The Bright Lights of America, Anti-Flag's newly released seventh album, sounds a lot different from the three-chord speed blast fans might be expecting. Easily the Pittsburgh politi-punk institution's most diverse record ever, it incorporates more than a few changes from the band's hardcore, DIY roots, including orchestral percussion, harmonicas, pianos, full child choirs and -- gasp! -- major-label distribution. So what's going on here?
As singer Justin Sane explained to City Paper in a recent phone interview, the move from underground, snarling punks to politically dissenting poster boys was a slow, deliberate process. And he couldn't be happier with the transition.
"From my take, this is the best record we've ever done. It's the most dynamic and interesting," he says.
The story behind Bright Lights is equal parts tragedy and triumph: Its creation began with the February 2007 murder of bassist Chris #2's sister. Both for his own sanity and because he believed it's what his sister would want, #2 carried on with the band's upcoming spring tour, and the outpouring of support from fans proved enough for Anti-Flag to enter the studio late last year. The result was some of the most emotional, fully realized -- yet still spitting and kicking -- punk tunes of the band's 15-year career.
"The idea of 'the bright lights of America' comes from looking closely at ourselves, at the nation, and asking, 'Is this the path we really want to take?'" says Sane. "I mean, why are so many of my friends on antidepressants? Why do we need to be medicated just to get through the day?"
While 2006's For Blood and Empire was arguably the band's most blatantly political album (composed of songs titled "The W.T.O. Kills Farmers" and "Depleted Uranium Is a War Crime"), this time around the quartet took a different approach. "It became obvious in our community that there was a need for a very personal record," Sane says.
But the new ideas didn't stop at songwriting: Anti-Flag, along with producer Tony Visconti (of Morrissey and David Bowie fame), brought in musical elements as foreign to most punk bands as Sane's politics are to the GOP.
"There was a feeling inside of us that life is short and we shouldn't be afraid to try new things, to step outside our comfort zone," says Sane, a frequent Pittsburgh Symphony patron. "I wanted the record to be something that no one in our genre had done." Into the studio came tympanis, tubular bells, extra kick drums and even a glockenspiel, fusing the huge sound of an orchestra with Anti-Flag's buzz-saw guitar and machine-gun drumming.
Herein lay the first of the album's duel hurdles: There's always that urge to want a band, especially a punk band whose essence is raw, young fury, to stick staunchly to its roots. For supposed punk stalwarts, is branching out selling out? No way, says Sane.
"If you play as much as we play, you just get a lot better -- you want to experiment," he says. "When I'm writing a record, I always do think about those people who've listened to our band since the beginning and have an expectation of our sound. But you can't be afraid of change.
"But if we're too different now, then I'd say I'm glad we appealed to them in the past, and I hope those songs still hold some meaning."
Though musical evolution is a sticky subject for any band with a grassroots following, it pales in comparison to signing with a major label, which Anti-Flag did in 2005. "We had a list of demands, and at the top was having complete artistic control," Sane says. "When RCA said they agreed and wanted to do our record, we basically had to pick ourselves off the floor.
"We knew we'd get a lot of shit for it, but there was too much we could accomplish working with a major -- that was just more important than cred. We're about activism, lobbying, rallying. And we have certain access to people because we're on RCA that we wouldn't have otherwise. And, I mean, I'd rather have an Anti-Flag CD taking up the shelf space at Best Buy than Britney Spears or Toby Keith."
Anti-Flag with The Street Dogs, The Briggs, Fake Problems and American Armada. 7 p.m. Sat., April 19 (doors at 6 p.m.). Gravity, 1216 Pittsburgh St., Cheswick. $17. All ages. 412-323-1919