Anti-Flag: Ten years since ‘The Terror State’
Given that Anti-Flag split up after its first show, the band has recovered quite nicely. Formed in 1988 (but the band’s celebrating its 20th anniversary so you do the math), the Pittsburgh-based hardcore/punk group is currently on tour to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Terror State, an album of politically astute songs that it released when George W. Bush was in office. Produced by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, it’s one of the band’s most accessible records. Singer/bassist Chris Barker (aka Chris No. 2) phoned in from a tour stop to talk about the band’s legacy.
Did the band really split up after its first show?
Yeah, that’s the original story of the band. [Singer] Justin [Sane] and his sister had come up with this idea for a band. Pat, who’s now the drummer, was in that version. They played one show and then broke up. Pat and Justin moved to San Francisco for a bit. They went to school and then came back to Pittsburgh defeated in 1993 and started Anti-Flag.
At what point did you join?
I joined in September of 1998. I joined and started work on the second record. The first record came out in 1996. Chris Head, who is the other guitar player, and I were on the second album.
What drew you to the band?
I was a really big fan of the band. I went to a lot of the shows. My favorite band was the Dead Kennedys. To find a political band in Pittsburgh that was similar was cool to me. I was only 15 or 16 years old when I started going to the shows in town. I found that a lot of the bands from Pittsburgh were political bands. It has to do with the geography of where we’re from. We come from blue-collar, working class homes. With the steel mills moving and the way that changed the infrastructure of our towns that led to the politicizing of people who wouldn’t normally be politicized. Aus-Rotten and The Bad Genes, who are Pittsburgh punk rock bands, were lesser-known bands but, to us, they were the biggest things happening.
To what extent did you agree with the band’s political beliefs?
That’s why we’ve been together since then. We are all on the same page and we have faith in each other. When one person is more passionate, we fall in line and let that person take the lead.
Talk about the band’s decision to play The Terror State in its entirety?
It’s all a part of our legacy. We just had the 20th anniversary of the band and the album is ten years old. We were looking at the political landscape and it seems eerily similar to where we were at when we wrote the record. When we thought about how we would close the chapter, it seemed [like there was a] political statement we could make by playing The Terror State. Whether it’s Isis or drone strikes or Paris, there’s tremendous upheaval coming from the Middle East. Our reactions to it will define and shape history going forward. Playing these songs that were about the post-9/11 reaction seemed apropos.
There’s a different president now. Do you think Obama is more similar to Bush than different?
Unfortunately, yes. When Barack Obama was elected, we had hope for things being different. Challenging the status quo is a very difficult task. It further proves that Coke-and-Pepsi politics isn’t where real change comes from. Real change is going to come from people standing up for what they believe in. It’s not presidents or prime ministers or popes or the CIA making these changes. If you see what’s happening with the gay rights or LGBT, it has a swelling movement behind it. Marijuana laws are also being challenged. It’s coming from individuals who want to make things different than when they found them.
It seems like the rhetoric has shifted but not the policies.
When we went to DC for Obama’s inauguration, there was a difference in the air. The streets weren’t blocked off for protestors the same way they were for the Bush administration. Obama came correct when he talked about shutting down Guantanamo Bay during his first week in office. Now, with The Torture Report, there’s more reason than ever to shut it down and there’s not action being taken on that. He’s said he won’t file charges. That’s the opposite of what he said when he took office. It’s frustrating to see that. You want to have hope and believe that the corporate-crats haven’t taken control of everything. I feel like our power is very limited as four kids from Pittsburgh who bang on guitars. However, we can have these moments of solace and we can have these moments where they feel as if there is hope. They come in moments of playing these shows and touring the globe and meeting people of different religious backgrounds and ethnicities and monetary incomes. At their core these people are good folks and that’s who we try to surround ourselves with.
What was it like working with Tom Morello on the album?
I think that really shaped the band. I think it’s where we found what Anti-Flag sounds like and the goals that we want to accomplish. A lot of that came from Tom inspiring us to be open to new ideas. They don’t need to be two-minute punk songs. They can have big choruses. A lot of that stuff came from Tom. We owe a lot to his ability to challenge us to be the best version of Anti-Flag that we could be at the time.
Any good stories about conversations you had or funny things that might have happened?
I remember talking about the song “Post-War Breakout.” We were talking to him about how we were going to play it. He sent over Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat.” He told us we needed to steal the beat. I remember thinking, “What the fuck are we doing?” Of course, it worked. I thought, “Okay, maybe the old guy knows what he’s talking about.”
That was the Woody Guthrie song.
It was written as a totally different version. We got a call from Nora Guthrie that we should go to the archives and find the original lyrics, so we scrapped the lyrics we had and put Woody’s lyrics on it.
How’d you find that song?
The archives are incredible and they’re getting better. We had a song called “This Machine Kills Fascists,” which was a nod to Woody Guthrie. Somehow, someone gave that record to Nora. They told her to check us out. She called us and invited us to the archive. We went to New York City. You have to put on white gloves and you go through buckets and buckets of his handwritten lyrics. It changes as he gets older. He was writing on his deathbed. Some start in pen and switch to typewriter because he could no longer write. He has this song called “Ingrid Bergman” which is him confessing his love for the actress. It proved that in his old age, he got loose about his love. I read lyrics that said, “Girl, I want to roll around in your grassy knoll.” It’s a real interesting curtain revealed. It was a great experience. [At the archives], they were implementing a new system where you could search by keyword. We were doing a lot of that and found “Post-War Breakout.” It seemed like an endless array of notebooks. He had written so much music and most of it was never recorded.
I also think it’s surprisingly accessible even though you come from a hardcore background.
Billy Bragg was someone we met when we were young. By “met,” I mean, we went to the shows and harassed him. Now, we can call ourselves friends. At the time, we were dirty punk rock kids. We went to his show and we cornered him and said we were big fans. Billy changed the direction of the band. He said, “Gents, I’ve seen the punk rock thing. It’s really great but you catch more bees with honey.” We were puzzled. He said, “Write good songs or no one will listen to what you say.” It inspired us to write catchy songs and turn the politics in the band into something you could listen to and something that was memorable. That allowed us to give in to the pop sensibilities. The Dead Kennedys were my favorite band and they weren’t afraid of choruses.
What’s next for the band?
We just finished the new record. It’s going to be a busy year.
Upcoming 2015 Shows
Cleveland, OH – Grog Shop
Indianapolis, IN – Emerson Theater
Chicago, IL – Reggie’s Rock Club
Asbury Park, NJ – Asbury Lanes
New York, NY – The Gramercy Theatre
Toronto, ON – The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern
Montreal, QC – Les Foufounes Electriques
Peterborough, ON – The Red Dog
Hamilton, ON – Club Absinthe
London, ON – Call The Office
St. Catharines, ON – L3 Nightclub