PUNK OR NOT, BRIGADE URGES NONVIOLENCE
“I consider us still a punk band, although that’s like taboo and we’re not supposed to talk about it because it’s bad for us and is an image we’re trying to disassociate ourselves from,” says Shawn Stern, guitarist, lyricist and singer for the Brigade.
“That’s unfortunate,” he continued. “We started off working in punk and promoting it because it was exciting and rebellious and it spoke for this generation. The spirit of ’77 still exists, although the sound may not be the same. It’s an attitude.”
It’s easy to feel the spirit of ’77 at the Brigade’s headquarters, a cavernous abandoned warehouse in Marina del Rey that is home to the band’s label, Better Youth Records.
The building was used during World War II to manufacture airplane parts, but now with its scores of broken windows, graffiti-covered walls and rusted-out framework, it feels as if it belongs in a bombed-out section of Brooklyn rather than within spitting distance of the yuppies of the Marina.
At first glance it’s the perfect apocalyptic setting, ideal for an angry punk band. But looks can be deceiving. Although the band members insist that they’re still punks, the 6-year-old Brigade (which plays the Roxy tonight) has little in common with the posturing that grew out of punk. There are not too many thrash outfits that quote Gandhi, urge their fans to vote and insist on a “positive” tone in their lyrics.
‘We’re not a negative band,” Stern says. “We don’t promote violence. In our earlier songs I talked a lot about fighting. I wasn’t talking about fighting people, but fighting for what you believe in.
“I still believe in that, but lately I’ve been thinking that if you have to fight for freedom, how free are you really, if violence is involved? It’s like what Gandhi says: If there’s going to be any revolution, nonviolence is the ideal way.”
That may not sound like a standard punk stance, but the Brigade has displayed a long-term commitment to the original punk ethos. The group began in 1980 when Shawn, 26, and his two brothers, Mark and Adam, formed a punk-culture “self-help” association called the Better Youth Organization.
Out of a ramshackle house in Hollywood known as Skinhead Manor, BYO began making records and promoting punk shows. The Stern brothers also started their own band, then known as the Youth Brigade. A 1982 national tour with Social Distortion was filmed for the documentary “Another State of Mind.” That year the band also released its first LP, “Sound and Fury.”
The band has always tried to maintain a level of relevance and urgency in its songs. Shawn recalled a conversation that he had while vacationing in Europe.
“In Yugoslavia a kid asked me what I thought was the difference between American and British punk bands. Then he answered his question: ‘With English bands they speak about these political things that are real specific to their country. American bands talk about things in general that people all over the world can understand.’ ”
“I try to keep that in mind when I write. I try to be a humanist and bring people together. We’re reaching not only the changing of a century but the changing of a millennium. This is a really important time. Unless people wake up and change the way we’re heading, we’re not going to survive as a race.”
Last June, the band released its third album, “The Dividing Line,” under the new name of Brigade.
“It was difficult changing the name because the idea was that youth is an attitude, not an age,” Shawn says. “It seemed hypocritical, but at the same time we were getting so categorized by the name. We all agonized over it, but we decided that we’re not going to be kids forever.”
The band (now composed of Shawn, Mark and their “adopted brother,” Bob Stern) sounds like a blend of the early Clash and California melodic punk bands like T.S.O.L. and the Adolescents. The recent six-song EP “Come Together” exhibits some of the Brigade’s strongest work yet, mixing in pianos and ringing guitars that could easily segue into more mainstream rockers like U2, R.E.M. and Big Country.
Since the Brigade has played only a handful of shows in the last year, radio has been its only outlet. But in the next few weeks the group will be getting out to reintroduce itself to local audiences.
“We sometimes feel like we’re starting over again,” Shawn adds. “The record is doing a lot better than any of the others, but it’s taking a lot longer than we anticipated. I wish people would just listen to the music rather than other people’s hearsay.”