From Hardcore Guitarist to City Council Candidate: Justin Brannan of Indecision
While it might seem like a giant leap in logic to go from straight-edge hardcore guitar player to city council member, in actuality, it's quite the opposite. Hardcore punk is filled with people and songs that focus on changing political policy, as well as making sure that your community, family and surrounding areas are safe. So, when Justin Brannan of longstanding NYC metalcore staples Indecision and Most Precious Blood announced that he was running for office, it all made perfect sense.
Brannan is currently running for the open City Council seat in the 43rd District in Brooklyn, representing Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach and parts of Bensonhurst. So, what leads a man who grew up in hardcore to dive head-first "into the machine," trying to affect change within the system? We talked to Brannan about his hardcore upbringing, becoming political via punk rock and why anyone should care enough to vote for him. Answers are below.
How did you discover hardcore? What was your first show and first record that made you think, "This music is for me"?
I was 10 or 11 years old. I read a magazine interview with Slash from Guns N' Roses where he said his favorite punk band was Black Flag. I had no idea what punk was until then. I found the Black Flag cassette at my local record store and was blown away. It was like every song was speaking directly to me and what was going on in my life. The only thing was, there were no pictures of Black Flag in the cassette, so I still imagined this music was being created by superior supernatural beings. It wasn’t until I got into Minor Threat, Napalm Death, Sick of It All and Gorilla Biscuits that I realized the people creating this amazing music were kids just like me. Seeing the people behind the music was life-changing. It suddenly felt attainable. Like, why couldn’t I do a band like that?
That being said, was there a musical moment that moved you politically?
A record or a show?
I can’t really put a finger on it. I was already exploring “straight-edge” before I learned there was a term for it. I saw everyone else getting drunk and high, and it just wasn’t for me. I recognized that being different actually meant not doing these things, because it seemed like everyone else was. Then I heard Minor Threat and Youth of Today and realized there was a movement of people who took pride in not going with the flow. That had a big impact on me — I felt like I was part of something bigger and that there were other people who had similar counter-ideas. I definitely learned a lot about world history from Dead Kennedys, the Minutemen and Napalm Death. And I say that without any irony at all. These were bands that you could actually learn from. I mean, being 13 or 14 years old and hearing Napalm Death screaming about “multinational corporations / genocide of the starving nations” was very different from kids who were listening to Milli Vanilli or even Metallica.
Being a guitarist with acts that have done quite a bit of touring, how do you think meeting people across the country has informed your political decisions and stance?
Touring the world with your best friends is a priceless experience. Playing songs you wrote in a Brooklyn basement onstage in South Africa or New Zealand or Portugal is like nothing else — especially when the kids in these cities know all your lyrics and scream them back at you. But talking to the kids after the show in every town we went to and getting to know their struggles — and their daily lives, and their realities — was an education like no other. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but it was preparing me for what I’m doing now. I’ve always been drawn to doing the right thing and standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. But growing up on the road taught me just about everything — literally and figuratively. It made me inquisitive, understanding and unafraid. It taught me [that] if I wanted to achieve something, the only obstacle was my own free will. It taught me to question the answers and never give up on searching for the truth or purpose or meaning in the very things others often take for granted. It taught me how to listen and learn from others and their different viewpoints. It opened me up to so many things. I pride myself on being someone people can rely on to get things done. And when you’re out on the road and it’s just you and your friends vs. the world, you learn how to handle just about anything, because no one else is going to handle it for you. I can honestly say that sleeping on the floor of a squat in Basque Country gave me everything I needed to sit across from a billionaire years later at the Four Seasons, look her in the eye and ask for a sizable donation to a humanitarian charity I was working for at the time. And that’s because life on the road in an underground band removes all pretense. I see everyone as my equal, as a fellow human being. It makes you approach everyone with respect and understanding so that you are never intimidated by things that might intimidate others.
What about your hardcore ethos and upbringing has influenced your run for City Council?
I take great pride in knowing that “DIY” originated in the punk and hardcore scene. Now it’s something you hear at Home Depot or on HGTV, but it all started with restless and creative kids looking to get their message out to the world without spending a lot of money. We didn’t have anyone to rely on or show us the way, so we figured it out as we went along. “DIY” wasn’t a choice — it was our only option — but eventually it became a source of pride. We didn’t need other people to do things for us because we did it ourselves. There’s definitely a sense of power there. And that’s how I’ve lived my life. When we stopped touring and I decided to really get involved in my neighborhood, I tried to join some of the local civic groups and political clubs, but they weren't all that interested in an outsider coming in with an opinion. So, I started my own groups and my own political club. If the mainstream wouldn’t accept me, I just started my own stream. I think eventually there comes a time in your life when you realize that we are the people we’ve been waiting for. And if you wanna make change, you’ve gotta get out there and make it happen yourself. I think my impatience only helps me get things done faster and more efficiently now in my career in government. I have very little patience for unnecessary red tape and paralyzing bureaucracy. I want people to see the power of government and how it can help and not hinder them; how the primary role of local government should be to advance equity so that all people have the same access and opportunity. That we do best when everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share and plays by the same set of rules. I like getting things done and moving on to the next challenge and undoing the next knot. I’ve got my late father’s Irish salesman work ethic. We’re not happy unless we’re working.
Do you feel like hardcore and punk has lost its political edge in 2017, as opposed to its heavy slant in years past?
I do. When I got into hardcore and punk, it was all political. I think it was once a given that punk and politics went hand in hand. I remember when Trump was first elected, people said the only good thing that would come of it would be all the great punk rock music over the next four years. So far, aside from a few bands, I haven’t seen it. But I think it’s really because the medium has changed. The 24/7 news cycle moves so fast that there’s no time to write songs about it. If you wanna say something, you go on social media and say it, and in an instant, your thought is out there in the world and your opinion was been registered. Now, by the time you write the chorus and the verse and record the song, the news has moved on to the next controversy or the next awful thing Trump has proposed.
In an ever-changing Brooklyn, what do you think are the biggest hurdles for a City Council member?
Keeping New York City affordable so that the people who helped build NYC and the people that give NYC its heart and soul can afford to live here. NYC has been experiencing remarkable growth as more and more people move here, and as we all know, that progress brings concerns. But the values that make our neighborhoods special and unique don’t have to be lost. As long as we continue to strive to preserve the unique character of our neighborhoods, by respecting the context of the existing area, then the natives will have nothing to fear as developers create more room for new residents and our neighborhoods will reap the benefits. We need to make sure New York City remains a place where our most vulnerable working families and the middle class can all thrive again. New York City belongs to whoever wants to call it home. It can’t be something that only belongs to those who can afford it. It belongs to the people who made it great. It belongs to the people who built it. It belongs to the people who gave it its character, its culture, its heart and its soul. That’s what Brooklyn — and New York City — is all about: being a home to everyone from everywhere. If we can preserve that, then we’ll be making progress.
You are stopped on the sidewalk and asked, "Why should I pick you?" How do you answer that question?
I’m running for City Council because I want to get things done for the neighborhood where I grew up. I was lucky to have parents who raised me with a strong work ethic and an equally strong backbone. I got my impatience for bureaucracy from years as an activist, and I know how to cut through red tape to get real results. Now, more than ever, we need to elect people with guts who aren’t afraid to stand up for what’s right. I know I can get the government working for us once again. And I know the future begins at the local level. And it begins here.