Old Lines On Why Activist Punk’s Not Dead
Posted on March 2, 2015
March 2, 2015 | by Bryne Yancey
There’s an idea occasionally thrown around about the shifting of political leanings with age—basically, it’s that everyone is essentially born a liberal, full of piss and vinegar, but becomes more conservative later in life, content with the way things are. On a long enough timeline, everyone eventually has to slow down. That’s still the case for a lot of bands, too: Generally, the fiery urgency of their earlier work often gives way to slower, more reflective material on subsequent albums.
There are outliers, though, and the musicians in Old Lines appear to be some of them. The Baltimore, Md.-based band came together in 2010 as guitarist Mitch Roemer (ex-Pulling Teeth, ex-Ruiner) found his other projects winding down; while Pulling Teeth had an effective, if not terrifyingly bleak metalcore aesthetic and Ruiner were more straightforwardly heavy with occasional ‘90s post-punk leanings, Old Lines are a throwback to the genesis of mean, confrontational, d-beat songwriting. On the surface, their music appears to be intentionally soulless and nihilistic, but taking a deeper dive reveals a fiercely, unapologetically political band who if anything, seem to be getting angrier with age, and who want to make their audience think.
Six months removed from the release of their debut full-length No Child Left Behind (No Sleep), Roemer calls the writing and recording process “a complete blur. Within a three-month time span we agreed to work with No Sleep Records, wrote, and then recorded 11 songs all between January 1 and March 31 [of 2014]. It was probably the most insane I have ever felt working on a record; my anxiety was off the charts and I felt like my personal life was falling apart during the whole time which definitely influenced the songs from my end. My goal was to try and get a record done that sounded rushed, anxious and broken.”
A musician wanting a record to sound rushed is an unconventional disposition, to say the least, but No Child Left Behind makes it work. At 11 songs and 23 minutes, it’s a agitated, kinetic listening experience that requires mindful effort to achieve listener participation. Old Lines vocalist Matt Taylor, whose guttural growls help define the band’s sound, agrees with Roemer’s assessment. “It definitely came together really fast, and the speed of the writing process definitely gave it a sense of urgency and a spastic sort of energy,” he says. “It usually seems like whenever we write, a lot of ideas start pouring out and the process of making our way through them adds a frantic quality to all of our songs.”
The kinetic nature of Old Lines’ music isn’t just an aesthetic choice, either; it’s simply a reflection of the band’s collective thought process. “It’s always a strange feeling when a record is finally released because so much work has already gone into it that I think by the time other people hear it, we are already thinking of the next one,” explains Taylor. “I am really proud of what NCLB accomplished as far as pushing our sound, but I am also really excited to push it even further on our next one. It’s all a progression and if you aren’t moving forward, then you aren’t really moving at all.”
Given that predilection for looking forward and not back, it’s unsurprising that just six months removed from No Child Left Behind, Old Lines are already cracking away at new material, with hopes to release it in some form this year. “We are really excited about the direction of these new songs,” says Taylor. “We plan on collaborating with other artists [on them], which we will hopefully be able to announce soon. As always, our goal is to push ourselves creatively both in and out of the musical world, and there is a lot of ideas on the horizon that we hope to see realized.” While Roemer and Taylor both admit that these new songs are still in their embryonic stages, their enthusiasm for them is already fully-formed. “I feel like there is a really delicate balance with music, especially punk, between creating something new and modern and not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Taylor continues. “We’ve been working towards that balance for a while and I think these new songs come really close. They are certainly Old Lines songs up and down, but there is also a more visible influence from the tried and true method of d-beat song writing. Keep it short, catchy, and pissed, but at the same time try to personalize the sound and create something that is our own. There are so many amazing records out there and so many lessons to be learned from each one, and I think that we are doing that without sacrificing our individual art.”
Lyrically, Old Lines are “staying the course, so to speak,” according to Taylor, but also “trying to incorporate the voices of various community leaders and other activists in the hopes that we can achieve something larger than creating our own personal soapbox.”
Even in punk, activist musicians are oddly seen as black sheep to some fans. Maybe it’s because they can’t identify, or empathize, or maybe they can and simply choose not to. The notion of a “personal soapbox” is an appealing one, even with its inherently negative connotation. As a punk fan, I’m intensely interested in knowing about the political and activist leanings of the bands I like, even if I don’t 100% agree with those leanings. One of the many personal definitions of punk is a genre of music where ideas can be freely expressed, where yes, the music is aggressive, but only because the ideas demand aggression. It’s literally the sound about being pissed off about injustice, be it personal or something bigger. That seems to get forgotten more and more. It seems that a lot of musicians are hesitant to use their platform to address important issues. Obviously not every musician wants to write political music, or stump for causes between every song, whether it’s personal politics or otherwise, but does it have to be so black and white? Why does this band have to do this and that band have to do that?
“The first and foremost role of music to me is to communicate ideas,” Taylor begins. “And while I believe that these ideas still exist in music, they have been said so many times that to some degree they have lost their impact. To hear a crowd heckle someone for ‘being too preachy’ is a completely asinine idea to me. How could spreading ideas and awareness be a bad thing, especially in a venue that was built for it? To move all of this forward we need to start figuring out new ways of reaching out to people. One approach that we have come up with for Old Lines is to start including people on our records who aren’t musicians necessarily, but who have amazing ideas and something real to say. These people could come from any background and have all kinds of experiences that can speak to a lot of different kinds of people. Maybe even people that we couldn’t reach without them.”
The goal in all of this is be able to provide a different outlet for the people doing the talking, and perhaps a different voice to the people listening,” Taylor continues. “We all need to come together and realize that this is way bigger than how many studs you have on your vest. If people all over the world can cross the divisions that we have created for ourselves than we can see that we are a force that can’t be ignored and we are capable of real change. I think the greatest goal that punk rock in general and Old Lines as a band could hope to achieve is to inspire other kids to become active in their communities and be a real vehicle for social progress. To that end, we would like to start introducing people that have successfully made an impact in the world, however big or small, and illustrate that these changes are totally within our means. I’m not expecting everyone that listens to our songs to quit their jobs and become Batman or something, but maybe it will make you think about how your food is being raised. Or where you spend your money and what is being done with it. You could offer a helping hand to a homeless person instead of writing them off. You could become an ally to others who are currently enduring any number of oppressions. We all have something to offer, sometimes it just takes the right person to remind us of that.”
Taylor agrees with the overarching hesitancy for open dialogue in punk. “It seems like a lot of bands sort of shy away from taking a strong political position, but in the world we live in, those messages are more important than ever,” he says. “We are starting to see a real awakening as a culture, and now is the time to really push past awareness and into more tangible change. It could be that people are insecure about voicing their opinions, and for a lot of bands I think there is a concern about being pigeonholed, or not reaching as large of an audience, but the main point here is that really all of these issues are intertwined, and it doesn’t have to be so black and white.”
“For instance, someone who eats meat may feel that a hard-line vegan song doesn’t speak to them, but in reality, we can all relate to ideas of suffering and compassion, and those ideas can translate to each of us in a lot of different ways. Along the same lines, I’ve heard people dismiss feminist groups by saying that they are hating on men, but the truth is that they are vocalizing rage at their own personal experiences, and hoping to inspire their audience to consider how they treat people in their own lives. We all have been judged unfairly at some point, and by calling attention to that perhaps we can stop it from happening to someone else.
We all have a responsibility as a community to call each other out. We pride ourselves as punks for being open-minded and accepting, but there are times when we fall into the same bullshit as everyone else in the world. I think what we should really cherish is the fact that we have the opportunity to communicate with each other and hold ourselves to a higher standard.”