I have a confession to make. While Floridian punk rockers Against Me! have been making noise for thirteen years, I did not first hear them until three years ago when their “Stop!” video was played regularly on Fuse. And I did not listen through an entire album until this past spring when Warner Bros. sent me an advance copy of White Crosses, their fantastic fifth album. I know that many long-time, hardcore fans are not delighted by the more commercial nature of their last couple of albums, and I have only casually listened to cuts from their first four albums — don’t worry, I’ll get to them — but their latest release is simply a masterpiece. It juxtaposes angry punk energy with a growing sense of maturity that is exemplified by the single, “I Was A Teenage Anarchist”. But the album goes deeper than that, exploring themes like coping with death, the right to choose and, in the case of the bonus track “Bitter Divisions,” trying to find healing during a time of social strife.
I recently chatted with Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel for a Grammy.com feature on living room concerts, but he offered plenty more for A.D.D. We also discussed the group’s change in sound, becoming a parent, where the music business is heading and what DIY really means.
This is the first full Against Me! album that I’ve absorbed, so I have to collect your earlier material. From what I’ve heard, you were more punk in the early days.
Punk is a state of mind, right?
I’m curious as to how certain fans have dealt with your shift in sound over the years and how they’re responding to this album?
I feel like we’ve gotten the same response in some respects to every record every time where some older fans don’t like the new record — they like the older record, the record that they got into first — and then there are some fans who discover you based on an album and then work their way backwards. And then there are some fans that are into it, and that’s always the way it’s been. I think a lot of it has to do sometimes with the fact that people are always going to feel an attachment to what they initially got into, the first record that turned them onto the band, because music is obviously a personal thing. That’s what they’re identifying with.
It’s interesting because I’ve gotten the new Accept album, and they’ve returned with a new singer. But some people are not going to accept the fact that someone else is singing.
It’s something that you have to try to keep perspective on it often times because whatever happens around when a record initially comes out, [you also need to] think about five or 10 years down the road the way things are going to be perceived. Some bands in particular that, for lack of a better word, are idols or inspirations, like The Clash or The Replacements, if you look at their catalog there is such a definite progression from where they started to where they ended, it doesn’t seem odd in any way, whereas if you had been a part of it when it was coming out you might’ve reacted in one way or the other. Discovering those bands now, it doesn’t have the same effect.
I found a picture of Against Me! playing a show in someone’s living room in Florida last year. Do you think of such gigs as a return to your punk rock roots? Punk wasn’t necessarily meant to be played in huge venues. There’s that DIY aspect to it.
Yes and no. I feel like there is a lot of different parts to that question. As far as it being DIY or anything like that, in a lot of ways I feel that now the term DIY is less about the actual meaning behind the phrase, “do-it-yourself,” and more about a genre when it comes to bands being DIY.
“Right when you ask about major labels dying — ‘No, no, no, interview’s over!'”
It’s basically a media catchphrase now. Publicists toss that around all the time: “This band is DIY.”
Exactly. Really, when it comes down to it, there are limitations on that term. Where is that supposed to end? Sure, you booked your tour yourself, but did you build your van? Did you refine the gas? Did you make the tires? Someone else eventually plays a part into it, so where is the limitation? But I think the spirit that no one else is going to do it for you and going out and doing it yourself is what’s really important there, even if you’re doing that with other people and working collectively. What fun is it if you’re doing it on your own? I think in reference to doing house shows, for us we’re kind of at a point now where it’s unrealistic for us to advertise that we’re doing a house show. Like that show that you found pictures of, we played under an alias, under the name Gift Certificate. That’s a name that we’ve played under a couple of times. We tell the people who set it up that it’s cool to flyer it under that name, but if you flyer it for Against Me! you’re going to have 600 or 700 kids show up at their house, and it’s going to get chaotic and the cops are going to get called.
How many of these shows have you done?
That’s really where we started out as a band, so hundreds, but nowadays it’s something that has to be a little more spontaneous, so as far as doing it on tour it’s a little harder. I think the last house show I played was probably two or three months ago. We were on tour in Flagstaff, Arizona, and there was this band called The Vampirates from Reno, Nevada. I was sitting in the back of the bus playing my guitar, and all of a sudden I heard someone playing one of our songs outside of the bus. So I opened up the window and looked out, and there was this band set up just playing on their acoustic guitars and banging on the ground with some drum sticks. I ended up going outside and playing along with them, and we started talking. They were on tour and playing a house party in town that night, and we were doing a headlining show. So I suggested that they go ahead and open our show and borrow whatever equipment they needed to do it, and they asked if I would come and play the house party afterwards. So we ended up trading shows in that respect, and I walked over to the house party they were playing after our show and played for five songs. It was a good, drunken time.
Did they know that that was your bus?
They knew that that was our bus. They were on tour, and they saw that we were playing in town, so they figured they would go down to the venue and see if they could find any of us. It just worked out.
It’s like your new song “Bamboo Bones” declares: What God doesn’t give to you, you’ve got to go and get for yourself.
Totally. And for that band, I think it was probably their first or second tour. Thinking back to our first or second tour, touring is supposed to be about those experiences, crazy things and unplanned things happening and coming back with those kinds of stories.
At this point, are these house parties really about the money or just the chance to do something different?
It’s not about the money at all. It’s about the chance to do a different type of gig. With that Florida show that we did, there was no money charged at the door, and we didn’t ask for anything. Starting out as a band playing house shows, oftentimes the way it will work is you’re trading shows with other bands. They’re having you play in their basement, garage or living room, and it’s basically passing a hat for gas money at the end of the night. For us, it’s not about that when we’re doing it.
There are many bands who, when they reach a certain point in their career like you have, wouldn’t do this type of gig. I’m interviewing some folk artists for the story, because a man or woman with a guitar can make money doing that. If you make $400 at the gig, and in some cases crash at somebody’s house, that’s not a bad deal.
Oh, for sure, and people usually will feed you too, and you get the experience as well. You make friends that way.
Since this is the way you started, you’re obviously more connected with that. Do you find a lot of other rock bands doing these kinds of gigs?
I don’t know, I guess. It’s not something that I necessarily hear of all that often if it’s more of an established band. Oftentimes it will be difficult when you pass the stage as a band where you’re no longer touring in a van and you’re doing bus touring. The way bus touring works is the driver will drive you during the night and then sleep during the day, and you don’t have the possibility of moving the bus yourself. And your gear is in the trailer. So trying to go somewhere extracurricular and parking your bus in front of someone’s house in a residential neighborhood isn’t often realistic. There would be nothing low key about that.
Taking the song “I Was A Teenage Anarchist” as a starting point, I really appreciate the sentiment of the songs on White Crosses because they are dealing with the idea of transitioning from being an angry young man to being a slightly older, angry man, but learning to deal with your feelings more and better understanding of the world is really about.
That’s a fine assessment, sure.
“There are limitations on that term [DIY]. Where is that supposed to end? Sure, you booked your tour yourself, but did you build your van? Did you refine the gas? Did you make the tires? Someone else eventually plays a part into it, so where is the limitation?”
What personal experiences inspired the lyrics?
I think with this album in particular it wasn’t a conscious thing to go in that direction so much as certain things happening in my life that pushed me in that direction. The major thing is that in the middle of the writing process my wife got pregnant, and we had a daughter couple of weeks after the album was finished. While it wasn’t a topical thing on the album, I’m sure it played into my mindset with making it. For me or for us, you kind of get to that age — I am going to turn 30 soon — where it’s not that your politics have necessarily changed or that you’re not outraged by the same things, it’s just that you adapt to how you practice those politics or what you do to vent that frustration. You learn that oftentimes beating your head against the wall isn’t going to change anything, that you have to be more productive [with your anger] or else you’re going to drive yourself insane.
We’ve reached a place in our society where people aren’t really having a dialogue but are angry, and they’re not really venting their anger in a productive way or in any positive direction. The song “Bitter Divisions” has a positive spin on the situation, about trying to bridge the gulf that we have in this country and working more positively together. Have you always felt that way, or has that been a change in your mindset recently? Has being a parent changed your attitude about things?
For sure. All the clichés are true when it comes to that [being a parent]. For me, looking at this country in particular right now, I feel like things are so incredibly divided politically, and just trying to reconcile those differences… I don’t know. Having a kid is something that definitely puts things in perspective in a way, and you think about the world that your kids will be growing up in and how much things will change by the time they are your age. It’s kind of astounding.
Was “Because Of The Shame” inspired by anything in your own life?
A friend of mine was murdered about a year and a half ago, and the song is about her. When I was at the funeral, my friend’s mother asked me to write a song for her, so I left the funeral and didn’t sleep for couple of days, and that’s the song I came out with.
How are people responding to your style of music in Europe as opposed to the States?
We’ve always had great tours over there. It’s interesting seeing the way things vary from country to country. I think that there are some countries over there that are, just as a generalization, more rock countries, like Germany or the UK. I feel France is more of an electronic music type country. Rock doesn’t do so well there. I love traveling, and the perk of the job is getting to go to beautiful places.
Touring has definitely become a necessity for rock bands these days. We’re hearing a lot about the demise of the music industry, but do you think that it is the music industry that is dying or the major label system that is dying?
[We get interrupted by the publicist stating that there is time for one more question before Tom’s next phoner.]
Right when you ask about major labels dying. “No, no, no, interview’s over!” [laughs]
Ironically, Warner Bros. is my favorite major label right now. But the music biz has become a different game now. How are things working lately, and what are the challenges that you and the label face in trying to get your music out there?
I think it’s different. We’ve never been one of those bands that could live off of record royalties as far as not touring. We’ve always been a touring band, so nothing’s really changed in that respect. I think any kind of recession around the touring industry, with people not coming out or low ticket sales, is based on the economy, that people are not spending money and not wanting to go out to shows, especially if they’re bad shows or they’re overpriced. You have that, but as far as the record labels, I think it’s just a period of transition. I think the old model’s dead, and they still have yet to figure out the new model.