Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Against Me!

Despite what some perceive, and what others desperately want to believe, Tom Gabel just doesn't come across as an asshole.

Sure, Gabel has had his share belligerent incidents, like when he was arrested in 2007 for smashing someone's face into a countertop in a Tallahassee coffee shop. It's incidents like this that cause the media and many listeners to draw conclusions about Gabel—that he's an asshole, or at least a little too defensive about his art—but maybe Gabel has a right to be defensive. More than any modern rock band, it seems, Against Me! polarizes their listeners, who seem to either believe whole-heartedly in the band or bash them.

It's at least partially because Against Me! began as Gabel's folk-punk solo project; then seventeen, Gabel screeched about Anarchism and scratched angrily at his acoustic guitar in whatever bookstore or laundromat that he landed at that day to whomever would listen. Twelve years later, Against Me! has released a pair of polished, carefully constructed records on a major label (not including several full-lengths and seven-inches on several indie labels) and toured the arenas of the world, performing more muscular, more mature versions of the music Gabel penned as an adolescent to thousands of people.

I have been playing under the name 'Against Me!' for thirteen years,” Gabel explains, “and it's something I've had to continually reassess at different points in my life—if it's still relevant and what it means to me to be doing this right now—because the reasons that I was doing it when I was seventeen years old are certainly not the reasons that I'm doing it now that I'm thirty. It's like, life changes, you know? I've grown.”

Indeed, Gabel's growth has been dramatic; it, along with the perceived differences between his values then and now, has frustrated some fans and caused the critical conversation about the band to be focused more on how Against Me!'s recent releases stack up against their rawer, earlier albums and about whether or not they have “sold out.” In effect, the stories told on White Crosses and decisions made about its musical direction are often overlooked—or, worse, only considered superficially before the assessment of “awful” is made—which is bound to frustrate Gabel.

But, speaking over the phone from the band's practice space, Gabel doesn't sound frustrated. Instead, he sounds excited, eager to talk about the songs on White Crosses and to tell their stories, but begins with the story of what inspired the record. “After we got done touring for [2007's] New Wave,” he starts, “we had an unspecified amount of time off. Everyone went and sorted their lives out for a second and, during that time, my wife and I moved to St. Augustine, Florida. Really, I think living in St. Augustine shaped the writing of the record. In a way, it made me like living in Florida again. I kind of found a little place that could call my own.”

One of the first images of St. Augustine to inspire Gabel was the Prince of Peace Votive Church, a Catholic church down the street from his home. “It has a huge lawn and, in the church lawn facing toward the ocean, there's a really big fucking cross,” he says. “In front of the big cross, they usually put up 4,000 tiny, white crosses a foot high off the ground. They call it the 'Cemetery of the Innocents,' with one cross to represent every abortion that happens in America, and it's a totally fucking big eyesore.”

This sight inspired “White Crosses”, which would become both the opening and title track of Against Me!'s 2010 record. Driven a heavy, bounding beat and guitarist James Bowman's triumphant lead, Gabel's verses are stuffed with images of St. Augustine—street kids with yellow teeth and tangled hair accepting spare change in a conch shell, blonde ponytails bouncing behind jogging college girls, the dirty looks cast by suspicious tourists; cannons being shot from historic sites. It's during the song's chorus, though, that, complimented by Bowman's brighter harmony, Gabel's coarse voice cries, “White crosses on the church lawn / I want to smash them all”. Here, Gabel's lyrics confront what he perceives as the church's unpleasant and sickening spectacle. But implied in these lines is also an awareness of and willingness to confront his own reaction. “It's an ugly response to the original ugly act of putting up those crosses,” Gabel states.

White Crosses” seems to capture Against Me!'s ability to balance the personal and the political; it also captures the conflict that arises when these two themes sometimes intertwine, which is why Gabel was so inspired by it. “I'm always the type of writer where it takes one song to focus of the rest of the record, thus it becomes the title track,” he says. “That was the song that kind of shaped the other songs on the record.”

Other songs on White Crosses were inspired less by St. Augustine, though, and more by events that took place during the band's break, including “Because of the Shame”. “I wrote that song for a friend of mine who was murdered while the record was being written,” Gabel explains. “She was someone I used to hang out with a lot. We both worked at the same bar and would usually close up the bar at night and hang out afterwards—have some drinks or whatever, blow off steam.”

For a few reasons—because he was touring, because she moved elsewhere—Gabel fell out of touch with his friend, which made the news of her murder even more difficult. “It was a fucking horrible situation,” Gabel goes on. “I used to have a tattoo on the back of my leg for this girl, but I had it covered up maybe about a year before. Her mom came up to me at the funeral and was like, 'Hey, I want to know if you still have that tattoo on the back of your leg.' I felt horrible, just fucking horrible, having to say I covered it up. And then, afterwards, she asked me, standing there fucking five feet away from her body, 'Hey, did you write that song about her?'”

Before she died, Gabel's friend assumed that the song “Thrash Unreal” from New Wave had been written about her. The song's lyrics paint an unappealing picture of a woman partying maybe more than she should. During the chorus, Gabel growls, “No mother ever dreams that her daughter's going to grow up to be a junkie / No mother ever dreams that her daughter's going to grow up to sleep alone.”

I didn't write the song about her,” Gabel explains. “The song's a fictional song, a composite about a lot of people, but I thought I had to say yes, that it was the answer she wanted. I wanted to say whatever would be the least painful for her. She made me promise on the spot to write a song to make up for it.”

Because of the Shame” became that song. After a short, impassioned piano interlude, a wall of “woahs” rise from a furious hurricane of acoustic chords; the dusty twang of electric guitars; the rhythmic thump of Andrew Seward's bass; bright, metallic bells and tambourine; a subtle, groaning organ; all propelled by that same stirring piano and a straight, driving drumbeat. This particular hurricane, though, has received both critical praise and complaints for sounding derivative. “It's a song that's definitely got a heavy Bruce Springsteen influence,” Gabel admits. “Springsteen was my friend's favorite band; her dad was wearing a Springsteen shirt as he talked at her funeral. I wanted to capture a Springsteen vibe, I guess, in tribute to him and to her.

When I realized just how heavily Bruce influenced this song,” he continues, “I asked him. We had exchanged emails before, so I was like, “Hey man, I wrote this song and it's really closely influenced by “No Surrender”. I just want to make sure you're cool with that.' I told him the story behind it, and he gave me his blessing on it.”

Other songs on White Crosses have similar stories behind them. “High Pressure Low” was written while Gabel drove solo for six days from St. Augustine to Los Angeles, where he would meet the band and record the album. “I just lost myself in the wilds of middle-America and ended up on the other end with that song,” he explains. “It's kind of trying to capture a spirit of schizophrenia and depravity in America and feeling like there's no hope or future, but still striving against that in a weird way.”

The record's first single and second song, “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”, feels like Gabel's fierce farewell to the ideologies of his adolescence, but it didn't start that way. ”At first, I was just attracted to the sensationalism of the phrase, 'I was a teenage Anarchist,'” he states. “But, with all the things happening in my life—like having a kid—this song became a weird point of closure in a lot of ways.”

Though these stories are, in some way, embedded in their songs, they seem to have become buried beneath the discussion of Against Me!'s move towards major labels and the mainstream. Recently, though, the news that the band is moving from the mainstream has distracted fans. At the end of 2010, Against Me! announced that Sire Records, a subsidiary of the Warner Music Group and their major label since 2006, decided not to renew the band's contract. Though any band's move to or from a major label may seem newsworthy, Gabel seems to disagree. “The relationship ended,” he says in the same calm, friendly demeanor that he's maintained through the entire conversation. “I don't know what else there is to it.”

There is, of course, more to it, but not much. “I'm sure that it had to do with the fact that sales weren't where they wanted it to be,” Gabel admits. “When we first signed, they were like, 'We're definitely going to do two records with you and, after that, we can assess where we are and move forward.' But they've been firing a bunch of employees in general and not renewing contracts and dropping a bunch of bands.” That's not to say that others, including some publications, didn't interpret it differently. “Everyone blew it up,” he laughs, “saying that 'Tom Gabel slammed Sire'. Looking back on that, I regret that it was portrayed the way it was.”

But, by now, Gabel is used to it. He's faced the fact that some critics and listeners will be more concerned with the band's decisions than their music, and that some might draw conclusions about their music based on the record's context, not content. This doesn't make him happy—in fact, it's been his downfall on more than one occasion—but Gabel refuses to let it affect how he writes songs, which is why Against Me!'s music has become more meaningful—perhaps less “punk-rock,” but more conflicted, more complex, more personal, and more powerful.

As for his outbursts, Gabel would argue that, while they're regrettable, they're nothing more than ugly responses to ugly acts. “Fuck man, I have bad days too,” he says, snickering at himself. “Talking about the Tallahassee incident, it's like, someone got in my fucking face. Someone was a big, fucking asshole to me and I fucking lost it.”
Maybe this makes Gabel an asshole, or maybe it makes him human.

Gabel recorded theses songs on a winter evening from the Against Me!'s practice space in Gainesville, FL (which the band shares with label Sabot Productions) just before practice began; Against Me! would, three days later, leave to embark on their month-long tour with Cheap Girls and Fences.

"High Pressure Low" appears on Against Me's 2010 record titled White Crosses. "The Nausea" is a song written by Gabel that, prior to its recording for the Switchboard Sessions, had not been recorded or intended for any release.

Visit the band's website for more music

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Two for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2011. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

Read more articles.