Nailed to the Cross: Against Me! and the "Punk Question"
Against Me! has gone from cult-favorite of DIY punk fans to widely-enjoyed arena rockers who write bigger songs for bigger crowds. In this interview their lead singer, Tom Gabel, makes clear this isn't a transition he feels ashamed of.
Seven years ago, a friend of mine called me into his room. He hunched over his computer, ears close to the speakers.
“You’ve got to hear this band.”
Now, I’ve heard that sentence many times and more often than not, it doesn’t end well. Flash in the pan bands, one-hit wonders and the like seemed to creep up a lot in conversation when I was a younger music fan. But this time, something stuck. There was an immediately visceral edge that would thrash as often as it would swell. And the Billy Bragg-esque lyrics gave me a radical sense of enlightenment that four years at a liberal arts University never did.
The band was Against Me!, and even though my friends and I only started with the band’s acoustic EP, we knew we were onto something. We listened to the band with a fervent sense of identity, often as if it was something only we could share. (And often, it was the only thing keeping us together as friends) No one around us had heard of the band; we had formed our own cult.
As the years rolled on, my friends and I saw each other less and less. Meanwhile, Against Me!, the secret we shared, began to become exposed to music fans everywhere in an immense, wide-ranging way. In 2005, the band we fell for on Fat Wreck Chords signed with Sire, making the jump to a major label that they swore (at least, in front of the cameras on We’re Never Going Home, a documentary of their 2003 tour) wasn’t going to happen. Many fans grew disillusioned, but lead singer Tom Gabel adapted with a sense of courage, writing bigger songs for bigger crowds. As friendships evolved, so too has Against Me!
Now, with the release of White Crosses, the band’s second full-length for Sire and fifth full length overall, Against Me! find themselves in a precarious position, but one which presents infinite possibilities. Having been on Sire for five years, lead singer Tom Gabel and company are now able to reflect on their time in the major label game, instead of going at it with their backs against the wall, as they did on 2007’s New Wave. White Crosses is laden with optimistic undertones, with Gabel seeming to accept his place in the world as an important performer. But still, ardent followers of the band will note that reading Gabel`s constantly updated blog can be a lecture on the banality of life on the road. Reached over the phone on while driving towards Orlando, Gabel was quick to point out that while there are big differences between life in the studio and life on the road for a musician, it`s still not a job he takes lightly.
“With the blog, I’m not ever meaning to sound ungrateful for what I get to do as far as touring as a musician, seeing new places,” he tells me. “But there are certain peculiarities to touring life when you’re in a band. And I think just observing these things doesn’t have to be negative. I’m just trying to stay focused with my writing.”
Focus is one thing that Gabel most certainly has not lacked as of late. Amidst the constant touring he does with Against Me!, Gabel released Heart Burns, a solo EP in October of 2008. What’s more, he has become something of a verbal dart board for so many punk/anarchist loyalists. It’s not hard to find a negative opinion or two (thousand) about Gabel’s career moves on message boards everywhere. Once considered a bastion of the DIY punk scene, Gabel and Against me! have evolved in a manner that, while many would call it predictable, is still one that inspires discussion. He might be easy fodder for some, and the release of “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” as the first single from the soaring White Crosses probably didn’t do much to maintain his claim as a “punk". Yet Gabel insists that the “Punk” label isn’t one he loses any sleep over.
“It’s funny, when you talk about the word 'punk', it’s tough because I was raised in the punk scene; that’s where I grew up,” he explains. “I listened to a million punk bands and I have no problem if somebody calls my band a punk band. And I sometimes think of my band as a punk band, but I’m never going to fight for that title or anything. And when someone says to me, “You’re not a punk band,” the argument doesn’t really mean anything to me. That being said, I think everything with punk culture and music culture in general changed with the internet. And when I think about punk culture, you know, pre-internet, I guess I don`t even understand the way punk culture works anymore in a lot of ways. And I feel a lot of the time, I don`t even know where our band fits, categorically.”
Hard to argue there. Attempting to draw a line from some of the early, ragged acoustic recordings of Vivida Vis!, to the socially charged anarcho-folk feel of Reinventing Axl Rose, to the dark, complex cuts on Searching for a Former Clarity and now, to the stadium-sized White Crosses would be a tiring process. Not so though for Gabel and co. As the principal songwriter for Against me!, Gabel seems more interested in the opportunities for his band’s sound, instead of the process.
“With this record in particular, there wasn’t a moment like that,” he remembers, “but there was a moment where I was like, ‘You know what. Fuck it. I’m not going to have any reservations about going into this process. I’m going to be open-minded to whatever happens and whatever direction we go.’”
Still, you can’t help but wonder if it was tough for Gabel to let go of any preconceived notions of how Against Me! should sound.
“(The shift in sound) has seemed gradual in a lot of ways,” he answers. “I feel like there’s two different ways of thinking about it. There’s definitely a songwriting aspect to that shift, but there’s also a sonic element to it. And when you’re speaking sonically, I think as a band we’re just on a natural progression that you’d hope any musician would striving towards, where each record is just a little bit better. And as you get more and more adept at working in the studio you learn a lot, and that begins to show itself.”
The rise of Against Me!, in terms of mass popularity is not without irony; as the band gets bigger, how the band should be sounding becomes less and less of a concern to him, and the band’s fans as well. Gabel speaks openly and honestly with a wide-eyed optimism surrounding his future in the industry.
The only constant in Gabel’s life then would be the constant touring which he does with Against Me! He confesses that touring is something of an “addiction” and seems committed to creating a special night for his fans, regardless of whether he’s playing the basement or the stadium.
“I think a great show doesn`t really depend on the size of the room,” he says. “You can have a massive experience with lots of people and have it seem intimate, even if it is on a massive scale. And it`s all about trying to reach that point of emotional urgency, if that makes sense.”
As I wind down my conversation with Gabel, I realized, it doesn’t have to make sense. Gabel and Against Me! are most certainly not following any hard and fast pattern for success, nor do they seem to be adhering to any one certain credo. The band seems open for change, recently adding Franz Nicolay, once of The Hold Steady fame, on keyboards for upcoming tour dates. It’s just another part of Gabel’s open-minded approach, one that seems to be working rather well for him. Friends move on, bands evolve. With the release of White Crosses, Gabel seems more hopeful than fearful. Staying stagnant seems like the only thing right now that Gabel is truly adverse to.
“My fears for this record are the same as they’ve always been for any record or any song,” he concludes. “When something comes out, there’s always a sense of finality to it. And I always start thinking about moving onto the next thing.”