Punk rock was built on anti-authoritarianism, but what’s a longtime punk rocker to do when the powers that be suddenly look less scary than the anti-vax, QAnon and other various creepy conspiracy theorists who oppose them? For Seized Up frontman Clifford Dinsmore, it’s a weird place to be.
“I’ve always written about mistrust of the government,” says Dinsmore. In fact he’s been doing so for almost four decades, since his group Bl’ast formed in 1983 and became the defining band to come out of the early Santa Cruz punk scene with albums like The Power of Expression and It’s In My Blood. Despite their reputation in the national hardcore scene, Bl’ast never really got the larger recognition they deserved, although Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl (who has been a fan since his own days as an ’80s punker in the D.C. band Scream) gave their legacy a huge bump when he played on their reunion EP For Those Who’ve Graced the Fire in 2013.
In 2019, Dinsmore was recruited into the Santa Cruz punk supergroup Seized Up by bassist Chuck Platt of Santa Cruz’s Good Riddance; guitarist Danny Buzzard, who played in the ’90s Bay Area punk band All You Can Eat; and Andy Granelli, who drummed with L.A. punkers the Distillers in the early 2000s. More recently, Platt, Buzzard and Granelli had played together in the thrash-y Santa Cruz hardcore band Fast Asleep, and when they had an idea for a new project, Platt says they had to get Dinsmore because “nobody writes lyrics like he does.”
So now Dinsmore finds himself reflecting on this upside-down political landscape, where “what’s scarier than anything is these meatheads all over the place ready for some kind of civil war.” He’s unnerved by how anti-vaxxers on both the left and right, rather than embracing the opportunity to do the right thing for their community, falsely claim vaccines are some kind of rights issue to be debated.
“We have vaccines for a reason,” he says. “It’s not about control.” But he wonders if anti-vaxxers’ paranoia will be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the rest of society has to enact stricter and stricter measures to limit the damage from vaccine ignorance. “People’s lack of ability to govern themselves and take a little bit of responsibility on their own means it’s going to have to get more and more extreme,” he says, bewildered. “The more people keep being stupid, the more it provides the basis to be controlled.”
It’s a nuanced argument, but then Dinsmore has never been one to oversimplify things. On Seized Up’s debut album Brace Yourself, he takes on issues that have torn apart Santa Cruz, like gentrification (“Taking Back the Neighborhood”) and the homeless problem (“Tent City Exodus”), without shying away from any of the brutal reality—but also without pretending there’s some easy solution.
“It’s more from an observational point of view, not a blame game,” he says.
Though Brace Yourself came out last year, it never got a proper release show; in fact, Seized Up only got to play three gigs total before the pandemic shut everything down. Now the band will finally get a chance to give it one when they play Moe’s Alley on Sept. 17. Unfortunately, the issues Dinsmore sings about on the album have only gotten more relevant since the album’s release.
“It’s the super-rich and the super-poor,” he says of the Santa Cruz extremes he wrote about on Brace Yourself. “It doesn’t seem like there’s going to be room left for anything in between. If you’re just working a normal job, how do you even think about paying rent in this town?”
What Dinsmore’s approach ultimately speaks to is the humanism that transcends punk rock’s supposedly knee-jerk approach to rebellion. Yeah, there are plenty of reasons to give the middle finger to the Man, but when the protests start making less sense than the policies, the real punks are calling it like they see it—for the people.
Seized Up will play on Friday, Sept. 17, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Enemy of My Enemy and Mondo Chaga open. Doors 8pm, show 9pm; $15/$20. Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test required for entry. moesalley.com.