Songwriter Interviews

Tom Gabel of Against Me!

by Dan MacIntosh

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Update: In May 2012, Tom Gabel came out as transgender; he took the name Laura Jane Grace after his transition. This interview appears as it was published in 2010.
Tom Gabel started Against Me! in 1997 at the tender age of 17, and ten years later, they had what Spin Magazine called the Album of the Year with their release New Wave. You'll see them described as "Punk," but it's not the sloppy Punk that implies a lack of musicianship and lots of bodily harm - it's a more melodic sound helmed by Butch Vig of Nirvana and Garbage fame.

Tom's songs cover politics and relationships, and looking back on his career, we can see how his ideals have evolved over the years. Passionate singer/songwriters like Bruce Springsteen come to mind, and for good reason. He may well be an icon in the making.

Now with a major label and some mainstream success, Against Me! is facing the same challenges Green Day experienced as they grew up and expanded their fan base.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): The song, "I Was A Teenage Anarchist" (from the 2010 album White Crosses) reminisces about being young and wanting to set the world on fire. Is it even possible to be an aging revolutionary, or do we all just grow out of it?

Tom Gabel: I knew pretty much from the get-go that this song was going to be vastly misinterpreted, with a lot of our older fan base taking it as some kind of denunciation of past political beliefs. I thought that was all pretty predictable. But it surprises me when I get asked questions in interviews that imply it's a nostalgic song - I didn't see that coming.

I'm mean, I'm fine with the song making people feel nostalgic, but that's their nostalgia, not mine. I'm not asking myself the question of "Do you remember when you where young and you wanted to set the world on fire?", I'm 29, I AM young, and I've never forgotten that I want to "set the world on fire." I started playing in this band when I was 17, I'm still going, and I've never had a question of commitment to pursuing my dream, traveling the world, playing music and writing songs hoping they'll change the world. I'm not sure I've reached that last goal, but I'm still trying.

This record isn't us coming back from the brink of some self imposed exile where we stopped playing music, completely lost ourselves, ended up working as a short-order cook in some greasy spoon joint in a small Midwestern town, our past a mystery to all. I digress. I'm asking the listener the question, "Do you remember when you where young and you wanted to set the world on fire?" Do you?

Songfacts: You've said that you will not sing songs you wrote with Kevin Mahon (Against Me!'s drummer until 2002) after you had a falling out. What makes it so hard to sing those songs?

Tom: It's a complicated story really, most relationships are. I didn't have a falling out with Kevin, we broke up. It hurt. Some of the music we made together just feels really particular to that time and place. Some of it we tried playing as a full band and it just didn't really gel right musically. Kevin has a really unique style; I haven't played with a drummer since that can emulate it.

Songfacts: What's up with the title of your 2002 album Reinventing Axl Rose?

Tom: Guns N' Roses were my favorite band when I was a kid. The title was meant as a tribute in a way. It was also about destroying your heroes. I'm not sure if Axl has ever heard the record.
Songfacts: White Crosses touches upon homelessness, death, and - in away - religion. What inspired the album?

Tom: All the songs on the album where inspired by various things that I went through while writing. I don't feel hopeless; I look at writing and recording this album as my way of fighting back against all that in the world which would like nothing more than to see you beat. I look at it as being defiant.

The song "White Crosses" is about St. Augustine, Florida, where I wrote most of the album. It's also a pro-choice song. Around the corner from the house I was living in, which was off of San Marco Avenue, north of downtown, there was a church and on the lawn they had placed 4000 wooden white crosses, each about a foot high off the ground. It was called "The Cemetery Of The Innocent." There was a big billboard covered with pictures of children's faces that explained the crosses where placed to represent every abortion that happens in America every day. I hated those fucking crosses. So what I was trying to say with the song was that I want to smash all those white crosses. Cryptic huh?

Songfacts: "Because of the Shame" speaks of a girl that has your name tattooed. Is that based on a true story?

Tom: Yes, the song is a true story. My friend CC and I used to work at this bar in Gainesville called the Top. She was the bartender, I was the doorman. We used to hang out after closing, getting high, having drinks, listening to records. We both had each other's names tattooed. Life moved on and we fell out of touch. A little over a year ago I got a call telling me that she had been murdered. At the funeral her mother asked me to write a song for her, so I did.

CC's favorite band was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. We used to listen to their albums often back in those days, and I remember she had this grey jersey Bruce T-shirt she used to always wear at work. Her dad was also wearing a Bruce Springsteen shirt at the viewing. I wrote the song for her and I wanted to make sure she would like it, and I wanted something that was reminiscent of those memories so I wrote the song in Bruce's style.
Songfacts: What is "Borne On The FM Waves of the Heart" about? Also, please describe the experience of working with Tegan Quinn.

Tom: I wrote the song shortly after meeting my wife, I wrote it for her. I was really not into the idea of falling in love, I fought it real hard. The song is about that moment that I just kind of surrendered to it, surrendered to her. Uh, vomit right?

Tegan is rad; her and her sister deserve all the success in the world. Super talented. I also think that the two of them combined, her and Sara, have enough energy to power the lights on the Vegas strip.

Songfacts: Butch Vig, a very in-demand producer, produced your White Crosses album. Describe the experience of working with him? In your opinion, what are some of the reasons why artists trust him so much with their music?

Tom: I don't know where to begin. Butch is really methodical, in an OCD kind of way, which I can 100% appreciate and back. It's all about attention to detail. I feel like the experiences I've had working with him are the closest I'll ever come to going to college. I couldn't put a price on what I've learned. And I don't think I could ever repay how cool he's been to us. He's a genuine person, that's what makes him so great to work with. And he has great taste in wine.

Songfacts: White Crosses came out on Sire Records. How would you describe the experience?

Tom: In my experiences the differences between major and indie labels are few, with the biggest difference being size, the amount of people who work there and that some do certain things better than others, and some have cooler people who work for them. When it comes down to it their functions are the same, they both exist to sell records. I'm thankful for all of the support that Sire has given us in making the records we have with them.

Songfacts: Your music is getting more and more melodic over time. I think that's a good thing, but does that also sit well with your audience?

Tom: Not to be continually contrary with all my answers here but I don't really agree. I think the melody has always been there, we're not a grind-core band, I just think that the melody has become more pronounced as we've gotten more adept at recording and there's a lot more harmonies on this album than previous albums, which I think really brings that out. Go back and listen to a song like "Shit Stroll" off of our first self released cassette tape, Vivida-Vis, tell me those "Na, Na, Na's" are any different than the "ba, ba, ba's" in "Thrash Unreal" off of New Wave.

Songfacts: Tell me about how you became a songwriter?

Tom: I started playing guitar when I was eight years old, that's not to say I'm any good. And I wrote my first song when I was 11, again, that's not to say I'm any good. I've just always known that it's what I want to do. It is something I struggle with though, every time I approach writing a new song I worry that I just don't have the ability anymore, that a new idea is never gonna come.

When it comes to other songwriters I'm a fan of, I always pay attention to the lyrics first and foremost, they have to be intelligent, and they have to be clever. If I had to name some of my favorite song writers I'd say Bob Dylan for sure, John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats, Nick Cave, Jonathan Richman, Paul Westerberg, Warren Zevon, John Lennon to name a few.

If I could have written any song in the world it would have been "Happy Birthday." It's the only song that groups of people annually sing specifically for someone specifically in attempt to make them feel special. It's a completely unique song and it's ubiquitous.

July 19, 2010.
Get more at Againstme.net
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Comments: 4

  • @zanderqueer from Zanderhartman96@hotmail.comLaura is so amazingly eloquent and open. She's such and honest and great person. Im just wondering why edited the pronouns used in the beginning haven't been edited, and deliberately misgender her? Laura uses "she/her/hers" pronouns. Ignoring that is like saying "f--k you" to a trans person.
  • Star from Phoenixto Bill... considering I've seen Laura take selfies with fans and post them on her twitter account, I personally think you're lying.
  • Bill Jonesthe sanger formally known as tom gabel. very talented. but also full of [*oops*]. very into herself. saw an interview recently where she claim to take time for fans after shows. I was literally one of the first seven fans of this band.. when I appeared at show recently I waited one hour to see the great one. who said hello then walked around the corner to smoke . waited half hr then left. saw her standing round corner on walk away . dont forget where you came from fame [*oops*].
  • Natasha Pilamp from Papua New Guineanothing much to say but just a short note that i red the entire thing and i was amazed to see that tom startrd his carear when he was only 8 years old. That reaky inspired me. thank you....
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