Think of punk rock these days, and what comes to mind? Poppy bands with carefully-designed looks and hook-filled songs playing on MTV. Good Charlotte, Simple Plan and Blink-182 singing about having parties and chasing girls.
Although Avril Lavigne may not know it, there was a time when punk was about rebellion, social change and loud, angry music. For Pittsburgh quartet Anti-Flag, that's what it's still about. One of the most socially conscious bands in punk rock, or any genre for that matter, the foursome has been putting out aggressive, intelligent, thought-provoking music for almost 10 years. On their latest album, The Terror State, Anti-Flag takes on the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act and the World Trade Organziation, among other things. Right now, they're on tour with fellow punk-activist Rise Against and Against Me! (with whom they'll hit the Huntridge this week). In addition to the required time with the Warped Tour, they've also done a stint opening for probably the most prominent politically active band of the last 10 years, Rage Against the Machine.
Former Rage guitarist Tom Morello was even the executive producer on The Terror State, helping the band choose songs, artwork and the person to record the album (Nick DiDia). "I think he's been sort of our babysitter/spiritual guru for the whole entire project," says No. 2, the band's bassist, about Morello.
(No. 2 gets the moniker as the second Chris to join the bandguitarist Chris Head is No. 1.)
Morello's stamp of approval is a big deal to the band, and a sign that they're major players in socially-conscious rock.
"I think he is the smartest man and best musician we know," No. 2 says
Another sign: "Post-War Breakout," a song on The Terror State, features lyrics by late folk troubadour Woody Guthrie, a pioneer in blending politics and music. Guthrie wrote reams of lyrics that he never set to music. Billy Bragg and Wilco did two albums with Guthrie's unused words; the Dropkick Murphys have a Guthrie collaboration on their latest record; and Anti-Flag are honored to join the fold. "It was phenomenal, and I think that song turned out to be probably my favorite song on the whole record," No. 2 says. The band is itching to head back to Guthrie's archives for more, perhaps to put together a full-length Guthrie album. "We haven't brought it up to them yet. We've kind of hinted at the fact that we would love to. If you're reading this, we would love to do it," he adds, his admiration for Guthrie coming through loud and clear.
Despite Anti-Flag's aggressive political stance, No. 2 doesn't come across as militant or abrasive. He peppers his speech with words like "community" and is positive about nearly everything, despite the issues he and his band rally against, including MTV punks.
"I think that there are far more important things to be worrying about than whether or not so-and-so from Simple Plan is punk," he explains. "I think that if they're using punk and shining a light on things that bands really care about in the punk rock scene and communityif they're shining a light on that then, yeah, I think it's a good thing." Not that he sees Anti-Flag joining the pop-punk bandwagon any time soon: "Do I wish for the day that Anti-Flag can write songs about flowers? Yes. But of the same token, these are things that are important to us."
Highest on that list are the fans, No. 2's community. Among Anti-Flag's ideals is an opposition to signing autographs, as a practice that creates an artificial divide between bands and fans. If fans insist on having something signed, the band prefer to get something back. "If they want us to write our name on a piece of paper, sure, but we generally carry around little notebooks with us so if we sign something for somebody, we have them sign something for us. So there's at least an exchange." And with every exchange, one more person hears their message of social activism.
It's the band's optimistic devotion to the power of music to change the world that makes their message infectious. No. 2 was a fan himself before joining the band a little over five years ago, and he sees himself as living proof of the group's ideals. "I know firsthand that the things the band are doing work," he says without a hint of doubt. With that kind of conviction, it's hard to disagree.