Extended Anti-Flag interview, part the last | Pittsburgh City Paper

Extended Anti-Flag interview, part the last

Howdy! Happy Friday! Here's the second (and FINAL) part of our Anti-Flag interview, after the jump. If you missed part one, read it here first!

So, in the past, say, two years or so — what percentage of the time are you guys on the road?

Justin Sane: Well, the past two years actually was an aberration. We put the brakes on and decided not to release another record until we were done with it. We put out three records in four years — we were just a machine, cranking — always on the road or in the studio, and that was it. And there came a point where we needed a break. That’s all we were doing with our lives. Which is cool, but you hit a wall. And you’re like, wow, I wanna be doing something different. I wanna be experimenting wtih music and maybe goign in a direction where — you look band and think, Is that what I think Anti-Flag sounds like? And maybe it isn’t. And maybe try some other things. And 2 was off with his other band; I was doing some solo stuff. I think it gives you a break to breath and to have a life at home, for one, and two, to try something different musically, maybe, than we expected Anti-Flag to be when we started.

Chris #2: We did the last record for the major and we knew that everyone was fired and it was our last record with them, that cycle had been filled, and we finished it, but there were problems — the new people weren’t invested, they knew we were leaving. So we called our friends at SideOne and said we’re gonna write a new album and record it right away. Those two cycles went right together, and maybe our SideOne record was really a knee-jerk reaction to that system we were just in, and the feeling of liberation, being off the major and being able to do our own thing. And I think those two albums melded into a period where we just kind of put our head down and did what we were told. And now after taking the time and recognizing that we’re in complete control of our destiny and how we’ll be seen from here on our until we’re done — I think it was a bit of an internal conversation about going back, not necessarily to our “roots” or whatever, but just realizing that there aren’t any bands that sound like Anti-Flag. And there aren’t many bands saying the shit we’re saying. So why not embrace it? Why not make the best Anti-Flag record we can make? Maybe it’s not something that’s going to convert anyone who’s heard us in the past and made up their mind about us, but I think we spent some time worrying about that, and it didn’t lend itself to being the most productive way for us to make music. So i think the formula of us saying this is who we are, and embracing that, that always seems to go a little better for us. I think this is sonically more akin to those records in our past.

JS: I think that’s dead on — the idea of just taking a break and being able to discuss and explore with ourselves who we are as a band and what we want to be. We only did like 50 shows last year, which, for us, is out of character.

#2: This year we’ll hit more like 200.

JS: Which is more in line with what we usually do. But it was nice to catch our breath and decide, where do we go from here?

Does that also give you a chance to take a look at what you want to be writing about lyrically? You write a lot of topical stuff, so there’s always the news to mine, but have you taken a look at how you approach that?

JS: Definitely. We like to look at movements. What was great about taking our time on this record was, we saw Occupy Wall Street coming. We were on Wall Street a couple weeks after Occupy Wall Street began. If we had done things in the old way where we were just pumping records out — instead, we would get a whole bunch of songs together, then decide which ones we wanted to use. By the time Occupy Wall Street was really moving in full force, we could really look at the aspects of that that were really inspiring to us, then include those aspects on the record. I think those elements of Occupy would’ve been missed on this record. We would’ve talked about it in more broad terms, but we get to say, this is what’s so inspiring about this to us — whether it be the GA, or whether it be the way certain activists were able to organize around Occupy and the impact it was starting to have on the political dialogue in the country. really mainstream pundits talking about the one percent and the 99 percent — that kind of language never there before. So it was exciting to let things develop to the point where you could say, here’s the exciting things about this that were inspiring to us. Moving at the pace we did in the past, we might’ve missed that opportunity to make that kind of expression.

#2: Also it’s the kiss and the curse of owning our own studio. You can create something that’s timely, but you can also re-sing the same song four times ‘cause you’re updating it. Which happened.

What do you think about where Occupy is now — where it’s progressing to, or whether it returns in the same form in the spring or take on different shapes?

JS: There were a lot of people saying it’s time for Occupy Wall Street to move inside. And take the spirit of Occupying spaces and branch out and move into all kinds of new territory. I think where it is right now is very exciting: It’s a movement that is not gonna go away. And it’s branching out and starting other things, like Occupy Homes — the Occupy Homes movement has actually saved people from losing their homes. And to me those are the individual small victories that are tangible and very exciting, and those lead the charge to an overall change in society that I think the movement is pushing for. The general shift in — a paradigm shift in the way we think about wealth, and the way we think about equality. Coming into the spring, I do think it’ll be exciting just — it’s insane to hear someone like Mitt Romney say “I’m part of the 99 percent.” That’s absurd. And right ther,e you can see that Occupy Wall Street has had an effect on mainstream politics. As much as certain individuals would try to dismiss Occupy Wall Street, it’s there. And just the idea that it’s enveloped the whole psyche of America on income inequality — I’m sure the majority of people had no idea that the richest one percent of this country controlled as much of its wealth as they did, before Occupy Wall Street. And I think it’s just getting its feet under it and figuring out which direction it wants to grow in. It’s brought a lot of new people into activism, old and young, and I think those people are just now trying to find their place — what can my role be? — and once those people figure that out, you’ll find a wave of activism that will result in the spring and into the summer.

A lot of people look at it as a reaction against the Tea Party, which makes sense, but it’s still interesting and maybe unexpected to see a movement like this grow up during the administration of a president who’s considered by the mainstream to be liberal or progressive.

JS: Now you see [Obama] pushing in the other direction. And I think that’s a direct reality of Occupy Wall Street. Even if you’re a progressive politician — and I wouldn’t call Barack Obama a progressive politician by any means — if you don’t look outside the White House window and see people — even if you want to do something really progressive, if you don’t look outside and see people calling for this progressive step you want to take, it’s going to be really difficult for you to do.

#2: There was a fervor in the “left” that surrounded Barack Obama. And I think the excitement of his victory, the hangover of apathy that happened after we all kind of went “We won!” — that wore off and people were like, “Wait! Nothing happened!” It was kind of born out of that too. I think all of the movements are tied to one another, whether it’s the anti-war move at the height of the Iraq War, going into Occupy Wall Street, underlying, it’s a lot of the same cast of characters. But what’s interesting with Occupy Wall Street is that when I go there, I see people I didn’t see at the anti-war protests. It’s not just a group of punk rockers doing this, a group of hippies doing that. It’s schoolteachers and moms and dads and —

JS: Iron and steelworkers, which you just didn’t see at the anti-war rallies.

#2 And it’s living and breathing, versus being one day of action and then done. And that, to me, when we went there, that was the coolest aspect. It’s almost performance art, but also — right next to the new Trade Center, and the memorial, and there’s tourists taking photos of that stuff and in the background are these people... it’s a strange mix of emotions that you get in that sector of the world. Then going to Malaysia, there’s Occupy Malaysia, there’s Jakarta Occupy movement. Some of it, they’re talking about their own specific issues, but some of it, I had people come up to me and say, like, “We’re doing this to support you, we’re paying attention to you over here.” And you realize it’s bigger than any movement we’ve seen in the recent past.

JS: And there just hasn’t been a populist movement since the 1920s or ‘30s. The fact that there is, is interesting. When Barack Obama was elected, our reaction to Barack Obama was, “Oh, thank God the crazies aren’t still in power.” It wasn’t, “Yeah, we’ve got this liberal guy and he’s gonna change everything,” because ... my expectations for Barack Obama were so low, and still are. And that’s where we are again. It’s really sad because after Obama brought the bankers from Wall Street who brought about the economic collapse, into his White House, after he passed [the National Defense Authorization Act] — et cetera et cetera, I can come up with a whole list of things about Obama that I personally have a huge problem with. I wasn’t even gonna vote for Barack Obama in this election. Then I hear the Republicans talking, and I think, “Oh, man, I don’t want a guy in the White House who says he doesn’t care about the poor, I don’t want someone in the White House like Rick Santorum who tells rape victims to “make the best of a bad situation,” and doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state. To me, Rick Santorum is just the Ahmadinejad of America. And unfortunately, my only protection against the Ahmadinejad of America is to vote for Barack Obama in this election. When you get a little break from politics and then come back and see where it’s at, it’s pretty spooky.

That’s maybe a different opinion than you would’ve had 10 or 15 years ago with regard to presidential politics.

JS: For me it is. I voted for Ralph Nader instead of Al Gore and we got the Iraq War. I think Nader was the best candidate, and today I talk to a lot of my radical friends who say, “No way, I will not vote for Obama.” I don’t disagree with them, but I know that the chances of us going to war with Iran when Obama’s president as opposed to Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney — it’s a much different percentage. And I’ve seen the results of what happens when these crazy and, I think, dangerous people get into power. I think it’s just life experience, to be honest. I don’ think it’s being less radical, or unwilling to fight for what you believe in, but a certain level of pragmatism that you grow into as you have more life experience. It doesn’t mean that I’m not going to continue to push for a more progressive political left, just that, based on the current set of circumstances, and what I’ve seen happen in the past, I think that if you look at most organizations that keep track of this kind of thing, over a million Iraqis were killed under the years of George Bush. And I just can’t take that risk, of another slaughter of a million innocent people. And I really fear that we could go down that road again with the right wing view.

Taking it easy the past couple years, you’ve all been around Pittsburgh more than you have been in a while. How does living in Pittsburgh still play into what you guys do?

JS: For me, Pittsburgh is like a little oasis. On the road, it’s so intense with people from organizations, activists coming out — like on this last tour, we landed in New York right after Occupy Wall Street started, we ended up going to almost every Occupy encampment in every city we were in, there are people in the bigger cities with some of the organizations we work with, like Amnesty International, they wanna come out and discuss what’s going on out in the world, how can we work together on certain issues. When I come home to Pittsburgh, it’s like — for me, it’s interesting, because there’s so much going on in Pittsburgh, but for me it’s just like this little escape, to come home, hang out with my cat, hang out with my mom and dad — there’s a slower pace in this city, people in general are really friendly ... so in that respect, just the attitude — I think Pittsburgh has an effect in that we came up in a scene that was informed by politics and activism. And trying to make a change in the world for the better, and being able to express what you believe in. That influence will never go away.

#2: I got to do some things I wanted to do. I really love music; unfortunately, when I’m at a show, all I wanna do is play the show, so I did that, with White Wives. It still have a lot of that activist music culture that was there at the beginning of Anti-Flag. It also seems to have a self-awareness now that maybe it didn’t have a bit ago, where people realize that there are a few special places that people want to play and want to know about. When you travel, people ask me about the Roboto Project, ask me about Ormsby. And rightfully so. But it’s like — once you know you’re on the map, you look at yourself a little differently. But that being said, it’s incredible to be from a town that has that infrastructure; we do visit a lot of places that don’t, and it’s easy to take it for granted.

JS: There was a very strong DIY ethic from the minute both of us started playing music in Pittsburgh. That was reflected in the bands that came before us, and they passed it on to us. We were always fighting to find venues and book them, and playing, it took us a long time until we got to where we could just book a club and have a show. And that tradition, I think, it much stronger in Pittsburgh than the majority of cities in the United States.

You just announced AntiFest, a festival you're curating at the University of Hertfordshire in England in May. What provoked that?

#2: We’ve never done it, and we talked about doing it for a really long time; we play enough festivals, we know enough festival organizers, it’s a bit more nerve-wracking than I expected it to be. I thought it would just be, “We’re gonna curate this thing, everyone will LOVE us!” Now it’s like, “Aw, shit, I didn’t think of any of this!” Us and our booking agent, who lives in the UK, came up with the idea, and essentially it’s a new way for us to announce the record and the band in England. We picked a central spot right near some train stops, and people seem really excited about it. I didn’t really know it would get as much attention outside of England as it has — people are — the Internet, man, they yell at you for no fucking reason! “Why isn’t this happening in this place?” Well, we’ve gotta have it once and figure out if it’s gonna fail before we take on the world!

JS: We just happen to have the right partners; part of putting on a festival is having someone who has the right organizational skills and the know-how to make it happen.

#2: And the university campus that’s allowing us to have it there — the fact that it’s happening is a victory in itself. But I think we got to call in some favors with it; bands that are playing, like Bouncing Souls and Menzingers, in the UK there’s this band called The Skints, a ska band that’s English. Those are all bands that can play this place on their own, adn it’s kind of a testament to friendships, and the slice of humble pie you’re willing to eat just to be involved in punk rock. Where it’s like, “Yeah, we’ll play this, and make this whole thing for you just because you come up with the idea.” I think it’s gonna do really well; people seem really excited about it.

About the new record — tell me about how this record came together writing-wise, who was contributing what; I know some of you guys are off on other projects.

JS: What’s great about doing other projects is that you end up bringing that element back into what you write, so I encourage that. The song I wrote, Turncoat, that was going to be a solo song. And then #2 heard it and was like, “No no no, that’s an Anti-Flag song!” I don’t think I would’ve written that song if I’d been sitting in a room with four guys. It’s just — the creative process is so different, your environment and how you engage in it. So in that respect, it’s a positive for any band or musician; it helps to bring new skills and ideas to the table.

#2: This process was a bit different, mostly in the time. we tend to write in batches. We’ll write three or four songs, and they’ll have — for no other reason than the period of time in which they were written — they’ll have similar structures, or maybe even similar themes, and for us to be able to write a batch, take a break, come back with another batch — then you’re able to almost judge the songs on their own versus, like, “OK, we’ve written seven, we need three more and we have an album.” At the end of it, I think we only realized we were done when we started to get mixes. It wasn’t the regular process where in March and April you record, it’s mixed in May then it comes out. We were just getting songs finished and sending them away to get mixed. WE have a friend who mixed teh album in Nashville, the same person who recorded the White Wives record, his name’s Justin Francis, he’s a Pittsburgh product, and he was just sending us songs as we go, with no list of how many — just do it when you can do it. As they started to come back, we realized which songs complemented each other and made the most sense for Anti-Flag. And that’s not necessarily the norm.

JS: It also creates a diversity of songs, which is nice. Back in the old days when we were writing songs, playing basements, VFWs whatever, we’d see bands come through — a ska-punk band, a hardcore band, whatever — and we’d play with them, see what they were doing, it’d be new and exciting, and we’d be inspired: “That’s awesome, we should write a song like that!” And you had a long time to make a record. When we started, I was in school, we were just writing songs and playing out as we went along. This kind of went the same way, because we were taking our time: We could go out and see other bands and say “Oh, yeah, I remember this kind of music, I haven’t played something like that in a long time.” It definitely helped us to write a diverse group of songs. Anything you’re listening to at the time, anything you’re seeing, they influence you, whether you realize it or not. When we got to the very end of all the mixes, for me, some of the songs were so diverse, it was almost like, “How can we pull this whole thing together to give it any kind of continuity?” Because of the range and scope. The same thing with a theme: I don’t think a record necessarily has to have one theme, but it’s nice to have a certain continuity and a context for the issues we’re trying to tackle. I don’t want to be all over the place because that’s too much for everybody to process. I think in the end, we found away.

#2: I think, too, it wasn’t — SideOneDummy wanted a record earlier. Our booking agents wanted a record much earlier. And people get scared, they think people are gonna forget about you; if you take a break for a certain period of time, in the iPod generation, you’re gone. And that crept into our psyche a little bit, but we had to keep reaffirmed to ourselves that for some reason, we are fortunate enough to have an opportunity where people pay attention to the records we release. And that’s what it came down to; uttering our mantra to ourselves and not listening to the other people who maybe wanted it sooner. At the end of it, I think we overcame some of the obstacles of the sonics of the record just by cutting out space between songs. You don’t have time to think about it. [laughs]

JS: When I listen to this record, I’m surprised at the anger in the record, the frustration that comes across — it sounds like something we could have written 15 years ago, in that it is really aggressive. I can only attribute that to the people we’ve been around who have found that spark in us, inspired that. I listen to “Resist” and I’m like, “Man, I didn’t know I could sing like that — where’s that coming from?” That’s really a pretty exciting thing. I would chalk that up to taking time to spend time with people who have been working to change the world. Knowing there’s people out there gives me a lot of hope. I needed Occupy Wall Street to come along. I had really gotten to a point after the economic ripoff, after the gulf oil spill, I’d kind of gotten to a spot where I thought, wow, are we just doomed? Is there no hope, has everyone given up? And all of a sudden I find — there is hope. everyone has not rolled over and died. People realize that just because Barack Obama is president, we can’t stop pushing people in power to give up some of that power. You don’t stop pushing, we don’t win. People with power never relinquish power voluntarily. And right now, the corporations just have an overwhelming amount of power. Just look at the SuperPAC situation we’re facing. A large group of people have realized, it’s time to get back on the horse. We’ve had a nice breather; it’s time to get back to work. I think in our own small way we’re part of that. I think more than anything, what has come from Anti-Flag is the inspiration we’ve felt as part of that. I’m just thankful. Without it, it’d be very hard for me to get out of bed in the morning.