Political Punk: Rage Against the Band
Tom Gabel, the 26-year-old voice of the leftist punk band Against Me!, is trying to punctuate a spirited debate on art and commerce--one we've been conducting in the back room of his band's deluxe tour bus--with the perfect quotation. "I think it was Paul Stanley from KISS who said, 'Integrity is just someone else's idea of what I should be doing with my life.'" But the aphorism doesn't sound quite right, and we both know it. Gabel reaches into his back pocket to consult his BlackBerry. "Here it is. 'Credibility is someone else's idea of what I should be doing, not mine.'"
A lot of people have a lot of ideas of what Against Me! should be doing right now, ever since the July 10 release of New Wave, the four-piece band's blistering new record--and their first release on a major label--propelled them to dizzying new heights of mainstream recognition. On their August cover, Spin magazine asked: "Have Against Me! made the year's best album?" Rolling Stone declared that "they haven't lost their edge." But the band, who made their name (exclamation point and all) not so long ago by playing raucous shows in church basements and laundromats, has burned its share of bridges on its way to the top, especially among the idealistic young fans whose idea of integrity can't be found on a BlackBerry.
Identifying what's pissing these fans off isn't quite rocket science. While independent punk bands going corporate is nothing new, Against Me! is a vehemently anti-establishment, anti-capitalist, anti-war musical project. Their three previous independent LPs adhered to a staunch Do-It-Yourself aesthetic. The last time this band wrote a song about a girl, the girl was Condoleezza Rice, and the sentiments weren't pretty. An earlier anthem, "Baby, I'm an Anarchist," recounts a breakup catalyzed by a young woman's refusal to throw a brick through a Starbucks window. (The song dubs her "a spineless liberal.") But Gabel's most frequent target is the record industry itself, which in one song he crudely equates to "Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners."
By 2005, Against Me! was so firmly entrenched as a paragon of DIY, punk righteousness that ex-fans slashed the tires on their tour van as punishment for the seemingly minor crime of signing to Fat Wreck Chords, an indie label with decent distribution and the cash to pay for...a tour van. Around the same time, DIY magazine Maximum Rocknroll issued a de facto fatwa against the band, publishing a how-to guide for kids interested in disrupting Against Me! shows.
Maybe the band's subsequent jump to a major label, Sire Records, doesn't pack the same epochal punch as Bob Dylan going electric, but the results again seem to justify the decision. After years of recording and mixing their albums in a matter of days, Against Me! went into the studio with Butch Vig, legendary producer of Nirvana's Nevermind, and emerged with their most potent (and radio-ready) call to arms yet. As an added inconvenience for fans looking to write the band off, the lyrics on New Wave are more anxious and paranoid than they've ever been. Going pop hasn't dulled the agitprop.
Gabel shouts the record's opening lines with battle-cry conviction, as if trying extra hard to keep ambivalence at bay and will his wishes into being. "We can control the medium. We can control the context of presentation...We can be the bands we want to hear. We can define our own generation." The next song, "Up the Cuts," begins as a vitriolic rant against the artifice and homogeneity of the day's MTV icons, but in the last verse, Gabel shifts his focus to the retrograde sanctimony of the punk movement and finds himself equally frustrated. "All the punks still singing the same song. Is there anybody thinking what I am? Is there any other alternative? Are you restless like me?" This restlessness pervades New Wave to an almost absurd degree. In the cheekily titled first single "White People for Peace," Gabel writes a protest song about protest songs, whose chorus turns the awkward "Protest songs in response to military aggression!" into an ironic rebel yell. The Village Voice's Tom Breihan calls New Wave an album about "the frenzied struggle to stay moral in a system designed to make morality obsolete." If you can't stop a war, you might as well make money, right?
"Really, what scared me more was the idea of not doing it," Gabel tells me, claiming that the band's decision was not agonized. "It was the logical next step. It's experience. We're addicted to experience." He assures me that the inevitability of fan backlash was not a deterrent. "I try not to pay attention to it, really. I feel like what happens is that the interview questions perpetuate the myth that we're this sellout band. It's also just something I don't even really care to talk about that much."
For legal reasons, there's something else Gabel can't talk about. Last month, he was arrested in a Tallahassee coffee shop for allegedly smashing a man's head against a counter. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Gabel went into the bathroom and saw an article about Against Me! posted on the wall with "obscene words scribbled on it." He tore it down, and upon emerging from the bathroom, attacked a 22-year-old customer who asked for an explanation. Those actions don't exactly bespeak the mentality of a man comfortable with his choices, but Gabel is able to place his anger in a wider context.
"The day of the Tallahassee thing, we were playing at this place The Beta Bar, and this coffee shop next door was having a protest show against ours. I mean... go protest the fucking war!" A songwriter who succeeds at getting kids agitated about the evils of capitalism has suddenly turned those same kids against himself. But can he really be surprised? Giving voice to the oppressed in an editorial for The L Magazine, Mike Conklin writes that "when you say the same things over and over again, as loudly as [Gabel] did, into a microphone no less, to countless impressionable teenagers, you've effectively lost your right to just decide one day that you didn't mean any of it."
Fortunately, if there's one thing besides talent that sets Against Me! apart from the hordes of anarchist punk bands who wear their dissent on their sleeves, it's the ability to recognize their own bullshit. "We're four white kids from semi-privileged backgrounds," says Gabel, "and we have the convenience to turn the war on and off at will, and here we are traveling around the world in a rock n' roll band, singing protest songs." He says that he sees punk rock as just another monolithic system that needs to be challenged. "We do things just because other people in the subculture say to do things. The natural progression, to me, is to rebel against that." There's an album's worth of evidence that the record deal has made Against Me! a better band, but Gabel is convinced that it's also made them more subversive.
For drummer Warren Oakes, the movement against Against Me! is just a manifestation of small-mindedness. "When it really comes down to it, for a white male in America, playing music is one of the least harmful, least destructive things you can do with your time and energy. To be treated like a supervillain for not playing music the right way is totally mind-blowing. I don't mind the scrutiny, but a lot of times it's impossible for people to walk away with the world a big enough place that we're just four genuine, sincere people that are making the right decisions, as we see it, every step of the way."
In the end, Gabel feels most comfortable justifying his band's big move as a utilitarian quid pro quo. "We don't owe anyone anything other than music. If you buy a CD, you get the music that's on there. If you come to a show, we owe you music." And with that, the comfortably established antiestablishment punk band takes the stage to give the consumers the protest songs they paid for. Because that's how capitalism works.