Stick To Your Guns: Interview With Jesse Barnett

Orange County hardcore kings Stick To Your Guns are on their way back to Australia next month, along with heavyweights TERROR and a whole slew of impressive supports including Reactions, DREGG, and Caged Existence. Having found myself spellbound at Stick To Your Guns gigs by observing frontman Jesse Barnett’s obvious passion for justice, compassion, and freedom, it was a pleasure to be able to finally have a conversation with him.

Sounding far more relaxed and happy over the phone than his raging and mammoth on-stage persona, Jesse shared that he’d had a ‘pretty chilled’ day. Their EU and UK tour was on the way, and the time of our chat I had caught Jesse in preparation for leaving the US. “I’m in LA, I’m about to leave for Frankfurt, Germany tomorrow. So I just spent the day trying to get some last minute things together.”

It seems to have become a regular thing to have Stick To Your Guns grace our Australian shores in Summer. They were here for their ‘Better Australia Than Dust’ tour last year with Knocked Loose, Reactions, and Relentless, and appeared at Unify Gathering 2018, as well as having their own run in January with Being As An Ocean and Hindsight. Jesse confirmed that they definitely enjoy coming in Australia in Summer, and shared that they look forward to ‘jumping off stuff’ while here. The band and band members’ Instagram shares show this affection to be true, with Jesse adding “The second we get there, I think that’s going to be the first thing we do. I can be pretty big scaredy cat if it gets too high, but I eventually get talked into it. We love it. Absolutely love it.”

Again with a nod to the Stick To Your Guns social media, I mentioned how they always seem to be hanging out together as friends too. “Totally,” Jesse responded. “And it’s interesting the amount of bands that you meet that are not like that at all. [laughs] I wonder then what the hell are you doing? What’s the point?”

Not having had a chance to yet interview Stick To Your Guns since their True View album released in October 2017, I took the opportunity to ask Jesse about the artwork. As each single was released, it came in conjunction with a tarot-esque design, symbolically capturing the essence of the song. My curiosity prompted me to ask where the inspiration came from, and Jesse couldn’t be happier to talk about it.

“Oh yeah! That’s the first question I got about the artwork which is great. I love talking about it. A buddy of mine named Donny Phillips [of KIHL STUDIO] who used to play in a band called The Warriors and I suppose he still does – I know they’re doing a new record soon. But he did a record of ours called Disobedience as well and he’s worked on a few other projects with me.

“And so I hit him up and we started talking about the artwork and what we wanted to do, and with the little squares I wanted to give a visual representation of what the actual songs were about. So obviously you’re hearing the song, but then I wanted to give a kind of “What would the song look like? What would the song represent?”.

“So we talked back and forth for awhile and he came up with that. And [laughs] he does this every time and it pissed me off how talented the guy is but that was the FIRST thing he sent to us! Like, “Here it is. I nailed it!” [laughs] There wasn’t any back and forth for hours. It was perfect. That’s why I continue to go back to him. He knows exactly what he’s doing and he seems to take the words that i say or write and really understand them even better than I do. He’s the best.”

Central to the True View artwork is a world map. Given that the album relates to self-observation, self-responsibility, and growth, I wondered if it was a metaphor for the ‘landscape of the self’ or similar. Jesse said that he believed this was what Donny was aiming to represent. “He noticed in our conversations I was using the word ‘navigate’ a lot. You know, trying to navigate my own life, and trying to navigate my relationship with other people, trying to navigate my emotional mind, and trying to navigate my pragmatic mind. And so I think he was just like “I think this gives it a cool kind of play on that” and he was right.”

Though they formed in 2003, my own exposure to Stick To Your Guns is relatively new, having a friend tell me “Hey check this out” with the band’s 2016 EP Better Ash Than Dust. That listen to this angry but earnest band had me become an instant fan. Even in my newness, it was apparent to me that True View brought with it a shift of perspective with its inward view in comparison to a more outwardly-activist stance. I asked Jesse if the album was a turning point in a way.

“I mean definitely for me personally. We’ve been a band for a long time and I think we’ve made it well known to our fanbase at least that we’re generally a political or social kind of band that likes to bring up things that we believe are issues with the world and how we feel about them and ways that we think we can do better. With this record I was struggling to do that because I was going through so many kind of turbulent moments and a lot of turning points for myself. And letting go of a lot of things and kind of moving through this rough patch.

“So when I came to the band, I was like ‘Look, I don’t have it.’ Even though it was PEAK politics in America at that time, you know what I mean? There was so much inspiration to think about politically [laughs] with that fucking idiot running for president. There was a lot of ways we could have gone about it in that way, but I didn’t feel genuine when I started writing those kind of songs.

“So I was like ‘Look, this is what I want to say and I just need you guys to let me say it’ and they were incredibly supportive and it’s been interesting to hear the way that fans of the band have been reacting to the record as well. I feel like a lot of people got emotionally and.. a lot of people are overwhelmed with politics right now because every day it seems like ‘Fuck how can this get worse?’ and it does, and it just gets to the point where you get so fed up or overwhelmed that you kind of just want to give up. And so I feel like a lot of people were feeling drained and feeling a lot of the things I was feeling. So to hear the way people were connecting was kind of a cool validating moment for me, in a time when I was feeling very insecure about just about everything in my life, so it’s been cool. It’s been a cool process.”

 

Bouncing off Jesse sharing about people overwhelmed with bad news, I wondered out loud if the concept of self-responsibility, and it being something that each of us are in control of, if this was refreshing to be reminded of. Especially when the world around us is figuratively burning with out-of-touch and harmful leadership. I shared “Maybe this self-responsibility is exactly what people need to hear at this time?”.

Jesse: “Totally. I think so as well. I think people started to get tired with the constant dehumanising of one team versus another and [puts on a whining voice] ‘Those people are so fucking stupid’ or whatever it may be. And it was forcing a little inward reflection, which is a very uncomfortable thing to do! Any time that someone goes through that, that’s kind of an inward revolution, and that’s kind of a hard thing to do because your brain and your ego tries to push that away at all costs. It wants to protect itself, no matter what. So when a person manages to override their ego and be like ‘Holy shit, I can do better’, then that’s an amazing thing. And so if Stick To Your Guns can have that kind of inspiration for someone to do that at all, I take that as a win.”

I can certainly back this, as when I reviewed True View I referred to it as “inspiring a revolution with their shared introspection”. I considered it an important release for this reason.

 

One noticeable feature of the album was the presence of Jesse’s mother’s voice on the opening track “3 Feet From Peace”. I asked about the thought process behind having a maternal voice open the album, given it’s something you wouldn’t expect of a hardcore band.

“I’d been convincing my band of putting that there too. They kind of were just like [dopey voice] “Ohkayyy?” [laughs]. Not that they weren’t about it. They definitely were about it and incredibly supportive, but that was more of a very personal thing for me and I appreciate them a lot to allow that to happen.

“I got to this point where I was so exhausted by everything. I called my mum and left her a voicemail saying like ‘You’ve just gotta tell me what to do, because I don’t know anymore. I’ve run out of mental capacity and emotional capacity and I just need you to give me instructions and not make me think, and just tell me what to do.’ And then she called me back and she was just like ‘I can’t, I’m sorry. I know you’re hurting, and I know you’re going through a thing, but you’ve gotta do it. You’ve gotta hurt, you’ve gotta let it hurt, and you’ve got to figure it out for yourself.’  And to hear that, from her was huge for me. I could just hear it in her voice. Being a mother you always want to protect and you always want to be there. But hearing her just going ‘Nope, sorry’. Like ‘It’s on you. I know you’re tired, but we’re all fucking tired. So let’s fucking go’, you know what I mean? Like ‘Time to get up now’. And that was huge. That was life-changing there. I felt it necessary to put that exact moment when I heard that right there at the beginning of the record. I felt like maybe it could be that for someone else who needs to hear that, because maybe they aren’t.”

 

True View makes it apparent with tracks like “Married to the Noise” how music has given a sense of belonging and purpose to Jesse (and bandmates Chris Rawson, Josh James, Andrew Rose, and George Schmitz). I asked if this purpose had extended to wanting to then make music for others to find belonging in.

“Totally”, was Jesse’s response, elaborating further into the hardcore and straight edge culture beyond the music itself. “That specifically is about me finding this counterculture or this underground music scene where I felt like I had a place. Where I felt like I had this sense of belonging, that we’re looking for in people generally. Some find it in religion, or they find it in all sorts of poisonous things, and I’m just grateful that I found it in something constructive for me. And that was exactly that; me celebrating that I’m just grateful that I found my place in that world.”

It’s not hard to notice that True View has three specific tracks that link together in a theme of self-growth:

  1. The Sun, the Moon, the Truth: “Penance of Self”
  2. The Inner Authority: “Realization of Self”
  3. The Reach for Me: “Forgiveness of Self”

About these, I asked if they tied into Jesse’s growth experiences as they happened, perhaps chronologically.

“Exactly! That’s exactly it. I realised.. like “Okay here’s the first track: Here’s the problem. I’m realising how not only self-destructive I was being, but how destructive I was being to other people and not really realising it. So that first track “Penance of Self” is about me owning it. And kind of suffering my consequences, but not running from them! Not ‘Okay, how can I avoid that?’, but just being like ‘No, this is what you did. Now it’s time to kind of pay the price’. And then the realising: Okay, well what did I learn from that? and then ultimately trying to forgive myself for ways that I’ve treated myself, and ways that I’ve treated other people, and moving on from that, in hopefully a positive manner. The ‘journey’ since then has been incredibly positive since then. I feel like I learned a lot and yeah, that’s absolutely what I’m trying to portray in that.”

 

Exploring the Stick To Your Guns discography makes it clear they’ve carried significant rage toward oppressors; literally screaming wake-up calls, refusals to comply, and reinforcing hard lines of non-tolerance. However in True View, and also in directing attention more thoughtfully toward the self, I had to wonder if some of that rage was naturally dying down. Jesse’s Wish You Were Here project which creates very gentle contemplative songs, such as “Come Find Me” may also suggest a natural move in a softer direction. I asked if this was the case.

“Definitely. It’s a funny line.. on Disobedient I struggled with this a lot more. But when I go to write Stick To Your Guns songs it’s almost like I put myself in positions to BE angry. To give me the inspiration to write songs. I started realising the destructive trait that that was having on me. Like, if I’m not upset, why upset myself? I understand I have to do it to write this record, but I was putting myself in positions to be all pissed off and it was having adverse effects on me. It was ruining my day.”

I added “And kind of manifesting it too!”.

Jesse: “[laughs] Absolutely. And so it’s me trying to figure out the line of: Okay, how can I continue to be in aggressive music and sing about things that upset me or anger me or upset me or whatever it may be, without putting myself in a position to – absolutely as you said – to almost manifest it myself? It’s an interesting thing and I don’t know if I’ve figured out the formula. But doing a thing like Wish You Were Here definitely has me us a different part of my brain and give that part a rest a little bit, you know?”

Closing our chat, Jesse shared that after touring in Europe, Japan, and Australia, the band will be heading into the studio in May to work on a new record.

[Photo of Jesse Barnett @ Corner Hotel, Melbourne, by Rowan Donohue]

Kel Burch

Creator and caretaker of Depth Mag, Kel uses her superpowers of empathy, word-weaving, and feeling everything deeply, to immerse herself in music before returning to reality to write about her experience with it.

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