Anti-Flag have been an active band for over 20 years, and at the rate that it’s moving right now, we envision at least 20 more. This time around, the group decided to stand in the present with an album called 20/20 Vision written solely about the Trump administration. And it more than delivers, as its 11 aggressive tracks definitely pack both a lyrically focused and melodically catchy punch.
Singer/guitarist Justin Sane chatted with AltPress exclusively about the record out Jan. 17 via Spinefarm Records.
At what point during the Trump administration did you think that 20/20 Vision was necessary? Why did you feel the need to have a time stamp on this record that will inevitably be a massive moment in political history and relay the issues our country is currently experiencing?
JUSTIN SANE: Our previous record had come out not that long ago, and it really wasn’t on any of our minds to sit down and write another record so quickly. I just think seeing the xenophobia with the way that Trump was talking about asylum seekers in Central America and Mexico, obviously with the separation of the children from their parents [and] keeping children in prisons and cages and the religious discrimination with the Muslim ban caused it all to snowball to the point where the songs were starting to be written. We just felt like when we look back on history, we wanted people to know during this time where we stood and that we didn’t just stay silent. And we also wanted an opportunity to write our own future, you know? Our record is not just a criticism of Donald Trump, although it’s definitely that, but we also try to offer a lot of optimism with the record. When we organize against these things that are obviously crimes against humanity and crimes against our planet, we can write to share them, and we can point things in a positive direction. So when you look at our songs like “Unbreakable” or “20/20 Vision,” you know that “20/20 Vision” is a song about where we could go. And it’s a very different direction than the current administration.
Your last record was American Fall, and your newest opens with the line “Hate conquers all in the ashes of the fall.”
[Laughs.] To be honest, that was not intentional. I never even put that together. That’s pretty great.
Congrats on that stumbling!
Maybe in the future I will tell a tall tale, and I’ll use artistic license to tell people that. [Chris] #2 wrote that chorus. The reality and what I love about songwriting is how much ideas are in your subconscious when you’re writing. It’s so often after you’ve written a song, and you may be playing the song for a year or two years, before you realize that the song came from a completely different place subconsciously than what you were thinking about consciously. And I would even say on this record, [when] I wrote the song “Unbreakable,” I really wanted the song to be written about movement and about people coming together not giving up and understanding that when people come together, they could right wrongs.
Were the songs written before going into the studio?
The record was basically done when we got to the studio. We had this vision of the record coming out at the beginning of 2020, and obviously, you know the name is a double entendre with the year 2020 and having 20/20 vision. #2 had the idea to call the record 20/20 Vision, of it being about a different future in 2020, and how we saw ourselves writing a new history for ourselves. He brought the idea to me as a title for the record, and I saw something completely different. I really loved it, but what immediately came to mind for me was the idea of having clarity and seeing through lies. You know, having 20/20 vision whenever someone is feeding you misinformation. And you know, the president is a compulsive liar. He says one thing one day and totally contradicts it the next day. He says we need to put kids in cages because it’s for our national security. And I’m like, “No, no. That’s a smoke screen. We need to look straight through that. That’s crimes against humanity.” He says global warming doesn’t exist. I say, “No. All the scientists say it exists, and it’s a danger to our planet.” So I thought 20/20 vision meant something really different. We both came at it from different places, but that was exciting because it adds more fuel to the concept of what the record could be about.
What, aside from the political climate, inspired your writing?
We never put a president’s face on a record, and we’ve never had a quote from a president to start a song. We’ve never directly just called George Bush out with the idea that we didn’t want to date our music. And when you look at “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie, it’s a timeless song. Even though it was written about a very specific time. Like on our song “Turncoat,” we always had in mind when we wrote that song [that] we didn’t want to name George Bush. The song was clearly written about George Bush at that time, but there’s going to be a time in the future where we’re going to be able to apply this song to other politicians. We felt that Donald Trump’s actions were so egregious that it was absolutely important for us to point directly at the guy.
That said, there’s a lot of other ideas certainly floating around the record. One of them, and I think it’s really important, is the fact that the power of the president’s words is something that is just off the charts. You know, there’s so much power in the words that the president uses. We’re from Pittsburgh, and that’s where the largest anti-Semitic terrorist attack took place at the Tree Of Life Synagogue. I went to school in that neighborhood. Our drummer [Pat Thetic] lived in that neighborhood for a long time, and so obviously, that’s a part of our community, and we’re very close to that community. And you know, the shooter of the Tree Of Life Synagogue was citing Donald Trump’s rhetoric as inspiration for that shooting. He’s speaking in a coded language [where] racists and neo-fascists understand exactly what he’s saying. And he is encouraging violence. Our song on this record, “It Went Off Like A Bomb,” [explains that].
You mentioned “Turncoat.” Would you say that this album is a sequel to The Terror State?
In a lot of ways, personally, it does feel like that to me. Because we’re in a similar place, you know?
Throughout Anti-Flag’s long career, have you noticed any specific differences in your audience demographic as time went on?
When you come to an Anti-Flag show, the goal is to create community and for it to be fun. The very first time I went to a punk show, I liked the fact that the music was aggressive, and it felt a little dangerous to me. What was really exciting about it was that it was just a really good time, even though it was really aggressive. People were actually looking out for each other, and I could tell there was just this sense of community, and that’s what pulled me in. So when we do a show, we want it to be a place where everyone has an equal opportunity to have a good time. Everybody at the show can feel like if they came by themselves, they have an opportunity to meet someone during the show. We literally at every show take a break and say to shake the hand of the person next to you, put our arms around each other during a song and celebrate the fact that we’re all here and can forget about the bullshit outside of these walls for a couple [of] hours.
To me, one of the stronger activist statements from a band came from Ian MacKaye in Minor Threat’s song “In My Eyes” (which was later covered by Rage Against The Machine) where he goes, “You tell me that I make no difference/At least I’m fucking trying/What the fuck have you done?” Do you have any personal favorite lyrics from this new album?
One lyric that I think is really fun on the record, and it’s from one of the most fun songs, is “Don’t Let The Bastards Get You Down” because there is a lot of negativity. It’s so easy just to give up, and it’s so easy to be like, “It’s fucking pointless.” We have to remind ourselves that they want you to feel frustrated, they want you to give up and they want you to feel like you can’t make a difference. I’ll bring it full circle for you: Being kind is punk. Being kind is radical. There is so much noise and so much shit talk out there on things like Twitter and social media in general. We have a president who literally makes up derogatory names for people. I think when we have a president that’s making up derogatory names, some of those names being racist like Pocahontas, the idea that you just say to yourself to actively work to be kind to people is a radical step. Make America Inclusive Again.
Trump says things that are coded language to neo-Nazis and white supremacists. And one of them is “Make America Great Again.” “Make America Great Again” was the phrase of the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, in the ’70s and ’80s. And if you’re not a white supremacist, you probably don’t know that. But if you are a white supremacist, you do know that. So when you hear Donald Trump running for president and his phrase is “Make America Great Again,” I believe he is a white nationalist, and he knows exactly what he is saying.
With a Jewish daughter!
Yeah, he is willing to bend a lot of rules. It doesn’t mean that that’s not what’s in his heart. There were a lot of segregationists who had black friends. Just because there are certain things in your life that contradict what you personally deeply believe in doesn’t mean you don’t believe in those things. And you can track that by looking at somebody’s actions. And so, the actions that Donald Trump is taking over and over, I believe that’s why we needed to write a record.
Has there ever been a political or personal message that was difficult to articulate into a song?
Definitely. Our song “Broken Bones” is meant to reach out to people who are feeling isolated and feeling like there’s not a lot of hope, whether it’s in the political world, social world or their personal lives. You know, you can’t be positive all the time, and there are ups and downs. For me, when I look back at that song, whether I knew it or not when I was writing it, I was writing it at a time when we were touring a lot, and there were a lot of really bad personal things going on in my life. I couldn’t stop my world to deal with my personal issues and to be able to try and fix my life. So it’s really a song about being out of control and a lot of the hardships that you run into, yet you still carry on and still hang on by the tips of your fingers. You just white knuckle it and get through it. But ultimately, I was using the song to try and offer some hope to people, and that song is about being in a hopeless place. There’s some tongue and cheek in it too, because it says, “Broken bones and broken glass/Broken hearts and broken heads/Livin’ the life” like, “Oh, this is great!”
Many Bernie Sanders supporters openly admitted that they didn’t vote once he lost the Democratic nomination in 2016. How do we remedy that issue this year?
Honestly, I would vote for Mitt Romney if he was the Democratic nominee. Trump needs to go because [he] is actively encouraging violence toward other people. He is encouraging hatred and division between people. And he’s demonizing the most vulnerable and those who are least able to defend themselves for political gain. I’ll come back to the shooting in my hometown of Pittsburgh at the Tree Of Life Synagogue. There is just no doubt in the community of Pittsburgh that the blood of that shooting is partially on the hands of Donald Trump because of the rhetoric he used that helped encourage the person that committed that violent act. So Trump absolutely has to go. It’s interesting because I was reading a thread on Twitter of people that were Hillary supporters and are now Joe Biden supporters, and it was amazing how many people in that thread were saying that they would never vote for Bernie Sanders. I see the same threads with people in Bernie Sanders’ camp as well. I don’t think we can afford to have that kind of division between all of us to understand how dangerous Donald Trump is as president. Another four years of Donald Trump as president is another four years of kids in cages and another four years of taking backward steps in our battle against the climate crisis.
Regarding “Christian Nationalist,” some argue that Mike Pence is socially more dangerous to our nation than any other vice president. Was this song a “fuck you” to him and a “fuck you” to Trump for selecting him?
Definitely. This song was absolutely inspired by Mike Pence. Jeremy Scahill from The Intercept called Mike Pence the most dangerous Christian nationalist vice president we’ve ever had. That article influenced me to write that song.
“Resistance Frequencies” is a solid finale to an aggressive record that comments on many issues within the Trump regime. Was it written to close the album, or was that chosen after it was finished?
To be honest, it was written after the album was finished. As you record songs and as [they] to fruition in the studio, you start to just hear where you feel that song fits on a record. From the very first listen, we knew that it was going to be the last track on the record because it’s a celebratory track. It just feels good, and we wanted people to leave feeling like, “Yo, there’s some hope. All we have to do is fight for it.”
What is the overall message you think is necessary for listeners to take away from the album?
I think the No. 1 message is that cynicism is often our biggest enemy, and when we give up, when we quit and when we feel like we can’t change things, Donald Trump and neo-fascism win. We can change things. There are a lot of incredible people in this world who give a fuck about other people. Stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. You can do it by registering to vote. You can do it in your daily life with how you treat other people. You could volunteer at a food bank. You can get involved in a political organization or a political campaign if that’s something that you care about, or you can join an activist organization. So I think the overarching message is that cynicism, giving up and feeling like we can’t make the world a better place or that we can’t change things is our No. 1 enemy. If we give up and we’re cynical about what’s happening, that’s when the bad guys win, and we want the bad guys to lose. We’re going to make the bad guys lose because we’re going to keep fighting.
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