Catharsis: Choose Your Heaven

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Published  February 2015

feb15-ag_Page_29_Image_0001In the mid-90s when I first began obsessing over hardcore, it still held a strong, exotic mysticism that was only informed by the few shows I was lucky enough to stumble upon, the folklore propagated in the handful of fanzines I could find during those years, and those precious few records that friends would fervently pass back and forth. Being so far removed from the reality of hardcore, and many of the people who were actively involved with it, forced me to create my own sense of the music, what it meant, all the subtext and character of the players.

Catharsis was a band at the crux of such a mythos. They seemed to mold together features of all the bands that were the most important to me—the urgency and energy of Minor Threat, the visceral politics of Born Against, the wretched despondency of His Hero is Gone. It wasn’t that they were necessarily making music that was all that peculiar for the time; it was the fact that everything they produced seemed to resonate and articulate the abstractions I had been grappling with for most of my life: feelings of alienation from my peers and society in general; an overwhelming sense of frustration with the rigid constraints of capitalism; a devilish sense of mischief and chaos; but also the most gratifying feeling of finding self-empowerment and some sense of direction.

In addition to the incredible music they were creating, Catharsis and, specifically, Brian D. were key contributors to the Inside Front fanzine. Its later years proved it to be one of the best and most influential publications to come out of hardcore, bringing together a vast collective of punk writers who would eventually grow into the CrimethInc. anarchist publishing house. The very blueprint for CrimethInc. in all its myriad forms—both its early content and its practical application—can be found in pages of Inside Front as well as in the music, lyrics, and imagery of Catharsis.

If you bide your time and hack away in the coal mine of hardcore and punk, you will inevitably cross paths with most of the heroines and heroes that shaped your perspective on the style. For me, the metalcore scene of the ‘90s spawned so much disappointment, revealing so many frauds and creepos. Catharsis is one of the very few entities that defied that brutal reality, living up to and surpassing my expectations

 


All right, Brian. Talk to me about destiny. When I saw Catharsis play the [Bay Area Anarchist] Bookfair, you talked to the people in the audience about us fulfilling our human potential. You said that we’d have to take the first step in this process by ourselves, and that it would feel like self destruction. But that it was only through going through this process, stepping into this kind of abyss, that we would know what we were meant to do. Can you elaborate on this for me?

feb15-ag_Page_32_Image_0001Brian D: Well, I remember that specifically because there was a person in the audience who was standing in the back, she was saying it was a bad thing to say that people would have to go through this alone. And I agree—no one should have to go through any [challenges] alone, and we need to find ways of doing things that we need to do, taking the risks we need to take, collectively.

But all I have to work from is my own experience, which for most difficult transitions and decisions, I always had to make them on my own. Because we don’t yet live in a society— most of us—where we are interlinked in some way that we can be there for each other. I don’t know if I was talking about this that night, but my clearest point of reference for this, I guess, this last couple years has been Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man in Tunisia, who set himself on fire after the police confiscated his fruit cart—and in so doing inspired or catalyzed the Arab Spring uprisings. I think that many of us in very different ways inhabit a world in which we don’t have control of our own destinies. And to some extent, just to survive, we collude in that. We participate in preserving that state of affairs, by accepting or identifying with these limited options. Bouazizi is an extreme example of a person who opted for literal self destruction, which is something, again, that no one should ever have to do. And if we were in a society where we understood well- being and leverage on one’s destinies as something that had to be collective, no one would ever have to do what he did.

But for there to be able to be uprisings, for there to be able to be these points of departure, we do, by and large, have to break with the lives that we have now. Because we’re enmeshed in a social fabric that prevents us from accessing our destiny, or feeling that it’s in our hands, this does manifest itself as something we have to do individually. Certainly for me to make the much smaller changes in my life that I have made, relative to taking huge risks in uprisings, it was a path that I had to set out on my own. Even though I was inspired by the similar decisions and risk-taking of other people in the punk scene and the anarchist movement in history. This is what’s scary about transformation, I guess: you have to be ready to leave yourself in a real sense behind, without any guarantee of what will result.

 

That goes into what I wanted to talk about next. When I was in high school, reading CrimethInc. and listening to Catharsis for the first time, there was this idea: if we really went after our dreams, our desires, our passions, if we demanded more from our lives, then the world as we know it would cease to exist. That was the idea put forth. What are your observations, after doing this for decades now?

Let me start with this: there is no singular world. There is no “the” world. That’s just a Western Enlightenment scientific rationalism sort of notion: you know, that there is some observable, objective world. I would argue, rather, that we always experience the world subjectively. So the things that we are doing, the relations that we create, determine what the world is for us. So in that sense, changing what you are doing changes the world, insofar as that expression has any meaning at all. It changes the world that is composed of our relations, our interactions. That may sound like a very small-scale goal for people who are used to thinking of saving the world as something that superheroes do in movies, or who wish to be able to change everything by some kind of program, or instituting some new regime.

 if there are 20 year-old punks who are reading this, I want to emphasize to them: Your band is more important than ours.

 From my perspective, of course, the thing that’s beautiful about the notion of changing the world molecularly—people changing worlds, a more anarchist idea—it’s an idea in which influence is distributed to the scale of the individual, rather than having some blueprint that you try to shift everything to… What has been the outcome of our now 20-some years of experimentation… The premise is pretty simple, which is that all of the conditions that determine the shape of our lives right now are constructs that only persist because of our collective investment. Private property, money, you know. I was talking to somebody who happens to work for the New York Times last week, and he was saying that same thing. He was saying it was kind of cool that Occupy, to him, was this space where people were collectively generating other realities. Now, trying to do that in the face of such a forcibly imposed reality that dominates the world, that even creates the sense that there is a singular world, is not easy work. You might open up a space in which you are able to experiment, in which you are able to do something else, and that space persists as long as you are able to defend it.

The state of affairs that we’re in is one in which the prevailing world order is getting more and more fragile, but that means that it uses more and more force to sustain itself. So as a youngster, it might have felt transformative to me to simply change how I got resources, for example. Like this experiment: I’m not going to pay for anything anymore, which is almost like a monastic prohibition. You can imagine the monks who won’t participate in the economy or something. And the reason that you engage in these small-scale shifts, the reason that monks were to engage in them a thousand years ago, the reason that anarchists today would engage in them, is—again—to change your orientation to the world and thus to change what you’re capable of in it.

 

I asked about chasing your passions and desires, your potential to change your surroundings through that because I see a lot of people who chase their deepest inclinations and they end up like Steve Jobs, the makers of the iPhone, these people who structure our society—

Ah, I see. That is interesting. It’s true that our society runs off of not only the compliance of most people but also the ambition of a few people who have new ideas. I wouldn’t criticize a person like Steve Jobs for having a vision and pursuing it, per se. I would criticize him for having such an unambitious vision. It’s like, ‘I have a vision that everything will basically stay just the way it is, only I would have more power. I have an ambition that there would be more efficient communications technology, but that it would basically reproduce the same meaningless activities.’ These are the things that are just dismaying for me, and that don’t actually look, on the face of it, like ambition. Not to say that we have to frame what we desire in the language or values of the prevailing order, but even according to its own values, that doesn’t look to me like ambition. It’s unsettling, this willingness to compromise—not just to compromise your goals but to compromise your values themselves. You end up being a tremendous success at something that is totally unworthy of you.

 

I was listening to a story recently about Temple Grandin. She had this childhood empathy for animals— specifically cattle. Her empathy for these animals ended up leading to a career in her re-designing stockyards and slaughterhouses. And I just thought that was really sad, and also really interesting at the same time.

We can’t count all the examples of this. The Bolsheviks who came to power on the premise that people were being oppressed, and needed to be in a better situation, in order to come to power, had to intensify the forms of oppression that were carried out upon people. In that regard, I think that victory isn’t always what comes at the end of a struggle; it can also be an act of choosing not to win on the wrong terms.

feb15-ag_Page_31_Image_0001 Can I tell a story that illustrates this? There’s this person Malatesta, who was an Italian anarchist. There was one point at which he and his comrades thought that it was the right time for an insurrection in Italy. So they set a date that they would meet and go through the country, going from one town to the next burning all of the deeds, all of the records of landholding, and redistributing the money to the country people. They did this for a while; the army was sent in. Eventually there were just 32 of them making their way through these mountains surrounded by 19,000 soldiers that were hunting for them. At the end of this, they had to hike 48 hours through a snow storm, they’d run out of food and water. Finally, they arrive at this village. And in the village, there’s an old man, a little kid, and a goat. Malatesta and the other anarchists commandeer the goat… They’re going to survive, you know? The little kid who’s goat it was is crying, and they have a discussion about this, and finally, they give the goat back and they’re like, “We will die hungry before we actually take something from the people we aspire to side with.” And a few hours later, they were surrounded by the army and captured. It’s a symbolic gesture that I think is a beautiful story. They didn’t have a victory like the Bolsheviks or Steve Jobs. They had a victory of being tested and standing by their values, at any cost. Which is a different way of interpreting what’s at stake and what’s worthwhile.

 

Catharsis formed sometime in 1994, right? Meanwhile you were doing this anarchist hardcore zine Inside Front, and it sort of laid the groundwork for the collective that became CrimethInc. If you can, just give me a timeline.

Well, let’s see. Alexei, the drummer of Catharsis, and I actually met in 1989 and formed our first high school sort of punk-goth band. We played in two different bands in high school. The summer of 1993 we experimented a little bit together, under the umbrella of what would eventually become Catharsis. In 1994, I started doing [Inside Front]—it’s not fair to say it was an anarchist zine then, or even that it was a particularly coherent thing at all. It was just a few folded pages with typewriter on them: a really good illustration that anyone can learn by doing. Because the first seven issues, at least, are so terrible [laughs] that they show that all you have to do is do something repeatedly and determinedly—whoever you are—to become decent at it. I hope that nobody sees those early issues, but if they do, the silver lining is that it shows anyone can do anything, really. Catharsis recorded our first actual demo, the summer of 1994. Went through several lineup changes between ‘94 and ‘96, when we finally sort of stabilized, and became the band that did all the things that you’re familiar with.

As far as CrimethInc., it didn’t just grow out of Inside Front, but rather, out of the conjunction of several different DIY projects that were taking place in different parts of the country at that time. The zine Icarus Was Right, that came out of California, was actually the first venue in which CrimethInc. materials appeared. It was a development of a small network of people, many of whom had not met in person, who only corresponded, that sort of gave rise to CrimethInc. as a project that went on to survive the collapse of that phase of, like, the zine subculture.

 

 It’s never going to be the right time to throw your life away, you know?

 So Catharsis really started touring the US and the world. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like Catharsis— and this is something you did with your later bands as well— put yourself into situations like the G20 meetings, the RNCs, these mobilizations and summits. Why was that important to you to do?

When we started Catharsis, we were genuinely just rebellious youngsters from the lower middle class—I guess the underclass for some members of the band, but lower middle class for others. I didn’t have any kind of meaningful political background either. Certainly Alexei had more than mine just from growing up with parents who were somewhat politically conscious and from having been involved in punk longer than me, having some perspective from anarcho punk bands or whatever. The hardcore scene that we started playing in was not a particularly politicized space—not because there was no political hardcore but because our tastes were not political. [laughs]

It was really sort of a longterm process of figuring out what was important to us, and why there were connections between hardcore, punk, this idea of doing it yourself, and then finally, anarchism. I had called myself an anarchist off and on sometimes, but without a lot of reflection on it. It was only when, on the one hand, I had resolved that I was going to play in that band and do the things that were interesting to me, even if it made me unemployable and homeless. Then on the other, Food Not Bombs was occurring around the country and I was like, wait, this is a network of people who are willing to support each other through these things that are otherwise going to be impossible. Then it became clear to me how my own individualistic—and as a band, our individualist—projects actually had to be a part of this larger thing. And then, after this, we went and toured Europe and discovered this network of autonomous spaces left over from the previous phase of political struggles in Europe. That was extremely educational for us. Then after that, anti-globalization actually started happening. And then there were these large intersections of punk as a subcultural space and radical politics as a space that transcended subculture, in which we were exposed to others’ ideas and practices and could also contribute by bringing this thing that we could do: play music…

The last couple shows I think Catharsis played in the United States, in 2001 before we broke up, were in DC, at the National Conference of Organized Resistance, and in Baltimore at an anarchist bookfair. The actual last two shows we played were in our own house [laughs]. All five of us were living in this giant— basically destroyed— collective house with like 20 people. People came to those shows from around the country, just drove to see us play in our living room —before we went to Europe for the tour that ended our existence. My point, though, is that what we discovered that was beautiful about playing these events was that, music is so much more powerful when it is joined to a living practice. You sing a song about revolt and everybody in the room knows what they are going to do with their bodies together the next day, the next week, the next year. And that gives us force, a spirit of electricity to the musical notes and the words that they just cannot have otherwise. And that is why politicized punk music, for those who’ve experienced it, for those who’ve made the life choices that can result in it being meaningful to them, it is a more powerful kind of music than any polished pop music, and any kind of fancy classical music you can listen to sitting in a theatre. It’s really something unique, and special.

 

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Which reminds me: I heard a rumor that following a more recent Catharsis show, there was some type of march and a Hooter’s got smashed. Now I know Catharsis wouldn’t have had anything to do with that, but this is a rumor that I heard.

Huh. Well, we have played a few shows in the last couple years. One of them was at a daylong event in Washington DC, the night before Obama’s second inauguration. And I know that later that evening, after the concert was over, that there was some kind of demonstration in which some corporate windows were broken. But that’s, I think, all that I can say about it.

 

For sure. But it seems like the polar opposite to me of, for instance—To go back to Inside Front—that story of the last Refused show. You see Refused play and the song “Rather Be Dead,” everyone’s shouting it in the room, and the cops come into this basement and pull the plug, everyone’s still singing that line. But everyone goes home, no one does anything to challenge the cops’ authority.

It’s a nice parallel that you draw, because it suggests the possibility that rather than teenage rebellion under siege from the establishment, that our music and our practices could take the offensive, could propel us into situations in which we threaten the prevailing order that has given rise to our rebellion in the first place. We didn’t invent this; I think this is what gave punk its teeth, going back at least to Crass.

 

Bands sing about revolt but bands don’t live it, I’ve found, you know?

It’s a lot easier to do things as part of a cultural context. It’s a lot easier to do things when everyone around you is also doing them. Not just because it’s logistically easier; it’s also emotionally easier, it takes less inventiveness. It’s almost too much to ask of people that, in an environment in which there is no revolt taking place, that they would magically manifest it from scratch. You’d have to be a little crazy, actually, to be able to do that. And that relates to what we were talking about earlier—just being willing to say, ‘Yes, the future that I should have ahead of me as a person with a job, as a person with an income, as a person with a fixed place in society—I’m willing to throw that away, gratuitously, for who knows what, in order to make this risky gesture towards another way of living, another way of being.’

I totally understand why people would not find that worthwhile, to risk your life on. And that sort of underscores what I was saying before. That it can’t be the result of a rational decision. It’s never going to be the right time to throw your life away, you know? And that’s why it’s the Mohamed Bouazizis of the world, the people who act irrationally and without hope of compensation or success, who are usually the ones who open a path to something else.

With Catharsis, we were already there because of our emotional problems. This is something I neglected to mention til now. We were already there [because] in different ways, we were really struggling. And that made it easier to take other risks as well. Like the risk of doing what we were doing without hope of financial success, of not trying to make art that would be recognizable as such for anybody outside of this narrow subculture, or not having health care, or doing five month tours on less than a shoestring. So we were already in a place where we had what, in business, they call “risk tolerance.” So that was one of the other factors that made the transition into radical politics easier for us, more likely to happen.

 

 there’s nothing more tragic than unrealized potential, for me. There’s nothing more tragic in the world.

 There was something you said in a recent interview I read, where you talked about communication, how the Internet Age sort of took the bite out of the subversiveness of DIY and distributing your own print media. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.

Well, what I was saying a minute ago is, if you can join communication with action, this is a magic combination. This is the combination that makes the communication most meaningful, and the action most communicative. The internet, being such an efficient and instantaneous means of communication, separates communication from a physical day-to-day collectivity. It whittles down what is happening to a mere transmission of data. Which is not to say that physical presence and intensity and long-term emotional collectivity are impossible now. But the kinds of bonds that can arise purely from aesthetic communication seem to be different now than they were in the previous century. I think subculture is increasingly going to be a matter of hashtags on YouTube videos, rather than social spaces that people are intensely invested in, and spend years becoming enmeshed in. So in that regard, the transition from the era of postal communication and zines to the present has correlated with a de-politicizing of the act of playing music or something itself. The other side of this, which I think I mention in the interview you’re describing, is we actually got our demands met. At the time we were like, ‘We’re not having it with corporate, unidirectional media. We’re rebelling against it by producing media horizontally in this anarchist structure rather than the pyramidal structure of the corporate media.’ And the next thing that happened was that corporations realized that if they could sell us the infrastructure to have horizontal communication—Facebook, for example—then that was the next growth horizon for media empires. Which brings us back to the thing we were talking about earlier, about how the success on others’ terms, on radical ambitions, is often what propels society forward. But as a partisan of the 1990s DIY era where I was fighting for [not] this rapid internet age where everyone can do it themselves instantaneously with their smartphone—everyone who’s included in first world wealth or whatever. I was fighting for the experiential condition of having our social practices, our aesthetic tastes, linked with a sense of control of our destiny. Which if we were really ambitiously in touch with our destinies and what our lives can be, we would not have time to be updating our Facebook profiles all the time.

 

Why did Catharsis reunite after so many years of being gone from the world?

It’s a good question. I think that I had been the holdup. I think that other people had wanted to do it before I had been ready. Many of us have played in DIY punk bands since the breakup of the band. I think for me personally, as long as anything resembling the punk scene that we had been part of existed, it felt to me that playing with this band again would be irresponsible. I hate reunions. It doesn’t produce the kind of relation to ourselves and our potential that we should have. I don’t wanna be like, wasn’t the past great? Like, if you got to see Mouthpiece in 1995, you were really living or whatever. Fuck 1995, you know? [laughs] But at some point, the punk scene that we’d been part of, as far as I could tell, basically didn’t exist anymore. And that was strangely liberating in a way, because it meant that we were back in the place where we had been in the first place. Where if we were playing music in a scene that seemed to be politicized we would be flying in the face of everything else, everything that existed. We were a band that was always in that sort of embattled or hostile position. There’d always be someone shouting ‘shut up and play.’ We thrived on that. So in some sense, being able to play again and to challenge the ways that punk as it exists in 2013, 2014, 2015, has become depoliticized feels fresh. I don’t want anyone to mistake what we are doing for rehashing of the past. For me, what we do has to be judged on its own merits. Are we playing well now? Are we doing something beautiful in this moment that can make sense without being a reference to something? I’m tremendously sad about it, honestly, too. Because I come from the country that doesn’t exist anymore—punk. You know? The punk that I was part of. I’ll meet other people who were there, and we’ll reminisce about this thing that doesn’t exist… I guess I’m giving you a disordered answer. It’s like a bunch of different, messy, mixed feelings.

 

No, I love it. Go on, please.

Okay. [laughs] If it were possible today, and if it were worth it to again cast everything to the wind and just be like, we believe that by throwing the rest of our lives away, finishing the new songs that we had been working on, recording a new record, and doing another full scale tour… I’d like to think that we would do that if that would be the most effective thing right now, still. We aren’t, because we have so many other things going on, which are also meaningful and worthwhile things. But that’s a source of sadness for me, I guess. That’s what I’m trying to say. Partly just that, as I was saying, I don’t believe that music—however heartfelt— has the same relation with social movements or social transformation right now.

 

feb15-ag_Page_33_Image_0002Theres all these reunions happening. We talked about this a couple years ago now, but you go and see the band Refused and see them in the theatre, or at Coachella. It’s cool that Catharsis is around and you’re actually playing DIY punk shows.

Okay, two things. First: what matters is always what is contemporary. So if there are 20-year-old punks who are reading this, I want to emphasize to them: Your band is more important than ours. What you can do is so much more important than our legacy or the legacy of some bigger band like Refused. And if they’re in a situation where, as I’m describing, it’s against the grain to introduce political content or some kind of meaningful social ties, then fucking all the better! You identify the place from which to fight. You identify the place where there will be push back and it counts when you fight. That is the center of gravity: the bands I haven’t even heard of, what they can do, if they still exist. If it’s not bands, then maybe people are working in some other medium—whatever that medium is. And the other thing, and this is just a footnote, when bands are alive at the reunion phase of their existence, that really determines the way that their legacy will be remembered. Do you want your band to be remembered for re-appearing and playing all the notes perfectly but with none of the original meaning in it? Do you want your band to be remembered as something that existed basically as a financial venture? Or a venture to accrue some other kind of capital—like social capital? The challenge and the danger with us playing shows now is that every show that we play shapes the way that all the other things that we did will be remembered. So it’s certainly not something we can do lightly, if we aspire for our band to be a contribution to revolutionary struggle.

 

On that note, will there be new things coming from Catharsis? New music?

This is the saddest thing, like I said. When I walk around, I’m not philosophizing in my head, or writing in my head. I’m writing music. It’s still what I do when my mind is free. But I don’t think that we live in a world right now in which it is likely, or worthwhile, for us to put everything on hold, and put our energy into more recordings. We began this discussion talking about destiny and potential. To talk about taking your destiny in your hands, it means to achieve leverage over your potential and what becomes of us. And there’s nothing more tragic than unrealized potential, for me. There’s nothing more tragic in the world. When a child is killed in a car accident, that is what makes it so tragic. It’s not the same as a person passing away at the end of a long, enriched life. The conditions under which we can realize our potential, in which that flower can bloom, are fragile and precarious. You may think that it just requires you, but it requires you and your relations with your bandmates. You may think it just requires your band, but it requires your band and this whole do-it-yourself network, this whole social context, this whole worldwide global moment in which those things can matter. I think that what we will be doing next, if we don’t record more music, of course we will be setting out to realize our potential to do beautiful in other ways, in ways that are more suited to the era that we are in. But every song that has never come to fruition—that for me is what is heartbreaking… Isn’t that what Che Guevara writes to his father when he sets out to join the guerrillas? “Don’t worry for me. I shall only take to my grave the regret of an unfinished song.”


Catharsis will play Gasa Gasa on Saturday, February 28, with Die Young and Thou opening. The show is a benefit for the Gulf Restoration Network. For more info, check out crimethinc.com

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