Laura Jane Grace is the kind of frontwoman who locks eyes with stagedivers as they leave her realm and collapse into a sea of outstretched hands. She beams, either clutching at the mic stand before her or barreling down on the neck of her guitar, anchored by both as kids backflip and vault themselves off the lip of the stage and into the crowd. More people in the room are singing along than not; most bodies are represented by a raised fist or two, depending on the professed dedication of those present and their familiarity with the new stuff. It takes about a song and a half for the swirling vortex of a clumsy pit to devour the congregation, and throughout it all, the bright lights and busy atmosphere don’t obscure Laura’s vision. This is familiar territory. These fans are familiar faces. These choruses go over just as well in Brooklyn as they do in New Haven, Boston, DC and Philly. This is an Against Me! headlining tour, just like any other.
… Except it’s not, exactly.
When Against Me!’s last record White Crosses was released in 2010, Tom Gabel had not yet revealed his gender dysphoria, nor had he left his former name behind. Two years later, Gabel would open up to Rolling Stone about his transition from Tom Gabel to Laura Jane Grace, detailing struggles with identifying as transgender and making the life-changing decision to leave Tom in the past and live as Laura in the future. Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the record Against Me! is currently touring behind and the one they’ll release on January 21, is the first body of work helmed by Laura that tackles these hugely personal themes while maintaining the unshakeable fortitude of the voice Against Me! fans have come to rely on. Before taking the stage in Williamsburg, Laura walked us through Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the process behind it and the moments leading up to this, the beginning of a liberating epoch in the life of a punk singer and her band.
Would you say that Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a record-long anthem?
For me, as a songwriter, my natural inclination is always to go towards writing things that you can sing along with. Audience interaction has always been a big part of our live show. The response is something I’ve always wanted to be included in every record we put out. The trick has always kind of been the juxtaposition in having lyrics that sometimes are dark and personal and putting them in that context, where the song is still hooky and catchy. In a way, the lyrics and the music are separate things from each other.
I can see that, but I also think that Against Me!’s punk leanings really make a compelling pair to the subject matter of Transgender Dysphoria Blues. You’ve never opened up about your transition quite like this before, and though you’ve always been pretty forthcoming, you’re framing your experience in a way that’s approachable for your fans to listen to and process–the words tell a different story, but the chords sound familiar. Does this record make you an unofficial spokesperson for trans artists in rock and roll?
I’m obviously putting myself out there, and it’s pretty blatant, naming the record Transgender Dysphoria Blues. I have to be prepared to talk about those things. I want to talk about those things and am obviously willing to talk about those things, and I’m sharing a lot with the lyrics on the record and everything like that. For me, it’s more about wanting to have a dialog, wanting to have a conversation with other people and not necessarily wanting to come across as an expert, because I’m not an expert. I don’t have all the answers, be that all the answers to represent the transgender community in general or even the answers for myself, as far as having it all figured out. I’m very much trying to live one day at a time and take it as it goes. Everything that I could’ve said, I said on the record.
Have Facebook and Twitter been beneficial when it comes to getting the message out there this time around? You’ve got a strong social media presence, and Twitter wasn’t as big a deal when White Crosses came out.
Social media has only made it easier for making the band and myself accessible, which is something I’ve always tried to do. When the band started out, I would just write letters back and forth with people. We’ve always had a P.O. box, and when [fans] were writing to it, I’d always make the effort to write back, even if it was just a postcard. After that, the band had a Hotmail account for years, and I would spend hours answering emails sent to the Hotmail account. Then I would spend hours answering MySpace messages. Twitter is great, because it’s like text messaging with the world, you know? That’s just always been important to me. It’s one of the lessons I’ll always retain from punk rock: don’t put yourself on a pedestal, be accessible to people and make an effort to have a real connection, if that’s what you hope the music is doing.
Where does vulnerability come into play? Was there a moment on Transgender Dysphoria Blues where your ability to push your own boundaries caught you off-guard?
I think the song that I probably had to work the hardest for was probably “FUCKMYLIFE666.” I knew the feeling that I wanted to get across with that song, and it really took me a long time to get the words and music right to do that. “Paralytic States” is probably the oldest song on the record and underwent the most transformations musically and lyrically. “Drinking With The Jocks” I’m proud of; I think I was able to use some lyrics in a way that not many other people would be able to use. I feel like it’s a trick I pulled off. I’m kind of proud of that … Oftentimes, people’s interpretation and what they get out of the song is totally different from what you do, you know? That song in particular, it’s a punk song, it’s got a guitar hook, you can dance to it; it comes across well live. But in the context of getting up onstage in front of an audience that for years has known you as a male punk rock singer, and to express your fears over the way your relationships will change with people, and drastic changes that you’re going to make to your body, either through plastic surgery or hormone replacement therapy, and having that be something that people are dancing to? That for me is pretty revolutionary as an artist, to be able to pull it off after years of being perceived a certain way, of getting up and having that be the song you play each night and people are dancing to it. For me, it’s pretty groundbreaking.
On a related note, the set list is a great way to introduce people to Laura Jane Grace, in that you’re playing older Against Me! songs with the new stuff on your first headlining tour post-transition. How does that work when you’re mixing old and new while those songs are anchored in very different periods in your life?
It’s great having six records of material to choose from. With the older records having been well-toured on, I know what works and I know what kind of reactions you get from what songs. You try to build a set list where you really come out of the gate swinging, and get everyone really going, and then you have moments where you dip things down so people can catch their breath before you build it back up, and bring it back down, only to bring it back up in the end and go out with a bang. With a lot of the new songs, we’ve been touring on them a little bit, and through YouTube and things like that, a lot of people learned the lyrics and know the songs even though the record isn’t out. There’s an advantage in that you play the new songs and people just stare at you, so it’s cool that with a lot of these songs we don’t have that problem. We can slip them in wherever we want, wherever they work musically in the set.
What are you most looking forward to in 2014? You’re starting the year on a high point, that’s for sure.
I hope to be really busy. I hope to have a year spent on the road touring and playing shows. I just hope to keep moving. At this point, I’m just interested in putting distance between the past and the present and building momentum, keeping things going.
Is that a difficult thing to do, even though the past and present remain connected onstage?
In a way, yes. Oftentimes, a lot of the older songs we have, they’re living things; they’ve changed over the years … It’s interesting, a lot of the times now, with some of the older songs, with the lyrics, I’ll have these moments where I’ll become present when playing them. When you’ve been playing a song since you were 18 years old, so much of it is muscle memory. You don’t’ know what you’re singing or even think about the chords you’re playing as it’s happening, you know? There are moments of self-awareness now where I’ll suddenly remember the person I was when I wrote the song in comparison to the person I am now. At times, it can be kind of disorienting or jarring in a weird way, and I’ll have to kind of reconcile on the spot, “Is this relevant to me still? Do I still feel this emotion? How has this emotion changed, and what do these lyrics mean to me now?” If it doesn’t mean anything, or if it isn’t good, I don’t want to play it anymore. I’m not sure that there isn’t a song that I haven’t been able to reconcile with myself yet. There have definitely been moments where I’ve been self-aware.
Would you consider this record to be a culmination of everything you’ve been through? Is this Transgender Dysphoria Blues the opus of Laura Jane Grace?
In some ways, every record feels like that this is the record you’ve been working towards for the past couple of years. I’ve been looking through a lot of old journals recently, rereading a lot of old skeletons of lyrics that never went anywhere, and seeing a lot of things that were kind of the building blocks to this record, and realizing how far back a lot of the inspiration behind it, or a lot of the structures and things, realizing a certain line of a song has been building or being worked on since 2004 or 2005, and also kind of wondering, what else is there in there that’s coming? Realizing that I’m kind of starting fresh in a way that I haven’t before when it comes to working on whatever’s next for our next record with a real, real clean slate? The approach to having this new sense of liberation and freedom to write whatever you want that wasn’t there in the past, it’s really eye-opening.