Anti-Flag: Viva la Evolution!

Pennsylvanian punks Anti-Flag are gearing up to release ‘American Spring’ next month. TeamRock caught up with guitarist/vocalist Justin Sane to find out more…

You’ve now been a band for over 20 years, and with the impending release of ‘American Spring’ you obviously show no signs of slowing down. Do you ever stop and think about all the experiences and opportunities punk rock has afforded you?

Justin Sane: “Yeah, I think all the time about how punk rock ruined my life – that’s what I think about! But seriously, I do think about it a lot. And once you put out a release like [A Document Of Dissent: 1993-2013] and you realise that you’ve been doing it for 20 years, it’s almost impossible not to reflect and look back. The first question I asked myself is what happened during those 20 years, but once I got over that I started to tick off in my head all the different things I’ve been able to do as a result of this band. I find it all quite incredible, you know?

“I guess Anti-Flag never quite managed to reach the level of commercial success as some of the other bands who’ve done the 20 year run, but we’ve been able to make a modest living, which is great. I really appreciate that I haven’t had to go out in those 20 years and get a real job. I’m appreciative of that. It also makes me think that we’ve obviously been creating and saying something that connects with people and resonates with them. And I’m really thankful of that, because for me it was the bands that came before us that are the reason that I started to play music; a lot of the songs that those people wrote were the kind of things that inspired me not only to start a band, but also to get involved in activism and really do what I considered things that could make the world a better place.”

“Ultimately, what I really reflect on after 20 years is all the people that have come up and told me that our band made a difference in their lives; we’ve met people that have gone on to be civil rights activists and lawyers for environmental causes, and they’ll turn up at our show and say stuff like, ‘Dude I saw you guys 15 years ago and it inspired me to get involved with politics, and now I’m doing this thing that’s really positive’. That’s something that I never foresaw happening when we started the band. But there’s a community of people that’ve been drawn towards Anti-Flag over the last 20 years and now we have this microcosm, which is centred around this music and this band, and it’s exactly the kind of community of people that I hoped would gravitate towards our band in the first place. I feel really honoured to be at the centre of something like that.”

‘Fabled World’, a track from the band’s forthcoming album, ‘American Spring’

In what ways have Anti-Flag changed and evolved as a band over the years? Or have the preoccupations and goals remained the same?

“I think that the pre-occupation and the goal remain the same. Anti-Flag really, really started as an anti-war band, and that message is still there; the idea that the people who do the fighting and the killing and the dying actually have a lot more in common with each other than they do with the people who send them out to fight, kill and die. I’m sure most of the soldiers from America who went to Iraq to fight had very little in common with George Bush and Dick Cheney, you know? I bet they had a lot more in common and could relate a lot more to the people in Iraq that they were fighting. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of opportunity for soldiers from different nations who are fighting each other to interact and realise that their lives are very similar. And that’s the message that has always been at the heart of this band; it’s at the heart of its name, you know, the idea that we have to overcome nationalism, and see each other not as nations, soldiers or weapons, but as human beings. That’s a message that has always stayed on point and been important to us.

“Sonically, I think the band has certainly evolved and it would be difficult not to over 20 years; I mean, if you’re still writing the same song as the one you were from day one then it’s probably not going to feel very exciting for you anymore (laughs). It certainly wouldn’t for me. When we started the band we had in mind the bands that inspired us to play; The Clash, Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, etc. Over the years, as we’ve toured with other bands, new influences have crept in: the likes of Billy Talent, Alexisonfire, Good Riddance, Rise Against, and of course Bad Religion. I feel like after spending a lot of time with those bands it was impossible not to pick up an influence from them. And I feel like with Anti-Flag we’ve always pushed ourselves to try new things whilst still remaining Anti-Flag.”

The front and back cover art from ‘American Spring’

**You’ve reached another landmark with the new album ‘American Spring’, which is your tenth studio release. Tell us about the cover art – which seems to suggest a war and peace theme – and the messages on this record… **

“The artwork was created by our good friend Doug Dean, who’s an artist in our hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We had a vision and an idea for the artwork being about rebirth. But beyond that, we really wanted to challenge people’s perception of violence and prejudices; ourselves included, because as any sociologist will tell you, everybody has inherent biases. We discussed this with Doug and he came back with the hyperrealism of the exploding flower and an archetypal face to get after the points that we wanted to address. And I feel like this artwork is really epic, and it comes at a point of view from both sides; like when a punk kid sees a cop, he thinks ‘racist’, or a soldier and they think ‘baby killer’. And when a Middle American right wing Fox news anchor sees a Muslim woman, they think ‘terrorist’, or a black kid in a hoodie, they think ‘thug’. So on all sides, we wanted people to see that no-one is immune to the social influence that creates personal bias. Because ultimately, when we become self-aware of our bias, we can start to live above it. That’s when I believe people can be true and free; it’s about working on ourselves to be better people so that ultimately we can be more open and make the world a better place, which is the ultimate goal in life for me.”

**What are your thoughts on the state of the world in 2015? **

“I think when people look back at this time in history, they’re going to have a very hard time understanding how so much militarism and such a police state could overcome so much of the world. At this time, I don’t think that the current trajectory that we are on can last much longer. We know there are intelligence services that are continuously monitoring us, and we have an intense ramp up of the wealth gap between the rich and poor – Oxfam predicts that 1% of the world will own 50% of its wealth by 2016. One day it’s just all going to break from it’s own pressure. I genuinely don’t think that you can keep pushing people in the way that people have been pushed for the last 20 years without something giving. And on top of all of this of course, the planet has been devastated in this grand pursuit of wealth for this very small elite group of rich people.

“So my personal feeling is that this trajectory is completely unsustainable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if places like the US and Western Europe, India and China see a dramatic turn of events, and we see a move towards a decentralisation of power where we see more of a direct form of democracy. We have the technology and the information to make that a reality these days, and that’s the sort of direction that I have a sense that things are headed. And I think that would be a positive turn of events, because right now we’re living in a system that’s failing us.”

**Anti-Flag: Chris Head, Chris No. 2, Justin Sane and Pat Thetic **Photo: Megan Thompson

In light of that, what do you think about the state of punk rock music today?

“To coattail on the last question, one thing that kind of gives me a hope that we’re going to see a big change coming is the current generation coming up. I’ve spent time around these kids at our shows and the various things that Anti-Flag does, and this generation is awesome. I think they get a bad rap when people say all they do is hang out online, because they’re really idealistic, and they really believe in fairness and helping others. They believe in equality, and I think that gives the world the hope that it needs right now. I believe in them.

“We come across young bands on tour all the time. There are young bands out there making music who are still really excited about punk rock, and I think punk music is alive and well, even if it’s not thriving in the mainstream. It’s the way punk rock has always been; there’s a vibrant underground and it varies from city to city, you know, some cities have nothing and then you go to another city and it’s incredible. That underground is still there and it’s creative, and it’s smart and dynamic. And I believe there will be more explosions of young bands that come out of that underground in the way that The Offspring, Rancid and Green Day did in the ‘90s. And whether they’re in the mainstream or not, I consider them important because they’re having an effect on the people who listen to them.

“I love the fact that Anti-Flag has been able to be more accessible to a lot of people, because that gives us the possibility to have an impact on more people who can go out and have an impact on the world. And certainly the underground bands are doing the same thing, just at a different level. And that doesn’t make it any less valuable.”

And what does the future hold for Anti-Flag?

“Right now the idea is to get out and play these new songs, and do as many shows as we can. We’ll do a summer run and then a run in the fall, and where it goes from there I have no idea. I think if the four of us are still alive and kicking then who the hell knows, life is crazy, but if we’re in good health then we’ll continue with Anti-Flag hopefully for another 20 years. That would make me really happy.

“I think that at this point it would be incredibly hard to imagine my life without Anti-Flag, and specifically without the community that has built up around the band. It feels so good to know that we’ve been able to connect with so many like-minded people in a way that our music is meaningful to them, and then we’ve been able to connect beyond the music. That’s what I was searching for when I was a teenager and I got into punk rock. I never wanted Anti-Flag to be this one-dimensional group that just plays music and has fans. And I feel like the relationships we’ve developed with the people who care about our band has gone so far beyond just fandom. It’s pretty cool.”

American Spring will be released on May 25 through Spinefarm. The band will play the UK at various times throughout the summer. For full tour details, see their official website.

Matt Stocks

DJ, presenter, writer, photographer and podcaster Matt Stocks was a presenter on Kerrang! Radio before a year’s stint on the breakfast show at Team Rock Radio, where he also hosted a punk show and a talk show called Soundtrack Apocalypse. He then moved over to television, presenting on the Sony-owned UK channel Scuzz TV for three years, whilst writing regular features and reviews for Metal Hammer and Classic Rock magazine. He also wrote, produced and directed a feature-length documentary on Australian hard rock band Airbourne called It’s All For Rock ‘N’ Roll, and in 2017 launched his own podcast: Life in the Stocks. His first book, also called Life In The Stocks, was published in 2020. A second volume was published in April 2022.