Prayers for Atheists on Hardcore and Politics
by George Dow
I met up with Alan Hague and Jared Paul of the Providence-based hardcore punk band Prayers for Atheists (PFA) for a Thai dinner on a warm, late-summer evening. The restaurant was about the size of my closet so when we sat at the tiny table we knocked knees at the tiny table and struggled not to distract the seven year-old girl and her family eating at the next table over.
Our hour-long conversation meandered from the history of hardcore punk to political activism to pop music. We started with their recent tour.
Alan explained, “The full tour was between 6 and 7 weeks. Before we left we did a little run of upstate New York, then hit Boston. There was a weekend run in Portland as well. During the three weeks between the mini tour and the national tour it was all getting ready for tour and working the web store. It was just a constant hustle. It feels like we’ve been on tour since May. We’ve just gotten back and we’re just now getting full night’s sleeps. It was pretty go-go-go the whole time.”
This was PFA’s fourth national tour in two years. According to Jared, “We’re up somewhere between 170 and 190 shows from July of 2009 until now.” PFA is a pretty well-oiled DIY punk-rock machine.
I’m curious to learn more about PFA’s influences. I hear lots of classic eighties and nineties hardcore— the stuff I grew up on. Alan jumps in first with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of punk and hardcore.
“For me personally—not trying to sound like a snob—U.S. Hardcore from like 79 to 83, that’s my favorite period. The Bad Brains and Misfits started getting super-fast. You had Black Flag and The Dead Kennedys. It’s like the golden era. But even after that there are bands that I love. But (in the nineties) hardcore started getting formulaic. And I’m into all kinds of music. It’s not just punk.”
Jared on the other hand took a more circuitous route to the hardcore scene. “Al is right. We have a lot of the same influences. The first time I heard Gorilla Biscuits I was so pumped. Al got into punk rock at a much young age than I did. I grew up in a pretty hip-hop-centric circle. I heard Public Enemy at the bus stop in seventh grade and it pretty much changed the way I looked at life. Most of my friends are hip-hop kids. Somewhere during high school my friend threw me this mix tape that had The Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat on it. Then he gave me more. He gave me Bad Religion and Operation Ivy. I was like where did this stuff come from? This was made for me. How did this stuff even exist and I didn’t know about it? And that led me to everything— a thorough reexamination of The Clash, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Seven Seconds… everything. At that point you just want to get your hands on everything. And there are so many. It’s crazy to think now, looking back. There are a lot of great bands now but there’s never been the concentration of acts that were that good.”
When you listen to a PFA record you hear a certain groove. The songs have soul that set them apart from the masses of generic hardcore. Jared’s hip-hop background is infused in their music without turning into a cheap Rage Against The Machine knock-off.
Jared wastes no time at all jumping on that thought, “We could have made that album pretty easily. Our label probably would have liked it better if we had. I think Alan could write a whole album of guitar-driven hip-hop beats. I think we could do that well and at some point we may do a hip-hop EP— maybe a short, politically-driven rap album. But right now Alan’s in a groove—he can write anything. He can right stuff that’s bouncy and fun but still tough. He can write straight-up hardcore, melodic hardcore, whatever. There’s nothing that he’s ever sent me that I can’t write to,” he says with genuine admiration. “And when we play out live, it’s not just screaming. It’s not a ten-song set of blowing your throat out. We get to do a lot of different styles and it makes for a fun set. The crowds have reacted very well. We’re one of the few bands that we know of that can play at a hardcore show, a punk rock show or a hip-hop show.”
Alan recognizes the need to mix things up to keep the music fresh and interesting, “Life is not about just one thing. The world is so diverse and if you’re going to reflect that in your music you can’t do just one thing. And I was that kid—the orthodox punk. If a song was longer than a minute and a half I wouldn’t hear it. Singing? I wouldn’t have any of that. But the truth is, after a while things just get monotonous if you hear the same riff and you’ve been hearing it for thirty years now. You have to do something different.”
It only takes one listen to a PFA record to hear that they are an extremely politically minded band. Jared and Alan wear their genuine concern for the state of the United States, and the world in general, on their sleeves and yearn for ways to open people’s eyes to the atrocities that surround them.
“We’re coming into (our music) really to change the way things are done. I was a social worker for a long time. When I found out that the world was on fire I couldn’t figure out why no one had ever told me about a factory farm. Why no one had told me about the prison industrial complex. Why these things weren’t being talked about. Then I followed all that down the rabbit hole and it all just gets bigger and bigger, worse and worse,” Jared explains. “Since then, direct action and research has been a primary focus of my life.”
“I have the luxury of belief. I really do believe that we’re going to change things. I think capitalism will end. I think that excess and war will end at some point. I don’t think it’s going to happen in my lifetime but I feel obligated to work for it, make it come faster,” he continues. “Music is where the young kids are at. It’s going to reach a larger audience than poetry does. We just want to get out there. Right now it’s cool to be apathetic in a way that it never was before. Apathy is like, ‘Everything is fucked, forget it’. The prevailing attitude is—‘there’s nothing I can do, I don’t have the time.’ So if we can do something to make it cool for the youth to do something—to take part in a flash occupation of our House of Representative’s chambers and shut it down. We’ve done that. We shut down the chambers and got thrown out and it got a whole bunch of press. We want to make that stuff cool. We want to make going out and standing in a picket line with the Verizon workers cool. It’s fun. In additional to being right it’s also fun to go out and raise a little bit for a good cause.”
Alan shares how PFA is bringing their vision not only to their music but also to their shows. “We find that people are very much willing to talk with us. They love to talk about politics after a show and not just in a general sense. People are looking for practical ways to implement what they already know. It’s been fantastic. We find that people are super receptive.”
“Now with four national tours behind us it’s been great to see some of the same kids coming out over and over again. They say, ‘We’ve been following you guys online.’ They’re excited about a particular article or something we’ve posted. People are generally open to these types of ideas. We talk a lot more about economics and politics. Much more than people would generally give young folks credit for. That’s been fantastic to see.”
Jared tells me how the PFA tour machine is bringing political activism directly to their fans. “We reach out to as many community action groups as we can in every city that we go to. The doors are open for tabling, for flyering, for speaking from the stage at every show we do. We make room for them to gather email addresses, room for their petitions, to use what we’re doing to assist. Because at the end of the day there’s no PFA show that shouldn’t double as direct action. We want motherfuckers to have to walk through the gauntlet just to get into the show. We want twenty groups on each side.”
“And we’re not trying to tell someone to be socialist, or be anarchist, or to necessarily fight for this cause or that. We just want people to understand that it is as bad as you think. The world is on fire. No one can be a twenty-four hour a day super-activist but we have to do something. Everybody has to take whatever it is that they’re most passionate about and get in the game. We’re careful not to try and foist any of our beliefs on people but (direct) where to go to get information about these things and where other people who also believe in what they believe are already organizing so they can get in where they fit in.”
In the time since we got together, the Occupy movement has continued to gain momentum across the country and has become a direct action vehicle for every cause under the sun. When I checked in for an update, it was no surprise to learn that Alan and Jared have been working the trenches of Occupy Providence (OP). “Jared and I have been involved since the first planning meetings. OP met every day to discuss the logistics of actually occupying a place (we voted on Burnside Park) and to establish different working groups to handle the particulars of various areas of an occupation (planning protests, rallies, medical, sanitation, media, community outreach, etc.).”
“The occupation began October 15th and was kicked off by a 1,500-person strong, unpermitted march throughout downtown Providence with stops at Textron, the Department of Education building, and the State House. I ended up giving an impromptu speech about attacks on public-sector workers at the State House—a subject dear to me, as I was a Rhode Island state worker for a little over 4 years”
“Since then, things have been going great. We've had several successful actions since the 15th—to defend public education; a big march and rally in conjunction with Jobs With Justice—250 marched through Providence on a miserably cold, rainy night. We had a great action recently wherein over 100 of us marched to the Bank of America branch on Atwells Ave. where we encouraged a dozen people to go
“There's been a tremendous amount of support from the RI community at large, too; folks dropping off tons of donations—food, blankets, tents, gasoline, etc. - which has been nothing but humbling. We've also gotten nothing but positive press coverage so far, which has been huge.”
“So, in short, it's been pretty amazing. Finally, we're putting into practice all of our ideas and prior experience with politics and organizing. The Occupy movement in general is the most important democratic movement this country's seen in quite some time. Here's hoping it continues to grow from her— an American Autumn to match the Arab Spring!”