Anti-Flag brings punk rock activism to town with latest tour

An interview with Anti-Flag's Justin Sane

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Gary Zeidner | Boulder Weekly

Punk rock was born out of the need to challenge the status
quo, whether musically, socially or politically. The Sex Pistols railed against
what they saw as an outdated, ineffective monarchy. Later in Los Angeles, bands
like X and The Circle Jerks took issue with everything from governmental greed –
The Circle Jerks actually predicted the invasion of Afghanistan some 20 years
in advance – to the apathy of a citizenry unwilling to do anything about it.

Anti-Flag carries on
the noble tradition of issues-oriented punk rock. Where many other punk bands
of recent vintage seem satisfied to sing about getting wasted or their favorite
sports team, Anti-Flag asks its listeners to take a critical look at the
American government and consumer culture. More than that, Anti-Flag preaches
activism and exhorts everyone to get involved and make a difference in their
community. 

This Saturday, Anti-Flag brings its “The Economy Sucks,
Let’s Party!” tour to Cervantes in Denver. Lead singer, Justin Sane, talked
with the Boulder Weekly about the tour,
the band and the state of the nation.

Boulder Weekly: In
addition to entertaining your audiences, what are your other goals for your
current tour?

Justin Sane: We like
to make our shows an equal opportunity for everyone to have a good time, as
long as they’re being respectful and being good to the other people at the
show. Part of the reason we named the tour what we did is because there are so
many people suffering through tough economic times right now, and I think that
a show can be a time to give people a break from their worries. It gives people
a chance to take a break from all the ugly things in this world, whether it be
racism or sexism or homophobia. It’s just a time for people to let down the
guard and have a good time. 

We certainly try to use our shows as a place to bring
together like-minded people and maybe inspire people to get involved in their
community and make a change in the world and realize that they actually have
some power to make some difference in the world.  For that reason, we usually travel with some different
political organizations. On this tour, we’ve got Greenpeace, Amnesty International
and PETA coming out. We also teamed up with Innes, which is a clothing company,
and together Innes and Anti-Flag are going to donate clothing and other goods
to local youth shelters in every city we play in. 

That’s something that we usually try to do, you know,
keeping it from just being a rock show but also a community-building event. So
after we leave town we didn’t just play a rock show but hopefully we left
something good behind.

BW: Anti-Flag’s most
recent album, The People or The Gun
came out last year.  How has it been received?

JS: It’s been
received really well. I think that we wrote it at a time when we felt like we’d
really been working against what we thought were Draconian policies of the Bush
administration for eight years, and I think that The People or The Gun

is sort of just a record where we allowed ourselves to take a break and be
willing to be a little celebratory as to the changing of the guard, so to
speak.

And you know, we realized that there would be struggles ahead,
and I think that there certainly are. To be honest with you, my expectations
weren’t really high for Barack Obama, but I certainly felt that Barack Obama
was a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, I think he’s kind of lived up
to my expectations. A lot of policies of the Bush administration are being
carried forward by the Obama administration. 

I just think, in general, that what we have in Washington
and American politics is such an incredible moral decay of profound measure.
It’s almost like the Anti-Christ has taken over Washington. (Laughs.) I mean,
if you really look at it it’s a funny statement but I think it’s true. I mean,
I think if Jesus came back today and saw how things are being managed in
Washington he’d be really horrified because, you know, we have a government
that, in my estimation of it, is really being run by corporations. Both the Democrats
and the Republicans.

You don’t have to look any further than this current health
care bill that they’ve been arguing over, it’s really a bill that’s been
written by the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry, and overall
it does very little to help the American people. Whether it’s the President or
Congresspeople or Senators, it’s people watching out for themselves and their
own backsides at the expense of the American people. And that’s what Anti-Flag
has been fighting since the inception of the band.

BW: I’d definitely
agree with you that the politicians have done a great job of fooling the people
into thinking it’s Republican versus Democrat when, in reality, the two parties
are effectively the same, and it’s really them versus us, the haves versus the
have-nots.

JS: I think that’s
dead on though. I fully agree. It really is the haves and the have-nots. 
Let’s look at who’s in Congress – I
mean, is it the average Joe Six Pack? No, it’s millionaires. I’m not a
millionaire. I don’t think that my interests are going to be represented by
millionaires. 

BW: The People or
The Gun
was Anti-Flag’s first album with Side One Dummy records.  How has it been with you and the new
label?

JS: It’s been great.
Side One Dummy was a really obvious progression for us. It seems like we’ve
been touring with bands from Side One Dummy for five or six years, whether it
was Gogol Bordello or Flogging Molly or Fake Problems. (Laughs.) We have toured
with pretty much every single Side One Dummy band. We only heard great things
about the label from them, and you know, I’ve known the guys at Side One Dummy
personally for over 10 years, so after we left RCA we were looking for a home
and we recorded a record, and Side One Dummy were always at the forefront of
our thoughts. We really just called them up and said, “Hey guys, we just
recorded a record. Do you want to put it out?” And they said, “Oh yeah. 
That would be awesome! Let’s do it!” And
that was literally pretty much how the conversation went. It’s been a great
experience. I think as far as Indie labels go, Side One Dummy has definitely been
at the top of the heap.

BW: Reportedly,
there were some stores and radio stations that pulled Anti-Flag’s music after
9/11. Is that true, and if it is, why do you think it happened and how did it
make you feel?

JS: Well yeah, it is
absolutely true. After 9/11, there was such a fear in the country. There was
such a backlash against anybody who was willing to break ranks with the policies
of the Bush administration. Anti-Flag’s argument was, look, George Bush was a
bad President on [Sept. 10, 2001] and he’s still a bad President on [Sept. 12,
2001]. And there was a lot of intimidation against us. There were a lot of
threats.

For us, we were personally affected by the attacks. The
attacks were horrific. We had a lot of friends and family in New York City, so not
only were we dealing with the attacks like every other American, but on top of
that we were dealing with threats from people saying they wanted to commit
bodily harm to us and that we should change the name of our band and that we
should stand by the President and this wasn’t a time for dissent.

And so, for us, it was a very difficult time. On top of that,
then our name was added to lists of bands that should not be played on the
radio. We were being told by retailers that they had to take our merchandise
away. But Anti-Flag has always been on the outside of, I think, the mainstream
point of view, and we’re used to being intimidated and threatened. What we’ve
found overall as a band is that we just have to stand by what we believe in,
and we’ve always made our decisions, for better or for worse, based on what we
believed in.

I think that there are amazing examples of people in history
having been intimidated and threatened, [but] they refused to back down from
their beliefs, and in the long run they were proven to be right. I think that
their examples served as an inspiration for us. That being the case, at this
point I feel like we were proven out to be pretty correct. I think George Bush
really was a pretty terrible President. I don’t think that his response to 9/11
was appropriate in any way. I think that the policies that he carried out have
just led us down a path of a more unstable, unfriendly world.

BW: When you search
for Anti-Flag on YouTube, one of the first videos that comes up is a Maoist
International Movement propaganda video using your song, “Die for the
Government.” Did they ask your permission, and if you’ve seen it, are you cool
with it?

JS: This is the
first I’ve heard of that. (Laughs.) I’ll have to check that out. I don’t know
anything about the Maoist Movement. I know of it, but I certainly don’t align
myself with it politically. I’m not a Communist. I’m not a Capitalist either. If
anything, I’m probably most closely aligned to Socialism, a form of Social
Capitalism, because I don’t think that there’s any one political system that
has proven itself to be absolutely perfect or flawless. 

BW: Is Anti-Flag a
punk band with an activist agenda or an activist group with a punk agenda?

JS: I think we’re
definitely a rock band. You know, I think regardless of whether anyone was
willing to conduct an interview with us and talk with us about the things that
we’re interested in or believed in or whether we were able to have an influence
on anyone [politically], we would still be in our basements playing. We’ve just
been fortunate enough that we’ve been able to create a community and create
some music that resonates with people. And I feel very fortunate for that, but
when it comes down to it, we’re a rock band.

But I think just because of the environment we grew up in,
you know, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is a very activist city, especially with the
labor movement and the tradition of the labor movement here. And, I’m an Irish
American, and I grew up as a kid going to protests against the British
occupation of Northern Ireland. I grew up in a very activist family, a family
that was really involved in human rights campaigns and anti-war campaigns. That
was the culture we came from, and so I think it’s as big a part of us as our
music, but ultimately we’re a band because we love to play. 

BW: So, if somehow
you, personally, were forced to choose between being a musician and being an
activist, which would you choose?

JS: It’s a really
difficult choice, you know. It’s like, would you cut off your right arm or your
left arm? You know, I think only because of the background I grew up in, I
guess I would have to choose activism because I’ve seen the impact that one
person can have on other people’s lives. I’d have to go with activism, but it would
be a very difficult, painful choice. (Laughs.)

BW: Is there
anything else you want to cover?

JS: We’ve also
invited local bands to play on each show with us [on this tour], and you know,
it’s part of the idea of not just coming into town and playing a show but
actually helping to build a community so when we leave we’ve left something
positive behind. To make people aware of the fact that they don’t need a band
from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to come play their town; they’ve got good local
bands that are right there in their back yard. We appreciate the fact that
people are excited to see us, but we really believe in supporting a local music
scene.