April 21, 2020 Interview – Chris #2 of Anti-Flag
You catch more flies with honey. So goes the old adage that inspired Anti-Flag’s twelfth LP, 20/20 Vision, which arrived in mid-January. To rewind, these Pennsylvanian Punks delivered their debut, Die for the Government, in 1996, and made it abundantly clear that they were politically-charged activists from the start. From 1998’s Their System Doesn’t Work For You to 2017’s American Fall, the quartet has continued to utilize their platform to inspire education and awareness on socio-political issues, all as they’ve continued to streamline their sound to something that is definitely fitting of the term “earworm.”
That infectiousness absolutely shines on 20/20 Vision, a record that the band—Vocalist/Guitarist Justin Sane, Vocalist/Bassist Chris #2, Guitarist Chris Head, and Drummer Pat Thetic—were excited to take on the road. Alas, their ill-fated headlining tour, featuring Phoenix’s Doll Skin and the Brits in Grade 2, ended up having to be postponed as the COVID-19 pandemic sunk its claws into America. Sad to say, the world now is a different place than it was when Vocalist/Bassist Chris #2 sat down on the first night of that tour to discuss the album, the cyclical nature of history, activism and community, Star Wars, and much, much more.
Cryptic Rock – 20/20 Vision arrived in mid-January. Oftentimes, fans love a record as soon as it’s released and then they slowly begin to pick it apart over time. Now that there’s been some time for everyone to digest the album, how is the reaction evolving?
Chris #2 – It’s interesting, because this is the first record where we were on tour in Europe when it came out. We’re usually on tour in the States or, the last couple we’ve put out, we’ve just kind of let that percolation process that you’re talking about happen and then we go on the road. I like people to sit with the record. I am a bit archaic in how I view the process: I still want that experience where someone listens to it start to finish and sees it as a whole piece, which is one of the reasons why we have such a focus on vinyl packaging. We still put literary resources and inspirational resources to extrapolate on what the songs are about and what they’re trying to achieve.
With all that being said, being in Europe and seeing the reaction to the songs, I think that we’re still kind of getting used to the immediacy in which people can digest music now. You get a message from Spotify that the record’s out, and you can listen to it right at midnight, you know? (Laughs) It’s insane! You don’t have to get to a record store anymore. That part has been really exciting—where people are familiar with the songs, people are familiar with the record. For the most part, if you’re coming out to the show you have some understanding of what we’re doing—whether it’s a familiarity with Punk Rock as a scene or a familiarity with the band.
So that part, there’s been no surprises there. What I have noticed is that people are outwardly searching for activist music, searching for art that is commenting on the false populists that we see coming to rise in power around the world; the neo-liberals that led to the globalization that led to the false populists that are coming around the world. (Laughs) People are hungry for what a band like Anti-Flag does, and so that has led to this cool thing where really young people are coming out to the shows, but also people who haven’t been to Punk shows in ten years are coming out.
The record, as a whole, I guess just kind of fits into all of those pieces like a puzzle. There’s really no way to know whether or not people like it more than another record or have a deeper connection with it than they do something else you’ve created, I just know that all of these things are moments. If the record hits you at the right time and the right place in your life, that’s going to have a much longer lasting effect. It could be the greatest record in the world, but if you’re not ready for it, it doesn’t matter!
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. Obviously Anti-Flag has always been more about inspiring the fans to educate themselves in their choices rather than swaying anyone to a particular viewpoint. In the past, you never chose to directly name names but 20/20 Vision breaks that trend to a certain degree. What is it about the current political climate that inspired the band to make that change?
Chris #2 – There’s just so many atrocities that are just unprecedented and unfolding right in front of us. I just want to get kids out of the cages along the border! It’s interesting to long for the more nuanced political discussions that we were all having during the Obama era, where we were talking about drone programs and surveillance states. All of these things that have just been ramped up by the Trump administration, including policies of building the cages that they eventually put the people in.
Now we’re having conversations about confronting racism and, specifically, about racists who are emboldened by a white nationalist White House in America, and feel that they have empowerment to come out of the wood-work. It seems like dire straits and an important time to create a piece of art that at least serves as a document to right here and right now.
Then, there’s this whole other side of the album which is talking about the future, talking about this idea that the year 2020 seems important. I love Star Wars—I thought we’d have flying cars and be more egalitarian as a society. (Laughs) I didn’t think I’d have to be talking about protecting women and LGBTQ+ rights and people of color at this point in our history. There’s a bit of frustration in the fact that the conversations are so meat and potatoes right now. There’s a lot of frustration going on and that carries throughout the record.
Cryptic Rock – To take a moment for more of a light-hearted question: If he saw the album cover, do you think Trump would be elated that his favorite person is on it?
Chris #2 – (Laughs) Yeah, that’s an interesting thought—whether or not he would see it and find some joy in it. I’m hopeful that it comes across his desk at some point. I don’t think he’ll like it and then I think we’ll get a tweet—and that would be great! (Laughs) You can put the tweet on my tombstone.
Poking the bear is part of our process and it’s what we’re trying to do. I believe that the history books don’t lie, and authoritarian regimes come to power, and steal their power, in such a way that’s well documented; the course that we’re on is one that’s not new. There’s a lot of fear over the idea of a second term for Donald Trump and that further empowerment. You can look to Russia and Vladimir Putin passing a law just the other day that allows him to run for another ten years. These things are scary! I certainly hope that we’re not part of the folks that get rounded up when he does see it, but I also know that we’re not far away from that list, for sure. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Maybe that’s a good thing, though?
Chris #2 – Honestly, it’s what our job is and what we’ve set out to do; we don’t know how to do anything else. There are people that are suffering on many greater levels than we’ve ever felt, and it’s our job to carry them with us, to have solidarity, and really work to put the environmental, social, racial and economic justice that we want to see happen at the forefront of all of our discussions—even if it is sometimes scary.
Cryptic Rock – To get back to the album, there’s a bit of irony to the fact that it often sounds like a Punk Rock party as you’re singing about hate, violence, ignorance, and corruption. Not to demean the message at all, but this feels like a reminder that if you package your message just right, people will buy into it. Was that a conscious intention?
Chris #2 – It’s very conscious. (Laughs) When we were kids, we met Billy Bragg and talked to him about music and writing music; he told us, “You catch more flies with honey.” Ultimately, we’ve been working at our band for 20 years to try to write better songs, to try to write music that has a quality to it that stays with you, and that when you are humming the melody—because it’s nice or friendly or memorable—it’s also one that’s accompanied with a message of telling people that war is not an answer to solve our problems, squeezing the planet like a lemon is not an answer to our problems, putting people behind profit is not the solution to our problems.
Those discussions are at the top of all of those songs, but also we’re working and trying to write the catchiest song. I want it to have the earworm quality that you’re talking about. I also want to just note that we believe that activism is a good time, and that the commonality in the community that we build around our scene, around our families, around the direct action that we wish to see moving forward, that can provide connection for people that they might not ever have elsewhere. So, I want the record to sound like a good time. Also, sonically speaking, I wanted this record to sound modern, because it’s a record made in 2020; it shouldn’t sound like a 1977 Punk Rock record.
Cryptic Rock – You definitely achieved that. To delve further into some of the songs, there’s a sad, sadistic irony to “Hate Conquers All.” That said, do love, peace, and unity even stand a chance against fear-mongering and hatred?
Chris #2 – During the campaigning of Donald Trump, there was the “love trumps hate” poster everywhere. I enjoy that sentiment; I think that we should work to put love out into the world. I’m not a very good hippie, but I try to put positivity out into the universe and hope that it comes back to someone, somewhere. (Laughs) I also know that it’s a false equivalency to say what Donald Trump is doing is hateful when it’s racist or xenophobic or homophobic or transphobic, etcetera, etcetera. The language is there to serve the purpose.
What we were trying to say with that song is let’s not allow them to maneuver—especially the right-wing troll movement, the alt-right movement in the States. You see neo-fascist movements in Germany, in Spain, in Italy. A lot of these people hide behind this idea of free speech as if what they’re doing doesn’t have a name, and it does! It’s fascism and it’s racism and it’s sexism and it’s homophobia and transphobia, etcetera, etcetera. When we see these things, we need to call them out. So, that’s kind of the main theme of that song, and there are a couple other moments on the record where we touch on that. But yeah, the idea of “Hate Conquers All” was just an immediate response to “love trumps hate.”
Cryptic Rock – In “Christian Nationalist,” the band offers the thought that “history is rife with the likes of you.” Pretty much anything that you fill into that blank, we can go back and find endless examples throughout history. So, in that sense, even if we know about the past, aren’t we still, as a society, doomed to repeat it? Because, sadly, that’s what we’re doing.
Chris #2 – In a lot of ways, of course. There’s not a proper way to teach our history—it’s much easier to allow it to repeat itself. Again, not to harp on the Germans, but there are great examples of how they teach their history, and the way they’ve changed their culture to not allow Nazi propaganda to be out in their world; and at school they explain why that’s the case. I think that’s one of the reasons why when you look at statistics on fascism, people that identify as Nazis are in the lowest percentile in that country than they are in the world. There are still people there that do it, especially in Eastern Germany—there are a lot of people who hang and have Nazi paraphernalia—but it’s illegal in their country.
It’s also a byproduct of that thing we’re talking about, where when you have enough distance between you and the evil moment in history that you’re referencing, it’s less real to people. You’re right: there is a certain cyclical nature to all things, and that includes the bad ones—not just another Nirvana or Beatles coming around. Bad shit’s gonna happen, too! (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – This is all somehow a perfect segue into “Un-American,” the song, which ironically and amusingly has an actual Americana feel to it.
Chris #2 – Yeah, that was the idea. You’re very good at this game! (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Obviously that was intentional, but are people picking up on that?
Chris #2 – Yeah, they are. It’s interesting: there might be a generational thing happening. Because of that generational disconnect, I thought that the song might get more negativity thrown at it because it is so far out of our musical comfort zone. It’s actually one of the more revered tracks on the record. It’s going to be a focus song for us in the future because of how people have reacted to it.
When we wrote it, we laughed and thought it sounded like a Chevy commercial. (Laughs) We just said let’s continue down this path and make the lyrics as juxtaposed as we could to what was sonically happening.
Cryptic Rock – It’s hysterical and a brilliant way of approaching that song. That said, 20/20 Vision, as a whole, raises so many important issues and we could discuss them endlessly. Bottom line, is dissent truly the highest form of patriotism?
Chris #2 – I struggle with that because I think that our job, as an artist, is not to be patriotic to any nation or any place where we live, or anything that isn’t within our immediate control. I do believe that we have a responsibility to make revolution irresistible. Our job is to connect people with this, whether they just come in because they like the song, like you had mentioned earlier, or whether they come in because they’re looking and actively searching for a place that allows them to be free to be themselves.
There is the ability to really work beyond just protesting because it is discomforting to me; to protest because of the empathy involved and it’s uncomfortable for a lot of other people, so we need to care about them, too. That’s really the work that we need to be doing. I’m just hopeful that the record serves as a document of empathy, and that people can see that there were four kids in Pittsburgh who gave a fuck about more than just themselves—and around that, there was a community of people who felt the same way. We’re searching for that same community and communality as many of the people who walk through the doors of the show, or pick up the record or how they come in contact with this in the year 2020.
Cryptic Rock – Okay, last question. At Cryptic Rock, we cover music as well as films—particularly Horror and Science Fiction. Are you a fan of either genre and, if so, do you have any favorite Horror and/or Sci-Fi films?
Chris #2 – I’m not so much a fan of Horror movies, but I do like Sci-Fi movies. The first movie I remember seeing was Child’s Play (1988) and it turned me off of Horror movies ever since then, because I was just too little. Of the Sci-Fi genre, like I had mentioned earlier, I love the entirety of Star Wars and that is something that might offend many people. Even the prequels! I’ll go on the record to say that I will watch them and enjoy them.
Other than that, I’m not super deep into it—I couldn’t name obscure ones. Everything that I do enjoy of the Sci-Fi realm is probably very popular. I like movies where they go to outer space, anything that is about the triumph of humans over adversity. If that happens in outer space, I love that—which is essentially all of them. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Okay, the most important question is what’s your favorite Star Wars movie?
Chris #2 – Ah, that’s very good. Certainly it’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980), because that’s the best one. But I really love the newest ones: The Force Awakens (2015) is really great and I enjoyed The Last Jedi (2017), too. I don’t really know if one speaks to me more than others, other than Empire Strikes Back being at the top if I had to rank them. This is too hard of a question to end on! (Laughs)