Photo By Clayton Hauck
Words By Arye Dworken
When we saw Against Me! headline the Music Hall of Williamsburg a couple years ago, frontman Tom Gabel looked like a superhero in a black T-shirt and skinny jeans, albeit a superhero who’s constantly switching between maniacal smiles and throat-torturing screams. One stand-out moment was when the 30-year-old punk provocateur belted out “Baby, I’m An Anarchist.” (Our favorite line: “When it came time to throw bricks through that Starbucks window, you left me all alone.”) Listening back now, it’s unclear as to whether Gabel is mocking the anarchy movement or simply relaying an anarchist’s love story. If it’s the former, then watching a roomful of punks sing along to the meta-critical words is borderline genius. But if that’s not the case, then the song is quite problematic.
Either way, Against Me! have retained their philosophical complexities while working within Sire’s major label system. And with White Crosses, the band have further polished their sound (even recording a piano-backed Boss homage called “Because of the Shame”) and sharpened the actual content. The title track is about abortion; “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” is about the fear of losing passion; “Rapid Decompression”—presumably influenced by the Stooges’ “Search & Destroy”—even has a response to the grumpy fans of yore…”Before you cast your stones/Take a look at yourself/How can you expect from someone what you won’t do yourself?”
More accessible? Perhaps. Any less venomous? Hell no. So with that in mind, we asked Gabel to discuss how his growth as a reformed anarchist has far surpassed his ability to grow a beard.
“In all honesty, I’d love nothing more than to not be considered a ‘political’ band.”
self-titled: So, Tom, how has your personal philosophy changed in a way that’s caused you to go from “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” to “I Was a Teenage Anarchist?” It’s quite a transition.
I didn’t originally write “Baby I’m an Anarchist” as a song for Against Me!; I wrote it with two friends of mine for a band we were talking about starting that never ended up materializing. [But] I thought it was too good of a song to never record. The song was a metaphor for what we felt happened between the anarchist protesters and liberal protesters at the WTO riots in Seattle. The anarchists and liberals stood together on many issues at that protest, but when the black bloc property destruction started happening, the liberal movement was quick to publicly disassociate themselves from the anarchists.
So we wrote the song as if it was almost a break-up letter between a couple, the couple being a metaphor for the anarchist movement and liberal movement. As for “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” I had the line “I was a teenage anarchist” written down in my notebook for a while, and I thought I could maybe build a song around it. I liked how sensational it sounded, like in a Michael Landon I Was a Teenage Werewolf kind of way, if that makes sense. Or like a confessional account…like, “CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE ANARCHIST!” Then I thought the story would be ironic if this kid joined the anarchist movement because he wanted to be a revolutionary, because he finds that the anarchists are no different than the fascists—kind of a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” type thing.
“I Was a Teenage Anarchist” certainly wasn’t meant as any kind of allusion to “Baby I’m an Anarchist.” They just both have the word “Anarchist” in them. In hindsight, I wish I would have changed the lyric to “I Was A Teenage Anti-Christ.”
That sounds way less controversial. Why do you think that there aren’t many, if any, mainstream bands that are as politically outspoken as Against Me!? And is “White People For Peace” (from 2008′s New Wave) mocking the notion of rock stars singing about war?
“White People For Peace” is definitely mocking the notion of rock stars singing about war, ourselves included. It’s like the title of that old Chumbawamba album Pictures Of Starving Children Sell Records, and songs about war do too. As for being “politically outspoken,” it’s not something that I aim for when writing songs. I just have opinions and I express them.
As for other bands…I don’t know. I think there’s a fair amount of bands out there that are willing to speak out in support of, or against, causes. Green Day have taken to mixing politics into their past couple albums. Look at U2—probably the biggest band in the world, and Bono has pretty much become a politician outright. I opened up a recent issue of Rolling Stone and there was a picture of him hanging out with Barack Obama in the Oval Office. And there was definitely a huge amount of support for Obama from the music world around the last election, from Jay-Z to Bruce Springsteen. In all honesty, I’d love nothing more than to not be considered a “political” band. The genre carries to much baggage.
Getting back to “I Was A Teenage Anarchist,” you sing, “Do you remember when you wanted to set the world on fire?” It’s nostalgic. Have you found that your angst has tempered since growing up, getting married, and having a child?
In part, the song is about fighting that feeling, that your angst is becoming “tempered” as you get older. I don’t think that it has anything to do with getting married or having a child though; I think it’s a sad reality of life in the modern world, it grinds you down. Like for instance, the first time in your life you feel like your rights have been violated by a cop—maybe you’re unfairly searched, or unjustly arrested, whatever. The first time that happens in your life, you’re furious. Then after the ninth or tenth time, you become kind of numb to it. You’re just as mad but you realize that throwing a tantrum isn’t going to do anything about it. Telling the cop to go “fuck himself” isn’t going to do anything, [and] trying to fight the cop is gonna get you thrown in jail, so what do you do? Again, just an example. And I’m not directing the question posed in the chorus to myself, I’m asking the audience.
Bruce Springsteen is cited as an influence on the new record in reviews—do you consider yourself a Boss fan? If so, what is it about his music that resonates with you?
[Bassist] Andrew [Seward] is the real super fan in the band. He has a tattoo of the Boss on the back of his arm. I’m a fan as well, but really, I’d never felt influenced by Springsteen until this album, with the song “Because Of The Shame.” And when I wrote that song, I set out to specifically capture a Springsteen vibe. I had a friend of mine pass away a little over a year ago, I wrote the song for her and her family. We use to hang out together and listen to Springsteen records; he was her favorite band. I wanted to write a song that captured those memories.
George Robello is drumming with the band…As a long time Hot Water Music fan, what was it about your band that differed from theirs that led you to success? How were the two bands similar?
Starting out as a band in Gainesville, it was impossible to not be aware of Hot Water Music. They’re hometown heroes there, and they were the band that was doing “it.” They were always out on the road on tour and they were always incredible live, [and] they put 100-percent into every show. We aspired to be like them in that sense, for sure. I think our musical influences might have been coming from different places—stylistically we differ, but the spirit behind both bands is pretty kindred. It’s incredible to be playing with George.
In songs like “Suffocation,” are you expressing your feelings, or are you channeling the angst of others? And what’s your general songwriting process when it comes to lyrics?
My approach to writing the lyrics for “Suffocation” was more of a free-flowing train of subconscious thought. I was taking various unconnected memories of people and mixing them together to try and form a reality. I try and mix up the way I write lyrics. Sometimes I’ll set a specific topic to write about, or determine a specific style to write in, set specific parameters, like no revisions. Other times I’ll just put the pen to paper and see what comes out. It’s important to me to challenge myself like that. With most of the songs I’ve written, I’ve started with the lyrics first, then formed the music around it.
I’ve always considered Against Me! a modern day version of the Clash, both in punk spirit and delivering a political message. Is it a mission of yours to always write music with a message?
That’s quite a compliment, thank you. The Clash are one of my all time favorite bands. I don’t approach writing songs with the rule that there has to be a “message” conveyed necessarily but what’s important to me is that I’m passionate about what I’m singing or writing.
“From Her Lips To God’s Ears (The Energizer)” has one of the most memorable choruses in Against Me!’s catalog. It calls out Condoleezza Rice by name. How did that one come about?
That was one of those songs that didn’t really take much effort to write really. I was watching the news and wrote the lyrics based off of that day’s top stories. I wrote the song on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The major label-hating “Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners” is a surreal song to listen to now that the band is on Sire. How was the signing with a subsidiary of Warner Brothers different than the courting process detailed in this song from Searching For A Former Clarity?
It wasn’t really all that different. But the lesson I learned through all our experiences with record labels is that in this day and age there really isn’t that much of a difference between the majors or indies. All those cliches and stereotypes presented in the song can be applied to both types of labels. That album was a concept record though, and that song in particular was really about how that whole world doesn’t really matter when compared to real life problems. The question posed was, “Do you want to know how it feels on the inside?”, and the answer was, “It feels like I’m dying.” Dramatic, huh?
Definitely. So, has the Butch Vig production [on the new record] changed your voice, or are you intentionally singing in a less throat-shredding fashion? And does it hurt to sing the old songs live?
My voice has changed a lot over the years, for sure. Some of that can be attributed to puberty. I started the band when I was 17, and to this day, I still can’t grow a full beard. A lot of it has to do with repetition, too. Since this band has started we’ve played around 200 shows a year for the past decade; add in a lot of whiskey and keep in mind most of those shows where in smoke-filled clubs. When we were starting out, I used to constantly blow my voice out. I’ve gotten better at controlling it over the years and knowing my limitations.
The punk scene is very incestuous in the way that punk bands listen to one another. Now that you’ve ostensibly broken free of that scene, what do you listen to nowadays?
I listen to everything. As long as it’s got intelligent or clever lyrics and a good melody, I’m in. I’ve been really into the new Off With Their Heads album lately, it’s fantastic. And I can’t stop listening to Dead To Me since we toured with them. Both the Little Brother EP and African Elephants are stellar. I downloaded the new Hold Steady album a couple days ago, as well as the new LCD Soundsystem, both of which I think are great. And then I’ve also spent a lot of time with the new Mumford and Sons album, which is probably my favorite release of the year thus far.