’20/20 Vision’ marks Anti Flag’s twelth studio album and pulls no punches when it comes to the group’s politically charged lyricism. the American punk rock band from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is lead by guitarist and vocalist Justin Sane who flew into the UK alongside bassist Chris Barker to spread the news on their latest record. Way Out Radio dropped in on the guys at Universal Records in London.
When we started the band we were very naive, we thought “If we write songs against war and tell people how terrible war is then people will hear it and won’t fight wars!”
Justin: We had a couple of really long days in Paris and Berlin and now we have two days in the UK so we get to relax a little bit.
Where did your protest and punk inclinations come from?
Justin: My politicisation came from my mum. When I was a kid she’d take me to all these different shops looking for clothes made in America because she wanted to support a union. She wanted to know the workers were paid right. My folks were really involved in the civil rights struggle and the Labour movement in the US and then later the anti-nuclear movement and then my mum was a really early environmentalist. I kind of grew up in it. It was a really incredible way to grow up. We lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania which was a solidly working class steel town. The labour movement was really strong but being vegetarian or being an environmentalist seemed really strange to people. My mum and dad founded the first co-op in the city and first vegetarian restaurant. They were always way ahead of the curve. So it always attracted a really eclectic group of people around them. That’s where my views came from, of looking for an alternative way to live to the mainstream.
Chris: Pittsburg itself, there’s a reason why our punk rock scene has Anti-Flag, Bad Genes, Aus-Rotten – these extremely political bands. Our industry was the steel mills and they shut them all down to send overseas for cheaper labour and that destroyed the infrastructure of the city. So at very young ages, many people who would grow up to create art, saw their family struggling because of corporate greed. That politicises you. In my experience my brother was always getting fucked with by the police and I was already in a single parent home with just my mother there. The cops would roll by our house and out the window say “Hey you’re Mike’s brother right? We’re gunna take him.” I thought to myself, “I already don’t have a Dad and now they’re gunna take my brother?” So then I heard ‘**** the Police’ by NWA and I connected with it. Later I got into Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion and that sent me down the rabbit hole of punk rock and then I found there was a punk band in Pittsburg called Anti Flag and I weaselled my way in after the first record! 20 years later! Its interesting because typically with a band you have creative difference, differences of opinion on how the business should be run but we never have a difference in opinion when it comes to the politics of the band. That’s because we grew up the same way and were politicised the same way. Our reactions to things we see happening in the world tend to be very similar.
Justin: Yeah it’s so fascinating for a band with such an ideological vent that as four people, we always know where each other stand. There’s never any question in my mind if I hear about something horrible I know exactly what everyone thinks about it. It’s really important for our band.
Chris: We’ve also never made enough money for any of us to become conservative!
Justin: Once you have a lot of money you become a real ***hole!
What are some of the political triumphs you’ve had over the years?
Chris: It’s a slippery slope for me because the interjection of competition into activism is areally bad idea. So when we start to say to people “What have you done?” It starts to become this thing where you have to earn a certain badge or reach a certain echelon level to bring weight to your comment on social ills. I never like to have a laundry list of our successes. Then it makes people feel “My activist level isn’t what they’ve done so I shouldn’t try.”
Justin: Or “Compared to what I’ve done they’ve done **** all!”
Chris: For example, we did a tour with Rage Against The Machine in 1999 and they didn’t tell anybody, it wasn’t a news story, but every show they played, they gave a dollar to a local charity from each ticket sold. So we played Philadelphia, there were 20,000 people there. $20,000 went to an organisation there. At that time, Anti-Flag had never even seen $20,000 within the 5 years we’d been a band leading up to that. It’s apples to oranges within the scope of what you can influence. That being said, there are a lot of really great organisations we’ve worked with and successes we’ve had. We did a tour working with the African Well Fund and at the end of the tour had built a well in Africa and got to see the impact of one tour raising money, taking donations and sending it somewhere else. They you get a photo of some kids drinking clean water because your punk rock community did that. That shit is really exciting to me, the tangible victory because there are a lot of intangible victories. There’s no way of measuring your influence on people’s lives.
Justin: We have worked with a lot of organisations and we started a non-profit to combat predatory military recruiting and had an amazing victory with that a number of years back.
Chris: Yeah we had one where they had a picture of us in congress and a politician said, “You might think these punks with rings in their noses are bad but they’re nice!”
We thought “What the **** is going on?!”
Justin: Those are the tangible things which are nice to see. We try to do a lot of things that don’t work but…
Chris: Yeah such as the Iraq war movement. Being a part of that we had one million people protesting in the streets of London, 300,000 people in a city of 300,000 Pittsburgh, but then the war happened. It’s easy to look at that and say “We failed” but that was an activation of so many people.
Justin: When we started the band we were very naive, we thought “If we write songs against war and tell people how terrible war is then people will hear it and won’t fight wars!” It’s a naïve idea and of course it doesn’t really work that way. But 20 years later what I’ve found is it does work that way because we’ve been a band long enough to have met people who found the band when they were 16 and now they’re 40. They’ll grab you after a show and say “I planned to join the marines after highschool and then I didn’t because of your records.” You realise there’s so many people out there who you’ve touched.
What’s exciting about that to me is that many of those people have gone on to be human rights attorneys, social workers, ran for political office partially because of the band and the punk scene we’re a part of.
When you’re young you think it’s simple, but you go out and have influence on people and those people go out and have an even bigger influence.
I’m inspired by that and it makes me feel there’s value to what we’ve done. A lot of the struggles we take on aren’t successful in the way we want them to be so those little things inspire me the most. This isn’t pointless.
Chris: Global leaders send young, mostly poor people, off to war to fight and kill and die for wars that benefit poor people very little. That’s the nature of global economies that are based on selling weaponry, tanks, bombs, guns and surviving off of fossil fuels drilled out of the middle east and an endless war there that allow those natural resources to be taken at unprecedented rates. The main thing for me with all art and all activist art; you don’t write a song on Tuesday and Wednesday racism’s gone. It just doesn’t work that way. But you slowly infiltrate people’s lives with empathy. Your own is lifted up by the interactions you have with other people and then hopefully after the show, the record, after the band is long dead, people take that to where they work, go to school and do that think you just said. “Hey I think you can choose another path that choosing the military.” Or “You can choose another path than working to exploit people.” Or “You can choose another path than the status quo.”
Usually you don’t directly talk about specific politicians because it dates the art but on this record you talk about Trump – Do you think he’ll get impeached?
Chris: We hope so. He’s a criminal so yeah.
Justin: A lot of people don’t necessarily understand how the impeachment process works. Even if he’s impeached it doesn’t mean he will be removed from office. He could get impeached and then run for office and win.
Justin: I do think he’ll be impeached but then the Senate will have to take the next step and convict him. Then they can remove him from office. But the Senate is controlled by the republican party and they will never do that. They’ve already stood up for him this entire time. They’ll have a trial, they won’t convict him but he will be impeached I believe.
Chris: I hope he’s charged with the crimes he’s committed going all the way back to the campaign money to pay off the porn star he had a relationship with. Whether it was consensual or not, paying to keep that quiet was an illegal move. The fact there are children dying in US detention centres along the border of the US and Mexico. These are crimes against humanity. All of the sitting millionaire politicians who have stood idly by while this has gone on, they’re all complicit in this. While we’ve worked to not date the art. We felt like this was a period in time especially with the transition into a new decade to consider what our future could look like. Do we continue down this path that allows false populist movements like Boris Johnson here in the UK. Donald Trump, the AFD in Germany, its not happening in a vacuum. This is happening all over the world where people who have been gutted by an economic system of globalisation of neoliberalism, have been pushed to the fringes of society are now being told to hate your neighbour, hate immigrants, hate refugees, that’s led to the pain that has propped up people like Boris and Trump. Do we keep doing this? Do we keep allowing racism to happen? Do we keep allowing the upper eschulon of wealth – this historic wealth gap between 10% of the worlds people holding 90% of the money in the world. That’s just unsustainable. So we really have this moment in time to write our own future. We felt there was a lot of power in that statement so that’s why the record looks and sounds the way it does.
Justin: We had never in our lifetimes experienced the kind of neofascism that we’re seeing today and in that respect we see Donald Trump as the posterboy of that neofascism especially because when you look at the people who have been activated by that movement and have commited mass acts of terror, they all reference Donald Trump. I believe even the Christchurch shooter said that Trump was the perfect face for their movement. For us its really personal. We live in Pitsburg which was the scene of the biggest antisemetic terrorist act in the history of the United States, the tree of life synagogue. It happened really recently (mass shooting, 11 died). I went to school in that neighbourhood, our drummer lived in that neighbourhood. In El Paso, Texas the shooter also references Trump. So of course in my lifetime I never believed there would be detention centres with children. Right there Trump should have been removed from office, just gone. So I think Trump is a symptom of Neoliberalism and globalisation and unchecked corporate greed and power and control of our economy. But if Trump is a symptom, he is the massive tumour festering and Boris Johnson is close behind. There are others. It was impossible for us not to make a record that came right at Donald Trump. Chris was writing songs about Trump night and day and saying “We gotta make a record!” We’d just finished touring and my mum had just passed away not long ago, it hasn’t been an easy time. My headspace wasn’t in writing a record about these type of things or wanting to make a record. But when Christ talked to me about it, it was undeniable that he was right. How are we not going to make a statement about what’s happening right now? We have to.
Chris: They say the greatest trick the devil pulled was having people think he didn’t exist.
The greatest trick of Boris, Trump, Neofasist movements is making people think they’re of the people. They’re anti-establishment, outsiders. They’re millionaires and billionaires, they are the establishment. They’re not men of the people. They have zero in common with you or I. Until we find ourselves in a place where the government actually represent the people in economics and racial diversity, gender diversity, even beyond the constructs of gender; we’re going to consistently have these battles. There are going to be moments that feel more important that others and I feel like that’s where we’re at right now, more people are tuned into politics but there will always be activist and punk rock scenes, bands challenging racism whether or not it’s on the news. It’s what we have to face in the work that we do, the school we go to, the relationships with the family we have.
Give us some insight into the following songs –
Hate Conquers All
Chris: When Trump was running for election and around the time the tape came out of him saying “grab them by the pussy” his sexism and misogyny was prevalent within the mainstream media. There was a backlash against him and the signs said ‘Love Trump’s Hate’. The idea being that if you put love out into the world you’ll beat back hatred. I agree with that sentiment. I think that’s great. But Trump isn’t a hateful guy, he’s racist and a sexist piece of shit. So we need to use the language that exists to properly address the problem that we’re seeing. To equate the things Trump is doing or the things white supremacists are doing with hatred – sure they have hate in their hearts but their bigotry is beyond this. When you see racism and sexism you need to call it out for what it is.
It got beaten up a bit within the band, a lot of different ideas on how to approach the lyrics. We very often stay on the ‘Us vs them’ punk rock mentality but the language that the ultra-elite use to describe common people in the world is that they are a scourge on the earth, a disease, a plague on society so we thought it would be empowering to steal that language back from them. We are the disease to them, and hopefully the disease that’s gunna bring them down.
You Make Me Sick
You’re picking all the songs that were tough for us and caused arguments! That song started out, there’s a really strange thing in the alt right movements in America, even that Tony Robinson guy who’s prevalent in UK politics as a known asshole. There’s a direct correlation between ultra-right wing movements and bigotry against women so we wanted to make that correlation with this song and talk about how you can’t have one without the other. You cant be a white nationalist without also thinking women’s roles in society are to serve.
Justin: Or blame for your failings!
Chris: That comes from the control of women’s bodies with abortion bans, with sexual education within schooling. All of these ideas are antithetical to women becoming equal within our society. That’s where the song began and of course the Donald Trump narrative is so powerful that when people listen to it they say “Yeah when he talks he makes me sick.”
It can be that for you too.
What’s the plan moving forward and most important thing about the band stepping on?
Justin: One of the reasons I’m excited about touring Europe at the beginning of 2020 and going back to the states later before getting into the festivals, one of the things that’s important to me about the record and going on tour is that I really just want to send out a beacon from us, four white guys with privilege from Pittsburgh, to people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community, to women, and people who are being really scapegoated and persecuted by Trump and the neo-fascist movement, look if you want allies, people in solidarity with you, we’re here. Because one of the things that always attracted us to punk was the diversity of it. Or at least the belief in diversity because its not necessarily very diverse. But the idea is exciting to us. Moving forward, I’m just excited to be able to carry that out to people and hope they see that and know there are others out there with empathy who care about more than just themselves. The community around our band has always been like that and the punk rock community too.
Chris: The touring the shows, they’re just an extension of that. The only reason to do it is to have a connection. Again, like you said when we were talking about activism, that connection then leads to people carrying that out in their daily lives and that’s how we’re gunna win.
Die for the Government (1996)
A New Kind of Army (1999)
Underground Network (2001)
The Terror State (2003)
For Blood and Empire (2006)
The Bright Lights of America (2008)
The People or the Gun (2009)
The General Strike (2012)
American Spring (2015)
American Fall (2017)
20/20 Vision (2020)
Lies They Tell Our Children (2023)
Way Out Radio – A Brief History
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