Contentedly clutching a couple of pint glasses, Mike Schulman and Tim Brown sat down and admired the cover of their debut LP. Each member of the group appears in a grid of four images. Top left: Brown, poised and upright. Top right: Schulman, gesturing menacingly. Bottom right: Donna McKean, mid-snarl, clearly incensed. Bottom left: Stewart Anderson, gazing intently.
Band: Hard Left. Album title: We Are Hard Left.
Schulman sipped an IPA. "It looks iconic," he said. Brown concurred.
The backdrop on the LP cover is a cracked concrete wall bearing arrows, circles, and a star in faded red, blue, and white paint. The band members wield color-coordinated umbrellas. "The band we always wanted to exist would do this," Brown said. "They'd pose with matching umbrellas by the mod-esque design on a wall down the street from their house."
Most aspirant rock musicians would consider it impolitic to dub one's own album cover "iconic" in an interview. But Schulman and Brown reckoned that most new bands composed of players in their forties and fifties would hesitate to appear on their own album cover to begin with. Hard Left — a bombastic new punk band in the style of Oi! originators such as Cockney Rejects, with a decidedly communist lyrical slant — lacks the inhibitions of upstart groups fretting about the day's proven rock paradigms.
Which isn't to say that Schulman is unfamiliar with the zeitgeist: He runs Slumberland Records, itself an iconic brand to the indie-pop and rock set, which reinforces his sense that Hard Left is a bit anomalous. He couldn't recall the last title released on Slumberland that prominently featured the band on the cover, though you can bet most of his roster maintains selfie portfolios online. Every band is image-conscious, Schulman said; Hard Left is just uniquely unabashed about it.
Schulman and Brown displayed a charming rapport. "Comrade," was a familiar refrain, appended to phrases salted with bits of English vocabulary, such as "footie," for soccer, and "terrace," for townhouses. Hard Left seemed like a vessel to exhibit all of the Anglophile fixations they'd been nurturing in private for years. "This pint glass is so fucking empty," lamented Schulman, to which Brown responded, "Shall I fetch you another pint, comrade?"
Still, as they emphasized, Hard Left is also very serious. "There's a need to marry analysis with our terrace jams," Brown explained. That involves skewering "quintessential American individualist bullshit," though they're careful in the lyricism to foreground proletarian empowerment and unity over finger-pointing.
Biographically, everyone in the band is entangled. In the 1990s, Brown and McKean, who are now married, performed together in a band called Lunchbox while they lived in Berkeley at Shafter House, a residence that hosted shows in the basement. Schulman, who moved to the area in 1992, released records on Slumberland for Anderson's long-running, serrated rock unit Boyracer. Anderson, in turn, released Lunchbox records on his own label.
A couple decades later, Brown was hanging out with Schulman at Slumberland headquarters in Berkeley, where he unwittingly invited his old friend to start a new band. "I said I was thinking of putting an ad — not that anyone does that anymore — in the paper, looking for people to start an Oi! band," Brown recalled. "Mike turned around and said, 'Let's start an Oi!' band." Shortly thereafter, while at a concert for the reunited paisley underground act Rain Parade, the name "Hard Left" spontaneously occurred to Schulman. McKean, Brown's longtime musical accomplice, was on board.
They felt especially fortunate to snare Anderson. "He's the perfect drummer for this band because he inhabits all of this cultural space," Brown said. Schulman added, "And, well, you know, he's English."
Politically, Brown and Schulman said that everyone aligns quite nicely. There's little threat of an errant ice pick or ideological schism. (The only rift they let on to regarded leaking the album art on Facebook.) Indeed, Brown and Schulman relished opportunities to recite lyrics in unison and dap fists afterward. "A lot of people who were into punk when they were younger end up libertarian," Brown said. "Mike and I have a message for them." On that cue, Schulman joined Brown for a practiced, "Libertarian punks fuck off!" Glasses clinked.
Other times, Brown, who's a scholar of 20th century labor studies, took the lead. Goading a bit, I prodded the two about whether playing in a band is an unconscionable bourgeois luxury. "Classical working-class movements were all about embracing culture," responded Brown, enumerating a litany of historic examples, chronologically. And anyway, he continued, "I reject the idea of bourgeois luxury. The proles are the people forced to sell their labor for someone else's profit, which now includes just about everyone in the US."
A pillar of Hard Left's platform is expressed in the song "Future Perfect," which shares its name with the band's own label, Future Perfect Records. Brown used to be a factory worker, like his father. "In his time, my father could be propelled into a middle-class life by that," he said. "That's not the case anymore. The capitalist class is pocketing the surplus, which is why my favorite line on the album is"—again, Schulman took the cue and joined Brown: "They stole the surplus from you and me!"
Hard Left's nostalgic bent is thorough. The Future Perfect Records logo apes the 1970s RCA Records logo. The back cover — which depicts a Hard Left flag draped over slumbering band members — is a direct homage to an early photo of The Who (Schulman was proud to share that his son, who's six, picked up the reference immediately.) They describe the band as "hard-mod," looking to contextualize Hard Left very specifically in late-1960s England, at the subcultural intersection between mod and skinhead.
But the band's politics are more anachronistic than nostalgic. Unions are relatively weak nowadays. Even in the Bay Area, public opinion has not sided with BART strikers in the last couple of years. Still, even if history has conspired to vilify communism and annex the notion of a "labor movement" to textbooks in most people's view, Hard Left's propaganda in our era of inequality feels highly relevant. Their knowing adherence to outmoded album cover iconography shows that Brown and Schulman are confident enough to own their unfashionable idealism.
"Since the collapse of the Soviet Union — of course, that sort of communism needed to fall — but it paved the way for this end-of-history thought and sort of liberal triumphalism," Brown said. His wife, McKean, he continued, put it best when she dubbed Hard Left "Utopian Oi!"