Tonight I sat down and had a half-hour phone call with Anti-Flag’s Chris #2. I was planning on asking him the typical questions about his band’s new record, American Spring, and their touring plans, but it got a lot more interesting as we spoke about police brutality in America, his sister’s death, the upcoming elections in the UK and US, and more. Read the whole thing below!
The first thing that struck me when I listened to American Spring was that it’s very diverse, musically. Is that a conscious thing?
Well I think the thing is we tend to get more diverse records the longer we write. The writing process for American Spring was very long; about two and a half years. About three years since we put out The General Strike and by the time American Spring comes out, it will have been over three and a half yeas. There’s been a lot of personal ups and downs, specifically in my life. I had a very trying end to a relationship, which happened right as we started to get ready to write, and that put me in a very strange headspace; a place I’ve never been while writing Anti-Flag songs, and specifically a place I’ve never been at while writing any music. My relationship was 17 years long and was the life of the time I’ve been in this band, so I’ve only known one thing and suddenly having to write with a brand new self-identity – that’s been the most interesting and most difficult task of American Spring. I think that’s what led to what you’re talking about, both in the sonics and in the agendas of each song.
Would you say it’s a more personal record?
Well, yeah, absolutely. I think there have been times in the past when I’ve been dealing with personal issues, and we made a record called The Bright Lights of America and we made that record right after my sister had passed. She was killed in an active violent crime, and I wasn’t ready to comment on that and I think I maybe forced emotion, and how I was supposed to be feeling. And the interesting thing about that is that it gives you perspective and the perspective you get is very valuable, so I’m able to quantify my emotions much better than I had in the past. In this record I’ve been able to direct it and go back and been able to see loss is loss, grief is grief. And now when I look at the world and look at the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Scott and South Carolina, I’ve been able to direct my empathy whereas in the past I’d probably just say “well this fucking sucks, I’m upset about this” and think that’s the way I’m supposed to feel – versus saying, well, how do we put a face to these people? How do we make sure they’re not just news clips?
That goes back to the knowledge gained from my sister, and her death, and the mishandling of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania justice system, and how I don’t really know one way or another whether or not her killer, the kid who confessed to doing it, who was subsequently found not guilty, was actually guilty or wasn’t. It was such a mishandled case, because of the lack of competency of the American justice system, and both the overwork and devalue of the people who are poor. And I think being removed from that and seeing it now, I felt in a better place to comment on it than I did in the past. We’ve had these attempts in our records to write from a personal place, and not just be commenting on things, but I think on American Spring, I was more ready and more will willing and maybe just a better songwriter than I was in 2008 to have it feel like it was more relatable and organic to other people, and not just me telling a story that if you had something similar you couldn’t place yourself in it because these specific things didn’t happen to you.
Well I’m really sorry to hear about your sister, that sounds like a horrific situation.
Yeah, it’s terrible and one of the things I’ve found now is that by talking about it, I’ve had people come up to me at shows and explain to me about their life experiences. It’s been more helpful to people to say the things I’ve gone through, whereas in the past I didn’t really comment on it, I didn’t really want it to be an issue, I didn’t want people to know. And then once it started to get out, and people would come up to me and say, “I lost my brother” or “I lost my father”, I understand loss now. And I recognise punk rock exists for one thing, and that’s empathy, and that’s why you see so many people in the punk rock scene meet, they’re not selfish, it’s that simple. And so I felt if I wanted to be truly empathetic to those coming to the shows and those who are part of our community. I wanted to be loud about who I was and the things I’ve gone through, and that ties in very well to American Spring very well, because that was the headspace I was writing in; when writing about my relationship ending, when writing about my sister, when writing about my father being a child molester, and loads of other heavy things. I kinda know that I’ve come out on the other side of all of those things and I can say with full honesty and sincerity that because of this community surrounding me – because of the band and the punk rock community as a whole – I’m alive, and I’m okay. You have days when you feel alone and you feel like you’re on an island by yourself, but that’s not the reality. If we’re going to be a punk rock band that points out fault and points out flaws, we have to do it with ourselves as well, or else we’re no better than others trying to hide theirs’.
The police brutality thing and mishandling of justice is a major theme throughout the album, and throughout your band. You recorded “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” on that issue specifically. How did that come about?
That was a whim. That was us just recognising that something needed to be done. We were very upset at the dehumanisation of Michael Brown and how he was turned into a monster and nobody was openly commenting on his family and the grief and the loss and the struggle that they were going through. We had a song about Pittsburgh police brutality, and this is a little known fact, but for a long time, Pittsburgh had the highest police brutality rate in the country and I think that’s why it’s such a driving theme for Anti-Flag, because it’s been happening in our backyard for so long. We couldn’t do much, while we’re not wealthy monetarily, we are wealthy in our creativity. We put the song up on our Bandcamp page for download and people could donate what they wanted, and the proceeds went to the Michael Brown family, and then sure enough the Eric Garner killing happened, and so we merged it into an ACLU fund for people who were standing up to the systemic racism problem we have with American police.
I think that an interesting stat, and I don’t know if they talk about this in the UK, but I like to bring it up anytime I talk to anyone who lives there; in the last month there have been 111 police killings in America, and since 1900 in the UK there has been less. So if you can see how out of whack, and how much free reign the police have in America. It’s another thing where you feel you’re going to be shot openly by the police every time they come down the street, but it is a thing that people fear the police, and that’s not why they exist. There is a major overhaul that needs to happen. I know that people fear police everywhere because they’re meatheads and they’re the jocks from high school who hated you when you were in a shitty punk rock band or whatever [laughs], but that doesn’t mean that you fear for your life. But in some neighbourhoods in America, people fear for their lives when the police drive through.
Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of us have that general lack of comfortability around the police here, but not necessarily a fear for your life.
Yeah, it shows a real disconnect between the people who pay the taxes to page for their wages and the people who are exercising the law.
Yeah, definitely. When Mark Duggan was killed by the police here, that essentially caused the London riots, and the riots across the country, and then to think it’s so common and frequent in America is bizarre.
Yeah, yeah. It’s amazing because we’re now seeing, yunno, how many of them caught on cellphone video? And cellphone video recording is not that old. If you go backwards in time, you could see an almost fearless reign of police killing and them getting away with it. It leads you to believe that if they were put in that position, they wouldn’t take the extra steps to ensure they didn’t fire their gun, they would just fire it and know that odds are they wouldn’t serve any jail time for their decision making. That’s why we’re pushing for dash cams on all police cars and chest cameras on all police officers, and non-lethal weapons. The issue is that power doesn’t give up power easily, and this is a fine example of power feeling as if its being challenged by the simplest, and what you would consider to be common sensical, way for them to operate, but they see that as a challenge of their authority and a challenge of their power, when we say “we want a cop to wear a camera!” They say, “why? We have training.” It’s because you keep killing people. They put up a fight and lobby against it, and you see the police turning their backs on the Mayor of New York and things like that. It’s really messed up. It is a systemic problem, it is racism, it is classism, and I think it’s becoming clear to see for more people around the world. It’s also one of the reasons why we now just say Obama is failing the American people. And as the first ever African-American elected president, when that Michael Brown speech came on, and he gave a speech, and the first thing he mentioned was protecting property. He didn’t mention the Brown family, I just wanted him to put his hands up and say “hey, I’m looking into it.” Instead he said, “well this was the decision of that justice department.” That’s such a cop-out. These are people who for the first time in their lives have got into the streets and elected a president. The African-American community was so important to the election of Barack Obama, and he’s essentially turning his back on them. That’s painful to see, and that ties back into commenting on things with empathy, and the way I felt with my sister and her death, and the powerless feeling you have when the American justice system goes wrong. I wanted to make sure people knew I was feeling it too, and that people knew that they weren’t alone.
You said about Obama and feeling let down by his run as president. We’ve got an election coming up next month, and there’s this resurgence in the far-right in this country and then there’s this general feeling of people not seeing the point to vote at all. Do you see that in America, too?
Yeah, absolutely. You can’t blame anyone for having cynicism or apathy for the American political system when the best candidate they’re rolling out is Clinton. She’s probably going to be opposed by Jeb Bush, so you’re gonna mean to tell me we had eight years of a Clinton, eight years of a Bush, eight years of Obama and now eight years of a Bush or a Clinton again?! Is an Obama daughter gonna be old enough to run soon? [laughs] This sort of charade of democracy has to change soon, I hope that there’s someone much smarter than I am coming up with a plan. My capabilities lie in my ability to say “well, I know cynicism is so much easier than empathy. I know apathy is so much easier than putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is for the betterment of humanity, not just the betterment of myself.” So, when we voted not necessarily for Obama, but against McCain, that was to stop wars with Iran, stop wars with Syria, and hopefully put in someone who was a little bit better and a tremendous step for America. Now, you could say the same thing about Hilary Clinton. Having the first woman president in the United States would be fantastic, and hopefully her main goals would be to challenge the wage gap between men and women in this country, where women make 75 cents to every dollar that a man makes. So, these are things that I would hope would happen, but after watching Obama turn his back on the African-American community, I’m not so sure that Hilary Clinton wouldn’t turn her back on the female vote which would be instrumental in getting her elected.
Going back to the album, I was gonna ask you about the artwork. Could you describe it a bit and what it means?
So, for us we knew this entire process and this entire project was about us trying to be more thought out. We wanted to be the best version of Anti-Flag that we can. We’ve had 20 years of a band, this is our tenth record, and we knew based on conversations, that we were gonna work harder on this than we’ve ever worked on anything. That comes from just saying “hey, if you just wanna go on tour and play songs from Die For the Government and play songs from The Terror State or whatever from our catalogue, well we can do that until we die.” We can be 65 and playing “You’ve Got to Die For the Government” like the Stones, so if we’re gonna make a new record, it has to be a tentpole like, and we have to be able to play those songs forever the same way we do with the other records. We knew that we could do that by betting on ourselves and writing for two and a half years, and making the record we wanted to make. We recorded it, we finished it, we started on the artwork all without a label. Normally, the process is that you sign to a label and then they create a budget for you, and you create a timeline of when you’re gonna write and when you’re gonna record, and you’re kinda forced into doing everything on that timeline. They pay for everything so they kinda peak their heads in and say “I like this, I don’t like this” or whatever. Even when you have “creative control” you still want the people who are investing in you to be emotionally invested in you, not just monetarily. So you heed advice, just because you wanna be nice [laughs], not because you feel you have to. You sorta say “this guy’s paying a load so maybe we’ll just try playing the chorus once” or whatever, yunno? We didn’t want that, we spent our own money and we went to LA and a friend of ours lent us this warehouse and we practised there. Then we wrote three songs which ended up making the record in that warehouse, we wrote “Sky is Falling”, “The Debate is Over” and “Fabled World” there.
So, it was about us living and breathing the record. We knew that was the only way we could look at it and say “this is an Anti-Flag record and this is as important as Die For the Government or The Terror State or For Blood and Empire” – the tentpole records from our career. That extrapolated in us thinking we couldn’t just put anything on the cover of the record. We wanted people to have a reason to open the booklet, read the lyrics and the essays and buy the record. As crass as it is to say, we feel like we’re making a piece of art, and we don’t want it to live in a digital world where things can be deleted at any given moment. We want people to be able to sit down and listen to it. My favourite moments as a kid were sitting down and opening up the Dead Kennedys’ records and reading the newspaper thing that they had with it. So that’s why our LP comes with two posters and an essay for every song, I want to pass that onto people.
That ties in with a long-winded way to get to saying that we met with our friend, Doug Dean, a kid from Pittsburgh. He did the artwork and he’s a dear friend of mine, and I knew that he was more than capable of delivering something, but we wanted it to be iconic and we want people to want to listen to it when they see the art. But that’s a pretty lofty goal, and anyone wants their artwork to be iconic [laughs]. So we knew we were giving him a tall task but he certainly delivered, we talked about what the ideas and themes were of American Spring to us, and we talked about this juxtaposition of war and peace, and violence and non-violence, and how we wanted to challenge peoples’ prejudices in a way that would hopefully realise “even I hold prejudice to people. Even though I’m a part of a counter-culture and I listened to political punk rock music and I’ve got my shit together, I’m part of a system that allows racism to happen every day and it allows wage inequality of women every day.”
So we used these archetypal faces; the Muslim woman, the solider, the African-American kid, the police officer, and then we took the hyper-realistic explosion of a flower and put it over their faces, and we found just with that, people were having emotion just from looking at it. We had one friend, and this isn’t a guy who listens to punk rock, he just works near us and comes in once in a while and he was there when we got the artwork. He saw the Muslim woman and he said “wow, that’s really powerful,” then he saw the back with the soldier and he said “wow, you can’t do that.” And we said “why?” And he said, “well the front is like terrorism, right? And the back, what are you saying with that?” And we were saying that that could be perceived as terrorism to some. We discovered that if you watch Fox News every day and you see the Muslim woman you would think terrorism or suicide bomber or extremist; if you’re a punk rock kid and you see the soldier, you’d think western terrorism, authoritarian, baby killer. So it was a really interesting dichotomy of facing our own prejudices in the left and obviously trying to confront people on the right, and this idea that if you immediately have reactions to people based on who they are, then you have to be cognisant that you’re no better and you’re often judging people based on who they are or what they look like every minute of your life.