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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Against Me!: Reformed Teenage Anarchists

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Nobody's about to mistake Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel for Bruce Springsteen. Under Gabel's gruff, hoarse voice and his band's hard-charging punk sound, however, there are similarities: Both acts are known for impassioned performances, smart, heartfelt anthems and an inherent belief in the redemptive power of the human spirit. While Gabel may not be singing about a promised land, he knows about the darkness on the edge of town, focusing less on the Boss' blue-collar working stiffs than the mechanisms that keep us down.

Against Me! began as a solo project in the late-'90s, when Gabel was in his teens, but soon became a guitar/drums combo. By their 2002 full-length debut, Reinventing Axl Rose, they'd grown to a quartet, and shortly after its release the lineup solidified. That's when bassist Andrew Seward came on board, thanks to a little drunken texting after playing a few shows with them.

“I sent them an email drunkenly one night, like, 'Hey, you should kick out your bass player and let me join the band,' because my band was in the process of falling apart. I was totally kidding,” Seward explains during a day off while on tour in Pennsylvania. “He texted me back, 'Really? The old bass player's going back to college in Sarasota, so if you move down here you can be in the band.' Within a week I was living in Gainesville.”

The band gathered steam, attracting attention for their brash politics and keen intelligence. Songs like “Cliché Guevara” questioned the value of commoditized dissent (“Can your pop sensibilities…turn gunshots and mortar blasts into a metaphor of how we are all the same?”), while others like “Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners” examined the business of making music.

Their uncompromising attitude attracted a sturdy following of true believers, but the band painted themselves in a corner with the 2004 DVD We're Never Going Home. It documented how major labels were wooing the band with offers of, in Universal Records' case, a million dollars to sign with them—offers the band treated with disdain.

It was a shock, then, when after their third album, 2005's Searching for a Former Clarity, they did indeed jump to Sire Records. The move alienated a hardcore segment of their audience, even as their major label debut, New Wave, attracted a larger fan base. It's a big album that doesn't sacrifice any of their power or provocation. “White People for Peace” questions the effectiveness of “protest songs in a response to military aggression,” while on “Americans Abroad” Gabel wonders about his own perfidy, singing “Profit-driven expansion into foreign markets/ And while I hope I'm not like them, I'm not so sure.”

Seward is dismissive of the furor over their “selling out.”

“Not to be a smart-ass, but there will always be a 22-year-old out there talking shit. It's a childish attitude that I was probably guilty of when I was 17,” he says. “We signed to Sire because we wanted to make a huge rock album. We wanted to work with Butch Vig and make the drums come blaring out the speakers like it sounds huge because we dig albums like that.”

Gabel responded to the charges rather eloquently on “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” off last year's White Crosses. The song's title is a reference to “Baby, I'm an Anarchist” from his first LP, and the lyrics trace the restrictions of dogma: “I was a teenage anarchist, but then the scene got too rigid/ It was a mob mentality, and they set their rifle sights on me/ Narrow visions of autonomy, you want me to surrender my identity.”

Ultimately, while Sire introduced them to a large audience, the relationship faltered, and the band is on their own again. Seward indicates they're in label negotiations at the moment, but refused to say more. In the meantime, they've released a new single “Russian Spies” b/w “Occult Enemies.” He describes it as “more straight-ahead rocking” than the relative experimentation of White Crosses.

He remains unconcerned that their major label excursion might affect their fan base the way it did prior underground heroes like Cave In, Saves the Day and Thursday.

“When you boil it down, really, none of it matters,” Seward says. “We may be the punkest band in the world because we're going to do exactly what we want to do.”

Against Me! headlines the Rave on Saturday, June 18, with Screaming Females and Lemuria.