This is one installment in a series of articles about Warped Tour Atlantic City, one of three official events commemorating the music festival’s 25-year-run. Stay tuned for more features about everyone’s favorite “punk rock summer camp.”
Warped Tour was known for its rowdy rock sets, dusty moshpits, and hordes of kids with worn-out Vans, but it also boasted well-established ties to activist movements. At every show, dozens of nonprofits pitched tents to spread the word about their designated causes, and a few bold bands played songs that took a stand against the wrongs of the world. The king of those bands is probably Anti-Flag. The iconic punk group has been around since 1988, promoting social justice in the scene throughout various presidencies and national crises. Anti-Flag made their Warped debut in 2000; since then, they’ve been a staple on the tour.
We had the chance to speak with Justin Sane, Anti-Flag’s lead guitarist, singer, and songwriter, backstage at Warped Tour Atlantic City. Read on to hear his thoughts on Warped Tour’s evolution, the influence of American politics in the world, and maintaining hope in tumultuous times.
TYF: You guys have been doing Warped Tour for ages now. How has it changed over the years? What parts of it have stayed the same, and what’s different?
Justin Sane: Well, Warped Tour has always been what you make of it, especially for a band. Lots of things have changed, [but] a lot of the things that have changed are just superficial things. The musical genres have kind of changed over the years—it turned from punk to metalcore and screamo. But for me, at least, I always found that Warped Tour was what you made of it. There were so many different kinds of bands out, and there was always an opportunity to meet and connect with new people. I’ve made so many lifelong friends on Warped Tour. And the reality is, if you do Warped Tour, especially if you do the whole thing, you might be on tour with the same people for seven weeks. So it’s like, “Hell yeah”—you get out there and meet people and have a good time. It was like summer camp. You’d be out there and you would know, There’s somebody out there who needs to be my best friend; who’s that person going to be this year? That, to me, was one of the cooler parts about it.
TYF: What bands have you guys gotten closer to over the years?
Sane: Oh, God. So many bands. The very first year that we did Warped Tour, we did it with Flogging Molly and Hot Water Music, and that was really special. Other bands that I really grew to love are Thursday and Bad Religion and NOFX and Less Than Jake, and a lot of the old-school bands that I listened to that I was really excited about getting to meet. It was pretty crazy. The first year we did it, one day I looked over, and Brian Baker from Minor Threat and Bad Religion was standing on stage watching our band. Like, that’s a game changer; that blew my mind. Minor Threat and Bad Religion are such legendary bands, and you have this pioneer of punk rock standing there watching your band… That’s pretty incredible. And that’s a really cool thing that that would happen on Warped Tour a lot.
TYF: That’s awesome. Your last two albums were American Spring and American Fall; is American Winter coming soon?
Justin Sane: American Winter will come after this summer. (Laughs) No, no. I think that those were tandem albums that worked really well together. And I think that the statement that we were trying to make with those records has been made. And we’re entering into the year 2020, and I think that, to me, says, “It’s time to turn a new table and turn the page and think about some new things that we want to say with the band.”
TYF: Absolutely. Can you tell me about the making of the music video for “American Attraction”?
Sane: Yeah! To be totally honest with you, making that video was pretty generic. (Laughs) I think it’s a beautifully shot video, but our part in it, unfortunately, was very generic. We just went to a warehouse and they shot us playing, and that was it. But what was really incredible is that the director of the film went around LA and asked people if he could shoot them. And that was an idea that we had all talked about, and I think that was such a beautiful idea—he would just shoot average Americans that he’d run into on the street and be like, “Hey, just be yourself and I’m going to take pictures of you.” We wanted to show a wide range of different peoples and show that America is a country made of all kinds of colors and shapes and sizes, especially at a time when we have a president whose main slogan is “Make America Great Again”… which, to me, is a dog whistle to, “Let’s go back to a segregated society when white people had the power.” Of course, Anti-Flag is a band that believes in equality for all people, and we believe that all people should be empowered. And so we wanted to make a statement with the video that America is a very diverse place, and that’s our strength.
TYF: I was listening to the ANTICast, and you guys were talking about how in the earlier days of Warped Tour, you were touring during the Bush era and talking to fans then, and now you’re working in the Trump era. Are you noticing similarities to those times? Are people saying things to you that remind you of back then, or saying things that are totally new?
Sane: I think that the Bush years and the Trump years were different in certain ways. In the Bush years, there was a lot of corporate greed. There was dog-whistle racism, but not on the level of the Trump years. The main focus of the Bush years was really the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the idea that those wars were unnecessary, unjust, and really just an opportunity for some giant American corporations to make money off of the backs of war—in particular, off the fighting and killing and dying of young Americans and [people] in the countries that were invaded. Now, a lot of social issues are much more in the forefront with the Trump administration. Whether it comes down to divisive racism, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia… the president’s main pitch to people is that we all have to be afraid of the other. And we have to be afraid of people who aren’t from our country. When people come to a meet-and-greet and we’re lucky enough to meet people who care about the band, those are things that people want to talk about. And to me, that’s really special, because we have people that will come up to the meet and greet—like, a trans kid—and will say, “At my school and at home, I can’t be who I am. I come to Warped Tour, and particularly, I can come to your tent, and know that you’re going to accept me and understand, at least to a certain degree, who I am.” And [even] if I don’t understand—’cause I don’t want to say I understand everybody—I would say that I’m willing to accept people. One thing that was really interesting, and we may have even talked about this in that podcast… 10 years ago, queer kids would come to our tent and say, “Is it cool if I hang out? ‘Cause it’s cool that I can hang out with you guys and [know] you’re going to accept me even though I’m queer.” And now, it’s more than the trans kids that come. It’s pretty amazing to see all the social norms change and to see that there is more acceptance for the queer community. But it’s still hard to be a queer kid in 2019, definitely. And it’s still a challenge, but it’s a little bit more acceptable. The overwhelming difference, though, is that it is not socially acceptable at all to be a trans kid—but at least they’re starting to slowly feel like they can find a place where they’re a little safe. And I feel like that’s really special, because everybody has felt like an outsider at one time in their life. And if you think about when you’ve been to a place where you’ve been completely not accepted and where people have have treated you poorly, and just how horrible that feels, you know it is really special to be in an environment where you’re like, “Wow, I’m so glad that we could be a part of a place where somebody felt that, at least for an hour, for a day, they could be who they are.”
TYF: For sure. You guys recently had the AntiFest in The Netherlands.
Sane: Yeah, and a couple of different countries at this point. We’ve done it for a couple of years in a couple of different countries. At this point, we’ve only done it in Europe because our partner that we did AntiFest with is from Europe. AntiFest has been a really special festival to me. We try really hard to focus on diversity, and not only diversity in the fact that we have things like Sea Shepherd there, and LGBTQ advocate groups there, and Amnesty International there—different organizations that I think help represent our community. We also try to find diversity in the bands. I mean, here we are—we’re four white guys, four straight white guys. That being the case, we really, really care about diversity, and we care about trying to show that music is something that can have diversity in it. And that our music scene is more interesting and more fun whenever we have that diversity. So we try to have a really diverse lineup of bands. That’s something that’s really exciting to do. This last one was really cool ’cause every band onstage commented on the fact that the lineup was so diverse. And it was really special to hear that and be like, “Wow, it’s so cool that it’s that obvious to people.” You know, if there’s somebody out in the crowd who’s like, “Oh, I couldn’t do a band because I’m this kind of person,” maybe they’ll say, “Well, wait a minute. I can fucking do this.” And I think that’s the point of punk rock—to say to people, “Look, anybody can do this. So if you want to do it, do it. And if people say you suck, fuck them. Just do your thing and do what matters to you.” When we started, people told us that we sucked and that our ideas were wrong. And you know, it’s been many years later, and we’re still here.
TYF: Amazing. I’m really curious about the response that you guys get in Europe because your music is often focused on American politics. Will people come up to you and ask, “What is this about”? Do they identify with struggles in their own countries?
Sane: Well, what’s amazing, and a lot of people don’t realize this until they leave, is that American policy has so much impact on the rest of the world. And what happens in America is picked up on the news everywhere, because American policy, whether it’s domestic or foreign, really does have a lot of influence on people all over the world. We have military bases all over the world. That’s sort of the definition of empire, and most of that is a result of World War II. And [due to] the fact that there’s so much influence by the United States in all these other countries, people in Europe and all over the world are really interested in what’s happening in America. They’re interested in American politics. And yeah, they do ask us questions about those things—and right now, of course, they’re like, “What the fuck are you guys doing”? Like, they just can’t believe that we elected Trump. And it’s really disheartening. People will say things like, “We always believed that America was a leader in freedom, especially in human rights.” People have always looked to America to be the leader in the moral authority—kind of carrying the human rights banner. And they see what’s happening on our southern border. They see that these children are put in cages… Literally, it’s kidnapping. When you separate a child from its parent against their will—I don’t care if the government does it or a stranger does it—it’s kidnapping. And they look at that and they’re like, “That’s completely inhumane,” you know? And of course, with women’s rights… Abortion is just considered part of women’s healthcare in Europe. It’s very black and white in that way, and Europeans look at what’s happening with women’s rights in this country and they’re really shocked. But of course, Europe has its problems too, and there’s a lot of organizations that we work with in Europe to help put the word out about different issues that are happening there. And what is exciting about traveling overseas is that when we work with organizations overseas, we get a sense of, like, “These are things that we’ve done over here in Europe that work, and these are ideas that you can take home with you,” and vice versa. It’s a really cool way to share ideas.
TYF: Speaking of ideas you can take home with you, what advice do you have for people who want to be hopeful in this chaotic political era?
Sane: Well, I will say this: getting back to what we were just talking about, we travel all over the world, and we meet people who care about making the world a better place everywhere. And people haven’t given up. People are frustrated. People are like, “Oh my God, we’re fucked.” But by the same token, at the end of every show we play, we’re like, “Hey, everyone here, shake hands; everyone here, put your arm around each other. You are not alone. And as long as you realize that you’re not alone, there’s always the opportunity and the possibility that things can change. And [there are] people who actually give a fuck about more than just themselves—look around this room; there’s a ton of us.” And for that reason, every time we play a show, I feel inspired. I’m like, “Wow, you know what? We do have a chance.” And I really do believe we have a chance, because we do have the luxury of, so many nights in a given year, being in that kind of environment and realizing that a lot of people are trying to make the world a better place. That said, if you want the world to be a better place, you do have to work for it. It’s not just given to you, and I hate to say it, but the fascists and the people who want to take away freedom—people who want to dominate you with corporate power and keep all the money at the top and keep people poor and use people—those people never quit and never give up. And when people get complacent, that’s when we start to have the kind of problems that we have today. And it usually is kind of an up-and-down cycle. People get lazy; things get bad; people wake up; they’re ready to go, you know? So I’m hopeful right now, believe it or not. I think that there’s a lot of people that are bringing good into the world. We’ll see what happens in the next couple of years. The main thing is that people don’t get cynical and just give up. If we give up, the bad people win. It’s that simple. They want us to give up, so don’t give up.
TYF: I really liked the cover of “Guns of Brixton” that you guys did. If you guys were to cover another song, what are some options that you think would be really fun?
Sane: First of all, I’m so glad you said that. I’m going to tell our drummer that. And the reason why is that he and his wife just had a son and named him Brixton after the song “Guns of Brixton.” I’m so sorry that he’s not here, because he’s going to be really stoked on that.
TYF: Oh, wow! That’s awesome.
Sane: God, there’s so many bands whose music I love and whose songs I would love to cover. We covered “Waiting Room: by Fugazi.
TYF: Ooh, that’s a good one.
Sane: Somebody actually did a really good phone recording of it on a tour that we did a couple of years back, at a show in San Francisco. And I just happened to come across it, and I was really shocked. I was like, “Oh, that’s really cool.” It’s kind of cool to find a recording of yourself doing a cover to see how it worked. Other band songs that I would love to cover… Well, some of the bands that we play with, especially the bands that are sort of legendary at this point, like Less Than Jake and Bad Religion… They’ve got a couple of songs that I’ve thought about, like, “That’d be pretty badass.” There are some pretty cool folk songs—definitely from Woody Guthrie, but also his son, Arlo Guthrie. He’s got a couple of songs that I recently was listening to and I was like, “It’d be kind of cool to do an Arlo Guthrie song or Phil Ochs song.” They’ve got some cool stuff out there. I don’t know. (Laughs)
TYF: All right; is there anything else that you want to say to all the fans and the readers?
Sane: Yeah. If anybody’s listened this long, then thank you! And we’ll have a new record coming out next year, so I’m really excited about that. We’ll probably start dropping tracks from that in the fall. It’s been a hell of a year, and I think it’s just gonna keep getting better. That said, be good to each other and take care of each other, and we’ll talk to you soon. Peace the fuck out.