Tom Gabel of Against Me!
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As the name indicates, Against Me! is no stranger to friction. The Florida-based band roared out of the gate with 2002's independently released Reinventing Axl Rose, a roughhewn, anarchy-leaning blast of folk-punk that thousands around the world fell for, hard. The grumbling began a year later when the outfit signed with the large indie Fat Wreck Chords for As The Eternal Cowboy—and the unrest increased with 2005's Searching For A Former Clarity, a polished disc produced by Jawbox alumnus J. Robbins that was accompanied by two singles sporting remixes by Mouse On Mars and Adrock of The Beastie Boys. The most vehement cries of "sellout," though, were reserved for New Wave, the group's new album and first for Sire Records. Produced by alt-rock god Butch Vig, New Wave benefits and suffers from the airtight production—even as leader Tom Gabel's gruff, politically charged songwriting has continued its erratic path toward greatness. Gabel spoke with The A.V. Club about his detractors, the social dynamic of pop culture, and how sweet it is to be on the same label as The Ramones.
The A.V. Club: You worked with J. Robbins on your last album and Butch Vig on New Wave. Why did you pick them in particular?
Tom Gabel: J. Robbins was [drummer] Warren [Oakes]'s idea. I was never really familiar with Jawbox all that much, but if I had to name one record that J. Robbins recorded that sold me was the first Jets To Brazil record [Orange Rhyming Dictionary]. Sonically, that record is amazing. With Butch, I was so amazed that he was even into the idea of recording us. He's made some of the all-time most influential records to us. The first time I talked to him on the phone, I was really intimidated and scared. But within three or four minutes of meeting him in person, it was totally relaxed and totally cool. He's an awesome guy. Talent aside, he doesn't carry around the fact that he's made the records he's made. He's just a normal person, no ego.
AVC: What did he do for New Wave that you felt needed to happen?
TG: I thought that he would be able to make a record that sonically stepped our game up in a way but still kept it sounding like a real band. He didn't suck all the life out of it. He kept that rawness to it. I think that he's done that with all the stuff he'd done. He has this great ability to make bands sound real. He has a history of working with great live bands and capturing what they do live in the studio.
AVC: Was there anything resembling a live situation in the studio or was it more of a painstaking and methodical process?
TG: Very painstaking and methodical. It was meticulous, piece by piece by piece.
AVC: Was there any pressure from Sire to make things sound a certain way?
TG: None whatsoever. Really, one of the benefits of working with Butch was getting that pressure off us. Who's going to question Butch Vig? They're not going to come in and tell him, "Hey, you have to do this." He's fucking Butch Vig. [Laughs.]
AVC: It seems like there was an effort on the band's part to make the album very streamlined and concise.
TG: There were a couple of factors that contributed to that. Our previous record was the opposite of that. It had lots of drastic highs and lows—songs that were really rocking out and really fast and intense, and then we'd drop down into very quiet, acoustic moments. I think a lot of it was difficult to perform live. With this record, we wanted to make songs that would be fun to play live.
AVC: If you didn't feel pressure from the label while making New Wave, did you feel any expectation from your fans?
TG: Not at all, to be honest. It maybe once crossed my mind that catering to any thoughts like that would be a bad move. It would be the death of us in a lot of ways. What was important for us to do was approach writing and making this record as if we had no fans whatsoever and no one had ever heard of us before, and this was our first record. I think that was really important. The beginning of writing this record was a really positive time, and the process was an amazing time in all of our lives. There was no downside to it. I looked at signing with Sire as an amazing opportunity. There was a world of possibilities that was open to us.
AVC: You said in a past interview that one of the benefits of being on a major label is the fact that there's less of an identity attached to it than there is with an independent label. At the same time, Sire has one of the strongest identities of any major, what with bands like Talking Heads, The Ramones, and The Smiths. Did that factor into your decision to move to Sire?
TG: A hundred percent, yes. The idea of being a part of the history of this label to me was mind-blowing. That's great company to be in. I think it's unfortunate that the majority of kids today don't know any of those bands or don't realize they were on that label. We have people who have asked us in the past why we signed to Sire, and one of the reasons was definitely because of its history. The Ramones were on Sire, The Replacements were on Sire, The Smiths were on Sire, The Cure was on Sire, Madonna was on Sire. They released Ice-T's "Cop Killer" record, you know? And people are like, "Oh." And that's kind of a shame.
AVC: When you were getting ready to sign to Sire, did you talk to J. Robbins, someone went through the major-label meat grinder with Jawbox?
TG: Actually, it was something we kind of talked about while we were recording Searching For A Former Clarity with him, before we knew that we were going to end up leaving Fat. We asked him, "If you had done anything different, what would it have been?" His answer has been similar to what we've heard from a lot of people that we've talked to about it: If you're going to do it, you have to fully embrace the decision. You can't straddle the fence and keep one foot in the other world or anything like that. You just have to own the decision you've made.
AVC: Do you think that the underground versus the mainstream is a false dichotomy in any way?
TG: So many people in the underground, if you want to call it the underground, take part in this alternative scene because they don't like what's happening in the mainstream. But it's up to you to change it if you don't like it. When bands come from that underground scene and go into the mainstream, people just hate it. And it blows my mind. If you're saying you don't like what pop culture is, then change it. And when someone does make an effort to change it, everyone rebels against it and hates it. You can't win. People just want that division to exist. They don't want that division to go away.
AVC: The first line on New Wave is "We can control the medium / We can control the context of presentation." What do you mean by that exactly?
TG: In a lot of ways, I'm trying to say that from the perspective of a fan of music. The fans have control over it. We can decide what pop culture is. We can define ourselves. Music and the presentation of art today is totally in our control, with the Internet specifically. You no longer need record labels. You no longer need movie distribution companies. You can just make it and put it online, and it will distribute itself to millions of people. The borders and everything have been broken down. It really is in the hands of the people.
AVC: New Wave is split evenly between songs about politics and the music industry and songs that are more introspective. Was this a balance you were deliberately trying to strike?
TG: For sure. I could write all songs all day long about what I think about the music industry or music in general. Sometimes I gotta be like, "Let's write about something else." [Laughs.] You don't want to say the same thing over and over again. In a lot of ways, I look at records as a year or two of my life encapsulated in songs. They're almost like journal entries.
AVC: You end the album on a really odd note. Instead of going out with a bang, you have "Ocean," a much more poetic and even impressionistic song.
TG: It is vastly different from the rest of the record and vastly different than any other song we've ever written. To me, it shows that we're going to progress with the next record we make. Who knows what's going to happen? We still have this ability to challenge ourselves and change things around. I almost look at it as a preview of things to come.
AVC: A lot of people still give Against Me! flak about signing to a major label. Do you think that a lot of what you're trying to get across in your lyrics, or even your songs themselves, get lost in all the bickering about how you conduct your business as a band?
TG: For sure. The majority of those people who are interested in bickering about stuff like that have just decided they're going to hate the record, no matter what. They never gave the record a chance. They never sat down with the record, listened to it front to back, read the lyrics. They made this conscious decision that they're going to hate this record or hate this band, and that's what they're going to do. What can you do about it, you know?