As Anti-Flag continue to tour in support of their 2008 album, The Bright Lights of America, the band's vocalist, Justin Sane, took time to speak with Punknews' Michael Dauphin about life on a major and the new album.
I understand you recently moved to England. What spawned that relocation and how has your experience been thus far?
I moved to England about six months ago. Iâm an Irish-American citizen so I have dual citizenship. My Irish citizenship allows me to live anywhere in the EU. Iâve always enjoyed my time in Europe over the last seven years. Itâs incredible to immerse yourself in that culture and the things you can take away from it. Just the things that you learn, itâs incredible for me to learn new things about England simply by living there.
Itâs something that I have always wanted to do. I had the opportunity and I jumped on it. I plan on living in Ireland at some point as well. I have always taken an extreme interest in different cultures around the world. You know, you only live once. And I think people quite often say to themselves, "I wish I could do this or that." My attitude for life is that I am going to live it and Iâm not just going to dream about doing things.
That said, I love living in London. Thereâs so much culture and unbelievable people. Thereâs an amazing art scene in my neighborhood -- I live in the East End. On a continuous basis, youâll find people playing in the street. There are all kinds of artists and galleries. Itâs funny too because I keep running into people I know. Billy Talent and Anti-Flag did a track together recently and they sent over a track for me to sing on. I went into a recording studio right next to my apartment and, as it turned out, that studio had just recorded the new Billy Bragg record. And I know Billy Bragg so we had that connection. Itâs amazing how in place like London, you often cross paths with people that are connected to other people you know. Thereâs somewhat of a kinship between all of the artists within the community.
What kind of impact has your relocation had on Anti-Flag and your writing process?
Well, with the band, quite often the way we write is that one of us will have an idea of a song or a main body of a song. Then, together weâll kick around and stuff. I donât thing that will change very much. I will be in Pittsburgh to write songs with the band whenever itâs time to do that. Not to mention, we spend a lot of time with each other on the road too. Even with living in London for the past 6 months, Iâve probably only actually been in London for 40-50 days. So, Iâm around the band all the time anyway and that wonât change.
I still visit Pittsburgh all the time. Iâm in Pittsburgh right now, actually. The aspect of being in the band and touring wonât really change anything. The only major change is that I have been traveling separate from them. I travel by myself basically. Iâve been kind of lucky because the other guys seemed to keep running into horrible traveling problems. They keep hitting bad weather and airline strikes. My flights have been rather smooth.
Are you traveling to all of these shows separately?
No, I should clarify. I just mean at the beginning of the tour as opposed to traveling with them out of Pittsburgh together.
Sorry, I thought you meant you were pulling a Phil Collins and flying to each show by yourself.
No, thatâs not how we travel and I would not want to tour like that.
Back to your experience in London so far, whatâs your take on how the Brits view the U.S. and the upcoming election?
I think it is tragic. America used to be a country that even when foreigners saw America as having problems, they still looked at our country as an example for the rest of the world to follow. Itâs incredible how many people I have talked to, old and young, that their perspective of the United States has been greatly diminished over the last 8 years.
I think itâs unfortunate because certainly it shows that as far as participating in the world community, the United States has sort of checked out, under the Bush regime. Especially when the United States has the opportunity to set a standard. Where they have the opportunity to put forth the message of human rights and equality. And when a nation misses that opportunity, I think itâs really tragic.
So, certainly things have changed. Barack Obama is a rock star overseas. And people over here just assume that he is going to be president. I have people say things like, "You know, when Obama is electedâ¦" And I have to say to them, "You know, Barack Obama might not win." And they canât even fathom that. They say things like, "After 8 years of Bush, how could you elect someone else just like Bush?" It definitely gives an idea to me that it comes down, in a large part, to a media presentation, I think. Obama is pretty much portrayed to the foreign press as being a progressive hope to the world. America is put through the scrutiny that the press would put any candidate who would run for office in the United States through. Certainly, in the United States, a lot of the ideals that McCain has, theyâre considered pretty standard ideas. Theyâre not necessarily considered radical. In that respect, itâs interesting to be in Europe and see how people view our political system in the U.S.
This may be a personal question, but are you over there indefinitely, no longer voting as U.S. citizen? Or are you able to vote absentee?
Yeah, I am voting absentee. Iâll actually be in the United States during the election. So I wonât actually vote absentee. Iâll be at my local polling station. I didnât have to give up my voting rights. I donât have the right to vote in Ireland or England.
You guys just played Redding and Leeds festivals. What where some of the highlights from those shows? Favorite sets?
Playing Redding and Leeds was amazing, and tiring. We played four shows in two days. We opened up on the main stage, which was incredible and humbling. Then, in the evening, we would play a second show for BBC1 Radio. And those two shows were maybe the best shows we ever played. We allowed people coming to the shows to pick our set. They were able to choose online and I think it made the sets really special. They did pick some songs that we havenât played recently and it was fun to play those songs and have people really excited about them.
Rage Against the Machine played two of the nights that we were there. I have seen RATM several times but these were really special. What they basically did was came out in jumpsuits with bags over their heads like Guantanamo Bay prisoners. They stood out in front of 60,000-70,000 people in a way that made it look like their hands were tied behind their backs. I was right on the stage when they came out and I didnât know they were going to do this. It was really striking. It was so compelling and it also made your skin crawl. It really made the whole thing very human and gave you a strong sense of what they are doing at Guananamo Bay. Many people are being held without any evidence that they have done anything wrong. Regardless, itâs certainly treating people in an inhumane way. Not the kind of example you would want to set for the rest of the world in how to treat people.
The Unseen played and I have always been a big fan of them. They have been around as long as Anti-Flag and actually, some of our first shows were with them. It was really great to see Mark and Scott and the rest of the guys and get to spend some time with them.
You guys are gearing up for a show with Rage Against the Machine coinciding with the Republican National Convention? What has the buzz been like going into this show? Have there been any threats that someone will pull the plug? [Ed. Anti-Flag was able to perform. Rage Against the Machine was not due to an alleged failure to obtain a permit.]
(Laughingâ¦) There are no threats yet. I guess weâll just have to show up and see what goes down. We are obviously there to make a statement. Every show Anti-Flag plays is a statement against the platform of the Republican Party. Every show that Anti-Flag plays is a statement against racism, homophobia, sexism, blind nationalism and violence. I think it really makes sense for us to be there and thatâs why we chose to be there.
At this point though, there have been no threats that the show will be shut down and we wonât be able to proceed. Iâm very hopeful that weâll be able to have our voice heard and connect with people that share our ideals, and assure us that weâre not alone in what we believe.
Tony Visconti produced your newest album, "The Bright Lights of America." What was it like working with him compared to previous producers and did he have any cool stories about some of the legends heâs worked with (i.e. Bowie, Morrissey, T Rex, etc.)?
It was really exciting to work with Tony Visconti because he is the most creative and talented person that I have ever worked with on a continuous basis in that fashion. We would work together in the studio and talk about the songs with each other at night. We worked with Tom Morello in the past, but never in the capacity where he would be in the studio everyday with us.
As you mentioned, Tony has worked with incredibly creative people in the past. He is extremely talented and creative. He can pretty much play every single instrument that has ever been invented. It was great working with him.
He definitely had some stories. I donât think I can share them though. He wrote a book though and Iâm pretty sure most of those stories are in the book. Most of them have to do with David Bowie taking lots of drugs or being drunk and falling down steps, and things of that degree.
It seems that you guys toyed with more instrumentation than previous efforts. Is that something you guys had in mind going in, or was that Viscontiâs touch?
Well, it was definitely something that we went in with. Thatâs why it seemed like working with Tony made so much sense. We felt like we were going into unchartered territory and we werenât exactly sure how to make it work and execute it. We knew that having someone with Tony Viscontiâs experience, he would know exactly how to execute it.
Lyrically, it seems as though much of the content is more introspective and deals with basic human struggles as opposed to straight up political content. Would you agree? Was that deliberate?
The writing process was very deliberate on The Bright Lights of America. It mostly stemmed from the fact that our bass playerâs sister was murdered in February of last year. That had an incredible impact on our bass player and the band. As a result, a lot of the songwriting was influenced by emotions that we went through during that time.
Thereâs a ton of symbolism on the record that harks back to that time period, including the children singing on the record. #2âs sister left behind a number of children and all of the kids singing on the record are related to us. They were our nieces and nephews. The one thing that I never saw coming was that after #2âs sisterâs death, we had so many kids coming up to us to express their condolences, and their stories and experiences with tragedies in their life. I think that was the biggest impact on me in terms of writing for "The Bright Lights of America."
The actual song, "Bright Lights of America" stems from two stories that I heard from fans. One is about a girl who is a cutter. She hacks her arms up and she canât stop. Sheâs not sure why she does it and she canât help it. Another is about a boy who had such a horrible home life that he feels he needs to be on drugs all of the time.
And even though these subjects are very dark, the one thing that has been able to pull me through these hard times is music--specifically, the punk rock community. I have never come close to actually committing suicide, but I have certainly had dark times, and had suicidal thoughts. It seems like the one thing that would always brought me back and helped me get through the shit that I have had to go through, was going to a show. Those 2-3 hours at a show is what gave me the wherewithal to get through those times. And that is the attitude that helped me write for this album.
You guys signed to R.C.A. a few years back and took some heat for it. Iâve seen old interviews with Joe and Paul of the Clash where they talked about internal conflicts they had with signing to a major (i.e. feeling weird about singing certain songs like "Career Opportunities" after signing lucrative contract). Did you guys find yourselves kind of stepping back and questioning how the move to major might impact how you write?
If you would have told me 10 years ago that Iâd be on a major label, I would have laughed in your face. Itâs almost surreal and bizarre. We had been approached by majors for about six years before we signed with R.C.A. We had always been able to scare major labels away. We had a list of demands for them that were the most unreasonable demands you can imagine.
At the same time, we could see some of the advantages in working with a major label. I have seen friendsâ bands who nobody had heard of one month, and then six months later they were everywhere and everyone knew who they were. With Anti-Flag, we have always had a mission. More than anything, it has been an anti-war mission. At the same time we have always championed human rights and being respectful to the earth and one another. I always thought that if we could tap into the resources of a major label and put those ideas forward, that would be a great opportunity for us. Furthermore, when anyone starts a band, you want to play in front of many people.
When R.C.A. came to the table, they looked at our list of demands -- which included full artistic control over everything from music to advertising to every single aspect. When they agreed to that, we couldnât believe it. I almost fell out of my chair. All of the sudden we were faced with the problem: we gave the devil a list of demands and the devil agreed to it! We just knew it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. And we won! Thereâs no doubt about it, as far as Iâm concerned. Theyâve never really got in our way and have mostly been extremely supportive.
I feel we have succeeded even if we only had an impact on one person. When I hear someone come up to me and say, "Hey, I was going to join the military until I listened to your band." To me, thatâs a success in regards to what we are trying to achieve.
It really just comes down to whether the positives are outweighing the negatives. And we constantly weigh these and I feel like all of these positives are outweighing the negatives. When we play a big festival with a corporate sponsor, we have to consider whether we want to marry our name with that sponsor for the day. Maybe the fact that the festival is giving us the platform to speak to a large number of people -- people that we can hope to influence in a positive way -- presents a positive that outweighs the negative of being associated with whoever the sponsor is.
I understand you guys are big Steelers fans. What are your thoughts on the team going into this year?
(Laughingâ¦) They had a painful season last year. Hopefully, they can bounce back. Weâre a pretty serious band and whatnot, but we have our guilty pleasures. The Steelers are one of them. I guess Â¾ of us are Steelers fans but Pat, he could not care less. He fucking hates football and hates sports and thinks weâre posers for liking football.
So, weâll see what happens. The identity of the city of Pittsburgh is based on their sports teams. So itâs actually interesting. Unfortunately, you wish people cared that much about the next election.