By Hans Morgenstern
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Fourteen years ago, it's doubtful that Tom Gabel envisioned himself signing on with a major label, recording with highly regarded rock producers and playing huge festivals and arenas across the world. Back then, the Against Me! frontman was playing acoustic punk gigs at coffee shops and laundromats around Gainesville, Florida. But in 2011, that sort of global popularity has found Gabel and his bandmates. After recently breaking ties with Sire Records, Against Me! is arguably one of punk's hottest free agents, and it's about to embark on a national tour with fellow mainstream punks, Dropkick Murphys. B-Sides recently caught up with Gabel at a tour stop in Portland to chat about the current state of the band.
B-Sides: Your band went about six years or so without shuffling your lineup and then, over the past few years, you guys have experienced a little more turnover and have brought in a handful of new guys throughout different tours.
Tom Gabel: You're right — me, Andrew [Seward, bass], James [Bowman, guitar] and Warren [Oakes, ex-drummer] lasted for a pretty long time. At the same time, though, you have to remember how the nature of the band formed. I started this out as a solo project with my friend Kevin [Mahon] on the drums. The attitude we always took toward stuff was that we wanted to play with other musicians. But, at the same time, we can't force anyone into it. We just had to be open to whoever came and went. And it's changed a little since then, but I just really think you have to let [the music] be a fluid, living thing. And you have to let it grow and expand in a natural way. You can't really force any relationships to where it makes it into a job. Music is supposed to be fun. If someone wants to be playing it, then they should be. If they don't, they shouldn't.
I know you have Jay Weinberg [son of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band drummer Max and also of Madball] behind the drums now. How has that transition been?
He was fantastic as far as jumping in headfirst. There was no real learning curve required. He's an incredible drummer. It's been a lot of fun playing with him.
Would you say he's had an impact on your sound?
It's hard for me to say, really. Because I'm so close to it, I think that's maybe something for an audience member to give commentary on. It definitely feels like Jay has a lot of energy that he brings, which almost brings a sense of urgency.
In bringing in new members recently, did it have an impact on the rest of the band with regard to how you guys play the songs?
A lot of the times it really made us go back to songs where we thought everyone was playing the same things, but you realize, "That part you're playing right there doesn't really go with what I'm playing," and it forced us to reexamine stuff. But I've found that if it's an old enough song, we've always changed the way we played them over the years anyway. There are some songs that I've been playing for over ten years now. They just change naturally.
Sonically, your latest album, White Crosses, is your biggest-sounding album to date. Would you say that was deliberate or more of a natural thing?
Not really. It's interesting recording when you're in a band. The first time you go into the studio, it's a pretty intimidating experience. There are all of these knobs and buttons that you don't know what they do. And you're just rushing; you're trying to record a full-length album with only a few hours of studio time. You end up making a record that isn't necessarily how you heard the songs in your head. And you're kind of going on luck. But each time you go into the studio, you get a little more of a grasp for what each button does. You're learning each time and trying to get closer to achieving whatever it is the sound you hear in your head. That's part of the process — and, for us, it's part of the reason our sound has developed over the years. We keep getting closer to making it exactly how we want it to sound. You hope, too, that when you spend 200 days on the road that you're getting better as a musician, a performer and a songwriter.
How much has it helped you achieve that sound by having producer Butch Vig behind the board?
Well, of course having more time in the studio has helped a lot. The last two records were produced by Butch, and it's been nice to not feel like we're staring down a deadline. But at the same time, one of the best things about working with Butch is that it's a real collaborative effort between us. He really knows how to push us and get us to that sound that we thrive for.
Now that you guys have parted ways with Sire Records, are you concerned about whether or not you'll get to continue working with him, or is that not much of an issue?
I'm not concerned with that. We want to keep working with Butch, but we'll figure out all of the label stuff later. It will work itself out.
You're quite active on your Twitter feed. I know it has to help you connect with fans, but do you also find it useful as a way to maintain an online presence and keep tabs on how critics portray you and your band?
Well, that's kind of the benefit of all social media in that aspect. There are so many people out there that are part of the "old-school media" world working for magazines and whatnot. And the people think they are gatekeepers or something. They have these fucking brass rings they want you to kiss. "Don't bite the hands that feed you," and they think they control the keys to your career. With the social media, you don't have to rely on anybody in order to talk directly to your fans. I think it's kind of leveled the playing field, and it's super beneficial to bands.