For nearly 30 years, Anti-Flag has set out to bring about change with their scathing brand of punk rock activism, and while it may not be in the way the Pittsburgh quartet expected, they’ve succeeded in doing so in their own way. As you’ll see in their new documentary Beyond Barricades, which premiered last month and began streaming last week, the road to bringing about change with their music and actions, both on and off the stage, hasn’t always been easy, but they don’t plan on calling it quits anytime soon.
We got a chance to catch up with frontman Justin Sane and bassist Chris 2 before election insanity ensued to talk about the film, how it feels to see their lives as a band brought to light in this fashion, the impact they hope their story has on viewers, and what’s kept them going after all these years of consistent touring, recording, and speaking truth to to power.
First off, I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t ask how you guys are holding up during the pandemic.
Chris 2: I mean, not well. Obviously, I think perspective is important and we need to recognize that within the immediacy of the Anti-Flag family, none of us have gotten sick or have died. But it’s really hard, especially because we’re not particularly good at internet activism, so [it’s tough] when you see what’s happening and you want to channel your energy and your vocation, and the things you create into pushing empathy and for something as simple as justice for black people, and you’re stuck. We can’t play shows, and we can’t play songs. We’re working on some benefit tracks that we’ll release, but even that, we’re doing that remotely, so we don’t get the same [feeling]. When Anti-Flag creates something, it’s the four of us in a room feeding off of that energy from each other, and if anyone has an idea, we take it and run with it, then we feel like it’s a bit of all of us. So this has been hard. Justin has been in the band since ‘93, I’ve been in the band since ‘98, and at this point, we’re already at the longest amount of time that we’ve taken off in those 25 years, so we’re learning how to be different people right now. Take away all the social unrest, and all the other things, and there’s still a learning curve and a difficulty to that, as well.
Justin Sane: Yeah, we definitely kind of counsel each other too. As a band, we have a weekly meeting where every monday, we just get on the phone and talk, which is a really great thing, in that I realized that we kind of help each other understand and sort out different social movements and what’s happening in the world. It’s really interesting when something really big that happens, we’ve often been there to talk to each other about it face-to-face, in real time, and I feel that void of us not being able to be together, and that’s when you realize you’ve been in a band with these guys, and have interacted with these guys for a really long time. Like Two said, you realize that separation, and how you’re changing in ways that I haven’t done on my own in a really long time, which is a bit of an interesting phenomenon for me.
Chris 2: For every life event any of us have, we’re there for it. We’re still there, but it’s just in this digital form where, you watched the movie, we’re a bit of grandpas. [Laughs] It’s hard to navigate a new world. Like, I had to learn how to turn the Zoom camera sideways, and that’s information I didn’t want to know. [Laughs]
Justin: I will add to what Two was saying, where we have had some family members catch COVID, and luckily nobody really close to us has passed away. However, within our band family circle, there’s been at least one person who passed away from COVID. With that being said, I realize that we’re in a place of privilege, just based on the fact that none of us have gotten sick. I’ve been able to, mostly stay socially distant from others so I can look after my dad. I’m definitely in a place of privilege where a lot of people aren’t, so from that perspective, I feel like i have zero problems.
Chris 2: Right. I didn’t want to say ‘gosh, we’ve got it so hard,’ because we don’t really have it hard at all. We’re all just navigating something we’ve never had ot navigate before, so when you take four people who usually turn to work during tumultuous times, whether it’s something as simple as dealing with our anger and frustration towards the police killing people, and how there’s only been so many days this year where they haven’t killed a person, I want to be out in the streets, and I want to be playing shows and connecting with people who think that’s fucked up, because that makes me feel like I’m not alone in having those feelings. So, when our only outlet for that is a Zoom call or a phone call every Monday, it’s frustrating, but by no means is it a plight.
Now, in terms of your documentary, Beyond Barricades. How are you guys feeling about it?
Sane: We’re definitely excited about it. With every band, even for a political band, there’s some Spinal Tap, ya know? [Laughs] A band is still a band first, and then there are the goals that you might want to accomplish that are positive that follow along with that, and watching the documentary made me realize that we’re not immune to that. Being a part of a documentary is still unsatisfying in a way, because, especially when you’ve been in a band for as long as we have, you just can’t fit it all into ninety minutes, and it’s very hard to tell the whole story of everything that’s happened, and then watch it and think about the details that are missing. It’s a lot like making a record where you often enver feel like a record is done, but you’re just out of time. The documentary, in a lot ways, I felt was similar, but in the studio, we have the tools and the knowhow to create something that we think is missing, whereas with a documentary, if you don’t have it, you just don’t have it and there’s nothing you can do about that.
I found it, in some ways, to be really exciting and interesting, and really made me reflect about my time in the band, but it also, in some ways, left me feeling unfulfilled because something may have felt incomplete to me. But with having all of this experience in this band over the years, I’ve realized that the big picture is always really what matters. If you can convey the overall message or meaning, that’s enough, because most people aren’t in the weeds like you are. So, you gotta kind of step back and disconnect yourself a little bit and learn that things sometimes aren’t perfect. So going through this was a good reminder and life lesson for me that you have to be accepting in life and it’s imperfections, but still be satisfied and move forward.
C2: There are a few things I’ll say about it. One of which is that we took two massive tupperware containers of DVDs, DV tapes, camcorder tapes, and VHS tapes and just dropped on some kid’s porch and said ‘sort through this and see if there’s a movie about our lives in here.
Another thing is that we’re not even on drugs, so we just don’t let people film us all the time. That’s just the filming that we would allow to have to have happen, and that’s part of the problem. Like, when you see those great shots of The Clash where they’re backstage and naked, we don’t allow any of that to happen because we’re sober and present, and we kick everyone out of our dressing room. [Laugh] Some of that fly-on-the-wall stuff didn’t exist, so we had to figure out how to tell the story, and there are a lot of things that are missing because the camera wasn’t rolling, but I was still really shocked at how much was captured. That became the task at hand, when Jon [Nix, Director] got the footage, and went through to create the timeline of the band, he sat through it with us to kind of fill in the gaps. What started out as a movie about Anti-Flag quickly turned into a movie about music, activism, and art, and its role within society, and whether society influences that art, or that art influences society. I don’t necessarily know if that question will ever be answered, but the film definitely takes a look at that, and what I hope people get out of it is the same thing we got out of other interactions that we had with bands that we love, which is that we are not important, we are not unique, we are not sent here only to do this thing, and that anybody can do this. So, if you have these ideas within you, and whether it’s a pen on paper, or a guitar or microphone in your hand, or even if it’s just you standing on the corner with a bullhorn, if you have something in you, get it out, because there are other people around the world that feel the same way you do. I think that’s the ultimate goal of the film, to just let people know that another world is possible and that there are far more of than there are of them, and to not be afraid to connect with others, because you might these lifelong lasting friendships that come out that risk that you took to share what was in you.
Sane: That reminds me of one part of the documentary that struck me was how obsessive we were about doing this. We just had this very naive idea of ‘start this band, say these things, and it’s going to change how people think.’ It was such a naive place to come from, but the fact that we were so obsessive about it, in a lot of ways, made it a real thing. I can honestly say that I know from personal experience, and like Tim from Rise Against talks about in the documentary, as well as Morello and others, they know that what they created actually impacted somebody’s life. So, it might not impact the world in the way you think it’s going to when you first start, but as you go down the line, and you realize it did change this person’s life in this way, or it had an impact in this way, you realize that the naive premise was actually pretty accurate in a lot of ways, just not in the ways you thought it would be.
But that obsessive attitude about it, we just believed in it so much. I almost forgot how obsessed I was with starting Anti-Flag and what it was about, because I think at this point in my life, it’s just taken for granted for me. I know what it’s about, I know who I am, and I know how to do this now. We didn’t know how to do it when we were starting out, and now it’s just second nature. So, that was something really interesting for me to reflect upon and watch the footage and just realize, like ‘holy shit.’
C2: That’s something that I’ve had a couple people who have seen the movie say to me. People have their different points of it, but they’re like ‘why didn’t you quit then or that time?’ and then we just go ‘well, what else are we going to do?’ [Laughs]
In that vein, of being so obsessive of saying certain things and wanting to get a specific message across from the very start, how do you feel that message and that mission has evolved since then?
C2: Well, you see it a little in the beginning [of the film] and then in the middle where we switch to an international thing. I would say that is the biggest, or at least most teachable moment, which was that the band was so hyper-focused on Pittsburgh, the east coast and what was happening in our backyard, and then all of a sudden people started listening to us, someone took us to Europe and then a kid said ‘hey, we have police violence here too,’ and that made us go ‘oh, shit, we have to be more inclusive and think more globally with these statements.’ You can hear it in the records too. It happens around The Terror State where the issues really become about globalization and corporate takeovers of world governments that are leading to what you’re seeing now with the false populism of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. So, sometimes it’s hard not to go ‘you motherfuckers should’ve listened fifteen years ago, because we said this was going to happen,’ but ultimately, that’s self-aggrandizing. That’s not of value, so what we hope is that we can help realize the intersectionality of these issues and how they’re not exclusive to your neighborhood. They’re happening everywhere people are putting profit before the planet and before other people.
I’ve followed you guys for a long time, and at least from my perspective, you’ve always been a very accessible band, in terms of the behind-the-scenes happenings and staying transparent with your fans. But even with that, you seem to delve even deeper into things in this film, namely with Chris and his sister, and these other deep experiences both inside and outside of the context of the band. How did it feel being able to pull back even more layers of that accessibility?
C2: The thing that I’ll briefly say, and then you can go into whatever you’ve got, Justin, is that it just furthers the idea that when we interact with people, we don’t really know what’s going in their lives, so we should approach things with at least an open mind, or come to the situation knowing we might only be seeing the tip of the iceberg whenever we interact with somebody.
I know it’s been something as trivial as after a show, someone comes up and says ‘yo, what’s up, number two?’ and slaps me on the back really hard, and if that day was really hard for me before that happened, I’m fucking out of there, and then that person goes home and thinks I’m a dick, and then it feels like I fucked that interaction up. But there was never a moment to be like ‘yo, what’s going on in your world?’ So I think that we’ve always taken the approach that the band’s agenda is greater than the individual. So, while we try to interject ourselves into the songs when we write them, we want to make sure that they’re not hyperfocused on the individual that the greater good gets lost in it. So, what I think the film gives us the opportunity to do is to talk about some of those things that were going on behind the scenes during these records, and once you learn those stories, you can kind of hear and see why they fleshed out the way they did coming out.
Sane: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. It’s kind of funny in a way where we’ve gone on tour with a band before, three or four days after the tour starts, the other bands are like ‘man, you guys are nothing like I thought you would be,’ and I think because people see Anti-Flag as such a hyper-political band, that we’re just serious, and they expect us to be serious all the time, like political robots. So, the documentary does a nice job in showing that that’s actually not the case. We pretty much joke around more than anything else. We all are genuinely interested in social issues and politics, so we do always talk about those things every day. But that often includes a joke and a good time. The documentary sort of pulls back that veneer, at least to the point of showing that we also go through things that everyone else goes through in life. We’ve made when all of us have lost somebody close to us in our family when we were recording a record, or when we were on tour. In Two’s case, it was so dramatic, because it was so sudden and unexpected in the nature of it, where for the rest of us, it was usually something much more expected and easier to handle. In that respect, the idea that the documentary shows that side of things is probably interesting for people to see.
C2: Also, those stories that are in there, we tried to just let them come up naturally. We didn’t storyboard the film–
Sane: Yeah, there was no plan.
C2: Basically, through the interviews, the stories came up, and Jon was like ‘now I need to circle back because I learned about this thing,’ and that came from our comfortability levels in talking to him, and what we thought would be an important note. I think with my sister, in particular, what I learned was that I tried to operate as if things were normal for so long, and once i started sharing that story, there was this whole new world of people who would come up to us and share their stories with us, because they now felt comfortable in doing so, and they knew there was someone who could empathize with them. That was kind of a shake up too, and made us think about letting people in a bit more, and realize more of the human side of the politics and show people what we’re talking about, and maybe they’d see it in their own lives and live it, because that’s how we’re going to change the world. You’re going to need people who are living in a way that is more fair and just, and outwardly searching for ways to spend their money and treat the planet in ways that are more equitable, ways to remove themselves from sexist, racist, or bigoted positions and then transfer into a new, more just and equality-filled place. So, I think that we’re still learning.
We’re learning that these things that we share are valuable, and all a part of that learning process for all the guys in the band, and I think it’s important to get it out there now, because the world we’re about to enter can look a myriad of ways. I don’t know what the election is going to unfold, but I do know that the unabashed racism and fascism that we’re seeing is not new in the sense that it’s not as american as apple pie, but it’s new in its fearlessness, and that’s something we should all be concerned with.
Touching on that, actually, does it add any sort of weight onto the release of the film with it premiering close to the election?
Sane: I don’t think it adds any sort of weight in the sense that by us releasing this, it’ll change the outcome of the election, but I do think there’s a message to be learned in it. When I watched it, I was reminded that you don’t win every fight. You don’t win every battle. For example, gay marriage didn’t come over night. It took a long time, and that’s just one example from modern times. There were a lot of setbacks before we actually got there. But people kept pushing, and they didn’t give up, and I think that’s really important. Just because there are setbacks because you don’t win the fight today, doesn’t mean you won’t win the long term. Right now, it really just feels like there’s blow after blow, because there is. It’s pretty ugly right now, but it’s not the time to get cynical, and it’s not the time to believe that we can’t fight for a better tomorrow. I truly believe that we can, because I’ve seen it happen time and time again, but I’ve also been through so many setbacks, and i understand that when you fight for equality and justice, it doesn’t just happen in the blink of an eye.
C2: We actively wanted to get the piece out before the election for a couple reasons. One, it’s like Justin said, where it’s not like the movie comes out and the couple thousand people that watch it go out and vote, and then it’s a great day because Trump’s defeated. That’s not how it works, but I think there are lessons in there, especially Rock Against Bush, where because we had been activists for ten-plus years going into that, we knew that it doesn’t really work that way, and electing John Kerry wasn’t going to solve the problem. Whereas there were some people in that project that took it as a defeat, and have, to this day, removed themselves from the political process because they tried and they felt like they had failed. We look around and see people that we met that were activated and brought into the world of activism and politics, and searching for empathetic politics, where their first interaction was that Rock Against Bush stuff, so that was a victory to us at the end of the day, because you had all these people who grew up with that mindset, and that’s the kind of work that changes the world.
So, I think that part of it is important to us to note that Donald Trump is an unmatched dire threat. But, there are a million dead Iraqis that would argue that they’ve seen just as evil presidencies in America, so I think for us, it’s not about which celebrity multi-millionaire or billionaire politician is going to save us. It’s about harm reduction, and about getting involved in the process, and not only doing the things that are within our immediacy, but also strikes, protests, boycotts and the other lineage of protest activism, that’s what is really going to shake things.
Politicians, in our mind, exist solely for us to hold their feet to the fire. Whether it’s Bernie Sanders, or it’s Donald Trump, they all need to be held accountable. Unfortunately, we’ve been tricked into living in this world where you’re intrinsically tied to your vote for the rest of your life, and if you vote for a politician, you can’t criticize them. That’s not true. That’s not democracy. We’re voting for these people so that they can work for our vote, and our future. I hope that’s a lesson that’s learned through the doc, at least in that one section that talks about Rock Against Bush, and that people carry that idea with them into the voting booth.
Sane: It’s honestly amazing how many people, when we tour, that we meet that say they became politically active during that time, and so many of those people have gone to become civil rights attorneys or something else in the legal world, because they saw the legal world as a place where they could get into whatever issue they were interested in and make an impact that way. There are people who are community organizers, like one of the guys in the film, Mark Andersen, who was activated a long time before Rock Against Bush, but people who are following that same kind of model by doing their local community work, the boots-on-the-street work that is so important, so that definitely is a part of the film that I hope will connect with people.
Another part of the film that I feel really speaks to what you guys have done as a band, in terms of both music and activism, are the people that are featured in the documentary. Tom Morello and Tim McIlrath from Rise Against, just to name a couple. With these guys that you’ve looked up to, or you may have come up together in music, how does it feel to see them not necessarily have a fandom toward you, but also just showing their appreciation to you, after coming up with them for so long?
C2: The hardest part of the film was raising enough to pay all those people to say nice things about us. [Laughs]
Sane: Especially Morello.
C2: Truthfully, we just sent Jon and the TurnStyle folks with a camera, and sent some emails to the people that we knew, and the folks that responded and said they were okay with talking about art and activism, that’s who is in the movie. There are a lot of people in our lives that we interact with on a daily basis, and they didn’t want to be on film. So, it was just about getting the people that we knew on film that could say speak to these issues eloquently. For us, Rage Against The Machine is the greatest live band in the world, and to have Tom Morello say anything nice about us is incredibly humbling. Billy Bragg is the reason we’re even here, so if it wasn’t for The Clash and Billy Bragg, there wouldn’t be an Anti-Flag, so I think to have him acknowledge our existence is a win, and a tremendous victory for us. That part is humbling and incredible. The hard part of it was watching ourselves on a TV and going ‘oh shit, do I really look like that and sound like that?’
Sane: I will say that, one thing I don’t think most band people do is get together backstage and tell you that you’re awesome. It’s more like you’re coming off stage and someone goes tell you that you had a great show. It’s such a fleeting thing, so to sit and actually listen to someone talk about your band and realize that they know about your band, and processed things about us like I did about them, was a real eye-opener for me. It made me think about how I should talk to a band that I really like, and talk to them for five minutes about why I love their band [Laughs] It gave me a new perspective on how impacts you and what it feels like when someone that has already made art and music that you really admire , and then hear them talk about your band in that way is just a really surreal and powerful moment to go through, at least for me. It really made me rethink how I want to interact with people who do good work in all facets in life, and take that extra moment to tell them about why I feel what they do is special. That was a cool lesson for me, personally, to take away from it.
C2: To be honest, this is the first that I’m thinking about it, because I was prepared for Morello to be eloquent, because that’s how he is every time we’ve interacted with him. I was so prepared for Tim from Rise Against to make references to the early 2000’s and the punk rock scene because that’s what we both cut our teeth on. A lot of that was natural, and it felt like conversations we’ve had with other people, so to think about that, I guess I didn’t realize it until the trailer started coming out and people were like ‘whoa, [Brian] Baker is in your film. Holy shit, he was in Minor Threat!’ and I’m just like, ‘yeah, I think about that every time I’m near him, what do you mean?’ [Laughs] I’m constantly in a state of, like, ‘holy shit, how are these people in my phone so I can call them?’
Where the film balances a certain call to action with the overall story of the band, what are you hoping people take away from watching the documentary?
C2: I don’t know if it’s any different for Jsutin, but I just hope that people recognize that, if they have a calling, that there is no reason not to try. The failures that you’ll encounter are just lessons. The pain that you endure through the process is just preparation, and that we’re searching for things that are bigger than ourselves all the time with the band. That’s the main goal through it. We never set out to be ‘I sing in a band that does this certain thing, so therefore I have value.’ That’s not the case at all. The value is the thing that we create, and we just want it to last longer than us. And when people interact with it, whether it’s the film or a record where they realize there were people in this moment in time who cared, there were people who tried to tried to push an agenda of empathy, and tried to leave things better than they found them, and that rock and roll isn’t that glamorous. The film shows you in not-so-kind ways that it’s a hard life.
Sane: I’d throw out there, like what Two is saying, if you have a passion then I think you should go after it. Because you might land exactly where you think you’re gonna go, but you also might find that you wind up in a completely different place, but because you are chasing after something you truly care about, and you’re willing to be invested in, I would argue that you’re going to land in a place that is meaningful to you, and at the end of it all, you’re going to feel good about the energy and time you invested in it, and you’re going to feel good about where you landed. It’s just about taking that first step.
C2: There’s been criticism of the band throughout our lives that we are a gateway drug to activism, that we are the first step in the process for people and then they move on. The film is a celebration of that. We don’t care if you buy everything that we release, or if you’ve been a fan of the band since 1993, and you’re still front row in 2020. I think that’s really nice if you are, but we don’t give a fuck, because we’re not doing this for you. We’re doing it for us, and that is ultimately the main story throughout the movie and what we hope people will recognize is to find their own thing that they’ll do regardless of whether people care or people say it’s of value to them. It’s because it’s within us, and these are the ideas that we’re trying to share. We are grateful and humbled that any one comes to the shows, or listens to the records, or watches the movie, but we don’t need your validation. We’re going to do it regardless. [Laughs]
Sane: We’re fucked because we decided to do this thing, and we’re still doing it. We’re going to keep doing it. It’s great to have people along for the ride, but we’re still going to be here. If it does lead somebody to a place where they need to go, I think that’s really special.
C2: We can’t recreate moments, and we can’t be the same people we were in 1996 and write Die For The Government part two because we’re different now. We’re constantly just trying to do our best, and I think that is a valuable lesson, especially in the 2020 COVID era. Just try your best, put things out there that you think are valuable, and don’t hurt anybody. There’s enough hurt in this world right now, so being kind and conscious of others is a very punk rock thing to do in 2020.
Article: Jason Greenough
Cover Image Via: Atom Splitter PR