Drummer Pat Thetic waxes on Anti-Flag's two-decade run as the most political band in music. Then the band blasts us with a barnburner show at LA's Troubadour.
Anti-Flag (20th Anniversary Tour)City: Los Angeles
Venue: The Troubadour
It’s said that time flies when you’re having fun, but sometimes it’s hard to believe how quickly a decade or two can slip into the future. So it is that 2013 finds the punk rock shock troopers of Anti-Flag celebrating the band’s 20th anniversary with a series of special two-night runs focusing their setlists on particular album selections from the band’s discography each night.
For guitarist/vocalist Justin Sane and drummer Pat Thetic, it’s been a two-decade journey that’s seen the Pittsburgh-based punk rockers stake a claim as arguably the most socially conscious band in music. Guitarist Chris Head and bassist Chris #2 signed on a few years later, sharing the ride for this past decade where the band really honed its craft with a mixture of rock, punk and politics that seems unrivaled in the modern music industry.
Some bands might venture to write one song with political sentiment or activist content, but every one of Anti-Flag’s albums focuses on raising awareness about the injustice of American imperialism and the corporate corruption of our alleged democracy. Punk rock is supposed to be about rebellion after all. What could be more musically rebellious than singing out against a government that consistently wastes billions of dollars on a perpetual state of fabricated war while the domestic economy continues to crumble?
“Pittsburgh is really progressive because of the labor history... [so] the Pittsburgh punk rock scene was always a political scene,” drummer Pat Thetic explained in an interview the day of the band’s March 19 show at the world-famous Troubadour in Los Angeles. “It was funny because when we started traveling and playing other places we were like, ‘Why aren’t these bands singing about activism and leftist politics?’ We always thought California bands were too poppy because they weren’t singing about activism and politics.”
One might think the rebellious nature of rock ‘n’ roll would lead more bands to go in this direction. But the critical backlash suffered by stylistically divergent groups such as Pearl Jam and the Dixie Chicks during the Bush regime years in the early part of the 21st century explains why it takes a special breed of artist to pursue such a progressive agenda in this day and age.
“When the culture makes it acceptable for bands to express themselves, they do... and then it becomes taboo again and the bands don’t say anything. There’s very few bands who are going to say stuff no matter what, and it’s mostly punk bands who do, because we don’t care what the broader culture thinks of us,” Thetic points out.
Expression of radical sentiment against an American political system corrupted by the undue influence of the military-industrial complex and the undemocratic impact of the corporatocracy is simply part of Anti-Flag’s musical DNA.
“That’s how we feel music should be produced - it should talk about issues and if it doesn’t offend somebody, it’s not really art. That’s what we think music is about,” Thetic says of the band’s approach to songwriting.
The massive success of Green Day’s ambitious and outspoken American Idiot album in 2004 may well have convinced record labels that there was a market for politically-oriented punk rock, for it was not long after that Anti-Flag signed a two-album major label record deal with RCA in 2005. This led to two of the band’s best albums with 2006’s For Blood and Empire and 2008’s Bright Lights of America. A breakthrough to mainstream success continued to elude the band however. But Thetic says it wasn’t a case of the label trying to put artistic limits on the band. RCA had agreed not to try and sanitize the band, which was the main reason that Anti-Flag signed with them in an effort to get their message to a wider audience.
“RCA was afraid of us, they didn’t know what to do with us, which was a great thing, because they didn’t know how to say no to us... we just bulldozed our way through all kinds of things. We’re like we wanna give money to this, we think this a great organization and we’re gonna work with these people. They weren’t good at selling our records, but they were good at saying yes to us, or at least not being able to say no,” Thetic says of the band’s relationship with the label. “In that sense, from an activist point of view, we had a very good major label experience. Because they just didn’t say no, they just kept saying yes and we got money for all kinds of great projects we wanted to do.”
The band is now on independent Los Angeles label SideOne Dummy, with whom they released 2012’s The General Strike, something of an homage to the Occupy Wall Street movement that swept the nation in 2011. As to Green Day, Thetic credits the pop-punk stalwarts for venturing into uncharted waters with the political sentiments that charged their work in the past decade.
“We’ve actually done some opening slots for Green Day, played in Canada a couple times, it was great, they’re good dudes,” Thetic says. “They know where their boundaries are. They pushed their audience I think quite far on American Idiot... they took a risk and should be applauded for that...”
The recent persecution of Russian punk rockers Pussy Riot in their homeland that saw members of the band imprisoned for their political sentiments was certainly not unnoticed by Anti-Flag. The situation highlights how precious American freedom of speech still is here on Timeship Earth 2013, yet Thetic also notes how liberty can still fluctuate even here in the United States.
“September 11, things got a little sketchy there... Then we had the G8 in Pittsburgh [in 2009] and the FBI was infiltrating all the [activist] groups. It’s interesting, when those type of events happen in your community, you realize how fragile this idea of freedom and freedom of speech really is, because anytime the powerful wants to squash us they can, they can squash us individually. But they can never squash all of us,” Thetic says defiantly.
As to the current furor over gun control, Thetic agrees that gun rights zealots are a bit misguided if they think merely having well-armed militias could prevent Uncle Sam's massive military forces from enforcing fascism if and when the occupants of the White House decide they want to.
“The only revolutions that work are popular revolutions with people in the streets,” Thetic points out. He went on to credit the punk scene for its ongoing efforts in this regard. “People talk about activists as being weirdos and outcasts, and we are, but we’re also amazing organizers and on those times when a voice of opposition needs to be heard, it’s those activists, punk rock kids, who put together the opposition voice.”
As to the current state of the band, Anti-Flag is marching onward through the trials and tribulations of life on the road that any working band ultimately faces.
“We did a whole lot of touring last year, which took a major toll on our personal lives, so we’re rebuilding our personal lives and doing a little lighter touring this year and then at the end of this year probably start working on a new record,” Thetic says.
The sold out show at LA’s legendary Troubadour on March 19 featured selections from 1998’s Their System Doesn’t Work for You, 2001’s Underground Network , 2003’s The Terror State, 2006’s For Blood and Empire and 2008’s The Bright Lights of America. The anthemic title track from Bright Lights was an early highlight, a melodic and cathartic rocker that laments living in a country “where they sell souls”. The energy level exploded with “This is the End (For You My Friend)”, with a blast of electrifying riffage that got a mosh pit going while Justin Sane’s vocals took commercial propaganda during wartime to task.
Sane then took a moment to reference the 10-year anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq, noting that Barack Obama has sadly carried on with many of the same policies as the Bush regime. The rant against wartime profiteering served as an intro to the incendiary “911 for Peace”, another one of the great anti-war songs of the 21st century. “Good and Ready” spoke to a similar group of antagonists, with Sane and company declaring that those who maintain the status quo at the expense of the people will be going straight to hell.
“The Project for a New American Century” found the band delivering some of their patented historical commentary, with a hardcore rant against the right-wing think tank that heavily influenced the George W. Bush regime’s military policy:
“It's a think tank, psycho and crazed,
War profiteering membership - a world catastrophe
They've got a war plan that counts on you to kill for their corporate empire while they sit at home
And it's a gut check of what you believe,
Will you stand up for democracy? or a New American Century?
Endless violence, endless hatred,
Endless empire tyranny,
Will you make a stand for human dignity?
Are you going to... Fight Back!”
The song is a brilliant example of the band’s skill and courage for mixing insightful geo-political analysis with punk rock energy calling out for activism in the name of true democracy. Such themes also demonstrate Anti-Flag’s importance in the grand scheme of American pop culture. They may still be a relatively underground band, but just the ongoing existence of a band that tells it like it is with such artful aplomb can have a dramatic effect on the world. There's a significant segment of the counterculture whose outlook on the possibilities in this crazy mixed up world is opened widely by hearing such music.
“The Press Corpse” functioned in a similar manner, closing out the set with a raging screed against the way the mainstream media have become lapdogs for wartime propaganda. The song also points out how the media have in turn become complicit for the lives lost in unjust wars they promoted. The tune is one of the band's best, for putting such deep social commentary into the context of an infectious song seems to be something of a lost art these days. With songs like “The Press Corpse”, “PNAC” and “This is the End”, Anti-Flag’s For Blood and Empire LP is easily one of the greatest anti-war works of art in pop cultural history.
The encore break would find the amped up audience trying to request “Die For Your Government” (the title track of the band’s debut album) by singing the chorus in unison, although it appeared the classic fan favorite had probably been played the previous night. But the band would still deliver the goods for a triumphant conclusion. Sane started off the encore segment with a heartfelt solo acoustic intro to “1 Trillion$”, a song "about putting people before profit", said Sane during his introduction. The tune is a tip of the cap to the frustration that so many feel in this conflict ridden world where so much money is wasted on war while the planet burns and the global economy collapses.
But while they’re duty bound to acknowledge the many shortcomings of modern society, you can always count on Anti-Flag to leave their fans with an empowering message. And so they did with the final encore of “Power to the Peaceful”, an anthemic and uplifting blast of support for the good people of humanity on this planet who favor peace, a group that vastly outnumbers the elitist warmongers. The band also went the extra mile to truly take the song to the people by having drummer Pat Thetic move his drum kit from the stage to the floor to play the song surrounded by the fans.
The song recalled the sentiment of legendary LA rocker Jim Morrison in the Doors’ 1968 classic “Five to One”, where Mr. Mojo Risin sang “They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers.” Anti-Flag has been carrying that torch for 20 years now and the music world is certainly better for it. Will their message ever reach the masses? Maybe so, maybe not. But the fact that the message is still out there and expressed so enthusiastically is without doubt a blessing from the music gods.