Since punk rock first appeared, there’s been a schism between the bands who promote anarchy and those indulging in apathy. For every pretty-but-pretty-vacant act like the Sex Pistols, there’s a band like Crass who does more than make idle threats. Whether it’s performing at anti-war protests, working with a congressman to fight depleted uranium, or singing about how much it hates capitalism (which is a lot), Anti-Flag certainly falls on that more political end of the punk spectrum. Some might say it slept with the enemy for the last four years by putting out two records on RCA, but Anti-Flag is back on indie label SideOneDummy Records for its latest release, The People Or The Gun, and returning to the harsher punk sound that better fits its fiery rhetoric. Before Anti-Flag’s "The Economy Sucks… Let's Party!" hits Red 7 on Jan. 27, bassist-vocalist Chris “#2” Barker spoke with The A.V. Club about fighting its way out of the major-label miasma, battling homophobia and capitalist greed, and how it’s helping to fix our broken system.
The A.V. Club: How does it feel to finally be done with RCA?
Chris Barker: We had a two-record deal with RCA. I feel that the risk was on them and reward went to us. We were very well protected in our contract; we were able to work with whoever we wanted and release the records we wanted. Furthermore, we were able to write into our contracts that we would get money to develop non-profit organizations, and get money to donate to selected charities. A lot of good came out of those two records on RCA. However, we were confined by the archaic restrictions that a major label doesn't know how to let go of. They wanted us to go in with producers, to do demos, do pre-production, and then record for three months. Before we knew it, we were releasing records where our songs were a year old. That was quite frustrating. We're a band that's trying to be topical and on top of issues that are important today. The People Or The Gun is a knee-jerk reaction to that system that we were in for the last four years on RCA.
AVC: What’s it like to be one of the more visible bands of today’s punk rock scene?
CB: I'm not necessarily sure that we're still there. We were definitely there in 2004, 2005, 2006—even until 2008. This idea that we’d been on the wrong political path with our president was almost common nomenclature. That made it really easy to be in Anti-Flag. We were a band on September 11, when they ripped our items off the shelves and refused to sell them. Your one-stop shop for all your punk rock needs, Hot Topic, called us and said, "We're not selling your shit anymore." We had kids returning our shirts saying, "You should change your band name. You're un-American, and you should support George Bush." And I was thinking to myself, "Just two days ago we were in the streets demanding a recount election. What the hell is going on?" To see this all unfold, to see that height of dissent being in the mainstream, it was a crazy, insane ride. But we were a band before it, and we're probably going to be a band after it. It's not something that dictates what Anti-Flag does.
AVC: What were your thoughts on Obama's election? Did it give you hope that things could change, and how have those hopes been affected?
CB: Fuck, dude, I was there. We played a show in DC on Inauguration Day. I was part of the millions of people in front of the monument. It was fucking emotional. After all the work that had gone into getting rid of the McCain-Bush mentality, I was really optimistic. However, we're a year in and, gosh, it's getting harder and harder to be optimistic, isn't it? There was a ferocity and an engagement and a power that Obama had when he took the office that… [Pauses.] It seems like that fire is dying out. We had all wished that he would take a cue from the Bush administration and just pass whatever the fuck he wanted to, regardless of whether or not he had a majority. But that hasn't happened. Even signing the declaration to close Guantanamo Bay, that was huge, but it's still open today. A health-care bill that is essentially going to be a handout for the pharmaceutical industry—it's not okay. I will say this: We'd be fucked if McCain had won, and the Supreme Court justice vote went a different way. However, it seems like a lot of these things that so many of us were very happy about have yet to come to fruition. Now it's only year one! And we learned the hard way what a president can do with four years. The pressure is on us, the common folk of this world, to get that dude's ear, because I get the vibe from Obama that if the people call for it, he may listen. But again, maybe I'm just a fool. [Laughs.]
AVC: Anti-Flag has worked with God Hates Homophobes. Is homophobia still a problem in the punk scene?
CB: Well, homophobia is the last openly accepted form of discrimination. You're watching TV and two guys kiss and everyone goes, "Boooo! Ughhhhh!" It's second nature to people to look down on any difference in sexuality, even in the punk-rock scene. We've faced that. For example, we did a tour with Alexisonfire, who are great friends of ours. I sang a song with them, and at the end of the song Wade [MacNeil, guitarist] and I kissed each other on the mouth, and there was a look of horror on some of the faces. I was shocked that in 2009, two handsomely devilish men like myself and Wade kissing was wrong to people. It's a difficult battle we're in the middle of right now, and hopefully in our lifetimes we’ll see the end of it.
CB: You know what's amazing is how vigilant the PETA volunteers are. They're set up before the bands are, and they're working hard. They're currently doing a campaign to get support for the U.S. government to put pressure on the Canadian government to stop the hunting of seals. Regardless of your stance on PETA, and whether or not they're throwing buckets of blood on celebrities' fur coats, that's neither here nor there. When they came to us with the cause they were working on, we were like, "Absolutely. That's right up our alley." Amnesty International is out with us. They’re talking about the Guantanamo Bay issue and how it's still open. That's great information for a kid to take home. The only way we're going to stretch this community further is by sharing it with the people that might not have those ideas.
AVC: There’s a song on the new album called, "The Economy Is Suffering… Let It Die." Do you think there shouldn't have been a federal bailout?
CB: That slogan is from a student protest in Paris in May, 1968. Looking back on where they were at the time, and where we are in 2008 and 2009—40 years later—seeing the similarities, that's the inspiration. As far as bailing out these companies, obviously on one hand you can see an upturn in the economy and reflect back on it. Maybe it did save the way of life we’re in. I don't know what would have happened had they let the industry—the slim amount of industry we had in America—fall apart. However, it's remarkable the audacity of these people that are in charge of these companies, to pay themselves bonuses with the bailout money, and to have zero compassion for what’s actually happening. That's not shocking at all. That's what that song was born out of.
AVC: Do you think America’s problems are solvable from within the system, or do we need some sort of take-to-the-streets revolution?
CB: The shift needs to be on humanitarianism. We have zero focus on the actual human life that’s impacted by this exploitive capitalism that we're living in. If you're asking me what the next real revolution will be, I think it's going to come from the workers. There are so many people in this world that are not being paid a fair wage for the work that they're doing. When those people stand up and demand living wages and stop putting together the plastic toy that goes in your Happy Meal, that's when we're going to actually see real change. And then it’s the responsibility of bands like Anti-Flag, and writers such as yourself, and people that are involved in this punk-rock community to get the backs of those workers in China, in Pakistan, and in other parts of the world where they're being exploited for their labor. Is the system so broken that it can't be fixed? I don't know. I'm an optimist. [Laughs.]