With Trump In Office, Anti Flag's Justin Sane Will Write 'songs About Things I’d Thought We Moved Beyond'

Anti-Flag didn’t pull its punches during the Obama administration, taking on the Democrat for drone strikes and bowing to corporate interests on their last album, 2015’s “American Spring.”

You can only imagine what the veteran Pittsburgh punk band is gearing up for now. And Anti-Flag is likely to have a lot more company from its musical peers, punk and otherwise, in the political arena.

But, as the Trump administration prepares to take office, Anti-Flag is in the midst of a tour, stopping at Stage AE Wednesday, with some fun-loving, lighthearted cohorts: California ska-punk band Reel Big Fish.

Arriving at House of Blues in Chicago Tuesday, Justin Sane, Anti-Flag’s 43-year-old frontman, called to fill us in on how the tour is going and what the band expects from the new world order.

How did you hook up with Reel Big Fish?

It was a thing where their record’s 20 years old and our record’s 20 years old [1996’s “Die for the Government”], and we’ve played a lot of gigs with them in the past. They’re just great guys and we love being around them. The tour was proposed to us because we share a booking agent, but when the idea came in, everybody jumped at it. We know there’s a lot of crossover between the crowds, even though it seems like there wouldn't be. And it has worked, it’s been amazing. The shows have been great.

You don’t usually partner with a band that big.

Not for a long time. Not in the States. More so in Europe. And, you know, people who bought those records 20 years ago are coming out and a lot of them are bringing their kids, who are like 16 to 20, and that’s really cool, too, and they’ll say, “We grew up listening to you guys.”

So, what did you do when you got the invitation to perform at the inauguration?

Well, of course, we accepted. [Laughs]

Jackie Evancho and Anti-Flag...Pittsburgh represented.

When I heard they asked little Jackie Evancho, I was like, “Wow, I wasn’t aware that she was out there still doing her thing.”

No, that invitation obviously did not come. You know, it’s amazing You see Trump and his narcissism has led him into a Twitter war with Meryl Streep, and it’s so hard to take the guy seriously. He’s supposed to be the president and he can’t even handle it when someone calls him a name. And that’s a Hollywood celebrity. When it gets ugly in international affairs, if this guy can’t control his emotions and it’s all about him, that concerns me.

I supported the people who were out there demonstrating and I joined them in Pittsburgh. The biggest reason for me is that I feel like we have some really important issues to address today: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, global climate change, the out-of-control prison-industrial complex. And Trump kind of normalizes all of these things. I feel like protest is important to say, “No, these things aren’t normal.” We can’t allow these things to be normalized.

Has there been increased interest in the band during the campaign, since the election?

I think there definitely has been. There's magazines that haven’t called in a while. They’re calling. We’re going out to the merch area every night, talking to people. They’re saying to me, “Hey, we want you to talk about what’s going on today on stage, because we came here tonight to know that we’re in a group of people that accept us, where bullying isn’t supported, where being kind to other people and respecting other people and trying to help people is the kind of world we want to live in.” So, just from an individual standpoint, these shows are coming at just the right time because they are feeling desperate about the direction the country is heading in.

And you don’t have the issue of someone like Bruce Springsteen, where if he says something, people will heckle him for it.

There’s a little bit. I’ve seen it a little bit at these last six shows. But, you’re right, not like Bruce Springsteen, who has such a diverse audience. I think a lot of people know where Bruce Springsteen stands, but by the same token, you're still going to have a lot of people who are traditionally conservative who go to his shows. I was thinking a lot about how it was for us during the Bush years. A lot of times our shows became a place for like-minded people to come together and not feel alone. There were a lot of people who felt like a war was waged for corporate interests, and now Trump has talked about draining the swamp and all he’s done is bring in corporate insiders. I think we’re going to run into the same issues. It’s going to be like the fox watching the henhouse.

Do you think when a Democrat is in office, artists and musicians become complacent, feeling like things are taken care of? In other words, rock is really boring.

I definitely think the arts have a tendency to be complacent during a Democratic administration, especially when they’ve confronted an administration that they feel is particularly corrupt. You saw after Vietnam there was this real lull of political music. After the Iraq War, you saw this lull because people were just burnt out, and people thought Barack Obama was this liberal, left-wing person, which truly I don’t believe he was. Anti-Flag really went after Obama on issues of immigration and the prison-industrial complex and continuing the Bush doctrine of war. There was a lot to deal with with Obama … I strongly supported Obama not because he would be a great president but because I believed the alternative was dangerous. And that’s why I voted for Hillary Clinton.

Have you guys written any songs relating to this yet?

We’ve been slowly been working on a record, and I really believed we’d be writing a record about Hillary Clinton. We weren’t going to see Hillary Clinton elected president and just say everything is fine now. Now, we have Donald Trump, and what is frustrating is I never thought I’d have to be writing a song about the possibility of a nuclear arms race. I feel like I’m going to be writing songs about things that I’d thought we moved beyond. I never believed for a minute that racism was dead in America, but I believed we’d moved forward in a pretty positive way, and we would continue to move forward. Now, with Trump, I feel like every time he opens this mouth, there’s the possibility that the president is going to say something racist. That’s not the kind of thing I thought I was going to have to be commenting on.

You’re going to have a lot of company, too, from other bands.

That’s true, and I’m not trying to say we do things right all the time, because we’re just like anyone else, we make mistakes, but it’s frustrating now to have artists friends calling and saying, “Oh man, what do we do?” And I’m like, “Well, it’s a little late.” We actually reached out to some artists to do a voter awareness campaign before the election. Most of them didn’t have any interest. I’m not exaggerating when I say some of those people called up right after the election and said, “What should we do?”

Well, I hope you don’t get locked up.

[laughs] Well, I sent in my contribution to the ACLU already. I’m encouraging other people to do it. On my Twitter feed, I’m doing a lot of retweets from the ACLU and Amnesty International. I sent in my contribution to Democracy Now! because I feel like independent media is more important than ever. Right now, Trump is really pushing this storyline of “the other” and and it’s the people who are the most marginalized and have the least power: Muslims in America, illegal refugees, people who have no way to defend themselves. I get why people voted for him in terms of economics: the neoliberal model of economics has been a failure for so many people and Obama was right on that train. I get it. But, unfortunately, I think Trump is a con man. I can’t think of any president who could be more out of touch with what average, poor and working people in America have to deal with every day. When you’re born into a family of millionaires, you don’t have the same struggle that a lot of people do.

But here’s what I feel about Trump. I feel that a broken clock is right twice a day, and he’ll be right on something, you know, whether it’s the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] or whatever, but the people he’s bringing in, that just wasn’t his rhetoric during the campaign.

On another note, you guys have toured the world many times and gone a long way with barely any support from Pittsburgh media, Pittsburgh radio.

Some many bands do break out when local radio gets behind them, because that’s the first test for a lot of national radio programmers: Is their local radio behind them? That’s where we had a horrible problem. We could never get The X to play us.

Cause of the name?

Yeah. Yeah. So, this last record was one of the first times where they said, “Hey we’re going to play you guys.” It was light, but it happened. We’re probably past that point where radio will ever make a difference for us. But if local radio plays you and your song’s good enough, that’s where a lot of national people look at you. The name has definitely been our biggest hurdle as far as anything commercial. I think it connects with people in other ways, but as far as anything commercial, forget it.

A band like [F-ed] Up, I’m sure they have a similar problem.

But you know [laughing] what’s funny and amazing, they have less trouble with that name than our name, and that says something about society.

Yeah, ’cause people think Anti-Flag means anti-American?

Exactly. It shows that when you use the flag to make any kind of statement, people [take offense]. And at 19, that’s what I was going for, so I picked the right name. I don’t know. With everything we’ve gone through over the years, we may have been more effective with a different name. But who the hell knows?

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg

ANTI-FLAG/REEL BIG FISH

With: Ballyhoo!, Direct Hit.

Where: Stage AE, North Shore.

When: Doors at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Tickets: $25 advance; $27 day of show; ticketmaster.com

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