Known as one of the most political bands of our time, Anti-Flag has spent nearly 25 years pushing for more from our government system. Their first album since Donald Trump took presidency released on Nov 3, a few days after my talk with Chris Barker, and everyone wondered what the punk rock legends would have to say about our controversial current leader. Our chat might’ve kicked off with Halloween costumes and sad Dollar Trees in Niagara Falls, but now it’s time to get down to it. The “it” items: politics, American Fall, and of course, Donald Trump.
“Punk rock to me is far more about ideology and empathy than it is about sonics or aesthetics or delivery.”
“I think a lot of people expect it to be really angry and really frustrated, but we’re extremely optimistic.” Rather than taking a fearful approach the band is looking on the bright side of things. An official who lights this many fires is sure to set himself ablaze in the meantime. “We’ve had the privilege in [25 years as a band] to gain an understanding that politics is fashion, and that people like George Bush, people like Donald Trump, bring political discourse into everyday life for a lot of people.” It’s those that are under attack that will help bring change on a wide scale for years to come. “More people want a better world than the one that he’s providing, and that’s the silver lining in the dark cloud of the Donald Trump brigade.”
Photo Credit: Allie Snow
When production for American Fall began, the band was under the assumption that Hillary Clinton was going to come out of the election victorious, so their metaphorical guns were loaded with ammunition for similar problems that Obama brought to the table, like education and health care. “I think that we all [were on] pretty good accord that she was gonna win. It wasn’t until it got really, really close that we were like oh shit, maybe not.” With the shift in politics came a shift in lyrical discussion. One of the biggest differences in the Hillary and Donald record plans? Having to revive topics our society had been moving forward with, like on the song “Racist”.
On top of the rampant division Trump’s presidency thrives on, there’s also a fair amount of media manipulation—a topic which helped form the entire American Fall collection. It all started with “American Attraction”, which sets the rebellious mood that the rest of the album follows. “He wants a divided America because a divided America can’t unify to get rid of him.”
“Donald Trump is a symptom, he’s not the disease. We need to keep our eyes and our focus on the disease and curing the disease.”
With a seemingly dark cloud over a lot of communities, it’s easy to wish to go back to what we had before but that’s something Anti-Flag is hesitant to do. With every one of their ten albums they’ve pointed out the flaws in the system, no matter who was leading the charge. Complacency is a fate worse than death, after all, and if we’re going to make changes we can’t just fall in line. “I hope that we can use Donald Trump as a vehicle to do better than that. I don’t want just Barack Obama again,” Barker tells me. He continues on to say while we may get our candidate in office in the short term, that doesn’t mean the push for equality stops. “I think that Bernie Sanders is great and I voted for him in the primary. But he’s not my endgame. (Laughs) I wanna do better, I always wanna do better.”
Back to that optimism. Despite having far more than one upbeat ska inspired song on American Fall, Anti-Flag aren’t living in a fantasy world where everything is fine, but they have noticed the trends that come with political fashion over time and what we need to do to remedy our situation. “I never think democracy’s too broken. I just think we need to get back to a system where we care about voting and we don’t care about campaign finance dollars… I’m hopeful that Donald Trump is a cog in this ability to have that shift happen.” Recently, Chris was asked why there aren’t any tracks on the new album specifically calling out Trump, a la “Turncoat” + George Bush. His response is a change in perspective. “We survived the Bush era. We survived the Obama era. We survived the Bill Clinton era. Donald Trump is a symptom, he’s not the disease. We need to keep our eyes and our focus on the disease and curing the disease. Curing racism. Curing sexism and homophobia and greed. Only when we do that will we start to see a system that actually reflects what humanity needs, what an empathetic culture can bring.”
Photo Credit: Allie Snow
Certainly the band has seen a lot of the world and the issues surrounding it, but when I ask Chris what progress he hopes most to see in his lifetime his mind is already made up. He tells me the story of vocalist Justin Sane breaking his jaw and collarbone while touring in the UK, then cutting his finger in the US. The former resulted in hospital visits, where his injuries were taken care of without financial burden. The latter meant tireless debt collectors, looking for the thousands of dollars required to heal in America. “There’s too much money in America, there are too many people in America that can help afford this system that takes care of people when they’re sick.” Looking outside of the States, you see fully operative socialized medicine in place, leaving him to hope the US will someday follow suit. “In my lifetime, I would love to see an ability for all people, not just old people to get medicaid, but all people to feel free from the burden of debt and the business of health. Because health shouldn’t be a business, it should be a human right.”
This kind of movement won’t be implemented under Trump’s rule but Chris says we shouldn’t be so focused on “escaping”. Where there’s optimism on American Fall, there’s also the veracity only punk rock can deliver, the kind that says the band has more fight than ever. “We’ve gotta maintain our focus and not get so one track minded with eradicate Donald Trump and then we’re gonna be saved. That’s not worth it. That’s not worth the battle, and it’s primarily just where it begins.” When looking for leaders in this ongoing narrative, Chris says he looks to the youth. “Young people will eternally be optimistic because they’re the ones with so much future ahead of them. So I do believe in them.” Proof enough could be found during the 2016 election primary. “That Bernie Sanders thing, that was amazing. I went to a few rallies in Pittsburgh and it was like going to the fucking Warped Tour in the 2000s.”
Anti-Flag has met fans who have become attorneys, civil rights activists, and started non-profits, and it all began at punk rock.
Another place to look for guidance, and solace, is music. Anti-Flag knows this well, and they also know the only way to change anything is to change people. “There was this belief that if we wrote the right song that we could change the world,” Chris says about their early days. While the revolution doesn’t immediately follow an album release, the long lasting effects make much more of an impact. “What does happen is that people find the record, people come to the shows, people meet members of this community of punk rock and community of activists. They recognize that they’re not alone.”
Photo Credit: Allie Snow
Solidarity leads to courage, and courage leads to making moves. Anti-Flag has met fans who have become attorneys, civil rights activists, and started non-profits, and it all began at punk rock. “Punk rock to me is far more about ideology and empathy than it is about sonics or aesthetics or delivery,” Chris says. “You have this tiny community, tiny microcosm that’s built up around Anti-Flag, but also around endless other bands who are doing this work, and that influences people to take that feeling that they find in the venue or from the record and bring it into their everyday lives outside of that and that’s where our true power lies.”
“Our mantra has always been to carry a message of hope and positivity but write the best song that we can write to deliver it, so that you’re singing it in your car and you don’t even know that you’re spouting a message of equality.
You can hear the community the band has built in songs like “I Came. I Saw. I Believed.” Anti-Flag finds themselves as the center of this society thanks to their unwavering honesty and desire for something better than what we’re being given. The band operates under the expression, “three chords and the truth and spread it as far as we can,” like many other activism based musicians throughout history (Bob Marley, John Lennon, Billy Bragg).
“Our mantra has always been to carry a message of hope and positivity but write the best song that we can write to deliver it, so that you’re singing it in your car and you don’t even know that you’re spouting a message of equality. It’s almost subconsciously a part of your life.” Chris thinks they’re best at this on this album, which is a rallying cry and a hand up for frightened individuals and alliances alike. “It’s about raising our hands and being counted as people that collectively care for others, and I hope that really comes across in the songs, because that’s why they’re as optimistic as they are and that’s why they’re as hopeful as they are and why they are as maybe pop-y, as they are. I want them to stick with people.”
While the album might not be what you were expecting, the four members of Anti-Flag have poured themselves into the music, delivery, and artwork to create what they feel is their best effort yet. Down to an empty oval office on the cover, symbolizing any and every person who’s presided over it, American Fall is made to give us more strength in becoming the nation we need to be. “Let’s keep our eyes set on a prize of equality, and social and economic justice.”