It’s roughly 6pm when we meet up with Chris Barker (aka Chris #2, bass player and vocalist for Anti-Flag) in northern Paris. It’s a wonderful and sunny day and it’s almost a shame we couldn’t enjoy this talk outdoors. Despite being tired, he welcomed us warmly with a great smile and a story to tell. Anti-Flag are one of the greatest punk bands of their generation. They have just celebrated their 20th anniversary and are now getting ready to release their 10th album called ‘American Spring’ through Spinefarm Records (also known for being the home of 36 Crazyfists, Sikth, Atreyu…)
Of course we’re here to talk about this record, but anyone who knows a little about Anti-Flag also knows that there’s more than just the music that fuels this band…
Since the release of ‘The General Strike’ in 2012, Anti-Flag hasn’t really disappeared from the radars, playing in fact, tons of shows and festivals around the world, but also getting involved in various other projects. But the past three years have also appeared to the band as a turning point.
“What happened was that 2013, was the 20th year anniversary of the band and that’s when we started to really think about the legacy and [the things] you worry about whenever you wake up one morning and you’re like ‘Fuck your man’s old!.’ So we were questioning ourselves: how do we make sure we don’t fuck this up?” We had this conversation and it wasn’t that heated. Like a lot of the time, we would disagree on things and it would take forever for us to make a decision but I just said that I didn’t want to make another record unless it was great. You know, complacency is a thing that happens to everybody. It doesn’t matter what you do in life, if you do it long enough. So we made that kind of pledge to each other that we were actually going to work really hard. That was the two and a half years of making this record.”
“And also in that time, lives changed, my life changed insanely, drastically and it wasn’t something I was prepared for and it wasn’t something I wanted to happen it’s just something that happened and then I was forced to deal with living a new life and that made me look at the politics of the band a very specific way. That’s why I feel like some of the songs on this record come from a really personal, emotional place, more so than they probably ever have before. Definitely in my case …But we’ve survived that before. We’ve all had our individual meltdowns, but together, how we get through it is that we support each other. And it’s just what happened, so, yes, we didn’t go away, but we certainly locked ourselves in a room and didn’t come out until we felt like we had a record that would define us.”
Over the years, Anti-Flag worked with various labels to put out their albums -that they usually record in their own studio- such as Fat Wreck Records, including a major (RCA Records) a move which has been at the time criticized by some. Although Anti-Flag only put out two more records on another label since then, they have chosen to make another move for ‘American Spring’.
“It’s interesting because, we did ‘The General Strike’ and then we did about a year of touring and then we kinda picked our heads up and we realized we had blurred it all together. At the time, we went from the major label, right into the studio, writing to make ‘The General Strike’ and it was like, one tour. You know, even though there were three records and a lot of time spent getting those things prepared for the world, but what we recognized was; maybe we weren’t spending time on the record that we would normally spend. We were kind of in a reactionary phase to coming from a major label and wanting to just be a punk rock band again. And so the way we did that was we just plugged our guitars and fucking made two records while on tour.”
Now that it’s known that ‘American Spring’ is going to be released through Spinefarm Records, we wondered what was that sense of challenge of making a move every two records or so, that fueled that Anti-Flag permanent presence on the foreground. We’re talking about a band that doesn’t merely content to rest on its laurels and Chris #2 had a clear answer.
“You know, I’ll back up a little bit I guess. We’ve been a band for a very long time, that’s been established. So we could call up a friend and be like ‘hey do you want to put out our record?’ or do whatever. But when you do that and you stay isolated and work with the same people over and over again, the chance of taking risks goes way down. It just becomes safe, it just becomes complacency and more complacency and more same ‘well guys, I’m your friend, trust me’. You become a little less worried about kicking at a door and say ‘hey, I believe in this, you better fucking believe in this too!’
That being said, it was very important for us with this record, after we kind of worked our asses off to make it, to find a company that was gonna work their asses off trying to get it out there to the world. We met with a lot of people and Spinefarm had a lot of really cool ideas. Most important to us; they’re a global label and I’m sitting here in Paris talking about our record and that’s something I’ve never done on any other label we’ve had. So even if nothing else, just them, working to give us a few opportunities to talk about our songs and talk about what we’re doing, that’s worth it.
And they’re a metal label, it’s funny to a lot of people. I just say Dragonforce played our album! (laughs)”
‘American Spring’ is one album that’s brings up a lot of questioning, because of the themes it covers and the strong symbols it holds. Brandenburg Gate, for instance, is a song highlighting the duality between the eastern and western worlds, while Sky Is Falling deals with the drone strikes in the middle east. It is obviously a political record, in the light of the many other Anti-Flag records, where the Pennsylvanians denunciate the flaws of the world we live in. “It’s fucked up”, repeatedly says Chris during our discussion.
“The common thread of it is starting again. Where we are in our lives, both as individuals, bothers, a collective, as a band, as people who might hear the record and a society as a whole. Something needs to change. The path that we’re on needs to change. And it is changing around us whether we like it or not. That’s kind of what it’s talking about. I was able to tap into the emotional side of my life, physically changing and physically altering and then saying that there are things that are out of our control. And if we spend all our days holding our breath until we can control everything, we’re better off dead.
I think that’s where the title came into play, where the artwork came into play and where we said, as a band, look, we’re writing songs about drone strikes in the Middle East. Or we’re writing songs about fears and misery and Michael Brown’s death and New York City and Eric Garner’s death and writing songs about Charlie Hebdo and terrorist attacks in Paris. [These] things that seem insurmountably understandable. Do we ever know why any of this shit is happening around us? No. But the reality is, the path that we’re on has to change. And it will change, because our patience and our vigilance towards fighting for equality and having this empathetic view with people, is what is gonna disrupt it. That’s what’s going to change it. That’s the idea behind ‘American Spring’.”
While this might sound idealistic to some, Barker points out the fact that at the same time, they key for them, as a band, as music writers is making sure that things remain open for interpretation.
“I think Brandenburg Gate is a great example for that. I had written this song for one thing, Pat has heard that other thing and we had a discussion and we kind of put it all together.”
If the Pennsylvanians remain faithful to themselves, something in ‘American Spring’, both in the way it’s written and imaged hints something a little more optimistic than the usual, even though they like to think sometimes that there isn’t anything positive in what they write. That’s what Chris #2 told us, laughing a little, but in reality, it isn’t either black or white and there has to be at least a glimmer of optimism and a message of hope in what they say and what they believe in.
“We’re eternally optimists and I know that even when we think we’re being negative 100%, we’re still not. But there’s always this beliefthat we’re gonna come out the other side and that we’re going to be okay and I think this just comes from us being involved in punk rock and the fact that we play these shows. Look, we meet people every day who talk to us about their life experiences and talk to us about how they lived their lives a certain way, found punk rock and now they live another way. That, to me, is like just hope and faith and optimism. “
“When you write a song about drone strikes like Sky Is Falling and you know in Syria, children pray for cloudy days, because drones don’t fly in the sky when it’s cloudy…You think about a day like today in Paris, that is beautiful and kids at school look out the window and go like ‘Hell yeah I can’t wait to get outside and kick a ball around!’. Then you go to the middle east where that same kid looks outside when it’s sunny and goes like: ‘fuck. The americans are gonna fly their robot plane over my head and might bomb my family.’ That’s such a fucked up position. But the optimism in that has to be that we – as a collective, as an entity of people of the counter culture, people involved in punk rock- why we’re here is that we have empathy and we know that when the robot plane drops its bomb and kills somebody, that actually kills somebody and it doesn’t just happen on our television. Caring about more than just yourself is the idea of what our community is about. So, that’s the hope in there. That’s the only way it can change, it’s if it becomes a real thing.”
The artwork of ‘American Spring’ is also enhancing – in a way – this positivity, but it’s definitely not here only to provide the people who are going to buy the record with a beautiful booklet. This is Anti-Flag and the front cover of this record has been qualified as “evocative” already. However, while it’s a critique of the global political and social state or the world today; starting again, moving forward but also challenging the people had to be visibly clear and here’s why.
“We had several discussions about the record title and when we know we were gonna call it American Spring and we knew it was going to be this album about moving forward and that brought up this idea of cherry blossoms and in the Japanese culture, they represent the circle of life and death, because their life spent is so short. They bloom, they die, and then you have to wait another year for them to come back. It’s this idea that the most beautiful things can have these short blossom periods and then you tie that into the arab spring and the revolutions that happened in the middle east. (…) It bloomed, out of nowhere.
When you think of spring you think flowers and that’s where our heads went. The artist who created it, came up with this idea of putting the hyper realistic exploding flower in front of these people. That changed the whole thing because we saw a juxtaposition. And we saw our own prejudices.”
“Even these people who are supposed to be of that counter culture and of empathy. You see a cop or you see a soldier and you think ‘fuck cops, fuck authority.’ Whereas a person who watches Fox News all day sees a muslim woman on the front cover of the record and thinks “terrorist”. They see an afghan kid in the booklet and they think “murderer” or something racist inherently.
So it was very important to put that into our face. Not just challenge people that watch Fox News, not just challenge the right wing, but also challenge the left wing and challenge people. As much as you want to believe you’re immune to these things, the television still tells you 9/10 times that if you don’t have the right pants on no one’s gonna think you’re cool, if you don’t have the ‘right” complexion of skin, no boy’s gonna date you; that’s fucked up.
To apply it to where we are now, they said on Fox News that where we are now [northern borough of Paris fyi] is a no-go zone, that it was like Bagdad. And it’s so fucked up, it shows you the sensationalism of american media and western media as a whole.”
“I was hopeful that a much better band would come along by now but they just haven’t.”
In a serious tone, Chris Barker speaks about these subjects that mean something to him, as well as to his band. This is what they stand for and these are causes they’ve always defended in their twenty years of career, which isn’t nothing. He cracks a joke about it, as well as being tired, but in reality, Anti Flag marked a whole generation of people, many of which, still follow them to this day and support what they have to stay. These people are the reason they’re here, this is something they definitely do not forget. These people are also what motivates them to stick together, overcome the hard times and keep on progressing.
“We used to play shows and we get to meet young people, we get to meet old people and we get to meet new people that say. “Hey man, I didn’t think about the world until I came to a punk rock show. I didn’t care about anyone except myself until I came into this scene, or this community”. And we get to high five them like fuck yeah, new team member, let’s keep this going. That’s it. That’s what it’s all about. We’re really fortunate to get to do this and we get to travel and we get to meet such exciting people that give a shit and that’s where optimism comes from and that’s where the energy comes from.”
He does however deplore the fact that there are more and more people slowly withdraw from their involvement to this community, as they grow up because of other obligations, which isn’t something that should be happening because there is no age for music and there is no age for caring and supporting causes.
“I mean, really, it’s always cool, that’s why we do different things. We found that playing festivals, we found that doing Warped Tour and shit like that where we get to meet new people that’s how we stay relevant. Unfortunately, the way it stands, specifically in America and unfortunately more and more in Europe…It seems as if in the US, there’s like an age limit to caring about punk rock and caring about this stuff. Like when you turn 18 you get a job and you go to college and you got this massive amount of debt that’s growing in front of you and you don’t have time for it, politics or caring about anything. It seemed for a long time over here in Europe, because maybe of the socialized education system that people had more freedom. The youth was able to maintain and their want to learn more about the world was maintained but now that’s seemingly changing a bit too and I’m not quite sure what it is but, I’m not an expert on youth culture at all.”
For now, Anti-Flag are thankful for what they have and just keep on doing what they do best and this is where ‘American Spring’ comes into play. It is set to be released on May 25th, followed by a run of shows around Europe. Furhermore, Anti-Flag should be bringing back Anti-Fest this summer, a self-established festival held in the UK for the first time on 2012 and hosted by the band. Supported by organizations such as Peta, Amnesty International and Emmaus, Anti-Fest is an event the band can be proud of.
“We’re gonna bring it back this summer (…) I think it’s gonna be same kind of scale, 2000 people, a couple of rooms so we do two stages. It’s really cool when you’re fortunate enough to be in a situation where you can call on your friends to help you do things you’ve never done before and keep progressing forward. Those are the moments where you look around and recognize, that, because we were kind and because we tried to operate in a human way, we actually have real friendships and we can really rely on them. And it’s not people being around us because we’re cool or in a band or whatever. That’s when you understand that you’ve done things the right way.
It’d be cool to do an Anti-Fest this year and make sure that people realize that it’s not gonna go away and we’ll keep building it up and share it. I’d love to do it in multiple city as well, but we gotta get it back together first.”
ANTI FLAG IN ONE ‘AMERICAN SPRING’ SONG
For now, only one track off ‘American Spring’ has been released, which is Fabled World, but we asked Barker what was for him the one song on the upcoming record that sums up best Anti-Flag’s current essence.
“I think that changes. For me, my favorite and most important track on the record is Believer. But that’s just for me personally (…) but I think as far as politically and musically Anti-Flag [is concerned] I look at songs like The Great Divide, I look at Without End, which has a ripping Tom Morello solo on it, it sounds like new, but classic. Those are the kind of moments on the record that really, make me feel like okay, we did it, we found a way to push ourselves to another level.”
What is coming next for Anti-Flag then? It seems like Chris #2 doesn’t look that much into the future; “We’re just gonna be talking about this record and playing these songs and going everywhere we can until it’s time to either quit or make another one, we’ll see!”
Anti-Flag will release ‘American Spring’ on May 25th, 2015 in Europe.
Special thanks to Roger @ Replica Promotions