The air underneath the tent at Cornerstone Festival’s Underground Stage last year was almost electric with anticipation. Flatfoot 56 had something big planned and many folks in the crowd could sense it.
Previous shows at this festival and other locations had been memorable. It’s not easy to forget the giant racetrack of a circle pit from Cstone ’08, where a couple people in the circular stampede from the stage all the way back to the soundboard were carrying giant flags. It was fast-moving and large. This time they wanted to make it bigger and crazier.
What started with a fiesta theme stretched into a large-scale re-creation of the battle of the Alamo. The band recruited close to 20 of their craziest friends and carefully explained their roles as agitators that would defend a piece of hallowed ground in the center of the giant circus tent. They used several blow-up mattresses as fortress walls and their own homemade armament (like cardboard shields with plastic milk carton handles and rotten bananas and water balloons attached) to fend off the rest of the crowd.
The volunteer agitators were introduced by frontman Tobin Bawinkel, and they entered the cleared-out circle and immediately started taunting the crowd, prepping them for the upcoming assault. The larger guys held the mattresses and the smaller ones used those foam “noodles” as swords to fend off the attack.
Bawinkel yelled “Go!” as the band launched into “Stampede” (from the new album, Black Thorn). The makeshift Alamo didn’t stand a chance against the massive crowd and it collapsed in a few seconds. Not only did the mattresses and those mighty warriors surrender to the force of bodies, but the two large tent poles in the middle did as well. Stagehands rushed the stage and quickly stopped the show. The crowd had literally “brought the house down.” Fortunately, no one got hurt.
You can watch a handheld video of this fiasco on YouTube (by searching “Flatfoot 56 the Alamo”). It was the craziest thing in a long time.
The band wanted to create an experience that no one would forget. They achieved that goal, taking legendary status in the minds of many there. “You go to a show and experience something huge,” declares Tobin, “it doesn’t leave you. You always remember that.”
The raucous music of Flatfoot 56 has an energy to it that takes you to a different place from whatever setting they’re performing in. The music’s attitude, feel and spirit, if you will, is loud and passionate. While thoroughly drenched in centuries-old Irish folk music, it’s also very much punk rock. In other words, there’s as many scuffed black Doc Martens in the audience as there is leprechaun green. There’s as much spittum spilled upon the floor as beer.
“People maybe don’t realize how fun our musical style is,” questions drummer and brother Justin Bawinkel. “People come to our shows and go, ‘Whoa! This is, like, really happy, jovial music.’ That’s what we really appreciate about the style. It’s like the ska style. There’s a lot of happiness in the music. It’s really joy-filled.
“As far as the punk-rock music scene and hardcore and ska,” he continues, “they’re all like sister and brother scenes. The kids are awesome. They’re really friendly for the most part. You have your snots, you know, like you do in every scene. But, for the most part, if you come into their scene with the design to be friends with them, they’re all about it, because there aren’t too many of them (the scene just isn’t that big). It’s not the popular thing to do most of the time. Kids are super great. I think one of the downfalls is they’re really rebellious,” he slightly laughs. “They’re not too fond of authority figures and Christianity and lots of other things in this world and this life that are a big part of our band. They really buck against it a little bit. But they’re great kids. When you go into a show, you can’t be afraid. You can’t be like, ‘Ah, man, they’re hitting each other. It looks like they’re fighting.’ They’re really not. They’re just so intensely desiring relationship with each other that they beat the snot out of each other in the pit. Some people get a little weirded out by it, but they’re really awesome people.”
Black Thorn, (the band’s third nationally released album) is going to be released on St. Patrick’s Day. This is no coincidence. There’s definitely an affinity with Ireland and this band. “We’ve always considered ourselves to be a punk band with Celtic flavoring,” explains Tobin. “Some bands would consider themselves a Celtic band with a punk flavor. We’re from the South side of Chicago, which has a huge Irish community. Chicago in general is Irish. It’s kind of a big place when it comes to the Irish community. It’s got one of the biggest St. Patty’s Day parades in the world. We’re big history guys. We’re into cultural history. Irish history is kind of a documentation of an entire people’s folklore and history. Just being able to put your head down and fight your struggles.
“We kind of grew up, the three brothers, listening to our parents’ music. They’re really into bluegrass. The history of bluegrass comes from Irish music – kind of an offshoot. We have inclinations of that in our upbringing in general. Being the rowdy kind of guys that we are, loving punk and ska and stuff, we were just kind of drawn to this stuff and being a little different and strange – from having a bagpiper to dancing. If production works, we like to have a mandolin player. St. Patrick’s Day is always kind of an exciting time of year for us, because we want to hear something rowdy or go out and dance to Irish jigs. It’s been a fun time every year. So, what better time to put this record out?”
While you’d expect any Irish-influenced band to at least pay some homage to the spiritual roots of the tiny island off the coast of England, Flatfoot 56 wears those roots on its sleeve with an evangelistic fervor and a punk-rock not-backing-down steadfastness that commands respect and forges an instant likeable bond with its audience – no matter the location. While they play a lot of gigs in pubs and their music is accessible to the mainstream, their internal focus is so strong that they might better be known as a “Christian band” rather than the cliche catch phrase “Christians in a band.”
While not coming across as guys who obsess over themselves, they’re not unaware that they’re about to hit their 10th year as a unit … and it means something to them – something really good. “I grew up listening to punk and ska,” relates Tobin, “and I always remember seeing those bands that made it to their 10-year anniversary. It was always kind of my vision that (we’d be) a Christian band just to play music out of love and as long as He told us to play, that we would do it. If He told us to stop, we would stop. So, that being the case, we were really, really blessed to be able to play for this long.
“For some reason, the 10-year anniversary feels different. Everybody starts to realize, ‘Hey, these guys have been around. They’re not young anymore… They’ve been around for a long time and there’s something to the fact. I’ve always been one of those guys that didn’t want to be a band that was a flash in the pan, but just really did it because we love playing and we love kids and we love the Lord. I’ve been looking forward to our 10th anniversary. I want to be a band that people take serious, ‘That stick in there with us.’ That’s pretty much where I’m at. I like those old-school bands.”
Justin is quick to agree. While talking about the joy of being used to make an impact on someone else’s life, he was pressed to identify some specific songs that did that for him. He listed “Stairway to Sin” and “Building a Better Me” by Dogwood, the entire Rituals Of Life album by Stretch Arm Strong and an indie band out of San Antonio called Our Corpse Destroyed. Nothing communicates a “band of the people” better than information like this, where it’s obvious that the members of Flatfoot 56 are just kids that love music in the bodies of men (even if a kilt is worn every now and then).
When Christian rock’s historical growth ventured into the harder edges of rock and metal back in the ‘80s, one of the challenges often cited by those in and outside of the scene was the specific temptations that came with the scene. For glam metal bands it might’ve been female legs in stockings, among other vices. For a Celtic punk band, one cultural imprint of the scene is sure to smack these lads in the face – alcohol consumption. For FF56, it’s just another simple, but laid-back distinction.
“I really feel like a lot of bands really do a disservice to the Irish people by making all of their music about alcohol,” states Tobin. “I think there’s a lot more that could be talked about. For some reason, when you think of Irish people, all you imagine is a little leprechaun with a beer in his hand. To me it’s a cheap stereotype to put on a culture that’s done insane things for the world. Most of us have a strict general rule. None of us really drink on the road, just to keep our witness going forward. Most of us don’t drink at all, which is kind of really funny for a Celtic punk band. Everybody has their own opinions on that kind of thing.
“In light of that thing, playing in Irish pubs and stuff and having a lot of drinkers at your shows, you get offered a lot of stuff. We’ve learned little responses that let people (know) that we’re very thankful for their offer. People will bring shots up to your stage and go, ‘Here you go!’ To them it’s a sign of, ‘Hey, I want to be friends. I want to encourage you guys.’ We’ve learned responses that don’t shoot them down for being nice, but also don’t force what we decided as a band to be known for and be around.
“A lot of our friends around Chicago at our home church and stuff are AA guys and a lot of them have really bad histories with alcoholism. Personally as a band, it’s more important to us to make sure they don’t stumble and for that reason we kind of abstain to watch out for our buddies. We have guys that come out to our shows and they love the band, they love seeing the music. They’re old punk rock guys, but as soon as they smell alcohol, the hair on their arms stands up and they crave horribly. For them it’s a real stumbling point. I don’t know if I believe alcohol is an evil thing, but I know it’s something that can ruin their life and I don’t want to have any part of encouraging that ruining their life. We make our music about something else and we write about other things. Flatfoot tries to make music that’s more relevant than just about a drink.
“In comparison to that, too, we’re not a serious band that goes out and carves x’s in people that do. We definitely realize that there are people that do handle it well and they can handle it. We’re looked at very strangely by a lot of people. I just did an interview a little while ago with a pretty well-known magazine and they were like, ‘So, do you guys party? Are you guys partiers? Are you guys drinkers?’ When I told him no, he kind of looked at me sideways. ‘That doesn’t relate to your music at all. How in the world does that relate?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, to be honest with you, music is music. We’re not singing about drinking. It’s not something that our band is about, so why do we have to do it? We’re Christians in a punk-rock band. How weird is that in the first place?’ Obviously, we’re not going to have a hard time being a little bit more strange and not drinking. There are guys in the band that have had a few beers in the past and stuff, but it’s never something that they… when we’re on the road it just doesn’t happen.
“I’m one of the elders in my church and that’s another reason why I don’t. I’m actually awfully allergic to it, which is really funny. In the past I had a shot of sake in Japan in front of Flogging Molly and I turned bright red. This was years ago. They all looked at me and started laughing. It’s really funny to sit there with pretty much a whole band of professional drinkers and just being a total panty waist when it comes to something so small. At that time I hadn’t really laid out what I really stood for and that was kind of the only thing in the last few years. That’s pretty much where we stand. It’s kind of a hairy question, even among Christians. Some Christians are definitely (teetotalers) and some are like, ‘Hey, we’re having a deacon’s meeting this weekend. Make sure you bring a six-pack with you.’ It’s not something that should be that important, so I guess we don’t need it. But at the same time, we’re not at all judgmental about people that do. There’s a lot of our good friends that totally partake and we don’t think anything of it. We just know where we stand and what we want to portray.”
Flatfoot 56: not a wishy-washy band.
Formed in their basement at the turn of the millennium, they played their first show at a hall where they competed with a Mariachi-playing jukebox. Their next big show was on the FatCalf generator stage at Cornerstone Festival 2003. Later on Tobin saw a kid wearing a Flatfoot 56 t-shirt down by the mainstage and it practically changed his life. In 2006 they signed to Flicker Records and released Knuckles Up, followed by Jungle of the Midwest Sea in ‘07. This year was highlighted by an out-of-nowhere invitation from Flogging Molly to join them on a small tour of Japan. This latest album, Black Thorn, was recorded with Johnny Rioux of Street Dogs, whom the band has toured with and befriended many times over. “He’s got a rap sheet or history as long as your arm of bands that he’s been in or worked with – everything from the Dropkick Murphys to Mike Ness of Social Distortion,” gushes Tobin. “He asked us if we would have him to produce our new record.” Both Tobin and Justin agreed that working with him was a good experience. “If any band had the opportunity to have Johnny Rioux direct your record,” he quips, “I would kick their butt. ‘Get in your car, drive over there and do it now.’”
Original bagpipe and mandolin player, Josh Robieson, recently stepped down (replaced by two – count ‘em – guys), citing time away from his new marriage as a strain he felt led to leave. This is partially fortunate now, because he’s not around to get the character descriptions the guys were happy to pour on each other for this story:
Justin Bawinkel (Drums, Vocals): “He’s a huge comic book nerd and a Star Wars, sci-fi geek. The other guy in the band that’s married. Sometimes sticks his foot in his mouth at shows by saying something that sounds bad but isn’t, but he’s also the backbone of the band.”
Tobin Bawinkel (Vocals, Guitars): “He’s a talker. He really has a gift to explain things that are intelligent and tactful and just really kind of cut people to the core. A huge asset to the band. He’s got a lot of grace for people and will listen to ya.”
Kyle Bawinkel (Bass, Vocals): “The great balancing character in our band. He’s not easily sold on anything. He doesn’t trust easily, but he loves hard. He’s the guy that grabs the really down-and-outers, befriends them and makes them cool. He does DJ nights in Chicago, spinning old vinyl.”
Eric McMahon (Bagpipes, Guitars): “Awesome, sweetheart guy. Quiet, but if he sees something he doesn’t like, steps up. Has a real heart for people and the Lord. A real encouragement for us. He’s recently started to step up in that area. He’s been with us for the last 10 years, but only playing with us for the last month and a half.”
Brandon Good (Mandolin, Guitars): “The worship leader at my church. Has been in hardcore bands most of his life. We tell him he looks like Yukon Cornelius from the old Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoons. His nickname is ‘Muffins,’ because he likes muffins.”
With Black Thorn Flatfoot 56 have honed their recognizable sound and, with the production help of Johnny Rioux, they sound like the same band that made the raw and simple Knuckles Up and Jungle of the Midwest Sea – only better – with several years of non-stop touring behind it. Sonically, it’s crisp, thick and full. Songwise, each of the 13 tracks invite movement and singing along at every chorus. Lyrically, they’ve succeeded in telling stories that engage the heart and the brain. With “You Won Me Over,” they could potentially find a semi-permanent home on the radio, Green Day style. In short, they’ve “really done it” with this album.
The song “Courage” is a great example of an artist expressing their heart and honoring someone that’s gone before them. When asked to share an example of someone’s life impacting theirs, Justin was quick to point out the example of the Bawinkels’ dad. “I think our dad is a big one for us. He’s just done some awesome stuff in our life. He’s always been there for us and encouraged us in everything we do.”
“For the majority of the band, my dad’s been our manager. He’s a minister in Chicago. He’s amazing. Obviously, this band would not exist if it wasn’t for my parents,” Tobin adds with a slight laugh that turns into a sigh, as if to underscore their dual importance. “They’re just really good people and huge encouragers and have a really big heart for music in general. We actually got our start from them playing in our living room. My dad plays quite a string banjo and guitar. He’s been a huge inspiration on those guys.”
“I’ve seen people step up and honor him in ways that are…” pauses Justin. “…it’s really awesome and caused me to, you know, look at my dad a little more than just my dad. More than just, ‘Oh, what he does is expected’ or ‘That’s what he does normally…’ No, my dad is actually an awesome man that gives of himself completely all the time, who has done amazing things with his life and impacted the lives of others. I don’t do it as much as I should. Just talking about him now, I definitely need to honor him more. As far as people in my life, that’d be the biggest one.”
Prior to this interview, the band had just returned at eight in the morning from Michigan, where they played some shows booked by one church. “We found out that the church that was throwing the shows … the pastor’s daughter committed suicide that week,” Tobin pauses – not for effect, but to collect himself. “They all decided that they were going to go forward. The last show of the week we were supposed to do the night of the funeral and they still decided to do it. They really felt like it was something they wanted to go forward with. It was a very intense weekend, let me tell ya! It was awesome and God really worked in some cool ways, but it’s an intense thing. I’ve never had to do that. The last show kind of turned into a memorial service for this girl. She had actually come and seen us play the last time we were up there, so it was really an intense week. God is really stirring and doing a lot of cool things, I think. There’s a lot of healing still going on.”
And, not surprisingly, this band of fun-loving hooligans are right in the middle of it, spilling joy where it’s needed and just being there to be used. Whether that calls for being the center of attention or just getting out of the way. It’s just pretty much impossible not to love this band. Ain’t it?
© HM Magazine 2010. All rights reserved.