by Interviews

Things are looking bleak. Innocent people are getting killed by the police and the police don’t seem to care. Civil rights are eroding. More and more, the dollar controls elections. The guys in Anti-Flag are bummed out about it.

For 27 years, the band has been attacking political and social injustice and things just don’t seem to be getting better. So, perhaps paradoxically, on their upcoming album, American Spring (out May 26) the band is rejuvenated and charged to fight back.

Equally surprising is just how introspective this album is. In fact, the band’s own Chris #2 had a strong hand in crating the album. He tapped into his own personal tragedies, such as the end of a 17 year relationship and the tragic murder of his sister. These emotions were used as conduits to comment on national issues of police injustice, income inequality, and the justice system. Features editor John Gentile spoke to Chris #2 about the new album and it's genesis. You can read the interview below.

The new album seems to have a very specific conceptual focus.
Unfortunately, these are the times that we live in. We each had our ups and downs throughout the history of the band, and for me, this was kind of my time. It’s interesting to be in a band for 17 years and have a new frame of reference or new self-identity. I feel it led to an important Anti-Flag record.

It does seem like an important record. Along those lines, I have two interviews we can do, here. We can focus on the more objective aspects of the release, or we can focus on your specific, personal experiences.
It’s interesting because I have just made a proclamation to myself that the personal stuff is worth discussing, both for my own healing and for other people. I’ve had this experience happen lately and people come to shows and talk to me about the death of my sister or my recent relationship turmoil and they’ve talked about how important it is for them to not feel like they live on an island. As difficult as it is, and I’m not trying to live some self-fulfilling prophesy of martyrdom, I do know for some people that it has been helpful, so I’m willing to discuss any question you have.

That expression comes through very strongly on this record.
It’s always there. It’s in everything you so. For me, certain cars drive down the street and it reminds me of my sister. She’s everywhere and in everything I do. Before, I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say about that subject. When commenting on a certain social or political landscape in a band like Anti-Flag, and really, with the police shootings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, it was empathy that I was trying to get at. That’s why we’re in punk rock- for empathy.

I realized recently that I’m hurting because of the experiences of my sister’s death and the mishandling of the trial of her killer by overworked prosecutors and over worked public defenders and because she was poor, nobody gave a shit. I saw this happening on TV in front of me, and I had this new frame of reference. People have been commenting on Police brutality for decades. It was happening in our backyard, Pittsburgh, for decades, but it seemed like we were commenting on it instead of commenting in it. I think that’s where some of the lines blur for me on this record. I was able to tap into that empathy and maybe get those emotions across more than ever before.

One of the broad aspects of this album is focusing on the death of Eric Garner, the death of Michael Brown, the death of Trayvon Martin. When you saw that the police in the Garner case weren’t going to face any real charges, what was going through your mind?
That was the kind of start of people seeing these kind of things. “What do you mean a choke hold is illegal, and man died, but no one was charged? Where is the justice?” That was kind of the tipping point. It took the card out of people’s hands that they had in the Trayvon Martin or the Michael Brown case that “he attacked them.” There is the video of this man saying “I can’t breathe” 17 times and then being choked to death.

So, you feel as though different segments of the population get different levels of police protection?
It’s systemic racism, systemic classicism. It leads to places in the world, specifically in poor African American communities, where they’re not just afraid of the police like you and me- for example, I’m afraid of the police because I know the police in my area were all the jocks and the assholes in high school and now they’re cops. When they pull me over, I feel uncomfortable, but I don’t fear for my life the way many of these people do. I can then go to my sister’s community where she lived, which is surrounded by drugs, and a lot of the systemic problems that we have in this country in regards to wealth inequality that continue the ghetto cycle, and the police are around, there’s a different vibe to that. I truly believe that we are at some type of shift where it has to change one way or another. Not to tie it into a song on a record, which seems inconsequential about what were talking about, but it became this idea that we need to challenge Barack Obama, as the first elected African American president, and at least say, “I’m looking into it,” and put some people at ease that came out and voted for him, for the first time ever. I think it’s important to not give a free pass to anyone, especially with the president.

You mentioned your sister. How did she pass away? Was it a break in? A random thing?
From what we can decipher from the court hearing that happened, our knowledge of the lifestyle of her and her fiancé, is that it was some type of drug deal gone bad. It was a drug deal for no more than 35 dollars. She was shot in the back of the head. It looks like her fiancé charged the gunman and was shot several times in the chest. My eleven-month year old niece was upstairs while all this happened.

It’s an obviously tragic moment for my family, and one that has brought us together more so than the other tragedies that we have experienced. My sister had a tough road to begin with. My father molested her. He’s a convicted child molester. She always had a much harder go of life than I think is a fair shake and much more difficult than many people get laid out in front of them. I noticed very early on that she saw the world in a different way than I did, and that maybe lead to some decisions that put her in a vulnerable position. To me, it shows the human element of violence. I know her and I loved her, and while you can wax poetically about how irresponsible it is for her to have a drug deal happen with an 11th month old child in the house, nobody deserves to be shot in the head and killed.

You seem to take that personal experience and apply it to a broader context.
I feel as if I ‘m looking at it with this sense of empathy now. Not just this typical frustration that maybe we had in past police murders and past obvious flaws in the American justice system. For the first time, when I saw the Mike Brown verdict, I was crying for my sister. I wasn’t crying because I thought Barack Obama was going to pick up the phone and say “we’re going to have a full investigation!” I anticipated being let down. But, I knew what my family felt like after a court hearing when there is a “not guilty verdict” But, Mike Brown’s family didn’t even get that. They didn’t even get that. What they got was someone went on television and told the world that their son was evil. That seemed really unfair and really unjust to me.

The crux of your sister’s case was that the prosecutor screwed the case up because they didn’t really care or were overburdened, and the killer got off. What would you say to the killer if you met him face to face? Would you say “I hate you!” Would you say “I forgive you?” Would you kill him?
Well, he’s gotten his in several ways in his life. He’s already fucked up his life beyond repair, as far as our family knows. Basically, what happened, is that there was a confession tape, and the kid was 19 years old. But, by the end of it, there was so much confusion, so much disruption so much incompetency, from both the prosecution and defense, that I felt that if I was a juror, there would be reasonable doubt.

I left the with the emotion that I don’t even know that if I was a juror to put away a 19 year old id for the rest of his life for a double homicide. I understand why he walked. I feel that many of us in my family, feel he caused this to happen. I don’t know what I would say. I’m not in any place to see him.

But, he was subsequently arrested for something, and he shot himself up with some drugs that were bad and he fucked up his life. There’s nothing to hang your hat on. I don’t feel better about that. I just feel hopefully that he’s discomforted because he’s certainly placed a lot of discomfort on my family and people that I love and myself.

I really appreciate your openness. Let’s change gears and talk about the album specifically. The new album is called American Spring, referencing the Arab Spring. What did the Arab Spring mean to you?
Seeing the use of technology and seeing young people mobilize in a place where it was said that there would never be a people’s revolution was beyond inspiring. The imagery of it was exciting. The idea that people were tackling dictatorship and hoping for some sort of direct democracy seemed what we as a band have been pushing for ideologically and communal wise with the songs that we sing. It seems like there were a lot of direct parallels to be made with the way the Arab Spring started.

Now, subsequently, it became violent and we know from history that violent revolutions fail. They continue more violence. I think Nelson Mandela said something along the lines that if you don’t have plans for after the revolution, you are doomed to fail, as well. I think that was the flaw in the Arab Spring revolution. People were pushed to their breaking point and they pushed back.

For us to talk about emotional and hopeful revolution with the songs that we sing was very inspiring to us. The idea of being a band for twenty years, having a tenth record, realizing that we could tour on our back catalogue, and knowing that we might never make a song as good as say “Dive for your government,” and that we don’t have to do it, it seemed like there was a renewal and a rebirth for us. That ties into the imagery of springtime and renewal.

Do you think that America needs a grand, wide sweeping change?
I think that if you were to ask us what it would look like, I think someone much smarter than myself for a new direct, democracy. I think it would have more to do with people and put interest back into the people who vote, and give them power to elect representatives on a national and local level, which they don’t have now because of corporate dollars. That’s a very easy and cliché thing to say, but it’s truthful. There is no other way to put it. Our lives are dictated by those who fund the campaign elections and that’s very frustrating.

Now, is the purpose of the new record to just say, “Hey, pay attention to the world around you and make your own decision!” ala Jello Biafra or is it more along the lines of “here are the things that we think are right!”
For us, it has always been a combination of both. Sonically, that’s why we sound the way we sound. If a song that sticks in your head, at the end of the day, you might ask yourself, “Why am I singing songs about Trayvon Martin and American injustice?” I think to us, that was always an interesting idea and way to create a discourse about the political happenings of the day.

I love the Dead Kennedys and Jello Biafra, and that’s what I grew up with. There is a sense that if we shove this down people’s throat, then maybe ten of the thousand that come to the show will take something away from that hopefully they’ll live a more compassionate and empathetic life instead of only thinking about themselves- which is what we’re taught on a minute by minute basis in this world.

I think that a number of changes need to happen in the world. A lot of this comes from the idea that it’s up to us. “If you want to change the environment, then you need to go to the Starbucks with recyclable cups. You need to use energy efficient light bulbs. You need to drive a Prius!" They never talk about the fact that we have economies built and digging their heels into raping and pillaging the environment. That’s what we need to change. It’s much bigger. The conversation needs to take a step back and not be a microscope on the individual, but focus on the economies on a national and global scale.

You are making some very precise, political statements. This is prominent in your music. But, a lot of punk rock bands just sing about girlfriends and pizza. Does a “punk rock band” have a duty to touch on social and political issues?
I think that people should write about whatever they are passionate about. I had a relationship end while writing this record. It was a relationship that I was in for 17 years- it lasted as long as this band. Then, I was told that I had to write more songs and go on tour and live the thing that was probably the death of my relationship.

I was pretty angry at the band and the whole situation and my life decision at that point, and that went into my headspace. That went into the personal side of the music. That’s where I’m at. That’s what went into this. I don’t think anyone should write about something because they are “supposed to.”

I do believe, punk rock as a community and as a counter-culture movement has an ethos and that ethos is empathy. I think either in the way your band operates, or the art that surrounds punk rock conducts its business, it should have compassion, it should not be exploitative. It should have a conscious. You don’t need to sonically mirror Anti-Flag or Propagandhi or the Dead Kennedys or the Clash. You need to write the songs that you believe in. But, I do believe that if you want to consider there’s a way that you have to conduct yourself and hold yourself. You need to be ahead of the curve on racism, marriage inequality, trans-gender issues, inequality of the sexes, as the punk rock scene has been throughout our history.

I’m glad you mention the “Ethos” of punk rock. A little while ago, you canceled a show because the promoter put some things making fun of the Black Lives Matter protests on his Facebook. A lot of people were like “Anti-Flag walks the talk!” Other people said that it was unnecessary to cancel the show. How deeply should a band investigate the background of the person that they are working with?
It’s almost impossible, to be honest. Going through the ins and outs of what promoter is a shit bag and what promoter is inline with what we think is empathy and the ethos of punk rock isn't always feasible. That being said, it was a home town show. We’ve booked and promoted our own shows here. We started using promoters because the promoters in town were angry at us for promoting our own shows. The promoters said that they wanted to be a part of it, so we took a leap of faith. The promoter then said dumb shit on the Internet. We don’t have a lot of power. We can’t have discussions with Barack Obama, or even the mayor of Pittsburgh.

But, our power does certainly lie in where we play our shows or who we conduct business with us. It was in our best interest and what I believe was in the best interest in the dialogue of Black Lives Matter, and why people were protesting. That’s what his comments were about, just not understanding why people were protesting. He just talked about it in a dumb way. I think he now knows why people were protesting. I’ve heard that he subsequently took classes on racism and some initiative within his business to better his reputation and not be looked at as the guy who said shitty things on the internet. I hope that comes to fruition. As much as it is our responsibility to be cognizant of whom we are dealing with, but in the grand scheme of things, sometimes we will work with a promoter who is shitty and when we learn our lesson, we won’t work with him in the future.

Last question: You’re on a ship. It hit an iceberg and now it’s sinking! In one corner of the room is the UK version of The Clash. In the other corner is the original pressing of The Feeding of the 5000, the one with the blank first track. You only have time to grab one… which do you go for?
Oh, the Clash record in heartbeat. I love Crass. I think they are a tremendously important band. But, if I can only listen to one record, I want to listen to the first Clash record. Track for track, it’s one of the top three punk records ever released.