Early in a career that now dates back some 20 years, the guys in the Pittsburgh-based punk band Anti-Flag picked up an important lesson from Brit folk singer Billy Bragg. An ardent leftist who unabashedly expresses his political beliefs in his songs, Bragg told the guys that melody still matters, even if the message is an important one.
"At the time [we met Bragg], we were dirty punk rock kids," says singer-bassist Chris Barker (aka Chris No. 2) via phone from a Florida tour stop. "We went to his show and we cornered him and said we were big fans. Billy changed the direction of the band. He said, 'Gents, I've seen the punk rock thing. It's really great, but you catch more bees with honey.' We were puzzled. He said, 'Write good songs or no one will listen to what you say.' It inspired us to write catchy songs and turn the politics in the band into something you could listen to and something that was memorable. That allowed us to give in to the pop sensibilities. The Dead Kennedys were my favorite band and they weren't afraid of choruses."
Given that Anti-Flag split up after its first show, the band has recovered quite nicely. Formed in 1988 (but celebrating its 20th anniversary; you do the math), the group is currently on tour to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Terror State, an album of politically charged songs that it released in 2003 when George W. Bush was in office. Produced by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, it's one of the band's most accessible records.
"I went to a lot of the [Anti-Flag]shows," says Barker. "To find a political band in Pittsburgh that was similar [to the Dead Kenn edys] was cool to me. I was only 15 or 16 years old when I started going to the shows in town. I found that a lot of the bands from Pittsburgh were political bands. It has to do with the geography of where we're from. We come from blue-collar, working-class homes. With the steel mills moving and the way that changed the infrastructure of our towns, that led to the politicizing of people who wouldn't normally be politicized. Aus-Rotten and the Bad Genes, who are Pittsburgh punk rock bands, were lesser-known but, to us, they were the biggest things happening."
When the band released The Terror State in 2003, it was at the height of U.S. intervention in the Middle East. The album's opening track "Turncoat" features gang-style vocals as the guys yell out "liar," in a blatant attack on the commander-in-chief. Barker says Morello helped them hone the songs' melodies.
"I think that he really shaped the band," he says. "I think it's where we found what Anti-Flag sounds like and the goals that we want to accomplish. A lot of that came from Tom inspiring us to be open to new ideas. They don't need to be two-minute punk songs. They can have big choruses. A lot of that stuff came from Tom. We owe a lot to his ability to challenge us to be the best version of Anti-Flag that we could be at the time."
He particularly helped them develop their cover of Woody Guthrie's "Post-War Breakout." The song has a steady ska-like beat and snarling vocals as it captures the sentiment of the original.
"We were talking to [Morello] about how we were going to play it," Barker says. "He sent over Janet Jackson's 'Black Cat.' He told us we needed to steal the beat. I remember thinking, 'What the fuck are we doing?' Of course, it worked. I thought, 'Okay, maybe the old guy knows what he's talking about.'"
Given that the country has experienced a shift to the left with the election and subsequent re-election of Barack Obama, how does Barker think the album holds up?
"We were looking at the political landscape [of today], and it seems eerily similar to where we were at when we wrote the record," he says. "When we thought about how we would close the chapter, it seemed [like there was a] political statement we could make by playing The Terror State. Whether it's ISIS or drone strikes or Paris, there's tremendous upheaval coming from the Middle East. Our reactions to it will define and shape history going forward. Playing these songs that were about the post-9/11 reaction seemed apropos."
Despite the fact that they're aligned with different political parties (which Barker likens to Pepsi and Coke), Obama and Bush have more in common than you think. At least that's what Barker thinks.
"When Barack Obama was elected, we had hope for things being different," he says. "Challenging the status quo is a very difficult task. It further proves that Coke-and-Pepsi politics isn't where real change comes from. Real change is going to come from people standing up for what they believe in. It's not presidents or prime ministers or popes or the CIA making these changes. If you see what's happening with the gay rights or LGBT, it has a swelling movement behind it. Marijuana laws are also being challenged. It's coming from individuals who want to make things different than when they found them."
Barker isn't naïve enough to think that a punk band can make a huge difference in the world. But the band's rowdy shows give him the satisfaction of knowing that a certain contingent of listeners is on his side.
"I feel like our power is very limited as four kids from Pittsburgh who bang on guitars," he says. "However, we can have these moments of solace and we can have these moments where they feel as if there is hope. They come in moments of playing these shows and touring the globe and meeting people of different religious backgrounds and ethnicities and monetary incomes. At their core these people are good folks and that's who we try to surround ourselves with."