Anti-Flag from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, might be the most political punk band of the present. They have just released their eleventh album „20/20 vision“. We talked with their bassist and lead singer Chris Barker before their concert in Chemnitz about their latest album, the effects of the Trump administration on the music scene, solidarity for Syria and how not to lose hope.
unique: Coming to Chemnitz – is that coincidence or is it a political statement because it is considered to be a city with problems concerning right-wing extremism?
Chris Barker: We are specifically in Germany with the release of the record because a lot of issues we are having in the states, you’re having here as well. You see false populists use immigrants and refugees to make people turn on their neighbors. We are here to make sure that people realize that these issues are not happening in a vacuum. You are not alone; there are a lot of people that are feeling similar. Chemnitz in particular is a city which has a tremendous punk rock scene because there are so many things that are antithetical to punk rock spirit happening around this area. This creates a community that needs itself. Québec city in Canada, which is a very right-wing city, is very comparable to Chemnitz, they also have this little heartbeat of a punk rock scene that keeps the bad away. We love going to these cities because it makes a difference.
In 1999 there were mass protests in Seattle and all over the world against the World Bank, the WTO, the IMF. This fear of globalization was right. That in turn led to economic strains for lower and middle class people. Corporations chose profit over people. Firms were relocated from certain places in the world to others, because they could make more money of their products that way. That led to people looking around wondering why the wealth was pulled out from under them and who was to blame. And then, false populist movements came in and said: “I’ll tell you who is to blame! Not corporations, not corporate greed but immigrants, refugees, your neighbors. Your neighbor stole your job!” That let to racism and xenophobia. I think you are not born with these ideas – they are taught to you. Powerful people have been doing a lot of work over the last 20 years to teach people to be afraid of people outside their community. A great example of that is Donald Trump. People in Ohio or West Virginia, which are far from the Mexican border, are afraid of Mexicans. But the factory that was in Ohio moved to China, not to Mexico! And we never talk about those people owning the factories; we only talk about immigrants and refugees.
Where do you see the role of your music counteracting that tendency of growing extremism?
I think we have several roles, the first being our individual empathy. We hurt for these things that are happening. We need to share that pain. The selfish aspect is that it gives me an outlet and makes me feel like I am a contributor to places where I cannot really contribute. I want to carry the people in Syria who live in fear of bombs dropping on their homes with me. One way to do that is to stand on a stage and say that I care about them. I want to care about Afghan communities in America that get killed by police as two Afghan-American people die every day due to police violence. I cannot completely empathize with them – I am a straight white man. But one way to show solidarity is to carry them with you into the show. The next step is that people come in contact with each other – at our concerts, other punk rock bands or anti-fascist art movements in general – which changes their lives. They bring that back home to school, work, they are influenced in the decisions they make, how they spend their money, the things they put in and on their bodies. That is what changes the world! Not a song. Not the band. Not the record. You create a culture, a community. It is our job as artists to make revolution, equality as well as social, economic and environmental justice look irresistible. I want it to look fun.
You have just released a new album, Trump’s face is on the cover. Why did you decide to focus so much on him?
That is a really good question because we have not done that before. Every time you release a political punk rock album during election time, people want to capsize it into being electoral politics and think that it focuses only on November 20/20. Although I think it is very important to vote in elections, even if you can only choose the less severe of two evil candidates. It is a privilege to vote. There are people that cannot get to a place to vote, there are people living within war and so on. So it is our responsibility to at least try to shift those in power to be less evil. But I also know that presidents, prime ministers and popes don’t save us. I have so little in common with a billionaire who is running for president that I understand that this is not where the fight ends; it is solely where it begins. Why attack Donald Trump? Because he obviously is the symptom of a big disease. But he is only the largest tumor. So many people – specifically in America – are hurt by his policies. LGBTQ+ suicide rates went up hundreds of percents, hate crime rates are up. People are feeling emboldened by his xenophobia and his racism to come out. Where we are from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, wherewe had the largest anti-Semitic attack in the history of the United States at a synagogue. That is right next to where Pat, our drummer lived for 15 years and Justin, our lead singer, went to school. This is not something which is happening somewhere outside. It is happening right where we live.
Does Trump spark a new area of protest song culture?
100%! However, there is also a great fear because the right-wing troll culture is so powerful, that when people make any statement, somebody is on there saying some insanity or some racist bullshit. I think that has lead to a lot of people being afraid of making statements. After the election of Trump a lot of people said: We had rock against Bush, now we need rock against Trump. But also after the invasion of the Iraq it took a couple of time for people to realize that this is wrong, and then the protest movement grew. It took almost four years for the mass movement against him to get started. Now we have had almost four years of Donald Trump and it is still not there. I really think that is because people are afraid of others coming after them if they make statements against the president.
You have written a lot of songs about topics that nearly no other artists pick out – like problematic beauty ideals, depleted Uranium or animal rights. How come you chose those topics – and other artists don’t?
Because we are fantastic, of course (laughs). No. A lot of people ask us: “Why are you a political band. Don’t you want to write a song about beer?” It is simple, I just don’t know how to do anything else. Whenever I sit down to write music, politics is the first thing I think about, that’s where my brain goes. I have tried to face it on other records and write more universal songs. But those songs suck (laughs). I can feel that and everyone else can feel that too. The songs that have worked are the ones where we have been true to ourselves. I know that is cliché but I honestly believe that people are attracted to things that are real. There is pop music and there are things that are being sold to us and people are not immune to the salesmanship of it. But I think that on this level, where we just share ideas, people are far more comfortable with honesty than with things that feel forced and fabricated.
You have been touring for more than 20 years now. How has the punk rock scene changed? Did the audience become more cross-generational? And why is punk still so attractive for young people?
It is cyclical. It comes in and out of fashion. I am committed to it because I do not know what else to do. Some other musicians say “If it wasn’t for the fans, we wouldn’t be here”. For us, that is not true. If nobody was here, we might not be in Chemnitz, but in our garage still playing our songs. I think that the internet changed everything in our world. There is this terrible aspect that people stopped buying music and the livelihood for a lot of musicians went away. A lot of bands had to break up. That is a difficult thing, but it also initiated bands to tour more. You need to be a little bit broken to make art, so not all of us have the ability to tour six months every year, the way Anti-Flag does. We will be missing out on a lot of great art because of that. But technology makes touring easier as you can call friend and family no matter where you are. Technology has been helpful and hurtful all at the same time. A example is the video for our new song “Unbreakable,” which we made with these Nigerian kids. Without my phone and Twitter, I would have never been able to reach them. Their spirit is so kindred to ours and although these guys do not even know what punk rock is, they are the most fucking punk band I have ever seen. That is the beauty of it. Everything has changed, but the thing that I am most proud of is that people still love our songs from 1996 as much as they love what we did in 2020. People are going to sing both of those songs. We are not stuck in a period in time, trying to recreate something that once worked out. People have connected for years and years with what we released. That has to be hard for other bands. But I am grateful if anyone listens, and if you do so for free in the internet – it is fucking there. Go get it!
You already mentioned climate change, the power of multinational companies and Donald Trump. There is so much going wrong. But what can the “ordinary person” do? How can we still have hope?
There are times when I have lost hope, to be honest with you. But I get to do this very interesting thing where I travel and meet people – like yourself – that care. And then we are going to play a show tonight and there’s going to be a lot of people that care. This leads me to feel optimistic and like this is not an exception, this is the majority. What we need to do is to share these ideas, to help people break out of isolation. Activism can be very simple. Just sign a petition of “Kein Bock auf Nazis” or whatever. Then you are an activist. We have to get rid of the idea that the individual is responsible for changing the world. You are just responsible for putting kindness out in the world. If you do that, I am sure that this kindness will change the world. We are at a very unique moment in history where the revolutionary act is caring about more than just yourself. Because there is so much money and effort being spent to make you feel like you don’t have a chance and sway the pendulum of history. Our album is exactly about that idea that this is a brand new decade where we have this pen in our hands and write our future. Looking backwards, we all want to say that we fought against oppression and that we won. We want to spark the cultural shift, we want people refusing to go to war and stop people from living their lives in a way that squeezes the planet like a lemon. I am very optimistic that this will happen. Maybe not in our lifetime. But we have to get our ego out of the way. It is not about us fixing it for us. I am just glad to know that we will live in a more egalitarian society when that day comes.
So what is your utopia for a better world – and how so we get there?
We all want to live in a world free of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia. I just want to live in a world where people have empathy. It is so much harder to spread compared to apathy. You see this happen specifically happen in politicians – all the time. Some are right-wing politicians all there life – and then their daughter comes out and they go: “Well, maybe gay people are okay”. It takes this direct connection to another human being to change a person who is a lifelong bigot. That is the trouble, that is where our work lies. All of the issues we are currently facing – climate change, economic racism, and economies being built on war – go away if people can be more empathetic. That is the world I want to live in. Society won’t become just immediately. If you are asking me policies to get there: Make it illegal for corporations to give money to governments, whether that is in the form of lobbyism, former CEOs being involved in running governments or campaign donations. Then you hopefully have politicians that are interested in people, politicians that are involved. That would be a much nicer world already.
Thank you very much for the interview!
The interview was conducted by Ladyna.