Against The World!
Two years ago it was the mantra that Barack Obama hummed right into the White House, and the notion is as polarizing in the music world as it is in the political realm. Consider Against Me!: The last time they put out an album, Spin named it the best of the year—of any genre—and then Rolling Stone crowned them “best punk band.” But some punk purists, using the Internet to voice their opinions, claimed it was a leap in the wrong direction from the band’s earlier work, or simply decried their politics. While nonpassive responses to the band’s aggressive anti–George W. Bush point of view are understandable, the mixed message board posts of love and disdain for the band’s direction are curious. Are those who don’t support Against Me!’s evolution rightly protecting punk? Or are they scared of change? Either way, they care enough to have a strong opinion.
Now Against Me!’s newest work, White Crosses, is again a shift for the band—and, possibly, punk in general. “I totally realize that we’ve changed from record to record, not even stylistically but sonically,” frontman Tom Gabel says. “It’s been great for us because, looking at the spectrum of our recording output, we’ve done everything.” Before even hearing the first track on White Crosses, it’s apparent that the band, now consisting of Gabel, bassist Andrew Seward, guitarist James Bowman, and drummer George Rebelo, has gone through nonmusical changes. One need only consider the fact that Gabel is doing this interview from the new Los Angeles home he shares with his wife and 7-month-old daughter to see that.
But back to the band’s origins in Gainesville, FL—before they got a break touring with the Foo Fighters, before the acclaim, before the families. “Our first demo tape was recorded on a four-track when I lived with my mom, and with each record we’ve pushed ourselves to do something different—so I get the [negative backlash],” Gabel says. “It makes sense. But at the same time I’m not going to sacrifice moving forward because someone else is stuck in the past.”
Each of the act’s albums has been a progression leading to the next product. White Crosses is the follow-up to Against Me!’s first major label album, New Wave, which they put out with the help of producer Butch Vig (you know, the Nevermind guy). “People have to realize that there’s years between making records, and you change,” Gabel says when asked if the difference between 2007’s New Wave and White Crosses was part of the collective conscious or a natural evolution. “I’m not the same person I was when I was 17 and started this band,” he adds in a weary tone that indicates he’s contemplated this response to answer his critics. “I’m 29, I’m married, I have a kid. I’ve changed and grown along the way. I’ve learned lessons and I’ve reexamined my politics. It’s a natural process and I don’t think there’s anyone else out there in the world who doesn’t do the same thing.”
He could very well be talking about Warren Oakes, Against Me!’s drummer on the New Wave album, who reexamined his life after eight years in the band and decided what he really wanted to do was open a Mexican restaurant. He amicably left the group last summer and hung a shingle in Gainesville that reads Boca Fiesta. Against Me! brought in Hot Water Music’s Rebelo to man the sticks. Rebelo and Oakes are diametrically different in their timekeeping and style, but Rebelo was the only guy the band considered for the empty stool. “We didn’t think of or try anyone else out,” bassist Seward says. “I honestly don’t know who else could have done it but him because everyone else would be a quasi-stranger. We’re not hard people to get along with, but there’s definitely a getting-to-know-you learning curve that we didn’t have to deal with since George lives a quarter mile from our practice space.”
That said, the addition of Rebelo—who joined the band just a month before recording began for the album—ultimately forced the band to change the way they play their respective instruments during practice. “George was probably in the band for three or four months before we played a single old song, and when it came time to go back and learn them for an upcoming show we found that all of us had to go back and relearn our songs,” Gabel notes. “There would be moments when we were trying to figure out parts and we’d be like, ‘Wait, what are you playing there? That doesn’t make any sense with what I am doing there,’ and we’d totally have to rework songs that we have been playing for eight years.” Again, a change—but one that Gabel thinks is good. “It’s definitely been a long process to reexamine everything and relearn how to be a band with a new person in it, but I think it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience.”
The experience bred an album featuring songs like “Because of the Shame,” propelled by a Springsteen-esque piano line; “High Pressure Low,” with an effect-laden guitar lead; and “We’re Breaking Up,” which has a pop sensibility. “I feel like one of the things that’s often overlooked about bands, especially ours, is that people fail to recognize sometimes that we’re musicians,” Gabel laughs. “We love playing guitars and amps and effects; it’s like playing with toys and you want to be playing with the coolest toys.” The new songs and sounds have even necessitated the addition of a fifth band member for their live performances, which previously consisted of four guys in black T-shirts blazing through songs with barely a break to breathe, let alone engage the crowd with shtick banter.
For the most part, the band lets the music speak for itself. But all it takes is a listen to their back catalogue—and a look at their tattoos (most from Dave Kotinsley at Anthem Tattoo Parlor in Gainesville)—to see where they are coming from and where they came from. “We’ve gotten a stupid amount of band tattoos together,” Gabel reflects, noting that most of their tours resulted in matching ink. These tattoos include logos for the band’s previous labels, Sabot Productions and No Idea Records; the phrase “No Regret, No Surrender” in French, which appears on both Gabel’s and Seward’s wrists; and a snowman on their ankles to commemorate a winter tour with Anti-Flag.
Although Gabel maintains that he doesn’t regret the ideas that fueled his worst tattoos as much as he does going to inexperienced artists early in his tattoo life, he is currently in the process of removing a tattoo on his left wrist. “It’s a matching tattoo with Brendan [Kelly] of The Lawrence Arms that says ‘Rambling Boys of Pleasure,’” he chuckles. “As the father of a daughter now, I can’t have ‘Rambling Boys of Pleasure’ tattooed on my arm.”
In addition to motivating him to remove the tattoo of a young lothario, Gabel stresses that having a child has completely changed his perspective on life. “All the clichés are true about having a kid; it totally changes the way you look at everything, and being out on the road for the past month I felt a different sense of purpose. It’s cheesy, but you’re not just doing it for yourself. I’m doing it for my daughter, and this is a collective future now. My family is not just the band but my family as well, and that makes this more rewarding in a lot of ways.”
Seward, whose wife is pregnant, shares a similar sentiment about the band’s family expanding. “All of the personal stuff that’s going on between us makes the dynamic of the band feel completely different,” he says. “It’s kind of like a rebirth in a way, but not in a crazy Christian way. There’s just a new energy. I’m starting to generate this whole new sense of purpose. You just want to provide for your family—and I’m not talking about making tons of money. I’m just talking about working hard and doing what I do the best that I can and making my family proud.”
They’ve come a long way, but the band isn’t living the rock ‘n’ roll fairy tale existence quite yet. For starters, White Crosses mysteriously leaked to the Internet in March, nearly three months before its release date. Damn the money lost on sales—in true punk-rock fashion Gabel’s response was to post the lyrics online so concertgoers would know what he was singing. Then there are the aforementioned fans who have taken it upon themselves to put their energy into critiquing every single thing the band does, onstage and off. But unlike most acts on their level, Against Me! actually do care what people think about them. “I’m guilty of reading message boards when I’m bored,” Seward says. “But in the end all that matters is that we are happy with what we are doing, the songs we are making, and that we are having a blast.” Then, speaking about recent online speculation that the band used Auto-Tune on the new record, he says, “Some people write the most slanderous shit that’s completely inaccurate.”
It’s funny—now that the band is successful, they are in a bit of a catch-22: They have to respect the outspoken because that’s who they are. They made their name by dishing it, so they also have to take it. Gabel addresses this on one of White Crosses’s standout tracks, “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” an anthemic rock song in which he looks back on his former political attitudes. “With the record I spent a lot of time reflecting on growing up in Florida and my past,” he says. “When I think about the people that I used to know and the places I used to hang out, I was a teenage anarchist. Going back to what I was saying about people not wanting you to change, it’s kind of a symptom of … people want[ing] complete autonomy in their own lives. We’re only free to do it if you think exactly the same way we do. It’s convenient politics. In the anarchist dream world everyone would be free to think what they want to think and do what they want to do—but somehow that doesn’t apply to us.”
Perhaps the critics are being given too much credence, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another band with so much street cred yet so much disdain in the punk community. Although Seward isn’t sure why the band has a polarizing effect, he doesn’t mind it: “I appreciate the passion people have for us, whether it’s positive or negative, because it makes life interesting. We are not boring and I thank the stars for that every day.”