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.”