Q&A: Laura Jane Grace
The frontwoman of Against Me! talks about her new place in the community, her latest album, and that new neck piece.
The punker Laura Jane Grace is pretty sweet, in the sugar sense of the word. “I had Hershey’s Kisses in my pocket the other day and I put my phone in there and they melted into it,” she explains, apologizing for having to call a few minutes later than the scheduled time. “Your voice sounds chocolaty delicious.” Despite having recently released Against Me!’s sixth full-length, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, she’s already hard at work on presumably saccharine new material.
As the title of the album implies, Transgender Dysphoria Blues centers around Grace’s shift from black-clad frontman Tom Gabel to Laura Jane Grace, which happened in 2012 after she shocked the music community by announcing she was transgendered and planning to transition. But instead of reading like a gender studies thesis statement, the album is a return to form for the band, which currently includes frontwoman and guitarist Grace as well as longtime guitarist James Bowman and recent additions Atom Willard (Rocket From the Crypt) and Inge Johansson, previously of The (International) Noise Conspiracy. It also sees them leaving the major label world to return to their DIY roots by recording and releasing the album themselves. What’s maybe even more refreshing than the music is the way the punk community has come together to support Laura Jane Grace, which is apt because embarking on a gender transition as a public figure is pretty much the punkest thing possible.
INKED: What’s the story behind your new neck tattoo?
LAURA JANE GRACE: I went to Chicago back in August, and when I got there I started looking around for a tattoo studio to try to find an artist I liked. I ended up stumbling upon this shop called Butterfat Tattoo, which is run by Esther Garcia. She’s an awesome tattoo artist in her own right but she also has a lot of guest artists come and do time there. There’s a Japanese artist named Kenji Alucky who was doing a stint there and he did my feet for me, which was rad. And while he was there I also met Gakkin [who is based in Kyoto, Japan] and was turned on by his work and became a really big fan of it. It’s hard for me to book time with most really good artists because they fill up so many months in advance and my schedule is always changing. If I make a tattoo appointment, six months later I’m inevitably going to have to cancel it. So I e-mailed Gakkin to see if he had any days free and he said he had an entire day free in February so I was like, “Okay, I’ll come [to Kyoto].” I did the one side of my neck and then I’m going to go back—or he’s going to come to Chicago, whichever comes first—and he’s going to do the other side of it.
Where did you get the idea for the image?
I collect bird tattoos, specifically raven tattoos. So whenever it was I started to get tattooed, I just knew I wanted my arms covered with birds.
You have a lot of tattoos already, but there’s still a stigma with a neck tattoo. Was getting this piece any different for you?
You mean it’s a job ender? [Laughs.]
Exactly. Are you worried about not being able to get a corporate job now?
Well, I’m a couple times felon, high-school dropout transsexual, so I don’t know if the tattoo is the reason I won’t be able to get a job. [Laughs.]
But seriously, this is such a huge piece and it’s so visible. Did it take a long time to heal?
Well, I forgot to pack A&D or Aquaphor, which I usually put on the tattoo afterward. I was like, “Oh fuck, can you get some at the shop or help me out?” Gakkin took me to a shop around the corner [in Kyoto] for this Japanese ointment that I’d never heard of before, and I used it and it couldn’t have healed faster. Two days later, every single bit of scab flaked off and it was completely healed within four or five days. This piece kind of covers up one of the tattoos that was on my chest, and there’s a tattoo on my back that it’s covering up too. Half of [my old tattoo] is exposed right now, but once I get the other half of my neck done it will be covered up. Those are tattoos I got when I was probably 17 or 18 years old and not good work that I want on my body anymore.
That must be an incredibly liberating feeling.
It is. It’s amazing how when you get a tattoo that’s really well done and covers a previous tattoo how much that improves your sense of self and makes you stoked to look at it. Where before there was bad work, now there’s a really nice piece there. It improves your mood, you know?
Did you get to do anything else while you were in Japan?
I was in Kyoto for three days. The first day I was pretty jet-lagged and fucked up so I hung around the hotel. The next day I got tattooed and it was an 11-hour session so I was completely zapped, but the final day I had time so I got to walk around Kyoto and explore, which was awesome because I’d been to Tokyo and Osaka before but never Kyoto.
Sitting for 11 hours must have been intense.
We took a quick dinner break and there were cigarette breaks in there, but yeah, it was an 11-hour session. My feet were 10 hours apiece too. The impressive thing to me is that I feel like I’ve had a hard time finding tattoo artists who I really connect with, and with Gakkin and Kenji—I don’t know if it’s a Japanese thing or what—their whole approach to the art and the way they make you feel about tattoos is really not comparable to what I’ve stumbled upon with many American artists.
What makes your experience with Japanese tattoo artists different from what you’ve dealt with back home?
Gakkin in particular doesn’t do stencils. When he tattoos he does it completely freehand so he draws the tattoo on you and then does it. It probably took an hour and a half or two hours to just draw it on me. With Kenji, when he was doing my feet, it took him two hours to do the stencils. You can just tell that they want to get it so right, and they really actually care as opposed to a lot of tattoo artists I’ve had here who will just slap the fucking stencil on you and be like, “Cool? Cool. Here we go.” Unfortunately I’ve had a lot of experiences where you can’t even get the tattoo artist to acknowledge that it looks cool after they do the tattoo. But with both of these Japanese artists, I could tell they were really proud of the work they did and stoked on the tattoo, which is cool because I have it on my body. [Laughs.]
Speaking of eliciting reactions, Against Me! is known for its responsive fan base. As long as the band has existed, it seems like you’ve gotten some kind of backlash, whether it’s because you signed to a major label or because you decided to play spaces that weren’t DIY. What’s the band’s audience like today?
There’s definitely a core base, but because we’ve done so many weird tours over the years—touring with Foo Fighters or Green Day or Mastodon or the Warped Tour—on every tour like that you pick up a couple of people who wouldn’t have seen you otherwise, and then they’re thrown into the mix too. Then there are people who got introduced to us because they heard “Thrash Unreal” or “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” on the radio, and then they become a part of it. Finally, with punk rock there’s a certain part of the audience that always stays the same age and is always getting into the music, so there’s that as well. I feel like it’s a pretty diverse crowd for the most part.
Let’s talk about the album title, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Do you feel like it’s informed by the blues, or did you just like the way those words sounded together?
I liked the way it sounded and knowing it was coming from kind of a dark place. I feel like I tried to take subject matter that may be darker or coming from a negative place and then twist it into a song that’s catchy that you can sing along to that maybe doesn’t sound that down. It’s definitely written from that place lyrically, so I wanted the title to reflect that.
On paper something like “FUCKMYLIFE666” looks like it would be depressing, but it’s probably the most upbeat song on the record. It’s a really interesting dichotomy.
Thanks. I think with the lyrics to that song, putting it in that package was important because I didn’t want the record to necessarily depress people or anything like that. I wanted it to have a joyfulness as well.
Fat Mike from NOFX played bass on that song, right?
Yeah, he played on “FUCKMYLIFE666” and “Unconditional Love.” And we actually recorded a third song with him that didn’t make it onto the record but is mixed and mastered and ready to go. Today [early March] we’re up at a studio in Michigan getting ready to record a couple more songs, so we’ll probably do something with that song as well as the material we’re working on now when we come away from this session.
Much of Transgender Dysphoria Blues was recorded at your own studio in Florida. Was it liberating to have as much time as you wanted to work on the record, or did that make it harder for you to finally decide it was finished?
A little bit of both. I got really obsessive-compulsive about stuff and with Pro Tools. There’s playlists for each take, so we would do, like, 100 playlists of my guitar part, just playing obsessively and feeling like it didn’t get right. So there was really a lot of time wasted with that. What got Fat Mike involved is that toward the end of the process a tree fell through the studio and destroyed it, so at that moment I was like, I guess we need to go somewhere else. So I thought of Mike’s studio and figured no one was using it and I called and asked if we could come by. He agreed but we didn’t have a bass player at the time so we were like, And do you want to play bass on a couple of songs? Luckily he was into it, so it all worked out.
Do you feel like this album is more personal than what you’ve done in the past?
[In the past] I got to a place where I felt almost an obligation to go, “Okay, there has to be an antiwar song on this record” or “There has to be some overtly political songs on the record.” I really didn’t give a shit about that with this album. I mean, it is really personal but I also think there are real politics to the subject matter, so I think it definitely holds true to an Against Me! album in that sense.
Has your audience changed since you’ve started undergoing your gender transition?
I think so. I think it’s made people feel comfortable in that environment— and welcome, because especially at punk shows it can feel like a boys’ club and really aggressive, so you could feel really uncomfortable.
Is it odd talking about your transition to complete strangers?
It’s fairly easy for me to talk about it in a kind of morbidly detached way, because it’s real so I know the answers. Whereas before—like you mentioned, getting backlash for stuff on past records—when you’re doing interviews all the time with people asking you about signing to a major label based on where you came from, you’re trying to answer the question while not giving a shit about justifying it to someone. That’s exhausting. [Laughs.] Another reason I’m okay with talking about it is because I want to selfishly make connections with the trans community so that I have a support network for myself. And if sharing my story can help to educate someone else or help them out in their own way, then that’s awesome.
A lot of people must come up to you after shows and say they’ve never heard your point of view represented in their music.
It’s true—a lot of people still haven’t heard a trans story before because it’s vastly unrepresented in the media. And usually it’s a sad story or the butt-of-a-joke type thing, so I think it’s important to make myself present and visible. If I can help push things forward culturally, then I want to do my part with that, you know?