“WHAT THE FUCK IS UP, UNIONDALE NEW YORK! [pause for crowd roar] WE ARE ANTI-FLAG FROM PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA [pause for bigger crowd roar], AND THAT IS A RIGHTEOUS FUCKIN’ CIRCLE PIT [pause for biggest crowd roar] AND WE WANT YOU TO SING!” All of a sudden, thousands of young throats join in and that circle pit becomes a lot more fuckin’ righteous.
The band explode, and so do the audience. In a violent mess of scissor kicks and star jumps Anti-Flag rip out a dozen songs in 40 minutes, each as catchy and melodic as drenched in punk rock napalm. It’s the 19th date of the seemingly never-ending tour that is Vans Warped Tour 2009 and they’re killing it, despite having seen roughly the same sight 18 times over the last 22 days. At an event stuffed with flavours of the month miming to backing tracks they’re a volcano blast of aggression as they espouse their fierce politics in songs called things like “You’ve Got To Die For The Government”. And as Brokencyde preen backstage and 3OH!3 perform more sexist frat-dude anthemica, Anti-Flag have never been more relevant. The next day, squashed into the living area of a modest tourbus, bassist/singer Chris Barker aka #2 lays it down. “You see kids looking around and seeing they’re part of something. I could give a fuck if they leave thinking we were the best band on Warped, but I do care if they leave thinking, ‘OK, there are 4,000 other kids in my town who feel the same as I do’.”
“It’s about making people feel like they’re not alone,” says singer/guitarist Justin Sane, quietly.
Welcome to Warped. Punk rock is served baking hot in the car park of whatever major sports arena is in town between 11am and 9pm. Bible Study is at 10pm, usually held in catering, and there’s also a Satanic Bible Study group too, but you have to look a bit harder for that. Between 11pm and whenever the parade of buses rolls out (generally between 2am and 5am) there’s a massive barbecue (staffed by a band so eager to get on the tour they’ll cook chicken and ribs every night for walking tattoos just for a two-week stint next year), and if you want a really strong cocktail it’s best to go to the bar staffed by NOFX’s roadies. That goth zipping around on a mini scooter? That’ll be Aiden’s Wil Francis. Those cute midgets politely chatting are Madina Lake, the dude who keeps ringing the bell of his chopper and mumbling about ketamine is Fat Mike, a bona fide legend in the modern punk rock community, and that small girl tottering around and caked in make-up? She’s in Millionaires, and is possibly the most famous person you’ll ever smell.
Into this unlikely mix of old school heroes (Bad Religion, Less Than Jake), the new breed of electro-crunk cretins (Jeffree Star) and haircut victims with downtuned guitars (The Devil Wears Prada, Chiodos) come Anti-Flag. Having recently released their ninth album ‘The People Or The Gun’ – their first on acclaimed indie SideOneDummy since leaving major RCA – they’re as polemical as ever. “Every day, people are getting messages to buy more, put more money on your credit card, be violent, eat meat,” says drummer Pat Thetic. “We’ve got 40 minutes a day to talk to just a few people. We want to get out an alternative message, and we want it to be focused.”
And focused they are. For the three days NME joins them, they spend a huge amount of time doing signings for Greenpeace or Amnesty International (rather than at their own merch tent, where most bands will sell $15 dollar T-shirts by the box-load) and the majority of their time onstage preaching the evils of, among other things, racism, sexism, homophobia and assisted capitalism. They know they’re not converting everyone to the ways of anarcho-punk – the view from the stage takes in any number of garish adverts for new shoes (hello Vans) – and #2 says “there’s as much high school politics in the audience at Warped than there is at high school, and you have to be cognisant of that,” hence the bits where he makes everybody jump up and down. But by the end of this tour they’ll have raised enough money to dig a well in Africa, whenever they tour Canada they have coat drives for local homeless shelters (“because it gets fucking cold in Canada, dude”), increased awareness of Amnesty International and Greenpeace and further bolstered support for Militaryfreezone.org, a movement that acts as counter-recruitment for the US Army’s policy of enlisting in American public schools. For a band who used to have trouble touring thanks to Sane’s extreme allergy to cigarette smoke, they’ve come a long way since their inception in 1988.
It would be churlish to suggest Anti-Flag are the easy voice of dissent for a subculture that was stimulated for eight years by the ‘fuck Bush’ bandwagon. The kids who queue for hours in the burning sun each day to get their few minutes with the band, who are as attentive and genuine with each gurgling fan as any group can be, each have their stories of why A-F matter. “The last two days when we’ve been doing signings people have come up to us and said they were going to join the US Army before they heard our band. And for us, that’s one kid whose boots aren’t going to be in the sands of Afghanistan or Iraq. That’s the success we’re looking for,” says Sane. Of course, there’s a flipside. When, in Camden, New Jersey, a pretty blonde girl in a pink bra asks them to sign a poster, the irony that she has ‘War Sucks, Let’s Party!’ – a song from their ‘For Blood And Empire’ album – written crudely across her breasts is inescapable. But it’s their integrity, intelligence and downright enthusiasm for the causes they stand behind that makes them so vital.