Rock Lit is where Hive discusses the intersection of literature and music.
Pittsburgh, PA punk band Anti-Flag is well-known for their heavily political music and the extensive, footnoted liner notes that accompany their albums. But what fans may not realize is that the band’s songs are penned by both singer/guitarist Justin Sane and singer/bassist Chris #2, each of whom derive their influences from very different intellectual and literary places. #2, who joined Anti-Flag before the release of the band’s 1999 second album A New Kind of Army, uses poetry as his primary inspiration, pulling lines from famous political figures like Emma Goldman and Joe Hill, while Sane uses heavy political tomes to pen his own tracks.
Anti-Flag’s ninth album, The General Strike, came out late last month via SideOneDummy. The disc primarily tackles the issues that arose from last year’s Occupy movement, but as it turns out #2’s interest in Hill’s historical role in the early part of the 20th century acted as an apt juxtaposition for the political and social turmoil of today. Here #2 tells MTV Hive about his history with the written word, the difference between copying and stealing and how poetry has defined his songwriting throughout Anti-Flag’s career.
“I want to be super smart and super punk in this interview and tell you that I read ‘A People’s History’ and stuff like that, but I can’t. I get that more out of poetry than I do out of really cool, super punk novels.”
Are you drawn more toward fiction or nonfiction?
Initially I would say nonfiction, but I really have no affinity toward any sort of style. I think mostly I’m looking for something that just speaks to me either way.
At what point in your life did you start reading stuff with a political slant?
That aspect of my life happened early on, actually. I had a brother who was often in opposition with the law and I remember being a kid and seeing cops and feeling uneasy and then hearing NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” and being like “Yeah that’s me! Fuck the police!” but not really knowing why. And from there, hearing Dead Kennedys stuff and wanting to know who these people that they were talking about were. Going to punk shows and picking up literature and seeing a ‘zine table. That’s where I realized that you can read about more.
When did your reading choices start appearing in your songwriting?
It’s funny because I was Anti-Flag’s third bass player and it wasn’t until I had been in the band for maybe four years before I had written a song for the band. When it came time to do that I remember specifically there’s a book about Emma Goldman called Love and Anarchy and I remember reading that and writing my first song for Anti-Flag based on poems that she had written and love letters that she had written. That became a really good teaching tool as to how I would write my songs for this band. Justin is very on-point and specific with his topics and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing the same thing. My approach was more – maybe because of the way Emma Goldman wrote—metaphorical with the politics for the songwriting for this band.
What was the name of that song?
There were two songs that I wrote from the same book. One of them was “Power to the Peaceful” and that was me ripping it off a lot. And actually the song that was released first was “Bring Out Your Dead.” I had written them both at the same time but one got released on a later record. I wrote “Power to the Peaceful” first but had to go back and re-write it because it was just stolen lines.
“Power to the Peaceful”
Have you appropriated other people’s writing in more songs of yours?
Yeah. I love that kind of shit. I love referencing E. E. Cummings poems. E.E. Cummings was actually someone who I referenced a lot. When you’re a kid and you hear something you like you just want to incorporate it into the songs you’re writing, but as you get older you think “I wonder about this E. E. Cummings.” You realized he totally turned into a fascist at the end of his life. But yeah I find that I like to read something and get inspired and if not put it in quotes in the lyric sheet definitely alert people that this song was influenced by this.
Which songs have been influenced by E. E. Cummings?
There’s actually a song on the new record called “Nothing Recedes Like Progress.” That was an E. E. Cummings quote. I have so many things jotted down where I’ve read a cool line and that was in a notebook written down: “Nothing recedes like progress. This is cool, you should use this sometime.” And now was the time!
“Nothing Recedes Like Progress”
It seems like a lot of the writing that makes its way into your songs is poetry.
For me, I think that’s true. On the literary side I’m more inspired by that than I am by any other kind of art. I want to be super smart and super punk in this interview and tell you that I read A People’s History and stuff like that, but I can’t. The stuff that tends to stick with me is five lines and it’s five lines that really make you feel something. I get that more out of poetry than I do out of really cool, super punk novels.
What have you been reading lately?
I’ve been reading a lot of Joe Hill lately and Joe Hill was an industrial worker who wrote a lot of poetry. He was a troubadour, much like Woody Guthrie. He was killed by a firing squad in 1915. Things that he wrote right when he was convicted of murder – and it’s pretty well document now that he would have been found guilty if they’d gone through with the trial – and he has these writings where he says “I’m worth more to the movement dead than I am alive.” That’s a huge idea.
Did his writings inspire any songs on the new album?
Yeah, actually there’s a song called “1915” and again I used one of his poems at the very end. I’m very good at that! I write the bulk of it and generally the part that hits you over the head was written by someone a lot smarter than me. What’s the saying? Poor artists copy, good artists steal, right?
How do you reconcile your style of songwriting with Justin’s style on the albums?
That process happens a little bit later. We’ll write a couple songs and then come together. For this record in particular, it took a long time. I felt like we were on a breakneck schedule on the last two albums where they came out a year apart from each other and we were on the road and then right into the studio. There was no writing process [on those albums]. With this album there was a good six months where we were away from each other and writing on our own. When we can back together we were looking at the themes. I was writing about shit that was happening in 1920 and Justin was writing about stuff that was happening in 2012 with the Occupy movement. I found that the common thread was this idea of general strike. Even though we weren’t nearly close to each other on what was inspiring us there was a thread and with the rest of the songs [that we wrote] we hammered home that idea. That’s where we got the record title.
Is there a book or a collection of writing that you would specifically recommend to Anti-Flag fans?
That’s cool, I’ve never thought about that. I know that Justin would give them a copy of [Naomi Klein’s] The Shock Doctrine. I’d probably give them a David Cross book. It’s like, “Here go read this heavy shit and then this guy will tell you some jokes.”