Against the Grain
One night in May 2003, Denver police raided a small, inconspicuous warehouse space in an inactive industrial neighborhood. God knows what they were looking for -- a rave, maybe, or some other abstract variation of raging, drug-addled teen culture? Hard to say. What they found, however, was Against Me! and a hundred or so spiky-haired kids taken completely by surprise. The cops shut down the show and confiscated the donated door money, in the process scaring the shit out of every kid there.
That was the first time that the Gainesville, Florida-based act had been to the Mile High City. And that night has become such urban legend that it's still making the rounds in insular gossip circles -- mostly because of what happened afterward. The group -- which didn't even get a chance to set up its equipment before the police intervened -- had supposedly agreed to make up for the disrupted set later that night at another semi-remote location. The kids came by, but Against Me! never showed.
"I don't think anyone ever asked us," says frontman/guitarist Tom Gabel. "I remember the cops showed up and we had all of our gear inside. We were made to wait outside, just like everyone else. It was a huge, massive ordeal getting our gear out, and once we did, we left and we drove. But I'm assuming that we had a show booked the next day, and Denver to anywhere is a long drive, so there's no way we would have committed to another show."
Gabel laughs a bit as he attempts to account for his band's alleged disappearance that night. He's used to being on the defensive, constantly having to answer to ill-spun rumors that depict him and his bandmates -- guitarist James Bowman, bassist Andrew Seward and drummer Warren Oakes -- as nothing more than egomaniacal punk fakers. Against Me!, which started as Gabel's acoustic solo project and has since evolved into a solid four-piece, has had to deal with an inordinate amount of absurd scene politics, which has provoked fair-weather fans into acts of Fatal Attraction-level bizarreness.
Not too long after the Denver show, the act switched from indie label No Idea to slightly bigger indie label Fat Wreck Chords. It was a move that much of Against Me!'s underground following felt was a capitalist copout for mainstream exposure. Bill Florio, a columnist for Maximum Rock'n'Roll, ceaselessly railed against the decision in the widely distributed zine and even advocated for readers to sabotage Against Me! sets. "He was saying that they should come to the shows and pour bleach on our T-shirts and merch," Gabel says, "just this insane ranting and raving in his columns, saying that we were the fucking devil."
But the worst of the fan backlash came from kids who went so far as trying to physically intimidate the group.
"It was so fucked up," Gabel remembers. "We played at a Polish-American hall in Long Island; it was us and the Lawrence Arms and Communiqué. Three bands, the show was eight dollars, I think, and a seventeen-year-old girl put on the show, just a fan of the band who contacted us. By no means was it like a huge corporate rock club or anything like that, and, you know, we had played Long Island a bunch of times before.
"All these people who we thought were our friends came out to the show," he goes on, "and I remember in the middle of the show, a couple of the people were standing up front, and they were physically trying to stop me from playing. They were putting their hands on my guitar, and at first I was like, 'Oh, you guys are joking. What's this?' And then I realized that they were really trying to stop me from playing. And there was this one dude -- Frank was his name -- and while we were playing, he'd gone out and slashed our tires. They weren't even trying to hide it that they did it. They were just like, 'Yeah, we fucking slashed your tires, you fucking sellouts.'"
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then impassioned acts of violence against a band that you once loved probably come in a close second. Such backward adoration, as baffling as it may be, must have a basis in something. and for Against Me!, it seems to lie in three words: Reinventing Axl Rose.
The 2002 debut full-length was eleven songs of folk-punk charm that politico-rockers hailed as perfect smash-the-state anthems. For Gabel, who grew up on military bases and in staunch Republican neighborhoods, it was a musical outlet for his strong political views, which had been ruminating since he first discovered punk rock in his teens. Songs such as "The Politics of Starving" and the fan favorite sing-along "Baby, I'm an Anarchist!" embraced youthful cynicism and reverberated with the kind of honesty that cannot be mocked.
But as Gabel and his bandmates matured, so did their musicianship. Each subsequent album shifted not just in sound, but in lyrical themes, moving out of aggressive politics and into more personal subjects. And although the Florida boys remained steadfast in their anarchist beliefs, longtime fans felt more and more alienated with each release, resulting in constant censure of the act's musical and business-minded decisions.
"I'm not a politician," Gabel remarks, "and I'm not trying to push some kind of political agenda. It definitely gets a little old, because I'm not trying to make any kind of claims that I'm the perfect person or that I have anything really figured out, you know? I'm just as lost and wandering as everyone else is out there in the world.
"We're real people who have grown and aged, as well, and we'd like to grow and age with an audience," he adds. "It'd be ridiculous if we were still pretending that we were the people we were when we were seventeen years old. I would just really like to be judged on the music as opposed to our legacy being this eternal battle of 'Are they sellouts or are they not sellouts?'"
The subject of selling out was partially addressed in the 2004 tour documentary We're Never Going Home. In it, Against Me! debates the ethics of signing to a major versus staying true to certain DIY ideals. The movie contrasts clips of the band being courted by stuffy record execs with talking-head commentaries about capricious fan bases and pointed remarks about what it truly means to be a sellout. By the end, the group's punk-rock morals win out and they decide to stick with Fat, declining all other label offers. Ironically, about a year after the film's release, the band announced that it had inked a deal with Sire Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Music (its major-label debut is due out in July). Not surprisingly, this flip-flop made Against Me! an easy target for criticism.
On the back of the DVD is a statement from Gabel that now seems prophetic: "This isn't meant to be a representation of who we are as people. Just who we were right then."
"It's weird, kind of," he notes, "when you're getting older in the punk scene, because you realize just how many people don't stick around and how many people move on and disappear. You realize that you're fending for yourself in a lot of ways. And that's kind of a frightening thing."
Against Me! makes no qualms about the oft-disputed decisions it has had to make as a group over the years. In some ways, under certain debate, every label change could be regarded as a superlative gesture of anarchist ideals; each one has been a way to remain a self-governed, self-sustained band.
"No one's talking about Learjets and high-rise condos here," Gabel points out. "We're talking about paying rent. I'm a fucking high-school dropout. I've got X amount of alternatives about what to do. I can work food service. I can work some shitty retail job."
"But this," he concludes, "this is what makes me happy."
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