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.