Anti-Flag’s Chris #2,
The TVD Interview

At its core, the heart of punk rock music is, and always has been, rebellion. Rebellion against social and political injustices, the Man, and the ire of those wrongs and those who have been wronged have become the fuel for countless punk anthems over the years. No punk band today brings those issues front and center more than Pittsburgh’s Anti-Flag. The quartet is now in its twentieth year and is celebrating the release of their tenth album, American Spring.

The new album is a sharp effort and a scathing look at some of the most polarizing issues in the world today. Taking their social commentary even further, the band has included an essay with each song, speaking in-depth to the inspirations and motivations for each one.

We had a chance to talk to bassist Chris Barker, aka Chris #2. The passion for fighting for what is right comes through clearly with every word, and it was apparent that Chris and Anti-Flag have their work cut out for them when it comes to making relevant, socially aware punk music.

Your tenth album, American Spring comes out at the end of this month, just shy of your twentieth year. How do you feel the band and the music have progressed from back in the beginning to now?

Well, I think that we’re talking about a lot of history, and a real, honest discussion amongst ourselves about whether or not we even make a new record. We did celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the band. This is our tenth record, and you look at your history, and you look at the things that you’ve created in the past, and we recognize that if we wanted to, we could tour much of the world playing songs from Die for the Government, which was our first record or The Terror State, or For Blood and Empire, which have been kind of tent pole records in our band’s life that people seem to identify and connect with.

We had this real lengthy talk about the work that would need to go into making a tenth record, and how diligent we would have to be as both songwriters and also as people who are looking to be found on the right side of history whenever it comes to things like racism, or the current administration’s drone strike program, the largest gap ever between wealthy and poor in our nation’s history, and the police violence that we see on a day-to-day basis.

We knew that if we made this collection of songs, that it would be something that people could look back on and say, “There were people who were caring more about the world than they were themselves.” So, when you go and you kind of scan over the history of the band, I think the biggest difference between record one and record ten is how self-aware we are of the ability of music to transcend borders.

Die for the Government, like I said, was the first record and on it there’s a song called “Fuck Police Brutality,” that is very apropos for 2015. However, when it was written, it was only because we could only see past Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh had the highest police brutality rate in the country at that time, so we were commenting on our own backyard, we weren’t necessarily commenting on the world at large. Die for the Government also came with an essay that was about people taking care of local music venues in the city because there was nowhere for punk bands to play at that time. Now, you extrapolate that to American Spring that has an essay for every song that is extrapolating on the ideas of the band, the agendas of the community, and this idea of living with empathy.

Wow. It seems like the last few years have given you a lot of fuel for the new album.

Yeah, very much so.

It’s like the same problems—but some have really been magnified in the past few years.

Yeah, I think that it’s a kiss and a curse. It certainly seems like more people than ever are paying attention to global politics, and to, you know, sort of “hashtag activism” that’s been popping up through social media. That’s the thing that we wanted to applaud, but it’s also one of the reasons why it’s called American Spring, it’s a tip of the cap to the Arab Spring movement of protest brought on through young people using Facebook and Twitter to communicate, and eventually set up this major revolution in a part of the world in the Middle East that was said to never be able to happen.

We wanted to make sure that people recognize that these things aren’t happening in a vacuum, that the police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Gardner, Freddie Gray, and Scott in North Carolina—those are real people, with real families, and we need to not just see them as headlines, or as Twitter feed names, but we need to see them and treat them accordingly, as the human beings that they and their families were and are.

I feel like what you call “hashtag activism”—social media gives people a soapbox, and they either go one of two directions. They can either act for change or just spout off, you know, “I’m right, look at me up on my pedestal, speaking about how right I am.”

Yeah, well, I think that obviously it’s pretty clear that none of us have the answer. None of us has the magic dry erase board where we can go back to zero and make sure that humanity is treated accordingly. That being said, I do think that it’s fair, and really exciting to me, that through this use of technology, it seems like on some level, people are paying attention, and people are angry.

People do want to make a difference. They might just not know how to direct that, or how to actually implicate that. That’s where bands like Anti-Flag come in. We’re not necessarily looking for our name to be in the dictionary next to “revolution.” We’re a gateway drug to the activist life, a gateway drug to giving a shit about more than just yourself. That’s our agenda, that’s our goal, to show people that there is a community out there that believes in ending racism, that believes in ending sexism, homophobia, bigotry of any kind. If you’re looking for that place, it exists, and it’s right here in this punk rock music.

Did your spirit for activism and justice begin when you were young or come on later in life? Were your parents hippies or activists, maybe listened to a lot of folk music?

Yeah. I think we’re kind of split as far as the band is concerned. Justin’s [Sane, singer] parents were more of the hippie activist type, and he was introduced to politics at a very young age. His father came over from Ireland, my mother came over from Italy, so I think that having immigrants as parents shaped the way we look at the world.

Also, us being from Pittsburgh, which is a working class steel mill town, I was always on the side of the worker, I was always on the side of the people. I saw the jobs get shipped overseas in lieu of cheap physical labor, and that really politicized us at a young age. For me, personally, my brother was often at odds with the law, and I heard N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police” when I was nine years old, and I was sick of the police picking on my brother. I remember that being a really important politicization of my life. I like it A., because it said the F word a lot, and B., because it was a place for me to direct my anger.

Going back to the new album, you’re now in this “eye of the hurricane” moment where the album is done and it’s about to come out. You mentioned that there was some hesitation about even making this album. Did the album become what you envisioned back when you started writing for it or did it grow and change along the way?

Well, I think that as far as “goal achievements,” we superseded everything that we had planned. I kind of hesitate on this question only because it’s a difficult one for me. I had a pretty tumultuous period of time in my life before writing the songs on American Spring. I had a relationship end, and through that relationship‘s end, I felt a real struggle for self-worth, value, and identity. A lot of the issues that happen whenever you’re in a relationship for most of your life—then it ends—and you have to figure out who the fuck you are.

Oh yes, I know.

Couple that with the fact that I had a lot of animosity towards the band, because I believed that a lot of the decisions that happened in my life that probably ultimately led to the demise of my relationship were surrounding the band. Then, to be asked to play and write songs for it, that was a really difficult moment. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, I wasn’t sure I had it within me to do that.

Did you end up finding catharsis in that?

That’s kind of the thing, is now, as I kind of come through the other end of the tunnel on it, I’m able to look at the record and I’m able to see this real opening or awakening of my personal emotions and they allowed me to comment on the political landscape of the world with a bit more empathy and a bit more clarity than maybe I had in the past. I find myself, on a lot of the songs on the record, commenting from within versus commenting as an observer as we have in the past with other Anti-Flag records. So yeah, I do think that it’s made for a very new sounding band, a very new or reinvigorated Anti-Flag.

It doesn’t quite sound like a band that’s in their twentieth year, it all sounds pretty fresh.

Yeah, and I think that’s because we’re listening through new ears, and I’m looking out through new eyes, and I want to make sure that the story is told properly and given its fair shot. Also, that ties into reiterating belief in each other and saying, “Okay, if we’re really gonna do this, we’re gonna work hard and make it count, and come out on the other side with a record that is as good as Die for the Government, The Terror State, or For Blood and Empire, or whatever one we believe got us to this point.” That’s the difficulty, is to shake the complacency. I don’t like to speak ill of our last two records, or three records for that matter, but there is definitely moments where our work ethic was not at its highest level, and that shows.

You feel like on this one, you’ve come out the other side of it having produced something bigger and better?

Yeah, I really think that this record, as it stands, is us at our best. It’s us more focused, it’s us with more anger and more ferocity, and more willingness to be open about our own lives, and that backstory as to why we are so politicized. I think that that’s a question that we get a lot, and it seems like one that we have, in the past, only discussed in interviews. Now, it’s in the songs, there’s a lot of my family, and a lot of my personal life inside these songs, and like I said, it’s not just commenting on it as an observer, it’s commenting on it as a person who’s trying to live and breathe these ideals and issues.

Getting into a couple of the songs themselves, “Brandenburg Gate” is possibly the catchiest song on the album. I can’t decide if it sounds very Clash-inspired or like a modern take on a traditional folk song. What was your vision for that song?

It’s actually kind of a combination of all of it. I really, musically, wrote the song on an acoustic guitar, inspired by one of my greatest idols, Billy Bragg, and our biggest idol as a band. Once it became a full band, it was all about referencing the Clash, and, you know, “What would they do?” It kind of became a culmination of a folk song and Clash-Combat Rock-era. The introduction of groove to them, and the introduction of groove to Anti-Flag.

I think that it’s an interesting song lyrically, because for me, it’s really personal, it’s really a love song, and Anti-Flag doesn’t really do love songs. I’s not something we’ve ever set out to do, we’ve always felt that there are bigger fish to fry. It’s just where I was when we were writing. Once I played it for people in the band, Pat [Thetic, drummer] kind of stood up and he was like, “You know, there’s a lot of imagery in here that’s making me reference this idea of how socialism has been turned into a dirty word in America, and how people will, just because of the nomenclature of socialist ideas, will run away from universal health care, run away from universal education, programs that it’s been clear work all over the globe.”

Even just a couple of hundred miles north, in Canada, where you can change your major if you want to and it’s not going to impact your bank account for the rest of your life. They are pretty simple ideas, and they’ve been co-opted and coerced into [having] really negative connotations because of what the word “socialism” means in America. He kind of took this idea of longing for things lost and took it to the way he feels about socialism, and in the interest of full disclosure, for me it was just a song about loss. [laughs]

I kind of really liked that he was able to interject some politics into a song that maybe, on my outset, was looking at it in a different way, and his idea was really something I fell in love with, and it just went further, lyrically to extrapolate onto that idea and make sure that the song did have some politics interjected into it. If you want it to be a love song, if you want it to be a song about searching for your self-identity, you can have it be that.

That’s a lot of depth for one song.

Yeah, but it’s also us just trying to make sure at the end of the day the four members of the band get behind that song. I think that that’s a really interesting element that maybe Anti-Flag has that not a lot of bands have to deal with. Songs won’t get played if all four of us don’t believe in them. They’ll maybe be recorded, maybe end up on the record, but we won’t bring them into the live set, because someone will raise their hand and say “I don’t really care for this song,” or “I don’t really believe in this song.” They just kind of live in the world that they are recorded in, and never see the light of day. I knew that “Brandenburg” would be a really important song for us as a band, so I wanted to make sure all four members really got behind it and it didn’t just live in this world as a catchy song. I want it to live in the world as a catchy song but it also means something.

I think the chorus of “The Great Divide” has probably some of the most powerful writing on the album. “While white-collar crime runs out of control/Across the great divide lays the wretched poor/A rotting melting pot of haves and of have-nots/So fix your bayonets, ’cause we’re at war.” That goes across the world, that’s not an American problem, that’s a world problem.

Yeah. I think that trying to speak to this idea that a very wealthy few are in control of 99% of us, this idea that language—“the 99%”—didn’t exist until the occupy movement had exposed the divide between rich and poor for what it was.

The idea seems almost too farfetched for some people to grasp. Almost a “No, that can’t be…” reaction.

Yeah, and I think that it’s a thing that we still need to harp on and we still need to share, because you’re absolutely correct. It’s not a thing that everybody can even fathom.

What is something that you have wanted to write a song about but haven’t yet?

Hmm…that’s interesting. I think that I’m always searching for a way to write a song that connects and identifies with people on the real humanist level, so I think that “Brandenburg Gate” is an example of that, “Without End” is an example of that. On previous records, we have a song called “This is the End.” On The Bright Lights of America, there’s a song called “Vices.” I think that one because Anti-Flag is such a political band, even when we’re talking about—and on American Spring this is more prevalent than ever—even when we’re talking about ourselves, people are searching for the politics in it, so I think whereas with most bands, it’s the complete 180 degrees of that spectrum, where there are times when lyrics that are tremendously political are being interpreted as being personal, because people don’t expect politics from most music. It’s the flipside of that coin with Anti-Flag. I think that what we’re looking for is, at its core, is fuckin’ Bill and Ted. “Be excellent to each other.” [laughs] It’s that simple.

I say that all the time.

If we live with the interest of humanity at heart, there shouldn’t need to be songs about racism and sexism and homophobia, because we should all just be living that. Living examples of how to operate in this world.

Yes, exactly. You would think, in 2015, that we would be in a much better place. In some ways we are and in some ways we’re worse.

Yeah, in a lot of ways we’re worse, but another thing that is positive out of technology is that a lot of it’s being exposed right away. I think that it’s our job to be watchdogs of the powerful, and our job to be watchdogs of ignorance, and I think that that’s why you see cell phone videos being the things that are indicting people in Baltimore. You see people sending out emails from people who have wronged them and exposing them for what they are. I think that’s a really important part about it. Accountability is the only way we’re going to start to live above some of these things.

Absolutely. So what’s your take on where punk is at today? Things have changed so much from its roots in ’74, its rebel youth in ’84, mainstream in ’94 and ’04…where do you think we are today in 2015 and where can it go from here?

I think we’re at like, six o’clock. [we both laugh] It’s the bottom, but it’s cyclical. I look around, and I see a lot of really cool young punk rock. The Homeless Gospel Choir, War on Women, and we have the record label that we run in Pittsburgh, that we have been fortunate enough to have a hand in some new punk rock music that’s happening, but I don’t see it being the force to be reckoned with that maybe it was in 2004 and 2006, where it seemed like everybody was well aware of the evils of George W. Bush and what the war in Iraq was going to mean.

It seemed like everybody was protesting that, or against that, or fighting for peace versus war. I think that it is a little frustrating to sometimes look around and feel like Anti-Flag is on an island, and there’s not a lot of people to rely on to take the lead whenever we falter or misstep or have things going on in our lives. That’s a bit of a struggle sometimes, but I keep coming back to the fact that music is so cyclical, and we’ve been, as we talked about in the first question, around for twenty years and we‘ve seen it come up and come down and come back up. I’m not afraid of what’s to come, I’m excited about what’s to come.

How big was vinyl to you in your younger days?

It’s funny, because I was having this conversation with some friends of mine the other day who are younger, they’re in a band called A Lovely Crisis, and I worked with them on their new recording, they did it in our studio here in Pittsburgh, and I was asking them whether they thought – because two of the kids in the band are still in high school – are high school kids buying vinyl?

I know that everyone is telling me that you get records, that records are selling better than ever. That’s what everybody is saying. Vinyl percentages are up like 150% or some shit like that. I was curious, in that are people who were previously buying music, are they rebuying it on vinyl, or are young people buying vinyl, or is it thirteen to seventeen buys CDs still, and then seventeen to thirty-four buys vinyl?

I was trying to do research on my own to see what was what. I’ve had instances on both sides of the coin. When Anti-Flag plays, it seems like everybody is interested in buying vinyl. More interested in cool colors and cool pressing info and things like that. When we go to some of the more mainstream stuff, I’ve had people come up to me and say. “What is this, a calendar?” [laughs] They didn’t know what a record is, so there is still an education process for vinyl out there, even though it seems like, I mean, you can buy it now at Urban Outfitters and Hot Topic, it seems like it’s everywhere.

It’s still so strange to see that.

Yeah, exactly. When I go back over my mind, vinyl has always been there, ever since I found out that I could go to a show in my own town, I was buying 7-inches. I had an equivalent of like a shitty Crosley player when I was a kid, it was just like a, you know, small suitcase player.

Oh yeah, I think we all had one of those.

I was always buying 7-inches. Then I found the Dead Kennedys, and this was probably, like, ’97, ’98, ’99. The first thing I remember getting of this music was that I bought Green Day’s Dookie on cassette. From there, it was going to punk rock shows and buying the local bands’ 7-inches. It wasn’t until the Dead Kennedys that I found out you could get a 12-inch record. I had no idea that they existed, and because there was nobody else in my family that listened to music, I found out through like a second cousin, that’s how I found out about punk rock. He gave me cassette tapes, so it took a long time. It took me going to the shows, then finally working up the courage to talk to somebody else about where record stores are. It took a while.

I think punk is one of the genres that has sort of carried that torch for vinyl. 7-inches are equated to punk music and they carried that torch through the down years of vinyl.

Well that’s the thing, and this is what I was saying to the kids last night, to A Lovely Crisis, that when we signed to a major label in 2005, we signed to RCA Records for two records. They gave AF Records, which was our own label, they gave, without hesitation, gave us the vinyl rights, because they didn’t think that vinyl mattered in 2004.

We sold five thousand picture discs of For Blood and Empire on our own, through our own label. When we were just singing this new deal, for American Spring to Spinefarm, if we would have went to them, and said “We’re going to keep the vinyl rights,” they would have been like “Fuck no!” [we both laugh] To think about how drastically it has changed, and in our mind, we were ecstatic that we were able to keep vinyl rights, because we knew we could sell five thousand pieces, if we really did something cool with it, because punk rock has always celebrated vinyl, like you said.

How about now? Do you still play or collect vinyl?

Yeah, yes.

You mentioned how you had to have a serious discussion to even start making this album. Do you think American Spring has kind of given you all a boost, a new fire, so maybe the next album there’s not as big of a discussion?

Yeah. I think that it’s proven to us that we can still do it, and that was a big hurdle. I think that that’s why you’re seeing us commit to touring as much this year. Anti-Flag played thirty shows last year. That’s the fewest we’ve maybe ever been on in our band’s life. It was a real down moment. You’re seeing this thing happen now, culturally, in music where bands break up and they come back in two years, and they’re bigger than ever. That’s never been a business model for us. We’ve specifically said that we’re not going to go away, there’s a lot of work for us to be doing. When we had it, it was either all or nothing, and we’ve now fully committed to all.

What’s down the road, both near and far for Anti-Flag?

We start on Thursday with the American Spring dates. We’re routing ourselves to Punk Rock Bowling in Vegas. From Vegas, we fly to do some record release shows. A couple in Germany, a couple of festivals in Germany. A show in Paris, two shows in London, and then we fly to Toronto for a release show in Toronto, then we pick back up in the States with more American Spring dates in June.

From there, it’s summer festivals across Europe, then put together a really cool headlining tour of the States, Canada, and Europe in the fall. It’s gonna be a busy year, it’s a record we’re really proud of, and we’re really anxious to get out and start sharing.

Today, we put out the third track from the record, it’s called “Brandenburg Gate” which we talked about, it’s finally getting out there. I’m having people text me and send me emails that they’ve heard it. It’s really awesome. We’re just so happy to get it out, and get the songs into people’s hands.

To see when Anti-Flag is coming your way, head here for a full list of tour dates.

Anti-Flag Official | Facebook | Twitter

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