On Thursday 12 March, American punk rockers Anti-Flag will return to Montreal for a show at L’Astral.
The band is well known for its politically charged lyrics and activism, focusing on human rights and various left-wing causes. We had the chance to chat with lead guitarist, singer and songwriter Justin Sane about the downsides of touring, his love of Montreal and, of course, Trump.
MR: So where are you today, and what are you doing?
JS: We’re in Zurich, getting ready to play a show, so we’re doing well! Weather’s not bad, it’s a little chilly, but not freezing…
MR: I’m in Montreal so we have yet another snowstorm to enjoy… but you’re coming here in March, so you’ll probably catch some of our winter! You’ve been to Montreal a ton of times, I’ve lived here 12 years and I’ve lost track of the numbers of times I’ve seen you! How do you cope with such an insane tour schedule?
JS: When we were kids it was really what we dreamed about doing. It was always something we wanted to do, so that being the case, it makes sense! It was a life that we chose that would be interesting, and exciting, and in a lot of ways, it is. It’s not everything we thought it would be when we started the band, but it’s definitely a positive experience overall. Of course, there are times when you wish you could be home a little bit more or times when you’re home and you’re really settled in and you don’t wanna leave, but once you get out onto the road, you usually get into a rhythm, and we’ve got a lot of good friends around us when we’re on tour, so it’s definitely a positive environment.
There are times when you don’t eat real well or get a lot of rest, and that’s hard, but you learn how to deal with those things. You pick your spots for when you know you can get rest and you take advantage of that. Like yesterday, we had a day off in Zurich, and to be honest, I didn’t do anything, I just rested the whole day because I knew this was my one day I was gonna get the chance to get some rest, so that’s what I did! You gotta be smart about it!
MR: You said touring is not quite what you thought it would be when you started out; what are some of the ways it’s not as good as you hoped, besides the lack of rest and missing the family?
JS: Yeah, those are the downsides. The biggest downside is that you don’t realize, when you pick a lifestyle where you’re gonna be away a lot, is that when things are bad at home, and you’re needed at home, like when somebody is sick or somebody died, worst-case scenario, and you’re just not there… you just have to figure that out. Those are things that are tough. My Mom had cancer, she was diagnosed a little over 2 years ago, and it was terminal, so she passed away just under 2 years ago, and to realize that I couldn’t be home with her as much as I wanted to be… we made as many changes as we could with the band so I could be home with her more, which is great, but there’s times when I definitely had to go away… Those are the things when you’re starting out, you just don’t think those kinda things are gonna happen.
MR: So sorry to hear that…
JS: Thanks, I appreciate that. But y’know, there’s a lot of positives too; we get to travel and meet a lot of amazing people, a lot of amazing places and get inspired a lot. One of the things we try to do at all of our shows is try to create an environment that we would wanna go into if we weren’t in the band, so we often invite local activists or international activists to come be a part of the show, and talk about what they’re doing. Right now in the world there’s a lot of ugliness, and it’s easy to feel like there’s no good in it, and we are constantly surrounded by people who are doing good, fighting back against evil, who are trying to help other people. That’s who we are surrounded by on tour, which is obviously really positive.
We believe that our shows should be a place where everybody has an equal opportunity to have fun, where people feel safe, where people can forget about their troubles, at least for a little while. And the most important thing is for people to realize that they’re not alone, because I think, quite often, people in the world feel alone, especially maybe people into punk who don’t quite click with mainstream society, people much more counter to the status quo of society, people who feel that society hinders individuality. So we try to create an environment at our shows to let people know that that’s OK, that they’re not alone, and that we support that!
MR: Yeah, there always feels like there is a caring vibe at your shows, Chris always says a few times “if someone falls down, we pick them back up!” It really shows how, as much as you want people to have fun, you want them to take care of each other too, ‘cos it can get pretty intense at the front!
JS: Yeah absolutely, that intensity is what drew me into punk, as well as the fact that people did look out for each other. That wasn’t every punk show, but that was the best kind of punk show. So we try to draw our inspiration from that and to be that kinda band.
MR: For sure, like I mentioned, I’ve seen you guys so many times, and your show is always a thrilling experience! Your discography is so strong, there are no dud songs that just fill the time, I’m always like “ahhh this song! Ahhh Turncoat!!”
JS: *laughs* Thanks, thank you!
MR: It’s such a great experience… and you’re coming back on the 12th of March! Do you have any stand-out memories of your times playing in Montreal?
JS: There’s a lot of memories, it’s an incredible city. There’s a couple of cities in the world that to me are like the capital of punk rock; one of them is Montreal, there’s just no doubt about it. There’s a really, really strong punk community there, it’s almost in the DNA of the city, it’s amazing. There’s a couple other cities that are like that, Southern California is like that, Berlin is like that, Mexico City is like that, but there’s only a handful of them where I just feel like punk is so vital, and there’s so much life in the punk scene. It’s really its own living, breathing thing! When people live the punk lifestyle… it’s not like something you’re into when you’re 16, then you get into EDM or something new. *laughs* There’s a community there, and people choose to be part of that community. There’s people like me, they’re older and they got mohawks and they still go to shows, they still hang out with other punk rockers; every time I go there I think it’s special!
MR: Yeah, every time I go to a punk show here, there seem to be as many old punks as there are young punks!
JS: For sure, that’s a really special thing about Montreal. I think it’s really cool when somebody makes a commitment to a community that they choose to be a part of. People around punk rock are often people who care about more than just themselves, even if that means that they just try to be more kind or open to other people… In today’s world, especially when we have a President who is openly racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, just being kind is a radical act, being thoughtful of others is a radical act. The punk scene kinda embodies that; it’s a scene that is willing to be open to other people, and think about more than just itself. It thinks about the way people who have less are being affected in our society, and that’s special because not every community is based around that foundation.
MR: For sure. That’s a good lead-in to my next question about your current President! In the past, you guys have always been careful not to attack specific Presidencies directly, but considering the artwork of the new record ‘20/20 Vision,’ it seems you’ve taken a different stance. Is there a reason for that change?
JS: Yeah, because Donald Trump is the rise of a new Neo-Fascism in the world! He’s the poster face of it, he embodies it. The shooter in Christchurch, the shooter in El Paso, Texas, they both pointed to Donald Trump as a leader and a figurehead for this new neo-fascist right-wing populist movement that was happening around the world. The same thing happened in our hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where not long ago we had the largest anti-Semitic terrorist attack in United States history, in the neighbourhood where I went to high school. That guy, he pointed to a statement that Donald Trump made as his inspiration. One of the big ones was that Donald Trump was going on about “invaders from the south coming in a caravan to invade the United States.” Of course, the people he was talking about were asylum seekers, refugees, running away from gangs and violence and poverty in their own country. But Donald Trump has decided to prey on the vulnerable, and those who can’t defend themselves, for his own political gain.
But his language is very dangerous because he’s openly calling on people to be violent, and that’s really what the second song on ‘20/20 Vision’ is about, the song “It Went Off Like A Bomb.” It’s making a reference to the fact that the President Of The United States has a massive bull horn, and when the President speaks, it matters. I believe he knows what he’s doing; when you look at his language, he uses dog whistles all the time. He uses language that would not mean anything to the average person, but it’s a coded language to white supremacists and neo-nazis. They know it. So when he says something like “make America great again,” that’s what the old Grand Master of the Ku Klux Klan used to say. So if you are familiar with the Ku Klux Klan, you know that Donald Trump is signalling to you that he believes in White Supremacy. Most people wouldn’t know that, because most people don’t follow the KKK, because most people aren’t terrorists!
MR: Wow, that’s eye-opening. Do you ever look back over the songs and ideas from previous records regarding previous presidents, and think “oh maybe that guy wasn’t so bad after all?!”
JS: No, they were all garbage, every single one of them! In my lifetime, starting with Ronald Reagan, the first Bush, then Bill Clinton, then the second Bush, and then Obama… they’re all garbage, they’re all criminals! Quite honestly, they all committed war crimes, they all ordered things that were illegal and against international law, but because they are the United States and they have the most power in the world, they can do whatever they want!
Our politicians at home don’t hold them accountable. But every single one of them bombed another nation and killed innocent civilians, and did it without permission internationally. But with Trump, it’s a little different. Bush is a mass murderer, he killed over a million Iraqis, and thousands of US troops, but at least with him, it was focussed on American dominance and American power. But look who Trump cosies up to. It’s never countries who have any kind of leanings toward democracy; he likes dictators, he likes authoritarians. And there’s a reason for that! In that respect, he’s dangerous in a different way. And he’s responsible for children being removed from their parents and being kept in jails, kept in what we would call ‘concentration camps.’ Not ‘death camps’ like the Nazis had, but definitely ‘concentration camps,’ which are completely inhumane, and people have died in them. There have been deaths of children, in US custody, in these camps. If you define a concentration camp, it’s when you take an ethnic group, and you put them in prison in large numbers. I’m not saying it rises to the level of what the Nazis did, it’s not a death camp. But all these Presidents have blood on their hands, and Donald Trump absolutely has blood on his hands.
MR: Your music seems so relevant now, more than it ever did.
JS: Yeah, I kinda feel that way. We weren’t looking to make a record right now, but we felt like we had to. But the other side of the record has a lot of optimism because I do believe we can turn this around. It just takes people to stand up and see that this is wrong. So with songs like “Unbreakable” and “Resistance Frequencies,” our record is as much about saying what Trump is doing is wrong as it is telling people: “don’t be cynical, don’t give up, don’t feel like there’s no hope to change this, there is hope to change it!” It’s just a matter of people raising their voices, and people saying “this is wrong.”
MR: And if you ever wanted to end a record on a positive note, there’s nothing that says ‘positivity’ like a ska song!
JS: *laughs* There you go, dude, that’s what its all about, you listen to ska and you immediately feel good! That’s why we made that the last song on the record because we do want it to be a record of optimism. We take you on a journey where you kinda see and hear what’s wrong with things, but by the end, you’re like “alright cool, let’s take this on, we got this!”
MR: I was reading back in 2012 that you had an ‘Anti-Fest’ back in my homeland of England; are there any plans to ever resurrect that?
JS: Yeah, it gets determined based on what’s going on in our lives. It’s definitely something we want to continue doing, maybe on a grander scale in the future. I don’t think it’s anything that will ever go away!
MR: Well there’s a big Warped Tour-sized hole in the summer schedules of North America now, so there’s the opening!
JS: Right, absolutely!
MR: My last question was gonna be if you have any other music recommendations, in addition to the ‘20/20 Vision’ record?!
MR: I will check them out! Really good talking to you, and hope to catch up again in March at l’Astral!
JS: Yeah, definitely grab me and say hi!
Interview – Simon Williams
Live photo – Kieron Yates