It seems deliberately discordant in many ways, but some bands need to fight their battles on an uphill incline in order for them to produce their own best selves. These kinds of bands are the sort which need to feel as though they have something to prove because they’ve been knocked down or counted out, and they have to fight hard to overcome the odds; the ‘hard’ is what makes it great. According to Anti-Flag singer/bassist Chris “#2” Barker, while his band hasn’t always been like that, they adopted those kinds of principles when they decided to make American Spring, their tenth album.
“For us, American Spring is a really important album in our band’s life because, really, we didn’t even know if we wanted to make another one,” blurts Barker boldly when asked about sparked the creative process that yielded American Spring. “We actually had a really serious discussion about whether or not we would make another Anti-Flag record at all, before we started recording. That’s not to say we were contemplating breaking up, but we were all in really difficult places personally, which made the prospect of making another album pretty arduous. We could have done other things like begin making seven-inches, make an EP here or there and tour on the strength of Die for the Government, The Terror State and For Blood And Empire for the rest of our lives and people would come to see those shows. Because of that, I felt like there would be exactly no reason for me to write the songs that I did for this record unless there was zero complacency, and we challenged ourselves to be the best version of our band that we’ve ever been.
“I think that’s where you see the focus on American Spring come from,” Barker continues. “We have not worked on an album as we did on this one since we made For Blood And Empire, and I think this album will come to be regarded as one of those tent pole records in our band’s life.”
In listening to the album, there is positively no question that American Spring stands out from Anti-Flag’s catalogue in many ways. This time, in addition to knocking out some more of the political punk rock for which fans have always relied on the band, this time there’s a better sense of the band members’ own personality – critics have complained before that Anti-Flag has often presented a potent but faceless message, but that problem has been perfectly remedied on American Spring as songs like “Brandenburg Gate,” “Song For Your Enemy,” “All of The Poison, All of The Pain” and the less-than-a-minute-long, blurry/brilliant “To Hell With Boredom” all blaze through with unbridled power and passion.
The instrumental songwriting pulls no punches as drummer Pat Thetic just jackhammers through with a powerful but by no means laden or laborious rhythm, and the guitar parts supplied by Justin Sane and Chris Head just scorch the edges of each with their speed and passion but, at the same time too, Sane takes the quality levels of these songs up a notch or two by adding some great lyric sheets. Each song is a searing critique of the global social and political climate (it’s difficult to mis-read lines like “We live in a fabled world/ of dreaming boys and wide-eyed girls/ Where precious few get a fair start/ these times can break you/ these times can leave you torn apart,” and that’s only the start) but remains open enough that it isn’t easily tied to a particular time and place.
That openness is one of the most inspiring things about the writing on American Spring; unlike other political punk albums, these songs are not easily tied to any one time because, while there are social critiques present, some of it is cut with unobscured personal critique and reflection. American Spring is not stuff just pulled from the headlines, it also introduces the band as a group of human beings – and that’s brilliant.
“I can only speak for myself and for the headspace that I was in when I was writing the songs, but I was really struggling with who I was at the time,” Barker confesses as he begins to lay out how American Spring took shape. “I’d had a relationship which was as old as I’ve been in the band – seventeen years – and it ended right before we started talking about making a new record. I wasn’t sure I wanted to write a new record; on the personal side, I was confused and worried and, on some levels, I felt that the band was to blame for me not having the social skill set to keep a relationship together. I wondered about that, and I wondered if writing another album wouldn’t just perpetuate the cycle of not feeling whole by continuing to work as hard as we do.
“That was the really strange place that I found myself in – being asked to write songs for the thing that I was kind of angry at – and that filtered its way into the writing process and then a series of sociopolitical issues raised up and really hit me in a personal way; all of the politics associated with the current events at the time as well as my reaction to them began to syphon into songs I was writing like “Brandenburg Gate,” “I’m A Believer” and “Song For Your Enemy” and really characterize them as a brand apart from other Anti-Flag songs. In addition, I think that us celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the band and also recognizing that what we were working on would be our tenth full-length record felt like really important notes that we wanted to make sure were addressed.
“We really took things in a different way this time,” continues Barker. “For the first time in a very long time, all of these songs were written specifically for this session and we weren’t just bringing back riffs that we’d come up with in the past, and we really locked down for a working process this time. This process was different; it was about a year or a year and a half of writing and, from there, it was a month of pre-production in L.A. and then a month in the studio – which was much different from the last few albums we’d done which were recorded in Pittsburgh at a more leisurely pace. It was definitely a much more arduous and lengthy process than we’ve had since 2006 when we did For Blood And Empire.
“In the end, I think the whole process really rejuvenated us,” concludes the bassist brightly. “In fact, the album’s title actually has a double entendre about it. People expect politics from us and may think that when we talk about American Spring, we’re referring to the Arab Spring or some kind of revolution in America but, for me, it’s simpler and more universal than that. Spring is the season of new, fresh beginnings and this idea of starting again and figuring out who the fuck I am and how committed I am to this band now, after all this other shit has happened in my personal life, was really the focus of this record for me.”
With American Spring set for release on May 26, 2015 through new label Spinefarm Records, Barker and the rest of Anti-Flag have shifted their attention to getting out on the road to make sure everyone knows that, while it might not have been the easiest album to make for the band on a personal level, it is absolutely an incredible one. “We really went the distance with American Spring and wanted to make sure it came out the right way with the right people, so we spoke to a lot of different labels,” says Barker with startling focus. “We had this plan to write the record and pay for everything out of pocket; so we went to L.A., we spent the two months there making the record and we teamed up with Doug Dean who did all of the artwork on American Spring in the spirit of continuing the dialogue beyond the songs. Then, after we’d spent all our money and were broke and anxious to begin the next chapter, we invited labels to listen to it and Spinefarm had by far the best plan for a worldwide release of the album – they have offices in Berlin, Finland, London, Paris and Japan – and that’s who we went with.
“We felt like American Spring was a global record and we wanted it to have the furthest reach it could have, so they made perfect sense for us and, in turn they’ve already started proving it with the tour they have routed for us; we’re starting with a couple of release shows in Pittsburgh and they’re really small, intimate venues, but then we start at Punk Rock Bowling before we head to Europe for a series of shows. After that we come back to the U.S. in June for a bunch of dates before we go back to Europe again for the festival circuit beginning in July, then we’ll be headlining the U.S. on the American Spring tour after that – I think we’re have dates booked until the middle of August right now, and we might add more before we’re done. We only did like twenty-five or thirty shows last year, and one of the missions that we have for American Spring is that we want it to challenge perceptions of us, of our music, of how we’ve been working recently. I think there is a lot of commentary to be found in the observation of how silent our historically loud genre has been, and I don’t know why that is – but I do know we want to change that perception first.”
After returning from Europe, Anti-Flag’s first show back in North American celebrating the release of American Spring takes place June 4 at the Bovine Sex Club in Toronto.
American Spring is streaming in its entirety now on Amnesty International’s website. Click here to check it out: www.amnestyusa.org/about-us/art-for-amnesty.
Ground Control Magazine – Anti-Flag – American Spring – [CD review] groundcontrolmag.com/detail/3/4164/1/