Think Globally, Act Punkly
David Lee Beowülf
My first taste of Pittsburgh’s Anti-Flag came a couple of years ago, when they opened, along with Blackfire, for the U. K. Subs at the now-extinct Coney Island High in New York City. I’m prone to back-talking snot-nosed punk rock kids who a) appear too young to be “punk” in the latter half of this decade and b) spew bleeding-heart, liberal pabulum between songs.
Anti-Flag’s frontman (frontperson?) Justin Sane’s bleeding-heart, liberal pabulum between-song banter was too much, and I shouted “what the hell do you know about Ronald Reagan? You look like you’re twelve!”
So, a few months ago the latest from Anti-Flag, A New Kind of Army on Go-Kart/AF, comes my way. Though musically, it’s quite punk, I’m inclined to be diametrically opposed to what I saw as a hidden fascism in their lyrics. Songs like “Free Nation?” and “I Don’t Believe” that betray a red streak…
I could not wait to interview these kids! How could a band comprised of four nineteen year-olds have anything to say concerning politics?! I wanted to give them a piece of my mind and see how well they could defend themselves and their ideology! So, come on down, Justin Sane (lead guitarist/lead vocals), Chris Head (guitar, vocals), Pat Thetic (drums) and Chris (No. 2) (bass, vocals) — who, according to their Web site (http://www.anti-flag.com) was “…born with a mohawk…!”
Hi, this is Dave from Ink 19 , is this Justin?
No, I’m Pat, the drummer.
Shall I interview you, then?
I’m not nearly as interesting and I’m more bitter.
I’d rather interview someone bitter.
Oh, well fuck you, then!
Great. Is Justin the frontman?
Is he the guy with the asparagus hair?
Yeah, I’m the one with the hair-in-the-light-bulb-socket hair.
You all look like that!
Give Justin a call, he knows more. It’s his job to do interview. It’s my job to pay the bills.
Hey, how old are you guys?
Yeah, how long have you guys been nineteen?
For about ten years now!
So you’re not really nineteen…
We are in punk rock years!
Well, I’m fourteen in punk rock years!
Pat gives me the right number and I call Justin… He has a voice like a too-confident thirteen year-old.
Hi, Justin. I just got off the phone with Pat the drummer, is this your job?
You have a job?
Well, it’s not really… I’m house-sitting for somebody.
Are you getting paid?
No, I’m not. It’s a nice place. This lady has a bed and breakfast and…
You get to share her bed and she makes you breakfast…
I’d be OK with that, but I’m not that lucky. She might make me breakfast. I’m just staying up here, she’s a friend of the family’s.
Where are you right now? Pittsburgh?
We’re from Pittsburgh, but right now I’m in Saxonburg, which is like 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh.
Saxonburg, eh? Are there a lot of Germans around there?
First of all, how old are you guys?
Yeah, right, how old really are you?
Pat said he’s nineteen in punk rock years… And I’ve been fourteen in punk rock years for 22 years!
OK, well, we’re right around your age, then.
How long has the band been together?
We’ve been together for about six years.
So with A New Kind of Army , how many albums is this?
This is officially our second record. The second full-length was just a compilation of other things. Total there are three full-lengths, a bunch of seven-inches, and a couple splits.
OK, groovy, now I’m going to start getting on your case… What kind of parents do you have?
My parents were real cool. As far as the band went, they were really supportive. I’m from Pittsburgh, my dad is from Ireland, and my parents were always into activism, always some political activism and…
Were they in the IRA?
My dad was a big supporter of the IRA, he actually did benefits/fund raisers for them.
How about bomb-making?
No bomb-making, he actually got disenchanted with the IRA because he didn’t believe in the violence, so he eventually left them. He believed that the IRA were just killing people, and it didn’t make any sense to him. For instance, my uncle lived in Birmingham, England, and he could just have been knocked off like anyone else…
Does he know Black Sabbath?
I don’t know….
They’re from Birmingham, England.
My parents are interesting, they ran the first food co-op in Pittsburgh, the first vegetarian restaurant in Pittsburgh, and this was in like 197-something, probably before I was born, pretty much way ahead of their time for Pittsburgh.
Well, they knew a lot of hippies, but they were definitely activists.
What kind of education did you have, your formal education?
I went through regular high school then I went to college for four years at the University of Pittsburgh.
Our publisher’s wife is a Pitt graduate. What did you major in?
Why not poly sci or go into Law?
Well, I have a minor in political science and I studied women’s studies as well.
I studied women’s studies, too — if you know what I mean, henh, henh!
I hear ya!
What made you decide to get into punk rock?
My brothers and sisters were all into punk rock.
Were they in bands?
My sister Lucy was in bands sporadically, here and there, but she was the only one in a band. And she was the one who really influenced me to get into playing. She got me my first guitar, my first drum set, she was really great, and to this day is a big factor in my life, she’s really cool.
What was the first thing you wrote about?
I had a song about somebody overdosing. At the time, in my early teens, a lot of my friends were getting into drugs — I just wasn’t into it at all, I’d seen some bad shit go down with drugs. I was afraid of them, that was something I was very frustrated by. My other song was this song about TV evangelists, at that time Jerry Falwell and that stuff was really big. It’s funny to me that you asked me that, because I was recently thinking about that and how silly those songs were, like lyrically, they were really painful.
Really? To sing? Or the lyrics were just really painful?
They’re like, horrible! I mean… They sucked!
Oh, they’re bad.
Yeah, they’re bad.
I was wondering when you started getting into your lyrics, because they’re really pretty deep, and your between-song banter is heavily activist-laced. Dare I say, ahem, liberal. Would you say you’re a straight-edge band?
Well, we are all straight-edge, so that makes us a straight-edge band, but we ‘re not a straight-edge band in the sense that we’re against people drinking and using drugs. I really feel like people have to do what they want to do.
Do you think straight-edge even matters anymore? There was a time when straight-edge was a real scene, you could recognize it as a separable element of a particular punk scene somewhere. What do you think is going on right now?
I think that it matters. It’s a great alternative for kids. Kids like me. Punk rock was great for me because I didn’t want to do drugs like all the jocks or whomever was at my school, that was what was cool to do, so getting into punk rock for me was a great alternative, ‘cos there was there really great people like Ian MacKaye, who seemed so cool to me, and I was like, “wow, these guys don’t use drugs, so it must be cool if I don’t use drugs.” So in that respect, it was a great thing for me.
It’s funny that you mention that the jocks were all using drugs. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that that’s where most of the drug use was and is in high school.
Right. It’s definitely a big misconception.
Because when I was in high school, who were the dope addicts? It was the jocks and they did even more serious stuff!
Yeah, like at my school they were doing cocaine and big drugs and all that shit…
Before practice! They’d play better on drugs! So it’s a good thing that a whole bunch of them got shot [I’m referring to Columbine] and I’m hoping it happens more.One of the things about the message in a lot of your music… I don’t think you’re anarchists, but I think that a lot of it has to do with freedom and not being restrained to do certain things; where do you draw the line or where should you draw the line concerning personal freedoms? [This is a set-up on my part…] And what you want to tell people? For instance, you wrote a song about not doing drugs. You didn’t want to do them, then fourteen years ago we had this big “just say no” campaign sponsored by some old lady in Washington, D.C., and a lot of people made fun of that then. But we’ve got the same thing right now, and maybe, what I’m hearing you say, is that “just say no” isn’t such a bad idea.
I guess the problem with those programs is that even I think they’re unrealistic.
To “just say no”?
Yeah, I mean they’re so much pressure in school to do drugs. I remember like there was.. It was a good thing I was a misfit, because the misfits were the only kids who were cool with you not doing drugs. I felt like if… Something as simple as “just say no…”
Is too hard?
It’s too ridiculous. I think maybe some education about what drugs do to you…
There was education, lots of it, but it was mainly “just say no…”
The kind of education I would suggest would be at least letting kids, if they’re going to use drugs, let them know what they’re going to do to you so you’re at least not tripped out on something wondering what’s happening to you.
Do your really think that’s what didn’t happen? Because I remember in elementary school being taught what happened to people on drugs. Do you think that they were not bringing enough heroin addicts into the classroom? Saying, “hi, this is Joe, the heroin addict. Look what he does. Isn’t he cool?”
I don’t think they necessarily need to scare kids out of doing drugs, what I mean is just maybe education so that the kids can make smart decisions about the way you do them. I think it’s pretty hard to keep kids from drugs. If they want to try them, if they want to experiment, they probably will. If they don’t, they probably won’t. I’ve never met many kids who didn’t do drugs because somebody told them that something bad would happen to them. Most of the kids I know who never did them was because they didn’t have any interest. Back to your other question about personal freedom…
You have a song called “Free Nation…”
Yeah, I think for me the idea of personal freedom is really trying to follow a path in a way that you’re doing the things you care about and the things you believe in without hurting other people, but the reality is that you get into things like gun laws and you get into all these really murky areas, where things aren’t quite so black and white, and it becomes really tough as to what kind of decisions need to be made.
Pennsylvania’s got good gun laws.
I don’t know much about that…
You don’t have any!
Those are good! You come to New York and you can’t buy one, you’re breaking the law!
Isn’t that weird? In Washington, D.C. it’s illegal to own a handgun, but..
I honestly wouldn’t have a problem with a handgun bill being passed, because statistically, a lot of accidents happen with them.
Where do you see these statistics?
I’ve seen them…
OK, I won’t ask where… But then don’t you think people shouldn’t be allowed to have cars?
That’s a very good point. But I think with handguns, if somebody gets into an argument at a bar…
Why are they bringing a handgun to a bar?
Fuck if I know!
In New York the last case of someone getting shot in a bar was because an off-duty cop went in a bar with his gun, got drunk and into a fight and shot someone.
I believe it. What happened here was my neighbor, the guy was, and he could’ve just as easily done this with a submachinegun
Really? He has a special, Federal permit?
Um, the point is that legislation is against these weapons; if there were riots, if the Government ever got so far out of line that people decided they needed to defend themselves against it, they couldn’t! That’s the legislation that scares me.
In other words, you think the government should be kept at bay by a healthy, honest, armed populace that minds it’s own business.
I think that’s probably not such a bad idea.
One of the things about personal freedom is that you have to have the freedom to be left alone. And being left alone means you have a lot of responsibility. If the government is gong to take care of you, then they’re also going to say, one day, “you know what? No more punk rock.” And your mail is probably being read.
Oh, our mail is opened all the time! I’m not kidding! It is! When we first started out, especially, the postman would rip off our Anti-Flag sticker every day, and everyday we would put it back up. Secondly, our mail was opened. We used to get mail that was opened all the time. It doesn’t so much happen any more, either somebody checked us out and said “OK, we know what these guys are about,” or they’re a lot slicker than they were before, or they lost interest. But our mail used to be opened up all the time.
Why do you think that was? Were you causing trouble around Pittsburgh? Or just getting noticed?
No, we didn’t cause any trouble at all, we were noticed, I think that our message was taken into consideration, and they didn’t like the idea that we weren’t very excited about Nationalism and somebody wanted to know what the fuck was going on with us, but we would send mail to ourselves that we’d never get or receive opened!
Did you call the FBI?
We talked to the Post Office.
What did they say?
I don’t remember, it was something like “we’ll look into it,”
You have a song called “Police Story,” about cops beating up innocent citizens in Brentwood, PA; does that happen anymore?
It just happened! That was based on a true story about a guy named Johnny Gamage, who was… well, Pittsburgh had the highest instance of police brutality in the country last year. The FBI actually for the very first time in history stepped in and took control of the force here, and they’re actually watching them, they have to report to the government.
That’s one good thing the Federal government’s done!
What do you think about what happened in Kosovo? What does Anti-Flag think about Kosovo? You have a song called “Outbreak” and you talk about bombs, even though it’s really geared towards the stuff in Iraq…
I think there’s a lot of different slants you could take on Kosovo. You could take the slant that it is a humanitarian effort…
I personally don’t take that slant. For one, I’ve heard the theory that possibly the USA and NATO want to flex their muscles in warning China to not step out of line, and it’s interesting that they just happen to bomb the Chinese embassy, so they may be sending a message to China. Someone pointed out to me that the stock market, the arms manufactures stocks went up during that time, that’s another thing to think about. I have a hard time believing that it’s a humanitarian effort, there’s war in Ethiopia, and nobody’s stepping in, nobody stepped in during the Rwandan civil war. There’s so many examples of when they could have stepped in if they were really concerned about humanity. And they didn’t, so they’re very inconsistent.
It looks like you’re paying attention to the news, but you’re deciding for yourself what’s bullshit and what is not. What do you think about people who believe everything the news tells them, for instance, that this was a humanitarian thing, dropping bombs on industrialized cities. What we’re doing in Iraq is… OK, I mean, people are flat-out believing it.
What my dad always says to me is that Americans are trained to believe these things from the day they’re born. They’re brainwashed to watch and believe everything they’re told. I almost have a sympathetic view towards them, because they just don’t have any other way of looking at things. One point my dad said about America is that if you’re born in America, no matter who you are, you’re got a hint of racism or bigotry in you, no matter how open-minded you are or how anti-racist you are, because of the messages of the media you’re fed. And stereotypes; you’re always having to fight off different racist things.
Do you have a song about that?
I don’t, but that’s good idea, maybe I should make a note of that.
That’s B-E-O-W-U-L-F and you can send the royalty checks to… The thing is that you’ve got A New Kind of Army , and an army connotes violence.
Yeah, but the idea of our army is that our army is people who are standing up against violence and we’re going to solve problems without violence. That’s the goal behind the AF Army. We’re too smart to fight. And kill.
What if someone’s running after you with a gun?
You run away! Obviously!
What about “Captain Anarchy,” which is about some guy walking down the street dressed like an idiot?
Yeah! It’s your stereotypical punk rock song. Our name for that song is “Token Oi! Song.” It’s kind of pointing out things that have been pointed out before, but we like to keep hammering the message in, that it’s not the music you listen to, but what’s in your heart or head, you’re doing something that’s positive. I’ve met a lot a lot of kids who are “preppy,” but in my mind, were way more punk than some guys with big mohawks.
Why do you say they’re more punk?
Because of the things they were doing, like they were doing Habitat For Humanity and other positive things. I’ve met punk kids who have a great look, they said the right things, then they went to shows, got drunk, started fights, graffiti on the wall of the hall that some kid rented, and then the kid (half the time, me) would have to pay for it. So that’s what “Captain Anarchy” is about.
Well, when you have that, I can understand your point completely, but when you have the people who… Punk is about listening to really cool music. Would these preppy fucks actually listen to the Ramones or something?
They’d give you a weird look! They could be into all sorts of stuff and be really cool and smug about it or nice about it, and you say, “I think I’ll crank up the Sex Pistols,” and they’re like…
“Turn off that noise, man!”
I mean, you have to draw the line somewhere.
I agree. But as long as their attitude to me is positive. I don’t think they’d start a fight, I think they’d see that the kids are trying to do something together and not trying to pull something apart.
People slam, but that’s not fighting. How about touring, have you been down South?
Yeah, we have.
Where do you play? Garages? Basements?
Mostly halls and clubs. We did a really big show at St. Pete, about 900 kids at Janus Landing, that was one of the coolest big shows we’ve ever done. Miami, St. Pete, and Orlando have always been good.
I think that the people in Florida do want to hear good music and listen to people with intelligent things to say — even if they are punk rockers.
My feeling about things is that kids just don’t want things rammed down their throat, but with Anti-Flag, what we really try and do is more than tell people what they should think, we tell them what our ideas are, and say, “this is how we feel about it, you may not feel this way, but at least think about how we feel about it.” And that went over really well in Florida.
Have you ever played before a crowd full of Nazi skinheads?
How about any real hostility between the band and the crowd?
We’ve had that occasionally, usually not Nazis, just people who didn’t think that we should not have our flag or they didn’t take any time to listen to our message, they just automatically say, “Anti-Flag, anti-America: we’re going to kick your ass,” but even people who don’t really agree with us, they’ve taken the time to listen to us.
Why do you think anyone cares about you displaying the flag upside-down. Do you play before a lot of vets?
That was one of the reasons we named the band Anti-Flag. During the early ’90s, I just remember seeing kids with American flag patches on their arms, and that wasn’t what punk rock was to me at all, this nationalism.
No, hypernationalism is Nazism.
I remember going to see… like, these kids wearing these patches, seeing them at a Sub-Humans show! What the fuck were they even doing there?! It was just ridiculous to me. I don’t know what message they missed in the music, I just guess it’s just fast music, they like to slam dance.
Vets who were in a war, yeah, I can understand them getting upset, but there ain’t too many vets around these days who are gong to punk rock shows and an all-volunteer army is about as moral as it can possibly get. Florida had an ugly Nazi scene in the late ’80s, but if you didn’t see it, things have changed. For the better. The shows used to be weird.
It’s interesting, a lot of times these people who do have a problem with us hanging the flag are claiming to be the biggest patriots in the world, but my argument is that if you’re protecting what are supposed to be American values, isn’t freedom of speech an American value? Why do you want to shut me up? But they always want you to shut up or to not express yourself, and that, to me, seems totally against what is supposedly an American value.
Shutting up ideas is not an American value.
That’s more like Stalinist Russia.
It’s good that you bring that up. What’s up with the 1040 tax form on your CD?
Oh, that’s your tax dollars at work, when you pick up the CD there’s a very dead Iraqi solder underneath it.
He doesn’t look so bad.
Actually, we had all these “bad” pictures like that, but none of them would reproduce.
You could put them on the Web.
That’s a good idea!
Again, B-E-O-W-U-L-F, royalties go to … Now, do you guys pay your taxes?
We actually do.
Or we would go to jail!
Everyone should pay their taxes!
Well.. Let’s look at it this way: the government does do some good things with your tax money, it costs money to keep up roads, we all benefit.
Hey, if you didn’t have roads, you couldn’t ride to punk rock shows!
I’m not totally anti-government, I do think that they do a lot of fucked-up stuff too.
You’re a very rational thinking person, I’m impressed. What else is up with Anti-Flag?
We have a Web site, http://www.anti-flag.com. It’ s got the band, the label, order merchandise.
Any links to weird stuff?
Supposedly our guitarist has a whole file of links. A good link I want is Art Bell’s site. He’s hilarious. That show is just as real as any other news you want to see!
We have a record label, AF Records, and we’ve put out Reagan Squad from Pittsburgh and one called the Unseen from Boston. We released a sampler of our stuff on the label. [We have] two goals with the label. One was to release our own stuff, another was to help out bands that we liked that we thought had a good, positive message, so that’s where helping out Reagan Squad and the Unseen came along, we’re hoping at some point to be able to use our influence to raise some money for some organizations. The first thing we did was release a tape comp, because our budget was really tight! And we donated the money to the National Coalition to End Domestic Violence. The next one’s going to be a CD, and will have a lot of good bands on it, like No Use For A Name, Youth Brigade, Sub-Humans, Anti-Flag, the Unseen, etc. We’ll distribute it, and that’ll benefit the same organization. I know Violent Society might be on it, and Submachine from Pittsburgh, who kick ass. I’m really happy for [Submachine, who were just singed to Radical Records], they’re good guys, they gave us our very first show out of town — all these older bands were helping us out, we wanted to pay some of that stuff back with the label.
That’s really nice of you guys!
We’re everybody’s pals