LOS ANGELES, July 24, 2014 — Justin Sane is the lead singer and guitar player of the Pittsburgh based punk band, Anti-Flag. Known for their strong political feelings, the band has appeared at numerous rallies and have advocated for numerous causes. Anti-Flag has released nine full-length albums and recently released A Document of Dissent, which is 26 songs spanning their career. Justin Sane took some time to speak with Wells On Music regarding his influences, Barack Obama, and a new Anti-Flag record in the works.
Scroll below video to read the interview.
Kevin Wells: What bands were you listening to when you started playing guitar?
Justin Sane: That’s an awesome question. My favorite band probably at that time was Black Flag, the Black Flag Damaged album. And you can hear it in my solos, especially some of my noisy solos in the early days of Anti-Flag, like on the Die for the Government record or on Underground Network is a really good example where I was just really influenced by the way Greg Ginn played guitar. I was also listening to The Clash and Sex Pistols when I was learning to play guitar. It’s really interesting that I was really drawn to lead guitar more than rhythm. You know, there’s so many basic rhythms for rock n roll, especially in the Sex Pistols’ stuff, but those were rhythms I didn’t learn for years, like ten or 15 years after I started to play guitar because I was so drawn to playing lead.
KW: Was Black Flag the band that initially got you into punk music?
JS: You know, it kind of was because, well, it’s kind of a twisted tale in a way. I was the youngest of nine kids. I had older brothers and sisters who were listening to punk rock in the late 70s. My brother brought home a Ramones record from California probably around like ’79, somewhere in that ballpark. So, I was just a little kid. I was born in 1973, but I remember listening to that record. He had gotten into punk rock. He was playing Sex Pistols and the Ramones and at the same time some of my other brothers and sisters were listening to KISS and John Denver. [laughs] I have this whole spectrum of John Denver and Bob Marley to the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and Kiss.
So, I had this kind of early baptism into punk rock from just sitting around the house with my brothers and sisters listening to the Ramones and Sex Pistols. Then though, I kind of, as people do and as young kids do, I just found what was going on with my friends. You know, my friends were listening to Michael Jackson and Huey Lewis and the News. I was drawn into that stuff. Then around sixth grade, my sister Lucy was like, “Hey, you should come listen to this.” I’ll never forget it. She took me up to her room and she put on Black Flag Spray Paint the Walls, which is such a classic 53-second song. I thought it was the funniest thing I heard in my life. It was just this obnoxious, ridiculous punk rock song about noise and a guy screaming about spray painting walls. It didn’t seem to have any meaning to me other than the fact that they were just trying to be obnoxious and ridiculous. That immediately appealed to all of my sensibilities. [laughs]
That was, for me, what kicked off, like, oh yeah, there’s something here. I wanna be a part of whatever that is. I don’t know what it is, but I want to be a part of it.
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KW: Anti-Flag is obviously a highly political band. Can you talk a little about how your parents influenced your social consciousness?
JS: Well, yeah, you don’t get to be the youngest of nine kids by accident. What happens is you grow up in an Irish-Catholic family. [laughs] If you know anything about the Catholics, they don’t believe in birth control. So, my parents had nine kids, but another part of Catholicism, for some people, is the idea of liberation theology. Liberation theology is basically the idea that all people should be taken care of and that you should fight for the poor and you should fight for the people who have less than you do.
My parents were obviously good Catholics, they had nine kids, but they were also swept away in this idea of liberation theology. They were civil rights leaders. They were anti-nuclear activists. They were environmentalists. You know, my mother was organic farming in the 1970s. My parents were always really progressive, really ahead of their time. They had a vegetarian restaurant in Pittsburgh in the mid-70s. At that time, Pittsburgh was a meat and potatoes kind of town.
So, they had a really big influence on me politically, just thinking about helping other people and standing up for people who couldn’t stand up for themselves. My father is from Ireland and both of my mother’s parents are from Ireland. I’m actually an Irish citizen. I am a U.S. and Irish citizen, but the conflict in Northern Ireland really influenced my parents as far as standing up for people who are oppressed. My parents are really interesting in that they were the kind of people who early on were reaching across that Protestant-Catholic line. They were like, “Hey, we’ve got to break down this barrier between Protestants and Catholics.” They did. They had a massive influence on the band.
I don’t think anyone can really meet my parents without walking away with some incredible influence that just seems to permeate out of them. They’re the kind of people I think are ahead of their time. They had a huge influence on the band and they were really supportive of the band. At the time, our drummer’s parents were kind of like fighting him at every step of being in the band and my parents were like, “Hey, you can practice in our garage.” [laughs] It was a very interesting dynamic. And we weren’t a rich family. It was really working class. I would say our family was poor. Somehow, our parents always found a way to help us to follow our passion. Yeah, that was really important to the band.
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KW: I remember reading when Obama got elected, I think you said you were going to take kind of a wait and see approach on Obama. What are your thoughts on his presidency up to this point?
JS: I’m not even sure about “wait and see,” to be honest with you. I wrote an op-ed for a publication actually before Obama got elected. My basic argument in that op-ed was look, if we don’t vote for Obama, we’re going to get war all the time with John McCain. When you look at John McCain’s history, his solution to every single problem in the world is war. It’s incredible. It is absolutely incredible when you look at John McCain’s history. He advocates for the use of military force in every major conflict [laughs] in the world. And my other argument was, look, the Supreme Court is really important. Do you want John McCain appointing people to the Supreme Court [who] might take away a woman’s right to choose, etcetera, etcetera, or do you want Barack Obama, somebody who might give us a chance?
That said, I had no expectations for Obama to be good and he’s lived up to every low expectation I had of him and more. You know, on one hand he gives a speech about equality and egalitarianism and raising the minimum wage and workers’ rights, then the next minute, he literally goes off to a dinner with Jamie Dimon, one of the biggest bankers in the country, and does a fundraiser with Goldman-Sachs. That’s Barack Obama. He’s a politician and he’s out for himself. I’ve met a lot of politicians in my life, including Nancy Pelosi and a number of others, and my basic take on politicians is that they’re egomaniacs. Any politician who really gets high in the political structure is not a good person.
Barack Obama’s history, his past, is that he worked for one of the worst most corporate friendly law firms in Chicago. His main backers for his political ambitions were bankers. Barack Obama is very much a part of the power structure. I don’t have any admiration for the man. I mean, I just really don’t, but I will say this. We could have Mitt Romney or we could have John McCain and I think we would be in a worse place. I really believe that and ultimately, what led me to that conclusion was that I voted for Ralph Nader twice. The second time I voted for Ralph Nader [laughs], we got George W. Bush instead of Al Gore and I really believe if Al Gore won the election, there would never be an invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ultimately, I believe elections do matter, but I believe that we do have to advocate for a change in other ways as well.
KW: Would you ever consider running for political office?
JS: You know, man, I just don’t think anyone would vote for me. [laughs] I really don’t. We’ve been in that game in the respect that any time we appear with a politician, their opponents march out this just blitzkrieg of propaganda against that politician saying, “They appeared with these guys and they hate America. Look, they have an upside down flag.” So, I don’t think I’d have any chance. And it’s just such an ugly game.
I think I am more effective as an artist and as an activist and giving a voice to people who don’t have a voice and agitating in that way.
There was time where I thought, “You know, maybe I’d be okay as a politician,” but I don’t think so. I just got home from a good couple weeks of touring and it’s really nice just to come home and get a break, you know, catch my breath and not be surrounded by people all the time. Even though the best part of touring is all of the people you get to meet, it’s really great to be able to come home and just be alone and be myself.
I think that in that respect, it’s got to be a really hard job to be someone who has to be in the public spotlight 24 hours a day. I don’t have that type-A personality where I’m going to be up 21 hours a day, seven days a week doing a job. That’s not me. I think that probably wouldn’t fit into my personality so well.
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KW: Okay, back to music. A Document of Dissent was released yesterday on Fat Wreck Chords. What made you want to release a “Best of” album?
JS: A big part was just Fat Mike. [laughs] We were in Australia, or somewhere like that, maybe it was Europe, and we got onto an airplane and Fat Mike was on the airplane. [laughs]. He was like, “Hey, man, it’s been like 20 years, you guys should do a “Best of” record.” That was part of it. That’s the great thing about having friends, they make you think of things maybe you wouldn’t normally think about. He wanted to put it out. He’s always been a great friend to us and he was excited about it and had been thinking about it.
That was certainly part of it and it really, for me, got me thinking about the life of the band and where we came from and where we are today. And then ultimately going back and listening to those old records I hadn’t listened to in ten years or maybe longer. Once I started listening to those again, it’s an interesting journey to follow just the musical progression of the band and the political thoughts of the band.
In that respect, I thought this could be an interesting piece for people who have an interest in Anti-Flag. You can see a progression in ideas and a progression musically. There’s certainly a big shift in the band in those respects. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s given us a chance to work with our friends over at Fat. I think the best part about being in this band is the relationships we’ve made and the friendships we’ve made and maintained. I mean, it’s incredible that we’ve maintained these friendships over such a long time. You meet people that have an impact on you for the rest of your life. That’s special.
KW: How did you guys decide on the songs to include on the album?
JS: Ultimately, what it came down to, more or less, and this was a really hard process for me, it came down to the songs that were most influential to us at the time. We left off a song from For Blood and Empire. We left off the song, I’d Tell You, but I’m Dead, was a really hard choice for me. Even now, I am still struggling with that. That was such an important song for me at the time, but it came down to the fact that we could only pick so many songs and we wanted each record to be represented. In the end, the basic framework for the songs came down to the songs that were most influential at the time and when we played in that era, those were the songs that really connected with people. In a way, some of them are not even my favorite Anti-Flag songs, but they’re songs that connected with people in that time. So, we decided to go in that direction with it.
KW: Would you consider releasing more albums on Fat again?
JS: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think that the invitation is always there and the opportunity to work with friends is the best. Anti-Flag has records on so many different labels. It really comes to down to the fact that we have a lot of relationships with really great people in punk rock. As a result of that, we end up making records with a lot of different people, but yeah, whether we do another record on Fat remains to be seen. It’s something that really interests me and I think it’s a possibility, but I honestly right now couldn’t tell you.
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KW: I have heard that you are working on another solo record. Is this correct?
JS: That’s the rumor. [laughs] As far as solo records go, I did a solo record years ago. I’m always writing songs. It feels like every time I’m ready to release something solo or sit down and record a solo record, some sort of obstacle comes up. I’m gonna do some solo shows in the fall. I think if there was ever a time when I would do a solo record, it would be in this next year. So, that’s a possibility. Actually, to be honest with you, I was really looking at recording a solo record over the holidays at the end of [last] year and I hurt my voice. I had vocal surgery at the beginning of the year and that tripped me up. The good news is the vocal surgery went perfect and it’s like I never had a problem at all. My voice is right back where it was. I feel really lucky for that.
KW: Are you working on any new Anti-Flag material?
JS: Yeah, there is a lot of new Anti-Flag stuff in the works. We’ve been working on demos for the last couple of months. We kind of built, like a lot of bands do nowadays, it’s so economical to build your own studio. It’s something that’s a real reflection of how things have changed with technology in the last ten years or so. So, yeah, we’ve just been working in our little one-room studio and working on new songs and we’ll definitely have a new record for next year. I’m really excited about it. I think it’s something that is a real reflection of who we are today and the way that we sound now.
Doing that “Best of” release was interesting because it has kind of given me a sense, musically, how the band has progressed and changed to a certain degree and I think for the better. It’s exciting to see how we progressed as musicians. It’s exciting for me to hear how my voice has changed. I can actually sing now. In the past, it was just like kind of grunt out whatever you get out of your throat. It’s a very different thing today. And there have been a lot of musical influences that have crept in since we started.
One of the main things we’ve talked about, other than the ideological stance and what kind of statement that we want to make today, it’s also the idea that, you know, let’s make a record that really sounds like we sound right now. That’s what we’re gonna go after with the next record we make.
KW: Will Anti-Flag be doing any more U.S. touring this year?
JS: We’re not. I mean, one of the things we decided collectively at the end of last year was that we would take this year off, from a live standpoint, and focus on making a record. That’s sort of the direction we’ve been taking. So, we picked a few specific dates we’ll be doing. We were invited to do Coachella, which is really exciting for us and a new experience. We’re excited to do some festivals we were invited to do in Europe, but in general, we decided to take the year off.
We were invited to do Seeger Fest in New York City in Central Park. That was two nights ago we played that. And that kind of kicked off us doing some dates in the states. That was an incredible experience. I saw Pete Seeger play with Arlo Guthrie, who is Woody Guthrie’s son, in a county park outside of Pittsburgh when I was in first or second grade. It’s one of my first experiences seeing music live and seeing music that was really political. I think Pete Seeger was a real pioneer in marrying a message to music, especially popular American music. That music has stayed with me for my whole life. It’s really had an influence on me the way I conduct myself with other people, the kind of songs I write, the things that are important to me. I actually met him that day as a little kid. I remember that interaction and I remembered thinking, “Wow, this guy just played for all these people and he’s taking the time to talk to me, this little kid. That really stayed with me.
The entire [Seeger Fest] experience was incredible. We played with some really incredible musicians. To play in the middle of Central Park, I never imagined that that would be part of my musical repertoire in my life. Overall this year, we picked some special things to do, things that were really meaningful to us. Outside of that, we just decided to really focus on writing a new record. I guess next year, we’ll really go after it.
A Document of Dissent is available now on Fat Wreck Chords. Click here to see the live shows Anti-Flag has planned for the rest of 2014.
Kevin J. Wells is the Sports Editor for Communities Digital News. He also writes about Major League Baseball, punk rock music and food. Kevin plays guitar in the Los Angeles punk band Emmer Effer. Follow him on Twitter @WellsOnBaseball