Rarely do rowdy guitar licks, thought-provoking lyrics, and a positive ethos find a common home in a band, but Against Me! is no run-of-the-mill group. Formed in 1997 by the gravelly voiced Tom Gabel, AM! began as a solo act, eventually growing to include bassist Andrew Seward, guitarist James Bowman, and drummer Warren Oakes. After eight years with the Gainesville, Florida-based band, Oakes (who managed to make bushy beards and freeganism cool) abruptly threw in the towel this past June, opting to pursue a career as a restaurateur. The shift in lineup – Hot Water Music’s George Rebelo quickly stepped in – caused a major stir within the punk community, and message boards buzzed with speculation about what happened.
This wasn’t AM!’s first brush with controversy, however. The foursome has been rumbling with fans since they first started to move away from independent labels in favor of more established record companies. Things reached a fever pitch in late 2005, when the band announced they would be signing to Sire Records and working with mega producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins). AM!’s first Sire offering, 2007’s New Wave, was decidedly more polished, but no less punk than previous efforts, and saw the band garner significant mainstream success, including being named best album of ’07 by Spin magazine. Gabel and Vig joined forces again for the singer’s recent foray into solo work, 2008’s stripped-down Heart Burns.
Gabel recently phoned in from the studio, where he was working on AM!’s forthcoming album, White Crosses, which he described as “an aggressive album” that covers “some new ground.” He also shed some light on drummer-gate, the rigors of touring, and celebrity vocal spots.
It’s been about six weeks since you finished up in the studio with your new album, White Crosses. I’m actually at the studio right now. We’re not totally, technically finished. We finished the general tracking about six weeks ago, but there’s still some minor vocal stuff that I still have to do, and we’ve been prepping for mixing for the past couple weeks. Mixing is happening in, like, a week or so, so there’s still some stuff to do.
So you’ve still been doing more technical kinds of work? Yeah. The type of stuff where most people would come over and we’d say, “Now how does that sound?” and people would be like, “Well, I don’t hear a difference.” [Laughs.] It’s the geeking-out, obsessive-compulsive side of being in a band.
What can you tell me about the album? I’m pretty sure it’s going to be 12 songs. I’ve been writing for the record for more than a year now and I’m really happy with the record we made. I’m excited for people to hear it. I’m generally kind of bad at questions like that, because I don’t necessarily feel like I’m a salesman, and that’s kind of a “your cue to pitch the record.” [Laughs.]
I really liked New Wave; will it be similar, or does it depart greatly from that album? Sonically, obviously, there’s been a lineup change – we’re playing with a new drummer – so there’s a little bit of a change musically to the dynamic. I think the record in general has a real rock feel to it. It’s an aggressive album. Lyrically, it’s not really touching on any of the subjects that were touched on in New Wave or on Heart Burns, so we’re covering some new ground.
And this is your third time with producer Butch Vig, right? Yes, that’s correct.
I read somewhere that working with him was one of the reasons Against Me! signed with Sire. What’s that relationship and dynamic like? Well, the statement is actually untrue, just to clarify. We didn’t decide on working with Butch until a couple of months after we signed with Sire. It didn’t really have anything to do with the move to Sire. But, we couldn’t be happier about our decision to work with him; it couldn’t have turned out better than it did. Just the rapport we have with each other is unmatched with anybody we’ve ever had before. I think he really understands the band.
That’s a great thing to have with a producer. It’s hard to find, too. So when you do find it, it’s something that you want to hold on to.
There’s been quite a bit of collaboration on your last two albums-Tegan Quin on New Wave and Matt Skiba and Chuck Ragan on Heart Burns. Maybe I’m just paying better attention now, but it seems like lately there’s more collaboration within the punk community than ever before. I’m not sure. [Laughs.] Maybe it is something that’s a trend right now, but I don’t know. We don’t have any special guests on this album, although we did have some friends come into the studio to do some vocals and stuff like that. But, no, we’re not busting out the celebrities to do guest vocal spots or anything. Or, correct that: We have Fergie on the record and the Neptunes actually produced a couple songs. [Laughs.] I wish I was better at interviews and that I could convincingly lie about details, and then when you ask questions like that, I could just pass that off as true. But unfortunately I don’t have that talent. [Laughs.]
It seems like you are always out on tour. Touring is such a weird thing that I feel like it’s really hard for people to understand what it does to you mentally. It gets to a point where after you’ve toured enough, you can’t turn off whatever’s been turned on in your brain and you become a warped person and you’re changed for the rest of your life. For me, it almost creates an anxiety when I am home and when I’m stationary and when I’m not constantly moving, because you get so used to that barrage of mental stimulation: going to a new place every day, meeting new people, playing shows, which is the ultimate high. And when you come home, it’s like, “What do I do now? Where is everybody? What’s happening?”
At the same time, I think a lot of the time, people’s perception of what it’s like to be in a band is maybe a little bit misinformed in that it’s not always totally exciting and that you spend a good majority of your time kind of sitting around, waiting for something to happen, whether that’s sitting on the bus, waiting to get to the venue; or sitting in the airport, waiting to board a plane, to sit on a plane to wait to get to your destination; or loading in and then sound checking and then sitting around, waiting for the show to start. It’s just such a stop-and-go thing; it’s really an odd way to live. It’s weird, too, because when you do it long enough you lose touch with all of your friends. You get to this point, too, when you can’t really communicate well with other people who don’t play in bands or don’t do the same thing because you feel like people don’t necessarily understand what you’re talking about:
Your live shows are also very energetic. Do you ever find it difficult to maintain that energy? Oh, for sure. I mean, on the one hand, you maintain that energy because you’re so focused and committed to what you’re doing. You kind of get in this mentality-it’s like a game mentality. You’re going out there, this is what we’re doing, we’re a team, and we’re going to take over the world and we’re going to win, even though it’s not a challenge or a sport, but that’s the attitude. You’re going to try and win it. And that keeps you going. It’s mentally and physically exhausting, and with either upping the caffeine or upping the alcohol intake, one way or the other, just kind of getting through it. Obviously, you try to be there for your bandmates, for each other, just do what you need to do to get through it. At the same time, just playing the shows and doing it is such a reward in and of itself that it’s always worth it.
You have some really memorable songs, and some really great moments, throughout your catalogue. Do you have a favorite, or at least a song you really look forward to playing live? Well, you’re always most excited about what’s newest to you. You always want to share with people, like, “Hey, check it out; I’ve been working on this song. I’m really excited about it, and I want you to hear it.” I think that’s true with every musician. At the same time, there definitely are songs that I’ve been playing since I was 17- or 18-years-old. Songs like “Walking Is Still Honest” or “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong”-I’ve played those songs thousands of times, and they’re just a part of me at this point.
It’s odd, too, the way it ends up working out, because it’s not an immediate thing. When you write a song, you aren’t conscious of that fact-I mean, when I was 17 and I wrote “Walking Is Still Honest,” I didn’t think, “Oh, I’ll be playing this song 12, 15 years from now. This song will be around that long.” [Laughs.] I mean, you have no clue. Some songs that you think are great songs when you write them, end up being songs you play maybe a couple of times and then totally retire.
What is your response to that say you’ve “sold out”? At this point, I don’t really have a response. I think that the issue has been so beaten to death that it’s not even worth responding to. For what it’s worth, though, whoever has criticisms of us and accusations like that, I have my own criticisms of them. I think that most people who throw around terms like “sell-out” totally are hypocrites, and have no ground to be making accusations like that. Good example of that is I’ll get an email on MySpace from someone [calling me] a sell-out. I mean, do you fail to see the irony of calling someone a sell-out through MySpace? [Laughs.] :As long as we’re doing what we want to do with our lives and making the music we want to make – even if it doesn’t make someone else happy – as long as we’re being true to ourselves, then that’s all that matters.
What do you see as the future of punk? What’s the role of punk today? I think at this point, unfortunately, the term “punk” is so diluted and means so many different things to so many different people that it doesn’t have a lot of weight as a word. It’s certainly not threatening; it’s not a scary word. When punk first came out, that was an empowering thing that was culturally threatening, and I don’t think it is anymore. I’m not really sure. I don’t claim to be some great punk crusader and I’m not trying to keep the fires burning. [Laughs.]
You mentioned earlier about your new drummer. Can you shed some light on why Warren Oakes left? Well, to go back to one of the questions you asked earlier about doesn’t touring take a toll, and the mental and physical exhaustion, I mean, that is kind of the case in point. The four of us in the band got to a point where it was stressful to continue to be in the relationship we were in, because it was. Warren didn’t want to be in a band that way anymore; he didn’t really want to be a musician. He wanted to open a restaurant and stay at home and hang out with his girlfriend. And in order to maintain friendships, you kind of have to accept that and you have to sacrifice your musical relationship in order to maintain a friend relationship. We totally respected his decision and he totally respected our decision that we didn’t want to necessarily just quit the band. So that’s just how it was.
Do you guys still stay in touch? I moved out here to L.A., actually, and have been here for the past couple months, so I haven’t been back to Gainesville or seen him. But I’ve been in contact through email, and I know that Andrew [Seward] and James [Bowman] see him around town all the time.
And how are things going with your new drummer? So far, so good. I mean, George [Rebelo] is an incredible drummer, and I think that’ll shine through on the new record.
You’ve gotten so much musical inspiration from president Bush. What you think of Barack Obama’s time in office thus far? I think he’s definitely made efforts in certain areas, but I was never under the illusion that him getting elected would mean peace on Earth and that we should all just relax now. It’s depressing that there is still a war happening and that the front in Afghanistan is just expanding. It’s hard to say. I’m not a Democrat.
Against Me! play Velvet Jones (423 State St.) with openers Roll the Tanks, O Pioneers, and Dead Country on Friday, December 18, at 9 p.m. Call 965-8676 or visit newnoisesb.com for info.