Plastered next to other summer tours/festivals, the Vans Warped Tour is one of the few events that takes artists from the edges of one vast section of music and tightens the bonds between them. Bred from two very different scenes in both Pittsburgh and New York, ANTI-FLAG’s CHRIS #2 and POLAR BEAR CLUB’s JIMMY STADT share similar idealogies which they expressed during our meet with them at the Toronto stop. The topic of discussion: the current status of punk rock and how the summer tour they’re on currently affects and alters its personality.
Punk rock was originally thought of as a “music movement”; do you think the title still holds true?
CHRIS #2: First off, doing this interview together is a testament of punk rock as a movement and as something with a lineage that is just as cyclical and cultural as any other music style. There are bands like Polar Bear Club who are not in an infant stage of their career, but in a place where they are starting to see the work that they put in in the early years start to pay off. Then there are bands like Anti-Flag; we are able to come to Warped Tour and be a part of it on a certain level, even though we’ve been a band for a long time and experienced that already.
You can definitely see that there are patterns to the behaviour and all we’re trying to do is write songs that justify people standing in front of the stage. Whether or not punk rock is alive or if punk rock is at the forefront of pop culture, I know from our perspective it is never the topic of discussion. We were a band when we had to book our own shows, as was Polar Bear Club. I think that creating that infrastructure on our own means that, whether or not Warped Tour wants to have us, we’re still going to be a band.
JIMMY STADT: Even if it’s five one day and 500 another day, if one person is there to watch us play, then the answer would be “yes.” When I was in high school, it wasn’t cool to be in a punk band. Now I think that has changed a little bit and there may not be a subculture for it, but it has become a part of what’s mainstream. You can have a red streak in your hair and walk down the halls of your high school and it won’t be unusual.
CHRIS #2: That’s the battle. We’ve been able to get past the stage where we are obviously outcasts, but now the battle has shifted to a lot of bigger issues. We’re talking about racism, sexism, homophobia – those are bigger than the desire to let your freak flag fly. At the beginning, it was definitely a way to say “we’re different and we’re getting the shit kicked out of us in school just because we have funny hair.” but we’re past that, so now as musicians we want to talk about something that’s a little more important.
JIMMY: As long as those issues exist and as long as people are going to shows, there will always be something to talk about. It’s like a charity; different charities always have their moment in the sun where everyone is talking about their cause. Those problems don’t get solved and they may become less trendy but they’re still problems. As long as people are coming to the shows, especially for bands like Anti-Flag, punk rock will always be a movement.
CHRIS #2: To tie that all together, the whole idea of punk rock is being honest and not allowing the status quo to infiltrate your decision making. You have to make the decisions that are right and righteous for you. Very early on, we were able to look at bands who perform and believe every word that they’re singing, regardless of the number of people in front of the stage. We connected with them directly based on that and we were able to determine if they’re a band we identify with. Maybe Polar Bear Club doesn’t have a song like “Fuck Police Brutality,” but you still connect to their messages.
JIMMY: I’m working on it! (laughs)
CHRIS #2: In my defense, I was 17 (laughs). But the other side of that coin, these things are worth talking about and whether or not it’s on the tip of your tongue isn’t the issue. It’s about identifying someone who is true and honest.
JIMMY: To speak to that, I think sitting us down to connect Polar Bear Club and Anti-Flag was a good choice because we are very different bands, but there is this underlying message of how we are on the same level as our audience. We just want to express something to them honestly and passionately. I have tried to write political songs and they suck, that’s why we haven’t released one (laughs). Well we have one actually that’s sort of about gender roles in the punk scene, but everything else is pretty inward and emotional. It’s different from Anti-Flag in content, but when we’re on stage the way we deliver it is the same. I don’t want to use the word aesthetic, but all we want is for someone to realize that we believe in what we’re saying and we believe it’s honest. Honesty is often what connects us to our audience, more so than whether or not we’re being talked about in a popular magazine. Neither of our bands have ever had that trajectory. The way we create a community is by playing a song in front of them.
You’ve mentioned honesty and a direct stage delivery, but are there any other characteristics of a band or their music that classify them as punk rock?
CHRIS #2: Warped Tour is a testament to that. What Jim just said was right on, all we’re trying to do is let everyone out there know that we’re just kids who picked up these instruments and said “we’re going to do this.” Making people believe that there’s no separation between bands and audience is a major priority. I’ve seen Polar Bear Club do it when they talk about where they come from or how they got here and the trajectory of the band as it helps kids relate. When Anti-Flag performs, we move our drum set to where the kids are to say, “Look, here we are! We’re at the same level playing, let’s hang out!”
JIMMY: There’s an Against Me! song, and I actually remember the exact lyrics. It goes “the stage is not a pedestal,” and it means it just happens to be higher than the audience, but if they wanted to, they could do this. If you want to take influences from bands like us, just do it and do it because you love it. Really, that’s our rebellion. There are aspects to doing this that make it seem like a business, and those aren’t fun, but they’re necessary. I would be lying if I said there weren’t some bands that I’ve watched who lean into the business side a bit more.
CHRIS #2: Absolutely, and I think you can tell who they are.
JIMMY: We could go on stage and do things we know people would just eat up, but we choose not to because we hope that if you’re younger than us, you came to see a band that’s playing to the height of your intelligence and asking you to meet them there. But there are certain bands that are playing to the lowest common denominator.
You do see a lot of bands who are building a reputation based on a gimmick rather than their passion, and from what I can tell, the bands that operate off the gimmick can make some noise for a couple years maybe, but after that everyone sort of forgets about them.
JIMMY: One cannot trivialize the impact of playing your songs in a basement, a house, or a small club and not skipping steps. You might not have the same kids from your first basement show at every show, but you will have an ability and an intelligence as a band to know how to entertain and get your point across and make sure that everyone who happens to be listening to you knows what you’re talking about. It’s the bands that don’t have that to fall back on or those that go through the career process really quick who don’t know what to do when things get rocky. They don’t know how to get back into a van because they never had to do that in the first place. For us, if people stopped caring or if our booking agent suddenly decided we’re no longer financially viable, I’d be like, “Cool, I’ll book my own shows.” because we know how to do that.
There’s a whole lot of bands you see that skip the basics and now there’s also the absence of video culture, where a whole group of bands were able to build a career based off of visuals because they were distributed so well to a mainstream audience. Every band right now, no matter who you are, unless you’re Bruce Springsteen or something, has downgraded in some respect. I don’t want to dwell too much on the state of the music industry, but no one really saw that sort of thing coming. What I’m thankful for is that we started the band at the shittiest possible time so no matter where we go we will never forget what it’s like to be in a van because we try to incorporate honesty and passion. In a way, we are punk rock James Browns. We have soul.
CHRIS #2: That is actually a perfect way of saying it (laughs). That’s a word that comes to mind when I’m looking at a band and I’m just not buying it. For a lot of bands these days, there is just no soul in what they create.
JIMMY: It’s hard to say that and not credit some bands with that because it makes you look like a bad person, but not everyone’s born with it. Those of us who believe we have it identify with each other and we connect. Maybe I acknowledge this more because I am in a political punk rock band, but all of the songs sung by artists with soul are political songs. Like “Blue Suede Shoes” is a political song. That’s not to say you have to talk about a certain issue to be aggressive and passionate. A lot of people might say you’re not allowed to be fired up because you’re singing a love song, but that love song is political to the person that wrote it.
For a genre that started out as a rebellious and underground movement, many bands are receiving mainstream success nowadays, how did this change happen?
CHRIS #2: It’s interesting because I’ve been able to be in a band that’s been through many different cycles of punk rock. Before I joined Anti-Flag, I was watching them perform alongside local bands and was able to watch this whole political punk rock scene develop in Pittsburgh in the early ’90s. I was 14 or 15-years-old when I was going to these shows and I was really seeing a form of change. To me, it was almost like a middle finger to other scenes because, at the time, there was a beef between genres as Vans Warped Tour was seen as a corporate thing and Fat Wreck was apparently the devil because they were having success.
That was also around the time where you saw bands like Green Day and The Offspring blow up and that, I think, was the first real step in punk rock becoming mainstream. In 1999, we did two days on Warped Tour and that summer was the first time where you saw kids buying Green Day CDs and telling everyone that they just wanted punk rock and nothing else. They’d see Fat Wreck on the back of an album and then associate with them which would lead to associating with other punk rock labels in San Francisco and so on and so on.
JIMMY: And now that trajectory is happening even faster. On a much smaller scale today, I would attribute that scenario to the whole “Defend Pop Punk” movement. Bands like New Found Glory and others have been working with younger bands such as Man Overboard and listeners have grown to transfer over more quickly.
CHRIS #2: I think it’s because of the culture too, because there was a point where Green Day and Alkaline Trio broke through and then in the early 2000s you have bands like Against Me!, Anti-Flag and Rise Against getting signed to major labels and following in their footsteps. It went from “For every Green Day, there’s a Jawbreaker” to, “For every Rise Against, there’s an Anti-Flag” (laughs). And that’s okay; it helped us internationally and helped us perform in different places. Now, the state of punk is dark because we’re not really sure what’s going to happen. It may not be as large but it exists because you see bands like Polar Bear Club, The Menzingers, Title Fight, Tigers Jaw and Touche Amore that bring different sounds but keep the same aesthetic.
JIMMY: The thing about punk rock is it always seems to be about some sort of rebellion. For us, it comes from our performance. At Vans Warped Tour, there are people that see you on stage and think you’re someone special so they start “fanning-out” or get into that fan-ish mode and our rebellion is that when we do signings after our set, we talk to them directly like we’re talking to them now so they connect with us. When that happens, you’d be amazed at how quickly that fan-thing melts away. There will always be a rebellious quality to punk rock and it’s also because people have diverse tastes in music that are outside of the mainstream.
Would you say that Vans Warped Tour provides more of an opportunity for a direct type of interaction in comparison to a regular tour or are they too different to compare?
CHRIS #2: For me, they’re two completely different experiences. Everyone who’s at a club tour knows who Anti-Flag is but on Warped Tour, it’s the opposite. Before we play a single note of music, we say “we’re a band that stands against racism, sexism and homophobia – get out of our way,” and then we play our set. For us it’s just a way of saying who we are, like saying “what’s up” to the dude with the foam finger and the pretzel.
JIMMY: There are things that I do here that I don’t do on the club tour as a frontman because it’s a small club. About two years ago we were on Warped Tour and it was an off-day so we decided to play a set at a local venue and I had tried getting everyone to clap their hands together and it just fell flat because it wasn’t the right tone.
CHRIS #2: There are different shows and different aesthetics you put forward. On Warped Tour, you have 35 minutes to perform so it becomes your commercial. It’s your way to reach out to people, especially listeners who may not have known who you are or what you’ve been doing since your last Warped Tour. Looking at this being the ninth time we’ve done the tour in its 18 years – yeah, I’m old as shit (laughs) – we’re getting more out of it than what a listener takes in, but it helps.
Being seasoned veterans on the tour now, what does the future of the festival look like to you and do you think it will continue to have an impact on communities?
CHRIS #2: If you would have asked me that a couple years ago or even last year, I would have said it wouldn’t last much longer. And I think if you asked Kevin Lyman that last year as well, he would have agreed. This year, I think they got the formula right. I had recently talked to Kevin about bands that I like that are more in the vein of Anti-Flag and the type of punk rock we perform and he said what they have to pay those bands versus what they get out of them isn’t really adding up. Instead bands like The Used, Taking Back Sunday, Yellowcard and even Anti-Flag have now taken that main role this year and it’s interesting to see us move up that totem pole. Last year, I think there was a perspective that they didn’t need bands of our generation because they needed bands that were new but Kevin found an audience that stopped at 17-years-old. Though the tour fell short, it’s come back this year.
JIMMY: When we did it two years ago, there were people like our band that just wouldn’t perform on the tour because of the higher ticket prices and the uncomfortable aspects of the environment that they deem shitty. This year, the formula’s perfect. There’s just too much going on in this genre of music for them to say no.
CHRIS: Aside from the headliners you have Title Fight, Make Do And Mend and Fireworks – those bands belong to a new generation of punk rock and they make sense to the fans of Taking Back Sunday and New Found Glory and everyone else you watched perform in 2002.
JIMMY: Everything crosses over and it’s natural; it helps bring everyone together.
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