Interview with bassist / vocalist Chris #2
Anti-Flag’s new album 20/20 Vision comes out nearly three years after President Trump’s inauguration, which is no accident. Make no mistake, the album, due out Jan. 17, 2020, via A-F Records/Spinefarm Records, is a line in the sand for Anti-Flag, who have thus far been quick to call out injustice, but slow to name a political party or figurehead for evil. While playing politics can be a death knell for any band, the Pittsburgh-based act are calling for unity among those with a heart and a soul who are ready to fight back against the injustice around them. It’s like a welcome letter to fellow comrades. Maybe more importantly for your ears, 20/20 Vision is also Anti-Flag’s sharpest musical statement yet – a full-spectrum punk assault with more than enough melody to keep those diatribe ditties in your head for days.
For bassist and vocalist Chris #2, the time to play coy with politics is over, but the band had to be wise and considered in how they went about their message.
“Well, the first thing is, thanks for [appreciating that nuance],” he starts. “When we initially set out with this idea, specifically making a record about Donald Trump, I knew that there would be backlash from our community about focusing on electoral politics, which isn’t particularly something we’ve ever done as a band. We have involved ourselves in elections, and there are people that we enjoy. The idea of ‘lesser of two evils’ voting is something that I subscribe to, primarily because of the idea that we’re looking for less evil in our lives, so that’s just my Bill and Ted ‘be excellent to each other’ bullshit, where I’m consistently looking for less evil. So, I do want to thank you for understanding that the record isn’t about the idea that a president, or a prime minister, or a pope are going to save us, because [they’re] not.”
“I mean, by saying that Donald Trump is evil,” he continues. “By focusing on the fact that hate crimes towards minorities, people of color, and women are up in the hundreds of percentiles under his administration, acknowledging that the suicide rates [for] LGBTQ+ youth are up in the hundreds of percentiles under the administration of Donald Trump, by recognizing that you want a better world than kids in cages along borders that are lines drawn in the sand by people in power, if you want to see a different world than that, that doesn’t mean that you’re a Democrat. These things are not happening in a vacuum. So, because of that, that was a slightly unforeseen thing, and maybe that’s our own ego that gets in the way. We expect people to know that Anti-Flag’s been around for 25 years, and that we’ve made records under a Bill Clinton administration. We’ve made records under a George Bush administration, the Barack Obama administration, and we will continue, no matter who is the president, to try to use our vocation to get people to care about more than just themselves.”
“I do completely agree [that] the sentiment of the record isn’t a call for optimism,” Chris #2 notes. “Or it isn’t a piece that I believe people will rally around. I just saw it as a headcount, to say raise your hand – do you believe that the ills we’re seeing on a daily basis [need to stop]? Do you believe the politics of distraction, the idea that the environment and the planet is being squeezed like a fucking lemon, just to sustain profits, is wrong? Raise your hand, let’s get a headcount. Let’s figure out who these folks are that feel this way, and then from there, we can find our commonality. We can find our community, and put forth plans to try to leave the world better than we found it.”
An interesting point to be made here is that the band’s best record up until now – naturally – was American Spring, a record written during the Obama administration. What made that record – and 20/20 Vision – so powerful was the incredible musical foundation that the affecting lyrics sprung from. For Chris #2, that record was a key turning point for him personally, and for the band.
“American Spring was an interesting record for us,” he says. “Just in the sense that there was some personal upheaval going on, which made members, specifically myself, check in and out of the process, and really rely on the other guys. But it also led to what I think is that thing, where the music of it was saving me, for lack of a better term. I wasn’t going to quit, or I wasn’t going to do anything, but it was bringing me outside of my house, touring and doing those things. I had to operate and be human. The vulnerability that I was feeling in my personal life led to real amounts of empathy, and I think that that put us on the trajectory that we’re on right now with 20/20 Vision, where I say Anti-Flag has almost operated from a journalistic point of view, where we’re inserting ourselves into these things, we’re just taking it all in and then commenting on it, and then with American Spring that all changed.”
“When I saw the Mike Brown verdict [in Ferguson, Missouri],” Chris #2 continues, with a deep sigh. “I was able to go immediately, in my mind and in my heart, back to looking at my mother when [we were] in a court room, [during the trial] for my sister’s murder, and seeing no justice served for her, because it was a poor and underprivileged community that she was a part of. The district attorney was overworked, and he had ten things that day. He did a shit job, and you see the failures of American justice right there. Then I watched Michael Brown’s mother on television, and she looked exactly like my mom. [Thinking back] Anti-Flag had a song called ‘Fuck Police Brutality’ in 1996, because when had played punk shows, cops were mean to us. You extrapolate that to the reality of 2019 and ’20, and cellphone cameras, and all the things that we’re seeing, you’re then able to go like, ‘Oh, fuck. I can’t just be angry at this because it affects me. I need to think about beyond that.’”
“American Spring was a turning point for me,” he reflects. “Where I was able to allow myself to use personal experiences with these things, and not just try to be commenting on them. I think that’s where a song like ‘20/20 Vision’ comes from. Again, it’s not about a president saving me. It’s about how do we find collectivity and commonality, all these things that punk rock is supposed to be born out of, and the cornerstones of our ethos and rhetoric, how do we apply them into our lives, not just at the show for an hour and then go away from it?”
Inherent in Chris #2’s thoughts is that the passage of time allows us to reflect on a grander scale of experience and empathy, and hopefully we change for the better over the years.
“Well, I think that the luxury of being old is perspective,” he laughs. “We’re able to come through our lives and see what has worked for us and what hasn’t worked for us. What has been successful – not monetarily, but successful in achieving whatever the agenda or the goal of the specific record or song was, and how do we apply that to what we’re creating now? We were fortunate enough to have, throughout our lives, these really important people come in and mentor us. So, I think that we’ve always just tried to pull from these things that are happening around us and the advice that we’re given, but ultimately, the best part of Anti-Flag comes from when the four of us are in a room together, and we fight over what the vision should be, and how it should come. I think that’s why you found a kinship to American Spring and 20/20 Vision, the way you talk about them, because that’s what this is. It’s the four of us at our best right now.”
The record feels like a punk cultural touchstone – a moment in time that will be remembered for years to come, or however long we have left.
“The Dead Kennedys are my favorite band and that’s why I found punk rock,” Chris #2 says. “With this it felt like, well if there was ever a time for us to have our Dead Kennedys-Reagan moment, it’s right now. I think that that’s why he’s on the cover. There’s a Trump sample on the first track. I wanted to leave behind a document that, again, I don’t know how this is going to go. Our future is clearly going to be what we put into it right now, so I’m hopeful that this polarization is going to lead to positivity, is going to lead to people searching for something better than what we have. That being said, we very well may be on the cusp of the apocalypse, and things that we know and enjoy are going to go away from all of us. Fascism is not a thing to be fucked with, and so, based on that, I wanted make sure that we had a document that, when people found it much later, they’d say, ‘Okay, well there were people who were standing in opposition to what was going on, and here’s some form of art that said just that.’”
There’s a point to be made here that just because he sees the wrong, that doesn’t mean Chris #2 is self-righteous about never being bad, or even knowing what the answer is.
“Everybody thinks that we’ve got the answer to it, and it’s like, I don’t. Sometimes I’m really bad at it, and don’t confront the racism that’s in front of me, because it’s someone that I love. My brother, who’s been a great inspiration to me my entire life, lives with my mom in Texas, and talks about immigration in a way that I don’t agree with. I’m like, ‘My mom came to America when she was 13 on a boat from Italy. How the fuck are you going to be wrong on immigration when you’re the son of an immigrant?’ We are fighting forces that are so tremendously powerful and influential that they force people to suspend reality to comfort themselves, and that is a big part of the record, that’s a big part of how we move forward from the things that brought us Donald Trump, the globalization that we were all a part of fighting in the ’90s.”
“We’re celebrating the anniversary of the Seattle protests against the WTO,” he continues. “That globalization has led to worldwide fascism, because people are wanting to insulate their culture and protect the things that they’ve got now, when scholars will tell you that immigration is great for communities, and it brings in new culture, and it brings in energy. The same way that you go to fucking Chicago and they dye the river green for Saint Patrick’s Day. Meanwhile, who were greater scapegoats than Irish communities whenever the economics collapsed in the ’20s? It’s convenient racism. We should be working to challenge that to the best of our abilities, all the time. I’m not immune to failure on that.”
That sense of humanity and humility permeates the record. 20/20 Vision isn’t a document pushing ideological purity, it’s a unifying call to fight. That said, it’s not an easy message to convey.
“I think that that then goes into the Trump thing,” Chris #2 concurs. “Where we do need to point out the hatred, the bigotry, and the violence, because that is where we win with people. When you’re able to say to them, ‘No, no. You’re complicit in violence against these communities,’ those are the conversations that typically stick, because in nature, empathy is tremendously more difficult to spread than apathy. It’s much easier to tune out than it is to tune in. So that’s the work that needs to be done, and you’re absolutely right. The record is hopefully a hand-raising of folks who are willing to do the work. If nothing else, if it’s a complete failure, it’s us saying, ‘Hey, we were ready to do the work. Please don’t judge us terribly in the annals of history’ [laughs]. I mean that could be the worst-case scenario.”
“Furthermore,” he continues. “I like to believe that punk rock gives people energy, and gives people optimism, and I want to give them a place to focus that energy, and focus that optimism, so a lot of the things that are in the booklet are tools to say, ‘Well here’s how you can further get involved. Here are people that are much smarter than I [am]. Please listen to them, or speak with them.’ That’s where we gain our inspiration from, so we’re constantly in an idea-share, or just a catalog of positivity. And how do we disperse that in the best way?”
To get back to the idea of the band going with the most vocal supporters when making decisions, were there points of contention with this record’s creation?
“Yeah, there was an awful amount of pushback,” Chris #2 acknowledges. “And I mean on differing sides. On one side being, ‘Is this going to have value in two years?’ Another side being, Chris Head [guitars], every time I would pull up the album art, he would say, ‘I hate looking at that fucking guy. I can’t believe we’re going to put him on our record.’ That’s another byproduct too. There are a lot of people who are going to be immediately turned off from our art, because they despise Donald Trump so much, they’re not even going to want to look at him. It’s like, do you want to rule out potential listeners? That was a real discussion, and again, a lot of this concept and the song and the idea of the artwork came from me, and there was a lot of passion about it. I really wanted us to do it.”
“Do we want to have a banner with Donald Trump’s face on it?” he continues. “Those are some of discussions that we’re having right now. We’ve always done an album cover t-shirt, and I was like, ‘Well do we really want to put this motherfucker on a t-shirt?’ That kind of stuff is what the discussion is right now. But for the most part, I think that it was really spearheaded by the idea that if we don’t do it now, I will regret it, and I will feel as if we played it safe to placate those other things, those atmospheric and ethereal things that aren’t directly in the room with us, that aren’t directly our direct conscience, or our direct reaction to what’s happening. We needed to be true to that, and so I think that’s why the record looks the way it looks, and sounds the way it sounds.”
It’s a statement of intent that’s hard to look away from, that’s for sure.
“I don’t know what we’ll do with those songs,” Chris #2 admits. “If any of those songs will have be relevant in the future, but for me it was just about making the best Anti-Flag record we could right now, because truthfully, there’s no reason for us to make another record. We have a lot. We can tour comfortably on the catalog, and people would enjoy us doing album tours, and celebrating anniversaries, and those kinds of things, and I would enjoy that too. But the conversation amongst ourselves is, ‘If we’re not creating something that’s better than what we’ve done before, or at least interesting, and feels poignant, or more poignant than something that previously exists, then we don’t do it.’”
Top photo by Pat Gilrane