To get a flavor for the mythology that surrounds Against Me!, take a gander at their Wikipedia page. At the end of pretty much every section, you'll find some variation on the following sentence: "Many fans accused the band of selling out after [changing lineups, recording for Fat Wreck Chords, signing to Sire Records, bathing regularly...]."
In the great sellout wars of political punk, Against Me! sure seem to be on the losing end. Their recent actions will no doubt only increase the name-calling. After all, I found out about their new album, New Wave, not by reading about it in a zine or on a blog, but by seeing it featured prominently in a Best Buy ad in The New York Times.
When questioned about this state of affairs, lead singer and founder Tom Gabel simply laughs. "I think a lot of the talk about selling out is further perpetuated by interviewers asking questions about it," he says. Fair enough, then. He does admit that, in the 10 years since he started out, his worldview has shifted in a number of ways. "I've been fortunate to be able to travel the world and broaden my horizons in my twenties," he says. "I do feel like I've gained a sense of perspective."
Traveling the world and gaining new perspectives is something Gabel has quite a bit of experience with. "We just got back from doing a full-circle tour around the world," he tells me. "We did Australia, Japan, Europe, New York, Los Angeles -- it was amazing. I'm hanging out at my mom's house in Naples [Florida] for a week before we fly to Seattle to start another set of U.S. dates."
Gabel certainly has come full circle back to Naples in the last 10 years. He started the band as a solo project in 1997, occasionally recruiting backup drummers and singers and playing shows in laundromats. He released two tapes, neither of which was widely distributed until Napster came along. While the old tapes are pretty easy to access, Johnny-or-Jenny-come-lately fans should probably forget about ever hearing those tracks live; on a number of occasions, Gabel has made it clear that he's reluctant to play old-school tracks in public.
Five years after he started playing, Gabel beefed up the band, adding new members before recording his first full-length effort, Reinventing Axl Rose. Released on No Idea Records, the album's title was a jab at the Guns and Roses front man, who could be seen as emblematic of the bloated corporate rock culture. The album also contained the track "Baby, I'm an Anarchist," a slap at "spineless liberals" who leave the narrator all alone when he chucks a garbage can through the window of a Starbucks during the WTO protests. (The song's title has also been used as a pickup line at plenty of political rallies.)
After Axl had been reinvented, the band released a short EP, did some touring, and signed to Fat Wreck Chords. While the record certainly earned Against Me! a stable of new fans, the more straight-ahead rock sound did make some crusty punks sound the alarm. In response to this, the band released a documentary, called We're Never Going Home, following them as they were wined and dined by major labels before heading back to their van for another all-night drive. In the end, Against Me! stayed with Fat Wreck Chords and released Searching for a Former Clarity in September 2005. The record proved to be a hit, debuting in the Top 20 on the Billboard chart and earning them an invitation to perform on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.
In the wake of this success, Against Me! began to reconsider its options and decided to leave Fat Wreck Chords for Sire. After signing with the label, the band began the search for a producer, and a Sire honcho mentioned the possibility of working with Butch Vig (who's best known for his work on Nirvana's Nevermind). Gabel and his bandmates jumped at the chance.
"Working with Butch was the best decision we ever made as a band," says Gabel. "We'd always been a fan of his, but we never thought working with him was a realistic option. We sent him a demo, he came to some of our shows, and he agreed to work with us. He's the only producer we wanted to work with, and we got him. He's a great guy."
The result of the collaboration is New Wave, the subject of the aforementioned Best Buy ad. While some have described the record as having a fuller sound than previous efforts, Gabel disagrees. "We weren't aiming for any sort of sound, really," he says. "You can't approach songwriting as a science; otherwise, you'd be writing nothing but hits." He's equally insistent about making sure his sound is truly original. "I'm always at a complete loss when someone asks me about influences. I've never set out to copy a certain band or sound. I have a massive appetite for music, though -- I just got the new Spoon, Marilyn Manson and Two Gallants records."
Despite having just purchased all these new records, Gabel says his favorite is probably his own. "I'm 100 percent satisfied with the new album. We're been waiting so long for it to come out, and we're really pumped." Let's hope that both the old-school fans and the Best Buy shoppers feel the same way.
Against Me! with Auralust at the Big Easy on Sunday, July 29 at 8 pm. $15. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.