Either punk's latest sellout or rock's next big political band

by Chris Riemenschneider

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

3 December 2007


You’d have to be incredibly cynical about rock’s potential to change the world—as cynical as John Lydon about the Sex Pistols, or an Exxon exec about Al Gore—not to buy into the urgency and passion that kicks off the new Against Me! album:

We can be the bands we want to hear.

We can define our generation.

Is there anybody on the receiving end?

Are you ready to brave new directions?

Come on and wash these shores away.

I’m looking for the crest of a new wave.

At once bleeding-hearted but mostly apolitical, and apathetic but hopeful, the song “New Wave” is the opening track to the Florida punk band’s new record of the same name—one of the best rock albums of the year, and maybe the most important.

Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel, 27, knows he’s not rewriting the book on trying to shake up his generation.

“You hope sometimes you can shock people and really do something surprising and meaningful,” Gabel said, sounding a little cynical himself. “But everything has been done before.”

The most surprising thing Against Me! has done was signing to Sire/Warner Bros. Records last year, after a decade climbing through America’s indie-punk ranks.

It was a bold move: The band could bring substance and meaning to a corporate rock world dominated by fluffy-haired emo bands. But the punk world notoriously eats its own whenever a group like this joins the mainstream.

Even more pierced eyebrows were raised when Against Me! recorded “New Wave” with big-name producer Butch Vig, the guy who helped bring Nirvana and Sonic Youth up from the underground. But for every punk purist who cries “sellout,” there might be a hundred Fall Out Boy or Boys Like Girls fans who find something deeper in Against Me! Likewise, older punk fans who think rock’s meaningful spirit died with Joe Strummer might also see the light again.

Make any highfalutin suggestions like these to Gabel, though, and he’ll probably just shrug them off.

“I don’t really think in those terms,” the singer/guitarist said, repeating that comment in one form or another several times throughout a phone interview last week.

One of those instances came after he mentioned seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert a night earlier.

Me: Did any of the politics in Springsteen’s new songs resonate with you?

Gabel: Nah, not really. I just think he’s a great performer.

It happened again when he was asked about the opening acts on the tour—Rhode Island indie-rapper Sage Francis and New York’s cabaret-punk band World Inferno Friendship Society, both of which have albums laced with ironic political diatribes.

Me: Is this tour anything of a meeting of the political minds?

Gabel: No. We’re just fans of their music. We mix it up and want the show to be interesting for us, since we have to see the show every night.

The ultimate brush-off, though, came when Gabel was asked about the fallout from the indie-punk scene over “New Wave.”

Me: How much backlash has there been, really, from the punk purists?

Gabel: I’m just not even interested in talking about it. I don’t really care.

One person willing to talk about the backlash was Erik Funk, co-owner of the Triple Rock, where Against Me! has performed in Minneapolis.

“Those guys faced all the different cycles of criticism that can happen to a punk band that’s actually a good band,” said Funk, whose own group Dillinger Four toured with Against Me! and recorded for the same label, Fat Wreck Chords.

“They caught hell every step of the way in their career. So they probably just figured they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t, and they went for it.”

Gabel became the Angry Young Man of future Against Me! fame around age 12, when he moved to Naples, Fla. A coastal town where many wealthy retirees go to soak up the sun and tax breaks, Naples “is absolutely oppressive to youth,” he said.

“They don’t even have a mass transit system in Naples. That tells you something.”

He moved to the hipper college town of Gainesville as “soon as possible,” he said, and started recording Against Me! songs as a solo/acoustic project. As other bands fell by the wayside, he gradually turned the project into a full-time band. Back then, he said, “I never envisioned it being what it is today.”

Not that he has any regrets about where the band is.

“The past two years have been the best of my life,” he said, “starting with the making of this record.”

“Going for it” really wasn’t a hard decision to make, Gabel said, especially when it came to working with Vig.

“I’m a fan of the records that he’s made, so it wasn’t any kind of big decision to us,” Gabel said. “`It was the same thing working with Sire: They had a history of working with bands we love.”’ (Sire’s back-catalog includes the Ramones and Replacements.)

The label made no input into how the record was made, Gabel claimed. He also stressed that no one at Warner Bros. questioned the band’s political side. If anything, he said, the label “maybe wants us to have more of a political edge because that’s a selling point for some bands.”

Built on stormy, Clash-echoing riffs and Minor Threat-like chants, “New Wave” attacks the general sad state of rock music as much as it does political/social issues.

“None of it makes me feel anything,” Gabel sings to his emo-spewing peers in “Piss and Vinegar.” In “Up the Cuts,” he asks, “All the tastemakers drinking from the same glass/Is there anyone thinking what I am?/Are you restless like me?”

The album includes a song about a girl struggling with addiction (“Thrash Unreal”) and even one down-and-out love song, “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart,” a surprisingly rocking duet with Tegan Quin of Tegan & Sara.

But the political fire-starters still drive the new record. “White People for Peace” finds Gabel decrying the futility of singing “protest songs in response to military aggression” (ironically, he’s doing just that). In “Americans Abroad,” he cringes at seeing the influx of U.S. corporations while on tour in Europe (“Wherever we go, Coca-Cola’s already been”).

With tracks like those, plus past anthems such as “Don’t Lose Touch” and the overtly titled “Turn Those Clapping Hands Into Angry Balled Fists,” Against Me! has been positioned as the next Rage Against the Machine—the one mainstream band of today channeling the tumult of the world into the angst of young rock fans.

Gabel questioned whether there’s room for such a band.

“If you look at the success of our band compared to the success of a band like, say, Paramore, who don’t have any political messages, they’re selling a lot more records than we are,” he said. (“New Wave” has sold a modest 50,000 copies since July.)

“I do think that, unfortunately, a majority of kids out there aren’t necessarily interested. Instituting a draft might be the only thing that will really make them political. But it’s not just kids, most people in general are happy just to be ignorant to what’s going on.”

Even after comments like that, Gabel said the notion of Against Me! becoming the poster boys of political rock really makes him bristle.

“I have no interest in filling that role,” he said. “I don’t want that at all. Anytime someone has suggested that we try and ape that and go that way, I’ve always been against it.”

The guy resists even when it comes to being a resister. How punk-rock is that?

Topics: against me
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