The iconic rock musician was found unresponsive after a heart attack and later died at UCLA Medical Center October 2. Though Willard is originally from San Diego, Against Me! was founded by singer and guitarist Laura Jane Grace in Gainesville — the same Central Florida town where Petty started Mudcrutch, the band that would eventually become the Heartbreakers.
"We've actually been playing some Tom Petty songs at sound check on this [tour] just because we all love it so much," Willard says. "We love not only him as a songwriter but the Heartbreakers as well."
Earlier that day, before Willard's interview, Grace posted a touching tribute to Petty on her Instagram account. "Back when I was still living in Gainesville," she wrote, "I bought a '64 Fender Jaguar off Stan Lynch, drummer of the Heartbreakers, and I always like to think that maybe Petty had picked it up and strummed a couple chords on it, always liked the idea of having my fingers dance on the same fret board as my hero."
Willard struggles to remember exactly which Petty songs the band has covered at sound check because they've all been improvised. "[Grace] will kind of start playing a riff, and then I just know 'em, you know what I mean?" he says.
"It was really tough," he says of Petty's sudden death, "and I feel like his passing is another indicator that nothing is ever going to be the same again. It's like we're really in this new time, this new era, where it seems like everything sucks, and, you know, that's not the case, but it just seems like you have to look a little bit harder for things — for the good things."
If he's looking for some positivity, he need not look further than Against Me!'s Grace, who has become one of this nation's foremost trans voices through her activism — including projects such as her 2016 book, Tranny, and her docuseries, True Trans, in which she interviewed gender nonconformists about their journeys toward living as their authentic selves.
Grace never intended to be viewed as a role model, Willard says, but he's content with his band being an important part of an ongoing dialogue at the new frontier of civil rights in the United States.
"It's exciting to be part of something that people are looking to for either inspiration or something to reference when they're talking about how they feel with either politics or policies or whatever it is," Willard says. "Laura has always been very outspoken about what she thinks is wrong in that world and in the world. I would much rather be playing music that has some weight to it in that department... that has some sort of ability to reach people on a larger scale — you know, especially now — than just playing music that is 'well, it's fun to dance to.'"
Against Me! With Bleached and the Dirty Nil. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 24, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale; 954-564-1074; cultureroom.net. Tickets cost $22.50 via ticketmaster.com.