Interview: Anti-Flag [May 2015]

By Tamsyn Wilce

Celebrating twenty years as a band is an achievement not many can boast about, but political-punk heroes Anti-Flag have overcome all circumstances and return this year with new album ‘American Spring’. We caught up with Justin Sane to find out what it takes to keep the passion for their music alive for so long.

Let’s get straight into talking about the album then. You’ve made it very clear that the record focuses on everything that is going on throughout the world and all the problems and issues that are happening right now, but what ultimately is the main message that you want the album to give to fans?

Well, there are two or three really strong themes that run through it for me. With the artwork and with the record we’ve been trying to challenge people’s perceptions of violence and challenge people’s biases. With the artwork we tried to do that in a way where we’re showing these images of people with the exploding flower on their faces and one thing it makes people think about how they perceive violence, depending on who’s face that exploding flower is on. Some people are comfortable with it being on a Muslim woman’s face but they’re not comfortable with it being on a soldier’s face, or some people are comfortable with it being on a kid with a hoodie, but not comfortable with it being on a cop.

We wanted to challenge people’s perceptions of violence, but on the other hand any sociologists worth their soul is gonna tell you that every study ever done about people’s personal bias shows that everyone has an inherent bias. It’s impossible not to; just growing up in our society with so much influence that people take in every day and they don’t even know they take it in. So even if you’re an open minded person and you’re accepting of others, you still deep down inside have an inherent bias, we all do, it’s just impossible not to. What we’re trying to do with that is challenge people’s biases, how people think about their biases, because ultimately when people are aware, and are self-aware of their bias, they can rise above it, that’s what makes us more open and accepting of people. The way we tried to do that with the artwork is, we have these images and quite often punk rock kids will see a soldier or a cop and they think “killer”, where on the other hand a middle American white guy sees a Muslim woman and thinks “terrorist”, or he sees a kid with a hoodie on and thinks “thug”, so we’re just trying to prove a point that it’s on all spectrums of society and that once we’re aware of those things we can overcome them and be more open to people and realise we’re all just human beings.

The other issues that I think is very prominent that runs in the record, is the issue of wealth and equality. That’s something that has always been there for me. I grew up very poor and most of us in the band were either middle class or incredibly poor, so the issues of wealth and equality has always been something that has been important to us because it’s something we’ve experienced and lived with and been around a lot. We’ve seen what happens to people that haven’t been given a fair chance. Right now, Oxfam predicts that in 2016 1% will own 50% of the world’s wealth and that’s just immoral. The current economic system we’re under, it’s unjust, it’s inequitable, it has caused global financial catastrophe, it doesn’t actually work. That’s something we address on the record, the fact that it’s something we need to move away from. We need to get corporations out of our politics. We need to decentralise power. We need to give people more power back and that means changing not only the political system but the economic system as well

What about the title, explain ‘American Spring’, how did you decide on that?

‘American Spring’ was inspired really by the incredibly sophisticated way that young people, during the Arab spring, used technology to motivate and to mobilise each other, to make change.

And for you personally, which song on the album do you think is the most powerful?

I really love this record. I love it and it’s so hard to pick a favourite song, so many of the songs mean something to me. I guess in a way, I don’t know if it’s necessarily my favourite but I love the song ‘The Sky is Falling Down’ because it’s about the fact that people live with all kinds of terror and terrorising others, whether it’s state sponsored terrorism like drone strikes, or whether it’s car bombings or whatever it might be. Terrorising people is immoral. It doesn’t lead to a solution to the world’s problems; it only helps to increase tension between people and divides people. It doesn’t make us safer, it actually makes us less safe because it creates enemies instead of bridging barriers. I think what I really love about the song is that it really captured the ominous feeling that the people who live under constant threat or terror must live with. When we set out to write the song we had to find a vibe that we felt would correlate to the song topic. When we were able to find that place with the song it made me really proud of it and for that reason it might be my favourite.

It’s a toss up. I think ‘Song For Your Enemy’ is a song that I really love too because it’s about not being afraid to be comfortable with who you are and no matter how others judge you. It’s encouraging people to be true to themselves. I think that’s so important for people to do because ultimately you’re the person that has to live your life, so why would you try to be influenced by what people who don’t even know you might think of you? Especially when they’re being critical of you in a way that isn’t fair.

What about the writing and the recording process this time around? Did you have any set ideas of how you wanted the album to sound when you went into the recording studio?

Yeah we did and I think it sounds a lot like how we wanted it to sound, which is really cool. We worked on the record with Kenny Carkeet from Awolnation and he’s a really great guy and became a good friend. He’s a great engineer and he has a recording partner and producer, Jim Kaufman, so together those guys produced and engineered the record, and we were really able to explain to them what we wanted it to sound like and what we were going for. Then they were able to take our direction and crank it up to 11. I just felt that they did such a great job engineering the record and pushing us creatively; pushing us to get out of our safety zone as far as what’s acceptable to us in an Anti-Flag song. It’s great to have someone pushing you like that because ultimately really exciting things can happen. I feel that making this record was a really special experience.

What was the most challenging part of making the record?

The most challenging part for me is actually being in the studio and recording the songs. It’s interesting that because I understand that once these recordings are finished, that’s it, that’s what those songs are gonna be, they’re etched in stone at that point. So, when I’m recording them I want them to be the best possible thing that they can be and I’m so attached to every one of the songs. I care about them all so much that I want it to be so perfect when I’m in the studio working on it that it causes really a lot of stress.

You’ve said as well that the artwork is quite a statement in itself. Do you ever purposefully intend to shock or surprise your fans with each record, or do you just utilise every creative outlet that you possibly can?

I think the latter for the most part of it, in that we hope that the artwork is going to be a great addition and a continuation of the ideas that we develop within the music. I would say that this artwork is a great example of that. We had themes that we were trying to touch upon in the songs and then from that we were able to take those ideas even further with the art. To me, that made the artwork for this record really special and the guy who did the art, a friend from home called Doug Dean, he really deserves a credit and it was really exciting to me that he could hear our ideas with the music and the point of view that we were coming from with the music.

I think if you can shock people, in a tasteful way that makes them think, I think that’s always a positive because when we can grab people’s attention enough that it makes them wonder what you’re trying to say with something, I think that that’s important.

And you’ve successfully continued to create your unique style of political punk for twenty years now, what are the biggest factors to keeping the band together and keeping the passion alive for creating music?

Oh god, I don’t know, there’s so many things to it. I understand why some bands break up after only a few years together. I think especially if you’re fairly successful pretty quickly, the pressure and stress that comes along with that is something that’s really hard for people on the outside to understand. Quite often you care so much about your art and your music and all the people involved with it care so much that it’s impossible for them, when they disagree on something, not to fight and then hate each other’s guts. They all love this thing that they built collectively, more than they love each other individually, so in that respect it’s very hard when you’re starting a band to continue with it.

I think for us, even though I would say the hardest days in the band were the first four years, where we’re travelling in a van and sleeping on people’s cat pissed stained floors, where we literally have no money and we’re playing on horrible gear and all those things – those are probably the hardest times but I think what kept it going. It kept it going for two decades after, that we just cared about the band and the music so much and that was enough. Even during the times where we weren’t getting along or where really difficult circumstances came up, I think that was enough for us to hang with it. We’ve had so many ups and downs it’s almost hard to believe. I remember on 9/11 people were calling me telling me we should change the name of the band, even really good friends and having the insight and the fortitude to say no, this is what we believe in. Yes 9/11 was a tragedy but it doesn’t change the things that we’re saying, if anything it validates what we’re saying to a certain degree.

Ultimately, I’ll sum it up like this: you don’t do this for twenty years unless you fucking love it because your ass gets handed to you so often, and for all the great highs and the amazing experiences you have on stage and the people you meet, you eat so much shit and deal with so many hardships that 99% of average people would not go through what we’ve been through and continue to do this. And I don’t mind saying that because I absolutely stick to my guns and believe that’s true. It’s a great and amazing experience and I’m thankful to be a part of it and to have had it, but for anybody to think that it’s been easy, it hasn’t been.

You’re playing a tiny show at London’s Old Blue Last, which is going to be chaotic, are you planning anything particularly special?

We haven’t yet. We announced the first show and it sold out in a day, so that was a problem. So, we decided to add another one, a matinee and we’re obviously gonna have to do different sets. We’ll figure it out. Maybe one of those sets will just be a straight ‘Terror State’ set. We’ve had the ten years of ‘Terror State’ pass by so maybe we’ll do that, we haven’t done it in the UK yet.

How do you make sure each live experience is different from the last?

That’s an interesting question, because I do quite often go onto stage thinking to myself about what is something different that I want to do tonight? How do I want this set to flow? A lot of times I think that is taken care of just by the geography of the stage. Every stage is different and every venue is different. What I have found is that no matter what you’re playing for, every set takes on a life of it’s own. There’s something spontaneous usually that happens in every set and it’s what I refer to as ‘the moment’. Something happens and you say to yourself, “oh there it is, that’s the one!” That’s when you realise that it’s going to be a special night. I think for me personally, the most important thing is to make sure that we connect with the audience personally, so that they understand that we are there because we literally want to connect with them. We’re there because they came. Ultimately we’re here to build a community so it’s important for us to not just have the music between us, but to interact with each other beyond that. It’s important to convey the message that we’re all here together and we’re all supporting each other in being who we wanna be.

Is there anywhere you haven’t played yet that’s on your bucket list?

Yeah, probably a few places. Actually it’s funny, I don’t really wanna play here but when we were kids, the drummer from Anti-Flag and I, there was this big stage in this county park that we live in and we used to go out there as kids and pretend that we were in a rock band. It’s a huge stage, it could probably hold 20,000 people, so it might be kinda cool to play that stage one day and I think we could now.

Beyond that, I’d like to play in Africa. I think it’d be cool to go into the heartland of China. We’ve played in Hong Kong but we haven’t gone further than that. I’d like to go any place that we’re not really allowed to play. To play in Jerusalem, in the occupied territories would be really interesting. Last year we went to Russia and Ukraine and we went as the conflict was starting and kinda tried to carry the message that the people fighting in that conflict have a whole lot more in common with each other than the people who are ordering them to fight. It was really life affirming to meet people on both sides and see that these people are really very similar to each other. They have similar hopes and dreams, and they really all want the same things. Helping people to see that with each other was a small deed that we can maybe deliver.

Finally then, what do you hope to achieve in the rest of 2015?

I just hope to survive 2015 [Laughs]. I feel like I’ve been on a fucking roller coaster. It’s been an intense year so far y’know? Every time you have a new record so much happens. I was in Pittsburgh yesterday and I’ll be in Berlin tomorrow morning talking about the record, which makes for crazy long days but it’s a great experience. I can see that this year is going to be really physically, mentally and emotionally demanding. I’m really excited about it, but also know that I need to pace myself and do the best to take care of myself, which to be quite honest with you, I’m not very good at doing… because if there’s a party then I wanna be there!

‘American Spring’ will be available from the 25th May 2015 via Spinefarm Records. Anti-Flag will be playing will be playing two shows at the Old Blue Last in London on the 2nd June, before returning to the UK in August for a co-headline show with Less Than Jake at Brooklyn Bowl, London, and an appearance at Rebellion Festival in Blackpool.

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