Florian talks with Bart from ManLiftingBanner about politics, the band, the hardcore scene in the 80s and 90s and their new record.
Could you introduce yourself and the band shortly?
I’m Bart, bass player for ManLiftingBanner. Since our beginning way back in 1990 (yes, that’s already 25 years ago), the band has existed of Michiel on vocals, Paul on guitar, Olav on drums and myself on bass. For most years Big was our second guitar player. In 2012 he was replaced by Johannes, and since 2014 Thomas is our new second guitarist.
Could you give you a short history of the band?
In 1988 Michiel and me came up with the idea of forming our own hardcore punk band. Being inspired by American straight edge bands like Minor Threat, SSD, Youth of Today and Uniform Choice, we were keen on starting a group with a similarly positive message, as a response to the self destructive, drunk and drugged attitudes we saw within punk, and society as a whole.
But we also were very much into radical leftwing, communist ideas, as for us punk was about rebellion and going against the grain, creating an alternative for the mainstream of capitalist culture. In our eyes it was important to combine these influences – the politics and the positivity. There was no band around who had done this before, except for Dutch hardcore band Lärm, who were a crucial example for what we wanted ourselves. As Lärm had broken up in 1987, we decided to ask their guitarist Paul and drummer Olav if they liked to join us, which they luckily did.
We started out as Profound in 1988 and recorded our first 7 inch record a year later. Shortly after, we thought the name of the band didn’t reflect our political stance enough. Because of the fall of the Berlin Wall that year, anti-communism was at a peak again. We wanted to stand up against the capitalist euphoria and defend the true meaning of socialism. So in 1990 we switched to the name ManLiftingBanner, based on the title of a classic communist painting. Under this name we recorded a 7 inch and 10 inch, and played shows until 1994. We did some reunion shows in later years, but in 2012 decided to start playing regularly again, after putting out a new double vinyl record: “The Revolution Continues“. These two records contain our old material plus eight new tracks.
Last year we recorded our latest LP, “Red Fury“. Like all our previous material it was released by Crucial Response Records from Germany. Musically the album still has the fast ingredients which characterize the original sound of the band, but through the years we’ve also integrated more melody. Lyrically, ManLiftingBanner is as outspoken nowadays as we’ve been from the start. Just like back in 1990, when the Stalinist regimes were coming down and the capitalist world claimed their so-called superiority, we are still committed to communism. You can also call this socialism from below, which is not about the repressive states we’ve seen from Russia to China, but based on the principle that – as Karl Marx wrote – the emancipation of the working class can only be realized by the workers themselves.
What brought you into the hardcore scene? When did you get into it?
Back in the early eighties, I was inspired by the resistance of the squatter’s movement and the huge demonstrations against nuclear missiles in the Netherlands. Because of the inhuman, imperialist and hypocrite policies of Reagan, Thatcher and their fellow travelers in The Hague, my father radicalized politically. He started to read Marx and sympathized with the Communist Party, although he never joined. Ideologically he had an important influence on me, but we also had many arguments. I also remember that my mother was more actively involved in political campaigns. This was something I really liked, and in later years became an example for me to follow.
But as a teenager I was looking for soul mates of my own age, and for a long time I couldn’t really find any. I remember being annoyed by the “mono-culture” at school in Amsterdam, feeling as if every kid had to follow the same kind of fashion trends, wear the same clothes, listen to the same popular music on radio and TV, you name it. This was clearly not my world.
So when I first heard punk and hardcore, I was truly surprised. My first records were the 7 inch of the Bizon Kids from Holland (I loved that front cover photo of the squatter’s protests), the first LP of famous Dutch hardcore band BGK and the legendary first LP of the Dead Kennedys. The anger and loudness of the music totally blew me away, and the sharp way in which society and the system were being criticized – without any censorship of lyrics – was like a revelation. Immediately it was clear that this was the thing for me. It was 1983.
Were there moments that made you think: Yeah! That’s the scene I belong to?
Well, it took me quite some time to discover the punk scene in those days and meet the more like-minded people in it. First I went to punk gigs in Amsterdam just by myself and got my news from one of the main punk fanzines back then, Nieuwe Koekrand.
When I got my hands on the records of Lärm, first their split LP in 1984 and then their first EP in 1986, I remember being thrilled to discover punks wearing hammers and sickles instead of the A of anarchy, which I did not connect to. Through that I came into contact with Paul of Lärm and others from the Amersfoort scene, and started to make drawings for their fanzine Definite Choice. When I went to the Art Academy in Utrecht in 1987, I made more new friends like Michiel, who were part of the same punk network. It wasn’t a big scene at all, but it was here where I finally found the people who spoke the same language as me. In that sense I felt I belonged to that scene, yes.
Still, the punk scene was a bit bigger those days, and I also remember not liking stuff, like violent or drunk behavior at some shows. There was a reason for us to become straight edge. Nowadays, thinking in terms of a scene seems outdated. It also has the danger of excluding people, and that’s something I can’t stand.
I know you are a member of the IST, the International Socialist Tendency. What made you join it? Can you please explain what exactly the IST is?
As I said, for us socialist ideals were very important from the start. But this was the time of the Cold War, in which people were supposed to choose sides between either the US and NATO, or the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact. In the eighties many Western Communist (Stalinist) Parties were already in decline, because of their allegiance to Russia and China.
When in 1989 the massacre happened at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and the Berlin Wall came down, this process only accelerated. It didn’t take long before the other regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed. Western capitalism cried victory and Fukuyama declared the “End of History”. Shortly after, the US bombarded Iraq, to affirm its global dominance and claim a New World Order. Murderous Western sanctions followed, which killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men, women and children. What followed were the attacks on 9-11, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the occupation afterwards, and more recently the rise of ISIS. We should never forget this, when we try to understand the situation in the Middle East today.
So for youngsters as ourselves, it wasn’t easy back then to find a political home in this context. Then Michiel found out about this global network of organizations, the International Socialist Tendency. Their slogan was “Neither Washington, Nor Moscow”, based on the tradition of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. They welcomed the downfall of Stalinism, but warned that capitalism would only create new wars, economic crises and more misery in its never-ending hunger for profit. Michiel read a lot of their publications and was inspired to use these ideas in his lyrics, which you can clearly hear in the songs on our record “Ten Inches That Shook The World” from 1992. We also used many IST-related quotes in the artwork for the record sleeve.
In 1991 Michiel had joined the Dutch group connected to the IST. I needed more time to think this over, but eventually also joined in 1993. The other members did not join, but still agreed on the general ideas of socialism. When ManLiftingBanner came to a halt in 1994, Michiel and me continued as activists building the International Socialists, an organization which still exists today.
Are there any bands you would name as a major influence for ManLiftingBanner?
I already mentioned some American straight edge bands we liked and the first punk records I bought myself. We loved Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits and were psyched to share the stage with them in 1989. Before we started the band we also saw many bands play live together, like Bad Brains and Suicidal Tendencies, and Lärm of course. But the list of influences is way longer.
Michiel and me often got together to fit his lyrics to my riffs, and I remember how we wanted to sound like New York City Mayhem, Straight Ahead, Warzone and the Cro-Mags. New York was of great importance from the start, although you might not hear that directly in our sound, because we mixed so much more. For instance, I know Paul and Olav are really into bands like the The Clash, Discharge and Minutemen. I have been into GBH from the start, Michiel loves early DRI and the RedSkins, just to name a few.
Actually, all of us are into jazz and soul as well. So there’s a whole variety of music which has helped to shape the sound of ManLiftingBanner. I think it’s interesting that we created songs which aren’t cheap copies of other bands, but really are something of our own.
What does straight edge mean to you? Is ManLiftingBanner still a straight edge band?
When the band started out as Profound, straight edge was a central principle of the band, which we wanted to get across. It was a statement versus the specific abuse we saw around us. But because of our political development, getting more into the workings of capitalism as a system and how to make not just personal but structural change, this aspect moved to the background over the years.
Not because we are not straight edge anymore – most of the band members actually still are – but we just didn’t feel a need anymore to characterize the band as such. When we changed the name to ManLiftingBanner we wanted the political message to be upfront, not the individual’s choice about smoking, or drinking alcohol, or eating meat.
You should also look at the proportions: as ManLiftingBanner, we made about one song about straight edge and one about vegetarianism. In between Profound and ManLiftingBanner, we released a 7 inch called “Colt Turkey“, in which we combined a radical straight edge, vegetarian and communist message – but that was a one time, cartoon-like project around Christmas 1990. So for ManLiftingBanner straight edge wasn’t the main thing. And we actually didn’t like it when we saw the popularity of so-called positive bands resulting in less political awareness.
That’s also why we are pretty critical about lifestyle politics, which tend to disconnect personal action from fundamental change. This earth is hell-bound if we don’t make an end to capitalism. We can’t boycott ourselves out of this system, we have to smash it.
What can you teach people about becoming active in politics? Are there any books they should read?
Things won’t change if you don’t get out and let your ideas be heard. You can do that by starting a band, but for us that’s not the political action itself: it’s another vehicle to draw more people into becoming activists. You have to get out on the street, get away from your keyboard and computer – wether it’s to defend refugees against racist attacks, to stop your government from bombing people overseas, or to campaign and strike with your colleague’s for a higher wage.
Making a difference means doing it together. Participating in demonstrations and discussion meetings are important ways of building pressure and raising awareness. As a worker it’s important to join the union, and it might be important to even vote for social-democrats if that’s the only electoral way of stopping the extreme right at a specific point.
But to do these things in a constructive way, we can’t depend on those forces who only want to slightly adjust capitalism. The ruling classes have their own apparatus, so we need revolutionary organization if we want to get rid of their system. This is for instance what the International Socialists are building in the Netherlands and Marx21 is doing in Germany. These are still relatively very small groups, but they are still important beginnings to show workers we can shape radical left alternatives for social-democracy.
About reading stuff: nowadays the availability of good, critical literature is way bigger than 25 years ago. Back then we didn’t have the internet. It’s really interesting to see how anti-capitalist ideas have gained a lot more ground, but unfortunately communism is still a dirty word to many people. So if you are into changing the world and want to learn more about history, my advice would be to read some classic marxist stuff. Like the Communist Manifesto for instance. Going back to original works like these is really helpful in understanding present society and its currents. And let’s not forget that Marx and Engels were activists themselves, involved in the revolutionary movements of their time. They were reading, analyzing and organizing, like we should do today.
How does a connection between hardcore and the working class exist from your point of view?
The working class can never be underestimated and it shouldn’t be underestimated in hardcore. I can’t think of a musical scene that puts change on the agenda as much as hardcore punk does. Yet it’s been proven that change won’t come from reinventing radical ideas. Ideas are extremely important, but how do they relate to concrete change?
In the most important changes in the last 100–150 years, from the right to vote, the freedom of expression, social benefits, women’s rights, to the revolutions which followed World War I and the Arab Spring in recent years, the organized working class played a key role. On the work floor, right in the middle of the production process, lies the power of working men and women to strike and bring the Profit Machine to a halt. This is paradoxically the place where capitalism is at its weakest, and that’s why we sing “Hit the bastards where it hurts.”
Often workers might not be the first to jump into action – and for some people it’s very fashionable to write them off – but when they eventually start moving, the ruling classes start to shudder. You see it happening in history every time again. So all people who want a real transformation of society should read into that, and connect with that. If the slogans we sing about are to ring true – wether it’s tracks like “Commitment and Willing” from 25 years ago, or recent songs like “Union Song” – we must connect them to that force.
How do you write your lyrics? Which topics are relevant for the process of writing?
Michiel writes the lyrics in the band. I know that for him the process depends. Sometimes a couple of new chords or riffs I come up with, get him humming and then the humming becomes slogans. Then you get the sing-a-long part and we work that into a song. But sometimes it’s the other way around: Michiel gets angered by stuff in the news, and that translates into a whole lyric, which we then fit to new riffs.
Sometimes Michiel just wakes up with a line in his head and writes it out into a complete song. He also picks up lines and inspiration from other songs, by a diverse range of artists and styles. Like we did for instance with “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen or “I Dream a World” by Langston Hughes. Sometimes lines with a different meaning get a whole new vibe when you translate them into your own song. There’s a lot of borrowing and stealing going on in hardcore lyric writing, I can assure you.
Besides your music you also draw, design and paint. What influences your artwork?
I’m inspired by all kind of things, it really depends on the situation what kind of work I like to make. Recently a new series of my paintings were exhibited in Amsterdam, with topics ranging from the refugee crisis to my favorite female singers. Lately I’m drawing a lot again too, like I did for punk fanzines and school papers back in the eighties. My central themes – the influences that have been there since a very young age – are topics like revolution and resistance, connected with the big inspiration I draw from music, movies, comics and art in general.
I’ve always felt an urge to express myself politically with my art. Over the years I designed a lot of political posters, and I’ve always loved to do the artwork for the records of ManLiftingBanner, when the band gives me complete freedom to try out different things. It’s actually quite remarkable how similar many hardcore bands want to look nowadays – copying styles as if they’re some kind of formula – especially if you think how punk originally started. For me though it’s about getting the message across in the most strong, best looking and convincing way, whatever shape or style it demands.
Last but not least: what is your favorite quote and why?
Just like the favorite-band-question, this is almost impossible to answer. But if I can just name one, it’s the powerful quote by Desmond Tutu, the bishop activist from South Africa, who said about the struggle against Apartheid: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” That short phrase just says it all. I used this last year for a poster I produced together with legendary designer Emory Douglas – former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party – as a call for solidarity with the Palestinians today. For me it was not only a great honor to meet him, but also to be able to make this statement together.
Thank you for spending your time on this interview. The last words are yours!
Thanks a lot to you Florian and your fanzine, for your kind interest in the band and helping to spread the word. I hope that people who dig our music and message, also will buy our records. It’s an important way of supporting both the band and our label, Crucial Response, and enabling us to continue all this in a grassroots way, independent from big business. Finally, let’s always remember that another world is possible, and that – as Malcolm X famously said – the future belongs to those who prepare for it today. Go get organized!
To order ManLiftingBanner’s latest album “Red Fury“, go to www.crucialresponse.com , where you can also find their double LP “The Revolution Continues” and compilation CD “We Will Not Rest“. For info about shows and merchandise the band can be contacted thru their page on Facebook. Those who want to check out Bart’s artwork can follow him on Instagram and Facebook as Contemporary Bart.