Anti-Flag Won't Shut Up (and We Like It)

Since 1988, Pittsburgh’s outspoken punk band Anti-Flag has made it its business to draw awareness to the issues it feels are important, whether that be income inequality, bigotry in the form of racism, sexism and homophobia, human rights or animal welfare. Anti-Flag has beaten those drums loud and proud for over twenty years, way before they were mainstream issues. Imagine the band's surprise, then, when the ongoing primaries threw up Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who has been preaching the same things, if without the amplifiers.

That, to founding member and singer Justin Sane, is very exciting, and a welcome distraction from the Republican candidates, who, he says, are “out of their fucking minds.”

“It’s like they live on a different planet,” Sane says. “Their ideas are so backward and Draconian. They’re so out of touch with mainstream America, I don’t possibly see how any of the Republicans could get elected president." Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, "is exciting. It’s interesting to see topics that Sanders is speaking about are now very mainstream issues, in the Democratic Party, at least. I think that a big part of that has to do with artists such as ourselves who have been putting these ideas out into society. It’s really exciting and interesting to see how art can have an impact on society.”

For many on the left, Sanders’s entry into the presidential race has brought with it cause for optimism. The fact that Sanders, who really is a 74-year-old punk without the mohawk and plaid pants, resonates with Sane isn’t surprising at all.

“Sanders is a person who has a track record of fighting sexism, homophobia and racism,” Sane says. “He’s a person who came out of the civil-rights movement, and he’s stood against war. You put that together with the fact that he’s not accepting corporate money, and all of a sudden he’s a really exciting candidate. Very different from what we’ve seen from the mainstream parties in the past.”

Politics can be a wearying topic, especially when talking to musicians who oftentimes don’t know any more than the rest of us. But Anti-Flag is different; these guys have been working with political organizations for years, and in the process, doing their homework, writing lyrics that are smart and incisive. You still don’t have to agree with them; you just have to accept that these aren’t punk Oi! boys yelling mindless slogans. Their opinions are informed, and thanks to the shoulders they rub, they’ve been able to remain optimistic.

“On this tour we have Amnesty International out at most of the shows,” Sane says. “You meet these people who are volunteering, and they’re on the front lines doing amazing work. You can see that the kind of work they’ve done has literally saved people’s lives. It’s saved people from torture. Those people help you believe that the world has a chance.”

In November Anti-Flag put out a new album, Live Acoustic at 11th Street Records, which, as the name suggests, is both live and acoustic. For years, the band has been known for shouting important messages into your face so that you can’t ignore them. An acoustic performance allows bandmembers to dial it back a little.

“There’s a different kind of immediacy that you feel from an audience when you’re playing live, especially live acoustic,” Sane says. “They are right in your face, and you can almost hear them breathing when you take a break. It’s not like you have an amplifier screaming in their faces. So the interaction becomes much more intimate, but there’s also a ton of energy there, because even though we’re playing acoustic, we’re still playing songs that have a lot of energy to them. It’s also always interesting as an artist to try to reinterpret what you already created. It’s definitely not a stagnant thing. It’s something that’s living and breathing and forever changing.”

On March 3, Anti-Flag will play the Gothic Theatre with old friends and fellow political junkies Leftover Crack, and it’s a show that Sane is looking forward to.

Denver has always been amazing to us,” he says. “One of the first shows I remember playing in Anti-Flag was in Denver, in a pizza shop. We toured with a band called Pinhead Circus many years ago, who were an old Denver punk band. Their drummer went on to be in Rise Against — Brendan Barnes.”

The rest of the year will see the band splitting its time between club/theater dates,] and mega European festivals.

“I think that's one of the things I really love about being in Anti-Flag,” Sane says. “Tonight, we’ll probably play for 400 or 500 people, and then we’ll go to Europe and play for 50,000 people at a festival. Both live shows are a great experience for completely different reasons. Tonight, whoever shows up understands what the band is about, and they’re extremely aware of a lot of the topics we discuss. When you do a big festival, it’s an opportunity to reach out to new ears and new minds, and hopefully spread the gospel to a new audience that maybe hasn’t thought about some of the ideas that you’ve put out there in the past.”

Anti-Flag plays with Leftover Crack, Potato Pirates and Rotten Blue Menace at 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 3, at the Gothic Theatre, 303-789-9206.