneful enough to go over. And besides, a lot of the people I know who got into indiepop came to it from the punk —> post-punk trajectory as well, so they “get it.” And as I mentioned above, I’m really chuffed at how stimulated people seem to be by the politics. For being an unknown band and not really playing that many shows I’m totally thrilled with how widely the album seems to have gotten around.
Comrade D: I agree the reactions are generally good, although I have noted that there are sometimes question marks over the heads of some “masculine” types around the women in the band. But it seems like the more left they are, the more they get it.
And I hear you may be coming to Europe later in the year?
Comrade T: We hope to do some German and UK shows in the fall.
What are the longer-term plans for Hard Left? Is there a second album planned?
Comrade M: In addition to the “Economy” single we have another 7” from the same session coming out sometime early summer. We’re getting set to record a tune for a really cool compilation LP, though it’s not for us to say much about it yet. And I think we’d all like to work towards another album as well. We’ve got a lot to yell about!