Q & A With Tom Gabel From Against Me!
By the time Tom Gabel created the band Against Me! at 17, the singer had already been arrested twice and inked more than once. He started the band alone with an acoustic guitar, playing on the streets of Naples, FL, before grouping with bassist Andrew Seward, guitarist James Bowman, and drummer Warren Oakes. By 2002, their debut album, Reinventing Axl Rose, with its mix of street folk and Clash-style punk, had made them a hit in the underground scene. But it was their breakthrough indie hit album, Searching For a Former Clarity, that got everyone else listening to the band’s impassioned sound and Gabel’s raw vocals. The follow-up, the Butch Vig–produced New Wave, marked their first major-label release. The album spawned plenty of hits and an awful lot of hate mail from fans who accused the band of selling out. Not that Gabel cares. He recently released a collection of acoustic solo material titled Heart Burns EP, and the seemingly anxious frontman has bigger things to worry about—like moving to Los Angeles and what to write about on the band’s next album, now that he can no longer rail against George W. Bush.
INKED: What were you able to accomplish with this solo record that you aren’t able to with the band?
TOM GABEL: I wanted to do something that was the complete opposite of the last record in the sense of approach. I didn’t want to really think about it. I didn’t want to obsess about anything. I just wanted to go in and play songs. I wanted to record because it’ll be fun, and that’s what this is supposed to be about. The next Against Me! record will be a long, arduous recording and mixing process, and there will be a lot of thought that goes into it. That’s not a bad thing because I love that too, but if every single record I made was like that I would go nuts. [Laughs.]You brought Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba in to record backing vocals. Did you two pound a few in the studio?
Butch brought down some bottles of Duckhorn and fed everybody a little bit of wine to get them loosened up for their vocal take. [Laughs.]
Is drinking usually a no-no when you’re recording?
Days in the studio are usually pretty long. If you start to drink wine and you have a couple more hours left, even if you don’t get hammered, you start to get tired and it wears you out a little quicker. I tend to go the caffeinated route.
You recorded both New Wave and your solo record in Los Angeles. You used to hate the city, but we heard you’re now considering moving there.
I’ve always gotten a certain amount of anxiety in big cities. When you go to Los Angeles or New York or Chicago on tour you think, Oh god, this is going to be hell. You have to worry the whole time whether your shit is going to get stolen. But when we were recording New Wave, I had a totally positive experience. We stayed in Burbank and recorded in Hollywood and had our daily routine. I saw the same people every day getting coffee in the morning. It was nice.
Will you work with Butch Vig again on the next record?
Oh yeah. We will definitely be working with Butch again. He’s great to be around, and he relaxes me in a weird way from overthinking. He’s also the greatest trump card you can ever have. When we went in to record New Wave, there was a definite fear of recording in L.A., because that is where Warner’s offices are. The idea of them trying to push their agenda was a real fear. But any time our A&R people would stop by—and I’m not trying to talk shit—but every once in a while, they’d offer subtle suggestions like, “Why don’t you try bringing up the bass here, or try something different on the guitar there?” When that happened, I would be panicked and filled with anxiety of oh my god what are we going to do? Butch would be like, “Yeah, okay, okay sure.” Then, the second they’re gone, he’d be like, “Whatever! Moving right along!” And they can’t say anything. He’s Butch!
Over the years, your voice has sounded less and less raw. Why?
I think the biggest change that you hear is that I finished going through puberty. The first record came out when I was 17. When I was 15, I went into the studio with my band and recorded a 10-song demo tape. I gave it my all on the first song and my voice was totally blown. Starting out playing in punk bands, the cool thing to do was to scream. But it was unrealistic to continue to do that when you’re playing 200-plus shows a year. What you hear now is how I sing instead of me just going in there and screaming my head off.
One of those raw albums was your first full-length: Reinventing Axl Rose. Are you a fan of Chinese Democracy?
I’m a fan of his voice and I think he has a cool style. From what I’ve heard, I don’t think it’s worth the wait. But fuck, man, I think you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think it’s better than the new Metallica record.
What is your lyrics-writing process?
I try to pick a vague direction, like I want to write something positive, and adapt my daily life around that and set a mood. I try to be pretty focused and not drink or be in a place where I’m going to be in a lot of social situations. Spend a little more time by myself.
Is that why you lived in a hotel?
I wanted to say that I had lived in a hotel for a year of my life. We were touring a lot during that time and staying in a different hotel each night. But in Gainesville, I had this thing where I didn’t feel comfortable with the maids coming in to clean, so whenever the room got a little too dirty, I would switch rooms or hotels. I would usually just spend three or four days there. I got this weird, ungrounded, floating feeling, and it kind of drove me a little crazy. I also felt like a total weirdo because I was living on the outskirts of town in a hotel. But it was good for being in a writing mode.Is it going to be harder to write about politics now that Barack Obama is President? I think what is really important to realize is that it’s not like Barack Obama is president and we win! That’s it! Everyone can go on vacation now and everything is perfect in the world and all of our problems are solved! There are still just as many things wrong, and just as much work needs to be done. Obama was elected, but then Proposition 8 passed in California. His election makes me really optimistic, but I don’t think I’ll have trouble continuing to be critical of things.
You read his book and John McCain’s. From the books alone, did you get a sense of who you wanted to support? The thing about reading the McCain book was that I come from a military family. My dad was in the Army, he was a West Point graduate, and in the service for 20 years. I grew up on a military base my whole childhood. I felt I knew the type of person he was because people in the service have a really specific mentality that I almost view with a weird fondness from experiencing it growing up. I just really disagree with a lot of his politics, and I hated Sarah Palin, so that was easy. It was frightening that people supported her and found her endearing.
Did growing up in a military family have an impact on your political beliefs? It gave me a political awareness at a pretty young age. During the first Gulf War I lived in Naples, Italy, and security was extremely high. Being in third grade and waiting for the bomb sweeps to end before we got on our school bus and having armed guards on the roof of your elementary school—that was definitely an interesting experience. Then we moved to Naples, FL, which is one of the most right-wing wealthy counties in all of America.
Are your parents Republican?
My parents divorced when I was 11. I don’t know if my mom is a registered Democrat, but I know she voted for Obama. My dad, who I think voted for Bush in the last two elections, voted for Obama in this election. When he told me he was voting for Obama I thought, You know, he’s probably going to win.
The chorus to the Against Me! song “From Her Lips To God’s Ears (The Energizer)” is about Condoleezza Rice. Are you going to have to retire it?
That’s actually something we talked about when we were on this last tour. Wow, this song is going to be irrelevant! [Laughs.] I think we probably won’t play that song for a while, but maybe at some point it’ll come back and be played for nostalgic reasons.
Last year you were arrested after an altercation in Tallahassee, FL. Was that the first time you had been arrested?
When I was 18 I was arrested for obstruction of justice and resisting arrest without violence. When I was 15 I was arrested for resisting arrest with violence and battery on an officer, and when 14, I was arrested because I had some pot in my wallet at school.
Why did you get hauled away at 15 and 18?
When I was 18, I was picking up my friend Kevin, who used to play in the band. He was like, “Pop the trunk—I want to throw some stuff in there.” I was waiting in the car and I saw two cop cars come up behind me. I got out and they had my friend on the ground. I went up to the first officer I saw and said, “Excuse me, officer, what’s going on?” He’s like, “Down on the ground—you’re going to jail.” I started to ask another question and he grabbed me, slammed me into the cop car, and arrested me. When I was 15—they do a fireworks celebration every year in Naples at the beach. An officer asked me to get off the boardwalk. I got off the boardwalk and he came up to me again and he told me to get off the boardwalk. I said, “I am off the boardwalk.” They grabbed me, dragged me over to the cop car. Ten other cops came in. They ended up hog-tying me and then proceeded to beat the crap out of me for a good half-hour. It was all over the news.
Why do you think they did it?
I was a dirty, grubby little punk kid with black spiky hair who hadn’t washed his pants in a year.
When did you get your first tattoo?
When I was 14. James in Against Me! gave me a pinprick tattoo of the Crass logo in india ink on my ankle. I remember him starting it and me looking down and saying, “Man, you’re going the wrong fucking way.” Then I had to finish it. The second tattoo, I gave to myself at 15 and it’s on my thigh. It’s totally embarrassing. It’s the symbol for Scorpio. Then, when I was 16 or so, I got the Crass tattoo covered up professionally with the Rebel Alliance logo from Star Wars.
That’s kind of nerdy. Are you still a huge Star Wars fan?
I was at the time. I still like Star Wars, though those last three movies kind of killed it for me. [Laughs.] I wanted to get it because it was big, solid, and black, and would cover up the Crass logo.
Do you have a go-to artist for your own work?
There’s a guy in Florida named Dave Kotinsley, Sleepy Dave, who I’ve gotten a good amount of work from. He runs a shop called Anthem Tattoos. All of my recent tattoos on my arm I’ve gotten from him—the Virgin Mary and various birds.
What is the significance of the birds?
I’ve always been drawn to them. Even when I first thought of getting tattoos, I knew I wanted to cover the majority of my arms with birds. I think it’s really true to say that the older you get, the more tattoos hurt. I used to want a bird chest piece, and then I got a very small tattoo on my chest of my wife’s name—and holy fuck, that hurt! And that took all of about five minutes. Screw a chest piece!
Have you seen any Against Me! tattoos on fans?
We were playing in Connecticut and this guy who came to the show came up to me and says, “I want to show you something, but don’t draw a lot of attention to it.” He had my face tattooed on my arm, which I thought was hilarious, and he said, “I tell people it’s J.F.K.” [Laughs.]