Racetraitor in 2016, with Mani Mostofi second from right Credit: Courtesy the artist

In the late 90s, Racetraitor were a hardcore phenomenon in Chicago and beyond, famous at least as much for their aggressively radical onstage political stance as for their records. That said, their lone full-length, 1998’s manic and blastbeat-ridden Burn the Idol of the White Messiah, still strikes like a white-hot fire iron. Metal-tinged guitar squeals and Mani Mostofi’s tortured yowls curdle inside a nonstop series of towering double-kick breakdowns, challenging you to push through. It’s a difficult record because it’s meant to be a difficult record—as far as Racetraitor are concerned, you shouldn’t have a choice about whether to be aware of the issues they raise, and your path to enlightenment needs to take some fucking labor.

The lore that grew up around Racetraitor continued to spread after they disbanded in 1999, perhaps because their members stayed loyal in practice to the ideals they preached (and because they continued playing music—notably drummer Andy Hurley, who found fame in Fall Out Boy). But the prospect of a reunion seemed distant, if not flat-out antithetical to the in-the-moment intensity of the debate in which the band seemed constantly embroiled during their brief lifespan. How to even summon that again?

But in late August, Racetraitor announced that they’d reunite for a show at Cobra Lounge on Saturday, October 22, which is also the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality. Soon afterward, they released their first new material in 17 years: the two-song flexi By the Time I Get to Pennsylvania. Racetraitor’s reemergence coincides with an ugly, polarizing, tumultuous presidential election campaign and a new stretch of highly visible activism surrounding a very old pattern of painful and infuriating racial injustice. This is not by accident. I spoke with Mostofi about why Racetraitor decided on a reunion now and what they hope to accomplish during their rebirth.

Kevin Warwick: Who first sparked the conversation about the reunion, and how was it received by the other members? Was there any wariness, or was everyone collectively on board from the get-go?

Mani Mostofi: We chatted on and off over the years about doing something again. We even practiced once, ten years ago, at the height of Fall Out Boy’s TRL days. But it never came together. Our enthusiasm for reliving the past was never enough to tear us away from the present. You know what I mean? Jobs, school, family—we had all moved on. Andy was a full-on rock star, Dan [Binaei] was a social worker, I was doing human-rights law, Brent [Decker] was running antiviolence projects, Eric [Bartholomae] was a professional martial artist.

But when the Ferguson protests started and you saw the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, it really caught our attention. Dan and Andy were chatting about it, and I mentioned to them that I would be down with playing a show. They expressed some interest. I mean, the protests and Black Lives Matter seemed like the movement the band had always believed in, come to life. And we really thought the way white people were talking about their part in the movement was exactly Racetraitor’s message back in the day—using white privilege against institutionalized white power. So that was the start of a serious conversation about revisiting the band.

But it wasn’t that easy. Racetraitor is a band we were proud of, but not an easy one to live in. It was never a popular band, and about half the people that remember it do so because of how much they hated us. It is a band that takes a lot of emotional investment, not to mention the awkward conversations with coworkers that have no frame of reference for political hardcore.

So it would really have taken a lot to get all of us to be into it. Andy was skeptical—between Fall Out Boy and Sect, he didn’t need to fill any musical voids. I didn’t want to feel like I was moving backward in my life. I think Dan and Brent felt similarly. Also most of us didn’t want to be one of those bands that gets back together just to relive the glory days. I go to reunion shows happily, like everyone else. I love them. But Racetraitor is a different beast.

But as the discussion of racial justice and white privilege came to the foreground, Racetraitor felt more and more relevant. When Trump hit the scene and decided to run on an effectively white nationalist agenda against Hillary “superpredators” Clinton, things became much more palpable. We were all nervous, but it felt like this was the moment to reconstitute for a show and whatever else was right.

Racetraitor live in the late 90s
Racetraitor live in the late 90sCredit: Justin Corbett

What about the band’s message—as it has inevitably evolved over 17 years—makes you most excited to play the show? No doubt a lot of Racetraitor’s character and sociopolitical ideals from the days of yore have been retained, but how have you grown in the interim that makes this reunion feel personally vital?

Yeah, hopefully you see things differently than you did at 23. Most of us have stayed involved in social-justice work, so I think we bring a lot more perspective to the same set of questions. Brent and I, who have written all the lyrics to date, both work in policy. We work on the edges of the system, but from the outside—and that gives us a different perspective on social change. The answers seem less apparent in many ways. Sometimes you are less confident in revolutionary shifts and just want to make sure people on the margins don’t lose out even more. It will be interesting to put on the hat of hardcore agitator when we have more complex views.

Brent and I travel all over for work. We’ve seen things and met people we once only sung about in the abstract: migrants in near slavelike conditions in Bahrain, children living under occupation in the West Bank, labor leaders who have been tortured, survivors of genocide . . . just a wide range of people living with bullshit, surviving, and resisting. Things for us aren’t as abstract as they used to be.

Personally, being a husband and a new father makes a big difference to my approach. All of a sudden I’m responsible for another human, and the horrors of the world just feel closer. My child is infinitely blessed. She lives in so much relative safety and security. I see the images and hear the stories of the kids in Aleppo or even think about Tamir Rice, and I look at my daughter and feel both grateful and almost guilty for her relative luck in the world. This is something my wife and I always reflect on. Still, I am also acutely aware that I have a Muslim daughter in the United States, and without much exaggeration I can say I believe we are a Trump presidency and another 9/11 away from internment camps. So I really felt my daughter’s presence and that responsibility in the studio when we were recording the EP.

I’m not from Chicago, but even in the Cincinnati scene, Racetraitor was very much a known entity. Was it ever irksome to know that the reputation of the band preceded it? Not necessarily in a negative way, just that the band was often viewed as polarizing in approach—both on record and live. Or did you consciously use the notoriety as a vehicle?

Whatever our reputation was, we helped create it and consciously so.

But yeah, at times there was and is more attention paid to how we said things than what we said. Certainly we were labeled “assholes” or “full of ourselves.” No doubt we lent to those opinions. Often parts of the reputation were a bit off-base. Like, we were labeled “rich kids,” despite many of the band members coming from working-class backgrounds. Not to mention that was the whole point of the band: to cop to our privileges, class, gender, race. And we pointed those privileges out at almost every show from stage, in interviews, all the time. You had to be almost willful to miss it.

So obviously a negative reputation can lock you in and hold you back.

All that said, our reputation also drew interest. Kids came to our shows to see what the fuss was all about. We got those Maximum Rocknroll and HeartattaCk cover interviews without releasing any music. Labels like Trustkill, Revelation, Century Media were interested in doing our second LP. In the end, some kids really appreciated the band, including most black and brown kids we met in the scene, which was always a barometer for us. 

And sure, some kids hated it. But if you’re not trying to blow up conventions and challenge assumptions, what’s the point of being in a punk band?

The assumption we challenged was whether punk was part of the solution. Was punk and hardcore a place really free of racism in the revolutionary way the scene thinks it is? We said no. You can beat the skinheads out of the scene, but those skins aren’t the source of real racism or white power—the white power that lines pockets, that packs prisons, creates ghettos, builds border walls, bombs foreign countries, or stands by and lets it happen. If punk and hardcore is a rebellion, we thought, then those things should be our targets. And a scene that’s content with its place in the world is a target also.

And much to our surprise, people are still curious about the band 20 years on. Would that have been the case if we had a different name or caused less of a fuss or talked about less controversial things? I doubt it.

It feels like Racetraitor has aged well also. Every year the band was around and every year since, more people would say to me, “I get it now.” Admittedly some are just talking about the riffs.

Racetraitor live in the late 90s
Racetraitor live in the late 90sCredit: Justin Corbett

How was the writing process for the flexi, and how crucial did you feel it was to get back into the studio with Racetraitor? Reunions and re-formations so often come and go without a sniff of new material, but you guys have been very open that this is because of a time and a place. It feels like there had to be new material to signify that.

Once we decided to do a show, we started flirting with the idea of recording a new song about the election and all the craziness that surrounds it. I mean, how could you not, when you see it all laid out? Everything from the alt-right xenophobia of Trump and Brexit to the cynicism of Clinton. New music is often a really bad idea for a reunited band, but because our whole motivation was to react to current events, a few of our friends really encouraged us to do new music that commented directly on what’s going on.

One person that really encouraged us to do new music was Clint [Billington] from Organized Crime. I doubt in a million years he thought he would be putting out a Racetraitor record, but he just felt a need to help spark some conversation in hardcore. He felt the scene needed to react to the times, and we were one band that could maybe contribute to the conversation.

Writing and recording the new music was seamless. We were just so angry but also so inspired.

On one hand, you have this rise in racism and corporatism. The racism is more or less presented in plain language, no dog whistles, and you have all these people—including people in our band—that are hoping for a corporatist hawk to win just to avoid Mussolini Jr. from coming to office. That is a really sad state.

But on the other hand, you have a resistance. In recent years, we have seen Occupy Wall Street, Standing Rock Sioux protests, Black Lives Matter, Democracy Spring, even the Sanders campaign in some ways. All responses to white power and corporate domination.

That combination of “We’re doomed” and “We can do it” makes this feel really unique to this moment. And for me and the guys, it’s all very harrowing and urgent, and maybe feels more personal when you are a partner and parent or have experienced a longer, more complex life.

That has been a good recipe for new music. I think the single, “By the Time I Get to Pennsylvania,” is likely one of the best songs we ever recorded. It was certainly the most emotional studio experience I’ve had tracking vocals. The song just really captures what feels to us like the mood of these elections and the fear and hope looming over us.

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What’s planned for the Cobra Lounge on Saturday? Any detours or sideshows buried within?

Racetraitor in 2016 is the plan [laughter]. I hope it’s going to be a special night. We’re certainly really excited. Things sorta just fell in place. The date that best worked happened to be the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality—obviously on point thematically, but also a protest that Dan and I always went to and even helped organize in the past. So the show is now being slotted as an official solidarity concert.

Also, Earthmover wanted to play in Chicago, which is perfect. Great band that always tried to interject political ideas into the scene. We had some great shows with them in the 90s. Most memorably, at a show in 1998 or 1999 in Ohio, we found out the owner of the club was a white-power dude. A bunch of us confronted him and it ended in some light retributive vandalism of the club. Needless to say we’re pretty stoked to be playing with Earthmover again.

The guys from Lifes and Young & Dead are also all old friends, and they’re rad bands. And Through N Through plays the role of reminding the rest of us just how old we are. Yikes, need to do some cardio.

October 22 is also a record-release show for the By the Time EP. We’re actually trying to do a lot of other interesting things with the merch, like a reprint of our first T-shirt as a benefit for Black Lives Matter Chicago. We’re selling our 1996 demo, which we never really made available, and a few more items to show appreciation for the people that have stuck with us all these years.