Interview with Anti-Flag
Pittsburgh natives Anti-Flag have been making the punk rock since 1993. Raucous, politically-charged albums like 1996’s Die for the Government, Their System Doesn’t Work For You, A New Kind of Army, and Underground Network have railed against America’s corporate-owned, neo-fascist government. In 2004, they received kudos from U.S. Representative Jim McDermott for their efforts in encouraging America’s youth to participate in government.
How’d it feel to be back in Pittsburgh?
We always love playing Pittsburgh. It is literally more like a party than a rock show for us. It was fun; our family and friends were there, and a lot of people that we’ve known over the years. It was just a good time.
Any juicy details on the new album? What kind of direction are you taking?
Monsanto is an agribusiness giant and a pretty evil company, so we have a song about that. We have a song about what’s going on in Darfur, Sudan. We have a song about people losing their identity by working in corporate America and how your work isn’t what defines you. So we have some general songs, but those are the more specific ones.
You talk a lot about that politics in your music, obviously, but do you think every band, in the post-9/11 environment especially, ought to have some level of political engagement?
No, I think that every band should record the music they believe in. For us, we think that activism in music is an exciting and amazing idea. We’re very excited by the idea of change and equality and justice, so those things excite us with music. Other people aren’t as excited about those things as we are, so they write songs that they’re excited about. I always welcome people to express political and social and justice ideas through music; however, I don’t think all music has to have those ideas. I think music has to be something you really, truly believe in. If it isn’t, then it’s crap.
You guys have been recording for almost 10 years, album-wise.
I know. That’s fucked up, huh?
Hard to believe I bet, looking back on it. 1996 was a much different time.
But at the same time it still was similar in that we were invading Serbia, and the first war in Iraq was in ’91. So those things were and still are very evident in the American culture. War and militarism as an underlying economic current has been going on for probably the past hundred years, so it might be on the surface a very different time, underneath it’s very similar to what it was in ’96 or even ’56.
Does it discourage you to recognize that similarity?
No, because I think that’s something that needs to be talked about. People need to be aware of it in this country. Why have we been in a war or a military action since World War II? Why have we been fighting wars and spending all our money on the military rather than helping our citizens and educating our people? Those are major questions that we need to have answered.
Obviously it’s discouraging that that’s going on, but it’s more discouraging to see that it’s happening and accept it.
It sounds that you’re content to not change the world, but maybe would settle for changing, say, one mind per concert.
Yeah – I have neither the ability nor the power to change very much at all. All that we’ve been able to do is offer up different ideas and make them available for people to hear and think about. That is powerful in and of itself, but it’s not power in the fact that you’re changing anybody or making anybody else do anything. I think that’s the big difference: we’re trying to offer up different ideas so people can say either, “Hey, that makes sense” or, “Hey, that’s full of shit. I can’t believe they’re saying that.”
It’s a different idea, and it starts a dialogue. The more dialogue we have as a culture and as a people, the better off we are.
With your audience, do you feel you start a dialogue, or do you feel like you’re preaching to the choir?
I definitely, on a one-on-one level, have a dialogue with the people who come out to the rock shows. There is a dialogue that goes on; I learn a lot of the things that I talk about through talking to people that I meet at rock shows or talking to people at protests.
There’s definitely a dialogue that goes on. On some level, sure, the people who are there are looking for something similar to what I’m looking for, so in that sense there is a little bit of preaching to the converted. I wouldn’t say it’s preaching to the converted so much as having discussions with the converted, empowering the converted, organizing the converted. I like to think of it that way.
In the sense that you’re all looking for a free expression of ideas, do you see yourself carrying on the tradition of groups like the Dead Kennedys?
Yeah, but I don’t know if we’re carrying on what the Dead Kennedys did, or whether we’re carrying on what Woody Guthrie did, or we’re carrying on what the people who inspired Woody Guthrie did. I think throughout history, good music has had, for me, a social or justice or freedom and equality message to it. I think the Dead Kennedys tapped into that, and that inspired and excited them just as it did other people, and it does us, and hopefully in the future it will do for other bands.
So you think if you weren’t doing it, someone else would be?
I’m sure of it. I hope that would be the case. We’re just lucky enough at this moment in time that people are interested in it, but we’re doing what people have done for hundreds of years.
In that vein, it seems like a lot of punk music has a sort of “Smash the state” message. Ian MacKaye, of Minor Threat and Fugazi, once said, “It’s not that I’m out to smash the state. I’m just interested in building my own damn state.”
Exactly. He’s a much more articulate man than I am. We’re looking for a space where people are treated with respect and dignity not just because you are of a certain race or gender, or because you were lucky enough to be born in a certain place, but for everybody.
If that means tearing down the state, then I’ll take it! (laughs)
But if that means to just change what we’ve got – if we can all achieve the same goal – then I’m in favor of that, too.
How do you think your audience has changed in the last ten years?
I really don’t think that they’ve changed that much. I think it’s people who are looking for something more than they’re getting in mainstream culture, and they’re coming to places that are providing alternatives to what they’re seeing on CNN or Fox News, and what they’re seeing on MTV. People are looking for something other than that, and I think that’s what we’ve been doing since we started.
I think that’s what drew me to this music in
the first place. We, as people, were looking for something other than what we were being offered, because we thought what we were being offered
Can you see yourself still doing it in twenty years?
I hope so. It’s a difficult lifestyle – touring and playing music is difficult to do. But if I’m not doing it, I’m sure there’ll be someone else who will be doing a similar thing to what we’re doing. They’ll be carrying the torch for me, so if I’m too old and miserable to go out and tour all the time, there’ll be other bands and other people who will be able to do that.
I don’t think it’s necessary for us to do it; I’d like to, obviously, if I can still handle it. But there’ll still be other people out there doing it. There’ll always be somebody doing it.