Close to midnight, after their concert at the American Legion right here in Waltham, I sat down with John Warmb (they/them), the lead singer, guitarist/banjoist and songwriter for Rent Strike, a (for once self-proclaimed) folk punk band originating out of Lansing, Michigan. And just a few minutes of talking with Warmb leaves no doubt as to their Midwestern roots.
Rent Strike, as the name implies, is a profoundly political band. Their concert, where they were the last of five bands to play, was a fundraising event for the organization Food Not Bombs. Present at the concert were also two anarchist booksellers and a wide collection of zines. Warmb’s music is imbued with political sentiments and their job outside of playing music is running a syringe access in Lansing.
The political nature of folk punk music is undoubtedly what drew Warmb to the genre at such a young age: “I first heard folk punk when I was 16 and I’ve been writing folk punk songs kinda ever since.” Now Warmb, who turned 30 earlier this month, has seen the genre lull but feels “there’s another resurgence … and [it’s] cool to be carrying that torch.” When asked if they thought the genre could ever experience mainstream popularity they said, “…yes in a weird way, capitalism is very powerful. And even with how anti-capitalist I think in essence folk punk is, there’s an aesthetic to be capitalized on. There’s a sound and even an ethos that is safe-for-the-system rebellion … folk punk could definitely be sterilized.” But as the relatively small folk punk scene stands now, Warmb appreciates the connections and community they get to be a part of through Rent Strike and Doom Scroll, a Houston-based band for which they play the banjo.
While Rent Strike has been playing music for over a decade, their most recent albums, “Nine” and “Now,” are the two we discussed and the only two available through non-Bandcamp music streaming services. The albums do not have many similarities in sound, with the prior fitting neatly within the boundaries of traditional folk punk and the latter being, as Warmb described it, an experiment into “how far we could push the boundaries of folk punk … without totally breaking it.” The two concept albums are also telling different stories, but topics like drug use, anti-work sentiments and mental health are present throughout both.
While Warmb would describe themself as a rather chaotic storyteller, they manage to produce albums with complex throughlines and lore. “Now,” Rent Strike’s COVID album, has so much lore Warmb does not know how to deliver to listeners, they created a section of their website dedicated to introducing listeners to the core ideas behind the quite heady story. When discussing how they rationalize the disconnect between a chaotic writing process and a cohesive album they said, “I try to put all of myself into music, that’s how you make good art … so there is a narrative in so far as [mine] and all of our lives, are narratives.” This process of “distilling things down to this narrative” has helped Warmb decipher their feelings and experiences. Warmb stated that writing the album “Nine” actually helped them get off drugs.
Warmb kicked a heroin addiction, “…the big fucking poopoo in my life,” many years ago and stopped drinking over the pandemic. They described getting off substances as a scary experience, both as a songwriter—“there’s a very real fear of wondering where it is that art comes from and especially when it feels like it comes from a deeper place that one connects to via this easier vehicle of substances…”—and in their day to day life: “… when I was on dope I woke up in the morning and that’s what I did, all of my time was spent thinking how I was gonna get money … and [get] high and coming out of that is—you lose a lot and a lot of it is worth losing. But that’s scary, change is scary.” But their sobriety (they still smoke weed) has undoubtedly improved their quality of life and their relationships, especially with Warmb’s parents who are “… huge supporters of the art and just happy I’m alive.”
John Warmb feels immensely lucky to live the life they are living. “I feel very contented with my life as it is right now … I get to go around and sing these songs to people. It’s like actually a dream come true.” They love performing music live, be that through the medium they started out with, busking—“I would stand on the street corner for hours and just scream because there’s no other way to get people’s attention … It’s really fun to get out there … on a busy street and make a little bit of money. It’s a really gratifying feeling”—or their current medium of choice, “… playing weird shows at American Legions in Massachusetts and raising money for Food Not Bombs.” Touring is a long tenuous process and they “… spend a lot of time at gas stations,” but they can’t see themself doing anything else.
John Warmb recommends, in introducing new listeners to their music, their album “Nine,” specifically the first song “Snowdrop.” But if you are more inclined towards “electric stuff,” the lead single “Radio Silence” off the album “Now” is also a good place to start.