Anti-Flag Singer Talks About the Band's Anti-Trump Tour

In a statement about the Silence=Violence tour that brings it to the Grog Shop at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 8, the political punk band Anti-Flag says, “The mission of the Trump regime has been clear from day one, the normalization of bigotry. Dangerous rhetoric has become dangerous policy that has put countless in harm’s way. It is the responsibility of all to be on the side of the marginalized and scapegoated and that is the goal of the aim of the Silence=Violence Tour.”

In a recent phone interview, singer Justin Sane expands on that statement.

“The idea behind the tour is that anytime you see injustice and don’t speak out against it, it makes you complicit and guilty,” says Sane. “Right now, with the current presidential regime, where there’s xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia and bigotry on a daily basis, when people don’t speak out against it, it makes them complicit and part of the problem. We’re encouraging people to stand up and speak up when they see injustice. The reason I think it’s so important is that when we don’t push back against the tendencies of Donald Trump, the things that he supports start to become normalized. I think it’s really important to push back against those things.”

Though Anti-Flag has endured while other punk acts have fallen by the wayside, the band initially played only one show after forming in 1988 and immediately split up. It would reform a few years later and continue unabated to the present day.

“We were in high school,” Sane says when asked about that first show. “It was an early incarnation and a very different version of what the band would become. There were a number of years in between the very first show and when we played as Anti-Flag again in 1993 or 1994.”

At the time that Anti-Flag came together, Pittsburgh’s punk scene had a strong political dimension to it. Sane attributes that to the city’s blue-collar ethos.

“If you weren’t a political punk band in Pittsburgh, you were a poser,” he says. “Everyone was political at that time. It went beyond electoral politics. It was around issues like police brutality and animal rights and sexism and homophobia. Punk in our scene was challenging those issues. When we got out of Pittsburgh, we realized every band wasn’t political, and we were really surprised by that.”

Sane doesn’t think every band has to be political. He cites the Descendents as one of his favorite acts and says their songs about “being yourself and dealing with being an outsider” had a significant influence on him.

“When we crossed paths with bands that were doing things that weren’t political, we could still relate to it,” he says. “It was still about living your life in a way that you feel true to, and it was about being true to yourself and not being afraid to step outside of the mainstream and swim against the current. There was a lot of that in the punk that wasn’t political. In a way, that is a political statement. There’s nothing more political than talking about how you’re going to live your life. My favorite band as a teenager was Social Distortion. They were about rebelling against the constructs of society and what they are telling you that you have to do and what you want to do.”

From the start, Anti-Flag took an anti-war stand. Released in 2003, The Terror State, an album produced by Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, opens with the incendiary "Turncoat," a tune that features gang-style vocals as the guys yell out "liar," in a blatant attack on the commander-in-chief.

“In Pittsburgh, we lost our industrial base, and our town became this Rust Belt town,” says Sane. “For a lot of our friends, one of the only options as far as escaping the poverty they saw was joining the military. They ended up in Iraq. We looked at the war and saw it as a classic case of politicians starting a war for greed and for oil, and our friends had to go there and bleed for it. We saw a corrupted patriotism to gain people’s support for the way. That was a big part of what inspired the band and the name. In Pittsburgh, some of our friends in the punk scene were in the National Guard. They joined to get money to go to college. They were some of the main people who led the protests in Pittsburgh. They felt the war was unjust.”

Last year, the band began writing songs for what would become its latest album, American Fall. At the time, Sane and Co. didn’t think Donald Trump would become president. When Trump won the election, the group scrapped the songs it had written and began to pen material about what his presidency represents.

“We have written songs about every president since we started the band,” says Sane. “One thing we learned early on is to not hold your presidents up as role models. They’ll let you down. For us, it started with Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush and Barack Obama. We wrote songs about all of them and the things we saw as shortcomings with all of them. I believe as an artist, it’s your job to speak truth to power. That said, I thought Hilary Clinton was going to win. It seemed inconceivable that we would elect someone who openly misogynistic and probably a sexual predator and had made racist statements.”

Sane says the track “Racists” represents one example of a tune that wouldn’t have been written if Clinton had become president.

“Once Trump was elected, I had to have a discussion with these people [who say racist things but don’t think they’re racist],” he says. “The first part of the song is to start that dialogue and let people know that what they’re saying is racist. If you think it’s okay, it’s not. The second part is that we could have a discussion or maybe you just need to go fuck yourself because you’re a piece of shit. I need to draw a line in the sand about where I stand. You’re on my side or not on my side. Either way, I will hold you accountable.”

Much like acts such as Bad Religion or Rise Against, Anti-Flag brings a sense of urgency to its music. Songs such as the surging “American Attraction,” a tune that benefits from stuttering vocals and a beefy guitar riff, and the rollicking “Trouble Follows Me” possess a real intensity.

“Certain times create an atmosphere where something does feel more urgent or important,” says Sane. “In that respect, I feel like we were feeling it. Ironically, it wasn’t a hard record to write. The inspiration was right there. I’m really proud of all the records we’ve made, but this record practically made itself.”

The group nicely shifts musical gears for the rowdy, ska-tinged “When the Wall Falls,” and the tune features a groovy mid-song organ solo.

“We were playing it in half time more in the vein of ‘London Calling,’” says Sane when asked about the track. “[Producer] Benji [Madden] came in and wanted us to put a ska beat on it. Once we tried it, we loved it. It picked the song up in a way that breathed life into it. It made it a fun song even though it’s a heavy issue. We had the idea of putting organ on because of the kind of song it is. Our friend Kevin [Bivona] from the Interrupters, who plays organ in Rancid, was in the studio one day. We had a guitar solo where the organ solo was and someone had the idea of putting an organ solo there. It’s one of my favorite parts of the record.”

As much as the songs on American Fall are about what’s wrong, an optimism runs through the album with songs such as “Finish What We Started.”

“I guess we’ve been lucky enough in the face of ugly times to be surrounded by people who never give up and activists who are out there trying to make the world a better place,” Sane says. “When you see there are people like that out there, it gives you hope. We know there’s ugly shit out of there. We have overcome things in the past and can do it again. Many of the songs sound poppier than our last record, and that was a conscious choice. When every fucking day something really heavy is rolled out, it’s such a downer. We thought there was enough down and out bullshit going on that we wanted people to come away from the record feeling good. If I’m playing these songs all the time, I want to feel good at the end of the day. There was a conscious choice to write songs that feel unifying.”

Sane says he hopes the shows on the current tour become “rallying points” for people who feel hopeless.

“[I hope] you leave [the concert] feeling positive and good because there are good people out there and that things are going to be okay,” he says. “That’s an important environment we try to create at our shows. We’re all in here together. Things outside might be fucked up. But the idea is that all of us in here still have each other. I’m really excited about this tour because I need that feeling too.”

Anti-Flag, Stray from the Path, The White Noise, Sharptooth. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. Tickets: $18 ADV, $22 DOS,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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