It's 2 p.m., and Chris Barker is yawning away the cobwebs from last night's show. In a few hours, the Anti-Flag bassist will face another fist-pumping audience at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina. Another city. Another crowd. Another tinderbox to set ablaze.
He just woke up, but Barker isn't cranky, which is surprising considering all that he and his mates have to be cranky about.
El presidente for starters.
"I hate George W. Bush," Barker says. "Cheney and Ashcroft are evil, but Bush is the worst because he can say no to these people. [But] he lets it all happen."
What the G-Dub Crew has let happen may be the biggest liberal call to arms in thirty years. The average American teen will happily pay top dollar for a well-marketed shit sandwich, but more and more of them are becoming aware of the percolating political climate. Suddenly, people who couldn't tell you who the president was three years ago if you spotted them a Bill and a Clinton can offer passionate dissertations on the ills of the administration.
On "Turncoat," Anti-Flag accuses the president of being a turncoat, killer, liar, thief. The band calls the leader of the free world a criminal with protection of the law and proclaims: State lies dressed as evening news/We're tired of lies, we want the truth!
The soil is fertile for such declarations. The atmosphere is charged. If there's ever been a time, it's now. Time for the Death of a Nation tour. Time for a quartet of punk politicos -- Anti-Flag, Rise Against, None More Black and Against Me! -- to stomp across the country sparking brushfires among the slumbering proletariat.
"The bands on this tour definitely have something to say, and that's exciting, because right now there's a lot of bands who have nothing to say," Barker says. "It's exciting to see bands who are willing to take a stand."
And, no, Good Charlotte's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" does not count. In fact, those Boy Scouts in mascara have become pinups for a pop-punk movement that has punk purists recoiling in horror. It seems to be a simple plan by Simple Plan to hijack subversion and make it suburban. A legion of Johnny Not-So Rottens who seem less concerned with the Clash than with the cash they can reap from turning the Blitzkrieg Bop into a blitzkrieg of pop.
"If you ignore it, maybe it'll go away," Barker says. "I know the Good Charlotte guys. I know they're not evil people, but they call themselves punk rock, and they're selling Nikes. There's nothing punk about slave labor."
Some scoff that the members of Anti-Flag themselves are too polished to be truly punk. They did play the Warped Tour for chrissakes. But if the band doesn't boast at least some punk ideals, the genre was never alive to begin with.
Anti-Flag is among a small number of below-the-radar resurgents combining the grit and wit of punk with a modern political sensibility. But before the band became progeny of activist rockers such as NOFX lead singer Fat Mike (who signed the band to Fat Wreck) and former Rage Against the Machine guitar wizard Tom Morello (who produced Anti-Flag's latest album, The Terror State), its members were just four blue-collar boys making blue-collar noise.
"The backbone of Pittsburgh has always been very union, very steelworker, very pick-the-last-guy-up," Barker says of Anti-Flag's hometown. "That trickled down to the punk scene. We use those same ideals."
Terror is dripping with liberal political fervor, from the album's outer sleeve (which doubles as a placard with an image of G-Dub and the words "one-term president") to songs like "Wake Up!" and "Death of a Nation." All of the bands on the Death of a Nation tour are affiliated with Punkvoter.com, but Anti-Flag takes its activism to higher levels.
The band operates the socially conscious label A-F Records and uses its Web site to post essays with titles such as "Anti-Flag Condemns the Attack Against Iraq" and "What Sick Fuck Hates Mr. Rogers?" The band also champions causes ranging from anti-censorship stances to the plight of prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier. But Anti-Flag isn't all dour-faced activism. When Barker isn't railing against Halliburton, he's listening to Abbey Road or doting on his pug, Penelope.
"People say Anti-Flag is so serious," says Jason Shevchuk of None More Black. "But really, they're goofballs just like the rest of us."
Well, not quite. As Shevchuk says this, None More Black is stranded in New Jersey waiting for someone to replace the band's regular drummer, who's been arrested ... for his role in a bar fight. As None More Black languishes off the turnpike, the members of Against Me! are scouring the North Carolina countryside for a Guitar Center. "I accidentally smashed my guitar," lead singer Thomas Gabel says with a chuckle. "I threw it at the bar. I guess I should have seen that coming."
Against Me! represents the tour's lighter side, the satirical sideshow in a traveling circus of serious purpose. The guys who write songs like "Cliché Guevera" and streak through Anti-Flag's set are the most likely to draw a penis on your forehead if you pass out. But even though Against Me! and None More Black leave most of the podium-pounding to Anti-Flag, the stage is hardly a bully pulpit.
"This tour is used as a dialogue for people to make decisions for themselves," Shevchuk says. "They can leave with what they want. But kids can't just say, 'Don't vote for Bush because Anti-Flag says so.' They need to know why."
That word is spreading. As the bands wind down this leg of the tour, they're winning over new fans and offering a new generation a primer in punk politics.
"We're trying to tell these kids to think and be educated and vote and not be apathetic and jaded like their teachers and the guy on television say they are," Barker says. "That's why we do it. We're trying to show that we're not just one voice. We're a mass of voices, and we want to be heard."