A singer's voice is likely to blossom into something new as time passes. But drummer Atom Willard wondered if Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace's (born Tom Gabel) voice would transform into that of a woman, like the rest of her body was beginning to.
"She told me, 'I love my voice, I love my singing voice, I won't touch it,' and for me that was done," says Willard about the time he was asked to play with the punk-rock outfit Against Me! in late 2012.
When Grace announced in a Rolling Stone interview earlier that year that she had gender dysphoria and that she would begin living as a woman, things changed. While everyone in the band said they were cool with the transition, two of the band members would eventually leave within six months of each other to focus on other things. Raising a daughter together, her wife Heather would stay by her side (although they have recently separated). Her father wouldn't speak to her anymore. None of it was easy, but the fans remained loyal.
This change wasn't happening to an obscure band, but rather one with a die-hard following.
Formed in Gainesville, Florida, as then-Tom Gabel's solo act in the late '90s, then adding members and volume, the band drew much attention in the punk scene and their 2007 album New Wave was even named Spin's album of the year.
When Willard answers his cellphone for the interview last week, he pauses for a second, coughing effectively to the side.
"I just coughed up a raccoon," he says. "There it goes running off ..."
And so goes the conversation, rocking and rolling back and forth, sarcasm and truth.
At 40, Willard is a veteran drummer who's played with Rocket from the Crypt, the Offspring, Angels & Airwaves and Social Distortion, among other acts.
Willard heard Against Me! for the first time at a radio-sponsored show back in 2007.
"I just thought, 'What the f--- is that?'," Willard says. "I ran to the side of the stage to hear them, and of course that was the last song."
He would meet the band that night as a newly minted fan, getting to know them even better the following year on the Warped Tour. So when there was "a drummer emergency" before an upcoming Australian tour and Grace called, wondering if he could fill in on drums, Willard already knew most of the songs anyway.
"Laura's transition didn't affect me in any way. If you listened to her lyrics, you got that she'd been talking about it for 15 years," Willard says. "Her voice was what I cared about. It's the band's driving force."
He's wanted to find a home where he could settle, and finally, here it is. The best part, Willard says, is that the band actually likes each other, "and they all play like motherf---ers," he says with a laugh.
"Against Me! just hadn't found the right drummer yet," he says.
The current crew lives all over: Willard in L.A., Grace in Chicago, guitarist James Bowman in New York, and the newest addition, bassist Inge Johansson, in Oslo, Norway. They don't get to see their homes that often anyway. They have a new record to promote, Transgender Dysphoria Blues — a booming concept album about a transgender prostitute.
The record itself took more than two years to complete. The stutters and stops seemed never-ending. Once Willard was asked to stay on permanently, they had to re-record, as his exorbitantly loud style of playing didn't fit into what was there before. New songs were added. Finally, the album was released this January. Willard describes working with Grace as organic, "in the way musicians like to use that term," he jokes.
The band keeps moving forward, playing as hard as ever, continuing to receive attention for something that doesn't have to do with music at all. Willard says they plan to release a live album from the current tour later this year. Meanwhile, Grace is launching an AOL reality series, which documents her own transition and meeting other trans people as she tours around the country promoting the latest record.
Against Me! shows haven't changed a whole hell of a lot in atmosphere. They're just as wild as ever, with pummeling drums and vocals and an overactive mosh pit. Only now, Grace has long hair, and sometimes wears heels. ♦
Against Me! with Creepoid and Venus De Mars • Tue, Aug. 12, at 8 pm • $17 • All-ages • Knitting Factory • 919 W. Sprague • sp.knittingfactory.com • 244-3279