Q&A: Against Me!'s Tom Gabel on Anarchists, Anti-Abortion Billboards, Alternative Press Magazine
Tom is the one in black.
Against Me! leader Tom Gabel is the sort of lyricist that can't stop himself from contemplating the folly of Robert McNamara's foreign policy decisions mid-song, and he's the sort of singer that can find a way to make the former Secretary of Defense's quirky name positively swing. Whether attacking the industrial military complex, morally bankrupt youth culture, or Florida's very existence, Gabel shoves his songs to the brim with words, pushing heady statements into soaring battle cries through sheer force of will. On the Gainesville punks' new album White Crosses (their second collaboration with megaproducer Butch Vig and Sire Records), he ups the lyrical density and widescreen melodies even further, attacking religious hegemony and left-wing hypocrisy with tunes that, Dan Weiss wrote in the print Voice, will coax out "your chorus-singing impulses." But White Crosses has plenty of the group's signature fist-pumping anthems, but they also find time for epic ballads worthy of Springsteen ("Because Of The Shame") and acoustic laments worthy of Westerberg ("Ache With Me").
The Me! men have been through a bit of change recently, with founding drummer Warren Oakes leaving to run a Mexican eatery (he was replaced by former Hot Water Music drummer George Rebelo) and the hyper-active, hyper-mustachioed Franz Nicolay helping them out with keyboards. But the shout-along live shows and all-black wardrobe have remained intact, as has Gabel's down to earth sense of humor. We recently called up Gabel to find out what he's against these days, what it's like to almost pass out on stage and why we shouldn't diminish the importance of bassist Andrew Seward's beard.
When you do interviews these days, do you find yourself bracing for the inevitable major label/backlash question?
[Laughs] I definitely think my answers have become well-rehearsed, like it or not.
I wasn't going to bring it up, but I wanted to ask about the first single, "I Was A Teenage Anarchist." Is it fair to say this song is what the hip-hop community might call a "hi hater" moment, were you just rub it in detractor's faces?
I never thought about it like that, but that's pretty cool.
How did that song come about? Was there a moment, back in the day, were you realized that the labels you had put on yourself as the guy who wrote "Baby, I'm An Anarchist!" didn't really apply anymore?
I don't know. I feel like inevitably it's a song that will be kind of misinterpreted, and people are going to take it as some denunciation of past political beliefs, and by no means am I trying to say that at my ripe old age of 29 that I am somehow more conservative in my political views. I think that for me personally I'm in a place where I don't need to subscribe to any kind of labels in order to justify my existence or complete my identity.
I don't know, the song is a true story. I got involved in radical politics at a really young age, and I've had many various different experiences over the years, and in a lot of ways my politics have pretty much stayed the same, it's just more so been the ways that I practice them that has kind of changed. I think that anarchism as a philosophy is something I very much identify with and see a lot of merit in, but the anarchist movement a lot of times I feel like has a lot of short comings and it's full of shit.
Did you feel that way even before people began turning on your band for signing with Fat Wreck Chords years ago?
Oh, for sure. A good incident in regards to that was right after we signed to Fat-I say "signed" but we never actually signed any paper work or whatever-right after we signed with Fat but before our first record was even out with them there was a pretty immediate backlash. I remember we were playing a show on Long Island, I think it was the Polish American Hall or something like that. A fan of the band, I think it was a 16-year-old girl, was the quote-unquote promoter, and I believe it was eight dollars to get into the show, and there was maybe a 100, 200 people there or something like that. There was a bunch of people that we had known from playing on Long Island previously who came to the show, just people we assumed were friends or whatever, and as we were playing they started trying physically to stop us from playing, they were taking this big stand. At first we thought they were joking, then we realized they were serious. It was one moment, whatever. We finish the show, pack up and go out to the van and start to drive and then realize that someone had slashed our tires. So, fastforward maybe four or five months after that. We had found out who the person was who slashed our tires, and we were playing a free show, I think somewhere in Brooklyn, I want to say. And the person who had slashed the tires came to the show, and there was a very immature confrontation, on our part I'm sure, that ensued where we were like "You need to pay for our tires, blah blah blah" etc, not that that was ever going to happen. And I remember as we were all yelling back and forth at each other I looked over to my right and one of the kid's friends was standing there and I saw him pick up a brick. I was like "Wow." It was totally this moment that took me back, I realized this person could potentially fucking bash my brains out with a brick, all because I play in a fucking band and signed to a bigger indie label. And this was the movement that I was part of. And realizing that, and realizing how full of shit that all was, was definitely an eye-opening moment.
I read that one time you went to a show, and there was an anti-Against Me! protest.
Yeah, there's been a couple of shows like that over the years. There's been various people who have taken it upon themselves to write columns advocating that people try to stop our shows. I remember in Maximumrocknroll some columnist wrote a big tirade how people should pour bleach on our merchandise and stuff like that and "at all cost stop their shows" and it's just kinda bullshit.
Did you ever want to go up to these people and ask "Don't you realize that Mumia Abu-Jamal is still in jail, and factory farming is destroying the environment? You should have bigger things to worry about."
Well, yeah, and it's exactly that. Any time I've seen someone upset over us in that way, it just turns those politics into a joke for exactly those reasons. It's like, "Really? This is the battle you're choosing to fight? Out of all the things happening in the world?" When it comes down to it, we're a band. We travel around the world, we play music, we're doing what we absolutely love doing. And there's no real harm in that. I have nothing but the best intentions with playing music, and those intentions have been always been the same. Personally for me it's obviously a great cathartic release. It's a great outlet, it's really enjoyable, and then just sharing that with people. All I'm trying to do is make a connection.
It seems like in a way, they did you a favor by being so over-the-top and ridiculous that whatever arguments they may have, no reasonable adult is going to take them seriously.
And that's the thing you realize. There's nothing I could ever say that will appease someone if that's their attitude. They've made up their mind about how they feel about it, and that's that. It's not like I could issue some press statement or something like that apologizing or whatever. That's the way it, so what are you going to do?
And if you're some kind of threat to the revolution because you signed to a bigger label, then it must be a weak-ass revolution.
And when it comes down to it, if people want to riot, go right ahead, I'm not going to stop them.
Speaking of provocative statements, how thrilled was your record label when you gave them the new and said, "So, I think for the first song I'm going to attack the church and anti-abortion protesters. And I think that's going to be the title track." How did that go?
You know, surprisingly no one really said anything. I think in this day and age it's kind of hard to do something shocking. But at the same time I don't even know if they know what the song is about.
So were you living in St. Augustine when you wrote the album?
Yeah, for the majority of the album, yes I was.
And I've read a little about this. There were a thousand white crosses on a church near you?
It was 4,000. Around the corner from the house I was living at there was a church, and on the church lawn was 4,000 white crosses, they're about a foot off the ground. And behind them was a huge billboard that had a bunch of pictures of children's faces on it, and it was called The Cemetery of the Innocents and it explained how it was one cross to represent every abortion that happens in America every day. It was a real eye sore. [laughs] I would daily fantasize about smashing the crosses, and I wrote a song about it instead. It's a drag. Surprisingly, Florida is just littered with that kind of stuff. If you're ever driving on the interstate there, I-75 or the Turnpike in particular, there's so many non-stop pro-life billboards. It's like: pro-life billboard, vasectomy reversal billboard. Pro-life billboard, vasectomy billboard. It's just ridiculous.
I know exactly what you mean. I'm from Florida myself, and whenever I would visit people in Gainesville, and on the way from Orlando to Gainesville there's this stretch of highway where it's an anti-abortion billboard every other minute.
My favorite one that I saw pretty recently, I'm pretty sure this was the exact wording: "One in four black babies die from abortion every day" or month or something like that, and I drove by it and I was just like, "What?"
Are you looking forward to if, say Fox News or one of those Pro-life groups pick up on the song and start a campaign against you? You'd be attacked from all sides.
Well, I would hope that they did. If they did, I think it would be a positive thing. I'm definitely making an effort to very much explain what the song is about, because I don't it's really actually clearly stated in the song, and I definitely would like it to be known that we are a pro-choice band.
It interesting, because the lyrics themselves don't actually contain the word "abortion." Was that on purpose?
No, not really. Going into writing the song, it wasn't like I was "Okay, I'm going to sit down and write a pro-choice song." It was more so that the song came out. The verses are very much about St. Augustine itself. I wrote the song in one day in a couple of hours about every thing I saw in that period of time, and it just so happens that sentiment ended up being behind it in a major way.
Elsewhere on "Because Of The Shame" you sing "because of the shame/I associate with vulnerability." Do you actually feel that way? Based on your past lyrics, I find that hard to believe.
Yeah. In all honesty, yeah. For me writing lyrics is a good outlet to feel comfortable in expressing feelings and emotions. But I grew up in a military family, and the type of male role models I've had haven't been generally the most caring or loving individuals, no.
Does that make it difficult for you to expose yourself in lyrics?
Again, it's easier to do that in lyrics. Sometimes it's hard to maybe talk about them directly when explaining lyrics or directly talk about the emotions behind them or the stories behind them, yeah. Sitting down by myself with a pencil and pad of paper, I usually feel pretty unguarded.
One thing I've liked about the last two albums is that a lot of bands when they go into the nice studios with the big producers, they completely lose the sound of a band playing together, and that's something you guys still have. But you get those beefier guitars and reach for the rafters choruses. How hard is it to balance between the big production and the sound of a band gelling together?
It is a fine line to walk in a lot of cases is because you're trying to keep in mind "What can we actually reproduce live?" We can do whatever in the studio, but what will be able to pull off when it comes time to go on tour? You want to push yourself and continue to grow and challenge yourself, and sometimes it's great when you record something that is, at the time, currently out of your league as a band to then have to strive for that, to reproduce that, which has been the case with a lot of songs on this record. We ended up touring with a fifth player right now to fill in on some of the keyboard parts or the piano parts.
I was going to ask that. How did you guys end up playing with Franz Nicolay anyway? With Warren out of the band did you feel you had to have someone with fanciful facial hair to keep the vibe going?
[Laughs] That just totally discredits Andrew's beard. Andrew works very hard on his beard.
I'm sorry. Please send my apologies.
We've been friends with Franz for a while. We toured with the The World/Inferno Friendship Society who he used to play with, and we've known all them since probably 2002, 2003, I want to say. And obviously we are fans of the Hold Steady, and still are fans of the Hold Steady. And obviously when we heard that he was no longer going to be playing with them anymore I gave him a call and asked if he would be interested in playing with us and touring with us, and it's awesome to have him share the stage.
Are you going to make him do the all-black thing, or is he still allowed to wear his fancy suits?
That's an optional. The attire is optional. When it comes to that, I'm not a fan of logos, oftentimes on stage, and so much when you're looking at most music magazines or band pictures it's a bunch of dudes wearing a bunch of other band's shirts. And I think that's...it's cool and everything but I'd rather not be a walking billboard most of the time. I try to present a show where it's no distractions in that sense. And when it comes to black, it is the best color, right?
So is Franz a full-time member? Or just touring with you guys for a little while?
At the moment he's just touring with us, it's definitely the type of thing where we'd love to have him play with us as long as he wants to, but he does his own solo stuff too and I know he's been working on a record that I think is going to be coming out later this year. I think that playing music, playing in bands it doesn't have to be the thing where it's "You're either with us or you're not." I don't ever want someone to feel like they're trapped or confined, and I also want to feel like it's healthy in that respect, that it's a fluid thing. As long as he wants to play with us, we're happy to have him.
Speaking of the all-black thing, how soon into your career as a Florida band that no doubt plays plenty of poorly ventilated clubs and outdoor shows did you come to regret this choice?
I remember being 13, 14 years old, punk kid in South Florida in the summer just trying to fucking wear a leather jacket and you're sweating your ass off. And you're just like, "Nope, I'm going to keep it on because I'm punk. That's what I'm doing, I'm wearing this fucking leather jacket." I don't know, it's definitely not the optimal summer wear or anything like that. I personally don't know, I haven't worn shorts probably since I was 12 or 13 years old. It's kind of been my thing.
Have you guys come close to passing out? I know Sara of your friends Tegan And Sara, who also mostly wear black, passed out at Lollapalooza a few years ago?
Oh for sure, multiple occasions. Sometimes you're up there playing and your lungs are burning and you start to see white and you're sinking back into your head and you're like "Okay, hopefully I'm not going to pass out right now. I hope I can make it to the end of this song."
[Laughs] Uhm, I don't know. I've got to be honest, I'm not a fan of that magazine. I think the people who work there are kind of a prime example, not everybody, but a couple people who work there are prime examples of everything that is wrong with the music industry. I think a great example of that would be, I remember in 2004 they did a Punk Voter, Rock The Vote issue, it was around the election or whatever, and they had a couple people on the cover and I remember Beth Ditto from the Gossip was one of the people who was on the cover, and I remember they actually in PhotoShop stretched her out so she would be more thin on the cover.
Yes, mmhmmm. It might have been a fold out cover, and she folded out. It was a couple people on there standing in a line, Billie Joe Armstrong, Fat Mike, Matt Skiba from Alkaline Trio. It's just shit like that. I think the world would be a better place without that magazine.
Yeah, part of me wants to say "Live and let live, people can like whatever bands they want." And another part says "really guys, 3OH!3 on the cover? http://www.altpress.com/apmag/264.htm
Yeah. What are you going to do? And it's also the point too where I'd be fine biting my tongue and not saying anything but I feel on multiple occasions they've gone ahead and been on the offensive with me too, so I'm not going to just sit back, I'm going to speak my mind.
In more serious topics, in the past few weeks artists including Sonic Youth, Conor Oberst and Kanye West have joined a coalition of artists http://www.thesoundstrike.net/ that will not play Arizona to protest their new immigration law, but Damian Abraham of Fucked Up has made the point http://www.twitlonger.com/show/1251ve that bands should play Arizona and use that platform as a way to discuss the issues and their opposition to the immigration law. I noticed that Against Me! and Silversun Pickups still have a show booked in Arizona. Where do you fall in that spectrum of thought?
I really agree with Damian on that point. I think that he couldn't have said it better. I think it's all the more reason to go there and play. It certainly not the people who would be coming to our shows, their fault. I don't think they are of the same opinion or anything like that. Considering that law, it is all the more reason to go there and be vocal against it.
Especially as Floridians, we know what it's like to have your state do something embarrassing that you don't agree with.
Which thing are you talking about specifically?
Oh, I still get crap about the 2000 election.
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. A little embarrassing. What are you going to do?
Speaking of Florida, I personally left as soon as I could for college, so I was shocked year later to hear that Gainesville had become a cool town. How in the world did this happen?
I think it's kind of always been pretty cool, I don't know. I moved there in 1998 or something like that, and at the time I moved there when I moved there when I moved out of my mom's house and at the time that's where all my friends were gravitating towards because it's a college town and there was a music scene there and a cheap place to live et cetera et cetera. And one of the reasons why Gainesville in particular has had such an active music community is because there's many people who are really invested in it. You have No Idea Records, which is a great record label that's always supported the scene, you have affordable studios where bands can record and there's venues as well. Gainesville's kind of a nice little island of liberalism in a sea of conservatism.
Against Me! will open for Silversun Pickups at the Williamsburg Waterfront tonight, June 25. Tickets still onsale here. White Crosses is available now.
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