Interview by Zev Citron. Photos by Winnie Surya. Pittsburgh political punk rockers Anti-Flag stopped by Toronto earlier this summer as part of their world tour in support of their 10th record, American Spring. We sat down with Justin Sane and Chris #2 at a small and quiet cafe patio in Queen West to discuss their newest LP along with the strong messages and ideas behind the project.
First of all, I’d like to congratulate you both on your 10th album. That’s a pretty big milestone!
Chris: Thanks, we’re very excited about it. I’m just glad it’s out and happening because it’s been a really long process. It’s been over three years since our last record.
You guys have a long tour ahead of you. How’s it going so far?
Chris: It’s been very easy. The shows have been filled with very kind people. I feel like the state of the world currently is giving us fewer and fewer places to feel free to be ourselves so that’s obviously a big concern of our band and that’s one of the themes of the record.
Justin: I’d say it’s giving people less and less places to be themselves.
Chris: So when we play the show and we’re with a couple hundred people who are just excited that no one’s judging them – there’s a room with zero racism, sexism, homophobia, and bigotry, that’s a huge victory. So we’re very fortunate that we get to travel the world and meet like-minded people who live a life with empathy and care about things more than just themselves. Every show we play is really great, whether it’s 150 people at the Bovine or a 50,000 people festival in Germany.
Your album, American Spring dropped a couple weeks ago and it has a very strong album cover. Can you discuss the artwork and the idea behind the title?
Chris: We worked with an artist in Pittsburgh – his name’s Doug Dean. He kind of spearheaded the design side of it, but we came to him with several ideas. We had the record title, American Spring, and we knew we wanted to reference the Arab Spring and the unprecedented movement of using technology to bring people together in a part of the world where they assumed revolution was never possible, so giving kudos to those who are breaking ground and working tirelessly to promote equality was the idea behind it. I think that this idea of an American Spring and living a life with empathy and feeling as if there is progress to be made was really important for us to harp upon. One of the things that we wanted to do was challenge our own perceptions and challenge the perceptions of the audience of Anti-Flag and anyone who walks into a record store. So I think that putting a Muslim woman, a really archetypal character on the front cover and then this hyper-realistic exploding flower that gives this feeling of violence and makes you think “is that a gunshot? An explosion? What is it?” That range of emotions that comes from that was really important for us because we wanted people to think “What’s okay? What’s not okay? Why are we seeing violence when there is none? Have we become so indoctrinated as a society with images of violence that we just walk right by them?” We had a few really interesting social experiments with the artwork. We had a friend come to see the front cover and he said, “Wow that’s amazing.” Then we turn the back cover over and there’s an American soldier and they’re like, “Oh you can’t do that.” Well why can we do one and not the other? Whether you think that you live above racism or prejudice or privilege, you can’t just say that. You actually have to be acknowledging it and constantly recognize that where we come from, we’re hit with thousands of images daily that are telling us to feel one way, act one way, or live our life another way. Punk rock kids see soldiers and they think baby-killers. Middle American Fox news viewers see a Muslim woman and they think: terrorist.
Justin: It’s that inherent racism that we all have as a result of living in our culture. Any good sociologist will tell you that it’s impossible for people not to have some level of bias within themselves. The point that we’re trying to make to people is that we want them to recognize that they have that. As soon as people can recognize that they have a certain level of bias within themselves, that’s when they can actually rise above it and be more open and accepting of others, start to have empathy and understanding for others, and start to bridge gaps between people so we can bring people together.
You guys dropped the music video for “Brandenburg Gate” a couple weeks back. There’s a lot of powerful imagery and messages throughout. Can you discuss the process in making the video and how it relates to the song?
Chris: We wanted to carry that theme of perceptions of violence. I think that when you see a kid building a bomb, you’re thrown to Boston and to other parts of the world where these kind of things have happened. People get uneasy and uncomfortable with that. Being that antagonist is very important for us because being too comfortable leads to complacency. We wanted to make sure that right from the get-go, people were seeing things that were making them uneasy so it will make them continue to watch the video.
Justin: Also adding to that theme of being so indoctrinated by violence that we actually see violence when there is none. Because the reality is that there was no violence in the video but people’s inherent belief immediately sees a kid working on something and thinks bomb.
Chris: I’ve had people tell me that they died and that the ending is a dream sequence and all kinds of crazy shit like that, but that’s all part of the art. It’s cool that people can have their own interpretation of it.
Justin: Furthermore, a big part of the theme is hope. “Brandenburg Gate” the song to me is really a song of hope. Talking about the fact that, (and this theme kind of runs throughout the record), that the economic system that we live in is immoral and unjust. Capitalism is not good for everyone and it’s something that we need to change. The idea with the “Brandenburg Gate” being that during the Cold War, it was totally unreachable for people from both East and West Germany because it was the dividing line between the two. We’re kind of making a parallel between the idea that so many people didn’t believe that communism could ever fall and the Cold War could never end, but eventually it did. A lot of people think that this kind of economic system that we’re living in right now and the type of governments that we have right now which are very corrupt and are pretty much run by corporations at this point, a lot of people believe that these systems can never change and our point is that these things can change. Change comes in places where people never expect it. With the video you see things go from very dark to very positive. To me, that’s just one more metaphor between the meaning of the song and the imagery that you see in the video.
Chris: Also, it’s a fucking music video [laughs, everyone]
Justin: It’s a good time.
Chris: I think that all of the tools, whether it’s a rock and roll record, a music video, talking to you in a weird shutdown cafe; all of that is about saying when you see this or hear this or read this for the first time, perhaps you feel as if the world, as fucked up as it is, there is still a glimmer of hope in it, and you can recognize that there is somebody else out there that feels the same way you do and that’s all of the things we try to do with the band. Sometimes you get this feeling like everything has to have the end all meaning where it’s like, this is the catalyst for the revolution. No, none of it is. The revolution doesn’t come from a rock band or a t-shirt or any of that shit. It comes from people coming together. It’s the way it has always been throughout history. Our role in that is to have these mini-rallies, these celebrations, and bringing as many people in as possible so that we can say, “Hey we all give a fuck about more than just what pair of jeans we’re wearing so let’s do something with that.”
I went through the We Are Resistance essays and there are some very interesting and inspiring quotes throughout it. What’s your idea behind accompanying essays with an album? How did that come about?
Chris: The songs are two and a half minutes long, so there’s a lot of inspiration that goes into writing that song. While I do want as much of it to be up for interpretation as possible, I do think it’s important for people to know where we’re coming from.
Justin: The same way the people can’t fully get the meaning behind all of our ideas in a short song, we can’t get it all out in those essays either, but the goal is to give people an understanding of what has inspired us over time and what inspired us to write certain lines or lyrics in a song. Furthermore, some of those things are just a great opportunity to expose people to some of the people that have inspired us. We have an excerpt from Dr. Cornell West, “Dr. King weeps from his grave.” My idea of putting that essay into our booklet is that I want people to see this amazing essay that was written by Dr. Cornell West and say to themselves, “Who is this guy? What else has he done?” hopefully that will inspire him to look up his other works and be influenced by his ideas in the same way that we have been.
Chris: It’s all like this gateway drug to activism, and so whether it’s that you saw the video on YouTube and you wanted to know more and that snowballs into reading the essays. That’s the end all be all for us; to just bring more people into being cognizant that there is an entire world out there. Also, we grew up on records and foldout posters and all that kind of shit, so thankfully we are back with a label (Spinefarm Records) who’s willing to help us spend money on those ideas and get that stuff to fruition because for the last couple records, we’ve been limited by budget in doing so.
Justin: A lot of those essays, for example, the old Dead Kennedy records, those were things that inspired us to make art and to make music and to care about things and learn about things and try to make a difference in the world. I think that is an element that has been missing from a lot of musical releases, where nowadays because everything is digital, bands just automatically think, “Oh screw it, we’ll do a 6 page booklet and put lyrics on it” and it doesn’t matter, but I think you can be creative and the packaging can be a whole other piece of art in itself that accompanies the music and I think it should be.
Chris: All economies are microcosms or mirrors of each other. So when your school runs out of money, they cut art or music. When record labels run out of money, they cut packaging; they cut art. So that being said, it’s really important for us to try and do that kind of stuff and have that in there and have it not just exist in a digital world because I want people to sit down and listen to the entire record and have something to read when they’ve listened to it 4 or 5 times later.
Justin: Yeah, fuck the digital world, man. Analog!
Chris: Yeah. Also take your phone and shove it up your ass!
Chris: And make sure you’re still recording because I want to be quoted correctly. [laughs]
Who do you want to be a voice for?
Justin: I think that we wanna be a voice for anybody that doesn’t have a voice right now. It’s not so much that we want be a voice for someone. We want to put ideas out there and by putting ideas forward, it will hopefully inspire people the same way we were inspired by bands like The Clash or the Dead Kennedys, or Minor Threat, because ultimately it’s people who make change in the world; one individual at a time. So the main goal is to put ideas out into the world and hope that those resonate with someone and inspires someone to act in a certain way.
Chris: I don’t appreciate his humility. We wanna be a voice of the generation!
Justin: We’re the Pepsi Cola of 2015! [Sings] “I’d like to buy the world a Coke!”
Chris: Yeah exactly. Punk rock is where we come from and that’s who we are. Punk rock has always been about speaking as a collective for those who can’t speak for or stand up for themselves. Whether it’s doing Food Not Bombs, which is an organization that gives food to homeless people in cities around the globe, or whether it’s teaming up with the ACLU to help protesters in movements or protests where they get jailed, there’s an endless array of examples of people saying, “Well right now in this collective we have a lot. We have our creativity. We might not be financially wealthy or any of those things but we’re wealthy in many other ways and how do we share that?” It’s not about calling yourself “a voice of” or “a voice for.”
Justin: But I think that is a good point. What drew me in to punk rock was that it was a genre that was giving a voice to people who couldn’t speak for themselves. I think that is important and that is something that we try to do with our music because I believe that is what punk rock in general does as a community.
You guys have worked with some real punk legends including Tom Morello and Billy Talent who are Toronto locals.
Chris: Yeah everyone is just riding our coattails. It’s weird.
Speaking of Billy Talent, what’s your connection with Toronto? Do you have a favourite memory of performing here?
Justin: Oh fuck yeah, we probably have the exact same one.
Chris: It’s probably different. We disagree all the time.
Justin: He says black, I say white. He says Coca-Cola, I say Pepsi.
Chris: Actually you say Coke.
Justin: Well for me it was definitely the Opera House in Toronto, we played “Fuck Police Brutality” one time and as soon as we started the song, literally on the first beat, the barricade just when BOOM and fell down because the kids just rushed it.
Chris: Same thing happened at Warped Tour and that was my favourite memory so it was kind of the same but different!
Justin: Was that Toronto too? That’s crazy. So we successfully destroyed two barricades in Toronto at two different shows.
Chris: My favourite memory was Warped Tour where we left Justin in Montreal and he had to get from Montreal to Toronto. He missed the show and he didn’t have any clothes.
Justin: All I had was a pair of shoes and a pair of shorts and no socks. Who doesn’t have socks?
Chris: Like board shorts, you know? There were no cell phones so he was on the payphone and we left him. I was touring with a pager but everyone had everything had turned because it was so expensive in Canada so he had to call the promoter in Montreal and they came. First he had to convince the hotel to let the shirtless man in board shorts back in because we had checked out of the rooms, but all they had for him was a shirt from the lost and found.
Justin: It was a Nike cutoff aqua shirt with a pink Nike swoosh.
Chris: So that was my favourite Toronto memory; when I looked over and he wasn’t there and then he showed up in his board shorts and his cutoff t-shirt.
Justin: But we’ve done so much here. We’ve played the Air Canada Centre. You know who else did? Drake.
Chris: Riding our coattails again…
You have the power to time travel, you can play any venue in any city at any time. Where would you play? When would you play? Who would be your opener?
Chris: I would play in 2015, right now. I wouldn’t time travel but I would go back in time to get the bands to play the show because they’re dead. The Clash would headline the stadium in Pittsburgh. We would play. Billy Talent would play because that would be awesome. Alexisonfire would play because that would be awesome. Cancer Bats would play because that would be awesome. The Homeless Gospel Choir would play, he’s our buddy Derek from Pittsburgh. It would be an all-day festival at the stadium in Pittsburgh and all of our friends and family would be there and it would be the coolest. We would buy the world a Coke!
Justin: And we’d all sing “Kumbaya”. I’d probably keep it small and dirty. There was a really cool venue in New York City called Coney Island High. I think we’d pack in Coney Island High with many of those same bands. I certainly would’ve liked to see The Clash because that would be cool. So, The Clash would open for us and then we’d headline.