Around since the late '80s, the Pittsburgh punk band Anti-Flag has shared their politically-driven anthems with the world. Isabella Eastwood sat down to chat about global issues with the band's vocalist and bassist, Chris#2.
When Chris#2 of Anti-Flag and I started chatting, the conversation invariably started with the weather. However, this time, as we were currently experiencing the most extreme heatwave the UK had ever seen, it quickly evolved into the topics Anti-Flag are most commonly known for: global issues, activism, and hope.
So you’ve been going for a long time – we’re talking 30+ years – and the political situation has been getting…? How has your music responded to the changing times?
I think I’d like to begin with the situation is more dire than ever, corporate global fascism is at an all-time high. Whether it’s climate issues, the supreme court overturning Roe Vs Wade, or the devastation and colonisation of Africa. None of this state violence is happening in a vacuum. I think that people want to look at them as isolated incidents, and not that there’s an intersectionality to this violence.
That's the thing that Anti-Flag has consistently been commenting on with our songs, whether it's something as specific as a track from our record For Blood and Empire called “The WTO Kills Farmers” and it's hyper specific to Monsanto, or “Fuck Police Brutality” on our first album Die for the Government. You have a band who never thought we would leave Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh had the highest police brutality rate in the country. So we're going to write a song that's angry about that because that's what's right in front of us.
It ebbs and it flows, sometimes the politics gets bigger, others hyper specific. The version of Anti-Flag that we have today is different approach to what we’ve ever taken: a concept record. There are 11 stories tracing back either policy shifts or corporate influence over our lives, of cultural growing pains, and we try to dissect these issues, like healthcare or education in the United States. You can find when corporations started to influence the American political body to make people fend for themselves in terms of health care, or the climate issue relating to Exxon Mobile in the 70s.
It's us consistently searching for the best way to leave things better than we found them and alleviate suffering. That is what punk rock is to us. And every record or every show or everything that the band does is just an attempt to do those two things.
At your heart, are you optimists or nihilists? I tend to swing into the more pessimistic camp myself…
The enemy of movement is scepticism, and I’ve prescribed to that my entire life. We’re in a very privileged position where we can talk about things. We’ve talked about the masters of war who have led us to conflict in the Ukraine, or millions of deaths in Iraq, an invasion spearheaded by the US government.
But we’ve been able to commiserate together, empathise and have real human interactions. Because of that we get this shot of optimism that not a lot of people get. It’s a privilege and an honour to have the stories shared with us the way they are. We work together with local and international groups and organisations – Sea Shephered or a local chapter of Planned Parenthood – and bring them on stage, let them talk to the audience, get them to explain and extrapolate, and people clap for them. And if you are an activist at a desk all day then nobody claps for you, and I think that’s a powerful tool to let people know that their work is valuable. It’s something we try to do at any show we can.
So yes, I am an optimist, oftentimes by force.
Having been in a band for so long, I have to ask: has this been over 30 years of harmony, or distinct coping mechanisms to “not kill each other”?
Well, all of us go to therapy – I’m not sure how many times my name comes up with the others. I can’t quite comment on whether it’s a coping mechanism or not, but I do know there have been a lot of times we have felt unfulfilled from the mission, and when then that happens there is some kind of failure in the art: a record that doesn’t connect with audiences, empty shows…There are a lot of things that will echo, and will bring clearly to us that we are not the best versions of ourselves at that time. But the beauty of Anti-Flag is that one of us picks up where the other falls, and that’s how we’ve been able to drag ourselves in to the future, sometimes kicking and screaming.
This new record, we wrote together all four of us in a room for five months straight, which we wouldn’t have had without the pandemic. Because we have children and families now, it’s much more difficult to say “hey, devote 8 hours to this for months on time” and then go on tour, so our time at home is precious. The timing was right for us to collectively write something together, and I can hear the ideas reverberate between the four of us. Previously we didn’t have that, and emotionally we hear it – the little guitar noodle that would have been overlooked if we weren’t all in the room together, when it comes on, it brings us joy. It might not bring joy to anyone else, but it brings it to me and that’s valuable.
You drew extensive heat for signing with RCA from fans, and have defended your decision since, partly because it allowed you to reach a bigger audience. I’m curious about your opinion on the tension of fighting a big system from the inside. Are there any winners? (so, for example, even big charities that now work as corporations?)
I want to clarify something: we were never under the illusion of grandeur that putting a record label on the back of your album guaranteed that anyone would give a damn about what we had say or we're going to do. We had previous moments in the band's life where we signed on to different labels or larger labels and we expected to feel some monumental shift amongst the amount of people we perform to or the amount of people we interacted with. And it didn't fucking happen.
So, when we went into that major label deal, and they tried to tell us “Oh, you're gonna spread your message far and wide” we were like, you can't guarantee that, so fuck you. What they could guarantee us was that we could make the record we wanted to make, we could have a two-album deal, and we'd be free to go at the end of it.
The success for us was for the first time ever, we had a record label in Japan. We had a record label in Berlin. We had one in London and those were things that we didn't have before. And so, all of a sudden, our records were not imports, they were priced appropriately and accessible to people overseas. And it changed the band, the band grew to become one of an international stature and one that commented on things that affected not just us in the United States, but people abroad, and we owe a lot to that RCA deal for that, or at least opening that door for us to walk through.
You know, there's no right or wrong way, but it comes down to being a gateway drug to activism. I want people walking down the street, humming an Anti-Flag song, and maybe not knowing what it's about until they dive deeper. I see the same thing with the Greenpeaces and Amnesty Internationals of the world, if somebody is looking to get involved in activism, those are great places to start.
Those are all my questions asked! I do have one last question from my editor though, who has a theory that the second song of an album is always better than the first. Thoughts?
Interesting… I could believe that. I think that for a lot of bands, we are trying to use the first track to set a mood or a perhaps an agenda, or a colour palette for what the rest of the album is going to be. And usually you put your most energising and enticing track in that second spot, and then in your third spot you put the fucking banger.
But then, for Justin (of Anti-Flag), he wants the first track to be the undeniable town centre… so there are differing opinions.
With that, my conversation with Chris#2 came to a close, bar passing on greetings from my dad, who had happened to meet Anti-Flag’s drummer Pat Thetic – who was on his honeymoon – on a plane to South Africa, where they stayed at the same hotel. The world is a small place…
Anti-Flag is playing in Luxembourg this Sunday 8pm at Kulturfabrik, 116 Rue de Luxembourg, 4221 Esch-sur-Alzette.