Interview: Justin Sane of Anti-Flag

Originally published through Tone Deaf

Anti-Flag1

Anti-Flag is a band that tends to divide opinion. They are most commonly labelled punk, and punk began as an incarnation of nihilism; of the destruction of the present while determinedly not sparing a thought for the future.

The Clash envisioned a burning London, while the Stooges instructed us to ‘Search And Destroy’.

The style of Anti-Flag’s music may be very much traditional punk – the shouted vocals, the short, sharp guitar – but their ethos is the opposite of this. They don’t want to watch the world burn, they want to fix it.

In fact, according to vocalist Justin Sane, even back when the band first started –  almost two decades ago – they had two specific goals in mind.

“One was that we were anti-war,” he explains. “What we saw – especially in the way that I grew up, because I grew up quite poor, what I saw was poor people fighting and killing and dying and bleeding for rich people and corporations.”

“When I looked at the outcome of what war did, it always seemed to me that at the end of the day, poor people are the only people who really gave and suffered, and the rich people, the corporations… they became very, very profitable.” he adds.

It’s a message that is strikingly clear in the content of Anti-Flag’s passionately pacifist lyrics.

From classics such as ‘One Trillion Dollars’ to the burners on their latest album The General Strike,the band has provided a consistent soundtrack – and catalyst – to the peace protest sensibilities of their fans.

Their second primary message however, is one that applies to everyone, regardless of the military politics of their country’s governments: “we want people to just understand that we’re not a colour of skin,” Sane asserts. “We’re not a religion, we’re not straight or gay, we’re not American or Australian, we’re human beings, and it’s really important that we see each other as human beings.” As far as mantras go, it’s pretty hard to find fault with – especially when its expressed through the infectious and energetic delivery listeners have come to expect from the band.

 

Based in America, Anti-Flag have a well-publicised engagement with their domestic politics. Of particular note over the past year is the band’s involvement with the Occupy movement, which Sane describes as a “big influence” on The General Strike.

But they are also outspoken advocates in relation to a range of international human rights abuses, such as freeing Russia’s political punks Pussy Riot.

So what about Australia? Have any concerns from across the Pacific caught the attention of the renowned left-leaning musos?

“The aboriginal issue is something that really resonates with me, because it just seems like aboriginal rights are something that are such a no-brainer,” Sane muses. “It’s hard to believe in a day and age such as 2012 that minorities are still having to fight for their rights.”

“I always find it really surprising,” he continues, “that there are certain basic fundamental rights that people should have. It’s fascinating – and saddening – that in a country like America or a country like Australia that we still have these issues.”

“But the good news it that people are willing to give their support, and that’s what gives me hope that we can make a change for the better,” he concludes positively.

Not that he has a problem with Australia itself, despite our struggles for racial equality.

Every country has its dark side, perhaps none more than Anti-Flag’s native US; to the contrary, Sane is a big fan of the land Down Under, where they will be heading soon for Phillip Island’s Pyramid Rock festival.

“To be honest with you I’ve always had this personal thing about wanting to be in Australia for a New Years celebration,” Sane enthuses. “It’s one of the earliest time zones, and in the States I’ve always watched it when they show Australia.”

Soon he’ll be able to experience the real thing, playing alongside local acts like Pnau and Tame Impala at the festival, as well as delivering not one but two shows in the one day at Sydney’s The Sando, drawing songs from half their discography for an afternoon slot at 2pm, before delivering the other half in a marathon show from 8pm til Midnight.

But for those that have caught them before, the most exciting part of these performances will be the addition of the tracks from The General Strike.

Urgent, powerful, and socially conscious, the March 2012 release is classic Anti-Flag – “the most popular record with our base, that we believe in for a long time,” according to Sane.

After 19 years in the business, they certainly have their formula, of welding music and politics together, down pat. So as someone who clearly wishes to make an impact on the world, why did Sane choose his guitar and his voice as the medium to do so?

“More than anything it (music) has that ability to strike an emotional chord,” he answers simply.

“A piece of music, even without any lyrics, can make a person happy or make a person sad. So music all by itself has the ability to make a person feel something,” he elaborates.

“And if you layer that with a message that’s very meaningful, then all of a sudden that song and lyrics can have a really powerful effect on a person.”

As he describes it, there’s a definite cycle to the process. Sane’s own views on the world were formed by the artists he was exposed to when he was growing up, like the Clash and Minor Threat.

Now, he believes, it’s his turn to have the same influence over today’s listeners. His musical influences helped shaped him, “I think for the better,” he confirms, “so I am very aware of it. Music can really have an impact on a person, and what a person does with their life.”

Thankfully, what Sane chose to do with his was start a band, write a bunch of great albums, and set out to change the world; one punk anthem at a time.

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