Interview: Tom Gabel of Against Me!
So, music geeks, how many conversations have you started with the statement, “I was into those guys back when they were good?” It is an exclamation that has been fodder for many exuberant debates and more than a few fistfights. And, in general, it’s usually just so much bullshit. It comes with that very human need to call something our own. It’s our music. We heard it first. And you’ll take it from us over our dead bodies!
For the past decade, Against Me! has built an impressive following with their combustible live shows and endless touring. Their music is a heady mixture of politics, punk, folk, Irish, and even a dash o’ country thrown in for good measure, and their anthems have breathed new life into that glorious old standby, the punk sing-along. (Every time I hear “Condoleeza” my hair stands on end!) As Tom Gabel and friends have progressed, as their music has grown more complex — and dare I say it, interesting — the numbers of believers have grown and the band has begun a march to the “big-time.” And while thousands of people consider themselves Against Me! partisans, each step up the ladder has been met by resounding recriminations from those in the fan base who feel betrayed, who love to level charges of “sellout” or just that they knew the band “back when they were good.”
I submit to you, my friends, that a measure of a band’s greatness may just be how pissy their fans get when things actually change. But that doesn’t mean that I can explain it. Luckily, on the eve of Against Me!’s first major label release, Tom Gabel sat down with me to try and clue me in to the phenomenon.
Okay, Tom, let’s start with Gainesville — what a scene you all have down there. You’ve been playing around for about 10 years now?
I’ve been playing under the name “Against Me!” since 1997.
You came up in a moment when things were most auspicious for political punk, 1997. That would’ve been just about a year from the Battle of Seattle, and it seems like a lot of bands were energized in that time period.
Oh yeah, completely. But Warren who currently plays in the band, we met him from going to…There used to be an organization in Florida called FRAN, which was the Florida Radical Activist Network. And there would be monthly meetings where people would get together for Food Not Bombs meetings, or we’d have a Youth Liberation Camp, and stuff like that. That whole scene was how Warren [Oakes, drummer] and I met each other. So that’s definitely where our group of friends were when we started out.
It’s funny; there at the end of the century there were these conditions that seemed to come together. Not just a bunch of young people who were ready to get involved and take a stand on really specific issues, but a noxious political atmosphere that seemed to dictate that people get involved. We’ve seen this explosion of political punk bands, and Gainesville in particular continues to be a hotbed. Must be something in the water. Are you still living down there?
Well, for the past year and about eight months I’ve been living in a hotel. (laughter) But just three days ago I rented a house with my girlfriend, so I’m technically again a Gainesville resident.
Let me ask you about the ways your politics and maybe that place influenced your music. Or, more specifically, I’m curious about influences given the overt politics of your lyrics. What exactly focused you and got you involved? Did you grow up in an activist environment?
The band technically started in Naples, Florida, in southwest Florida about two hours away from Miami. And Naples is a kind of interesting place. Like, when I was growing up there in Collier County, at the time it had more millionaires per capita than any other place in the United States. The two cities in Collier County are Naples and Motley, which is a migrant farm workers community and you have these extreme cases of poverty there. So even with that offsetting the numbers they still had the most millionaires per capita! So it was a really weird place to be a kid in. It’s mostly retirees and a tourist-based economy, and just really wealthy. So to be a kid in a middle class family was a pretty interesting experience.
Me and my three or four friends, when we were going to high school there, we didn’t feel like we fit in, and that’s not a unique feeling to have when you’re in high school. But I was always interested in music, and that was when I really got into punk. When I was like 14 years old I got beat up by the cops pretty badly — they arrested me and hogtied me and took me to jail. They charged me with battery of an officer, resisting arrest, and they convicted me when I was 15 and tried me as an adult. It was this big, long ordeal. That whole experience was really eye opening, and really politicized me. And it turned me on to different types of punk bands.
Around then, during ’95 or ’96, there was this zine out of Minneapolis called Profane Existence — I believe it has started going again, but they definitely don’t publish as regularly as they used to. But that whole scene was a big influence. Plus, the bands associated with that Minneapolis scene and Profane Existence turned us on to a lot of the old ‘80s English peace punk bands, like Crass, who were my most influential band of all-time, politically. I think no band has ever mixed politics and music as well as Crass. Bands like Crass, The Mob, Omega Tribe, even Chumbawumba were completely mind-blowing and changed my life.
That really interests me. I’m a teacher. And I talk to my students who are really into the punk scene now, and I know what it meant to me…I mean, I’m 45 years old now, so the bands you’ve mentioned played a critical role in my political awakening also. The late ‘70s and early ‘80s “Rock Against Racism” tours, it was bands like Crass and Conflict and Flux of Pink Indians…
Oh yeah, completely.
It completely opened my mind. It was like a gateway drug, you know? (laughter) You come up against these ideas and they point you towards the next one. As I was preparing for this interview, I really tried to get a sense of the broad scope of your efforts thus far. And it’s really remarkable what you’ve accomplished since 1997. Going from these legendary guerilla shows where it looks like you were willing to play just about anywhere you could find an audience, including the local laundromat…
(laughter)That was definitely our attitude, yeah.
And less than a decade later we’re talking about major label releases and fronting the Warped Tour. I’m curious, when I listen to your records, it seems like you’re in a process of definition and redefinition with almost every release. Does the band have a coherent vision of where it’s going, or is it more spontaneous and experimental than that?
You know, I don’t think there is a really constant vision of “this is what we’re trying to achieve” and “this is where we’re trying to go” on an overall sense. But on a record-by-record basis, definitely. We’ll approach writing a record [by starting] out at square one with nothing and then building up. You write this record. You record the record. You put it out and you tour on it. And then when it comes time to start thinking about another record you have to start all over; it’s like you’ve never written a record before.
What people miss a lot and don’t really understand is that, most of the time in between records, you’re talking about a period of a year or two years. You grow a lot in that period, and you change a lot. You listen to a lot of different bands. So [you’re] constantly trying to make something that you find interesting and good for where you’re at.
What do you think of the state of punk rock today? So much of it is so formulaic — sometimes I think that since it has become such a powerful marketing tool that, a lot of times, people are just sort of regurgitating the same old sound. That’s what drew me to your music, because whether or not I got it at first I knew that every time I heard a new record from you it was going to sound different. What do you think of the current state of the music? I mean, given you were just on the Warped Tour you probably got a pretty nice cross-section of what’s happening out there.
Yeah, for better or for worse. (laughter) Being in a band, you’ll get asked the question “What do you do?” and you’ll say “I play in a band,” and people will ask, “What type of music do you play?” And, sometimes, there’s this part of me that wants to say, “Well, we’re a punk band.” And then there’s this other part of me now that’s doesn’t want to say we’re a punk band. I mean, are we a punk band? What does that even mean? And I have to analyze just what it means to be a punk band because, I agree with you, it doesn’t seem like the bands are the same anymore.
I don’t necessarily feel like I identify with anybody. There are certain bands out there that I think are great bands, and I really like them as people, and I consider them friends and peers. But they wouldn’t necessarily be in similar categories. As far as identifying with a scene, I don’t feel like I identify with anything.
I think that comes out in your records. Certainly there are punk songs on them, but you can hear the folk influences and the country influences and these great Irish jammers and all these remarkable sounds on there. It reminds me — not sonically — but of what the Minutemen used to do. I remember D. Boon at a show once — they went into this free jazz riff and, of course, the hardcore purists were screaming and throwing things at them. And D. Boon went off on this rant that punk rock is dead if that’s your reaction to it. We should be able to play whatever we want up here. And you may not like it, but you can’t just reject it because it doesn’t fit the mold you’ve come to expect. I have to ask you about these remixes you guys have put out over the past year and a half or so — what inspired you to work with Mouse On Mars and Ad Rock of the Beasties?
When it comes to making music, I’ve kind of been interested in what it is that attracts people to certain stuff and what it is that people are into. And you know, “What makes something punk?” And I wonder often, if you took the same message and the same lyrics and you put different music behind it, does it still maintain the same value? Is it still the same thing because it’s the still the same thing that’s being said? I’m really into the idea of doing that. And it’s the same thing with releasing acoustic versions of songs and releasing electric versions of songs. I like examining it in different ways and presenting it in different forms. Even if someone says they don’t really like rock music, “I only listen to folk,” then you can listen to it that way and hopefully get something out of it. Or, if you say I don’t like rock and I don’t like folk but I love House music, then presenting it in that manner is a really neat way to just mix it up and to see how people latch onto stuff. And what makes it for them.
It’s interesting what a strong reaction it gets. You know, I perused the message boards and you can’t get away from this explosive reaction from your fan base when you start to experiment.
People get pissed! (laughter)
God, it’s amazing how proprietary they are towards you guys. Do you have any sense of why that is? What inspires that kind of passion? It’s almost fascist in the way they demand that you sound one way and one way only!
I don’t know what makes people latch onto music like that, or what makes people feel that way. But I don’t necessarily think that it’s anything new. I mean, look at someone like Bob Dylan — not to compare ourselves to Bob Dylan in any way — but I just recently watched the documentary No Direction Home; when he went electric, some of the reactions that he was getting that they were filming…I was watching that thinking, That’s like kids who write on message boards! (laughter) It’s amazing, it’s the exact same thing! But also, that’s what makes it fun doing stuff like the remixes or changing sounds and messing with people’s minds, because it’s fun sometimes making people uncomfortable — to challenge their boundaries and sense of security.
To me, that’s what punk is right there. That’s the line. It makes people feel uncomfortable. So let’s use this as a segue into a discussion of your decision to sign to Sire. Of course, you got the reaction from fans that you’d probably expected you’d get all along.
Oh yeah, we saw it coming.
They seem to have completely lost their minds! And yet, at the same time you were pretty public. In the We’re Never Going Home documentary, you pretty much engage in a 90-minute discussion of that very thing — signing to a major label. Granted you spend a fair amount of time sort of mocking the process. But you’re open and honest with people about what you’re going through. It’s not like they didn’t see it coming!
It’s unfortunate with the DVD because you can’t see the continuation. The DVD is 90 minutes long, but life keeps going. Things keep happening. It’s not a TV show. It’s hard to explain to people that more happens. There are a lot of things involved [in our decision]. Going through that initial experience that was documented in the DVD, you start to examine and think about the music industry in general. I fail to see anymore a difference between indie record labels and major record labels. Especially and specifically between something like Warner and a label like Fat. Warner being a record label that is independently owned; 80 percent is privately owned and 20 percent is publicly traded. It’s a standalone music company that owns its own distribution and distributes records. I think that there’s different intentions maybe behind some indie labels where definitely major labels have a bottom line and they’re more interested profit. But I don’t know.
Personally, if you were going to try the majors, I was pretty psyched to see you sign to Sire. I grew up a Ramones fan and back in the day the only label that consistently took chances with this kind of music was Sire. At least there’s a little bit of historical continuity there. By the same token, what was it about Sire that convinced you that this was the way to go?
Well, when you’re going through the process, all the labels tell you the exact same thing. They say that they’re the best label for you. They all have the same exact pitch. And I really think that if you’re going to make the most informed decision then you have to look at the records of the bands that signed with this label. And if you do look at Sire’s back catalog, or even Warner for that matter, you have a ton of bands that weren’t very commercially marketable that put out multiple records on the label and had the label’s support over the years and were able to do what they wanted artistically and creatively.
I’ve never really understood the whole “sellout” or “not a sellout” debate. I mean if a band is really great but no one ever hears their music, what’s the point?
I think that’s exactly right. You have to have an audience.
And now you’re in the studio with the great Butch Vig. How’s it all going for you?
So far we’re still in the honeymoon. (laughter) We’ll see what happens when the record comes out. We’ve been able to do what we’ve wanted to do with making this record with no limits put on that. And that’s been an awesome feeling. It’s been really fun making this record when making a record is usually a lot of hair-pulling, second-guessing, and staying up until five or six in the morning and wondering if you’ve done the right thing. Butch has everything to do with that. He’s an amazing producer and an all-around cool guy. And Sire, too, has been really supportive. Initially, since we were recording in Los Angeles, we were like, “fuck, they’re going to be able to drop in whenever they want and stick their heads in all the time.” Instead they’ve really let us do our thing. They stop by every once in awhile, but they call us first and ask if it’s cool. They’d come by and say “sounds great” and take off.
It’s a really exciting process. I want to give you the last word. Is there anything you’re working on that you want us to be aware of?
As a matter of fact, we have some friends J. Robbins and Janet Morgan, whose one-year-old son, Cal, has been diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. It is a terrible disease and one that promises to put some serious financial burdens on his family. There is an effort online to raise money for Cal, and you can help out at the DeSoto Records website, www.desotorecords.com/cal.
We’ll make sure that gets out. Tom, thank you very much for your time.
Thank you, Mark. We really appreciate it.