“Pete Seeger was a punk,” he laughs. Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs — not the usual fare for fans of blistering punk music. But here’s John Warmb of Rent Strike, a claw-hammering banjo player who is producing music that unabashedly blurs the sounds of “Dust Bowl Ballads” with modern punk music.
Folk punk bands like Rent Strike are unafraid to revisit old traditions, opting for banjos and acoustic guitars instead of Marshall stacks.
“Folk punk, to me, implies a DIY attitude toward things and not being beholden to big record companies,” Warmb said. “It’s about working together in a sort of anarchistic way and having equity in what you do.”
Sonically, folk punk is deeply embedded in Americana. Songs rely on relatively simple chord progressions, with much of the emotional impact coming from lyrics of political and emotional strife. Philosophically, it veers hard-left and envisions a working class utopia, much like the folk singer/songwriter heroes of old.
“Punk rock and old folk music really aren’t that much different,” Warmb explained. “It’s all three chords and being pissed off at the government. Pete Seeger told the government in the ‘50s that he was a communist.
That dude was a punk.”
Rent Strike released its latest full-length album “IX,” a concept album revolving around “Lord of the Rings,” in January and is preparing to release a deluxe edition of it at the Robin Theatre Friday.
“It’s going to be a punk show, but it’s a seated event. Some local artists and I have worked on a visual lyric zine that will be included with this edition of the album,” Warmb said. “We’re going to have costumes, props, fancy lighting. It’s going to be silly fun.”
Warmb began work on “IX” several years ago, inspired by early memories of the Tolkien saga via his father reading him “The Hobbit” and his recovery from heroin addiction.
“Through the isolation and weird thought processes that addiction leads you down, I got it in my head that I was gonna write a ‘Lord of the Rings’ concept album,” Warmb said. “It started off as a joke, but it grew into the defining project of my life.”
With “Lord of the Rings” providing a narrative framework, Warmb positions himself alongside the characters that lose themselves to the ring’s dark power.
But it also touches on the idea of a great journey, which Warmb is highly familiar with, having taken his music out on the road for zero budget tours many times.
“I think there’s a lot of ways to read Tolkien’s work. A big theme I take from it is the ring as a very powerful symbol of addiction,” Warmb said. “The way it affects characters, the things they say, I could see Tolkien as an addict. He was against allegory, but that’s what I took from it.”
Just like his heroes of literature and music, Warmb has experienced the life of a nomad.
The first half of the decade seldom saw Warmb firmly planted in one city.
A few guitars in tow, he drove his punk compatriots, Nick and Phil, from coast to coast. Making friends in several far-reaching states, traveling there and back again.
“I was in a weird place and I ran into these kids in East Lansing,” Warmb said. “We ended up driving around the country, busking and playing bad bar shows that nobody came to.”
Yes, their tunes were sophomoric, as Warmb had to yet to grow into the prodigal banjoist he is today, but it was an important musical rite of passage.
“I was coming into my own in terms of songwriting,” Warmb said. “It was an important stepping stone for my musical development.”
Warmb boils down his vast improvement in musicianship since his traveling days, as being a matter of effort.
“There’s so much honesty and raw emotion that goes into folk punk. I was guilty of looking at songs that just come out of you, as some sort of end-all, be-all of good songwriting,” Warmb said. “I learned if you want to write a good song, it takes a lot of work. Sometimes it flows out of you, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Warmb traded his guitar for a banjo initially as a means to an end while out on the road.
“You make more money with a banjo, because everybody plays guitar. You can play ‘Cripple Creek’ over and over again and people will say ‘Oh, that’s so novel!’” Warmb said.
His ability was rickety at first as he began emulating the playing style of Seeger, but upon mastering the claw hammer technique, Warmb felt more at home than he had with any other instrument.
“Playing the banjo is extremely fun.”
Rent Strike has fluctuated between a solo project and a full band. Its current incarnation features mainstays Dakota Peterson on drums, Nicole Geller on bass and Emma Grrl on lead guitar. Keeping with a collectivist spirit, Warmb has many friends that revolve around the band, playing various instruments when called upon.
“It’s not only good musicians, but homies – people I really respect and enjoy the company of,” Warmb said.
Rent Strike “IX” Deluxe Edition Release $5
Robin Theatre Friday, March 2 8 p.m. www.therobintheatre.com