Regardless of how you feel about bands using punctuation in their names, the hard-working, constantly-touring members of Against Me! have always been busy and energetic enough to earn that emphatic exclamation mark in their moniker. And the band didn’t slow down in 2010, releasing White Crosses, which included the hit single “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” and was featured on many year-end best-of lists.
But it’s a time of change for the Florida-based rockers. They’re between labels, have a new drummer in Jay Weinberg and toured with keyboardist Franz Nicolay (ex-The Hold Steady) in 2010, and frontman Tom Gabel had a baby last year. All the while, they’re gearing up for a 2-month US tour with Cheap Girls and Fences. OurStage caught up with Gabel to talk about Against Me!’s changing lineup, their changing sound and their bright, albeit uncertain, future.
OS: So, sorry to open with this, because I’m sure you’ve been answering questions about it nonstop, but after five years Against Me! are leaving Sire/Warner. What prompted that?
TG: Well, our contract was up, so that was kind of it. They chose not to renew us. I’m not sure we would have anyway, but it was just time to move on. And I know the label itself is going under a lot of changes—they fired the president, they’re firing a bunch of employees, and a bunch of bands are parting ways with the label— they’re just reorganizing. It just felt like a lot of the people we were working with were getting let go, so we didn’t really know where we fit in with the label anymore.
OS: Do you have any idea where you guys want to go from here? I know you were really psyched to work with Butch Vig while you were at Sire/Warner, is that a relationship that you’ll continue?
TG: I hope to, for sure. It’s not like that relationship was something exclusive to Warner. And as far as what label’s next, we’re not totally sure yet. It’s kind of weird, because right now we’ve started writing some new songs for the next record and everything, but it’s so early on that it’s hard to tell what the shape is or what the direction is. It’s hard to say what would be the right match right now, as far as what label. But we’ll definitely figure it out.
OS: You guys are going through a lot of changes right now— new drummer, new keyboardist, you personally had a new baby—does it stress you out?
TG: No, not at all [laughs]. I mean those are all really positive things, especially having a kid. That’s been a really positive, life-affirming experience. And as far as playing with other people, it’s exciting. I don’t know what happened, but at some point I kind of had a real mindset change over the way to approach music. I don’t necessarily believe that we have to be like, “It has to be these four people! That’s the magic!” Or “If the chain is broken, there’s nothing left!” I don’t really buy into that whole thing, you know? I think that if the stars aligned long enough for a group of people to play together, then that’s great, and you should take advantage of that. But at the same time, no one should ever feel confined to a relationship playing music. No one should ever feel stuck, especially because playing music is a creative thing. You need to feel free to experiment and make changes in order to be true to yourself as an artist. I definitely try to take that approach to playing music with those people.
OS: It was pretty gutsy having the title track of your album be the pro-choice song “White Crosses.” Were you worried about how that would be perceived?
TG: You know, I was more worried that most people wouldn’t understand what the song was about. That song is really about St. Augustine. The church that I’m talking about specifically is a church here in St. Augustine that has this huge anti-abortion protest thing on their church lawn. It’s a disgusting eyesore that’s just been here for years; they’ll put it up, take it down, put it up, take it down. It is what it is.
OS: Has there been a reaction from anyone like Fox News or Pro-Life groups against the song or the album?
TG: No, not yet. [Laughs]
OS: Against Me!’s sound has changed a ton since your earliest records. Has the reaction from fans been mostly positive?
TG: Well, it’s been completely positive from my perspective. The band has been going for a while. I started playing in this band when I was 17, and I’m 30 years old now. I think it would be only natural that you would experiment with new sounds and try new things. I think that a lot of the changes in our sound that are most noticeable is just that we’ve become better, which you would hope [would happen] after you’ve been playing 200-plus shows a year for a decade. And not only that, but just becoming more and more comfortable in the studio environment and knowing what you want to get out of it. The first time you go into a studio, you’re just kind of in awe. There’s all these knobs and buttons and stuff, you don’t really know what anything does, and you’re nervous. You don’t really have a budget so you’re probably in there for a day, and you’re trying to record 15 songs in one day. You kind of get the sound you get. As you progress, you become more familiar with what everything does and you have an idea in your head of what you want your songs to sound like. And hopefully each time you go into a studio you get closer and closer to achieving that.
OS: So you said you’ve started writing some new songs for an upcoming album?
TG: Yeah, I always try to write very constantly. Whether or not those songs are songs that are used or what happens with them, who knows? But I’ve definitely been working on new stuff, so we’ll see what happens.
OS: I saw you quoted somewhere saying that you want to release one new album a year for the next ten years. Do you think you can keep that pace?
TG: I’m totally jinxing myself. We probably won’t release a record for another 10 years because I said that. [Laughs] But I would love to do that. I kind of said it off the cuff, but I definitely feel right now a real need and a desire to be as productive as possible. There’s a lot of things about the major label world that are kind of slow and cumbersome about that whole process that I didn’t find really satisfying when you’re making music. I’m the type of person that when I make something, I want people to hear it immediately. So just feeling right now that there are a lot of possibilities and you can kind of do anything is exciting, and I definitely feel motivated to get new material out there as soon as possible and keep going.
OS: How about solo material? Will we see a follow-up to 2008’s Heart Burns?
TG: Maybe! We’ll see. Right now we’re kind of figuring out what we’re going to do with the next record, and I already have a couple songs. I definitely feel motivated to write and be as productive as possible, so we’ll just kind of figure it out as we go.
OS: Are you excited for your upcoming tour with Cheap Girls and Fences?
TG: For sure. We got to play with Cheap Girls maybe six or seven months ago. We just played one show with them and it was awesome. It was really, really rad. And Fences— I’ve been pen pals with Chris for I guess almost two years now—but we’ve oddly never met in person. So I’m really looking forward to meeting him and playing some shows.
OS: One last question: You were a “teenage anarchist,” now you’re a 30-year-old… what? How would you describe yourself?
TG: I wouldn’t, you know? When you’re younger, I feel like you need to feel a sense of belonging. You need to create your identity—“I’m a vegan,” or “I’m straightedge,” or “I’m a skinhead,” or “I’m an anarchist,” or whatever—and the older you get, for me, I just feel less and less of a desire to belong to any kind of club or anything like that. I just care less and less about defining anything—myself, my band or anything like that—in one-word phrases or un-unique things like that. I just seems confining and unoriginal, in a way.
Check out Against Me!’s upcoming dates with Cheap Girls and Fences here.