Anti-Flag is a political punk band, which is obvious from their name alone. But over the course of 12 albums across more than 25 years together, they’ve rarely set their sights on singular individuals in songs. Unlike their punk predecessors in the 80s, who made targets of Reagan and his cronies, Anti-Flag has always opted not to date their work with current references, instead focusing on fighting ongoing oppression and dismantling deeply rooted systems of injustice. But on their new album, 20/20 Vision, the band is drawing a big, fat line in the sand.
“We have actively chosen to not attack Presidents directly, either with album art or songs about certain times in history, because we recognize that the issues we’re dealing with are cyclical,” says bassist Chris #2. “But this record in particular, we kind of said, well fuck that, we need to be on the record in opposition to the policies of Donald Trump and Mike Pence.”
“This record is a warning to people holding neofascist ideas or people who are enabling these types of positions, whether you’re outright racist or you’re enabling racism or sexism or homophobia or transphobia,” adds guitarist Justin Sane. “You need to make a choice at this point. What we’ve seen with this White House is that there’s no grey area anymore.”
Produced by From First to Last’s Matt Good, 20/20 Vision (Spinefarm Records, January 17, 2020) kicks off with a soundbite of Donald Trump speaking at a rally. And while just about anything the man has said over the last few years would make for a fitting sample on a punk record, Anti-Flag were deliberate in their choice. “In the good old days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough,” Trump is heard saying over the opening track, “Hate Conquers All.” “And when they protested once, they would not do it again so easily.”
“What I found compelling about that particular Trump sample is that it’s the quintessential move that he pulls, which is: Say the thing into the world early, so that when it happens later, people are already accustomed to it,” says #2, who believes that dissenters like journalists, protestors, and punk bands are not far down on the list of those who will eventually be rounded up and detained. “We’ve always cautioned that if you’re not standing up for the most marginalized and the most oppressed then you’re not truly free.”
“Hate Conquers All” seeks to dissect the lexicon we use around racism to hold ourselves more accountable. “The song is a kneejerk reaction to the idea of Love Trumps Hate and this idea that love can beat back hatred,” notes #2. “That equates racism with hatred. That’s a false equivalence of what the language should be. If you’re racist, you’re racist. You don’t just hate people. It should be considered a much more vile term.”
Later on the album, “Christian Nationalist” calls out those hiding behind religious zealotry to mask their neofacism, and the chorus makes it clear that these people will be held accountable: “We all know who you are!”
“When you listen to David Duke talk, you’re listening to Donald Trump talk,” Sane says of the track. “These people hide behind the veneer of suits or speaking well and the various ways in which they hide their bigotry, but the reality is that they’re just as bad as the fascists in the 1930s or the segregationists in America.
“I’m not saying doxxing is OK, but I think it is important to let a community know that their neighbor is a racist who was chanting, ‘Jews will not replace us!’ There has to be accountability.”
On 20/20 Vision’s title track, the band takes a deliberately poppy approach to grappling with a tough pill they’ve had to swallow recently: Seeing elements of the framework that punk bands like Anti-Flag have established over the last couple of decades as it is coopted and used as talking points by the alt-right.
“The roadmap that we created in the 90s, of alternative media and forms of communicating, was a left-wing strategy to bring truth to power,” says drummer Pat Thetic. “The right wing has very effectively taken all those skills we learned in the 80s and 90s and turned them against the left. That’s been a challenging thing for us, to see the strategies that we grew up with being used against us in such an effective way.”
And while the newscycle moves faster than ever before, 20/20 Vision aims to take a step back and stare down the most pressing problems of our time: kids in cages, the fentanyl crisis, rolling back EPA restrictions. It’s a record that at once feels both timely and forward thinking. 20/20 Vision is a work that Anti-Flag hopes will serve as an immediate form of communication with those who are politically engaged as well as a document of our modern times for a future generation.
As #2 puts it: “We hope that when someone trips over this record in the sand of the post apocalypse, they’ll know that there were people who once stood in opposition to all of this.”
Roaring drunk in Hamburg. Locked in a bunker in Berlin. Tearing up the road in New York and Tokyo. Dreaming of Cairo. The wide-eyed, rump-shaking world of folk punk heroes Skinny Lister is broadening by the record. If their folk debut celebrated the sticks and their punkier second blinked in the bright lights of London, their rocked-up third, The Devil, The Heart & The Fight, sees them go global.
“The first album [Forge & Flagon] was quite rural,” says singer, guitarist and one-time chief of the stomp-box Dan Heptinstall, whilst the second [Down On Deptford Broadway] was very London-centric. With this latest album, because we’ve done so much traveling, it was broadening out a bit, it’s more on-the-road. We cobbled the songs together all across the world. Every day we’d be going into different dive rehearsal studios all over America, Germany and the UK. Anti-Flag let us use their space in Pittsburgh. In Berlin we used a bunker, an old air raid shelter from the war and they’d converted into a rehearsal rooms.”
“We got locked in!” adds singer and dancer Lorna Thomas. “The owners were like ‘see you at six’ and then the guys wanted a ciggy and went upstairs to have a smoke and started panicking… ‘We can’t get out of here’.”
As folk rock’s rowdiest rabble since 2009, Skinny’s world has always been an adventure-filled place to be. They’ve held gigs in Land Rovers. They’ve sung while wing-walking. They’ve toured in a narrow boat. They’ve stomped and jigged on restaurant tables, in hotel elevators and in record label car parks. And, as their two previous albums sent them reeling into the hearts of America, the UK, Germany and Japan – on headline tours and stints with Frank Turner, Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys and the Vans Warped Tour - wherever they play their lusty shanties, punk folk roar-alongs and crazed whirls of love, fighting and booze, you’ll still find them out dancing with the crowd, passing around their flagon of rum or crowd-surfing to the bar, double-bass in hand, to neck shots mid-song. Make no bones – Skinny Lister are the wildest party band you’ll ever get drunk with. And you will get drunk with them.
“We still have the flagon,” says Dan. “We pass it full of of rum out to the crowd and everyone partakes.”
Pieced together while on the road, and recorded over five weeks in Newcastle Under Lyme’s Silk Mill Studio in May 2016 with producer Tristan Ivemy (Frank Turner, The Holloways), The Devil, The Heart & The Fight is Skinny Lister’s most far-reaching, exciting and accomplished album yet. It’s a full-on rock record that splashes even more punk vigour and eighties pop elements across their fervent folk canvas, taking in hints of Adam Ant and Kate Bush. It also brings the folk storytelling tradition bang up to date with its tales of on-the-road mayhem, most notably the Pogue-ish Hamburg Drunk, the story of the fateful night they ended a tour in Hamburg with plenty of rider booze left and decided the most sensible course of action was to neck the lot.
“I stamped on a homeless guy’s cup of money and dragged it along the street,” Dan confesses.
“It was horrible, really dark,” Lorna laughs. “He was clinging to this bottle of whiskey going ‘it’s mine! It’s mine!’ and knocking everybody out of the way. Prostitutes were attacking him on the Reeperbahn. Then we found this amazing bar where they actually let us in, and Dan pulled his toothbrush out of his jacket – he has a habit of cleaning his teeth before he goes onstage, weirdly – and started frothing up his beer, that was going everywhere, he was cleaning his teeth with beer and it wasn’t until he started to do somersaults that the barmaid came up and said ‘we don’t want your kind here, get out now!’ Ever since then we keep going back and she remembers him and she welcomes us with open arms. ‘Hamburg drunk’ has turned into a catchphrase within Skinny Lister. Even my mum would be like ‘you didn’t get Hamburg drunk last night did you Lorna?’”
From the fiery Elvis-gone-folk roar of opener Wanted – Dan saluting London, New York and Cairo in a song “about looking for life in the cities we’d visit” - The Devil, The Heart & The Fight comes out fists first. “We wanted a big sound,” says Lorna, “we wanted it to sound punchy and have more attitude than the last one.”
They wanted it to be brutally honest and close to the knuckle too. “This album has been inspired by Trouble On Oxford Street a bit more,” Lorna reveals, “there’s a few more true stories on it. Nobody’s safe. If you know us, you’re not safe.” “I’ve gone pretty close to home on a lot of the songs,” Dan adds. “One of them’s about our drummer Thom who had his wedding cancelled by his fiancée. Everything I write is true but there’s a lot of songs on there about people that are pretty close to me.”
So the jubilant Geordie Lad is an open letter of reconciliation to their ex-bassist Dan Gray. “He left the band and there was a bit of falling out,” Dan explains. “It’s a shame that we’re not as good friends as we were. So it’s a little nod to that as well as speaking to him indirectly through the medium of album.”
And what of Charlie, eponymous star of a pounding pop classic who “carries the dream for all of us, flying the flag for northerners, council estate to Hollywood… like Steve McQueen he took the jump”? “He’s a friend of mine from Bridlington,” says Dan. “He lived on a council estate I used to live on in East Yorkshire. He’s only twenty-one but his sister was doing bits of acting work, took him along to an audition and he got picked up by an agent who then passed him on to an agent in LA and from there he’s picked up a role in a film that’s coming out this year and a big Netflix series that’s about to hit the screens. So he’s by accident fallen into this life. There’s a bit of jealousy in there but good on him.”
A mature, vibrant and varied record, it mingles classic Skinny folk romances (Grace, Reunion) with epic rock takes on rafter-rattling shanties (Beat It From The Chest) and hearty Dexys-style tributes to the fans they meet on the road (Fair Winds & Following Seas), plus a hitherto unseen darker side. Take the deceptively upbeat Injuries, Dan’s ode on the bruising nature of life, or Devil In Me, in which Lorna comes on like a particularly melodic Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction: “the devil in me will come for you and you’ll pay the price for not being very nice… you took my life, I’m taking yours, that seems to me a fair trade”. Gulp.
“It is a bit murder-y,” Lorna says, “every girlfriend who’s got an ounce of jealousy or insecurity or feeling that she likes the guy more than the guy likes her has got that ‘don’t fucking fuck this up or I’ll cut your balls off’.” “It was something to do with The Catcher In The Rye and Mark Chapman, who shot Lennon,” adds Dan. “Those stalker type characters. I was trying to capture that dark stalking mentality. It’s nice to twist it – a love song but a bit darker, more threatening. It’s almost like Bonny Away’s darker cousin.”
And The Devil, The Heart & The Fight is like Skinny’s previous albums gone backpacking; expanding its horizons, full of adventure, discovering itself and doing things it regrets in the morning. Have heart, ye devils, join the fight.
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