by Interviews

On September 28th, Anti-Flag are set to release American Reckoning. The album will bring together acoustic versions of songs from American Spring and American Fall along with covers by Buffalo Springfield, John Lennon, and Cheap Trick. In the age of immediacy, the band felt it was important to revisit songs and ideas who may have been overlooked in our neverending news cycle. As Chris #2 put it, “How do we not let our art get lost in the shuffle?”

In the lead up to American Reckoning, the band has been in the midst of an amphitheatre tour across North America with fellow punk rock luminaries Rise Against and A.F.I. Punknews’ Eric Rosso spoke with Chris #2 about this and much more including the music industry, organizing, and the recent socialist resurgence in Pittsburgh, Anti-Flag’s hometown.

First off, I wanted to take a minute to thank you for taking the time to talk to Punknews.Org, and on a personal level, thank you and the band. You’ve been a huge influence on my life since I ever picked up Underground Network when I was 14 and the reason I got into labor organizing. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without Anti-Flag. Thank you. A byproduct of being old and still doing it is that we get to meet people like yourself who connected with it at the right time in their life. It’s tremendously impactful for us. We do this thing that is very difficult on us as individuals, but it’s not as difficult as the hard work of banging your head against the wall and creating space and empathy for people. We thank you for being an organizer and doing the real work. You don’t get people to clap for you when you finish your song. It’s harder. We see that and understand that and appreciate that it came in contact with you at the right time.

You’re about halfway through your tour right now with Rise Against and AFI. What’s it like to tour with longtime friends and revisit many of the cities you’ve previously played in bigger venues as bigger bands in 2018? It’s interesting. Obviously, Rise Against and AFI have both had their meteoric success in their lifetimes and we never experienced that. We’ve just slowly trudged along on the sidelines of that world of theirs, but still find commonality in things. We still find that we came up because of the same reasons. We are inspired to play music because of the same reasons. We connect on a different level. I think it’s a testament to their character to have Rise Against take us. They don’t need us. They are doing very well. We see it as an opportunity.

One of the coolest things about doing these shows is about 50% of the audience we meet – you know, because Anti-Flag traditionally will hang out after the show and that’s always been a purpose of doing this thing, to meet people and interact with them in whatever capacity we can. These are big venues so it’s hard to go anywhere and be anywhere so we’ll just walk out after the show. Pat and I usually finish the show in the crowd so it’s an easy transition – about 50% of the people we meet are people who have seen us at a festival or Warped Tour and whose only interaction with us was 10 or 15 years ago and they are like, “Wow, you’re still doing it?” The other 50% are brand new people. It’s this really interesting thing when you’re playing the Coney Island Amphitheater in New York and the tickets are $50. The kid who normally sees Anti-Flag for $15 isn’t buying that ticket. It’s a different world we’re interacting in, but nonetheless it’s an opportunity to meet people to exchange ideas that certainly some of them are not exposed to yet at that point in their lives.

Totally, I had a similar experience at the stop I attended. I was at the Penn’s Landing show in Philadelphia and someone came up to me in between the sets and asked who I was there to see. I said Anti-Flag and they said they were a little too political for them. I said have you read Rise Against’s lyrics? It’s deeply fascinating because there is a new cultural phenomenon in the Donald Trump/Alt-Right-era of America that we find ourselves in. Even on Anti-Flag’s Facebook page, the exciting thing to come back with is, “Where were you 8 years ago?” You know, we’ve got three records from that time. For some people it works more than others, but it’s certainly an interesting time.

Your new acoustic album features tracks from both American Spring and American Fall. As I was looking back for this interview, I noticed that the conversations you had as you were rolling out each album centered on different topics. In 2015, there was a lot of conversation about police murdering black men and gun violence at large. In 2017, Trump was at a lot of the forefront of the questions asked. What inspired the connection between these two releases to give them complimentary titles given their respective writing timelines? The interesting thing to me about the two is coming off the back of the election of Barack Obama and the amount of people that you saw mobilized by the political process because of that, you know? For all the many, many faults of the Obama administration, and like I said, we have three records documenting them or our assessment of them, it still was a moving thing to see people in African-American communities touched by this person who rose to the most powerful office in the country and they connected with on a level they had never connected with before. We had gone to four or five inaugurations in the band’s lifetime as part of the protest movement. The Obama administration’s inauguration was the first time we went as spectators because we were curious to see. There were people crying in the street. It was a life changing moment for so many people. That’s something that I feel like gave the different slant of American Spring.

Once police murder happened, and it became as prevalent a topic in America than any other time as it was during the Obama years, we really felt let down. When the Mike Brown verdict happened, I just wanted him to get on TV and say, “Hey man, we’re going to fucking look into this!” Instead, he said don’t destroy property and the air was let out. It was such a colossal letdown. I know that as a president in America, their rule is to perpetuate world war, to have an economy that is solely based on the death of profiting off other people and the sale of armaments. I know they are going to do that. That part is not the letdown . The letdown comes when the guy who was held up as someone who was going to care about African-American communities, more so than anybody else, turns a blind eye to it.

I think with American Spring, and this is why it was titled similarly to the Arab Spring, we had these altruistic reasons why we were a part of these movements. Then you see how difficult and multi-faceted that fight actually is, but you have an awakening. That awakening is powerful and one we shouldn’t look past. Then of course Donald Trump happens at the end of 2016 and that’s when it becomes how do we prepare ourselves for this. That’s where American Fall came in. We saw it during the election. The writing was on the wall for Charlottesville. The writing was on the wall for the Russia investigation and the distraction politics we see. Those songs weren’t difficult to write. There’s an endless amount of history books that you can rely on and show you when the shit goes down.

You touched on it a bit, and I think one of the interesting things for me as a fan, was the tone of the two albums. American Spring felt introverted in exploring how the personal and political were connected. American Fall felt very upbeat and an outlet for those bummed out about the current political situation. Can you talk about what goes into pulling songs from both of them to create a further thread of connectivity with American Reckoning? My personal life was fucked when we wrote American Spring and that makes your art reflect that. It was one of the first times that I allowed that to happen in my writing. I think it comes from joining Anti-Flag later after the first album. I came in for A New Kind of Army and wrote some songs on Underground Network. That was my first foray into writing for the band. I always saw Anti-Flag’s role in this as almost like journalists. We were just observing and reporting. There were other times like when we wrote Bright Lights of America when my sister passed away and was involved in a violent crime and was murdered. That was a heavy thing that was happening and it crept its way in, but it was certainly more analytical and far less of a direct, empathetic approach to writing versus how I felt about the Mike Brown verdict or where I thought America was headed in this new wake of police violence during the time of American Spring. I think your assessment of them is very correct that one was a more personal approach.

I think that led into this acoustic piece perfectly because we find ourselves chasing our tail with Donald Trump where the story changes every fucking minute. It’s hard not to be knee jerk reactionary to them because they are all vital and important things that are happening. There are still kids in fucking cages. The narrative has changed. How do we let our art not become just as much static and noise as everything else? This was a way for us to revisit some ideas and themes over the last two records that got lost in the shuffle because we have to talk about so many different things and so many different moments.

Over the last few years, Anti-Flag has been pretty prolific in their output of records with special acoustic sessions, live compilations, one off singles. What’s inspired the band to go back and reimagine some of the older material and has it been liberating releasing music outside of the traditional music cycles? We joked about it at the beginning, but we are old. We are still not on a fucking Soundcloud rapper’s level. We’re prolific in the punk scene of aging old white guys. We are pretty good and ahead of that curve, but there are fools dropping new records and sounds every day. We aspire to do that, but we know for us, all of it is a vehicle to get in front of people and further extrapolate the ideas of those songs. The hope with every ounce of us that we have is to find someone at the right time in their life and they can carry on and do the real work to create and implement positive change in the world. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for music that interacted with us at the right time and the punk scene that interacted with us at the right time. It showed us there is a way to create an economy that is not exploitative and can help out the people around and closest to you, but also lift up people at the same time. That’s the history that we want to be a part of.

When we signed to the major in 2006, we took that money and built our own studio. We saw the writing on the wall that it was all going to go away. Music as a whole was not selling 200,000 or 300,000 copies of your records anymore because there was the internet and everyone can we have them. We wanted to create a way to put out our own records, friends’ records, and that’s what we are doing. We are in the studio right now with a band called Night Marathons who we are going to put out on A-F Records. They are going through those Sony microphones.

I listed to an interview you did on Cautionary Tales where you touched on some of this earlier this year. You talked about building up the infrastructure around the band and being able to build it out for years later on. Are you finding similarities in the music industry now in 2004 in the lead up to 2020 or has the music industry changed too much at this point? I’m finding a lot of similarities and I think it’s moving faster. I think in our age of immediacy, people come to me and go, “Where’s Rock Against Trump?” Because the Rock Against Bush movement was important to them and they are looking for some version of that now. I just want people to remember how fucking long that thing took. There was September 11th and, David Cross has that joke, that on September 12th it was like George Bush took genius pills and everyone forgot we were fighting over 600 votes in Florida.

For us, the Black Lives Matter movement, the kids from Florida and March For Our Lives and Every Town, and the work Amnesty International is doing, their volunteers are up huge amounts – these are all results of what is happening in the world and the most mainstream view of that. It’s a bad president and a bad president inspires people. It’s the same way people got involved in the early 2000s. Obviously, there is a level of complacency that comes with people like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

It’s not our job to judge people’s inaction or apathy or whatever the fuck you want to call it. For me, it’s where are you now? I know you can feel it too with so many of your friends and people you are interacting with on a daily basis through your activism work. People come to you when an event like Donald Trump getting elected happens. They will say, “What do we do now?” It’s so hard to restrain yourself and say, “Where the fuck were you when we were knocking on your door saying, ‘yo motherfucker the train is going to wreck’?” But in the end that gets us nowhere. We have to take people when they’re engaged and hopefully it lasts longer than however long it goes for Donald Trump to be president – and everyday it looks like it’s going to be shorter and shorter process for him as president, but then it keeps going.

You’ve mentioned in interviews finding inspiration and connection to people throughout the world in empathy and shared struggle. We’ve seen this global movement towards xenophobic, right-wing, authoritarian leaders exploiting racism to further capitalism. The system maximizes alienation. What about shared struggle gives you hope as you’ve traveled the country and the world? I think it’s really interesting and, again, it’s multi-faceted for a place like Europe, which for so long was so connected to fighting fascism because of their history and the history of fascism. I think that it has to do with a few things. For one, a lot of time has passed. When a lot of time has passed people become forgetful. You have a new generation of people who do not have that connection to the Holocaust or to World War II and the atrocities that were committed across Europe. Sure, their schools take field trips to the museum, but kids in America take field trips all the time to a history that’s been written and re-written and re-written. That’s one of the main reasons that this wave of neo-fascism you see is on the rise in America and across the world.

I also know that it doesn’t take a lot of work to fight them. These are the times when our movements have been most successful when people recognize that all you have to do is raise your hand and be counted as someone who is OK with people of color and immigrants and refugees. Once you raise your hand and you look around, you see we surely outnumber these motherfuckers. How do we allow this system to continually manipulate us to believe in the scapegoat of immigrants and refugees, the scapegoat of women, and people of color? All of these things we see in the crosshairs of the Trump administration.

We do get this weird thing where we travel the world and see people who are activated and who care about more than just themselves. That gives us a lot of hope and energy to keep going. I don’t think we would be the band we have always been if we weren’t eternal optimists. Sometimes you wake up and it’s hard and sometimes you wake up and it’s easy. As an organizer, I wake up every day and say, “I believe that we will win.” Fuck yeah, that’s exactly right.

I have two more questions for you. I wanted to talk a bit about Pittsburgh. There’s a real movement being built in your hometown. Right now, the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America recruited candidates and beat political dynasty families like the Costas, there was a massive and inspiring call to action after Antwon Rose’s murder, city council hearings are actively attended by movement building organizations to speak out against handouts to corporations. Why is Pittsburgh uniquely responding to this current moment? I also saw that East Pittsburgh is dismantling their police force. The East Pittsburgh police are the folks who murdered Antwon Rose and were under scrutiny.

Historically, we’ve been a badass town that fights back - the Homestead Steel strike, the work that my ancestors did as immigrants to this country to build Pittsburgh up to a town that believes in workers’ rights and an economic system that is not exploitative. I think that is why you’ve seen Pressgang, Bad Genes, Aus-Rotten, Anti-Flag all come out of this punk rock scene. That was what we saw when we were kids. I saw my uncle get fired from a job at the steel mill because of globalization and the ability to make steel a few cents cheaper in China. When you see that happen, it politicizes you without you knowing at a very young age. I think that has part to do with it.

The other thing that has a lot to do with it – even though there is Uber, Apple, and Google in Pittsburgh right now and the housing prices are increasing dramatically – is it’s still a very affordable city to live in. When you have affordable living, you have artists, poets, and people who are genuinely empathetic that leads to an art scene that props up people like Sara Innamorato who ran as a Democratic Socialist and won. We’re right there with her. All those things work in fluidity with each other.

You’ve always been incredibly supportive of organizations doing good work on the ground fighting for justice. Are there any current ones that either the band is working with or you’ve been inspired by their work lately? Yeah. On the Rise Against tour, they are working with MoveOn who are fantastic. There is a text at every show. Text “Rise” to a number that gets people connected to what’s happening in their local elections [Ed. Note: The number is 668-366]. On the European side, we are working with an organization called Hate Divides Music Unites. They are doing a lot of work with young people and the anti-fascist movement in Germany specifically partnering with an organization called Kein Bock auf Nazis. Then also, on our European fall tour, we have this organization called Hardcore Help Foundation. They do a lot of work in Africa. They even take bands down there to play shows. It’s a very broad spectrum.

Then always, we direct people to Amnesty International because we truly believe they are one tangible organization where you can save lives and see the life-saving you are doing right there. If you are looking for, and a lot of people are, looking for the instant gratification of their activism work, that’s a great place to start. Once you get involved, you realize how much fun it is, how you can make friends, and how many people care about the same shit you care about. You are not meticulously alone and their dad watches Fox News and they’re trying to fucking figure out how to deal with that too.

All this shit is the same, you know? Don’t be afraid to be involved and engaged in what you can.