Interview by Jason Schreurs
For a dude who grew up on ‘80s and ‘90s punk rock and hardcore, the fact that Anti-Flag have been a band for over 20 years now is unfathomable. I can still remember the first time I popped their split CD with Vancouver’s sadly defunct d.b.s. into the stereo and was blown away by their perfect combination of punk and melody.
We recently caught up with Anti-Flag bassist Chris “#2” Barker to talk about the band’s two-decade milestone, letting Rage Against the Machine’s philanthropy rub off on them, and using their unlikely musical home of Pittsburgh, PA to their advantage.
How are things going over there?
Good, man. We’re just rehearsing this new song with a complicated drum beat. [Drummer] Pat [Thetic]’s been playing the same drum beat for 20 years and to teach an old dog new tricks is, as they say, impossible! [Laughs]
You’re putting together stuff for a new album?
Yeah, we’re about 12-15 songs in and we’re aiming to write about 30 for this record, just so we have good ones. Because when you’ve been a band for a really long time it’s really easy to write songs and just say, “Ah, it’s good enough.” [Laughs] So we’re going back to the work ethic of busting our asses and making sure it’s something worth putting out because we could tour and play “Die for the Government” and people would be stoked forever, but if we’re putting out a new album in 2015 after 20 years of being together, it should be good, right?
For sure. I’d imagine the process of whittling the songs down would be painful though?
Yeah, it’s led to a lot of arguments in the past. The cool thing is in this era everything sees the light of day, whether it’s for a B-side or on the internet.
Is it weird to say “20 years”? You’ve said it a couple of times already and it even sounds weird coming out of your mouth.
Oh, it’s fucking weird as hell. I think we’re better than ever, as far as our live show and the work ethic of writing songs. We’re really ramping it up. So to think that it’s been over half our lives that we’ve been in this band, it’s pretty funny.
When you started out it seemed like you were just these young punks that would hang out at shows. I remember d.b.s. from Vancouver were the same thing; just these cool, young kids that we’d see at all-ages shows playing acoustic guitars, and then all of a sudden they were a band. And now you guys are the punk seniors. It’s bizarre.
Yeah, it’s definitely bizarre. Bizarre is an understatement. [Laughs] But I think that’s why we still have the ability to do it, because we came out of that. There was never an expectation to do any of the things that we’ve done, so everything is constantly marked down as a success. Even if it might not be a monetary or emotional success, there’s still victories for us as individuals. We just played a week of shows in Russia, and I never thought I’d get out of my mom’s garage, let alone headline a festival near the Black Sea. Like, what the fuck is that about, you know? But that’s also a testament to the ethics of the community that we come out of. You don’t anticipate things being handed to you. You don’t believe that you’re owed anything, or that the things you create are more important than anyone else’s. That also ties into coming from Pittsburgh, where we’re from. It’s a town that… bands just don’t make it from here. You don’t get discovered here. That’s never in your psyche when you start playing. I’ve been in this band for 17 years now… Jesus Christ! Yeah…
Speaking of Pittsburgh, another band I talked to recently was Code Orange Kids, and they’re from there, too.
It does seem like a strange place to be a band, and it’s not really a hotbed of music, but you guys made it your own. How would it have been different if you were from New York or Philly?
I don’t think we’d still be a band if we were from those places. The cost of living is too high and that just murders people. Bands from there can’t make touring and being in a band their full-time life because they need to get a job to pay the bills. We’ve been fortunate enough that Pittsburgh has the lowest cost of living in the country, and I think that’s why you’re seeing Code Orange Kids do as well as they are, and grow as much as they have, because they can afford to just say, ‘Fuck it, let’s just go play every show we can play.’ That’s a band that obviously we have no responsibility for, and there’s no sonic kinship, but I believe that them growing up and being around Anti-Flag, there’s a kinship to the idea that we did it, so why can’t they? And that was the same thing for us. We looked at Aus-Rotten and they were touring the globe and we were like, “How do you do that?” and they said, “We just do it,” and we were like, “Okay,” and we did it.
What was it like when you guys got a chance to spend some time with Rage Against the Machine when you toured with them? How did that affect you, because that’s the band that every politicized band looks up to in some ways?
Yeah… It was one of those things where we had just come off a very terrible tour and [vocalist/guitarist] Justin [Sane] was really sick and we were in a dark period of the band. Then we got a call that Tom Morello had one of our records and liked it and wanted us to come and open up on The Battle of Los Angeles tour and were like, “Well, we might as well do that, because so far what we’re doing has been really stressful. Let’s try something new and take us out of our comfort zone and go in to a different environment.” So the first show we played was in Philadelphia and the police department was boycotting it because of the band’s support for Mumia. So we were at the hotel and I turned on the news and they were talking about the show, and the chief of police was on telling parents not to let their children attend because Rage Against the Machine support “cop killers.” And here I was thinking that no one would show up. We get to the show and the arena is surrounded by cop cars and they all have their lights on to protest the event, and the promoters had oversold the tickets; they’d sold 22,000 tickets. So they opened up the bowl seating all the way around the back, and I remember after the first song tuning my bass guitar and looking behind me and there were more people behind me than I’d ever played to in my entire life [laughs], let alone the people in front of me! And they were so excited about music that challenged the status quo. And that’s when it hit me that it doesn’t really matter if you’re on your own label, or hand out cassette tapes, or if you’re on the biggest record label in the world. What matters is if you’re giving people the opportunity to find solace, and that’s what that show was to me. Not all of the people were there for the politics, of course not, but what they didn’t know is that Rage Against the Machine was taking $1 from every one of those 22,000 tickets and putting it towards a local charity, and that night it was in support of Mumia. And that’s real power. That’s a greater power than we still have, even after 20 years of playing. So, to argue the impact of that band, it’s not going to work with me, because I’ve seen it firsthand. And what we’ve taken from them and kind of adopted for ourselves is if you do things, you just do them. It will come back to you in some way and doesn’t necessarily have to be talked about in order to come back to you.
Rage went with a somewhat accessible sound, and you guys have always been a melodic punk band. I’m just curious because you mentioned Aus-Rotten before, who are more of a crusty punk/hardcore band, and I’m wondering back at the beginning if it was a conscious thing for Anti-Flag to make their music accessible and melodic and catchy?
No, we just didn’t know how to do anything else. [Laughs] It was one of those things where the bands that we really loved, some of them were super crusty and had short songs, but even when we’d try to write short songs we’d still be incorporating melody into them, to the point where we would conversations and say, “Man, that’s too poppy!” But we didn’t know any other way. It showed us that you can’t force a sonic style or overtone to what you’re doing. You can try and influence it, and we’ve tried that. We’ve been like, “Whoah, this Refused jam is what’s up! Let’s try to rip that shit off,” and we’ve tried to and then we’d realize that they did it better and we’d throw that one away. You’re always going to look for influence and look for things to inspire you, but I think that’s why I’m still in the band because we immediately had a sonic kinship of the melodies coming together, and writing songs that we all enjoy playing.
You’ve got 26 songs on this 20-year retrospect CD, and you’ve got hundreds of songs in total. If you could pick one Anti-Flag song to leave behind as your legacy, which one would it be? Could you even pick?
It’s difficult, but I think it might be “The Press Corpse.” It would be something from that era of the band, where we really changed from just having songs that are more punk rock, or having songs that are more melodic, to really marrying the two ideas. There’s a lot of bass playing on that track, although there tends to be a lot of bass on all Anti-Flag songs. But I think Justin’s ability to capture a moment in time is something that he does particularly well. I tend to write considerably more metaphors than he does, and that’s one of the things I’ve always envied about his writing is that at the end of it, you know what it’s about. Whether or not you believe it, care about it or want to know about it, you’re going to know about it. And I think that’s a gift that he has, and that’s what Anti-Flag is essentially about.
I’m going to take the safe route and pick “Die for the Government.”
Yeah, yeah… The thing about “Die for the Government” is I fucking love that song and we often get asked if we get sick of playing certain songs. We’ve played “Die for the Government” every single show ever. There’s not one show that we’ve missed it. And that being said, I still love playing that song because it’s a great song. I don’t think it overall demonstrates the catalog of the band, but you could hold an argument that the D-sharp chord progression of that song is probably the most commonly used in Anti-Flag, so maybe it does.