The distance between an artist and their work can be a canyon or an inch. It can change by the second, blurring and shifting depending on what light is cast on their story, their canvas, their song. But what happens when that distance collapses completely? What about the artist as art? The game is changed when a song seems to bleed directly from a real person’s veins. Does the song itself become a vampire, taking on new life while the artist suffers and fades behind it, or can this level of truth telling lead us somewhere beautiful?
The universe of raucous, confessional punk rock might not be the first place you’d look for answers to big questions about truth, beauty and the nature of art. But when it comes to catharsis as an art form, you could do a lot worse than step into the world of Laura Jane Grace and her band, Against Me!.
Founded in Naples, Florida in 1997, Against Me! began as an acoustic, explicitly anarchist project. With added amplification they soon became a mainstay of a DIY punk world that valued their righteous, raucous and radical approach. Against Me! were the yell-along stalwarts of a certain beer-soaked corner of the punk rock universe, with albums like Reinventing Axl Rose gaining them a relatively huge audience for an underground community through large independent labels like Fat Wreck Chords and No Idea. The leap to a major label with the release of 2007’s New Wave on Sire Records, a subsidiary of Warner, brought about the expected criticism and backlash. It also saw Against Me!’s hyperactive brand of political certainty give way to a new, more nuanced introspection; radical proclamations replaced with more complicated, opaque personal challenges.
The latest album from Against Me! plays further with this fragile balancing act as a study in the instability of autobiography. It contrasts that burning simplicity of a killer hook and a soaring chorus with the unstable questions of a real and complex life. This is a life recently re-calibrated around a gender transition for lead singer and guitarist Laura Jane Grace, who until May 2012 was publicly known by fans and the media by the name Tom Gabel. Its title tells you everything else you need to know in three not-so-simple words: Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Today, Laura Jane is leading the record collector punk rock battalion for an army of trans people pushing the envelope across what is still, for the most part, a woefully ignorant music media landscape. She’s demanding a platform to speak to the lived experience of trans realities, and is a shining beacon of representation and hope for gender non-conforming punk kids and their allies everywhere.
We meet at Highgate Cemetery, accidentally at closing time, to wave at Karl Marx through the gates, our leather jackets getting slowly slicked in a wet glow of freezing drizzle as we stomp down the monochrome hill.
How much does Transgender. Dysphoria. Blues blur the line between ‘concept record’ and autobiography?
I mean, when I said that this record was a ‘concept’ record, I was really just deflecting for the purposes of talking about it with the rest of the band, or talking about it at all. It was for the most part just a way to get away with explaining where all these songs about gender dysphoria had come from. I hadn’t even fully committed to transitioning when I started writing the record. I really wasn’t comfortable at first with how autobiographical it is, but I was thankfully able to abandon that storyline.
It sometimes seems like the more marginalised an identity is, the less of a right that artist gets to put distance between themselves and their art, to be a storyteller rather than to be viewed as art or object themselves. Some of the songs on the LP do still read as more narrative fiction, particularly ‘Paralytic States’.
Funnily enough that was the first song written for the record when I was still struggling with working through this stuff. For a start it ends in a suicide and I’m still here! So that song and some others are not totally autobiographical. For me, I am the type of person who works through thoughts and ideas with music, and then once that is complete as a process, I find it quite hard to revisit them. This record really helped me work through it, not to say that I’m somehow ‘over it’ or about to stop writing from a trans perspective, but that’s just the way it is.
Have you found it challenging constantly coming up against media ignorance on trans issues?
There is absolutely a pressure to know what you’re talking about as a trans person with a platform, and I just really don’t have it all figured out. I am willing to talk about stuff from my own experience, sure, but I don’t want to sound like I have all the answers because I totally don’t.
I saw Against Me! in 2003 as a teenage girl – a lot of your fans have grown up with the band. How did they react to your transition? Did you have any concerns about this beforehand?
Well, the band started in an inclusive place, but things kind of drifted into a scary place for a while with our crowd. We got to a point where, at least at our US gigs, I had to ask myself if the crowd in front of me would still be there singing along if they knew who I really was? It was really disorienting. What I did find insulting is the chatter I saw from predominantly male fans saying, “Oh what the fuck, are you only going to write about trans things now?” before the record was even fully written. First of all I hadn’t even written one thing yet, and everything else in this world, every part of the media is cissexual [people whose chosen gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth]. Can’t I have this little notch, this little space?
Was there a part of you that sought ways to universalise aspects of what you were going through with gender dysphoria or was this more about just laying it all out?
Initially I wrote about these issues from a place of needing to work through the feelings I was experiencing. Maybe it was a happy accident that so many of the themes are relatable, but then again these feelings aren’t exclusive to trans people. In a lot of ways transitioning is like having a second adolescence, which is obviously a universally relatable thing.
Against Me! have worked with noted producers like J. Robbins [Paint It Black] and Butch Vig [Nirvana]. You produced this record yourself, was that an accident or always the goal? And how was this DIY approach differed from working with the big dogs?
With each record we’ve made we’ve had a little more time. The first record we made was recorded and mixed in a day, the second was maybe eight days, and with J. Robbins on Searching for a Former Clarity we had about a month! I’d been getting more comfortable in the studio and more interested in the production side of it, so working with Butch Vig was like going to college. I wanted to pay attention and try different techniques and learn from them. This time around was a chance to try out everything I’d learnt. I’d produced two records in the meantime, for Cheap Girls and The Wild from Atlanta. I also knew I didn’t want to go into an unfamiliar environment to record the album, especially as I knew I would be beginning the process of transitioning, although at that stage I hadn’t yet told the others in the band. Obviously when a tree fell through the roof of Total Treble, our studio, all this had to change, but we made it happen eventually.
With each passing year since the 1990s, arguably the heyday of ‘sellout’ hysteria, it seems like the debate about major labels and punk becomes increasingly unrecognisable to how it was then, when people had fistfights over barcodes. I’m sure this is in no small part due to the way the internet has changed the means of production and distribution. ‘Black me Out’ seems to be about the pitfalls of this move to the world of The Industry, but is it?
You know a lot of people have read that song as being about a major label. It really isn’t. There were definitely people I met through being in that world who made me feel like I was compromising who I was just to share the same airspace with them. All in all, the major label experience was a really good one for us. The first record was fantastic, the second not so much, just because of the way things went down, but I don’t regret it in any way and I feel really thankful having had the chance to do it. It seems childish to take up an attitude of, “Oh, Fuck You! We signed a contract and you gave us a shit ton of money that we don’t have to pay back!”
To what extent do you feel a duty to speak up or represent young marginalised trans punk fans?
It’s not that I want to represent all trans people or anything like that. There’s a selfish side to it. Where I was living, in Florida, I had no community. Putting myself out there and letting people reach out to me is my way of building my own trans community. I really value being able to show up in a city and know I have three or four people I can reach out to. When I was growing up, if I’d read an interview where someone talked about HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) for example, I’d have been really interested. It is valuable information!
There seems to be a tipping point approaching around awareness of trans issues in the media, with figures like Janet Mock taking Piers Morgan to task, or the narrative around how to report on the Chelsea Manning trial without being a jerk. But I wonder: is this in the American news media only?
As I know from travelling around, there are definitely some countries that are way behind when it comes to not being a jerk to trans people. But in the US at least, while it’s not a ‘movement’ necessarily, it has gained momentum. I really think the more that trans issues are talked about as a commonplace thing, the more they will eventually become disinteresting, so the world will accept there are people with all different kinds of sexualities and gender, and who cares?
Does that extend to being a figurehead?
If I have the opportunity to have a place in this process, then I definitely want to. People like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono are up there speaking out and there’s a lot more representation generally.
One song on the new LP called ‘Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ’ feels particularly opaque. What’s the story behind it?
It really is a confused song! The title is directed at him but nothing else in the song really is. Truth is very subjective. I’m not saying I support Bin Laden, but he was put up as a bogieman for the government, a reason to go to war, and then he was killed and his body destroyed and justice has supposedly been served, when we don’t know if he ever even really existed. It just feels so ‘New World Order’ to me. I was interested the idea that to some people, he was a hero, and you don’t really know what is true. I was trying to relate all this to the transition, too, in a weird way.
Would it be fair to say that Against Me!’s politics today is more about the radical possibilities of personal transformation?
Absolutely. I just felt like I was full of shit trying to tackle these bigger issues that I was a step removed from. Like, it’s great to write an anti-war song, sat in your house in Florida, but from a first-world perspective it really felt a little unsure to say the least. But now I’m talking about something that is one hundred percent real, for me. While trans issues are personal there are politics to them that are real and here and true to my life – telling that story is what I needed to do.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues is out now on Total Treble Music.
This story first appeared in Huck 44 – The Tommy Guerrero Issue.