Interview with Justin Sane of Anti-Flag: A Quest For Change

Imagine speaking with a young kid still excited from a day playing outside in the snow and an adult passionate and well-versed in political affairs—both at the same time. That was a bit how conversation felt with singer and guitarist Justin Sane of punk band Anti-Flag, who had just finished helping a friend with car troubles caused by recent snowfall.

He navigated through topics of punk rock, their current album, and family while still allowing his views of the state of the nation to make an entrance. Most importantly, he explained how he and singer and bassist Chris #2, guitarist Chris Head and drummer Pat Thetic are using their upcoming tour to continue on helping those in need.

So does the snow make you excited to get back on the road?

I’m looking forward to it. This will be kind of our first headlining run since doing Warped Tour.

Speaking of Warped Tour, I loved how at the Camden stop last year you made two guys who got in a fight literally kiss and make up.

(laughs) We want people to understand that we’re not playing so that people can prove how tough they are. We’re there to build a community and when you find two thuggish guys duking it out, maybe if by making an example of them that it puts a new idea of what our show and the community should be. That’s our goal and they have the option to be thrown out, but if they want to stay, they do have to kiss and make up and hopefully that turns the whole incident from something negative into actually something positive.

With songs that get you riled up to take action, are there a lot of situations at your shows that have to be resolved?

I really love playing our shows because there’s usually a really positive environment that’s going on and if there isn’t, we have the ability to change that. When I was younger and went to see some of my favorite bands and wanted to slam dance and be in the pit and have fun, it only took one kid to ruin a good night for everybody.

You’re calling this tour ‘The Economy Sucks, Let’s Party’ tour. Why did you decide to single out the economy?

You could say that the economy is so bad that there’s no one I know that hasn’t been affected by it, especially in the music world. So many bands that I talk to, their record deals are already falling down because of downloading and a lot of them rely on touring to make a living and ticket sales are really terrible. I think that’s the downside of the economy that it’s been really rough for so many people and for me, a show is always a place that I can escape to when things are bad.

You have a couple sponsors for this tour.

With Anti-Flag, we try to make our shows about more than just the rock show. We see them as community building and we see them as an opportunity to introduce people to activism. We have PETA, Greenpeace and Amnesty International and also Innes Clothing and Shoe Company, we’re working with them to donate money and goods to local youth shelters.

Do you feel punk music, the music itself, is the perfect backdrop for the ideas of a political band?

I think that punk rock has that angst and a way of expressing frustration and anger and making a really strong point that ‘we’re not going to take it anymore.’ It’s one of the main things about punk rock that it has the ability to be very aggressive and to really get in your face. That’s really one of the reasons I was attracted to punk rock, because I grew up in a really political and a very radical family. My parents were anti-war activists and they were working on a lot of issues of social and economic injustice.

My dad is from Ireland and one of the main issues that my parents were involved in for many years was freedom from British oppression in Northern Ireland. So it seemed at that time the bands that were political and that had something to say were the folk artists and the punk rock artists.

Did they embrace your desire to express your beliefs in punk rock music?

If it wasn’t for my parents, there would be no Anti-Flag. I’m the youngest of nine, so I think that my parents had seen it all by the time I grew up and punk rock was just old school to them at that point. I remember actually, my parents had a party and there was a punk rock band that played and they played in my parent’s yard. The police came and my dad got in an argument with the police. It was actually really scary as a little kid, to see your dad arguing with the police. My parents are the reason I play music. When we [Anti-Flag] started, my parents always tried to help the band out financially.

You donated portions of your album released last year, The People Or The Gun, and t-shirt sales to different organizations. Why is that important to you guys?

I can kind of tell you a personal story that can answer that pretty well. My parents did the best to provide for us and they did quite well actually. But I think that, nine kids, it’s easy for them to overlook one kid every once and a while. I was probably about in seventh grade and I would stand at the bus stop and freeze. I didn’t have a winter coat, I just had this little jacket. I didn’t want to bother my parents about it because I knew that they didn’t have any money. If just one person had just stepped forward and said, ‘We got to get this kid a winter jacket so he doesn’t freeze every morning at the bus stop,’ it doesn’t sound like a big thing, but when you’re that kid and you’re standing in the freezing cold, it is a big thing. I think because of that experience, it was one of the reasons we got involved in with youth shelters.

You switched labels from a major to a more independent label before this album and it paralleled last year’s elections in the U.S. Did you guys feel an influence from this in your writing?

I endorsed Barack Obama for one reason and that reason was the Supreme Court. I felt like if John McCain was elected, that women could loose the right to choose and we could take tremendous steps backwards in civil rights, especially for minorities. But I didn’t see Barak Obama as someone who was going to give us more than that and I think that’s pretty much played out to be true. His health care bill that they passed is a complete joke and it’s a giveaway to the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Even after this huge economic disaster and rip-off, Obama has done next to nothing for the finance industry.
More than that, I think that he just continued the policies of the Bush administration. We were just really glad to see Bush go and with this record, there’s almost a celebration of almost things changing even if it wasn’t changing much for the better, it was at least a change in the enemy, but not necessarily as evil as the previous enemy. I think with this record we kind of just allowed ourselves to be a little more on the light side because that’s just how we were feeling. I think that’s pretty clear on this record. It’s not as heavy as far as topics go or as intense as other records out there in the past.

There’s a sense of unity, especially on ‘The Gre(A)t Depression,’ with other singers from the scene providing guest vocals.

I think that one thing that happened during the Bush years was that really like-minded bands flocked to each other. There were certain bands that we’ve become really close with because we would do different kind of actions with them like Big D And The Kids Table, Rise Against, Alexisonfire and The Bouncing Souls and there are a number or other bands too. There were certain lines that you felt like, ‘Oh I could totally hear this guy singing this,’ and really fit the personality of the singer. Those 20 seconds of that song are like probably my favorite 20 seconds of the whole record because I think it’s an over-pouring of personality.

Let’s end on what your predictions for the upcoming year would be.

For myself, I think it’s going to be a challenging year. I’m working really hard on solo work. I don’t think Anti-Flag will tour as intensely as the last couple of years. As far as the state of the nation, I hope that things improve. I see a lot of people hurting right now. I don’t think the government is telling us the truth. I think that secretly they’re just hoping and praying that things don’t get any worse and keeping things propped up long enough until this kind of economic disaster shakes out enough that things can move forward again. The big problem is that there really aren’t jobs being created. The banking crisis has not been addressed at all. I hate to say it, but I really think what’s going to happen later this year is things are going to get much worse. There’s a real high potential for commercial real estate to completely tank. You’re going to see businesses going under. What I think is important to do is take care of friends and family and for people to come together and help each other out as much as they possibly can. I hope when things get really bad people demand real change, not the kind of change that Barack Obama promised and never delivered, but actual true change. So that’s my rosey prediction for 2010 (laughs).

Catch Anti-Flag at the Highline Ballroom in NYC on Feb. 4 and at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ, on Feb. 5.