Formed in Philadelphia around 1999, the music collective known as R.A.M.B.O. (the acronym stood for Revolution Anarchy Mosh Bike Overthrow, among other things) turned the scene on its head with an eclectic mix of Youth Crew-inspired hardcore, anarcho-punk, crust and thrashcore, combined with the band’s uncompromising anarchist attitude and extremely fun shows filled with papier-mâché helicopters, makeshift cardboard tanks and a whole cast of punks dressed as riot cops, soldiers, vivisectors, vikings and whatnot, circle-pitting and moshing the hell out of DIY venues all across the globe. The band dissolved in 2007 but their legacy still influence generations of DIY hardcore punks who want to circle that Ⓐ and wall-of-death the system!
And guess what? Despite their busy adult lives and being scattered far apart from each other these days, the band confirmed that R.A.M.B.O. are working on a new album that’s almost finished and to be released soon! What a great opportunity to reach out to the band and talk about R.A.M.B.O’s history, politics and the state of the world we live today. Without further ado, here’s Tony “Pointless” Croasdale, Andy Wheeler and Bull Gervasi speaking up with DIY Conspiracy!
Hey, it’s great speaking to you! Do you mind sharing some background about how you first got involved with DIY subculture and anarchist ideals? What came first to you? Radical politics or punk music?
Tony: I have been a bird watcher since I was nine. Birding made me aware of environmental destruction, it also contributed to me being alienated from my peers. When I was sixteen, I was at an environmental event where I met someone in a Crass shirt and was introduced to political punk. I was already listening to The Cure, Primus, Ministry, and Violent Femmes.
Andy: The original bass player of Anti-Flag was in the same high school as me in 1993 so my first intro was to both at the same time through Anti-Flag.
Bull: When I was about 10 or 11 years old (1984-85) my older brother Joseph joined the local Amnesty International chapter through one of his teachers. I went with him once for a postcard writing event and candlelight vigil. I didn’t really understand what was going on but was introduced to apartheid & repressive governments. Around the same time I heard Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko”, about anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko who was killed by racist police. Shortly after that I discovered punk when my brother’s penpal sent us a cassette tape with the Sex Pistols on it. We were hooked.
As far as I know, R.A.M.B.O. came into existence around 1999 in Philadelphia. What was the initial reason for the band forming? Did you have any sort of a blueprint for how you wanted things to run?
Andy: I think I just wanted to be playing hardcore punk music so I started writing songs. I wouldn’t say there was a blueprint but the idea of the band was constantly evolving, especially in the beginning.
Tony: Andy started playing with Jeremy, our first drummer. I informed them that I was their singer. I remember giving Jeremy some Doom, Accused, Crucifix, and Napalm Death records to listen to.
With songs like “Lipless Bastard” and “Mariano vs. The Blue Devil”, I think it’s necessary to ask you to what extent Philadelphia (and Pittsburgh?) had shaped the world to you and influenced R.A.M.B.O. as a band? Can you talk a bit about the history, politics and underground music scene of your town?
Tony: Andy is from Pittsburgh, the rest of the band is from Philadelphia. I am a Philadelphia native, not from the suburbs, the actual city. Sylvester Stallone went to my high school. So speaking for myself, Philly has everything to do with R.A.M.B.O. Philly is as gritty and authentic as a place can be. It’s brutal and wonderful, with horrible as well as unbelievably kind and friendly people. The police department bombed a radical group called MOVE in 1985 and burned down three city blocks. I watched it on TV. That had a huge impact on any Philadelphian who came of age in the wake of it. It’s an extremely diverse city. The diversity of cultures makes Philly what it is, and it makes it very clear how bad systematic racism is. There is also a big class divide among the working class within the city and middle and upper class in the suburbs.
Philly is one of the largest cities in America. It would be the biggest deal if it was anywhere else. However we are directly in between the capital and the largest city in the country and we are overshadowed by that. It gives us a perpetual underdog mentality, and a chip on our shoulder. That was reflected in the music scene, where bands would often skip Philly on tour. That changed with our generation in the ‘90s and Philly has remained one the best places for punk and other music in the country.
Andy: I was going to shows in Pittsburgh and playing in Reagan Squad when I was in high school from 1993-1997. Pittsburgh felt like the center of the punk universe to me at the time. There were great bands like Aus-Rotten, Anti-Flag, and Submachine—all those bands were very political punk bands. There were also great bands from other cities consistently playing there at the time. It was all I knew, so I just thought punk music and politics went hand in hand.
Bull: I grew up just outside of Philly, in Southern New Jersey. My family is from South Philly, so we were there often as kids and I also remember watching the MOVE bombing on television as a kid. It was another early childhood experience that began to open my eyes to injustice in the world. As a young punk Philly was the only place we knew of for punk shows. It was a violent scary scene in those days with frequent clashes with Nazi skinheads. But it still drew me in. Even at 12-13 years old I knew there was something special about this scene. I loved it and consumed as much of it as I could through shows, records, zines & radio shows. The first show spaces I went to (Club Pizzazz, Revival, Arch Street Empire) all shut down within a year or so of me starting to go to shows there, mostly due to fights. Those spaces along with what we’d read about in other towns inspired us to start putting on shows.
Members of the band have been involved in various projects in and around the DIY punk scene. Can you talk a bit about the Cabbage Collective and the Stalag 13 venue in West Philly? Limp Wrist played their first gig there around the same time when R.A.M.B.O. was formed, right?
Tony: I inherited Stalag 13 two years into its existence and ran it for its last three, most prolific years with Andrew Martini (Limp Wrist bassist). There were already two warehouse venues on the block, as well as a police station! Limp Wrist played their first show there.
So many amazing bands played there as well: Spazz, His Hero Is Gone, From Ashes Rise, Tribe 8, The Get Up kids, Hot Water Music, Converge, Botch, Dillinger Escape Plan, Brutal Truth, Harum Sacrum, Aus-Rotten, Mörser, Burn, Discount, Kill The Man Who Questions… Bull was part of the Cabbage Collective which was a bit earlier than Stalag but overlapped, and they even used Stalag for a few shows. Bull can tell you more about that.
Bull: When we still lived in NJ, my brother, I and Chris (from Policy of 3) started putting on shows at an old single screen movie theater named the Harwan Theatre. We had a decent scene there and wanted to recreate what we saw in Philly, minus the violence. We put on shows there from 1989-91 or so. Some highlights being: Turning Point, Sticks & Stones, Born Against, Lifetime, Neurosis.
Once most of us moved to Philly we started the Cabbage Collective in 1993. There hadn’t been consistent all ages shows for a couple years at that point so we fliered the record stores and called for a meeting at a public park to discuss starting a new DIY group in the city to host shows, spoken word events, punk picnics or whatever. We were inspired by the Gilman Street Project and ABC No Rio. We wanted a safe, fun space to see bands, sell zines, give away vegan food & share the politics we were so inspired by. We put on shows and events in several different spaces, the most notable being that we started putting on regular shows at the, now famous, First Unitarian Church. Towards the end of our time we combined forces with Tony to use Stalag.
Looking back at the times, do you think you’ve helped to create a safer space for marginalized folks and raise awareness on the political issues you cared about? How did R.A.M.B.O. fit in with the rest of the local scene and the mid-‘90s emo & straight edge hardcore scene (namely Bull’s bands like Policy of 3 & Four Hundred Years)?
Tony: That was certainly our intention. Andrew Martini (Limp Wrist) and I tried to do that with Stalag. And Greg Daly and I tried to do that with our fests (Pointless Fest) and other big shows. This was especially true of R5 productions which we were involved in, as R5 did DIY shows for all types of music and even some art and speaking events. Maybe each show wasn’t diverse, but we had a diversity in the aggregate, and we encouraged other promoters representing different communities to use our resources such as venues, staff, and sound equipment. I provided sound for speakers at protests. I think expecting specific sub-genres of punk to be diverse is unrealistic. Dressing like road warriors and singing like Muppets in a state of suspended adolescence will be inherently insular. However, if you support the wider DIY music and leftist community, it can be more inclusive and welcoming all together.
R.A.M.B.O. came right after the era where audiences sat on the floor to avoid tough guy bullshit. We tried to make shows fun, moshing without aggression by being goofy. We also addressed it in our songs. Rather than have no one dance to avoid aggressive assholes, we tried to make moshing inclusive by encouraging fun. It’s hard to windmill like a macho jerk when the band is wearing booty shorts and feather boas.
R.A.M.B.O. mostly played with crust and thrash bands. We were friends with everyone. The local scene is hard to define as we are in the most densely populated part of the country. Philly is halfway between Richmond and Boston, which are just as far away to us as Pittsburgh, which is in our own state. Sometimes folks would follow a band from Boston through Providence, NYC, New Brunswick NJ, Philly, to D.C.. We may not have played with bands that were drastically different from us, we were friends and collaborated with members of many types of bands, promoters, activists etc.
Bull: Policy of 3 (1989-1995) & Four Hundred Years (1997-2000) mostly predated R.A.M.B.O. Once I became a more active part of the punk scene and not just a consumer of it, I felt it was important to “give back” to a scene that provided me with so much joy, fulfillment, direction, inspiration and family; through the shows I put on and the bands I played in. In my earlier days, especially at Cabbage Collective & Policy of 3 shows, we put a lot of effort into our information / zine / book table to supplement our shows / performances. As much as we could at the time we tried hard to make it a welcoming and safe space to anyone who was interested in taking part.
Let’s talk about the cardboard helicopters, moshing robots, and all the other stage props at your gigs. Do you believe all this self-irony and having fun at shows are among the best ways to build bridges between the various factions and ideas circulating within our scene?
Tony: Like I said for the previous question, the individual shows do not have to be diverse. It’s ok if only crust bands are on the bill. In Philly, the promoters and musicians in all types of bands were friends and collaborated. I think more of the work for bridge building was behind the scenes. I know we will get into this later, but while most members of R.A.M.B.O. were straight edge, we felt more connected to the anarcho-punk scene which largely wasn’t. So just by our very nature as individuals we bridged scenes.
The props began mostly because of our name and that we’re just naturally silly creative people with lots of silly creative friends. Andy was in art school for film, and there were other kids from this school that were in the scene. Friends dressed up in camo and face paint at our first show and it kept happening. The making props came from poking fun at the seriousness at our dear friends in Tragedy. They had a pseudo-luddite thing (being against technology) going on so we made the Moshing Machines when we played with them. I love those guys and they are sincerely intense angry people and their aesthetic was not an act. They can be really funny too. I just felt too goofy trying to put on that kind of a face when playing. So we embraced the comedy.
Bull: I felt more politically connected to the anarcho-punk scene but was never really into much of the music. When Tony asked me to fill in on bass for the first US tour I was really unsure if I could play in a “joke” band. All of my previous bands were more serious political bands, more towards the “emo” realm of things. It was a weird stretch for me, but a big part of what interested me (besides being friends with Tony) was exactly that: that we were overtly political but had fun with it during a rather violent period in the hardcore scene here. I really liked that I would run into many people I met on Policy of 3 & Four Hundred Years tours at R.A.M.B.O. shows. It did feel like it crossed various scenes.
How did the 9/11 attacks and the political climate with the so-called “War on Terror” affect R.A.M.B.O. as a band? Was it a hard time for you to continue the band with all those militarist props and jokes?
Tony: We immediately stopped wearing camo. We went for a Crass style all black uniform thing and then eventually moved towards wearing the booty shorts and my anarcho-chaps. We felt it was important to speak out against American military intervention. But also condemn the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Bull: …and many of the props thereafter were critical of the Bush administration and “war on terror”.
How important do you feel it is for musicians, artists, or writers to communicate political topics and themes through their art? How did you manage to deliver a relevant political message underneath the ridiculous band name and live shows?
Tony: I think art can just be art, it doesn’t have to have any political message. As for R.A.M.B.O, in some ways our name is a political statement. The first Rambo film and book it was based on were about what serving in a war does to a person. The next two were weirdly critical of the US military and celebratory of it. We also change the acronym on each album to make a political statement. I think humor and parody are effective tools to deliver a message. I look at Mel Brooks movies with how he lampooned Nazis and addressed racism and how Dr. Strangelove dealt with nuclear war.
Bull: I think there is plenty of art that is beautiful and/or challenging but not inherently political. My wife is an artist and has taught me to appreciate art that may not speak to me but is/was an important statement in reaction to what was happening in that moment. I think the context can be very important. At the same time I do think art plays an integral role in movements for social change. It has inspired me, drawn me in and taught me so much over the years.
We tried a different approach. To literally beat people over the head with our politics, but in a fun way. We were trying to make some of our beliefs more accessible by having fun with it. There are many very serious political punk bands that I love, but I also love fun and don’t want every political discussion to be a fight.
This year marks 100 years since the death of anarchist theorist and scientist Piotr Kropotkin. What is it like “Rockin’ with Kropotkin” in a time of Covid-19 pandemic, climate catastrophe, right-wing militias, rapid gentrification, and a political discourse that reifies institutionalized racism, inequality & alienation?
Tony: That’s a lot to cover. It’s interesting to be an anarchist in an era where the problems caused by capitalism like climate change may require large-scale cooperation only feasible through structures that will essentially be considered governments. What does “question authority” and “there is no authority but yourself” mean in the days of science denial? An individual cannot possibly understand all there is to know about epidemiology, let alone know everything about epidemiology and climate science. I also think while fascist need to be confronted, and with violence it necessary, anti-fascist also have to be media savvy and think about controlling the narrative and not becoming a boogeyman that can be something the right can rally around. When R.A.M.B.O. stopped being active, social media wasn’t really a thing. Smartphones didn’t exist. Now that we are making a new record, the landscape is different. I do not presume to tell the folks who are leading the fight how they should act. I just recognize that the challenges are very different.
Bull: These are very difficult times. I am forever an optimist though. I like to think society is generally moving in a more liberal direction, albeit far too slowly. While the world is constantly changing and it’s impossible to predict the future, I would have never imagined that the far right, wannabe dictators and oligarchs such as Trump, Johnson, Duterte, Bolsonaro, etc. would be controlling a good part of the world. The optimist in me sees this as a “last hurrah” of the old white guys (in this country, at least) fighting desperately to keep their grip on power at any cost and they will soon die. But they are inspiring & brainwashing a whole new generation of disaffected people into racist scapegoating and to believe in fairy tales such as Qanon and climate denial.
I have a lot of faith in the youth. They always push the boundaries and I think this generation is poised to stir some shit up.
Today’s hardcore scene seems to be ever more influenced not only musically but also aesthetically by metal music’s darkness, misanthropy and nihilism. It’s like with all the dystopian and overall negative future presented in literature, movies and media, but shouldn’t we aim for more positive, empowering and utopian themes to help us imagine a better future?
Tony: I’m a bit out of touch with new bands. I know more of what my friends are up to musically like fairly recent records from Solarized, Baroness, and AB. (AB is the bass player from the Swirlies who made a concept record around where he grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts). So with this tiny subset I see beautiful music that addresses real issues but with hope and love.
Even while we were active, R.A.M.B.O. seemed to be one of the last overtly political harcore punk bands. Limp Wrist and Dropdead are still active. I did see a move away from talking between songs and overtly political lyrics to more opaque lyrics and also a revival of the American harcore punk sound that was more angsty and less political. There is only so much you can do experimentally and still be considered punk, there is an inherent limitation with specific genres. It makes sense that skilled musicians who want to play heavier music would gravitate towards metal. I don’t know, isn’t being angry that the world is fucked up kinda positive anyway because a yearning for change is there if unspoken?
This year also marks 40 years since Minor Threat’s “Straight Edge” song has been released. Where did R.A.M.B.O. as a band stand on the topic of Straight Edge? Was it purely a reactionary response to the scene at the time?
Tony: R.A.M.B.O. was and always will be centered on the friendship between Andy and me, which includes Bull (who is still vegan straight edge) after he joined. Even though Andy and I will have a drink now and then, we don’t get drunk. We’re still effectively sober. You can actually just like the taste. We were the sober punks. In the ‘90s in Philly there was a lot of heroin use in the punk scene. Guys five years older than you looked like zombies. It was a kinda lonely place so we used to gravitate towards each other. On our demo you can see a drawing of five fists, four with X’s and one with a beer. We were never a straight edge band.
Bull: For me it was a response to a culture and society that puts so much pressure on young people and adults to drink, smoke and consume drugs. From a young age, thanks to punk, I saw through the deceptive advertising and peer pressure and wanted nothing to do with it. I learned of drug cartels and huge conservative beer & tobacco companies and that further solidified my distaste for these industries. I recognize it is more nuanced with the advent of micro-breweries and distilleries, and am glad that option exists for those who choose it, but I still have no interest. I’ve never been an “X” up kind of guy, but I’ll always be straight edge.
What are some of the straight edge bands and other entities (collectives, zines, etc.) within the DIY hardcore punk scene that played an important role of making the connections between intoxication culture and larger systems of oppression?
Tony: For me, I was straight edge before I listened to any straight edge bands except for Minor Threat. I didn’t want to be a junkie. Even today I rarely listen to any straight edge bands. Minor Threat holds up. I think Youth of Today does too. Youth Crew got too polished and formulaic for my taste, YOT were still raw and ferocious. Frankly I didn’t think the straight edge scene was very punk. They lived with their parents in the suburbs. They always had a bit of jock mentality. Except for veganism, they were largely apolitical. Even that was more of a fad than a real political belief. I think the culture of punks who were sober or not really messed up on alcohol and drugs while being very productive was a positive example for many.
Bull: For me it was Minor Threat, 7 Seconds and a lot of the early Rev stuff as it was coming out that I really loved: Youth of Today, Judge, Gorilla Biscuits, Chain of Strength. I bought the GB, Sick of it All & Side by Side 7”s at a show shortly after they were released, had no idea who they were, and was hooked, for a few years, then the scene got violent and less posi. So we left and started our own scene. We put on all ages shows with no drugs or alcohol permitted, space for people and organizations to table and no violence tolerated.
The European Straight Edge scene has always been leaning more towards anarchist and left-wing politics. When I heard R.A.M.B.O. for the first time, my first associations were Dutch bands like Vitamin X and Betercore. What do you remember from playing shows in Europe with R.A.M.B.O?
Tony: Europe was extremely fun. Germany really understood what we were about. Something about the German sense of humor, especially the sarcasm. About ⅓ to ½ of your shows are in Germany. Some bands did that begrudgingly, for us it was wonderful. We had almost entirely great shows in all of Europe.
Bull: Every tour I’ve ever been on in Europe has been great! From the squats of my first few tours to the youth center, clubs and open air fests. Highscore may have been my favorite euro sxe band R.A.M.B.O. played with. We played a great show with Lärm that I think was in Mannheim at a JUZ. It was so much fun and it ended with a dance party where the DJ dedicated every song with US or America in it to us.
Then what about your experiences in South East Asia where the crust, d-beat and anarchist ideals have been taken to heart by thousands of kids in these countries?
Tony: Europe had a well established infrastructure for touring bands with squats and state supported youth centers. In Southeast Asia that didn’t exist so the kids got very creative on where shows took place. Often the shows were illegal. Because of the nature of the geography we would spend a week in each country (two weeks in Indonesia) and we wouldn’t play a show every day. We also would often stay with families. We got to experience the culture more. Punk kids tend to be the same everywhere, it’s the adversity they face that makes it different. Southeast Asia felt very intimate, despite having such large crowds.
Bull: We made some lifelong friends there! It is completely different from touring anywhere else I’d ever been. Felt strange to be on a DIY tour and fly to a different country every few days. The shows were incredible though. Such good energy and I feel so lucky to have been able to experience so many scenes and cultures.
Do you think that what we’re doing in the underground music scene has an impact outside of our own communities?
Bull: From the first few tours in the US and Europe with Policy of 3 to the R.A.M.B.O. tours about 10 years later I reconnected at a show with so many people that had taken some part of what they learned from the punk scene and taken it into their work/careers. I’ve seen this with countless friends but it really hit me when I saw it with so many people I’d only really run into at shows throughout the US & Europe. So many nurses, teachers, environmental educators, public defenders, union organizers, activists, etc.
Tony: I do. I especially think that’s true when punks take the skills they have built with the DIY ethic and apply it to work and volunteering outside of the insular punk scene.
Andy: I definitely think it can. Even if it’s not immediate, many people take their experiences from the underground scene and apply that to their lives personally and professionally.
How did 2020 change your lives? Do you still have the time and energy to be involved in activist projects, cooperatives and collectives that fight for justice & liberation? Do you still uphold environmentalist and vegan ethics?
Tony: I’m not vegan. I’m an environmentally conscious omnivore. I work in public service in the environmental field. I work with several wildlife conservation groups outside of my work duties. I am part of a wildlife / environmental podcast / media network that addresses wildlife conservation and environmental justice issues, and labor issues within the environmental movement. I will go to the occasional protest. I have an infant so my free time is rather limited.
Andy: In hindsight, I’m fortunate that 2020 didn’t change my life that drastically. I mostly live in Los Angeles but bought a small farm in Western Montana six years ago. And although we don’t have vegan ethics, I feel like our decisions are all made from a strong environmentalist perspective. We grow our own food and try to live as much of a self sustaining existence. No chemicals or fertilizers etc. We also grow herbal tea, culinary herbs, pastured beef, eggs, and more. We donate up to 5% of everything to Montana BIPOC and Aid. Here’s its website.
Bull: 2020 has reminded me how fortunate and lucky I am to have my health, a decent job and the ability to donate time and money to organizations and individuals I care about. I worked at a food co-op for almost 18 years and now work as an electrician. I still volunteer at a few co-ops and various other organizations, as time allows. I spend much more time in nature now than I did when I was younger. The connection I feel to the natural world has reaffirmed my commitment to veganism, human rights, conservation and sustainability.
Do you believe that DIY punk can still be a place for important conversations and organizing to happen? If you’re to define what DIY punk means to you today, what would that be?
Tony: Absolutely. DIY to me means both not having to ask permission to do something but also being aware that you’re not reinventing the wheel and filling a role someone else is fulfilling just to get the credit. Needs will find you. First look to support work that’s already being done. Sometimes giving them money is better than inserting yourself. If you see a need that truly is not being addressed, then take what you learned in punk and get to work.
Andy: I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for DIY punk. It gave me great confidence in my life. Professionally, I’m a cinematographer and I believe DIY ethics have informed much of how I try to understand and navigate the creative process.
Bull: The DIY punk scene is the best and only college I ever went to. I’ve learned, experienced and seen so much thanks to this scene. I think I will always have a debt of gratitude to the punk scene so I try to be a positive ambassador to the scene. DIY punk can be whatever the kids make it. I think there is great potential for what one can gain from it. It has influenced every aspect of my life. True till death.