Interview: Justin Sane of Anti-Flag
In the history of American popular music, there are moments when certain musicians, because of a peculiar set of circumstances, stand smack-dab at the nexus of art, politics, and commerce, capturing the interrelatedness of those things. For the better part of the last decade and a half, Anti-Flag has provided a trenchant left-wing political perspective from the punk rock underground. On albums like Mobilize, Underground Network, and The Terror State, they have been unrelenting in their criticism of global capital, corporate power, and American militarism.
Under the banner of their own A-F Records label they have drawn to them a stable of fellow travelers, and consistently produced great record after great record. Now, after years of carrying the banner for indie culture, Anti-Flag has sent a ripple through the rarefied — and endlessly self-referential — world of punk rock by signing with a major label, RCA Records, a subsidiary of the transnational media Goliath BMG. Their first record with RCA, Blood and Empire, was released back in March. What variables went into the decision to make that critical leap? To get a sense of that, I had the pleasure of chatting with vocalist/guitarist Justin Sane just before the album was released.
Let’s start with a sort of commonplace or truism. I think if George W. Bush or before him, Bill Clinton, didn’t exist, the political wing of punk rock would have had to create them. (laughter) I think the unintended consequence of the crazy politics we’re in right now is that it has spawned a “golden age” of political punk rock.
Yeah, I think that is certainly true when you see bands like Green Day, and NOFX, and bands that weren’t traditionally political becoming political.
You guys have been the cornerstone of that for a good many years, and I had the chance over the last few days to run through your discography. Your music is idea-driven. It’s anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist. You guys are at the forefront of so many important political issues. Depleted uranium, PETA activism… My question is, where do these ideas come from? What’s the background that motivates you guys and pushes you forward?
I come from an activist family, so I was literally born into activism. (laughter) My parents were community leaders in dealing with a lot of issues that nobody [else] wanted to tackle: environmental issues, like clean water, or the anti-nuclear movement. My parents started the first vegetarian restaurant in Pittsburgh, the first food cooperative. My dad is from Ireland, and my mother’s parents are both from Ireland, so the [British occupancy of] Northern Ireland was a really big issue in our family. There was this basic fundamental belief in our family that people deserved a fair chance; that there were basic human rights that boiled down to justice and equality. That’s why I was attracted to punk rock. The Clash and other bands that had their messages with their music really resonated with me, and inspired me.
So myself and [drummer] Pat [Thetic] were two of the three original members of the band. We set the tone for what sort of band it was going to be. And coming from Pittsburgh — this is a town that has its roots in the labor movement — seeing the power of a union, and understanding how important it is for workers to stand together, and how when workers are split apart how detrimental that is to the cause of just making a living wage [contributed to the band’s ideology]. Also, realizing that the corporate bosses, no matter how many breaks they seem to get — and I learned this at a young age — they always want more. When I was very, very young…I can still remember these debates; the steel industry was falling apart (and the whole town was based around the steel industry), and all these plants were being packed up and moved over to Japan. It was interesting that there was a huge division in labor because some people thought it was the fault of the unions. It was because their demands were too outrageous.
Well, you’re seeing it now with General Motors. They’re cutting people’s pensions and health benefits claiming it’s the unions that have driven them into the economic abyss.
Exactly. And it was interesting because the unions said, “No, we have to stand up for a living wage,” while the other faction among the workers was saying, “You’re losing us all our jobs.” But what you’re saying is true. As time has played out — and I’ll give you an even better example — nearly every single thing that you buy in America today is made in China, whether it’s the Styrofoam cup you’re drinking from or the plastic toy your child is playing with. But many of these textile manufacturing-type jobs, even telemarketing, these jobs were exported out of the country. These industries didn’t have strong unions, the workers weren’t making a large paycheck, but the people who owned these companies decided to export them anyway. The argument that organized labor is ruining the living wage for American workers is just ridiculous. It really comes down to the people at the top wanting every single penny they can get their hands on.
I think, too, the flip-side of that coin is the neo-liberal economic ideology that says that it’s the “iron laws” of the market system that drives this process of globalization, and that it’s inevitable that this is going to happen and the economy is going to have respond to these changes — rather than acknowledging that what we’re really talking about are political decisions that are made every day by the “haves” at the expense of the “have-nots.” Not just here, but around the world.
Yeah, absolutely. And you know what’s interesting, if you’re a Ross Perot — you remember him? The guy with the big funny ears, and Texan accent (affecting a Perot-style twang).
Oh yeah… (laughter)
Ross Perot was a little fascistic, but he said that NAFTA was going to ruin the country — these free trade agreements are going to ruin the country, and he was absolutely right.
He referred to it as that “giant sucking sound” as American jobs fled the country.
Yeah, that’s right. Everything he said came true. And I just find that to be very, very telling [about] the combination of corporate greed and neo-liberal policies that have been put in place in regards to globalization. Anyway, I know I’ve strayed pretty far from your original question, but these were things that I grew up talking about with my folks at the dinner table. They say people write about what they know — I just started writing about things I knew. That’s how I started writing about these issues.
It is incredible to see this kind of “golden age of political punk,” and you saw it back with Ronald Reagan in the ‘80s. That said, I’d much rather be writing a song called “Puppies and Flowers” than writing songs about the war in Iraq. I do have some love songs stored away for a rainy day, and I’d have no problem if all this stuff went away.
Sometimes you hear this criticism that we’re doing it for the money. That the political thing — we’re just doing it to cash in. But my answer to that is if I wanted to make money, I’d be doing what Justin Timberlake is doing, because that’s how you make money in music, and the percentage of people who are interested in and excited about political music [rather than] mindless pop music…you know, there’s a vast difference there. (laughter)
I suspect if I looked hard enough I could find some criticism of you guys from when you went from New Red Archives to Go-Kart where someone was complaining about you selling out.
(laughter) Well, even more than that, when we went from Self Serve Records — which was a little label that our friend ran in Pittsburgh — to New Red Archives. People wrote articles about us selling out, and New Red Archives was a guy in his bedroom! (laughter) You’re always going to get that, and I understand that. But it’s the background that we all grew up in, this working-class city, and because of this “corporatocracy” in Washington that’s calling all the shots — those are the things that influenced who we are today, and influenced the kind of music that we’re making.
Alright, this is a good way to get at my next question, which focuses again on the ways that punk rock continues to play a critical role in the political discourse, and — more specifically — about the role of the artist in society. [According to] a lot of the stuff I’ve read about you guys, you’re very careful — even though you’re very clear about your political ideology — not to say that everyone has to believe the way we do. But, at the same time, you seem to have a conception of what the artist is about [and] that punk rock is political and has to be in the trenches making the political fight.
Certainly for me, the most meaningful punk rock and the most meaningful art have always [contained] a social message. When we were a really young band, there were like 15 to 20 political punk bands in Pittsburgh, and those bands were older than us and had a really incredible influence on us. So being in that environment really convinced us that punk rock should be a political thing, and punk rock has the power to open people’s eyes and make them look at issues and see things that they aren’t seeing.
In a sense — especially when you think of the pop-punk bands — [punk rock was a] very political formation, but now we see it selling hemorrhoid cream and it’s selling cars and it’s a marketing formula, right? You can take the sound, you can take the aesthetic, drain it of all meaning, make it something that isn’t very threatening to people, then you can serve it back to them and make them feel like they’re a part of this rebellion. The key is to figure out where that line is.
Well, I think part of what you do and why people do zines like yours — why it’s so vital to the underground and to society in general — is that a lot of the most important statements that often shape public opinion of how things should be come from the underground. The underground is always leading, and it takes a long time, but eventually it bubbles to the surface. Unfortunately, by the time it gets to the surface, a lot of the important parts of it have been stripped away. But there are certainly some aspects of it that stay intact that hopefully have some kind of positive impact.
I think, though, that what you’re saying is absolutely true, and it was exactly what we didn’t want to happen to Anti-Flag. For Anti-Flag, having full control of everything we did and being able to be who we were when we signed with RCA was important to us. If we ended up in the mainstream, we wanted people to understand that there was more to us than just fast, aggressive music.
Obviously, though, I know there’s a lot of hypocrisy that I understand people have a problem with. And it’s not lost on me. You know, I get it. But in the end, the opportunity was too good to pass up. It was one of those things when you have the proposition put in front of you — “Well, okay, we’ll let you say everything you want to say, we’ll let you have full control over everything, from the songs you write and the lyrics, to the booklet and the art, to your t-shirts, to who you tour with, to what shows you do and what shows you don’t do, to what you say” — we felt like if we landed in the mainstream, we could at least be a voice in the mainstream that you don’t hear every day…and maybe you don’t hear more than every other month. (laughter)
I’m looking at the trajectory of your band, and you guys have gone from New Red Archives to Go-Kart to Fat Wreck to your own label, A-F, to RCA — I mean, you have been at every single level of the business to get to this point. There are very few bands that you can look to who have run the gamut like that.
(laughter) You know, it’s funny — our bass player, No. 2, he got turned onto punk rock by Green Day. He’s considerably younger than [me and Pat], and I think what happened with a lot of kids is they found Green Day 10 years ago when they weren’t making political statements, and they thought, Wow, punk rock’s cool, I like that look, I like the sound. And as they looked deeper into punk rock, they realized that there was a lot more there. In that respect, the pop bands being in the mainstream have certainly led kids to find other bands, such as an Anti-Flag or an Aus Rotten. But I think we were going to be a band no matter what. I know that if we were still playing in the basement on Chesterfield Street in Pittsburgh, we would be okay with that — we would still have a band. And I think that what happened over the years is that we just kept getting better. (laughter)
We weren’t very good at the beginning, and as time went on, more people took notice, and as more people took notice we took that natural progression up the food chain of labels. But whether we ended up landing at Fat or RCA, or whether we just kept putting out records on New Red Archives, it was never something we had thought out long-term in that respect. The reason I think we hit all those levels was we just kept playing.
We’re starting to get at some of the broader contemporary issues that I wanted to get into, especially the RCA deal and the new record. Let me put it to you this way — what does RCA get? As you’ve described it, you guys got the deal you were looking for. You know, it is amazing to me that back in the summer of 2004, I ran across this article in the Wall Street Journal talking about this feeding frenzy going on over this band from Pittsburgh, and what a hoot it is that this is a band that has a strident anti-corporate message, and yet here are some of the biggest media conglomerates in the world fighting over it. And now I’ve heard your side of the story, and why you thought this is the right move. So what’s RCA getting out of it? Last I checked, they’re not a charity gig. Is it just about units sold?
Yeah, I really think so. They’re a record company — they make money selling records, and they think they can sell our records. I really think it’s that simple. That’s a pretty narrow look at it, but it’s logical. Maybe it’s because of what you were saying — there’s this current going-on right now where 50 percent of the country doesn’t like the president. And that article you’re referring to, that was the whole slant — that major labels thought subversive bands were something they could market right now.
And from my point of view, I don’t really care that that’s why they signed us. What I care about is what we can get out of them — as long as we were able to put together a contract that would protect us, at least, to the point that we weren’t going to be censored. And I can tell you to this day we have not been. It has been more like not having a record label. We finish everything and we give it to them. It’s pretty wild.
In that respect, the short answer is that it doesn’t matter to me what RCA is getting out of it. We think that we have a great opportunity with it. And maybe it means that instead of there being more Clay Aiken or Justin Timberlake records in the stores, there’s Anti-Flag instead. I think that’s pretty cool.
Well, I certainly appreciate your honesty about that. I just remember — and this isn’t meant to be an attack on Rage Against the Machine or Tom Morello or those guys — but I remember turning on the TV one afternoon and seeing them pop up on “TRL” on MTV and honestly feeling at that moment like the revolution had ended. (laughter) That we were witnessing the decline of just about everything that had sprung up in the wake of the first Ramones record. I think that sometimes there’s a little disingenuousness that comes with this process. The whole “you’re a sell out/you’re not a sell out” thing is totally irrelevant in a world as complicated as ours. But, at the same time, it’s interesting to me that you guys have been able to carve out a pretty significant niche for yourselves in the indie world, with your own record company, your own booking agency. Looking at some of your stats, the Underground Network and The Terror State moving over 300,000 units worldwide — that’s pretty remarkable. So this must have been a pretty sweet deal for you to take that step.
Exactly. We were very comfortable. When I was 16, I thought Rancid were rich; I thought if you’re a band that is on Fat Wreck Chords, you’re rich. I thought the Swingin’ Utters must be rich. And it’s amazing now to come across those people and realize they’re not rich. Then to be a band on Fat and making a living but certainly struggling and, for the most part, making a living I felt comfortable with. It was a nice existence.
Going the major route — to me — felt like a huge risk of everything that felt comfortable to me and everything that was important to me as far as my social circle and this underground movement that I’d been a part of my entire life. But as you were saying, it was too good to pass up — it was just something that we felt would give us the opportunity to have access to something we’ve never had access to before.
It’s interesting that you bring up Rage Against the Machine because when we did the Punkvoter tour we were with Tom Morello — he opened up as the Nightwatchman, his solo act. And we also crossed paths with Michael Moore and did some things with him. There were two things that I really took away from that. One was that when we did press conferences with Michael Moore and Tom Morello, everything that those guys said, the press wrote down and printed. I could say the exact same thing as those guys and the press would look at me like, “Who the fuck are you to be talking to us?” The second thing was it just happened we were really talking seriously to RCA at that time, and some other labels as well. We were really kicking it around, and to be honest, we leaned way more towards not doing it than doing it.
But one of the things that really brought us around was talking to Michael Moore and Tom about how they were able to forward an agenda that was really important to [them] through these huge corporations. They were so successful at it and they were saying, “Look, you guys can do this, too. But in order to do it, you’re going to need this, this, and this as far as control goes.” There was certain guidance that those guys were able to provide for us. And still, to this day, Tom has been so helpful to us as a mentor, and, in one respect, [he] really brought us around to the fact that we had a tremendous opportunity — especially with the leverage you seem to have with your negotiating. So seriously consider this before just shooting it down.
It really is a fascinating process, but then, ultimately, it comes back to making music. Let’s talk about the new record! You guys have made yet another hard-hitting record. I am curious, though, the word “mainstream” has popped up a number of times in this interview. Did you find yourselves thinking in those terms when you were making the record? Did you ever consciously think that we’re going to make certain changes or tweak the sound in a certain way to have an impact on a broader audience?
One of the things that we put in our contract was that no one from the label could come into the studio. We didn’t want anybody to hear what we were doing because we didn’t want them telling us it wasn’t commercial enough.
The Terror State actually had a lot of success [on the] radio, where program managers were calling Fat Wreck and saying, “Hey, we heard this song ‘Turncoat’ and we think it kicks ass and we want to play it. Is there going to be a marketing plan behind this song?” That’s how radio works. Radio wants to play stuff that is going to get a push from a record label so that radio feels like people will be tuning in to hear those songs. And Fat was like, “Yeah, there was a marketing budget. But we spent it.” And programmers would say, “Well, okay, if that changes let us know. We want to play this song.” So our feeling going into the next record was, without even thinking about it, we’re writing songs that radio wants to play. Our approach for the record was “let’s just do what we do.”
The record was written long before we signed with RCA. Inherently, the music I like to listen to and, as a result, the kind of music that we play is my favorite kind of music. It does have hooks and catchy choruses and things of that nature. I always loved bands — especially when I was younger — like Social Distortion, who always had awesome guitar hooks on top of a great melody, and then a chorus [with a] really awesome “catch phrase” that you could grab onto.
Is there a single from this record? Do they still bother to ask you to pick a song to be featured? How does that work?
Yeah, we decided on “The Press Corpse” and we shot a video for it. We picked that song for a lot of reasons but we just felt that, first of all, it was one of the better songs on the record, and secondly, it really addresses an issue that’s really important, the Downing Street Memo and what I think was just a pathetic job by the media being the watch-dog of the powerful. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if this song was on the radio and the chorus was “wave the flag and cowardly salute.” In that respect, we picked “The Press Corpse” to do that with.
Okay, Justin, that’s about all I have. I’ve enjoyed our talk. Is there anything you’d like to leave us with?
Yeah, just that we started a non-profit organization called Military Free Zone. After the Berlin Wall came down, there was supposedly going to be a peace dividend because [the US] didn’t have to fight the Cold War anymore. But that peace dividend never turned up. It has been interesting that even since the end of the Cold War, the military-industrial complex has continued to have all this money funneled into it — and especially since 9/11, that spending has increased.
The country is moving in a direction of militarism that we’ve never seen before. A trillion dollars was spent worldwide on weapons in 2004, and 50 percent of that was spent by the United States. The number one export by the United States is weaponry. We wanted to start an organization that addresses these issues.
The issue we are specifically targeting with Military Free Zone is the little-known provision in the “No Child Left Behind” Act that requires any schools that receive federal funding to turn over to the federal government all private information that can be used for military recruitment. Not only is this a gross violation of students’ privacy, it is an alarming example of this trend towards the militarization of American society. Most kids have no idea that this information is turned over to the military, and we are trying to make people aware of this through militaryfreezone.org.
We have done press conferences with members of Congress who have told us if we bring them enough signatures, they will amend the law to make this activity illegal. There are also “opt-out” forms that no one knows about! So we are trying to raise awareness and provide these forms to as many people as possible. This is a very important issue, and I feel like this is an issue we can win.
That is www.militaryfreezone.org. Very good, Justin — once again, thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.
Absolutely, Mark. Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed it. Peace.