Anti-Flag – ‘It’s much easier to be cynical than empathetic’

Words: Miljan Milekić

It’s been a long time since I looked at Anti-Flag solely as a band. At this point, I see them more like friends or even older brothers. The first time I got the chance to meet them was at Punk Rock Holiday in 2015, when I got to interview Chris #2. The year later, I did the same thing at Exit Festival, but unfortunately, due to technical problems, the interview never saw the light of the day. However, the time we started this website somehow coincided with the release of the ‘American Fall,’ so we did a long, in-depth interview with Justin. Unfortunately, everything he said at the time, turned out to be true, and now, when the band is back with the new record ’20/20 Vision,’ it was time to meet them again. Without the intention to repeat said, I caught up with Chris #2 to discuss the new album, its background, and more.

Hey Chris! How are you? How it’s going?
Chris: Very good. We’re in Berlin. We’re on tour, our record just came out. Things are good.

And you have a hockey game tonight! How did you actually get the idea to do something like this? I know you’re a hockey fan forever, but how did you get an idea to do something like this and this tour?
Chris: Yeah, I have a hockey game tonight! We’re prepping for the acoustic show that happens after the hockey game, but in my mind, I’m always thinking about the hockey game. It’s interesting because what I’ve found is that there are people all over punk rock who like ice hockey. So it’s become this, kind of, a small network that I’ve found with other bands and people that come to shows using Twitter and Instagram or whatever, just to reach out to people to see if they wanted to play.

And then through that, I found organizations like Hockey is Diversity, or Pride Tape who make inclusive, LGBTQ+ supporting products. So just through that network, it seemed like the next step is to actually turn it into a real game where you bring all these people together. Then also introduce some people who maybe only know us from being a punk rock band to this sport that has a lot of inclusivity in it, and is really doing some cool work to make it a sport for everybody. So I think it’s just a natural punk rock DIY mentality where it’s like – “I’m not seeing anybody else do this, so let’s do it ourselves.”

Yeah, unlike American football, or NFL in particular…
Chris: Yeah, where you’re getting black blackmailed for kneeling during the anthem and shit like that. Yeah, for sure.

How’s the tour going so far?
Chris: The tour is going really great. It’s been kind of overwhelming, this whole week where the album is brand new, and people are reacting to these songs better than any Anti-Flag record I can ever remember releasing. People are just all-in from the first day. Right now we’re playing our biggest headline shows in Europe, that we’ve had maybe in 10 or 15 years, if not more. It’s incredible.

We’re a band that’s been together for 25 years, so to have people carrying now more than ever, it really takes us back, and it’s really humbling and an honor and a privilege for us to play for anyone. I think it has a lot to do with the political climate. People are looking for activism and looking for ways to feel community and commonality in a world that’s so divisive. So I think that’s a byproduct of it. But I also think that it’s just a testament to the punk rock scene and, and the growth that it’s had over the last 10 years.

Yeah, I recently interviewed Russ Rankin from Good Riddance, speaking about their sold-out shows, and his belief that punk rock can still turn people into activists.
Chris: Yeah. And you know, we also have a hockey connection around us. (laughs) It’s funny that we’re all fighting the same battles. I think that you’re absolutely right. People are just searching. They’re searching for music that has a message. They’re searching for art that tells them that they’re not alone. And punk rock has always been that. The good thing for bands like Good Riddance and bands like Anti-Flag is, this is all we know how to do. We’re going to do this regardless of whether or not people come. (laughs)

You know, there are a lot of bands that say like – “We wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t for the fans,” or whatever. No offense to the people that like Anti-Flag, but we would do this if nobody listened. (laughs) We feel that we have to say these things, we have to do this work. It’s not because we think it’s going to be popular, or people are going to care about it. There are songs that live inside of us, and we need to get them out. And I think that Russ and Good Riddance are the same way. None of us started punk rock bands in the 90s because we thought we would be doing it now. We did it because we truthfully wanted to make these statements and share these ideas with people.

 

Yeah, but it’s easy for you guys. I mean, you wrote the album in, like 45 minutes, right?
Chris: Yeah, yeah! (laughs) Yeah, I wish that that was the case. We always have a joke, ’cause we made an album in 1999, and it was the first time we ever used the producer. The record was called ‘Underground Network,’ and we made it with Mass Giorgini. We said to him – “Hey, how long is this gonna take to make an album?” ‘Cause we’ve always just done it on our own. And he said – “Well, what do you got? 10 songs? They’re about three minutes a song… Should take you 30 minutes.” (laughs ) It took us three months. So now, here we are, making ’20/20 Vision.’ I think we’re the best musicians that we’ve been and we made the record in 20 days. It just goes to show you that you can get better if you do something 200 days a year, for 20 years. (laughs)

’20/20 Vision’ is released practically in the middle of the tour, but you mixed up a few new songs in the setlist, some of them being completely unknown to the fans. How did that go, and is it too early to see how the crowd reacts to the new stuff? Are you getting more feedback now the record is out?
Chris: Yeah, we certainly see people understanding them better now that they’ve heard them. Um, but for us, it was really about the immediacy of it. If I could have released the album on January 1st, I would’ve. The problem is that you know, people work and they need time off, and everybody’s on holiday, so we couldn’t release the record that early. January 17th was the earliest we could get it out.

And we just really, really felt it was important to make a statement as early in the new decade as possible. That this opportunity that we have in front of us, this ability to change and shape the way our future looks, it’s unprecedented. And we can take the divisiveness of people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and the AFD in Germany and so on and so on. We could take the false populists and, and we could push them out of our lives. Refocus on having people find commonality instead of fighting immigrants and refugees and fighting their neighbors.

This idea that the pie is so small that you need to be afraid and fear the person next to you, that’s what’s brought us here. And we need to change that moving forward. That’s the conversation we wanted to have with the album, and it really has an immediacy to it. On one hand, I hope in two years the songs are irrelevant, and we can be writing something different, we’re on onto a different page. But unfortunately, what we’ve seen from globalization and what we’ve seen from this mass conglomeration of wealth where you have a handful of people controlling the world’s power in the world’s wealth, is that it’s just like the 1930s. They’re having people turn on the people that are next to them, close to them, and suffering with them, versus actually looking at where this power struggle is coming from.

Yeah. I actually said a few times that I would love to live in a world where Anti-Flag wrote songs about the past, and not about the future.
Chris: Ultimately, yeah. I mean, we would love to live in a world where we could just stay at home, and not have to do these things, not have to worry about and organize. (laughs) Yeah, that would be amazing if things were more egalitarian, and community and commonality were, was the norm. And we weren’t having to challenge the status quo, but celebrate the status quo.

At first, it was surprising to me to see that you’ll be bringing the new album to Europe first, but I realized that you will spend the rest of the year in the US, in the years of the elections. Was it a conscious decision? I know that every show in the last five years can be considered a political gathering, and the anti-Trump demonstration, but is there any additional weight to it this year?
Chris: Well, what’s interesting is that there’s this weight everywhere. So you’re 100% right that the calendar was built in a way to try to put us into places where either elections had just happened or were happening. Like, we were in the UK right after the Brexit referendum. We were in Spain right after the number of mass protests and mobilizations that they’ve had there. We were in France doing some press and some work right before the transit strike happened. We try to be around those things as much as possible because we get a lot of optimism and a lot of hope from them. But yeah, ultimately, our calendar is built so that we can be in the US, trying to do election based activism in the spring, and then also in the fall.

In recent years, I noticed that a lot of young people have lost their faith in the political system, in the election system, and voting. And it’s not limited to the US, globally, young people have lost the faith that their voice and their vote can influence, or change anything. In your opinion, what has lead to it, and how do we change their mindset?
Chris: Well, again, it’s much like all things in political awakenings and in activism and activating people’s empathy. It’s hard. It’s very hard. It’s much easier to be cynical than it is to be empathetic. It’s much easier to be apathetic than it is to be optimistic. So, those things in mind, the biggest conversation we need to be having is one of privilege.

When you abstain from voting, you are using your privilege to do so, because there are people in the most marginalized of communities – the immigrant, the refugee, the women, people of color, these folks that are hurting on levels that we cannot imagine. Right now, in America, you have suicide rates in LGBTQ+ communities up hundreds of percent. You have, hate crimes against Muslims and immigrants and Jews in America, up in the hundreds of percent. If you choose actively, if you are in a position where you can vote, and you choose not to vote, you are impacting the fate of those people. And that’s the conversation you need to have.

Nobody wins more than the right when people deactivate from their local politics. And I’m not just talking about presidential politics. I don’t believe that a president is going to save your “I.” I don’t believe that millionaires or billionaires have anything in common with your “I.” I understand the disdain that people can have with a political system that is propped up by corporations and run by millionaires and billionaires. I get it. Fuck it. I don’t believe in it. I don’t want it. I want something better. However, if we can interject less evil into our lives and help people who are truly suffering by taking 20 minutes out of our fucking day and voting for someone who is less evil than another person… And then after that, trying to vote in a person who’s less evil than that person…

The arc of change is a long one, and this such an egotistical point of view to think, because this doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I abstained from it. Who the fuck are you? Who the fuck am I? I don’t care when political change happens. I don’t care when social and economic and racial justice happens. I would love for it to happen today, but if it happens in 50 years, that’s the work we have to put in now to get us there. Sorry, I kind of went on a rant, but it makes me angry that we have all these conversations of privilege, whenever it comes to sexual inequality or racial inequality, and people are becoming more “woke” to it.

But then you still don’t have a conversation about casting a ballot. There’s so much privilege in that because the person in Syria or the person right now in Iran who is afraid of the bomb being dropped on their head, doesn’t get a chance to fucking vote for somebody who might not do that. And that’s who you’ve gotta be thinking about at that moment, not you and how much you’re going to get taxed or whether or not they fix a pothole in your neighborhood. Fuck you. People are dying.

After the release of the ‘American Fall,’ I did an in-depth interview with Justin about the election of Donald Trump, what lead to it, and the potential dangers, and unfortunately, almost everything he sad turned out to be right – the rise of fascism, neo-Nazism, racism, and even starting a new war. Do you think that, at this point, enough people saw how bad this decision was, and that his, and the political careers of people around him, is finally a closed book?
Chris: Oh, there’s absolutely a chance for him to maintain his political career. There is so much disinformation in America right now. There is so much divisiveness. There is so much money being spent to keep people apathetic, to keep people from being engaged in the process, that there’s a very, very high likelihood that he’ll win again. That is why you and I and all of us involved in this community need to do the work to speak up against it and speak up for people who can’t be heard right now.

And that’s those things that you talked about. That’s people of color in America who are being targeted by militarized police forces. That’s people of color in the middle East who are getting bombs dropped on their heads, et cetera, et cetera. So, I mean, just because the world is universally accepted that Donald Trump is a fucking idiot, that doesn’t mean that his reign of power is over. And then if he loses, the likelihood of him causing more upheaval in America because his supporters are so insane. That’s a very high likelihood. So we have to stay focused, and we have to stay vigilant to fight neo-fascism and neo-liberalism, with all the tools that we have. And for us, that’s a record, that’s the shows, and that’s the community around the band.

As I said, I’m not from the US, and from here, from Europe, it seems that the only viable candidate to go against Trump is…
Chris: Bernie Sanders! (laughs) Yeah. I know. Same here, on the bus in Europe, too.

OK, so I know how vocal you were on your previous record, about the drone strikes. And back in 2015, and I couldn’t find more recent information, so I’m not sure if that’s changed, but Bernie Sanders was supporting drone strike policy. So, I guess it’s a pill that’s hard to swallow for you, but how far should we go in accepting things we don’t agree, to get rid of Donald Trump. The lesser evil is still evil, but how evil can we go?
Chris: Yeah, precisely. I mean, we’re really putting evil to the test right now. It’s an unfortunate part of the moment in time we find ourselves in, where it’s almost as if people are so divided between right and left that when you say, “I voted for candidate a or B,” it’s like you got their name tattooed on your chest, and you have to believe in everything they do. That’s not how politics works, man. There’s nuance to it. And if Bernie Sanders is wrong, and ramps up a surveillance state or a drone program the way Obama did, then we’re going to fight him. That’s the work we have to do, you know? For me, it’s never a question of a perfect president because that doesn’t exist.

There has never been a president of the United States that I felt was everything that I’m looking for in politics. And that’s because we live in a capitalist state, and we’re exploiting workers, and we’re exploiting the environment, and until we can find some way to move past these constructs, I don’t have those answers. I just know the feeling that I have in my heart, and I know empathy when I see it. And right now the way the structures that are in place for us to share goods and to spend money, they’re exploitative, they’re not empathetic. And we need to find ways to lift up those that are most poor, those that are most vulnerable and ones.

What’s insane is that religious texts are often the ones that are most akin to what I think egalitarian states look like. Where you take care of the poor, where you take care of the sick, where you put roofs over people’s heads who are hurting. And the religious texts have been perverted to prop up politicians. So, there’s a lot of dismantling of systems that we have to do. And again, I’m not so sure it’s going to happen in my lifetime, but I’m far more excited about fighting for that future than I am about caring about what’s going to happen to me right now, and the immediacy.

I get you, but is there a chance that you will have fingers pointed at you because of it, from the people who don’t agree with you, and want to discredit you. In terms of, how can someone who wrote ‘Digital Blackout,’ or ‘The Sky Is Falling,’ support Bernie Sanders and what he stands for. How to convince people, your people, that this is the right thing to the at this moment in time?
Chris: I think that Anti-Flag have always had a stance in a belief in people’s ability to see right and wrong and choose the just thing. And I honestly still believe that. Then, I just believe that the disinformation campaigns, that the amount of money being spent on keeping people’s vision blurry, that’s kind of the double entendre of the album title ’20/20 Vision,’ our ability to see things clearly. I think that’s harder now in 2020 than ever.

And so I understand if people want to pick apart timed decisions that we’ve made as a band. But it’s not my job to make anybody who listens to the band or make anyone who has come in contact with the community around the band 100% happy. My job, and the job of the guys in the band, is to write music and to create art that we believe in and make statements that will be as truthful and as egalitarian as possible.

So when that’s said, people can interact with that statement however they like. They could say we’re full of shit, or they could say they love it, or they hate it, or any of it. That’s out of my control. The only thing that’s in my control is saying: “Hey, look right now, out of these eight Democrat people that are on the stage, this guy’s got the best ideas. And then, when he gets in, we’re going to hold his feet to the fire. And if he doesn’t deliver on those good ideas, then he’s going to be the target of the art.” That’s just the way it has to be. That’s what all socially conscious people should be thinking and doing.

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