by Mia Hughes
photo: Esra Oruç

In case you hadn’t heard, Baltimore is currently an epicentre for exciting hardcore. Spurred by the popularity of bands like Turnstile, Angel Du$t and Trapped Under Ice, its community extends far below that surface, with labels like Pop Wig Records and DIY spaces such as the (now-defunct) Charm City Art Space playing host to endless strands of vibrant, creative hardcore. Meanwhile, around an hour away is Washington, DC – arguably Ground Zero for hardcore music. The impact of the city’s 80s scene and particularly Dischord Records is still felt not just in today’s DC scene, but in hardcore scenes all around the world.

Enter Truth Cult, a hardcore band that stakes a claim to both cities, consisting of members of DC and Baltimore area bands such as Give, Pure Disgust and Tokenized. Following up a 2018 demo, in May of this year they released their debut LP, Off Fire, on which they worked with Jawbox frontman and legendary punk producer J Robbins. The record is an incredible, energised burst of hardcore, in the vein of melodic Dischord bands like Embrace, Lungfish and the aforementioned Jawbox.

“The record’s kind of a freaky record, and I couldn’t be more happy with the results, and being pushed on my abilities,” says vocalist Paris Roberts. “Now that it’s out I feel like I can finally rest comfortably again. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this day for so long.”

Roberts, from Baltimore, began attending hardcore shows at Charm City Art Space in his sophomore year of high school, beginning with a show from Baltimore straight edge band Mindset. He was much tinier then, he laughs, and the place was small; anyone and everyone, no matter where they chose to stand, was subject to the crowd’s energy. “I remember coming out of that feeling astounded and amazed that this is happening under my nose, and in the city I grew up in,” he says. “I just had no idea that this place could even exist here.”

A turning point came when he saw DC band Pure Disgust (featuring his future Truth Cult bandmate Robin Zeijlon on drums). Pure Disgust was fronted by Rob Watson, who like Roberts is Black. “When I saw someone that looked like me fronting this band that fucking rocked, I felt like, what’s stopping me from doing that same thing?” says Roberts. So, with some high school friends, he put together his first hardcore band; they were originally named and released music as Joe Biden, but last year renamed themselves Tokenized.

In 2015, a year after Tokenized formed, 25-year-old Black man Freddie Gray was killed by police officers in Baltimore. A subsequent uprising against the police began, centred in the city. Roberts had attended the march that was a precursor to the rioting, and afterwards attended a matinee show that a friend’s band was playing at. On the way home from the show, he saw the uprising unfolding.

“I felt this burning passion inside of me, and – I won’t say guilt, but something a little different – that I couldn’t be there and help them. I felt like I could be doing something more, I could be doing something helpful to people who look like me who are participating in this uprising, because they’re angry at the injustices that have been happening in this city for years upon years,” he recounts.

“I felt like I was never too good with expressing how I felt to people. I was never good at using my words to say what I really want to say. And I took Tokenized, and made writing with that band about how I felt like we were never, ever given a chance. I think that’s why that uprising happened. Because of the same way I felt, where no matter what I did, no matter what I said, nothing was ever being heard.” Tokenized released a self-titled EP (available on their Bandcamp under the name Joe Biden) in which Roberts voiced his fury with the police force and the murder and brutalisation of black people, with lyrics including: ‘Brainwashed to hate my own flesh / Can’t even speak my mind / My thoughts have been spat on / By you and your fucking kind’ (from ‘Let Go or Be Dragged’).

“The more I performed those songs the more I felt like I had a place, because people were paying attention and listening to me,” Roberts says. “There was something exhilarating about being up there and talking about something that’s so personal to me, that touches home in a basis that not a lot of those people who were at those shows could feel at all. It just felt like I could do this shit forever then. And then I felt like that opened up this gate for me, that later on helped me with my songwriting process, and also helped me with my talking about my feelings with just existing as a Black person, in a society and a country where we’re villainised all the time.”

Truth Cult formed a few years later in 2018, bringing Roberts together with Zeijlon, Give’s Ian Marshall and Post Pink’s Emily Ferrara. My conversation with Roberts takes place during another time of uprising for the Black Lives Matter movement, after the murder of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis; but with Truth Cult, he says, his aim is to express his experiences as a Black person in a different sense. “I want to express that there’s a lot more to the Black experience and my experience than just feeling pain,” he says. “My primary goal of this band is to not use myself as another political outlet or another scapegoat for white people to feel good about themselves. There’s more to being Black than police violence, than experiencing racism every day. I’m still here existing; I’m not gonna be in chains anymore, I’m not gonna feel like my only use as a Black person is to express racial injustices.”

On Off Fire, he says, he explored his journey with self-love, and his search for a meaning and purpose. One conduit for that was his interest in astrology – something that he discovered largely through his partner and his mother – with each song on the record representing a different house placement in his birth chart. “A lot of it all just makes sense to me. While I don’t necessarily have a religious faith, I feel like astrology is the next closest thing. It gives me this sense of place and purpose in this world. I feel like that played a big role in my character and who I am as a person today. So naturally, because I write about my personal experiences and my personalised vices, I feel like tying in my reaction to how my stars align and how certain planets go into my personality was almost necessary.”

He continues, “This record was supposed to express my feelings about pushing forward, and being thankful to be alive. For example, ‘Beg to Burn’ is about my fear of not having a place in this world. That has been a sensation burning in me since I was old enough to recognise or understand death. And I wanted to show that, while I do fear a void after death, I can still make the most of myself and have a deeper understanding of my fears and my search for living.

“I feel like I’m always so confused all the time, and I think one of the biggest things that keeps me grounded is knowing that no matter how the world stands today, I can still have, and if not have find, a purpose or a meaning in this chaotic form of life.”

Truth Cult’s approach to hardcore is an unconventional one – their deeply introspective and poetic lyrics, for one, are set apart from many of their peers in the hardcore scene, and their musical approach and even performance style are pulled from a range of genres outside of hardcore. The Cure and The Replacements, for example, were influences on Roberts’ writing for Off Fire, while he found inspirations for his performance within Truth Cult from Black Baltimore artists such as Abdu Ali, Butch Dawson, Ghostie and JPEGMAFIA. “I see them, and I see this energy that they give off and spread out to people, and I’m like, ‘Oh, okay, this is what I want my energy with Truth Cult to be’. I want it to be a little bit more fun, and a little bit more freaky than [other bands in the hardcore scene]. You see me up there and I’m doing fucking David Lee Roth high kicks and the splits and shit. I feel like a lot of that comes from that. And I think there’s a lot of Truth Cult songs that even have a little bit of Baltimore club influences too. I think with Truth Cult there’s a lot of different variables of Baltimore that make our band unique, and that make our band stand out from a lot of the other stuff.” He adds, “At the end of the day, we are a hardcore band, but I think Truth Cult transcends that a little bit. I think it has a little bit of a different energy. I think of it more as just rock music, you know? Just straight up, in your face, clear-cut, rock and roll music.”

One thing that is important to Roberts, he says, is that Truth Cult is an avenue to inspire and speak to other Black people. “Black people could go and see me performing and having fun and writing about all of these beautiful things, just being myself. I wanna show that other people can do that shit too.” Above all, it has been crucial in him gaining a sense of his own self-worth. “I’ve always struggled with my own sense of belief, and my own personal sense of self-love, because I never thought I was worthy of any of that stuff,” he says. “I never really felt a sense of happiness until maybe three years ago. And while I still have a lot to work on, I’m proud of myself for giving myself the room to work on that. I’ve never had anybody that I could fall back on or depend on to talk to – or maybe I did, but I never really knew how to -but I felt like writing this music and expressing that to the masses is the best way for myself to open up. Because when I get up and perform this stuff, I’m like a completely different person. And when that person comes out, it hatches out my outer shell.

“The journey is by no means finished at all, but I’m always learning new things about myself that I felt like I would have never even made it to if I had not discovered my ability to write music, or having people believe in me the way I did. Ever since I started performing in shows and writing music, that’s when the whole journey began. That’s when I started to realise that I’m a lot more than what I think I’m worth.”

As it much as it represents a deeply important personal journey for Roberts, Off Fire has also proved Truth Cult one of the most exciting new hardcore bands in the world. It will likely prove one of the best albums of the year, and beyond that, bet that Truth Cult’s fire will keep burning strong.

Paris Roberts asks that readers donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund.