Piss and Vinegar
The story of Against Me! begins in the small college town of Gainesville, Florida, in 1997. There then-17-year-old Tom Gabel would play his angst-filled compositions with an acoustic guitar on street corners for spare change. The tunes were catchy, and his lyrics were about, well, being an angry punk-rock 17-year-old in Gainesville. In songs like "The Price of Freedom," he would strum and yell, "I'd rather die free than live a life in slavery. Is it too much to ask that I die for the cause?"
Gabel soon began playing shows around town, sometimes with a drummer and bassist. Slowly the band known as Against Me! formed, eventually making its members heroes of the local underground anarcho-punk scene. In 2002 the group released its first full-length album, Reinventing Axl Rose, on the Gainesville-based indie label No Idea Records. Although the album arguably had a hidden mainstream rock sound, songs like "Baby, I'm an Anarchist" became anthems for the band's devoted following. But the same fans began to call the group's anti-capitalist stance into question in 2003, when the band signed to a large indie, Fat Wreck Chords. Longtime fans felt betrayed, but that didn't stop Against Me! from signing with a major label, Sire/Warner Bros., in 2005. The band's fourth proper full-length, New Wave, was released this past July to relatively mainstream critical acclaim, taking the group closer to bona fide stardom.
The following two-part interview with now-27-year-old Gabel portrays an artist struggling with his own success. Our first interview was done via telephone while Against Me! was in Munich on the European leg of its tour. During the conversation, my questions seemed to upset Gabel, because he became increasingly defensive. Afraid he was going to hang up, I apologized.
About an hour after the interview ended, the band's publicist sent an e-mail: "Tom said the interview didn't go so well — he asked if you wanted to do it via e-mail. There were a few questions he would like to answer differently." Welcome to the world of corporate rock. Was Tom going to re-answer my questions because of a secret board meeting? Had he been reprimanded? Had he lost his temper again, like that time in Tallahassee (www.punkplanet.com/node/2762)? I quickly transcribed a synopsis of our conversation and e-mailed the same questions to the publicist. I received the new and improved answers a few days later. The dichotomy of each set of answers is striking.
New Times: From singing about throwing bricks through Starbucks windows in 2002 ("Baby, I'm an Anarchist") to appearing on Late Night with Conan O'Brien recently — what is next for Against Me!?
Tom Gabel, phone answer: Next? We are going to kill kittens — and puppies. We are joining the Ku Klux Klan and then we are going to become Young Republicans. This is just all part of what happens when you sell your soul to a major label. But we got so much fucking money, dude. It's so fucking cool. I have a helicopter made of gold. I wipe my ass with money. It's great. Who says selling out doesn't have its merits? It's pretty fucking bad-ass. A soul is a lot of weight to carry around; I don't need that kind of weight.
E-mail answer: A lot of touring and hopefully another record at some point.
The punk scene you were involved with is going to continually question your current situation. Your ideals as a person have obviously changed since the formation of Against Me!. What message are you trying to bring from the underground to the mainstream?
Phone answer: I really don't have any interest in doing this interview if it's all just about this. I don't want to talk about it. This has so been done before. It is just obnoxious. Do you think that I am that lonely and desperate of a person that I need to justify myself to a reporter on the telephone? I don't even know you. I've done the interview a million times before and then I've read the article afterwards a million times. I know the slant that everybody puts on it and I know exactly how it's gonna read, so what's the fucking point? If someone comes in that pointed with their questions in an interview, they obviously already have some kind of angle that they are going for. It's like, damn, another one of these interviews ... where someone is going to do this whole 'Against Me! ... are they sellouts or not?' It's so fucking boring. I don't really feel like justifying myself, you know? That's what you are asking me to do.
E-mail answer: There isn't a specific message. I'm not a politician. I'm not pushing an agenda. I want to play music for people. I have my opinions, and sure those opinions are obviously going to be apparent in the lyrics I write, but if anything, I'm just trying to be a stimulus to make people think for themselves, not make them think like me.
My band has been on every level of record label possible. Our first release was a 10-song cassette tape, copies of which I dubbed myself. I recorded it on a Tascam four-track in my mother's bedroom. Our newest album was released on a major label and we recorded it with a world-famous producer [Butch Vig, who also produced Nirvana's Nevermind].
I've experienced all scenarios, from the smallest indie to the biggest major. What I've realized is, there is no difference. Bottom line, the model for a record label is the same on all levels. The goal of a record label is to make money off of the records they put out. Var and Jen from No Idea want to make money just as much as Mike and Erin at Fat, just as much as Ed Bronfman Jr. at Warner does. There's nothing wrong with making money off of your work. Var, Jen, Mike, Erin, Ed — they all deserve to make money from CDs they've worked on, and so do all their employees. They are a business, and if they don't make money, they can't put out further releases.
But trying to hide the fact that money is an issue behind a flag of punk rock, in my opinion, is disgusting. I want to make music for people. I want to make music for people that adds to their life. I hope they can get the same release from listening that I do from playing it. Do I play music to make money? No. But yes, money is being made. The most important thing to me is following my muse. I've got to keep moving, keep progressing, keep changing. I have to have new experiences, or I fear I'll lose the passion to write.
How off-subject am I? If we would have been asked to play "Baby, I'm an Anarchist" on Late Night with Conan O'Brien the day after we wrote it, we would have.
I have been listening to your newest album, New Wave. I think it's a great album. When you say, "We can control the medium," what medium are you referring to?
Phone answer: In some respects, the Internet. We don't need bands, and we don't need record labels, and we don't need journalists or anything like that to inform us anymore, especially with the Internet and everything like that out there. The power is in our hands. You want to start a band and you want somebody to hear it, then you don't need the record deal; you can put it out there yourself.... If you have something to say, you can get it out there. The Internet is free and accessible. Zines and stuff like that cost money to produce.
E-mail answer: I guess I was referring to our music. So not "we" in a metaphoric sense, but a literal "we." We wrote the songs, we chose the producer, we recorded the album we wanted to make. We did the artwork. We approve all ads placed in promotion of the album. We choose the video director and collaborate on the treatment. We choose the bands we tour with. We set the ticket prices (when it's a tour we're headlining). We chose our publicists, we chose the agent, et cetera. We can't physically do everything ourselves, but we can choose all representatives of the band, all those who work on our behalf and oversee their work. It's our responsibility. Sorry if I was an asshole on the phone.
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