Against Me!: Punk Like Me

With the great, misunderstood New Wave, Against Me! either betrayed its anarchist-punk past or made a bright new future with the most important major-label debut in years. Interview By Ben Lee

God bless the sellouts, recovering punks and traitors to the scene. Think about rock’s modern era, about Nirvana’s Nevermind and Green Day’s exile from Gilman Street. Then consider the minor and almost quaint infamy of Against Me!, the grassroots-style punk band led by 27-year-old singer/guitarist Tom Gabel. The Gainesville, Fla., quartet spent the first half of 2007 defending its decision to sign to major label Sire and eliciting the scorn of sanctimonious former fans. It spent the latter half of the year basking in critical acclaim for New Wave, performing on Letterman, gladhanding with Bruce Springsteen and opening arena shows for the Foo Fighters.

Against Me! might be the last band to endure accusations of selling out. The charges just don’t stick anymore in what’s literally become a post-punk world where Ramones T-shirts are peddled at every mall and “Lust For Life” shills for cruise-ship vacations. To understand why Against Me! had major-label hesitations in the first place, you have to look at the band’s back story.

An Army brat who relocated from Naples, Italy, to Naples, Fla., in his early teens, Gabel had his first brush with American authority at 14, when he was arrested and jailed for riding his bicycle on the city’s boardwalk. After being restrained by the police, Gabel was charged with battery and resisting arrest. He dropped out of high school at 16; a year later, he started performing under the Against Me! name in Gainesville as an acoustic solo act. On Reinventing Axl Rose, Against Me!’s 2002 full-band debut, Gabel’s complicated worldview can be detected through the album’s song titles alone: the youthful rebellion (“Baby, I’m An Anarchist!”), the self-conscious romance (“I Still Love You Julie (Dance Mix 2002)”) and the curious idealism (“The Politics Of Starving”). Influenced—or at least emboldened—by the old-school political punk of Crass and the rabble-rousing folk of (Young) Pioneers, it might’ve been easy to dismiss Gabel and Co. as circle-A anarchists, suburban parking-lot dweebs with time to waste writing manifestos. But beneath the angry anthems and posturing was a group history of involvement with Food Not Bombs, Punk Voter and child-advocacy group PROTECT.

On 2005’s Searching For A Former Clarity, Against Me!’s lineup had solidified into its current incarnation of Gabel, high-school friend and guitarist James Bowman, drummer Warren Oakes and bassist Andrew Seward. Gabel, a throaty singer who gargles his words, was still concerned with the big ideas of justice and humanity on songs such as Bush administration critique/Condoleezza Rice call-out “From Her Lips To God’s Ears (The Energizer),” but the real focus turned inward. Gabel, who’d gotten married at age 20, was in the midst of a divorce, and the fallout is all over the austere, dirge-rock Clarity, an album filled with self-lacerating songs about emotional war and the-dimebag-let-me-down loneliness.

True to its title, New Wave carried Against Me! out of the doldrums. Producer Butch Vig (Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana) was brought in to give the 10 songs their sharp instrumental edges and clean-cut, radio-ready feel, but Gabel’s voice stubbornly refuses to conform to familiar modern-rock standards. He chews through his lyrics instead of spitting them out, and seemingly transparent, verging-on-corny rallying cries become admirable rather than laughable: “We can be the bands we wanna hear/We can define our own generation.” Gabel is cautiously critical of protest music on “White People For Peace” and goes in for the kill on music-biz starmaking meditation “Up The Cuts.” In terms of recent-vintage major-label punk, New Wave doesn’t fall into left-wing lockstep with the likes of Rage Against The Machine; it’s more in line with the smart, short bullet-point buzzsaw rock of Bad Religion.

But some of the record’s most revelatory moments just aren’t punk at all. “Borne On The FM Waves Of The Heart” is a showtune-style duet with Tegan Quin of lesbian-sister duo Tegan & Sara, and the album-closing “The Ocean” is so lyrically surreal (“The salt and swell of the ocean … mixed with algae and coral/Breathed in by sharks and dolphins”) that it hints at either a fascinating complexity or Gabel’s stoned daydreaming. And with power ballad “Animal,” Against Me! brings love and lust into the hardcore lexicon.

“It’s romance and anger sitting side by side,” observes Australian singer/songwriter Ben Lee of Against Me!’s musical tack. Lee became familiar with the band after downloading New Wave in August, and he was so taken by it, he recorded a track-for-track acoustic covers album virtually solo. Lee made a mock album cover (the image of a yawning kitten replaces Against Me!’s roaring tiger), called it Ben Lee Sings Against Me! New Wave and posted it on his blog as a free download. Fans of both camps were alternately confused, pissed off or turned on to something new.

When MAGNET discovered that Against Me! and Lee would nearly cross paths in Ohio during a winter tour, we asked if Lee would be interested in playing the role of music journalist. As it turns out, the two parties related on a much deeper level than interviewer/interviewees; each had weathered a year of tough decisions and criticism from longtime fans. In August, tempers boiled over in Tallahassee, where Gabel spent the night in jail and was brought up on assault charges stemming from a confrontation over an anti-Against Me! article posted at a local café. For his part, Lee issued Ripe, an unabashedly catchy pop record that turns its back on the lo-fi records he made for the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label in the late ’90s.

“When we met, there was an alignment in the way we were pursuing our music and careers: Anything goes if you’re feeling it,” says Lee. “It’s funny; Against Me!, their scene has the same sort of criticisms I’ve had in the indie-rock or singer/songwriter scene: ‘You’re working with Mandy Moore.’ Or ‘You did an electronic record.’ All the crap that’s leveled at me, they get the same thing from the punk scene. We could just relate.”

After a few games of foosball, Lee spoke to the members of Against Me! backstage before their show at the House of Blues in Cleveland.

Ben Lee: One of the biggest shocks of meeting you guys is the high level of foosball ability. How did the Against Me! foosball obsession began?
Tom Gabel: It’s from touring in Europe. There’s always a foosball table guaranteed at the venues, and we spent a good three or four tours getting our asses kicked by Europeans all over the place, then eventually started getting OK at it. What’s amazing, though, is that you come back to America and you’re fucking gods at it.

You were playing with spin and all sorts of shit.
Gabel: No spin. No spin.

No spin?
Andrew Seward: I like the word “gods,” Tom.
Gabel: We are gods. We are American gods at foosball.

Foosball has never been quite raised to mythological levels. Anyway, I had a few distinct musical moments in my childhood, like going to see Mötley Crüe when I was 10 years old. And when I saw Nirvana play live, that was when I thought I could actually start a band. What moments made you guys want to be musicians?
Gabel: My earliest musical memory was seeing Madonna on TV. I was six or seven years old and living in Texas, and I remember being totally mesmerized. I’ve always been fascinated by musicians and rock stars. I’d hang out at the PX—I grew up in a military family, and the PX is kind of like your general store—and sit in the magazine section and look through Hit Parader and the stupid teen magazines, too.
Seward: I got a bass for my 12th birthday because I was a Winger fan; I loved the way Kip Winger played bass. If you watch the videos, I don’t think he plays one note; he just spins around. It’s ironic, because I also loved (Metallica’s) …And Justice For All. Listening now, you can’t hear one note of the bass on that entire album.

I think that was because they were still very passive-aggressive toward Jason Newsted. They just took him out of the mix.
James Bowman: I remember being young and basically plopping down in front of MTV, watching all my favorite metal bands in the early-to-mid-’80s, seeing Van Halen videos and David Lee Roth jumping around and thinking, “Wow, this is fucking great.” Van Halen whipping around in circles soloing, just funny stuff like that. So I asked for a guitar.
Warren Oakes: It was metal for me as well. It was Metallica. Me and my best friend would talk about the band we were going to start. The working title was Death Of A Thousand Cuts. [Laughs] But we never made any moves toward learning how to play an instrument. We’d just come up with song titles and band names. It wasn’t until a few years later that I started going to local shows and some kid in my math class was suddenly in front of me playing songs. I was like, “Wow, all these people that I know are starting their own bands.”

For most people who are into any form of underground music, there was a point when you suddenly realized that nothing was out of range. For me, it was all-ages shows. I got into the music that I was able to see, which was punk and indie bands. So in some ways it was not an aesthetic decision about the style of music but just what was available to me. How did you guys discover punk rock?
Gabel: We really didn’t have any immediate connection with stuff. We grew up in Naples, Fla., where there’s not a lot going on, so any little piece of punk rock you could get, you just totally ate up. There wasn’t a Hot Topic in the mall, so your style was more unique and individual because you were taking bits and pieces from magazines and things you saw randomly. And your only source of music was whatever record store was in the mall. I think the first record I bought was the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks and Operation Ivy’s Energy after that. It was hard, because you were just doing it by yourself. There was no older generation of punk kids; there was no one to look up to in Naples.
Bowman: They all left. [Laughs]
Gabel: Yeah, as soon as you’re 18, you get the fuck out of there.

I love that the band was formed with the nucleus of an activist group. Can you tell me a little bit about what was going on there and how it overlapped with music?
Gabel: In Florida back in the day, there was a big activist scene and we all used to get together every month or so and meet in a designated city, usually Clearwater, to just talk about what we’ve been up to. That’s how James and I met Warren.

Were you guys listening to the same music at this point or was it the activism that created the bond?
Gabel: It was kind of assumed we were into the same general type of music. And the majority of music that was present during this time was people playing stuff themselves on guitar and playing music for each other. It wasn’t like someone bought a boombox and we were listening to the new Fugazi CD. It was like, “Check out this song that I wrote.” Or, “Check out this song that this other guy wrote.”

So it wasn’t a conformist scene, artistically.
Gabel: Yes. It was pretty hippie, too.

Oh, really?
Gabel: Yes, a bunch of kids sitting around a campfire, talking about non-monogamous relationships and drinking home-brew wine.

When you’re a teenager, non-monogamous relationships sound like the answer to every problem. They sound like heaven.
Gabel: It was an interesting experiment, but I think it causes as many problems as it solves. For me, at least.

Totally. Tom, I was reading that you had corresponded with Bobby Seale when you were younger. What was your connection to the Black Panthers?
Gabel: I did a zine called Misanthrope, and the highlight of my career was when I interviewed Bobby Seale, who was co-founder of the Black Panthers. I was just surfing around the Internet one night and found his website. I wrote him an email asking, “Hey, can I interview you for my zine?” I think he probably assumed that I was running a more legitimate magazine than just a 16-page, photocopied, hand-stapled, 16-year-old-kid zine. But he did the interview.

Did you interview him in person?
Gabel: I did it by email. I think I ended up pissing him off at the end of it, because when he sent back the interview, at the beginning of it he put this thing that was like, “Now look. You can reprint this, but I own the rights to the interview.” When I replied to him, I was just like, “OK. Thank you.” And his email was still at the bottom of it, and I think he thought I was saying that (I owned the rights). So he wrote me back this nasty email that was like, “You punk kid. Where do you get off? Your interview questions were all stock and bullshit, and you think that you own that?” I wrote him back: “Mr. Seale, I think there’s been a mistake.”

You really don’t want to be on the Black Panthers’ shit list. Tom, a lot is made in the press over the police-harassment incident in Florida when you were a teenager. The kind of spin that the media gives is that this was a turning point, like a catalyst for becoming a musician or a punk. But I see the two things as different. Did it just make you anti-authoritarian or did it motivate you to actually become an artist?
Gabel: I think it really made me just get my shit together in a lot of ways. I was already into punk at that point, but I was into it in a more nihilistic sense. I liked the music and wanted to play this music where I know I’m going to get fucked up—you know, totally self-destructive. That was more the style of punk bands that I was listening to. When that happened to me, it was just like, “Holy fuck. I’m in some real trouble right now.” I was arrested, then got out of jail the next morning. The legal stuff took forever to go through, and I was on house arrest for a whole summer and didn’t know what was going to happen. You’re 15 years old and you’re being charged with two felonies. You’re like, “Fuck. I’m going to go to juvie.” So it was a moment in life where it really made me prioritize things, and the thing I unprioritized was smoking weed.

I had similar experiences in terms of my dad dying and a friend dying from a heroin overdose. They were major catalysts for me. I do want to talk about Searching For A Former Clarity, which has a reputation as a negative and draggy album. Yet it’s also the sound of a band getting really ambitious and meeting bigger audiences, bigger stages.
Gabel: For me, it was coming out of a place where I was feeling really down, and the writing process was cathartic and helped me deal with it. The idea that I had made the decision to write about it was a really positive thing. Even though I was working through a lot of problems in my head, it was still a really positive period of time. And I did feel that as a band we were making a record for a real reason. It felt like a battle, you know?

That record came after your divorce. Was getting married young a Southern thing or a punk thing?
Gabel: It was an insecure thing.

Because I know Ben Folds, who’s from the South and got married really young. He told me that in the South, people get pressured by their families to get married young.
Gabel: No, it was just a dumb, stupid, immature thing. Everyone makes mistakes.

Totally, man. I didn’t get married but I as good as got married. You’ve said that around the time of Searching For A Former Clarity, drugs were a big part of the day-to-day life of Against Me!. What was keeping the band together considering the amount of touring and drugs you guys were doing? Because that’s quite a brutal combination.
Oakes: I think we just had a lot of momentum. It just carried us through on its own steam.
Seward: None of us knew any better.
Gabel: We were also making enough money to live off of the band and didn’t have to have jobs. But in order to make enough to live like this, we had to tour [extensively] and take all the opportunities we were getting.

In terms of having songs that refer to the behind-the-scenes aspect of being a band and doing record deals and tours, did you guys see the industry as an adversary from the beginning or did it come through getting fucked with?
Gabel: I didn’t necessarily see it as an adversary. I did when I was younger. I think it’s more important to tell people exactly how it is and let everyone else make up their mind as to whether or not that’s a negative thing. In a lot of the songs on Clarity, I’m just stating the way it is; other people are like, “Ah, that’s the song where you’re totally going off against the music industry and saying it’s a fucked-up thing.” When really it’s just a statement of fact. And compared to these other problems, it’s fucking stupid and means absolutely nothing. It’s just totally irrelevant to life.

Getting a message across lyrically seems critical to you guys. How do politics play into your music? Do you feel you need to educate your audience?
Gabel: I get frustrated when someone calls us a political band. When you’re a songwriter, you’re obviously looking for topics to write about everywhere in the world, and when you see that there’s a war and politicians are lying to you, it’s really easy to get upset over it. For “From Her Lips To God’s Ears,” I wrote the lyrics probably in four minutes, just sitting on the floor watching CNN and taking every other word from a news story.

We have to talk about New Wave, though I’m sure you’ve talked about it so much. Tom, you wrote these songs in a motel. Was that to cut yourself off from things or just a product of life at that time?
Gabel: A little bit of both. When we had finished Searching For A Former Clarity, we knew we were going on tour for a year straight. I lived by myself and was like, “It’s stupid to be paying rent for a house that I’m not gonna be at for a year.” So I just put all my shit in storage and went on tour; after that, I really enjoyed not having to worry about any kind of responsibility. Also, the second we finished Searching, I wanted to continue writing. It was almost like Searching was a warm-up for writing New Wave.

When you finally settled on Butch Vig as producer, what was the original concept for New Wave?
Gabel: I talked to Butch after he had heard a five-song demo. I told him I wanted to make a very tight, consistent, 10-song record. I just wanted it to be this straightforward, across-the-board rock record—not a lot of highs and lows—and chop off all the fat. We were starting to fall into a formulaic pattern with the previous three records as far as where we placed the slower, more acoustic songs in the track listing. I wanted to break free from that.

My newest record has the least amount of programming or tightening up, ProTools-wise. It’s just played really well in a room, but people call it slicker. But it’s just because it’s performed better.
Gabel: The majority of people who throw around terms like “overproduced” have no concept of what production is. It’s just so fucking stupid and frustrating to me because for us it’s always been like, “No, you dumb shit. It’s because we used different microphones.” It’s a different fucking microphone on a different fucking amp, and that’s why it sounds different. That has nothing to do with production. That’s just the engineering.

I wanted to talk about “Animal,” because you guys were joking that it’s the most hated song by your fans. But it’s funny, because on my version of your record, a lot of my fans—who don’t know your record—are like, “‘Animal’ is my favorite.” So it made me laugh, but it also made me think. You guys have songs about sex and relationships, and that terrifies a lot of kids. Why is it that fans can accept music about anger but not about lust or sexuality?
Seward: Taboo.
Gabel: Yes. They’re fine with talking about love—or loss of love, at least. But I think sex and falling in love are frowned-upon topics in the punk scene for a songwriter.

Some of your fans have misunderstood “White People For Peace” and thought it was an anti-war song. How do you guys feel about being misread?
Gabel: The most depressing thing was how many people misinterpreted the title. We had people asking, “Is that a racist title?” But it’s like “White Riot.” The Clash. Come on. But I feel like it’s par for the course and expected to be misunderstood.
Oakes: Ideally, what you’re saying and thinking would resonate with your peers. You know, people who are living in the same world as you, you’d like to think that they’re seeing what you see when you look around. When you find that a lot of observations you’re making aren’t resonating with the people around you, that can be isolating. It can make you feel a little bit lonely.
Gabel: It can also make you feel like you’re just failing at your job. Because if you feel like your one purpose in life is to convey an idea through a couple of words and some tones but people aren’t getting it, then you’re like, “Fuck, well it’s obviously my fault. What am I doing wrong?” It’s very frustrating.

“White People For Peace” is a critique of the ways people are protesting by using music. What do you think of the effectiveness of recent albums by Neil Young, Steve Earle and Bright Eyes? Can they actually change a social climate or a political situation?
Gabel: I think it’s necessary and definitely something people should be doing. In theory, yes, music can change a social climate, and it’s a different and crucial part to social movements. But I do feel like nowadays there’s something missing. I don’t know what exactly isn’t clicking right, but something isn’t there.

In terms of me covering your guys’ record, the main critique that came from your fans was that I, as a pop artist, shouldn’t be allowed to touch their holy band. It was like another symbol of you guys getting absorbed into mainstream culture.
Gabel: I think some people thought we put you up to it. Like it was an idea we had where our management contacted your management and got you to do it.

But how do you feel about being viewed as a pop act, not a rock act? If you get massive or have a hit single, is that a forum you would be comfortable in?
Gabel: Well, I don’t know. Do you have to be a “pop act” in order to be big? I’ve never put any limit on the amount of fans that we could have.

So what’s the story with Tegan Quin doing guest vocals on “Borne On The FM Waves Of The Heart”?
Seward: She came out to a Warped Tour date we played in Canada and ended up interviewing Tom and me. She was a fan, and we had a good rapport. Then she kind of jokingly offered to do backups if we ever wanted to, and Tom called her bluff.

I pride myself on being the only known male crush that she and Sara ever shared.
[Laughter and high fives all around]

Hanging out with you guys, the most exciting thing about it is we can actually bond on what the idea of punk means to all of us. It has nothing to do with style or cliques or image. It has to do with the freedom to do your own thing and stand up for yourself and have the guts to speak your mind, however unfashionable that may be. How has your concept of punk changed from when you were younger?
Gabel: Some of it has never changed because the way I got into punk was through a bunch of bands that stylistically were really different and didn’t sound anything like each other. I was always under the impression that punk music was more about the attitude and didn’t necessarily have to sound a certain way, although it was usually music that was fairly aggressive and pissed off.
Seward: The youthful perception of, “Oh, that’s not punk. This isn’t punk. You’re not punk.” That’s totally gone away. You just do what you want. It doesn’t matter what it sounds like or what it looks like.
Bowman: You’re a sellout.
Seward: You can’t call me that. You’re not punk.

So assuming punk rock lets you do whatever you want, the success of Against Me! is measurable against that of any other rock band, really. That’s sort of what makes the shift to stepping into the major leagues, as they call it in the industry. If you abandon that sort of elitism, your shit should be measurable against the Who and U2.
Gabel: I think that’s an important thing. As opposed to just trying to be the greatest punk band in the world, you’re trying to be the greatest band in the world. That’s half serious and half joking. I don’t think that playing music should be a competition, but you should strive to be the best. I always think, “Let’s play better than all the other bands are playing. Let’s kick their ass.” But at the same, it’s not that cutthroat; it’s not like, “Let’s beat them afterward, too.”
Bowman: Maybe we should start?
Gabel: Yes, maybe.

I totally believe you have to have that bit of athletic quality to succeed. In Australia, the music scene is so laid back. When I put out my debut, I said in every interview, “I’m the greatest Australian songwriter of all time. This is the best Australian album since (AC/DC’s) Back In Black.” I was just trying to show I had some fight. The biggest band in Australia (Powderfinger) came out and said, “Ben Lee is a precocious little cunt whose music is a pile of shit.”
Gabel: The only reason they were saying that is because they probably felt threatened. Every musician who’s been around for a little while feels threatened by the younger musicians coming in and stealing the spotlight from them. You’re this fresh-faced new artist and have a little bit of buzz. And they’re the older artist, and who knows what’s next for them?
Seward: Ben?

Seward: You do have a fresh face.

I’m actually having to shave a little more frequently. I was very late getting to puberty. I didn’t really start shaving often until I was 19.
Gabel: Hey, I’m 27 and can’t grow a full beard.
Seward: Wait until your voice starts cracking.

You guys refused to tour with both Dashboard Confessional and Fall Out Boy. What is the criteria for deciding what Against Me! will or won’t do?
Gabel: We absolutely adopted an official criteria the other day, and it was that we will never tour with a band that has done the Honda Civic Tour.

So it’s just … what is it? Like, Maroon 5 is out?
Gabel: No, Fall Out Boy and Dashboard Confessional. They both did the Honda Civic Tour.

That’s the criteria? Everything else is up for grabs?
Gabel: Everything else, yes.
Seward: Once the Nissan Sentra Tour comes around, we’re good.
Gabel: We’re totally fine with it.

I loved that Bob Dylan did the Victoria’s Secret ad. Do you know that whole thing about how in the ’60s he was doing a press conference and they asked, “Would you ever do an advert?” And he said, “Only for ladies’ lingerie.”
Gabel: He just did a Cadillac commercial. But it was kind of cool because he said he’d be in it, but he didn’t want his music played in it.

I think at this point in Dylan’s career, he’s about subverting his legacy. He knows he’s Bob Dylan, and he’s going to be Shakespeare to us forever after. So he’s just throwing as many left-hand turns as he can in his last 10 or 15 years.
Gabel: That’s admirable: the idea of subverting your own legacy as opposed to believing your own bullshit.Like putting all of yourself into doing something at one point, then saying, “That’s it. That’s exactly what I wanted to say and wanted to do.” Then turning around and being like, “I’m so full of shit. That didn’t mean anything.”

Reserving the right to contradict yourself.
Gabel: Exactly.

Looking back at ’07, is there anything you guys would’ve done differently?
Gabel: Looking back on ’07, it’s been a long year. There were a couple of places that I wish we would’ve played instead of playing some of the places that we played.

Not to mention any names, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Gabel: No, no, no. Grand Rapids was really great. But I don’t think we need to play in Eugene, Ore., fucking twice in a year. Or Toledo, Ohio.

My year was more awesome because of Against Me!, so thank you guys for putting out New Wave.
Seward: Our year was better that you covered it.
Gabel: Let’s keep thinking about that Against Lee Tour 2008, all right?