Laura Jane Grace wants to show AP her new studio, so she turns the webcam to her right so as to provide a glancing, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tour. Located on the south side of St. Louis, the space used to belong to Jay Farrar, a member of local rock stalwarts Son Volt, meaning that many of the necessary elements, including some cozy-looking vocal isolation booths, are already in place. “I’ve got to build the ark and make the animals come to it,” the 41-year old grins. “Then we’ll see if the fucker floats.” 

One thing the studio doesn’t have yet is a name. Back in the day, the building was home to a company that used pipe-like apparatus to unblock drains, which went by the name Electric Eel. Handily, those words are still painted across the large metal door outside, alongside a picture of one of the slippery creatures wearing a cap, providing a ready-made option for a moniker. Less obvious suggestions, meanwhile, include “Graceland,” courtesy of Grace’s Against Me!/The Devouring Mothers bandmate Atom Willard, and “St. Udio,” in playful tribute to the city it’s in.

Read more: girl in red, Laura Jane Grace, more team up for RSD release ‘Portraits Of Her’

In truth, this task isn’t particularly high on a to-do list Grace is tackling so diligently that she’s impressed even herself. Not long before this interview, alongside sharing her disdain for the Wordle craze and rhapsodizing about a particularly awesome bagel sandwich, Grace told her 127,000 Twitter followers: “Makes me uncomfortable how responsible and professional I’ve been lately.”

“I have a number of projects going on and have been working in the studio with a couple of other artists, as well as recording my own stuff and working on some extracurricular projects,” she explains, generous with enthusiasm but scant on specifics. But while Grace can’t reveal more on those future plans — yet — she’s happy to trawl through the history of Against Me!, employing her trademark charisma and candor to reevaluate the story of the Florida punk rockers, a career as characterized by success and satisfaction as it has been disillusionment and dysfunction.

It’s been 20 years since the release of the band’s debut album, Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose, which is worthy of attention in itself. But Grace has other reasons to reflect, not least the fact we’ve recently lost a raft of cultural luminaries — including comedian Betty White and rock legend Meat Loaf — who may appear disparate figures, but they’re bound by full lives and formidable legacies. “I don’t know how morose we want to get,” she says, “but this huge shift has been hitting me recently.”

How does …Reinventing Axl Rose turning 20 make you feel, then?

I’ve looked at it from multiple angles at this point. I’m humbled and amazed by the fact that 20 years later, people are talking about the album. That, to me, is the ultimate sign of success, beyond hanging some kind of placard on the wall. That’s the punk-rock standard — you want to make that one record that reverberates. The passing of time is strange, especially when you think about it in musical terms. It’s 2022, which is fucking wild, but talking about this album now is like someone in 1972 talking about a record that came out in 1952, which is warping my brain.

Several of its songs had already featured on early EPs. Was there any reluctance to redo them for the album?

That record was part necessary adaptation and part culmination. Only three of the songs on the record were actually conceived, written and arranged by me, James [Bowman, guitarist], Dustin [Fridkin, former Against Me! bassist] and Warren [Oakes, former Against Me! drummer]. Warren was ultimately new to the band; we had only started playing with him about four or five months before we recorded the album. Before that, Kevin [Mahon] had been the drummer in the band. Kevin and I had come up with the majority of the songs together, and when he left the band, he had such a distinct style ― half of his kit being buckets with drum heads on them ― that Warren couldn’t imitate that style. So we had to rearrange the songs and figure out how they worked to be true to the four of us and document them that way.

Was there ever any legal recourse at all from Axl Rose regarding the album’s title and artwork? This is, after all, the man who issued a cease and desist when the Offspring joked they were going to call one of their records Chinese Democracy: You Snooze, You Lose…

No, and I don’t want to jinx it at this point, as I don’t know what the statute of limitations are — I say, laughing nervously! The closest it’s ever got to confirmation he even knows the record exists is a picture an Italian fan sent me, of them holding the Reinventing Axl shirt with Slash and Duff [McKagan]. Against Me! played a couple of random festivals with Velvet Revolver, so I feel it had to have come into their awareness at some point. I think the Offspring were making fun of Axl, whereas, if anything, ours was a tribute. I grew up on Guns N’ Roses and love them.

Twenty years on, does the album’s notion of destroying your heroes feel different now that you’re the idol potentially being put to the sword?

A little bit, but at the same time, we already went through the cycle. I’ve already completed the arc of starting from the position of “kill your idols” to being elevated to a place where other people were trying to kill me as an idol, and ultimately being cut down to size and starting again. That was the major-label story: starting out as a punk band on indies and rising up to a major label, being called a sellout, getting dropped by the major label and having to start fresh.

That was 12 years ago when that all went down, so it’s interesting having that perspective. As a music fan, when I look at other artists I admire who’ve had long careers, you realize you’ve got to hold on for the ride — you hope for the good times and enjoy them while they last, but you’ve got to push through the low times.

White Crosses was your final album on a major label. What kind of times did you have making it?

It was a time of extremely high stress, great uncertainty and growing pains, but also of great focus and practice. As a musician, I was not slacking in my chops at all. I feel like it was some of my best guitar playing ever, some of my best singing and best songwriting. But outside circumstances around the band were really stressful. As a band, we were falling apart. We brought in a new drummer [George Rebelo, from Hot Water Music] and were trying to fix problems like in a marriage when someone says, “Let’s have another kid!” or, “Let’s get a fucking dog!” Decisions that aren’t addressing the root problems.

It was the second record on a major label [Sire Records, part of Warner], and while the first record on it [2007’s New Wave] had critical success, it was not a platinum or gold record, so you know that unless it hits immediately, the label is only going to put so much money in it, and you’re going to get dropped. But still, we had the faith of Butch Vig behind us, working as producer, and the opportunity to make a kickass record. It was about perseverance and learning a lot of lessons.

White Crosses was famously leaked. Presumably, the irony of a record featuring the track “I Was A Teenage Anarchist” being snuck onto the internet by some rebellious party wasn’t wasted on you?

I have been forever accused of being the one who leaked the record, and I swear up and down I did not leak the record. At the time, I was accused by our A&R person, and our manager suspected me. I don’t know where their suspicion came from. But my suspicion is that someone at AP leaked the record. I know that’s scandalous, and I’m not even saying it in an angry way, but at the time, I definitely feuded with people at AP, though it was intentional feuding, and it was childish.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues recently celebrated its eighth birthday. There were certainly a lot of stops and starts in its creation. Did it ever feel to you like a record that wasn’t going to get made?

There were definitely a string of bad luck things that happened that were beyond our control that had me feeling that way, for sure. I built a studio space in Florida at the time, and the plan was to make at least some of the record there. A lot of work went into it, but the spot wasn’t necessarily jelling for us as a band, but I dug in. Then there was a storm, and a tree fell through the roof and destroyed the studio. And our drummer at the time [Jay Weinberg, now a member of Slipknot] quit via Twitter. I was still determined to definitely make the record, though.

There was a Jawbreaker tour announced recently for the anniversary of [their fourth album, 1995’s] Dear You. I love Jawbreaker and everything, but I’d be more interested in a tour from [Blake Schwarzenbach’s post-Jawbreaker band] Jets To Brazil doing [their 1998 debut album] Orange Rhyming Dictionary. Dear You was on a major label, and there was all this pressure and a constricted creative experience, even though the songs are really fucking good. But [Schwarzenbach’s] next record, Orange Rhyming Dictionary, was this release, like, “I’m going to fucking tell it like it is.” I felt similarly with Transgender Dysphoria Blues — the recording process was trials and tribulations, but songwriting-wise, I was throwing fucking knives.

Fat Mike played a pivotal role on the record. How would you describe the Fat Mike you know?

I think Fat Mike is a perfect illustration of the idea that “people are not what they say; they’re what they do.” A lot of people may have a distaste for him because he’s brash and obnoxious in a punk-rock way and says offensive things, but when it comes down to it, on a real level, Mike’s always had my back. He played bass on two songs on [Transgender Dysphoria Blues] — “Unconditional Love” and “Fuckmylife666.” There was actually a third song recorded with him that we’ve just never released.

When things started falling apart, and the tree fell through the studio, I called Mike and asked if we could use his studio in San Francisco and whether he’d play bass on a couple of songs. So for a brief moment in time, Fat Mike was in Against Me!. Do you want to hear my story about escaping from Fat Mike’s house during the pandemic?

Of course!

This is my one travel story from 2020. That summer, NOFX were doing their White Trash, Two Heebs And A Bean livestream from Fat Mike’s house that ended up not being live. It was prerecorded, which was some scandal or whatever. Mike invited me out to play it, and I was like, “OK, but I’m a little nervous about this — it’s going to be chill, and there won’t be many people there, right?” He said: “Yeah, totally — it’s just going to be the bands, a couple of crew people, totally fine.”

As I’m on my way out there, I’m still talking to him, and the number of people going is growing exponentially, with more bands and a small guestlist for each group, and fire marshals and port-a-potties. My anxiety level was like, “Fuuuuuuck!” I got out there, and everyone was hanging out, smoking weed and doing whippets, and there’s me there, sober. I realized I couldn’t hang, as my anxiety was too much, but at the same time, Fat Mike is a childhood hero, so I couldn’t say that to him. So I waited until everyone in the house was asleep, at 4 in the morning, literally creeping through the house trying not to wake anybody with my bag and my guitar. I had an Uber waiting outside, so I had to climb the wall that surrounds the house, jump in the Uber, go to LAX and fly home.

Is there any truth to the suggestion that Transgender Dysphoria Blues was almost not recorded as Against Me!, but you did so because of how important the album was?

I don’t remember that being the case. That record was, in a lot of ways, a “fuck you” to the situation we’d come out of [being dropped by Sire Records] in wanting to prove a point and take a stance that we still have worth. So it was fairly pointed in that way.

You mentioned Jay Weinberg quitting the band via Twitter earlier. You later took to Twitter, and your book, to discuss your distaste for him and his behavior. Do you have any regrets about that?

No, I don’t have any regrets about that. As far as talking about that in the context of my book [Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout] or something like that, I felt pretty reserved and dialed down my actual feelings on it. There are only a couple of cases of people I’ve come into contact with where after a couple of years, I can just let it slide and everything’s fine. But there are other people, without naming names, that if I saw them still, I wouldn’t hesitate to say: “You know what? Fuck you still, buddy — fuck you still!”

Let’s talk about a more positive relationship with a sticksman, Atom Willard, who you play with in Against Me! and your other band the Devouring Mothers. Seems a clear sign of a positive working relationship…

I play to the drummer. That’s where I’m focused ear-wise with music. Maybe part of that comes from having been a bass player in punk bands and really paying attention to the kick [drum] and snare [drum]. When I write a song, there’s always a reference, or a collection of references, as far as what the drums should do. Sometimes it’s hard to match with a drummer if they’ve got different influences or play in different ways, but when I lock in with a drummer, it’s really satisfying. Me and Atom really lock in well together. He’s one of the best drummers in the world, is extremely versatile and adept and understands, too, that it’s about serving the song; it’s not about your ego.

Having worked with esteemed producers like Butch Vig, were you confident about the idea of producing records yourself, or was there a sense of, “Who do I think I am?!”

There’s the confident side that initially you start out with, like, “Now I want to try this, too” because you admire someone and love the way they work. You look at actors who try directing, and it seems only natural — you’re in front of the camera, and maybe you want to look through the camera sometimes. But after you get past that and you’re actually in the situation, you quickly realize that you’re not that producer you admire; you’re your own person, and you need to figure out your own way. It’s a humbling experience, and what I became addicted to more than producing is just putting myself into different situations within the band context because you’re able to see things differently.

After the release of Transgender Dysphoria Blues, you found yourself in some extraordinary situations and performed with some unexpected collaborators, such as Miley Cyrus. That must have been amusing to you, as someone who’s been called a sellout at so many stages in your career…

It was surreal, for sure. Performing with Miley Cyrus came through Joan [Jett]. It was so crazy because I was flying back from a tattoo trip to Japan and had been listening to the new Nick Cave record at the time [2013’s Push The Sky Away], which has a song on it with a lyric about Miley Cyrus floating in a swimming pool. After I landed, I had a message that someone was trying to get a hold of me about this opportunity with Miley Cyrus. It was a really cool experience, and I’m really grateful for it.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ follow-up, Shape Shift With Me, had the sort of weight of expectation around it that you’d expect from a second album, not a seventh. How conscious were you of it?

The real pressure came in the financial reality of things. We’ve always been a working-class band, and in order to keep it going, [the band have] always had to move at a certain speed, to keep all the parts involved, as everyone has a bottom line. I feel like after Transgender Dysphoria Blues, I would have liked to have taken a little more time to make the next record, but it felt like it wasn’t an option. That was a lot of pressure, for sure — not only was I working on a memoir and a documentary, but I had to do another record and immediately do a live record [23 Live Sex Acts]. And on top of all this, I’m a parent and was in the process of gender transition. It was a hectic period of time.

Given the amount you’re currently balancing, do you think that period gave you a new threshold for what you’re capable of juggling?

I don’t know if it’s a threshold in a good way or more that it fries your circuits, and you need X amount of cortisol coming through your body in order to feel good again because you’re used to receiving X amount of stress continually. But everything’s changed now, hasn’t it? Working is different now as an artist. It’s crazy adapting, but it’s definitely a different kind of stress now. 

Speaking of shows, in 2019 you had a special run of shows called “2 Nights / 4 Records / 48 Songs,” in which you played 2005’s Searching For A Former Clarity, New Wave, White Crosses and Transgender Dysphoria Blues in their entirety. Why those four specifically?

We had done …Reinventing Axl Rose at [Florida festival] The Fest [in October 2017] with Dustin on bass, so that felt like a moment; we also did it at Riot Fest [in 2019], so we wanted to put the focus on the other albums. I’ll be straight up: Against Me! has always struggled with managers. At the time, we’d made the shift to new managers, and it was a managerial decision. They said, “You should do these album shows — you’ll get good offers for album shows.” I’m thankful we did it, and it’s crazy looking back now. At the time, it did feel meaningful; you go back through and learn all these songs, and it’s an event. But not knowing there’d be a global pandemic afterwards, which fucking kicked our ass and took the momentum out of Against Me!.

Where does a new Against Me! record figure in all of the things you’re going to be working on in the future?

When the pandemic arrived in 2020, I started thinking, “How does this play out? If everyone is isolated and inside, everyone is going to write records. And if no one can tour, everyone will try to time the release of their record and their touring schedule around coming out of the pandemic. So many artists will get locked into the same cycle.”

Against Me! had been working on a record that was not fucking jelling, but I had an excess of songs that I didn’t want to throw away, so I put out a solo record at the start of the pandemic so that, in theory, I could play shows casually as we come out of the pandemic, but then already be ready to go back and write the next record. That’s where I’m at now, starting this year. I’m going to go out and play shows in support of the Stay Alive record I did [in 2020], and I did an EP last year [At War With The Silverfish], but then I’m immediately going into writing a record and figuring out what that record is. I don’t know if that will be an Against Me! record or not, but I’m working.

This interview appeared in issue #404 (The Modern Icons Issue), available here.