Truth, Justice and the Anti-Flag Way

Wednesday, 05 December 2007

Whenever anyone—be it a band or entertainer of any kind, a political figure or even a co-worker—stands up in support of any kind of ethic, is outspoken about it and exhibits said ethic as being unimpeachable for them, while those with less rigid scruples or those that also previously upheld said personality trait as being very important to them but didn't exhibit it with the same fervent belief immediately begin to feel threatened and insecure. Simply put, as soon as you take a stand and let people know about it, those people begin to watch very closely and wait for you to screw up—and arguably the single band in the punk rock community that has had to defend themselves against such critics most frequently is Pittsburgh's Anti-Flag. Formed in 1994 with the express purpose of responding to the band members' collective disgust at the hypocrisy they saw as intrinsic in religion, nationalism and fascism, Anti-Flag has borne a series of critical slings, arrows and cries of sell-out at every turn; particularly upon signing with RCA in 2005. In addition to stalwart punk rock ethics upholder and Queers frontman Joe Queer (who has ranted to anyone that will listen about Anti-Flag's questionable politics and ethics—including this writer), Anti-Flag has defended themselves to journalists, both former and current fans and everyone else that has lined up to take a shot at them—no matter how asinine the claim. "We just finished working on a new record and I know there will be people that will question it and say that we sold out, but my stock response to that is always, 'I've been sold out for 15 years.' Because when we put out our first record, the uproar in the Pittsburgh punk rock community about how we released an album on a label outside the Pittsburgh area was pretty caustic," explains drummer Pat Thetic with a laugh. "It just happens. What really floored me though was recently I was doing an interview with a young woman about the new benefit EP that we put out and she asked me if I felt like we'd sold out because we'd done a benefit EP. I told her, 'I've done many things in my life about which you question whether I've sold out—be it wearing Vans sneakers or whatever—but to do a benefit EP because my friend's sister got murdered has nothing to do, I don't think, with selling out.'

"We do what we do with confidence because we believe in it and we love it and we have passion for it—if you don't like it, then we don't care; go listen to someone else," continues the drummer. "We've gotten it all over the years, and I think I speak for everybody in the band when I say that we believe if you're not pushing somebody's buttons, if you're not making them think or question their beliefs or question their values—or even question your own values and beliefs—there's no point in making the music, and I think, at that point, THEN you've sold out; when there are no boundaries being pushed and nobody's being made to feel uncomfortable, then there's no point in making the music anymore.

"With everything we've ever done, people either love it or they're hating it and as a dude in a band and an activist, I'd much rather people love it or hate it than be indifferent to it."

While on tour with Billy Talent earlier this year, a decisive blow was dealt to Anti-Flag bassist Chris #2's family when his sister and her boyfriend were shot and killed in a home invasion. Upon hearing of the incident, the band immediately canceled their remaining dates and returned home to show support to #2's family and be of any assistance they could. With an edge of sadness in his voice, Thetic recounts the events that ultimately led to the release of the aforementioned Benefit for Victims of Violent Crime EP saying, "We packed up all our shit and went home and tried to deal with it as best we could. As you can imagine, it was a pretty fucked up situation. We think they got the right guy, you never really know. He's had his arraignment, but he hasn't gone to trial yet. It wasn't a good situation for ANYONE—the guy that they arrested was a young guy and it's just crazy; his life's ruined, #2's niece and nephew's lives are ruined, and it's just shitty for everyone so the act of putting somebody in jail for the rest of his life—he's only 20-some years old—is a very sad thing.

"#2 was there at the arraignment and he said—well you know we've spent most of our lives on the other end of the cops—to see the system working and realizing that it's working but it still feels so fucked up, there's just nothing good about it. There's no joy in it—no joy in the revenge or anything. We decided to release the EP ourselves on A-F Records and we're putting some money into the Center for Victims of Violent Crime which is a Pittsburgh-based organization that is a support net for people that have lost someone. They've all gone through it before themselves and they help you deal with the police, the autopsy and all the other stuff. They really helped out #2's mother going through it, so we thought it might be something that we could give back when it happens to someone else.

"The other half of the money is going into education bonds for #2's niece and nephew. His nephew's around 13 and his niece is only a year old. It's a little morbid to talk about it this way, but she was there when it happened; they left the baby alive and shot #2's sister as well as her boyfriend."

According to Thetic, the shock of the incident also infiltrated the writing process when the band convened to write their follow-up to 2006's For Blood and Empire. Playing less like typical songs, For Blood sounded more like a series of focused rants against as many of the Bush administration’s policies as the band could fit onto a single disc but Anti-Flag couldn't ignore its internal traumas this time and the tone has shifted for the forthcoming Bright Lights of America from very populist statements to very personal ones. "Depending on who you talk to in the band, there was more or less of what happened with #2's sister that carried into this record," says the drummer candidly. "But this Bright Lights is a lot more personal; Anti-Flag records in the past have been more about us talking about the world and this one is us talking about our lives within that world. There's a lot of 'I' on the record. More 'I' than normal. It's coming from a slightly different direction. The way it worked out was this: we got the benefit EP together—which was some old stuff and some stuff we put together…. It was an emotional, cathartic experience to put it together because of #2's sister getting killed, and then we wrote another set of somewhere between 25 and 40 songs—37 I think—and we whittled it down to 12 that are going to be out on the new record that'll be out in March [2008]. There are some of the typical Anti-Flag songs on there as well, but because there was a lot more interest in how we were personally dealing with what was going on, it gave us a bit more of a chance to say, 'Well, THIS is how we're dealing with it' and the songs are coming from a slightly different place."

Truly, however, Bright Lights of America is a very different album for this band. Upon considering the direction that they wanted their eighth studio album to take, singer Justin Sane, guitarist Chris Head, bassist Chris #2 and Thetic agreed that they wanted to do something bigger and more epic. With that notion in mind, they enlisted the services of longtime uber-producer Tony Visconti—whose resume includes work on landmark records by David Bowie, T. Rex, Moody Blues and Luscious Jackson among others—to man the board and assist them in executing something of a sonic makeover. "I'm sure some people will hear it and say, 'Oh no!' We were thinking it ourselves as well," exclaims the drummer, laughing. "The thing that we were really interested in with Tony is that we've been making rock records with two guitars, bass and drums for a while and we wanted to make a bigger, fuller record with a little bit more texture and variation. Tony is very talented at that type of thing so we got him to come in and produce and he did a great job. What I learned this time was that you could rent musical instruments and that's what we did; like tympanis and glockenspiels and concert cymbals and all kinds of weird shit. We didn't really know how to play any of that, but Tony said, 'So we'll figure it out—we've got time.' So we banged on shit to see which one could do the best interpretation of what they were thinking for each instrument and we ended up doing it all ourselves. In that sense, it was really exciting to have access to all these instruments that I never would've even thought of and then put them into a punk rock song. We all felt that it added a lot; more anger and more passion than just the guitars that we had before. We've definitely gone into uncharted waters for Anti-Flag this time.

"We kept saying to ourselves, 'Wow, that's really, really different.' But other people that we played it for told us that it still sounded like us so I guess four of us playing together is going to sound the same whether we put timpani on it or not [laughing]."

That single statement alone is indicative of the bravery of bands like Anti-Flag. The record industry has grown ever-more conservative in recent years with regards to acts on their rosters spontaneously shifting gears and changing creative voices on a dime and for Anti-Flag to do so now that they're signed to Sony BMG could be construed as a foolish endeavor; after all, they wouldn't be the first band to find themselves without a home if their label didn't like it. Just ask Wilco or any of others that have been summarily dumped on similar grounds. When the question is put to Pat Thetic however, there isn't the slightest hint of worry that they may be on shaky business ground. "For us, if we put out a record that doesn't work, we just say, 'Fuck it. We'll put out another record next week,'" says the drummer flatly. "I think we've got options to do whatever we want at this point. The label is afraid of us and I like it that way. They don't know what the hell to do with us; they just stay out of our way and release our records for us which is amazing and what we always wanted in the first place, but we never believed it would work out that way. We've been really lucky that they've never tried to interfere in any way. We go and make demos, play them for the label and they tell us to go ahead. It's been much more of a breeze than I ever imagined—I thought it would be a battle. My insight into record labels—because I have one—is that nobody knows what's going to work in music right now anyway so there's no point in trying to figure it out. This is what we wanted to do this time and it was going to come out one way or another; the label just happened to like the idea and the way it sounded too."

With that assurance in hand, the next thing for Anti-Flag to consider is what the band will do with its summer in 2008. In years past, the possibility of joining up with Warped Tour in any particular year would seem like a no-brain decision—the tour is one of the largest, longest-standing package tours in North America and draws fans of all proverbial stripes. There aren't many bands that would turn down the opportunity to play before a large guaranteed audience on a daily basis for roughly two-thirds of the summer, but what Anti-Flag witnessed on last year's tour has given the band pause in regards to signing on for a second consecutive year. "We might do it again but we haven't gotten an offer yet; it hasn't been decided," says Thetic level-headedly before getting more philosophical. "We have a program called Military Free Zone where we're trying to keep young kids from being recruited, and we think that it's outrageous to have military recruiters at events that we think should be safe places where they don't have to be exposed to right-wing macho bullshit.

"Whether they're good people or not, these recruiters are signing people up to kill people or be killed themselves and nobody should be put into those positions and it's outrageous that Warped Tour allowed it to happen last year," continues the drummer. "I get it from Kevin Lyman's standpoint: we get to have our say, why can't they have theirs? But it still sucks.

"There has been a lot of talk in the band about it [doing Warped Tour again]. It comes down to the fact that, if they're going to have the recruiters, someone needs to balance that out and it might be us for that reason.

"As much as it kills me and as much as I don't want them there, they should be allowed to speak so, if nothing else, we can speak louder and give the other argument."


Bright Lights of America will be out March 2008 on Sony BMG

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