Against Me!

It's hard to think of another band that is as heavily criticized as Against Me! for every decision they've made as a band. Whether it's signing to FAT, or to Sire, or releasing a new record, or filming videos, or playing larger venues, or polishing their sound, or an assortment of other things, Against Me! seems to be the go-to punk band that "lost their way."

Last week, Punknews interviewer Ollie Ottoman snuck out of work in the middle of the day to have a phone conversation with Tom Gabel. For all the slack the man gets, on the phone he sounds calm, articulate, and just in good spirits. Having just finished a tour with the Silversun Pickups, I caught up with him to discuss their new album, the recent changes the band has undergone, and why the addition of a new keyboard player involved a bag of porno.

Hey, Tom?

This is Ollie from Punknews.
Hey Ollie. How’s it going, man?

I’m doing good.
Yeah, sorry it took a while to setup this interview. Things were tough to coordinate, but thanks for being patient.

No problem, you guys sounded like you had a crazy schedule last Monday.
Yeah, well just in general. Just the end of this past tour was really fucking hectic. I don’t know if you heard but Andrew [Seward]’s wife went into labor like two months early. So he had to fly home from tour early. We had our friend Adam come out and fill in for him, so the last half of the tour was teaching our bass player play our songs while playing shows every night.

Yeah, I saw you guys. You mentioned he flew in from Portland.
Yeah, he’s from Portland.

Is he in another band?
He played with Moneybrother, and that’s when we met when we toured with them last April. We knew obviously that Andrew’s wife was having a baby, but it wasn’t due until august, so we had it set up thinking that we had time, but what are you gonna do?

Well it’s pretty sweet that you guys found someone. He sounded like a good replacement.
Yeah, he’s a solid bass player for sure and a quick learner, thankfully. Bottom line, it’s good that Andrew’s wife and the baby are good.

Exactly. Well let’s get into this. I saw you guys at the Philly date last week. It seems like every time you play the city you play bigger and bigger venues. Do you think the age of the small Against Me! show has ended?
I don’t think so. To be honest that place we played last in Philly was kind of a drag. There wasn’t any room for people to stand in front of the stage and there was also so many feet of concrete of where the band had to stand and where the audience was, because of the PA, you can’t set the mics in front of the PA. I think the past couple times we played at the… what’s the name of that one?

The Electric Factory?
The Electric Factory, yeah.

Do you see yourselves playing smaller shows again in the future?
Yeah, we’ve always played a mixed size of shows. Even on this Silversun PIckups tour, we’ve been filling a couple of the off dates with our own shows, and most of those shows have been anywhere between 300-500 capacity rooms.

So, how did you decide to go on tour with the Silversun Pickups?
They asked us. When we were touring for New Wave we ended up playing a bunch of random radio festivals. We played a couple of festivals in Japan, and they played the same festivals. A lot of these radio festivals we played in kind of really bad lineups and they were the one band we were like, "Oh cool, Silversun Pickups are playing." So at least we can look forward to watching them play and they were cool people too.

You’re touring in support of White Crosses, how do you feel about the end product?
Well, you know, it is what it is. I’m really happy with the album and I feel -- it’s weird to have perspective when you’re in the moment, but I stand by it.

Sound-wise White Crosses is the most polished Against Me! album so far. How much of a conscious decision was it to do this, and why go with Butch Vig as producer a second time to do this?
I don’t know if it was a conscious decision. I mean there was never meeting where it was like, "Alright we need to polish the sound, what can we do to refine the sound even more?" I think it’s just the gradual progression of the way things work. The more adept you become with working in the studio and the more familiar you become with equipment the more you know how to manipulate it to the sound that you’re going for. We knew pretty soon after finishing New Wave that we were going to make the next record with Butch. It was a pretty easy decision. We got lucky because he’s an amazing producer, and not only that, but also someone who’s fucking cool to hang out with. I feel like there are not that many people out there in the music industry that I respect as much as him.

Was it harder to work on White Crosses than it was working on New Wave?
At times it felt like it was a little more stressful in some ways. My wife at the time was pregnant, and this constant, "What’s going to come first, this record or the baby?" You work with this weird deadline in a lot of ways, and the same time trying not to work under a deadline and trying to not have that be factor. That’s also one of the good things about Butch, is that he makes you feel relaxed and his approach is that it’s going be done when it’s done.

Last time, you guys drove from Florida to LA to do the recording. Were any crazy commutes attempted this time also?
We did the same. I actually drove out by myself a couple weeks earlier than everyone else and got settled out there and then everyone else drove out separate. So, yeah, the same cross country trek. For me I was really trying to approach it as a last period of time to do any last minute writing and went to lose myself out there for a couple days. I didn’t chart out a trip or bring a road map, really. I just headed west to Los Angeles [laughs].

White Crosses is your first album with George Rebelo replacing Warren. Can you discuss a little why you think Warren left and why George was the best choice to replace him?
Well, I think it’s complicated when it comes down to why Warren left. I think a lot of just has to do with touring as a band, for 8-plus years, the four of us with Warren, it takes its toll. Doing that, not that it’s not a worthwhile sacrifice, I’m not complaining, but you do have your personal relationship and your personal lives suffers in a lot of ways and I think Warren just wasn’t interested in spending that much time on the road anymore and wanted dot have more of a home life. He opened up a Mexican restaurant. Obviously if you’re going to open a restaurant, you don’t want to spend as much time on tour or in a band. So it just got to the point where it was obvious that there was some kind of conflict of interests and the best thing to do for him was for him not to play with us anymore

Why do you think George was the best choice to replace him?
He was the first person that I thought of when I knew we needed a drummer. We had already toured with Hot Water Music and we toured with the Draft as well. Gainesville is a small town, everyone knows each other. So we already knew each other on a personal level so it wasn’t like bringing a complete stranger into the mix. And, anyone who’s familiar with the Draft or Hot Water Music knows that George is fucking one of the best drummers in punk rock. He’s an incredible drummer, and he’s also a drummer in every sense of the word. There was no doubt as to whether or not George was going to decide at this point whether or not he wanted to make a career change.

You’ve said that a band’s relationship to itself a lot of times mimics that of a sexual relationship. How do you think adding George to the line-up affects the band dynamic? Is there a certain element of experience that comes with him? I mean, he’s been doing this for a while…
A little bit, right? [laughs] For sure, definitely. And that’s one of the things that was one of the healthiest by-products to come out of making that change, that we really just changed the way the four of us interact together as people. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and play roles in a relationship when you’re with a partner, or three other partners for that matter, for a long time. So, definitely, having someone new in the mix means not only figuring out how we were gonna work in our relationship with George, but it made us reexamine how we all interact with each other in a lot of ways.

Speaking of relationships, has it gotten harder or easier to be in Against Me!?
Well, I just think that with any relationship, the longer that you’re in it, it gets harder in a lot of ways. You have to put in an effort; you have to make it work. Especially when you spend as much time together as we do and travel as much. There’s just the small things, where it’s easy to start to pick at each other and get on each other’s nerves and fight in almost a brother-sister type of way. And you have to really make sure to not succumb to those things.

The new album has been leaked for a while now. Do you consider this as a sign of respect or disrespect towards the band?
I don’t know, you know? That’s the interesting about records leaking. I encouraged people to download our record when it leaked. That was the bottom line for me. We made the record we wanted people to listen to it, and as long as people are listening to it we don’t really care. At this day and age that’s just the reality; records leak. It’s stupid to get upset about that. There’s nothing you can do to prevent it. Fucking watermarked CDs are a joke. But, that natural curiosity where you’re like, "Well, how did it leak?" You just want to know. Not that you’re upset.

To me personally, I’m not computer savvy. I don’t necessarily know how to go download a leaked record, or how to leak a record. Part of you is like, "Is it this one person who works at the record pressing plant who steals this record and is a total masked marauder who’s leaking records in the name of liberating music, or what's the deal? Who is it that does it?" It’s only natural to have that kind of curiosity, and the flipside too is that you’re like, "Is it someone who’s doing it doing it to be malicious? Is it doing it as a ‘haha, I’m going to get back to the band!’ kind of thing?" You want to know and it’s only natural.

It’s just been leaked for so long that it makes you think it might have been at an earlier time point. It’s been leaked for - what -- 3-4 months?
Yeah it leaked in, I want to say, March.

That’s so long ago.
I know and that was around the time that copies starting getting sent out to journalists or to radio stations or stuff like that. So once I knew that it was being sent out, I figured it was only a matter of time, but you’re just curious as to how it gets out there.

I guess it just comes down to less of has it leaked and more of are people downloading the leaked album as opposed to not caring about it.
They can track that, actually. And I think that right before it came out or maybe a couple weeks before it physically came out they had seen that 7000-8000 people had download it.

Let’s talk a little about Against Me!’s discography. There’s been talks about rereleasing the first Against Me! demo. Is this still happening?
Maybe not the very first, but the Vivida Vis [demo]. The first one was embarrassing [laughs].

That’s what I’ve heard you say.
Have you heard it? It is.

No, but I did read a thing where you said everyone says that that’s the best Against Me! album and you said "No, because when we were playing the songs on the album you hated us!" so this uproar that people can’t wait for Vivida Vis to be out is kind of ridiculous.
[Laughs] It’s something that I’m sure we’ll get around to doing. About a year ago we did The Original Cowboy. We’re planning on doing another collection of demos for Searching For A Former Clarity including the demos that leaked a while back. I don’t know if you remember that.

Yeah, I think you had a blast with those song titles too.
We didn’t make any of those titles!

Exactly! But when Former Clarity came out you guys used some of those song names. It seems like a nod. I mean naming a song "Holy Shit"? So, there are going to be more demo albums out?
Yeah, it’s something that we’ll get around to eventually. For sure. It’s always a question of trying to do that stuff when you’re home in between tours and right now things are pretty busy on the road.

Do you think it will go all the way up to White Crosses? Are there White Crosses demos out there?
There are White Crosses demos, yes. Including a full set of demos with Warren playing on them but I’m not sure what will happened with that stuff. I’m not sure Warner would have an interest in doing that as much as FAT or us putting out stuff on our own.

What about giving out for people for free to download?
Yeah, maybe! You heard it here first!

Also, there’s been a little bit of uproar about why you decided not to let Plan-it-X repress your first 7" [Crime as Forgiven By]. What do you think happened on that end?
Well, no it wasn’t the 7", it was the CD version of it. The 7" itself, that was always on Sabot. And the CD version originally started on Plan-it-x. There were a couple pressing and we decided we wanted to move it back to Sabot. It was complicated in a lot of ways, but what it really came down to was that Jordan paid for the recording and he wanted to have it back on Sabot. Jordan tours with us and has been with the band longer than most of the members. He tours, manages us, and he runs Sabot, and it just seemed to make more sense to have the record that was originally released on vinyl on Sabot and that he paid for the recording of, to have the CD version moved back to his label. Especially since, at the time, I remember sending multiple emails to Chris of plan-it-x just asking him for his phone number so I could call him and he wouldn’t give me his phone number and he was always really inconsistent in the way he would respond to me, and I was like, "Fuck, this is someone who obviously doesn’t agree with the choices my band is making, is almost hypercritical of the things we’re doing. Why the hell are we going to leave the record with him? Let’s just take it back to our own label."

He seems, from the DVD We’re Never Going Home DVD -- there’s some interviews with Chris -- he seems to completely respect the decisions you guys were doing up to that point.
Yeah, at the same time, to this day, there are still snide comments posted on our bio or whatever on the Plan-it-x website, and I think I read a couple interviews with him where any chance he gets to make some sort of snarky remark, he goes for it.

Wow, so how do you feel about having No Idea Records as a home to is Reinventing Axl Rose. Do you think everything will stay the same on that end?
Yeah, No Idea is great. For sure.

You brought up unreleased demos. You’re kind of trumping any bonus material that would be included in a remaster of any of your albums that way.
Not necessarily. With most albums we made, and the past two in particular, we’ve tracked more songs that we’ve ever released. Even including the bonus editions, like New Wave’s bonus edition with extra songs, or the couple extra songs that were included with the ‘deluxe’ edition of White Crosses. We’ve tracked more songs that were released. We have a lot of stuff that have never seen the light of day, songs that have never been played live and recordings that have never surfaced.

You mentioned that demo that got stolen during the Lucero tour. You guys have been talking about a Lucero split for the longest time. Do you think that’s ever going to happen?
At this point we’ve stopped talking about it! [laughs] We talked about it for a long time and then we stopped. It was one of those things where the idea came from the best intentions. We were on tour together, and I don’t even remember at this point, but I’m sure one drunken night everyone was like, "Yeah let’s do a split together!" Then everyone just got busy, and the idea just faded. It’s something that we would have definitely loved to have done and would have been cool, but it isn’t necessarily something we’re pursuing.

I remember seeing videos of the recording sessions of New Wave where you were working out and jokingly saying that you have to get in shape for the fans. Considering the tremendous amount of backlash you guys have received from fans in the past, how do you think your relationship with fans has changed over the years? Do you keep the fan base in mind at all when writing an album?
Not really, no. I mean, for me writing songs is like, if it was something that I could really control a lot more that would be awesome, but the way inspiration has always worked, for me, I don’t really have much choice in what appeals to me and what I end up writing about. It’s just that something strikes you, and idea or thought, or phrase or something that you latch onto and go with it and see where it ends up. It’s almost a self-centered process in a lot of ways.

Do you think your relationship with fans has changes within the lifespan of Against Me!?
For sure, yeah.

Can you elaborate on why it’s different?
Well, I think that our band is perceived in a lot of ways. We’re a band that’s had a lot of growth too, and …[laughs] I don’t know!

How do you think Against Me! has changed in what it means to you? Has it become more a source of frustration, responsibility, or release over the years?
Um, I think for me it’s always been the same, it’s always been my passion, it’s always been what I love doing; playing music in general. For me I started doing this as a solo thing, and obviously it’s turned more into a band thing. But it’s always been my obsession in a lot of ways.

You put a solo EP [Heart Burns] two years ago. What made you decide to go solo on that project as opposed to just bringing the songs to the band?
Originally, when I went in it to do it, it was planned on being released under the name Against Me!. For a while, we were tossing around how we were going to do it and how everyone was going to play on it. It was recorded within a short period of time. Everyone else wanted to go home. I wanted to go in the studio and I wanted to record these songs, because I wanted to record them quickly and get them out quickly, because I thought a lot of the songs were timely in their topic and they related to current events. And I wanted to have them out around the election or before the election. I went to do it, and I ended up doing it myself. It seemed like it would be better to release it under my name.

You’ve said in the past that taking Against Me! to the next step has influenced a lot of your decisions regarding the band. Considering what the band’s accomplished since it’s started, what do you currently see as the next step?
I don’t know [laughs]. It will be interesting to see what happens. The future is unwritten, right? [laughs].

How many death threats have you gotten from Hold Steady fans since Franz has joined the band?
None! But, the Hold Steady did leave us some really nasty porn DVDs, and half a jug of Muscle Milk. I don’t know if you know what Muscle Milk is, but it’s a weight gain formula.

Oh yeah! You can’t be a punk these days and not know what Muscle Milk is.
[Laughs] That’s the quote of the century right there!

Why did you go with Franz, besides that he’s the man?
I’ve known Franz for a while. We’ve played shows with World/Inferno Friendship Society and have been friends with them for a long time. We’re huge fans of World/Inferno Friendship Society, huge fans of his solo stuff, and huge fans of The Hold Steady. Our sound guy used to do sound for the Hold Steady. I was having a conversation with him one day where there’s a lot of keyboard parts on the new record and a lot of parts we can’t reproduce as a four piece. So, we knew going into touring for this record that we wanted to bring another player with us, and when I heard that he was leaving The Hold Steady I thought it would be cool if he came out with us, so I sent him an email asking if he wanted to tour with us and he was into it.

Are there any Against Me! songs that you avoid playing live, or songs that have slowly been weaned out of the set?
Um, there are some songs definitely that we stopped playing. For instance, the song "The Energizer (From Her Lips to God’s Ears)" from the album Searching for a Former Clarity. We decided to stop playing that after the Bush presidency was over. It doesn’t seem relevant to sing a song about Condoleezza when she’s no longer in office. The fan favorite to yell out at shows is the song "Burn," which isn’t the title we gave it, but is the title everyone else gave it. We haven’t really played that since Kevin quit the band, and a lot of it had to do with Kevin leaving. It didn’t feel right to play that song without him, and also one of the verses is kind of mumbled. There weren’t any lyrics for it, I just always sang some kind of different gibberish every time we played the song, so it kind of felt weird. And also, I always thought the chorus was kind of lame, in that I didn’t really know what I was talking about. [laughs]

A lot of songs do just come and go in a lot of ways. There’s some songs that you’re sick of playing after doing it for a couple of years so you retire it for a couple of tours and then you bring it back later. It’s just taste and it comes and goes.

Do you think it’s still appropriate to play "I Was a Teenage Anarchist" and "Baby, I’m an Anarchist" in the same night?
[Laughs] Totally! It’s SO appropriate.

Was it hard to fight Andrew for the center spot, and is the view better now that you’ve switched to standing in the center of the stage?
No, not at all. In a lot of ways that had to do with what happened now. Knowing that, OK, looking into the future, we knew that we’re going to bring a fifth player in the tour, so that’s going to change the way the stage setup is, and knowing that Andrew is going to be having a kid, so if Andrew is going to be leaving mid-tour and we’re going to have someone coming out on tour to replace him, that person’s going to be standing in the center of the stage? Weird! I’m serious! It was really thinking ahead and the way things were going to be progressing in the next couple of years. We’re very calculated [laughs].

I remember seeing a video saying that you used to watch a ton of movies while on tour…
Yeah, I’m a movie fanatic.

What have you seen recently that’s good?
Hang on let me get my list… OK, this is a list of movies I’ve watched since December. District 9, Into the Wild, It’s a Wonderful Life, Paranormal Activity, Frost/Nixon, The Soloist, which was horrible, Flash of Genius, It Might Get Loud, Twilight, 2012, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Informant, 500 Days of Summer, Law Abiding Citizen, Taking Woodstock, Avatar, Did You Hear About the Morgans?, Moon, Streetcar Named Desire, The Hurt Locker, Daybreakers, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Invictus, Couples Retreat, I Love you Beth Cooper, Public Enemies, The Ride, and The Road is the last movie I watched.

So, which were some of the best ones?
I thought The Road was really good in that it really adhered to the book. I was predicting they would give it some bullshit Hollywood ending. I thought Moon was so good, I don’t know if you’ve seen that.

No I have not. Last good movie I’ve seen was Fantastic Mr. Fox.
That was awesome!

What have you been listening to lately?
What have I been listening to lately…? I bought the new LCD Soundsystem record. I thought that was pretty good. I got the new Hold Steady record. I dig it a lot. To be honest, I wasn’t really into the last record, Stay Positive, but I like this new record a lot. I’ve been listening to the new Bomb the Music Industry! record. I’ve been listening to fucking Dead To Me nonstop since the tour started. Obits, new Off with Their Heads, Pissed Jeans, Saint God…

You know it’s weird for me to listen to Dead to me without Jack in it anymore. It sounds like a different band.
Yeah, and his songs are fantastic, man. Little Brother EP is so good. Front to back so good. Every time I listen to it I get chills and it never gets old. But at the same time African Elephants is solid and Nathan’s songs are great songs.

Yeah Nathan came out of nowhere, because I don’t think he wrote songs before, and now I think he wrote more than half of the new album. And now Jack is in Swingin’ Utters which, to me, is fantastic news.
Oh yeah and I heard they’re putting out a new record. Swingin’ Utters was part of the reason we signed to Fat Wreck Chords and part of the deal we originally had with Fat Mike was that we’d sign to the label if he hooks us up with a tour with them and it never happened, which sucks, but maybe in the future we can still play shows with them.

Hey maybe you can do a split with the Swingin’ Utters.
That’d be rad!

You heard it here first! Well that’s it, man. Any last words?
No, thanks for the interview, and again, I appreciate you working with the scheduling issues.