Against Me! This Room Feels Like It's Going To Explode
Published Feb 14, 2014From being outspokenly independent to signing to a major label; from a rough DIY solo project to a ultra-slick full-band proposition; from a frontman who transitioned to a frontwoman, nothing is as it was in the Against Me! camp when the band started back in 1997. Then, it was Tom Gabel's solo act, playing wildly energetic protest punk in basements and other dives; now, Gabel is Laura Jane Grace, and the band she fronts is an incredibly polished and slick machine playing arenas and getting radio play with their poppy punk rock.
Grace's credibility has taken a beating through it all, but she still plays with as much passion as ever; many old fans cried sell-out long ago, but her concerts over the years have always kept the original energy of AM! intact, and the later material, even though it initially sounds completely different, contains the same beating heart at its core. After all, people change as they grow up; Grace has just done it in public, and while it's sometimes caused grief, it's been one big learning experience. And along the way, through a slew of band members (including members of Hot Water Music and Rocket from the Crypt), she's crafted some of the best punk rock of our time. This isn't just the story of a band changing over time; it's the story of a person slowly coming to terms with who they are, and documenting the confusion, chaos, loss, and, finally, acceptance every step of the way.
[Editor's note on language: The common practice in the trans community is to use the subject's gender identification as a universal pronoun guide — since Laura Jane identifies and lives as a woman, she would be a woman throughout. However, in the May 2012 Rolling Stone article in which she came out as transgender, she indicated that she wants her life as Tom Gabel to remain male-identified. As per her wishes, that is how it's presented here.]
Seventeen-year-old Tom Gabel, who grew up as a military brat moving from one base to the next, begins Against Me! as a solo project in Gainesville, FL. He plays acoustic solo folk-punk that veers more toward a wild, violent protest than a peaceful one. Gabel doesn't like authority — he was arrested when he was 14, charged with resisting arrest and battery; when he is 18 he will be arrested again, for obstruction of justice and resisting arrest without violence. The Gainesville punk scene is vibrant and exciting, with No Idea Records leading the way and bands like Hot Water Music and Less Than Jake making waves. The Against Me! self-titled demo is released. "The first one was embarrassing," Gabel will admit to Punknews in 2010.
1998 to 2000
In 1998, Kevin Mahon joins as drummer and Dustin Fridkin plays bass; he leaves shortly after, but returns for 2001 and 2002. Against Me! release the Vivida-Vis demo in 1998 and a self-titled EP in 2000 on Crasshole Records.
James Bowman joins the band as guitarist and drummer Warren Oakes replaces Mahon, who will go on to play in forgetters with Blake Schwarzenbach (ex-Jawbreaker). The Crime as Forgiven by Against Me! EP is released on Plan-It-X Records after the label's Chris Clavin sees an Against Me! show. "The first time I saw Against Me! play it was solo in a laundry room of an apartment complex," says Clavin. "It was a truly magical experience. I fell in love. I felt magic and power in the songs. I immediately asked about releasing something." A self-titled acoustic EP comes out on Sabot Productions, a label run by AM! tour manager Jordan Kleeman. Sabot also releases the vinyl version of Crime as Forgiven by Against Me!; years later, the band will decide to not let Plan-It-X repress the CD version. "At the time, I remember sending multiple emails to Chris of Plan-It-X just asking him for his phone number so I could call him," Gabel will tell Punknews in 2010, "and he wouldn't give me his phone number and he was always really inconsistent in the way he would respond to me, and I was like, 'Fuck, this is someone who obviously doesn't agree with the choices my band is making, is almost hypercritical of the things we're doing. Why the hell are we going to leave the record with him? Let's just take it back to our own label.'"
Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose, the band's full-length debut, is released on No Idea Records. (Axl Rose is, apparently, unimpressed with the album title.) It's a raw, screamed, emotional album filled with basement punk anthems and hints of melody to come. "Back then, Against Me! were one of those rare bands that caught people and held their attention like super glue," says Var Thelin of No Idea Records. "Folks stopped what they were doing and turned their heads to see what was going on. Shows were chaotic and a lot of fun; a pressure release, a sincere and joyous moment. When I play that record now, it certainly speaks to me both of a time and place, but it stands on its own as well." Clavin of Plan-It-X claims the album was going to be released on his label but the band, without consulting him, released it on No Idea instead. "This was very painful and was the start of the end of my relationship with the band," he says. "I had been saving money and promoting the album for months. It was really, really hard." Clavin says No Idea contacted him and told him they wouldn't release it without his blessing. "I gave them my blessing because it would be pointless to try and force the band to stay with me; it was clearly over," he says. Andrew Seward joins on bass; he will stay in the band until 2013. The band release The Disco Before the Breakdown EP on No Idea Records.
Against Me! jump to big punk label Fat Wreck Chords, a move met with intense, violent opposition from fans. "Remember when you mattered?" is scrawled on the side of their van while on tour. At a show on Long Island, people try to physically stop the band from playing during a concert; after the show, their van's tires have been slashed. The band confront the person who did it a few months later. "I remember as we were all yelling back and forth at each other, I looked over to my right and one of the kid's friends was standing there and I saw him pick up a brick," Gabel will tell The Village Voice in 2010. "It was totally this moment that took me back — I realized this person could potentially fucking bash my brains out with a brick, all because I play in a fucking band and signed to a bigger indie label. And this was the movement that I was part of. And realizing that, and realizing how full of shit that all was, was definitely an eye-opening moment." Maximumrockandroll magazine offers tips to sabotage Against Me! live shows; they suggest things such as pouring bleach on their merch table. The band's debut for Fat, Against Me! As the Eternal Cowboy, is released. The album is rooted in the screaming punk sound of the first album, but shows some progress as more mature songwriting creeps in. The band will go on to release seven-inches for two songs from the album on No Idea Records: "Cavalier Eternal" (in 2004) and "Sink, Florida, Sink" (in 2005); both contain different versions of the songs.
The We're Never Going Home DVD is released on Fat. It documents major labels trying to court the band, only to have them take the free meals and drinks and refuse all their offers, saying they don't want to sign their lives away. They will release their major label debut three years later.
Searching for a Former Clarity is released on Fat Wreck Chords. It is a huge step forward, losing some of the frantic, screamed basement show energy in favour of a more reasoned punk rock sound. The album sells over 65,000 copies. It also hints at something troubling Gabel: on the title track, he sings, "And in the journal you kept by the side of your bed... / Confessing childhood secrets of dressing up in women's clothes / Compulsions you never knew the reason to." The lyrics are, apparently, about a dying man, but probably mean a lot more to Gabel, who has been cross-dressing in private and battling feelings of being a woman for years. The Don't Lose Touch single is released on Fat Wreck Chords, featuring a Mouse on Mars remix of the title track. The band appear on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, performing "Don't Lose Touch." The band sign to Sire Records.
The exclamation-point filled Americans Abroad!!! Against Me!!! Live in London!!! is released. A live album on Fat Wreck Chords, it contains one new song, "Americans Abroad," which will appear on their next album. Gabel swears off cross-dressing and resigns himself to living as male. Gabel meets Heather Hannoura, a Detroit punk rocker who designed merchandise for Green Day and My Chemical Romance; they will get married in 2007. Fat Wreck Chords releases the From Her Lips to God's Ears (The Energizer) single, featuring a remix from Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys.
The gradual process of alienating old fans accelerates: the band release the Butch Vig-produced New Wave on Sire Records. It is their highest-charting album yet, hitting number 57 on Billboard. Some fans from the old days, including Plan-It-X Records' Chris Clavin, are let down by the band's decisions. "I guess I'd have to say that music- and business-wise, Against Me!'s actions were typical and predictable, stepping up the ladder to labels and denouncing their early material and even their early involvements in the DIY scene," says Clavin. "It was sad." Clavin says that the band's actions were difficult for their early fans to accept. "It's so hard to explain how amazing Against Me! were and how important they were to the DIY scene," he says. "I think they were the first real DIY punk band to 'sell out.' It was hard for us to take. They were magic. They were wonderful."
New Wave is incredibly streamlined — slick, produced, and poppy, including successful single "Thrash Unreal." They're more popular than ever, but not always with their old fans. "To be treated like a supervillain for not playing music the right way is totally mind-blowing," drummer Oakes tells The Nation. "I don't mind the scrutiny, but a lot of times it's impossible for people to walk away with the world a big enough place that we're just four genuine, sincere people that are making the right decisions, as we see it, every step of the way."
Bassist Andrew Seward says that despite a drastic shift in sound now that the band is on a major label, the label had no say in the creative process. "We had creative control. We would never sign something that would hamper any of that. The change in sound was intentional with us," he will tell Rewrite the Scene in 2011. The band give a slight dig back at Maximumrockandroll in the lyrics of "Up the Cuts." There are plenty of sombre moments on the album (Tegan Quin of Tegan and Sara duets with Gabel on the break-up ballad "Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart") mixed with upbeat, melodic punk rock fit for the radio. Australia's Ben Lee covers the entire album and releases it as a free download.
There are more, very explicit, shades of things that are privately troubling Gabel: on "The Ocean," he sings, "If I could have chosen / I would have been born a woman / My mother once told me / She would have named me Laura / I'd grow up to be strong and beautiful like her / One day I'd find an honest man / to make my husband." In 2012 Gabel will admit to Rolling Stone that he thought he was "completely outing himself" with the lyric. Against Me! tour manager Kleeman will say in the same Rolling Stone story that he "must have listened to him sing that song 500 times. And I never thought twice."
The band hit the road on some interesting tours, including one particularly strange one with prog-metal titans Mastodon and literate emo fellows Cursive. Gabel gets into some trouble on tour. In a coffee shop in Tallahassee, FL, an article on the wall is apparently defaced to mock the band. According to Punknews, Gabel tore the article down, and a patron asked why; allegedly, Gabel started yelling at the patron, who said, "This conversation is over." Gabel apparently said, "I don't think it is," and knocked a cup of coffee out of the patron's hand. The patron said that Gabel then grabbed his head and forced it onto a counter; a third person then interfered by putting Gabel into a headlock and, amazingly, head-butting him. Gabel is taken to the sheriff's office after the band's concert that night and released the next morning on $500 bail.
Gabel wants to dress as a woman in the video for "Thrash Unreal" but the label cautions against it. The Live at the Key Club DVD is released on Sire, as are the White People for Peace and Thrash Unreal singles. Gabel struggles to keep his cool while talking about the band's decisions, which becomes clear when he's interviewed for the Miami New Times. The writer asks what message the band are trying to bring to the mainstream from the underground, and it's the final straw. "I really don't have any interest in doing this interview if it's all just about this," he says. "I don't want to talk about it. This has so been done before. It is just obnoxious. Do you think that I am that lonely and desperate that I need to justify myself to a reporter on the telephone? I don't even know you. I've done the interview a million times before and then I've read the article afterwards a million times. I know the slant that everybody puts on it and I know exactly how it's gonna read, so what's the fucking point? If someone comes in that pointed with their questions in an interview, they obviously already have some kind of angle that they are going for. It's like, damn, another one of these interviews... where someone is going to do this whole 'Against Me! — are they sell-outs or not?' It's so fucking boring. I don't really feel like justifying myself, you know? That's what you are asking me to do."
The band support the Foo Fighters on an American tour. Tom Gabel releases the solo Heart Burns EP on Sire Records. A quick release, it's recorded as a reaction to the polish of New Wave and is more focused on protest songs. It was originally going to be released under the Against Me! name. "I wanted to go in the studio, because I wanted to record them and get them out quickly — I thought a lot of the songs were timely in their topic, and they related to current events," Gabel will tell Punknews in 2010. "And I wanted to have them out around the election or before the election. I went to do it, and I ended up doing it myself. It seemed like it would be better to release it under my name." Against Me!'s New Wave B-Sides digital EP is released, and so are the Stop and New Wave singles, both on Sire.
The Original Cowboy is released on Fat Wreck Chords; it consists of demos for 2003's Against Me! As the Eternal Cowboy album. George Rebelo of Hot Water Music joins on drums, replacing Oakes, who will go on to start a Mexican restaurant, Boca Fiesta, and play in Sunshine State (Oakes records demos for the next album before he leaves). Rebelo only stays in the band until 2010 but does play drums on their next studio album. "Well, I think it's complicated when it comes down to why Warren left," Gabel will tell Punknews in 2010. "I think a lot of just has to do with touring as a band for eight-plus years... it takes its toll. Doing that, not that it's not a worthwhile sacrifice, I'm not complaining, but you do have your personal relationship and your personal lives suffer in a lot of ways and I think Warren just wasn't interested in spending that much time on the road any more and wanted to have more of a home life. Obviously if you're going to open a restaurant, you don't want to spend as much time on tour or in a band."
Victoria, BC resident Tyson Yerex joins the band as a touring member, playing keyboards and guitar during concerts. "One of the more classic fan moments I remember was from a show in Kingston, ON," says Yerex, "overhearing two college kids using the washroom agree that given the choice between losing their spot at the front of the stage and 'pissing their pants,' that the latter was clearly the better option." Yerex plays around 30 shows with the band. Sire releases the I Was a Teenage Anarchist single, and Sabot Productions releases the High Pressure Low acoustic single. Gabel and Hannoura have their first daughter, Evelyn.
White Crosses, the band's second major label album (also produced by Butch Vig), is released. It gets leaked three months before its release date. "I encouraged people to download our record when it leaked," Gabel tells Punknews. "That was the bottom line for me. We made the record, we wanted people to listen to it, and as long as people are listening to it we don't really care. At this day and age that's just the reality — records leak. It's stupid to get upset about that. There's nothing you can do to prevent it." The album takes the formula of New Wave, streamlines it, and adds more pop, with much success. It reaches number 34 on Billboard. "I Was a Teenage Anarchist" talks about Gabel's disillusion with the anarchist punk scene he grew up in: "Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?" he sings. The backlash continues: the song's blunt take on his changed opinion prompts political punks Rise Against to directly address Gabel in their own tune "Architects," which they will release on 2011's Endgame. Vocalist Tim McIlrath sings, "Don't you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire? Somewhere deep down, I know you do / And don't you remember when we were young and we wanted to set the world on fire? / 'Cause I still am, and I still do." Jay Weinberg (son of Bruce Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg) joins on drums. Touring members Franz Nicolay (keyboards and accordion) and Adam Trachsel (bass) spend time touring.
Right before a tour of New Zealand and Australian tour, the band cancel all their shows and say they need to go home to sort things out. Two months later, in November, the band announce that Sire has chosen to not continue working with Against Me! Gabel later says that the label made some serious mistakes, including sending out an unfinished version of "I Was a Teenage Anarchist" to Canadian radio stations. Gabel's feelings of being a woman come back strong and he checks into hotels for periods of time by himself, dressed as a woman, to write new material.
Fat Wreck Chords releases Total Clarity, demo versions from Searching for a Former Clarity. In July, Gabel releases Black Crosses via Total Treble — his new label, and the name of his new studio — containing demos from the White Crosses sessions. Sabot Productions releases the Russian Spies single, featuring two new full band songs.
Gabel produces Cheap Girls' Giant Orange at Total Treble studios. Gabel comes out as transgender in a May 2012 Rolling Stone interview with writer Josh Eels; he had let the band know in February. Tom Gabel is now Laura Jane Grace. "It was a total pleasure getting to know Laura and her family," says Rolling Stone's Eels. "As an interview subject she was a dream — smart, honest, funny — and I was super honoured to get to help share part of her story." Grace told the band members while they were in the studio. "I felt I drop-kicked them in the face," she tells Rolling Stone. She says they "had the most awkward hug ever, and then they left. And the second I shut the door, I was like, 'What the fuck did I just do?'" Meeting a transgender AM! fan is what inspired Grace to come out. She begins hormone replacement therapy. Her first show as Grace is in May in San Diego, on the first date of a tour opening for the Cult. At a show in North Carolina in November, Grace gets parts of her teeth shattered when an audience gets a bit too wild and her mic gets shoved into her face.
Seward leaves the band on good terms; "The last ten years ruled," he tweets. Inge Johansson (ex-International Noise Conspiracy and Refused) joins on bass. Seward's new band, Human Parts, release their debut in September. Grace says that "It's heartbreaking to know that Andrew won't be standing next to me on stage the next time I stand upon one. I realize at this point there's a possibility that it may look pretty ridiculous to carry on playing under the name Against Me! If I didn't feel like I had something that I really needed to say with the album we've been working on for the past year, then I'd humbly hang the hat and move on." The band cancel a European tour with Bad Religion and Polar Bear Club when Weinberg leaves the band; Atom Willard (ex-Rocket from the Crypt and Social Distortion) replaces him. The acoustic True Trans EP is released, showcasing stripped-down versions of two songs that will appear on the band's next full-length. Grace tells Elle magazine that before she came out as female, she had "reached a total brick wall where I would be up there [on stage], and I felt like, in between songs, I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to talk... I had no passion when I was playing and I just didn't feel like I could continue to write music." She says that coming out as female was "100 percent" what she needed to change those feelings.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a step away from the polished sound of their last two album. More aggressive, the album features NOFX's Fat Mike playing bass on two songs (Grace plays on the rest). "I have been just as inspired, surprised, and intrigued as anyone else by the music that has been created and am always curious to know what the next song will be," says No Idea's Thelin. "They still have a stop-what-you-are-doing effect on me; they are compelling in that way. I don't know exactly what the next chapter will bring, but I keep turning the pages."
Despite line-up changes, label changes, audience changes, and a front-person coming out as transgendered, the band soldier on, always teetering on the verge of chaos, which is right where Grace wants it to be, as words spoken to Punknews in 2006 prove. "I don't want this band to end with a fizzle when it does eventually end. I want it to explode and be completely irreparable."
Essential Against Me!
Searching for a Former Clarity (Fat Wreck, 2005)
There's never been an album quite like this: a sprawling, prickly punk disc filled with songs about how much the music industry stinks, with just enough basement show energy and sing-along choruses to keep the original AM! spirit alive and well. And just enough songwriting skills to hint at the radio-ready future.
New Wave (Sire, 2007)
"Thrash Unreal" was the big wake-up call here, showing that the band could write an arena rock anthem with the best of them. Elsewhere, there's a lot of the band's early protest punk hiding behind big production and streamlined songwriting, making for a unique album that marked the first step in a new direction.
White Crosses (Sire, 2010)
The ultra-slick, arena-ready pop-punk that New Wave foretold, and it's every bit as gloriously antagonistic, catchy, and heartstring-pulling as we could have hoped. Their shining moment, from the Replacements homage to the band's catchiest rock song ever, all with a huge middle finger to both the punks and the establishment.