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Against Me!

It looks like Against Me! is doing very well. They open stadium gigs, have nearly 60,000 fans on Myspace alone and have a video on MTV’s rotation for Don’t Lose Touch. Searching for a Former Clarity is their best received album yet. Life for the band must be a breeze, right? Think again…

Proving the hectic nature of literally living on the road, we rescheduled the following discussions innumerable times over the course of two weeks before nailing down a couple of the Against Me! rock-n-roll gladiators.

Through two challengingly arranged interview sessions – one on a Texas highway and the other outside a venue in Columbia, South Carolina – Against Me! bassist Andrew Seward, showing subtle signs of exhaustion, frankly discusses the trials of remaining independent and spending nearly four months on the Fat(Wreck Chords) Tour; and later vocalist/guitarist/kingpin Tom Gabel breaks down pretty much everything under his oft’ overcast sun.

Our exclusive discussions begin with Andrew, speaking amid a morgue of sleeping rockers sweating in a van on route to Houston, TX.

Kaffeine Buzz: You guys are back on the east coast?

Andrew Seward: No, actually we’re in Texas.

KB: How has the Fat Tour been treating you?

AS: Pretty good. Everything’s been great. We’re making a really quick b-line – we’ve been in the desert for about five days, we had Halloween in Las Vegas, which was pretty fly. Then we’re in Texas for four days, then we’re heading up to the midwest; then back over east.

KB: Are you guys actually doing that many dates in Texas?

AS: Yeah. We did Austin last night, it’s Houston tonight, then Dallas and San Antonio. We just skipped El Paso.

KB: Well, let’s just get to it. The first thing we’re dying to know is your take on the corporate deal that you guys toyed with. On your DVD you get courted by a lot of majors and you give the impression that you’re just in it for the drinks and freebies. Was there ever any serious consideration for you guys with them?

AS: Yeah, definitely. It gets to the point almost like the joke goes on too long and then it doesn’t become a joke anymore, and that kind of freaks you out. But there was very serious consideration, yes.

KB: But then you ended up back with Fat Wreck Chords…

AS: Yeah. Staying with Fat was definitely the right decision – it didn’t make sense for us to do anything else at the time.

KB: Was there anything specific? Did you just decide you didn’t need that kind of big step?

AS: It basically got to be such a high level of bullshit that we just felt like it was going to be stupid.

KB: Too many complications?

AS: Yeah. It actually just got annoying.

KB: The new record has a little bit more of a pop sensibility. Not over the top or anything but it’s there. Is that a conscious thing you’re trying to do or was it just a natural progression?

AS: Totally natural. Songs like ‘Don’t Lose Touch’ came out of me and Warren just joking around and then Tom starting to sing over the top of it. That song got written in about ten minutes. Nothing’s ever straight up intentional with us. It’s whatever comes out at the time so I’d say it’s completely natural. I mean we’re definitely not sitting down together and going ‘Wait! That’s not poppy enough.’

KB: It doesn’t seem there are quite as many overt political messages this time, except for a few songs. Are you trying to stay away from that more these days?

AS: Well, Tom writes all the lyrics so I could never truly say what they mean, but the lyrics are meant to be the explanation.

KB: Your live show is always a good time; always really positive and you’re on the road constantly. It’s gotta be kind of hard to keep it that positive. How can you maintain that with all the pressures of touring?

AS: The thing is, the pressure has become completely normal because touring has become completely normal.

KB: So the van is home?

AS: The van is a cozy home. There’s eight of us. Someone’s asleep on the floor right now, and two people are asleep on the bench. Everybody else is just propped up against the window trying to sleep. It’s not the most comfortable. I think we’re very conditioned… No, actually I think we’re extremely conditioned to it.

KB: You’ve been doing a lot of seemingly unusual shows. For instance you did the stadium shows with Green Day recently – I’m guessing you weren’t traveling around in a van at that point.

AS: Nope! All vans! We’ve only ever been in a van! We’ve ridden in a bus and I’ve been on other bands’ buses and they seem very comfortable!

KB: So you keep it real?

AS: I call it keeping it cheap. Buses cost so much money and not many people realize quite how expensive they are.

KB: There’s been a lot of talk from different angles saying that Against Me! is going to be the band that saves punk rock, and things along those lines that seem a little over the edge. How much pressure do you feel from fans and the people saying this?

AS: All the pressure from people – I mean, if we ever bought into that it would be the end of us. People like to build you up just to tear you down; so I think the whole point is to never buy into it in the first place. Saving punk rock and all that – we didn’t sign up to save anything. And anybody who meets us knows pretty quickly that we’re the most normal people you’ll ever meet. I think we just play really well together and enjoy what we do together and if people think that’s going to save something that’s cool but, I mean…

KB: I don’t know if punk rock needs a savior…

AS: I don’t even know if we’re a punk rock band so… I mean we don’t even know how to play really fast.

KB: How off the wall was it playing those stadium shows?

AS: Well, we all like Green Day and pretty much everyone I know grew up on Green Day. I mean they just asked us – there wasn’t some subversive deal with a bunch of big companies. They said, ‘D’you wanna play?’ and we said Yeah. I mean we’d never played a stadium before so why not?

KB: How did the crowd respond to you?

AS: I think we were received pretty well. It was still light out – people were still coming in…

KB: But you held the attention of the people that were there?

AS: I hope so.

KB: We caught your recent acoustic set in San Francisco, at Amoeba records. It seemed really well rehearsed. Do you do those types of performances often?

AS: When we wrote this album, we practiced it really low because the neighbors would complain. I think we only did it once acoustically before that [Amoeba show]. It was actually really, really fun.

KB: Maybe you could do an acoustic album.

AS: If we had more time maybe. We’ve always been meaning to do everything acoustic as well, but we really didn’t get to it on this album.

One week later, Tom finds time to leave the load-in/sound-check at Columbia, SC’s New Brookland Tavern to give us the low-down on…pretty much everything.

KB: It sounds like your tour’s been pretty hectic.

Tom Gabel: Yeah – it’s been pretty fucking long. We’re going on third month now. The first date was September 1 and the last date is December 16.

KB: When I spoke to Andrew in Texas he sounded very tired. You were in the hospital for exhaustion too…

TG: Yeah. At the beginning of this tour we did forty or so shows in a row without a day off. And the second to last day before the day off we were in Seattle playing and I couldn’t breathe while we were playing and I felt like my chest was caving in so as soon as the show was over I went to the emergency room. They told me I was severely dehydrated and also suffering from exhaustion. And I was like ‘Okay, no more Red Bull; I need to eat more than one meal a day; get more than three hours of sleep each night…’ but it’s definitely a challenge. The tour we’re doing, routing wise, right now is definitely a tour that’s meant to be done in a bus. We have a lot of overnight drives and we’re not only doing one show a day – sometimes we do two. And then there’s interviews on top of that, and we’ve had to do some flying. You just take your sleep when you get it and you try to eat as healthy as you can. And that’s actually the biggest challenge – trying to find healthy food and taking care of yourself in that way on tour. But we’re getting by and we’re lucky that as a band we get along surprisingly well – that alleviates a bit of stress.

KB: Your shows have a really positive vibe obviously, but there must be times when you get sick of each other, touring as much as you do.

TG: It never ceases to amaze me, the parallels of being in a relationship with a band and being in a relationship with a partner. They’re pretty similar. And like a relationship with a partner you just have to maintain communication and communicate with each other well. And that’s a challenge but you figure out pretty quick which certain things push people’s buttons and you learn to avoid that because you’re in each other’s personal space all the time. That’s not to say we don’t have our bad days and we don’t occasionally get a little bitchy with each other but we get over it.

KB: I suppose that’s from being together for so long.

TG: Yeah, exactly. You come to a realization that ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing with our lives’ and you have to take that seriously because if you’re going to be selfish and pushy on tour, that means you’re actually screwing up everybody else’s life. And everybody takes that responsibility very seriously. Everybody is making huge sacrifices to do what we do – not that it’s not worth it – but Andrew’s married, James has a fiancé, I used to be married but there are other relationships that suffer too. Just in terms of friendships and stuff.

KB: It’s also a career at this point too.

TG: Yeah! Somehow we stumbled into a career!

KB: You’re playing your hometown [Gainesville, FL] tomorrow. Is there any pressure in that? Are you just excited to be home for a day? How are you feeling?

TG: Well, it’s a little weird. It throws me off to go home when we still have more tour. I’d rather just stay gone and get home when we get home. You have to adopt two different mentalities – one on tour and one at home. So to try and mesh the two worlds together is kind of weird. Plus, then you throw in the fact that there’s going to be about 50 million people in town that I haven’t seen in a long time. It’s definitely going to be stressful and hectic.

KB: You’ll know every face in the crowd.

TG: Yeah.

KB: Can you tell me a little bit about the experience of touring with the same bands for the last three months?

TG: There are certain aspects to it where you have to make sure things don’t become routine. Like switching up the set list – and that’s for the other bands as much as it’s for you – so no one has to watch the same show every night. But it’s kind of cool because when you’re on a tour this long with, not one, but three other bands, everyone kind of gets a gang mentality. So you have a huge traveling circus that shows up in a town and takes over and there’s something really neat about that. It’s weird because at this point, having been on tour for so long, so much of it becomes mechanical and you don’t realize how long you’ve been on tour. And like, the memories I have of this tour are, in my mind, completely disorganized. I can’t even place them in any time order. And the other day we were all like ‘How much longer have we got left? Oh, only a month!’ It’s funny when a month feels like nothing.

KB: So touring with the same people is positive then. Like a family?

TG: Well, it’s a crapshoot. Sometimes you get stuck on a tour with bands that you don’t know who suck, but we got lucky this time.

KB: The latest album [Searching For a Former Clarity – Fat Wreck Chords] seems really inspiring at first; but when we sat down and really listened to the lyrics, there’s a lot of torment and despair and frustration going on. I know it’s a collection of songs so it’s hard to pin down, but do you feel like this came from a dark place for you?

TG: Completely, yeah. For me, what it’s supposed to be about is a cathartic experience where you’re releasing something and dealing with whatever issues you may be having at that time. So that’s usually what comes out. I’m not one of those people who goes ‘I’m really happy and I’m going to write a song about it!’ It’s usually ‘I’m having these problems and I don’t know how to deal with it other than doing this.’ So, in a lot of ways, this record in particular, I didn’t want to just be a collection of songs slapped together. I wanted them to make sense together and even if they’re not talking about the same exact subject to all work together, which is something that I try to pay attention to. And throughout the songs, there are multiple repeating themes and that was definitely done very purposefully. I was trying to… for me, I was looking at that record and I can place each song in a period of the last year and a half of my life. In a way, they’re like journal entries. I’m happy with the way it came out.

KB: Is this more welling up from you, or would you say you speak for the despair of the band too?

TG: Maybe to an extent. It’s always been something that’s been kind of weird with us. I’ve never been that comfortable presenting my lyrics to the band for the first time so it’s more of a ‘This is what I’m singing now’. They don’t even really ask me ‘What’s that about?’ which makes me really happy that I don’t have to explain it. To an extent, it’s not something that we ever talk about. I hope though, that if I wrote something really out there that they didn’t agree with, they would tell me. But, there are certain elements on this record talking about different elements of the music business and stuff. In a way, maybe dealing with some backlash stuff we’ve been dealing with and I’m pretty sure those are sentiments shared by all of us. I also think a lot of political content – like anti-war stuff – is also shared by the band. But there’s also a lot of stuff on there that comes from a really personal place and dealing with issues that I don’t really talk about with anybody – so I don’t know how they could feel about it.

KB: What inspired you to become so socially inclined and politically aware when you were younger?

TG: There’s definitely been a bunch of things that have contributed to that throughout my life. I grew up in a military family and moved from base to base all over the world and that was definitely a weird thing. One of my earliest memories – when I was in like second grade – was my dad having to do a couple of months time in Germany and when we were there we visited Dachau concentration camp and I didn’t really understand where we were or what had happened there but I knew it was a really dark thing.

And I’m sure it’s not a very unique sob story but when I was in fifth grade and me and my mother and my brother moved to Naples, Florida which is like five hours south of Gainesville. And Naples is a very unique place – very right wing, very Republican and a very repressive place- definitely not very supportive of its youth. So growing up there it was like, being an awkward kid who got beaten up a lot. I mean it’s obvious, the kind of background that leads you to punk rock. But when you first get into punk, and this was definitely the case for me and my friends, we liked the more nihilistic elements of it. We liked the destructive elements. Then when I was 14 years old, on the 4th of July, I got beat up by the cops and I wound up being hog-tied by the cops and run into the back of a police car and charged with battery on an officer. But there was no real arrest charge and it was a totally fucked up situation. And I came out of that feeling like ‘What the fuck?’ and it really opened my eyes to a lot of things. That for me, was the moment in my life, when I got really charged up and feeling like ‘There isn’t justice in the world.’ I started doing a zine after that and really got into that whole culture.

KB: Did you have adversity in your family, with your family being military and you clearly being opposed to that?

TG: Yes, and at this point I don’t really talk with my dad. And when we do talk, we certainly don’t talk about politics or anything. My parents divorced when I was in the fifth grade and he moved to Italy for a while after that and then to Missouri and I’d go out and see him during the summers but we’ve never had a particularly close relationship since that point. It’s not like he really knew what was going on in my life anyway.

KB: Let me ask you about some of the songs. Obviously there’s a very political background to ‘Justin’ but it also seems very personal to you. Where does that come from?

TG: That’s actually a really interesting story. I was home visiting my mom this past Christmas and I was up late one night watching TV – I don’t remember if it was CNN or FOX News or something like that – but there was a story about a soldier who was killed in Iraq and his parents were involved in a legal battle with Yahoo to gain access to his email account. It was his father speaking and he was obviously very distraught because all he wanted was to get access to this email account to get whatever remained of the emails left in there. It was Christmas time and the reporter who was covering it just seemed really cold and callous and it was just this routine she was going through. The guy was obviously upset but it just felt like ‘Okay, here’s the story, cut to commercial break now. Happy Christmas everybody!’ and I wrote the lyrics to that just while I was sitting there. So we finished the song, recorded the song and then maybe two weeks after the record came out, I got an email from Justin’s family who had somehow ended up hearing the song. It turns out he had a really big family and when we played in Detroit on this tour – I guess they lived two hours away – his whole family came out to the show. And it was this really intense experience for me because when I was writing the song I was giving it thought, but I wasn’t giving it thought that I’d end up meeting his family or anything like that. So they came out and I was completely dumbfounded as to what to say and I felt really uncomfortable with that kind of responsibility. These people had suffered a real loss and I’m just writing these stupid songs. But they were very thankful to us for writing the song and it was awesome. Now we kind of keep in touch with them.

KB: As your profile and popularity grows, are you sensing at all that you’re becoming the voice of a whole group of people?

TG: To an extent but I’m always really wary of that. I mean, I definitely used to feel like we were more of the voice of the anarcho-punk scene but I don’t know… It’s been really weird how many fuckin’ soldiers and ex-soldiers who have written to us or who come to our shows and say ‘Thanks’ and tell us how into the band they are. It really weirds me out and I don’t know how to handle that.

KB: But not everyone can do what you do and it’s only natural that people are going to put you on some elevated status for doing that.

TG: Yeah. I just get worried that I’m eventually going to let them down.

KB: Understandable. I wanted to ask you about ‘Violence’ too. It is eerily unspecific. It’s hard to even tell whether it refers to a particular historical era…

TG: Um, I guess I was trying to capture a feeling of paranoia and, without getting into real personal details, but a feeling of paranoia about aspects of yourself that you can’t really help and have kept hidden for a long time and some of the things that are associated with that for me.

KB: I take it we aren’t going to gonna get any specifics here…

TG: No, sorry dude. The violence in the song isn’t really about physical violence; it’s about mental violence.

KB: Another song that seems really personal to you is ‘How Low’ and I was wondering how much of that was related to things you’ve been through. Being on tour all the time; the constant party…

TG: That song is completely, 100% autobiographical. For our last record, ‘As The Eternal Cowboy,’ we spent two years on the road and when I came home for Christmas I was completely wiped out physically and mentally and it occurred to me that I had been drunk every single night for two years. And during the course of that I’d also managed to develop a really unhealthy cocaine addiction. And it occurred to me how fucked up I was at the time. So that song came from me re-evaluating my life and a lot of things. As of January 1st, I had stopped drinking and stopped everything and took ten months off. But this tour broke me in a way and I ended up having a couple of drinks but in a way that I’m totally comfortable with – in moderation.

KB: It’s amazing how those things can sneak up on you.

TG: Yeah, you get caught up because, especially with what we do, it’s around all the time and it’s not done in a way that’s by yourself and self-destructive in that way but it becomes that pretty quickly. Because you’re hanging out with a bunch of people who are getting fucked up and you think ‘Well, fuck it! Let’s have a good time!’. Then what happens is, you come off of tour and you’re used to having this constant party every night and then you’re by yourself and then you have a little party by yourself which is a lot more pathetic than having the big party with everyone else.

KB: So you were able to control that yourself without having to check yourself in?

TG: I went cold turkey pretty much. New Year’s Eve I had a really good time then I woke up that morning and went ‘Well okay, now I’m going to write a record.’ And I weaned myself off by smoking weed for two weeks straight, then I got off the pot by drinking a lot of coffee and I developed a really unhealthy addiction to coffee!

KB: Tell us about was the final track – the title track. It has a distinct David Bowie ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ thing going on.

TG: It was actually the last track that was written for the record and it was something I was pushing myself to do so I could specifically end the record. And a song that would take elements lyrically from every other song on the record – it references aspects of every song or at least every theme on the record – so we could tie them all together and bring the record to a close. Metaphorically, at points when I was writing this record, I was writing it with the mentality that I was dying. I was trying to write a record thinking ‘What kind of record would you write and what would it be like if you were dying?’ So that’s where a lot of that came from. So in the end I was killing myself and offing the character and ending the story and I was trying to do it in a way that fictionalized stuff and took all these really personal issues to me and turning it into ‘Well, it’s about someone else that is separate to me.’

KB: Is this a stage of re-birth for yourself and the band then?

TG: I wanted it to be. I feel like lyrically, coming from the perspective of a writer, I’ve been stuck in this place – and a lot of that having to do with drugs and alcohol – and writing really depressing songs. I kind of wanted to stop doing that. I don’t want to keep coming from that place anymore. Whatever we do next will be coming from a different place.

KB: So, despite the overarching despair and anguish on Searching…, this shouldn’t be taken as a sign that this might be the last Against Me! record?

TG: Not by any means, no.

KB: Having seen bands start out miniscule and indie – like Green Day – and watching them climb to the top the way the have, it seems like you’re on the same trajectory. Do you consider that; and is that overwhelming at all to you?

TG: I feel like it’s weird being in a band. You don’t have the same perspective that people watching from the outside see.– we just don’t get it. We don’t understand so it doesn’t phase us. Part of being in a band is it’s really addictive and the highs of being in a band are incredibly addictive. Like playing a good show or something. Doing that and putting out records is very addictive. You don’t wanna stop. And for me at least, you have to maintain an upward trajectory. If you go down it just kills it. You have to keep growing and challenging yourself – and a lot of the record is dealing with that and coming to a comfortable place with it. I’m alright with doing what we’re doing and I don’t have a lot of the issues and guilt that I used to have. We’re enjoying the hell out of it.

KB: The more you grow a fan-base, the more you’re going to attract criticism.

TG: Yeah, you have to grow a thick skin.


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