Star Scene: Justin Sane


Article by Mary Boukouvalas

Photo by Mary Boukouvalas

Anti-Flag’s vocalist, guitarist and co-founder, Justin Sane’s beliefs and fundamentalism parallel his scene in punk-rock. “It is really exciting to be part of a community, a scene, in the punk rock world that has always ahead of the curb of the dominant mainstream culture, I would even say it’s ahead of the curb in the underground culture. In the 80s we were fighting racism, in the 90s we were taking on homophobia in a really big way. Before the invasion of Iraq, punk rockers were right on the forefront of that issue. A lot of issues tackled and conquered in the punk rock world many years ago I think now the rest of dominant culture are starting to catch up. I really feel like mainstream culture takes its lead from the sub culture and from progressive communities.

Photo by Mary Boukouvalas

The punk rock world has had an influence on the dominant culture and I would like to think that the Anti-flag has had a small part in that as a result”.

Influenced by political thinkers like Howard Zinn and Cornel West as well as bands like The Clash and The Dead Kennedys, Anti-Flag began seriously in 1993, a year before Green Day, The Offspring and Rancid released records that thrust punk back into the spotlight. Growing up in Pittsburgh amongst poverty, politics and liberation theology also influenced Sane profoundly and steered him into developing the concept of Anti-Flag.

“Oh wow, [my influences] musically, socially – it’s a pretty long story. So I grew up in Pennsylvania, which was very working class, blue-collar town. My family was deeply involved in the labour movement, and were also very poor. I was very aware of class and class struggle, certainly aware of labour issues, and the importance of organised labour and labour unions. Growing up in Pittsburgh, it was a labour-centric town; everybody was political. It was unavoidable; it was part of our daily lives growing up in a steel city like Pittsburgh. Growing up poor had a huge impact on me. My father is from Ireland. My parents were Catholic. They were heavily influenced by liberation theology. In liberation theology, it is very political; it’s the idea that you should help the poor and work with the poor, and walk in the footsteps of Jesus in that way. My parents were involved, and as a result, and with my dad coming from Ireland and with the issues of Ireland being occupied and both of my mother’s parents being Irish, politics was already in our family.

Photo by Mary Boukouvalas

Liberation theology appeals to our family. I am not religious, but I was definitely influenced by my parents who were really drawn to the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the environmental movement. My parents were community leaders, organising and being on the front line of a lot of exciting movements. My parents were vegetarians in Pittsburgh in the 70s, which was pretty unheard. All of these things had a profound influence on me in the way I grew up”.  [pullquote]Having the influence to believe I should stand up for people who cannot stand up for themselves, give a voice to people who don’t have a voice.[/pullquote] “Along with all of this, I was the youngest of nine. We played instruments and listened to music. My parents encouraged all of us to play instruments, and because my family were deeply entrenched in our Irish roots, we learnt a lot of folk music, and a lot of that was rebel music.  For me, as I got to be older, to be drawn to punk rock totally made sense. By the time I was a teenager, I was very political I was interested in activism, very interested in politics and when I found punk rock I stepped right into it. Especially because it was working class music, and they were talking about issues of class and things that I had experienced.

Photo by Mary Boukouvalas

Finally, I was in high school during the first Gulf War invasion and I could see the way that nationalism was being used to rally the country to support a war that was unjust; it was just about oil. That was were the influence of Anti-Flag came from. I saw other young, poor guys like me being coerced to join the military. That was the only option in some of the areas we grew up in, now they are going off to Iraq. It was very obvious to me that the people who were going to do the killing on the battlefield, on each side, had a lot more in common with each other than they had with the politicians who sent them out to kill and die. This idea of breaking down national identity and treating each other as human beings was something that took a hold of me in high school as a result of the first Gulf War. I already loved music and playing music so at that point I really started to focus my attention to the concept of Anti-Flag. That is sort of how all those things came together and influenced me to start the band and take the direction that this band took”.

From humble beginnings, Sane remains a realist but doesn’t lose sight of his ideals. He is not disillusioned about the way of the world, or his music, even when to others it seems a losing battle, fighting similar issues more than twenty years later. Sane explains: “I understand that change takes time, and I understand that a lot of the problems we have we’re probably going to have for a long time, but I’ve seen some really positive results from the music that we have written and from the music we’ve put forward. For example, we had our 10-year anniversary of our “The Terror State“ record and we played some shows where we played the whole record in its entirety. What was really amazing and really inspiring after so many of the shows I would have people would come up and say to me that because I found this record I realised the Iraq war was bullshit or that George Bush was lying. I became a social worker, I became an environmental activist, I went to school and got a law degree and fight against oil companies and polluters. Or I didn’t join the army. There are so many stories like that. I’ve always through my years with Anti-Flag heard the stories but especially with the 10-year anniversary of that particular record it was amplified”. [pullquote]Of course I would love to write a song and have the problem go away but what I realise about writing music and putting ideas forward is that if you can have an impact on just one person with that song and it makes a positive change on just one life as a result that person goes out and does positive things with their life, then as far as I am concerned that’s a win. [/pullquote] “Little by little that’s how we address these issues and problems and that is how these problems start to be conquered. That’s a long process. It takes time. We are dealing with a lot of big issues. Rarely do big issues go away overnight”.

Describing their sound in food form as “hard core vegan oblivion”, it is no surprise that Anti-Flag’s new album, American Spring, is just as empowering, energetic and progressive as their previous releases. Co-produced by AWOLNATION’s Kenny Carkeet, Jim Kaufman and the band, American Spring raises awareness and bursts through the concrete wall of apathy like a proverbial desert flower. The front of the album artwork features a woman wearing a black hajib veil, while the back cover features an American soldier in combat fatigues. An exploding pink flower obscures both of their faces.  These beautifully vivid images are meant to challenge people’s collective view of violence and peace.  The entire American Spring package includes essays, personal liner notes, and further information behind the driving forces of each song, in an attempt to raise awareness and action against injustice in the world and bring about the start of a new political and economic fabric in society. Weathering the storm, Anti-Flag’s new release is hopeful of fresh beginnings. American Spring’s first release, A Fabled World, was inspired by the failure of the Obama era. “I never had high hopes for Obama,” Sane states. “I mean I was really thankful we were done with Bush. I had very low expectations of Barack Obama because his main donors were Wall Street people and bankers. Obama is as tied to giant corporation donors as anyone in the Republican Party is. Obama and his opponents are taking money from the same places so they’re really beholden to same people. I think that we’ve seen that. He’s really carried forward a lot of the same policies as Bush especially when it comes to drone strikes, when it comes letting Wall Street off the hook. He’s done very little for homeowners, very little for people losing their home. Prison population is now 2.3 million people. There’s a new prison in the U.S that opens up every week. Obama is too busy bundling money to his friends in the arms industry. Do I think there is a difference between Barrack Obama and George Bush? Yes. Obama certainly has done some very positive things, especially in the area of gay rights and he has at least tried to pass some kind of health care that can hopefully help people but ultimately he really did fail in so many areas where if he was truly a progressive politician he would have done much better. For those reasons, I went into the Barrack administration with my eyes wide open, I knew what we were getting; someone that’s was very friendly to Wall Street, and the banks, and big business and not to the average person regardless of the game he talks. He talks a great game.  But especially when you look at – he has been terrible on immigration. He has deported more than Bush ever though about deporting”.

A Fabled World, filmed by a Russian and the text added by an American, was inspired after the band went to Ukraine and Russia in the midst of their conflict. It was inspired with hopes to break down barriers and bias, to begin a time where there is justice, equality and the flourishing of peace.

Sane isn’t sure how the new video has been received in Russia and Ukraine. “I see, on YouTube, Russian and Ukrainian comments sometime”.  Sane continues: “I’d love to know. I would like to think that people in Russia and Ukraine that have found it understand we’re a band that believe in breaking down barriers between people who are being told by their politicians that they should be enemies. I hope that, even if it is only in the punk rock world, our song and video help break down some of those barriers and help people from these countries see each other as equals and as equally important”.

As for the whole album, Sane says, “It is incredibly focused, we really thought out the concept to the record; we’re really aiming to challenge people’s protection of their own personal bias, their idea of who it’s okay to commit violence against. When a punk kid sees a cop he sees a racist when he sees a soldier thinks baby killer when a middle American white guy sees a Muslim woman he sees a terrorist. Or what he thinks when he sees a black kid in a hoodie. It’s on all sides. We want people to see that no one is immune to social influences that create personal bias. We are using those images to make people realise everyone has inherent bias as a result of living in a society. To think, so what are my personal biases? When I look at someone, what do I immediately think? Once people recognise their personal bias, they can begin to rise above it, become more open to people and genuinely more accepting of people. That is certainly an issue we are trying to push. Anti-flag, as a band, is interested in encouraging people to see each other as equals and equally important, and of course to do it is important that we challenge our own bias within ourselves”.

In the meantime, it’s one change of season at a time. Anti-flag will be taking the album on the road. Of touring, Sane says, “I love touring. I kind of love it more now than I ever have. It took me a lot of years to kind of understand how to balance out or to find a way to be serious and be ready to play a good show and do my work on the road and to have fun. I feel I have found a balanced way of approaching that. I think more than anything, the thing with touring is the more you tour, you start to realise that for touring to be fun it is important to take things as they are and to not have high expectations of how things should be because things are rarely are as you expect them to be or how you decide in your mind they should be. You end up enjoying yourself a lot more in life in general. Instead of trying to control how everything should be, accept what is happening and find a way to enjoy what is happening. One thing I have been focusing on, on tour, is to have a lot of fun. I think Anti-flag as a band, as a live band, we’re the best we’ve ever been. When we go on stage now, it is so easy for me. We put on the most exciting shows we have ever put on. That is really cool for me. I enjoy being on stage now more than I ever have”.

As for an Australian tour, Sane says, “Oh gosh, we don’t know. We’ve been trying to figure out a time when we can be in Australia. The right opportunity hasn’t presented itself. I hope sooner than later”.

The Australian Spring may be close at hand. For now, American Spring has blossomed – heading slowly, but surely, towards summer.

American Spring, Anti-Flag’s Spinefarm Records/Caroline Australia debut, is due on May 22.

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Photo by Mary Boukouvalas Photo by Mary Boukouvalas Photo by Mary Boukouvalas Photo by Mary Boukouvalas Photo by Megan Thompson

About Mary Boukouvalas 1612 Articles
Mary is a photographer and a writer, specialising in music. She runs where she endeavours to capture the passion of music in her photos whether it's live music photography, promotional band photos or portraits. She has photographed The Rolling Stones, KISS, Iggy Pop, AC/DC, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, PULP, The Cult, The Damned, The Cure, Ian Brown, Interpol, MUDHONEY, The MELVINS, The Living End, Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against The Machine, The Stone Roses –just to name a few - in Australia, USA, Europe and the Middle East. Her work has been published in Beat magazine, Rolling Stone magazine, Triple J magazine, The Age Newspaper, The Herald Sun, The Australian, Neos Kosmos,,,, She has a permanent photographic exhibition at The Corner Hotel in Richmond, Victoria Australia.