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Against Me interview

| June 1, 2010

My Hometown

Tom Gabel began Against Me as an acoustic, “anarcho-punk” solo project. It’s a fact endlessly repeated in magazine articles, and with good reason. In rock history, countless artists have taken a box knife to the walls put around them by fans and media, but few have so openly (and successfully) agitated hardcore, older fans as Gabel.

Appearing: July 3rd at Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.

Before this gets out of hand, Gabel is not Radiohead, much less Lou Reed. He doesn’t seek to knock worlds off their axes or claim to reinvent wheels (though Axl Rose is another matter). Anyone just tuning in could easily digest his musical progression — boy buys amp, boy hires band, boy sings duet — without once questioning his credibility.

But White Crosses (Sire), his fifth album under the AM moniker, dives into that most verboten of badlands for punk rockers: nostalgia. (If you ignore, for a second, that punk was originally purposefully nostalgic for ’50s rock primitivism.) Classic rock is the lumbering beast with both eyes locked on yesterday, endlessly rehashing good times and high-fiving itself. Punk clinks glasses to nihilism and screeches “No future!,” but the past is a non-starter, a dealbreaker, an anathema wrapped in an Ivy League sweater. (If you ignore, for a second, that Jon Spencer went to Brown.)

“There’s a lot of Florida in this record,” he says, referring to his home state. “[Title track] ‘White Crosses’ itself or ‘Spanish Moss’ — there’s a lot of lines that I’ll hear in the songs that will remind of certain people, certain places, certain things.”

Don’t take it as idle anecdotes from someone who’s lost direction. Far from it: When it moves on, life takes Gabel with it. Purists compiling evidence that the frontman has abandoned them would be demoralized to learn he’s relocated to that glitzy moral tarpit, Los Angeles. But the truth is less sinister: “My wife was pregnant while we were recording. Knew when the baby was coming; didn’t know when the album would be finished. So we bit the bullet and rented an apartment.”

He even hammered out a solo album in 2008 not because he wanted to test his celebrity and pad his search-engine stats, but “A lot of the songs were really topical with what was happening in the political world then, right before the election — one song specifically. I didn’t want the songs to come out and feel stale, like the moment had already passed.”

The connection between the past and White Crosses wouldn’t abide understatement, however. Linked — like the rest of us — inextricably, the topic becomes especially juicy, however, as people debate who he’s become. The title track opens things, and he comes right back with “I Was A Teenage Anarchist.”

“For me,” Gabel says, “a lot of this record I spent a lot of time thinking about the past — and I was a teenage anarchist. When I think about my past, that’s the scene I grew up in. I hope people don’t misinterpret the song [to mean] now, at the ripe, old age of 29, I’m way more conservative in my views. It’s quite the opposite. I felt like I’ve reached limitations on my freedom. The philosophy of anarchism — I’m very much interested in autonomous thinking, the individual, and answering to no authority but my own.”

Does this mean he’s grown more strident in the wake of what some see as contrary musical evidence?

“There’s things you realize are important and things you realize aren’t,” he answers. “Whether some 17-year-old kid thinks I’m a real anarchist or real punk or something like that, is no longer important to me. Whether I feel like I’m creating valid art, and writing good songs, having fun with what I’m doing — that’s important.”

— Steve Forstneger

For the full feature, grab the June issue of Illinois Entertainer, free throughout Chicagoland.

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