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Just as their name suggests, Anti-Flag are a lot of things: anti-capitalist, anti-war, anti-corporatism and anti-right-wing. And they’re not afraid to say it.
Ever since they burst on to the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania scene circa 1993 (technically the original A-F was formed in 1989 but it fell apart soon after) they have taken their well-informed opinions on the road to give young punks a hardcore show they can take something away from, aside from a hangover.
The quartet — Justin Sane, Pat Thetic, Chris Head and Chris #2 — all present a unified, straightedge, highly political front. And surprisingly, they’ve managed to toe the line between mainstream and underground without alienating their fan base. They’ve played the Vans Warped Tour and had a stint with a major record label. Flip the coin and they’ve also started their own record label, bring Amnesty International and PETA booths along to their shows, and rally donations to build wells in Africa.
They’re nothing if not multi-faceted.
With songs like “You’ve Got To Die For Your Government,” and “No War Without Warriors (How Do You Sleep?)” it has become impossible to separate their music from their opinions. Currently on the road — commendably in support of nothing, no new album, no new single — to spread both of these things, the kids who say they’ve been 19 years-old for some time now are showing no signs of silencing themselves.
Anti-Flag co-founder and drummer Pat Thetic sat down before their small hall show in Ottawa, Canada, to discuss the elements that keep the band alive: activism, punk and politics.
Researching for this interview it quickly became apparent that there is no way to separate Anti-Flag’s music from its politics. It’s not intimidating [talking to you], per se, but you guys know your shit about a lot of things…
PAT THETIC: We pretend, yes.
I think that’s a lie [laughs], you have a lot of opinions about deep, multi-faceted issues. Do you think that could be at all intimidating to the young people who are coming on to punk who may not understand [the issues you’re talking about]?
PT: I don’t think so. Well, it depends on how you have access to us. If you come to a rock show, it’s a rock show like many other rock shows, you just have the vision of a [musical] world that we believe in. If you find out about us through interviews you will find we have very specific beliefs, but in the end we are a rock band who believes in something. I do believe that activism — and leftist activism for sure — is very important in punk rock music and is a very important part of the music that we create, but I don’t think it’s necessarily scary to people. Is vegan straightedge scary to people? Maybe it is.
I don’t know, I guess maybe it’s just the element of the unknown. For example, there are kids maybe 13 or 14 coming in to the scene who may not really have any strong grasp on what being straightedge is.
PT: Well they should, they should. When we were a young band, there were older bands around us who showed us how to tour, what being vegetarian was, what other lifestyle choices were about, having compassion for people who are from different ethnic groups or different sexualities and treating people with respect no matter what the rest of society told us about them being wrong or bad. Those were the ideals of the community of music that we were brought up in, and I think those ideals are good. So when we come to play shows in other cities we bring those ideals that we were brought up with to other cities that we play. If that is scary then the kids need to come to the show and see what the real world is like [laughs].
[Older] bands such as who?
PT: We had a really amazing community of bands when we were young. Bands like Aus-Rotten and Submachine and the Bad Genes were local Pittsburgh bands and very great regional bands. Aus-Rotten are actually an international band but they haven’t been doing anything for a number of years now. We came from a community of activists and leftists — Pittsburgh is a very working class, liberal town in the sense of workers rights and things like that. Economically it’s a little conservative, but as far as workers right and the idea that if you organize enough people you can change anything is definitely an ideal that we got from living in Pittsburgh.
That’s another thing that I’m interested in, is rallying the people [who share your beliefs] and keeping them happy even if you may choose a direction they’re unhappy with. I know that in some instances like you signing to a major [RCA in 2005], or playing the Vans Warped Tour, that’s edging in to the corporate mainstream, which goes against the anti-capitalist ideal. How do you balance the divide?
PT: First of all, let’s be clear that all these decisions are not made lightly. All these decision are very argued and thought out a lot more within the band than they are with a lot of people that I talk to outside the band. We’ve definitely thought about them hard. But here are the options: one is that the Vans Warped Tour, as much as it is seen as a corporate tour from within the community, it’s definitely a lot more punk rock than a lot of the punk rock kids give it credit for. There are a lot of things that the Vans Warped Tour does that no other tour, or no other festival in the country does.
PT: Such as recycling, such as biodiesel, such as making sure the ticket price is kept low so you can get to the show, such as making sure that young bands who don’t have access to playing a lot of the bigger clubs can play on stage and be able to grow as a band. These sorts things are important for the music community. But, having said that there is the other bullshit aspect of it and it’s that to do all that you need to have corporate sponsorship, which is really shit. Our belief is that the Vans Warped Tour is going to be there whether we’re there or not, and if there is not a voice talking about issues then that is a waste of opportunity. I think many times there are bands out there – Bad Religion is out there, and other bands out there — that are talking about issues I think are important but Vans Warped Tour is giving us a venue to speak about issues to a large group of young people who may not have access to these ideas. And I think it’s important to talk about these issues.
Okay, so if you could somehow have the level of success and audience reach as someone like Britney Spears or Justin Bieber but you had to sell your soul to the Man to get it, would you do it to get your message out?
PT: Well see, that’s the issue. And let’s go back to your other question which was the major label question, we wrote our own contract for the major label to be able to say what we wanted to say. If the point where we’re being censored and not able to say what we wanted to say then there is no point in us being a group. So yes, I think if you can be Rage Against the Machine and talk about issues — who knew about the Zapatistas in Mexico other than Rage Against The Machine talking about these issues — if you can be that band and still have the freedom and the ability to talk about those issues that are important to you then yes that is the goal of all of us is to be able to express ourselves in the way we need to express ourselves and be able to make a living and reach as many people as we can. But, in the world of 2010 that is never going to happen because I do believe there is a definite expectation of the bigger you become — and become the common denominator — you have to speak broadly to the most people and say the least amount. That’s why I love punk rock, because punk rock on many levels speaks to smallest groups of people and says the most and in that world is where I feel most comfortable.
So how are you doing that?
PT: Speaking to the smallest groups of people as loud as we can? Well we do that through organizing. One could say, “Well you’re a tree falling in the woods and you’re not really doing anything,” but if we can organize and really get these messages out to people, then those people are — to use a creepy marketing term — taste makers. And those people are going to go in to their high schools and in to their communities and spread these messages and these ideas into those places where kids might not have access to Anti-Flag, but they might see a t-shirt that says ‘No one is free when others are oppressed’ and ask, “What does that mean? Oh, maybe this means that the illegal immigrants that are coming in to the States are not my enemy, maybe they are people just like me.”
So what type of community work are you doing?
PT: We work with Amnesty International and Peta.
Are they here [with booths] tonight?
PT: Hopefully they are. It depends on what city you’re in and how active the local groups are. What we do is we network with other groups and if the city has a local group then we try to bring them and have them set up booths at shows.
How successful has that been?
PT: In some cities it’s amazing. The reason why we do that is because we love Amnesty the work that they’re doing. But also, we talk to young people at the end of the show and they’re like, “How do I get involved?” We say, “Go to the back of the room, and the people at Amnesty international are actually getting shit done. They’re making things happen. Go talk to them and they will help you to get involved in trying to make things different.”
I know in the past you’ve done call outs some payments for PayPal payments for healthcare in the States…
PT: Pay Pal Payments for healthcare?
For Justin’s [now deceased] nephew…Was that a success?
PT: What that was about was people who were our friends and people who were in our community wanted to give us donations for [Justin’s nephew] Chris, and we didn’t feel they should be donating to us, because as much as what happened to us was shitty, we didn’t need any more resources to deal with it. But if people felt the need to donate, they could donate, and we could donate it to other organizations. That’s what we were doing. We did a couple of tours I think it was last year or the year before where we were actually collecting money for Build Wells in Africa. That’s when we’re actually taking direct donations because we’re using that money for a specific purpose. The PayPal donations are usually people wanting to help. We had some really horrible things happen in our immediate families and people were like, “We want to donate, or we want to give you something, or we want to send flowers.” We were like, “Well that’s awfully kind, but that’s not really important to us. What’s important is that these types of things don’t happen again, and if they do happen again there will be resources to help other people deal with that situation.
Your last album came out about a year and half ago, and you’ve already toured the release. Without coinciding with new material, why do this tour?
PT: Because we like to play shows. And we haven’t been to Canada for a while and we wanted to get out here before it got cold. So we’re like, let’s go to Canada now. [laughs] No look, the reason is that we love to play shows. We like to play live, it’s very important to us because it makes us happy. And it’s easier for us to play shows when it’s not like -20 degrees outside. I love Canada but it gets fucking cold in January and February.
What do you think of the different [punk] scenes you go to from city to city? I know you recently played in Kitchener [Ontario, Canada] where they have a fairly decent scene going on — what did you think? Do you get involved in the communities when you go to different cities?
PT: Well we would love to be involved in them, but here’s the issue: we have our community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The people in Kitchener…and actually in Kitchener the guy is trying to build something amazing there, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the KOI festival? Amazing stuff. And that’s a perfect example of someone who is building something in his community. We want be part of it if somebody is doing good work. We can’t come in and create anything in your community if we’re going to be here today, be gone and not be back for another 12-18 months. But if you’re doing something amazing in your community we want to be a part of it because that’s what punk rock is for us. It’s a whole bunch of satellite communities doing interesting, creative things.
When you were starting out you were doing lots of house shows…
PT: We did basement shows in Pittsburgh, we actually had basements there.
Do you miss it? Do you still do basement shows?
PT: We don’t because our gear is too heavy (laughs).
Would you go backwards [and reduce your gear]?
PT: Well to be honest, tonight we’re playing a small room. This is going backwards for us. One of the things you don’t realize when you’re in a touring rock band is that in some cities you’re really cool and there’s 2000 people there, and in another city nobody gives a fuck about you and there’s 150 people there. And that’s just the reality of what it is, and we don’t really play basements anymore but we play small hall shows and small clubs for sure.
I feel like that could be a really good way to deliver your message. I know that in Ottawa, the punk scene isn’t struggling but it is still very much underground. People might look at punks on the street and cross the road. But, I know the community itself is very strong and it just needs to be [united by something bigger than itself].
PT: Here’s the thing right now. Music right now is in the shitter. Kids don’t care about music. The value people put on music has gone down drastically in the last five years. You just think about what you used to pay versus now. You ask, “Well what’s that CD worth today? Oh well, it’s worth nothing because I can get it for free.” That’s the thing about music right now. But in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s no one cared about music, and bands like NOFX and Bad Religion — even Anti-Flag to the later part of that — started creating music because we loved music. Not because we thought we were going to be on a record label, or not because we thought we were going to be able to tour for the next 15-20 years, but because we loved playing music. And that is when you create really groundbreaking, interesting and important music, and I think that’s where we are right now — we don’t know what’s happening because it’s happening in the basements or the small halls right now, and we don’t have access to it yet. But in the next 2-3 years there is going to be a great explosion and we don’t know if it’s going to call itself punk rock or not, or what it will call itself, but it’s going to be really incredible and I’m waiting for that to happen.
What makes you think that is going to happen?
PT: Because music comes in cycles. It always comes in cycles, and right now we’re in the bottom of the shitter and that’s just the way it works. It’s interesting because in the late 90s to the early 2000s we had a record company and we would talk to bands and they’re like, “Ah yeah, we just want to get signed.” And I’m like, “Getting signed doesn’t mean anything,” and they say, “Oh no, that’s our goal, to get signed.” Your goal should be to make music because you love it. It’s like a drug trying to figure out how you can do it without losing all of your friends and family and your job, and everything else. In the early 2000s I’ve heard, “Oh I can make a living out of this and get a lot of chicks and do a lot of drugs,” but for us that never was a factor. It was, “This is something that we have to do because it makes us happy and if we don’t do it or we can’t afford to do it, we are going to find a way to do it either way.” I believe that because the cycle is going, that’s what’s going on right now. There are people starting to make new music in their basements and their bedrooms and it’s going to take a little time for it to come out.
Going back to when CDs and cassettes were emerging, for people who didn’t necessarily have access to new music, a lot of music sharing was about mixed tapes. People didn’t necessarily pay for their music. Could you call it a cyclical process that has bought us to people not paying for music today in favor of illegal downloading? What are your thoughts on the new media music sharing?
PT: Your older brother gave you a mixed tape, but then you went to the record store and actually bought the record. And your brother turned you on to the Sex Pistols then you went and bought the entire Sex Pistols catalog. You had to spend money to do that. And this economic theory — and I believe it to a small extent — that if you have to expend resources to get something you put more value on it. Right now the kids — and I’m not saying this as an old person, I’m saying this about all of us — get things for free, especially music and arts. So it’s not the grass roots, “ I believe in this band, I believe this band is a part of me, I believe in their struggle, I believe in what they’re doing.” It’s[more] like, “Oh I downloaded it for free, it was cool, I had it for two days then got something else.” I don’t feel as though people have the same commitment to a band as they did back when we were young. But again, I sound like an old man saying these things. I believe that it’s going to happen again, it’s just going to be in a different way.
Sticking with the “back when you were young” topic, you were singing about very heavy issues from the beginning…
PT: We were just really angry.
So what are you now? You’re still singing political music…
PT: We’re still angry, but our anger has been more focused in pushing things that are important. We’ve realized what battles are important to fight, and which battles aren’t. For me right now a kid getting drunk and passing out outside of the show is not as important to me as sending kids over to Afghanistan or Iraq to die in a fake war that was created by people in power who have no conscience of the rest of the population. So that’s where our focus differs. When we were young, there were people fucking up the scene because they were drinking and getting fucked up and ruining the shows. Now our battles are a little bit bigger.
Taking that in to account, there were still corrupt political parties and wars being fought back when you were coming out. Essentially it’s still going on now [just under different circumstances], so does that make you feel a little disgruntled at the fact that music, your own and others, only has limited chance of making a change.
PT: I would argue that differently. I would argue: where would we be had there not been people singing those songs and how much worse off would we be if there weren’t a group of musicians and activists? So I think sure it’s frustrating it’s still going on but I think it could be far worse than it is if we just all gave up and said “Do whatever you want, we’re not gonna pay attention anymore.”
So who are some of the people that are coming out now that you can see who share your vision, who are you signing [on Anti-Flag Records]?
PT: Right now we’re not signing anybody because record labels are dead. There is no purpose for record labels right now.
What happens to Anti-Flag Records?
PT: It’s still there, we’re still selling records, but we’re not signing bands because the thing that we could do and do well was we could distribute a band to record stores and advertise the band. Now there are no record stores to buy from because everyone’s buying things online, so you don’t need a distribution company to do that for you. And the advertising is you doing your own advertising on MySpace and Facebook and getting out and playing shows. Right now record companies can’t do that any better than a band can so why would I take a portion of the bands money to do something that they could probably do better than we can for them? This is for a small band — small bands need to develop their grass roots and really connect with the people coming out to their shows. If you’re a huge band then sure maybe there is room for record labels, but in the niche that A-F records worked in I don’t really think that needs to be there right now.
So if you could have the success of “huge” pop-punk bands like Blink 182 for example, what would you do if given the ability to reach their mass audience?
PT: Well we did [have success]. We didn’t have that level of success, but we put together a military free zone and did activism through that, trying to keep military recruiters out of schools. We did work trying to make people aware of the relatively inexpensive costs of building wells in Africa. We did work to try and keep George W. Bush from being re-elected. We did those types of things. Now obviously we didn’t have the success that Blink 182 did because we weren’t singing about farts and things like that but had we had that success then we would have expanded on that stuff more. One could argue that the more we had gone into those ideas people would probably have been less interested in what we were talking about.
I think we’re being shut down.…[referring to their support act Vulgaires Machins drowning out our conversation with the start of their set].
One of my last questions then is what can we expect in the future? In the context of the music industry going to shit, are you still going to be releasing music?
PT: We keep finding places where kids want to see a good rock show and are still interested in the ideas that we talk about and continue to play shows. We’re going to write music no matter what because it’s important to us in this world. So it may not be exactly as it is right now, but it’s always going to be a part of what we do.
And what are you going to be singing about under the new administration?
PT: We still have a war in Afghanistan, we still don’t have health care, corporate wealth is still exceeding and growing. The world hasn’t changed since George W. Bush was in office. It’s unfortunate, we were hoping it would, but it hasn’t.
Okay final question [laughs]: what are you, musicians or activists?
PT: Musicians. Actually, we never considered ourselves musicians, we’re kids who play in a band, but we are much more powerful with our instruments on than we are without our instruments so in that sense we are kids in a band who are interested in activism.
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