A conversation with #2
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Forget Brad and Angelina; for a certain section of the population, the sort that spends their free time on punk message boards, there was no bigger, hotter, more controversial, or more discussed story in 2005 than Anti-Flag signing with RCA. Many old fans wished them well and stayed on board, some fans felt betrayed and turned their backs, and all the haters spent the summer gloating. Finally, March 21 brings the moment of truth, as For Blood and Empire is released and answers the question: will sharing a label with Bo Bice and Avril Lavigne cause the Pittsburgh punks to pop it up? Chill out? Put the politics aside?
The answers: not really, nope, and fuck no. Like a lot of punk bands, certainly including some on their old label (Fat Wreck), Anti-Flag have long incorporated pop elements into their punk rock. Protest songs, after all, are supposed to be catchy - isn't that the whole point? The anthems are in full force on For Blood and Empire, with plenty of readymade shout-alongs. Sonically, the album is a continuation of what's come before in their catalog. Lyrically, they tackle a range of subject matter, from genocide in Rwanda to stonewalling in the White House press room.
Taking some time before the big release date [and subsequent national tour], bassist/vocalist #2 spent some time with The Red Alert to talk about the construction of the new album, the impact of producer Dave Schiffman, and, of course, making the move to the majors.
There are a lot of things I want to bite into, but I wanted to start with the really urgent question, even though I realize it will be ancient history by the time we run this: can the Steelers get it done?
One hundred percent, yes. We’re supposed to be on stage while the [Steelers-Colts] game is going on here in Europe. We’ve already made arrangements for our friend Jessie to come down to the stage and, during the set, give us minute-to-minute updates. Hopefully we won’t miss too much. Those folks in whatever city we happen to be in on Sunday may get an abridged version of an Anti-Flag show.
An extended encore break.
(laughs) Three songs in, we’ll have a nice little encore break.
So let’s crack into For Blood and Empire. I’d read that you were unsatisfied with how your bass came out on past records. Is that something that was corrected this time around? And, if so, what made the difference specifically?
One hundred percent. The sonics of it really came down to Dave Schiffman and his expertise. On a song like “Hymn for the Dead,” whenever I looked at him and said, “You know that amazing smash hit record “London Calling?” You know the bass on the beginning of that song? I like the way that sounds,” he’d go, “You mean this?” And he’d turn four knobs and all of a sudden I’d have the best bass sound I’ve ever had. That is what we’ve been unable to do our entire lives, and he’s helped us do that. By the same token, there’s a distinct sound that I’ve been trying to accomplish, and I think he really aided in me getting that. There are a lot of shapes and textures to the record sonically, and I think that comes from him. He helped us perfect the Anti-Flag sound that we’ve been trying to perfect since ’94 or whenever—I couldn’t even tell you the day.
You guys wound up with eighteen finished tracks. What’s going on with the ones that didn’t make the cut? And how did you choose?
For Blood and Empire is about a year and three months in the making. When we entered pre-production—when Dave Schiffman came out from beautiful and sunny Los Angeles to gloomy and rainy Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—we had 52 skeletons of songs and probably like 35 completely finished songs. We went through the skeletons; some of them we turned into tracks on the record, some of them got swept under the rug.
When we left preproduction, we had 22 tracks we wanted to try to record. We were able to track drums, bass and rhythm guitars without any overdubs on 21 of them, but then the time crunch really set in and we had to make our first list of cuts. Three songs got cut, and we landed with 18.
When we started putting the record together, it was like any more than what’s there began to wear on the psyche. It didn’t feel boring, it just felt like too much. Even when we stuck the 14th track on—it was a song that was different from everything else on the record, but it still felt wrong. It was a process of listening to every sequence and mixture of songs possible, and then ending up with one that all four of us were happy about. We’re four very different people, so finding a happy medium between us is sometimes a strenuous process.
Plus, in addition to wanting a cohesive-sounding album, you want to make sure to tell all the stories you wanted to tell.
Yeah, that had an impact on it, too—covering all the ground, making the story of For Blood and Empire what we wanted it to be when we wrote the songs. I think we wrote a record that is not quite a “1970s, play The Wizard of Oz at the same time” concept album, but it is, in a sense, a concept album. It’s how the songs relate to the concept of For Blood and Empire and how that relates to the Project for a New American Century, the neocon think tank. Whether it’s a song like “This is the End,” which deals with body image, or “The Press Corpse,” which deals with the media and the media’s lack of truth—those two things, if you follow the trail, both go back to the main theme of For Blood and Empire.
Obviously, there was a lot of discussion and Internet chatter about your move to RCA. A lot of the shit talk about major labels is ridiculous or ill-informed, but I do think that some kids have expressed legitimate concerns. Money is changing hands, after all, so are you guys concerned about keeping an eye on where the money is going and where it’s coming from? Like most corporations that size, they have a somewhat checkered past.
Are we talking recent past, like encrypted CDs? Or going all the way back to BMG and the money from Nazi foundations?
Well, there are a few things. In the early 90s, they were accused of knowingly polluting land in Taiwan and essentially poisoning their employees there.
Yeah, I mean, you could trace every dollar in your pocket to something that would not make you feel good. In that respect, to wrap your head around every single one of those is crazy.
We were faced with an ultimate decision. What are the next natural progressions and the next natural steps for us? We were on Fat [Wreck Chords] and life was fantastic. If were still on Fat, life would continue to be fantastic. We had dealt with the major label crony coming to every show in every major city where cronies live for the past seven years. Every scenario you can think of has happened. Up until this year and RCA, every meeting was very short. Every meeting was “Hey, we like your band, we think we can sell records.” Then we’d say, “Okay, well, the first thing we want in writing is that Anti-Flag retains ownership of its songs and has 100% creative control over every aspect of the record. If you’re willing to put that in the contract, let’s talk.” Then every meeting ended. And rightfully so. At the time, we were a band that hadn’t sold any records. They were just seeing kids coming out to the shows, and they thought they could turn us into something because we were young, a ball of clay.
When RCA came, it was about more than that to us. It was about finding a way to grow and still staying the same band. We came into that meeting and we said, “This is what we need,” and they said, “That sounds very reasonable. We know what we’re signing and we don’t expect you to change.”
And, believe me, the decision was not made overnight. It took a very long time for us to weigh every option we made and talk to every person we knew who had been in similar situations, whether it was someone like Michael Moore or Tom Morello.
Yeah, I interviewed Tom around the time of the Rock Against Bush tour and we touched on some of these same themes. He was saying that one of the advantages offered by a major is that it allows you to do a little less preaching to the converted than you tend to do on an indie.
And every step of Anti-Flag’s life has been about that, which is why people have had some many problems with every decision we make. It goes back to the very first thing you and I talked about: if you’re not getting a reaction, if people are complacent, you’re doing the wrong thing. When we decided to not put out seven-inches on the Pittsburgh-run, self-serve record labels, there were kids who said, “You’re not supporting the local music buff. You guys sold out.” Or “You’re dicks.” (laughs) All the way up to signing with Fat, and to signing from Fat to RCA.
Every decision on the surface may seem a little suspicious. Nobody may be more suspicious of people trying to do the things that Tom Morello and Michael Moore say they do—covertly infiltrating the mainstream, making the social consciousness grow—no one may be more critical about that than us. But the time is right to make this stand. We felt the songs we had were better than any songs we’d ever had. It was ripe for the taking.
Those people who have been around Anti-Flag and the Anti-Flag community, I think, have a lot of faith in us and our decision-making. I think most of the people who make a stink about it are people who are looking to say, “I told you so!”
What changes the most? Is it distribution, tour support, resources for recording?
To be honest, as of right now, nothing has changed. We’re not into that part of the cycle yet. We hope things will change in that people will be able to find our record—and all its insides and goodies, the essays from authors and activists and poets.