We last left AGAINST ME! two years ago with a career-best, fan-dividing concept album about the perils of signing to a major label. Then the band actually signed to a major label. Fortunately, the only selling-out going on is at the venues they play.
Story: Scott Heisel
Photos: Myriam Santos-Kayda
In less than 48 hours, Tom Gabel will quite literally be an American abroad. We reach the frontman of Against Me! on his cell phone as he’s driving his band’s tour van from Naples, Florida, to their hometown of Gainesville; in two days’ time, he and his band-guitarist James Bowman, bassist Andrew Seward and drummer Warren Oakes-will board an international flight to Australia (their fourth trip Down Under) before bouncing across Europe. It’s sort of comforting to know that the singer of an internationally famous group on the verge of releasing their major-label debut (which could possibly plant them into suburban bedrooms worldwide) still worries about the little things. Like toiletries.
“I’m trying to remember that I need to pack my electrical adaptors, and I need to get soap and stuff like that, minor small stuff,” Gabel admits as he speeds up I-75, past the stereotypical spring-break destinations like Fort Myers, Sarasota and Tampa, places not likely associated with a staunchly leftist socio-political band like Against Me! Considering how often the quartet travel the world, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t immediately connect the Sunshine State with Gabel & Co. But it’s both his coastal Florida upbringing as well as the band’s international travels that have shaped much of New Wave, Against Me!’s fourth studio full-length and first for the revived Warner Bros. imprint Sire.
Consider the double entendre of the title track’s chorus (“I’m looking for the crest of a new wave”): The band’s foray into the mainstream will be through a label that cultivated the burgeoning punk and new-wave scene of the late ’70s, issuing seminal records by Ramones, Talking Heads and Richard Hell among others, before defining the phrase “left of the dial” by signing college-rock staples like the Replacements, the Cure and Depeche Mode in the early ’80s.
Then there’s “Americans Abroad,” the first song written for the album-Gabel tackles the Americanization of the world as only someone who has seen most of its corners could-and New Wave’s breathtaking closing number “Ocean,” which Gabel wrote while looking at the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of France, reminiscing about the grade school years he spent living in Italy.
“That song was written all at once, the lyrics and the music just kind of came at the same exact time,” he says. “I remember one summer in particular when my parents were first separating and my brother would always sleep in the bedroom with my father, which was my mom and my dad’s room, and my mom would sleep in my brother’s bed, so I would sleep on a cot or on the floor by her bed during the summer. There were these big balcony windows, and I would sleep just on the floor in front of [them] with a fan blowing on me. I think that was one of my favorite memories from being a kid. Just the way that felt. You know, you’re all worn out from going to the beach all day; your skin’s really hot, you’re sunburned and the ocean breeze coming in through the house and being blown on you by the fan was really a relaxing and calming memory.”
The problem is, memory is one of the only relaxing things in Gabel’s life right now.
Nowadays, the term “sellout” is as empty and poorly defined as “emo.” While debates rage on message boards fueled by people who have most likely never had to pay their own way in life (buying the Mountain Dew cans that litter the desk in their parents’ basement containing a PC with broadband internet doesn’t count), real people are making real decisions about just how much their art should intermingle with commerce. Four years ago, Against Me! were opening for Rise Against and Anti-Flag on a Fat Wreck Chords label tour. Now, all three bands are on different major labels (see sidebar). Gabel can’t speak for the other bands, but he can speak for himself: Why sign to a major label, especially after producing a documentary DVD (2004’s We’re Never Going Home) and recording an album (2005’s Searching For A Former Clarity) which both adamantly stated it was a bad idea?
“I feel like that question in particular is a question we’ve answered a million times before,” he says. “You realize after a point that no answer you give will ever be good enough. No explanation you can give will ever satisfy people, so what’s the fucking point of answering it? Seriously, because the question itself is a joke. I could tell you every single reason why we decided to do this, and it doesn’t matter.”
New Wave producer Butch Vig, who has manned the boards for such influential records as Nirvana’s Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and Sonic Youth’s Dirty, draws a parallel between Against Me!’s fans and those of another underground punk band who made the jump in 2003 (and whose major-label debut he produced): AFI. “They do both have pretty hardcore fan bases,” he says. “And I see a little bit of the backlash that [both bands] got: ‘Okay, they both signed to a major label. Okay, they’re working with a big-name producer.’ And immediately that turns off a lot of [fans] because they want to retain a piece of them, but they don’t want them to change or grow. They think, ‘Oh, they’re selling out to the corporate man.’ But both those bands have put their time in, and I don’t think any artist wants to remain in one place, you know? I think everybody wants their music to be heard by as many people as possible. So, to me, they’ve both taken the logical step at the right time, you know, to try to move up to a bigger label, to make a more ambitious album.”
If you look at the numbers, the move makes a little more sense. AM!’s 2003 Fat Wreck Chords debut, As The Eternal Cowboy, has SoundScanned over 55,000 copies to date thanks mainly to word-of-mouth promotion. Clarity, on the other hand, had two music videos, a 50-state headlining tour, remixes by big names (Mouse On Mars, Ad- Rock) and a non-stop barrage of positive press from every magazine, newspaper and website in existence, yet it has actually sold less than Cowboy. There are some glass ceilings an independent label just can’t crack nowadays. But Gabel downplays this.
“Well, does the fact that nobody sells CDs anymore come into play with that?” he fires back. You look at statistics and they’re saying CDs overall have sold 20 percent less than they did last year at this time. But definitely, without argument, as a live band, way more people come out and see us live than as they did when Eternal Cowboy came out.”
Not that Gabel is playing the “downloading victim” card, but he does view illegal downloading culture as a “selfish and American thing. I would much rather someone go into a record store and physically steal our CDs than go online and download the MP3s illegally. ’Cause I want them to have [the physical album] because that’s what it’s meant to be. If someone needed me to watch their back while they went in and swiped it, I would watch their back. If I saw a kid running out of a record store holding the CD and a security guard chasing him, I would play interference.”
Not to beat the symmetry into the ground, but one of the oft-made comparisons of Against Me!-from their politics to their aesthetic to their increasingly brilliant musicianship-is to the Clash. Recalling the lyrics of Joe Strummer’s brilliant “(White Man In) Hammersmith Palais” where he pens “The new groups are not concerned/With what there is to be learned/They got Burton suits, ha you think it’s funny/Turning rebellion into money,” it’s hard not to hear the conviction in contradiction that Strummer struggled with and that Tom Gabel shares 30 years later.
Gabel leads his band into venues and photo shoots purposely choosing to wear clothing without logos (“I don’t want my band or myself to be an advertisement for anything”). He purposely chooses to not talk between songs at shows (“I’m not a comedian, I’m not a politician, I don’t have anything to sell, so what the fuck do I have to say into a microphone?”); and if he had his way, he’d never do another interview again (“I’m not in this to be a publicity darling… I would love to not do press”). Yet he has chosen to align his band with a label that is part of the largest media conglomerate on the planet, Time Warner Inc. So every time a 15-year-old in Fort Dodge, Iowa, buys a copy of New Wave at their local mall’s FYE for $17.99 and hears Gabel sing about news broadcasters ignoring the pleas of war victims to cease fire in “White People For Peace,” they’re actually contributing (albeit in a roundabout way) to CNN, one of the news organizations Gabel lashes out at. This is the trade-off with major labels-something Against Me! will experience for at least one more album.
“We have a two-firm contract, meaning they have to put out our next record,” Gabel explains. “It’s the label’s option after that, unless they want to, like, buy us out and give us this huge amount of money to not put out a record.” He nervously laughs at the prospect of being paid handsomely for not doing anything, before saying, “And you wonder why major labels are struggling, you know? They make such smart businesses choices.”
Time will only tell if Against Me! will become a tax write-off for Warner Bros.: For every Green Day, there’s a thousand Schleprocks who never made it off the ground floor. But that doesn’t phase Gabel in the slightest. “I’m definitely not naïve about it,” he says about the pressure. “I realize this and I’m totally aware of it. Right now, we’ve made a record we’re happy with and the label’s happy with. I imagine that if it does really poorly that they’ll be unhappy with that. I’m [not] trying to portray the label that we’re working with as the enemies because we chose to work with [them] and we’re happy [so far]. I hope that if we’re in a situation where the record doesn’t do too well, they would still be excited about our band and put just as much enthusiasm into the next record and continue to work with us.”
Gabel pauses as he continues to navigate the band’s weathered tour van north toward Gainesville, the sun shining down on its roof. “If that doesn’t happen, that’ll be unfortunate. But you know, I wouldn’t be surprised.” alt
When the above Against Me! feature originally ran in AP 230, we incorrectly wrote that both Warner Bros. Records and by extension Against Me! were affiliated with Time Warner Inc. Actually, Warner Bros. Records has been privately owned since 2004, when it left the Time Warner Inc. umbrella; Against Me! have never been affiliated with Time Warner Inc. We deeply regret this error and apologize for misleading our readers.