Monday, July 15, 2013

Interview with Brian from Catharsis

Brian from Catharsis has always been a bit of a mystery man for me. In all honesty, I was a little late getting into Catharsis. Many of my friends practically worshipped them back in the day, but for whatever reason I didn’t give them the attention I should have. However, I was always really captivated by the ideas coming out of Crimethinc.; I loved reading Inside Front, Harbinger, I probably read Evasion faster than any book I’ve ever touched. There was always a romantic mysticism coming from Crimethinc literature; the good guys always won, the system; if not smashed, was always mocked, was always left looking soulless and belittled. My friends loved the band but for the most part couldn’t care less about the politics; I was fascinated by the politics but mostly ignored the band.

I never saw Catharsis but I did have one experience with Brian. It was during a workshop he held in the parking lot at the More Than Music Fest in Columbus, Ohio in probably 97 or 98. He talked about the centrality of fear in our lives, how it cripples us, forces us into a posture of conformity. The talk dramatically crescendoed with Brian branding himself in the arm with a hot iron which was one of the most intense things I've ever seen; I could literally hear his skin sizzling. I walked away not knowing whether to be completely amazed or completely terrified. I think I was both. It was that experience which created the sense of awe and mystery I’ve always felt when I thought about Brian and Catharsis.

Late last year when I heard the band would be playing a handful of shows and that their discography was going to be re-released on vinyl, I assumed there would be a slew of press, interviews, that the underground would be buzzing. Perhaps I was just looking in the wrong places, but aside from a couple show announcements I didn’t see or hear anything.

Not knowing what to expect, I decided to reach out and see if Brian would be interested in shedding some light on his life and work, the re-kindling of Catharsis, etc. To my surprise, he replied enthusiastically and graciously. Our exchange is below.  
If you could start by giving a bit of history on your personal background and your introduction to hardcore punk and radical politics. Did music get you started with countercultural political ideas or vice versa?

I'd already listened to bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols a bit, but it was Alexei--the drummer of Catharsis--who introduced me to real hardcore/punk in 1989. The first tape he loaned me had Minor Threat and Corrosion of Conformity on it. At the time, COC were local political thrash heroes--it was their "Technocracy" record (

I started listening to the Exploited and the Subhumans and Agnostic Front, we formed a band in 10th grade, and the rest is (invisible to) history.

That was how I was first exposed to anarchist politics, as other high school punks shared the Love and Rage and Profane Existence newspapers with me. But I didn't really take it seriously at the time except as a form of personal rebellion--in fact, I had some pretty reactionary ideas until I was about 20 years old. Through the DIY underground, I started to understand how these values of horizontality and autonomy could form the basis for social relationships. When Catharsis went to Europe for the first time in 1997 and we saw squatted social centers shared by hundreds of people in defiance of the government, I got a sense of the scale that this was possible on. Then the anti-globalization movement began, and people around the world were fighting for these same values.

Those struggles have metamorphosed over the years, but if anything they are just intensifying--in just the last month my comrades in Turkey and Brazil have helped set those countries on fire, and the Egyptian people have overthrown yet another government. It's a good time to be an anarchist.

I'm glad you touched on the place of anarchism in the world today because it’s something I wanted to ask about. In the case of Egypt, while it’s certainly encouraging to see a despot such as Mubarak ousted, he was replaced by Morsi who in many respects turned out be simply a slightly less power hungry version of what had already been. Certainly now that he has been deposed hopefully whatever government forms in his wake will continue to move away from autocratic rule. From the perspective of a pragmatic reformer these are welcome developments, but is what's happening in Egypt really a victory for anarchism? It was after all the military who deposed Morsi (albeit prompted by mass public demonstrations), and it’s not as though the public was rejecting government in and of itself, but government that was repressive.
The Egyptian people have succeeded in overthrowing two governments now--one dictatorship, and one democratically elected majority-rule government. Everyone who loves democracy but fears the Muslim Brotherhood should remember that Morsi's oppressive government came to power via democracy, the same way Hitler did. As for the army, they surely wouldn't have pushed out Morsi if they hadn't had to do that to maintain "order."

It is inspiring that the Egyptian people refuse to let anyone wield power over them, regardless of the justifications used to legitimize that power, including "democracy." Of course, the majority of Egyptians do not identify as anarchists, but the refusal to be ruled is at the heart of anarchist values, and you can see many texts and perspectives from Egypt that explicitly express this. Here is one:

Now the only remaining powerful forces in Egypt are the army and the people in the street: hierarchical centralized power versus horizontal decentralized power. Of course, many people see the army as representing their wishes and carrying out their demands, and this is extremely dangerous. But the kind of chaos that has unfolded there--both in the streets, and in the conflicts between muddled ideological positions--always accompanies revolutionary struggles. The anarchist project is different from all other political projects in that it means trying to make governing impossible, rather than trying to perfect it. That means that anarchist revolution is an ongoing process of struggling against all power structures. It's messy and it can be confusing. But the ongoing power of government is worse, in that it can make the violence it is based on practically invisible.
I'm also curious to get your thoughts on the relevance of anarchism in the US context, where we see the Obama administration continuing Bush's policies in certain areas, and where in areas that his policies might move in a more progressive direction the Republicans stand in unified opposition.

I have long argued that even if your goal is to obtain leverage on government officials, the best way to do this is to build the capacity to bring about the changes you want via direct action. If you do that, the officials will have to run along behind your movement, granting demands in order to maintain the allegiance of the general public. If you just beg them for changes, while accepting their authority, they have no reason to pay attention to you at all.

The best example of this in our local experience here is the monthly Really Really Free Markets, which have been running for nine years. When we started them, they violated the laws of the local government, and for two years the police tried everything they could to shut them down. When they finally accepted that they couldn't stop us, they changed the laws to make the events legal. That says a lot about where laws come from and the relationship between legality and the autonomous power of the people.

So chasing after the Democrats is not the most efficient means of social change, even for those who believe in government. Personally, I don't see much difference between Obama and Bush, but the important thing is to always focus on our own collective strength.

Obviously Catharsis had a pretty sustained run in the 90's and early 00's, then you had Requiem for a couple years, and as far as I know after that there's been radio silence in terms of bands. What have you been up to the last several years in terms of music, Crimethinc., political activism, etc.?
Requiem broke up in 2006. From 2008 to 2011 I played in From the Depths ( We toured the US and Canada several times and even went to Europe. We played our last impromptu set at a benefit show set up on a couple hours’ notice to respond to a SWAT team raid of a building occupation during the Occupy movement. We got our singer out of jail, a black bloc of 100 marched around the town, and then we played our songs to a crowd of all our friends waving black flags and banners and singing along. Here's the report from that weekend:

So what have I been doing the past couple years? Pretty much things like that, nonstop. And writing and editing and organizing on the side.

From the Depths! Ah, I totally blanked on that band. At any rate, I was hoping you could talk about the end of Catharsis back in 02' as well as the impetus for the recent string of shows. Is the band "back" so to speak or are the shows mostly being done to support the vinyl re-issue?
We pushed ourselves really hard with Catharsis. When the band finally came to an end, the surviving members were stretched thin, to say the least. That final five-month tour put us through a great deal, and we'd already been through a lot.

The discography only coincided with the reunion shows by coincidence. We'd been planning to release the discography for a long time, but it was only very recently that we could imagine playing together again. The band is not "back"--if we were, we would be writing new material and throwing ourselves completely into being a band, the way we did then, and all of us have other major commitments now. But we still passionately feel and believe everything that we said and did before, and we are very grateful for the chance to play music together and perform those songs for others.

How would you describe the energy at the January shows and what are you most looking forward to for Europe?

Many of my memories from back in the day were of conflicts with the audience--we were a controversial, confrontational band. It was almost strange to be at shows where people were radiating pure love and support at us. As for what we're looking forward to in Europe--for me, it's not any particular show or city, but above all the chance to connect with people, to push ourselves, to transform spaces together. The same things that always drove us.

I sort of imagine that of the people who are really excited to see the band active again that a small portion are probably still heavily engaged in activism but that the majority are probably more in my boat; which is to say very busy with families, careers, etc. No doubt still interested in politics and counter-cultural activity, but probably not able to engage at anywhere near the level of intensity that you're still operating at. I guess I'm curious what sort of reaction or inspiration (if any) you're hoping to evoke from people who have one foot in the revolutionary fervor Catharsis may have stirred for them 15 years ago and another foot in their current situation which may be more.....traditional for lack of a better term, haha.

To be clear, I don't spend a lot of time in specifically punk circles anymore, either. My immediate activities and focuses have changed too, even if my values and priorities have not.

There are a lot of different ways to contribute to the kind of struggles we're talking about. Most of the important ones have nothing to do with wearing a mask and fighting police. For things like that to have any meaning or effectiveness, there have to be a lot more people of all walks of life supporting them and engaging in other kinds of transformative action. I don't want people to see the things I do as "more radical" on some kind of one-dimensional spectrum--I do what I do because I feel it is the best way to make use of my particular skills, in my particular position. But everyone can act and fight from wherever they are, and that diversity is the most important thing. You know your own conditions better than anyone, and you know best what is possible and worthwhile in them. Be there for your children or your friends' children--speak up whenever you see subtle sexism or racism--make it clear to everybody you don't trust the NSA. And sure, when some maniacs go to jail for rioting when the police kill someone, help raise bail for them. There are all sorts of things a person can do, from a wide variety of positions and places in life.

I definitely think it's affirming and important for people from a wide variety of backgrounds and places in life to be engaged and feel like they can make a difference.

On that note, one of the most iconic Catharsis songs "Every Man for Himself and God Against Us All" clearly expresses your fierce criticism of organized religion and while the historical ledger (the contemporary ledger for that matter as well!) in this area is rife with genocide, discrimination and oppression emanating from those who claim to be doing "God's will", people of faith also have a long history of being active in various progressive social causes including abolitionism, Civil Rights, the anti-nuclear movement, just to name a few.

So I guess I have two questions here:
A) Are your personal feelings on religion/spirituality still as black and white as they were presented during your time in Catharsis?
B) Do you see any role for people and communities of faith in the types of activism that you're engaged with?
I certainly wouldn't frame religion as the main problem in our society. I'm not sure I did then, even.

I still strongly feel that we bear personal responsibility for our decisions and values--we can't just claim to be submitting to a higher power or higher truth. There are so many different gods competing for our allegiance, each of which we are supposed to accept on faith as the one true god. That means that even if you accept a god or ultimate truth, you are personally responsible for deciding which one to submit to. You are inescapably the ultimate authority on what is right or wrong for you. People who demand that others accept the authority of their holy book or whatever are asking us to sidestep this responsibility.

I recognize that people have done plenty of good as well as bad things in the course of claiming to be doing "God's will." But the problem is that, when someone says they are carrying out orders (whether from God, their police chief, tradition, or whatever other authority), you can't reason with them about how their actions affect others.

I often collaborate with people of various faiths in the projects I participate in--and there are some religious orientations that have more in common with the perspective I'm describing here than, say, doctrinaire Catholicism. Yet I do think that the question of following orders versus accepting personal responsibility is a fundamental distinction. I would try to do good things for other people even if I believed God would send me to hell for it. I'm not trying to be paid in "eternal life" for any of the things I do--I think they're worthwhile in and of themselves.
For me, the most compelling thing I was introduced to by Crimethinc. was the perspective on work....specifically the realization that when you work for a company, you are literally putting a price on the seconds, minutes, and days of your life. I remember reading a lot of that stuff as I was finishing college and thinking about transitioning out of formal academic studies and really wrestling with how to make sense of the implications of that idea. And yet, Crimethinc's proposed "solutions" or responses to the quandary of work was to dumpster dive, steal from multinational corporations, etc. which always struck me as daring and adventurous, but at the same time probably unsustainable for most people on a long term scale. As it sounds like you've become more grounded in your community over the years, I'm wondering to what extent those practices are still part of your lifestyle.

The original CrimethInc. challenge to live without selling your labor was always a sort of impossible demand. Its virtue was that it revealed everything that this society makes inescapable, and then demanded that we escape it. For anyone to succeed at that challenge it seems like we really will have to overthrow capitalism entirely; but in the meantime, to quote Minor Threat, at least we're fucking trying. When everything is incorporated into the economy the way it is today, it takes a lot of experimentation--and a lot of stupid courage--to have the experiences that can enable a person to conceive of a life outside capitalism. None of us ever succeeded entirely at "living free," but we have managed to live in a way that has expanded our imaginations, and connected us to each other and our communities in a way that law-abiding individualistic competitive behavior never could.

Sharing my living room floor with travelers and homeless friends, gathering food by any means necessary to feed people at our monthly Really Free Markets, facing down the police so we can take the streets in protests--these are the things that ground me in my community in the ways that are most meaningful to me. The individual acts of petty crime that initially enabled me to take this path are not as essential to it, today, but I also don't see this path as something just for young people. Several of my friends are older than me, with children, and depend on our networks and rebel practices for their means of subsistence.

I was hoping you could comment on some of the writers, artists, and thinkers that you currently find inspiring in your life and work.

Brace yourself--this is going to be nerdy. Tragedy records are still playing on permanent repeat in the living room of my collective house, but the rest of this is going to read like some professor's OK Cupid profile.

I'm currently in the midst of a research project on anarchist history, so I've been drawing a lot of inspiration from historical anecdotes: Bakunin's escape from Siberia, Kropotkin's escape from prison, Louise Michel participating in an anti-colonial uprising during her exile in Melanesia. Last month I read a new translation of Blanqui's Eternity by the Stars, which was influential on Nietzsche, Borges, and Walter Benjamin. He wrote it from prison after a life of unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the French government; it's basically a meditation on the idea that history repeats itself, taken to its logical extreme. If we knew that everything we do would return in time, repeating infinitely in cycles, and therefore that there could be no overarching narrative of Progress, what basis would remain to us for finding meaning in our actions?

Milan Kundera is something of a misogynist and a reactionary, but I'm obsessed with the way he structures his novels. I read Tolstoy's War and Peace on tour a few years ago and loved it; I just learned that he took the name from a text by Proudhon, the anarchist who came up with the slogan "property is theft."

For artists, Frans Masereel's woodcuts continue to guide the way I think about illustration as we continue publishing books. I've been making my way through Andrei Tarkovsky's movies lately.

The most powerful inspiration I draw, though, comes from my brilliant friends, and from the courageous deeds of strangers who, with no prospect of fame or immediate reward, continue to stand up for themselves all around the world, even in the face of incredible odds.


Is there any more you can tell us about further Catharsis plans/any parting words?

Beyond the handful of shows we are about to play, the future is murky. But we haven't ruled out the possibility that we might do more.

As for my parting words, anyone who is still reading can predict them. I dare you to wrest your life from the gears of the machine that will otherwise grind it up to reduce it to a source of profit. Everyone who succeeds at this project presents a priceless gift to the rest of us.

Keep your head up. Thanks so much for the interview.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for doing this interview! It's great to hear his perspective now that he's a little older and wiser. What an inspiring voice