DS Interview: Chris Dos (Anti-Flag) discusses American Spring, the future of White Wives, and activism

There is no argument that punk’s roots come from rebellion and revolution. It started as a movement to bring about change and spark activism. Long-standing political punks Anti-Flag, have a strong voice in this, and throughout their discography cover ground that ignites controversy and begs civilians to speak out against authority.

As the group gears up for the release of their 10th studio album, American Spring, we were able to chat with bassist Chris Dos about the meaning behind the album title, how to become an active member of your community, and his other project White Wives.

The full interview can be read below.

Your 10th studio album, American Spring, is scheduled to be released next month on the Finnish label Spinefarm. What made you decide to put out a release with them? 

There was a lot of things that happened between our last album, “General Strike” in 2012 and now in 2015 with the release of “American Spring”. It seems like it would just be an answer like “Well we like them because they do A, B, and C” but it’s not, it’s actually much more arduous than that. I personally had a lot happen in my life that really left me in a different place while writing these songs, and there was the pressure of this being the first record after the 20th anniversary of the band. We wanted to make sure we did things correctly and were focused. We wanted to put out the best version of ourselves that we could A. be right now and B. but also, in an effort to be better than we have been previously, as musicians and most importantly in our focus in ideologies as a band. What happened was that we introverted. We said that we were going to make a record without outside influences. We talked to our friend Kenny who plays in Awolnation, talked to him about producing the record and then he brought in Jim Coffman who is his production partner and owns a studio in LA. We went to LA, lived there, woke up, would eat, breathe, and sleep while making the record. The writing process was a two year process, and we had the discussion that there was no point in making a new Anti-Flag record unless it was our best one. So you fast-forward to us being in the studio. We paid for everything out of pocket. No label. We didn’t want anyone walking in the door. Even when you work with your friends like Fat Wreck Chords or Side One Dummy, or any label we had worked with in the past. We have they contracts that say that the band can deliver what record they want to deliver, but somebody has a financial investment in you. So when they say “Hey I want to hear the songs” and they give you your opinion on them, you start to heed their opinions because you think you owe them something. You just want to be nice sometimes. It’s not even about Fat Mike having creative control over what we’re doing or something. He’s my friend. So when he gives me a note, I want to heed it because I just want to be nice even though I may think differently about it, or I may have an important reason as to why I am making that step in the song writing process. So we made the record with no label. We called up or friend Dee Dee, he did the artwork, and we did everything with no one. And then once we were finished and we knew it was American Spring, that’s when we brought people in and had them share their vision. SpineFarm, where they benefit us is that they are a label that are overseas. They have offices in Berlin, London, Japan. These are things that are tremendously important to us because we believe that the agendas and goals of the band are to be a global band and our politics aren’t exclusive to America. It really came down to them being able to deliver this record to people around the world better than anyone else.

 With every statement released about the album you have always ended it with “The American Spring is now”. What is the American Spring to you?

It’s obviously a reference to the Arab spring and the technological movement that happened in the middle east where people communicated over Twitter, Facebook, and new platforms to mobilize protest movements. That movement eventually turned violent and was a great example of how not to interact with one another as a society. However, just as much as we can learn from the negatives of it, you can learn from the positives of it. The American Spring to us is taking these moments in history where people have reclaimed themselves and trying to curate some form of direct democracy where it is not about a corporate-run, politician-run government like the one we have, it is about a government where politicians work in the interest of votes and this idea of democracy exists. Public discourse exists. It doesn’t look like Baltimore right now. I think that by saying that “The American Spring is now” it is a reference to the fact that there is no holding our breath in waiting for this to happen. We have to live it ourselves. Once we confront our own prejudices, once we confront our own privileges, only then can we learn to live above them. We recognize that it is not May 26th a record comes out, and then May 27th the world is different. It is a slow process, but once we live this way ourselves, only then can others be influenced by it. And that’s the idea behind saying “The American Spring is now”. It can happen at any given moment and should be happening in all the moments that we live.

 Every song on American Spring seems to carry an important and hefty message. In short, what do you want listeners to take away from the experience?

I think that a lot is lost in the digital age of music. I know that we have this cool resurgence of vinyl records, but my experience with records and CDs and digital albums is that I expect there to be some accompanying art and some accompanying statement. I want to know more than just what a one and a half to two minute punk rock song can tell me. I feel that a lot of the people who are going to listen to American Spring will find the record in their hands will feel the same way that I do, and they won’t just want to hold onto the sleeve of a record. They want something that is interesting to pick up and interesting to show people. They want something that has value beyond just a song, or beyond just a statement about what is happening. Extrapolating on the songs through the essays, that’s what we’re about. That’s just giving insight as to why Anti-Flag operates the way we operate. But also, I think that these essays on American Spring are coming from a much more personal place, and these songs are coming from a much more personal place.

The album appears to go back to your traditional punk roots, harnessing the same raw power present in “The Terror State”, do you think this was a byproduct of doing the album on a more DIY level, or was it a conscious decision during the songwriting process?

It is kind of all of the above. We brought it back inside Anti-Flag’s world. But also, that conversation that we had at the very beginning, which was “Why make another Anti-Flag record?” We could tour and play songs from Die For The Government, Terror State, For Blood and Empire, people will come and see that show. It’s not a problem. We don’t have to write new music. If we’re going to write new music, it needs to be a tentful record such as Terror State, For Blood and Empire, or Die For The Government. We were looking at those records as a guide. Where were we at, what was our headspace, what was our work ethic like when we made those records? I think that those are the moments in our band life that Anti-Flag has been the most Anti-Flag, and has been truest to ourselves. I think that American Spring is another example of us listening to ourselves and not allowing what’s happening around us, outside of us, or our fear of what people expect from us to dictate to us. That’s what happens a lot. And also, I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, and I don’t speak ill of any of my children, but with the last few records we were pretty complacent. We have a studio here in Pittsburgh, we recorded them by ourselves, and I think that they are cool records but I don’t think that they are definitive for a band.

Anti-Flag has earned the reputation of being one of the most politically active and energetic bands around today, as a songwriter do you ever feel dejected that so many of the same issues you sing about keep on happening?

I think that you have to change your mindset from being “I’m going to write this song and then hopefully this thing is gone”. There have been instances when this happened. We wrote a song on Underground Network called “The Panama Deception” that spoke about testing in Panama. And subsequently that has been stopped by activists. I’m not really sure what role our song had, but we don’t claim to create victories ourselves. Our song was just the voice of many that were standing up against that issue. There was a song on on For Blood and Empire called “Depleted Uranium is a War Crime” that challenged the no child left behind act, much of that was overturned with the work of Anti-Flag, our congressmen, and many other people who were challenging this issue. So there are instances where you can say A happened, B happened, we win. But we don’t really categorize activism in wins and losses. We categorize it in what was the impact. When we wrote the song “Fuck Police Brutality” in 1996, it was on Die For The Government which was the first Anti-Flag record, it was because Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had the highest police brutality rate in the country. Everywhere we looked around police were abusing their power in our home city. The band wasn’t writing about anywhere outside of Pittsburgh because we hadn’t been anywhere else, not because we were not hopeful to tour Europe, but because we had never been there and didn’t know anything about European faults. When you look at today and find “Fuck Police Brutality” to be tremendously apropos in the faces of the Freddie Gray, Mike Brown, Erik Gardner. There were 111 police killings in the month of February. I think it is safe to say that that song still has relevancy. It doesn’t frustrate us. It doesn’t make us want to quit and say our song didn’t change the world. What is does say is that this is a reflection that in 1996 we are on the right side of history, and in 2015 that we are still on that right side of history and that that abuse of power needs to stop. Until it does we are going to sing this goddamn song. That’s the agenda of the band and that’s the agenda of many activists. When you live in this world of wins and losses you are going to feel defeat. We give it a shot in the arm of optimism every time we go on tour and we meet new people, young people, old friends, who give a damn about more than just ourselves.

As a follow up, what advice do you have for fans who are looking for ways to get involved in their own city?

I think that’s a great question. One of the things we try to do at the shows we play is to bring out local organizations. There is always a local chapter of Amnesty International, even Peta has a lot of local folks that are working for animal rights activism. There are a lot of these big issues that you can get involved in. More than anything, it’s about community and finding other like-minded people. I think that far too often the emphasis gets put on the show as the activism. You come to it, there’ a speaker in the middle, then a band plays a punk rock song, and then we all bid each other adieu, and then when we see each other on the street tomorrow we don’t even say hi. I think that that’s where the falsity lies, that’s where the wrong-doing lies. We need to recognize each other. We need to remember each other’s faces. We need to create real relationships and real friendships because the band is in the town for one night, and you’re the one who lives in this damn town. That’s the first step. If you believe in activism, if you believe in punk rock, if you believe in the ideas, then find other folks who do as well and start there. I think that a tremendous news source is democracynow.org. I believe truly and firmly in the heart of Amnesty International. Those things work in all cities and towns and they are a great first step.

 Tim Armstrong and Tom Morello appear on the tracks “Brandenberg Gate” and “Without End” respectively. How did this come about, were the songs written specifically with these musicians in mind, or did their involvement come later?

A little bit of all of that. “Brandenberg Gate” was a really personal song for me. I had a relationship end before writing this record and it was a relationship that had lasted the entire time I was in this band. It really changed my perspective on things, my self-identity, my self-value, my self-worth. All of those things were then challenged, and then somebody said we should write a new record. And I thought “Do I even want to be in this band? This band killed the one thing in my life that I thought was a constant”. And that led by down a really dark place. The first songs that I was writing were really, really personal. And then “Brandenberg Gate” was an example of that. We were able to change it, and transform it into a more universal thing and less of an individual thing. So, in it, when we were writing and I was working on the lyrics, I kept on coming back to one lyric about searching for salvation in the things you buy and obviously Rancid and the song “Salvation” is very important in questioning your salvation. I thought it would be funny to give Tim a call and see if he wanted to speak that line in the song and somehow in some universe he said yes and came to the studio and he absolutely killed it. In regards to “Without End,” on Terror State there is a song called “Post War Breakout” and we worked with Tom Morello on that album, and Tom Morello’s influence is abundantly clear on that song in particular. I remember having conversation with him about the rhythm, and the specific drum beat of that song and ways in which we could challenge ourselves and do new things. I remember him saying “Janet Jackson ‘Black Cat’ steal that drum beat” and being like, “Janet Jackson? What the hell is this guy talking about?” But we ended up trying it. We tried out a ton of drum beats for that song and it really opened the door for us. Until that time we had never had any grooves introduced to the sound, and Tom Morello influenced that. That lead to us writing the song “This Is The End”. If Tom hadn’t unlocked that door, then we would never have walked through it. When we fast-forwarded to 2015 and the song “Without End” it was the same kind of thing. I was referencing all those groove parts and ideas that Tom had for us in 2003 with The Terror State and I was like “Fuck it man. This song wouldn’t exist without this guy. I am calling my friend and I am telling him that I don’t care if you’re making a new record, I don’t care if you’re very busy with two very beautiful young children, I need you to play a guitar solo on this song”. And thankfully he found some time in his very busy schedule to do so. It was one of the most of the most important parts of the records I think.

Along with Anti-Flag, you have your own project, White Wives, where you released your debut full-length in 2011. What are your current plans? I know you are all very busy, but can fans expect new material soon?

We did a 7” last year I think, maybe two years ago now. It has two new songs on it. But Roger is really doing really great stuff with Roger Harvey and The Wildlife, his project. Chris Stowe just put out an amazing record himself. Josh who play in White Wives, he does lights and merch for Anti-Flag so he is always on tour with us. Obviously Head and I have the new Anti-Flag record and Tyler is busy with school and work all the time. Getting the six of us in the same room is an impossible task. I don’t anticipate doing anything anytime soon. But I never say never with White Wives because even when I think it’s dead somebody makes a phone call and then we are writing songs and recording a 7” or something. I always leave the door unlocked for those guys.

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