After the successful release of White Crosses in June, Tom Gabel of Against Me! caught up with The Inertia to discuss the band’s new lineup, tattoos, and how ten years later his band has stayed true to its mission.
Also, Against Me! is offering up autographed 7” vinyl copies of High Pressure Low to two lucky fans. All you need to do is either post this story on your Facebook or answer the following question by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org: Where does the name of Tom’s blog (“I Feel Sick to My Stomach“) come from? Thanks for entering, and good luck!
First thing’s first, how’s Warren [Oakes, the former drummer who left in 2009 to open a taco shop in Florida] these days? I hear he makes a mean burrito.
Yeah…I don’t know, man. (Laughs) You’d have to get in touch with him.
So you don’t keep in touch with him much anymore?
No, to be honest, I don’t.
Well, you became a father pretty recently. How’s that treating you so far?
I did. It was little over a year ago now, actually. And, it’s mind-blowing. I mean it’s one of those things where all the clichés are true. It’s a completely life-changing experience.
Yeah, I can only imagine, but it’s got to be tough with all the time you spend on the road. I wanted to ask you about a new trend where all these bands seem to be planning tours in support of their older “fan favorite” records. Coheed and Cambria just announced that they’ll be doing a tour based around their old debut, The Second Stage Turbine Blade. Weezer is doing something similar right now as well. Could you ever see yourself doing a tour where you guys play Reinventing Axl Rose in its entirety each night?
Well, we still play at least two songs every night from that record. I know what you’re talking about though, where Weezer did Pinkerton and the full Blue Album, but I don’t see us doing that with anything, no. It’s just kind of like, it was an original idea when the first couple bands did it and at this point it’s not original, you know? I’m sure that the concept is appealing to a fan of whatever band would be doing something like that, sure. But to me it just seems like a gimmick – like a band admitting: “No one likes our new record, so we’re gonna play the old record.”
Given that you do most of the songwriting for the group, has there ever been a time where you’ve introduced a new song to the band, only for it to be followed by conflict between the band members because someone didn’t want to play the song or was not approving of the style?
Yeah, and we kicked them out. (Laughs) But you know, there have definitely been times where I’ll bring a song to practice or whatever and start playing it and it doesn’t work. I’ll be the first to admit it when that happens. You realize it pretty quickly when something just isn’t clicking. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a different approach to the song or switching around something, or sometimes there’ll be a certain verse or chorus you’ll keep, and can the rest. But, yeah, I never have an approach where it’s like: “This is set in stone, and it must be my way or the highway” or some bullshit like that.
I’m as much a fan of your older material as I am the new stuff, and I’ve got to admit, one song that really caught my attention off the new record White Crosses was “Because of the Shame.” To me, that one really elevated your songwriting to a new level. Can you discuss the story behind that song?
Yeah, sure. I wrote that song for a friend of mine who was killed about two years ago. The song pretty much tells the story and how I went to her funeral.
The last time I saw you guys play was at a radio festival in San Diego a few weeks ago that was headlined by The Black Keys. I was there with a friend who had never seen you before and it was pretty clear that you guys stole that show. Do you tend to see that a lot – where you guys captivate the audience’s attention more than the actual headliner?
Well that’s always kind of the goal; if you aren’t the actual headliner, you want to blow the headliner away. You never know how it’s gonna go with those shows, especially radio festivals, but that show was surprisingly awesome. It was really a lot of fun. Sometimes, especially in situations like that where it’s really not your audience, you get up there and you’ve got a bunch of people just staring at you and they really don’t know what to do. But lot of times we get asked questions about what we prefer playing – a big stage or a small stage, club stage or stadium, shit like that – and that’s kind of the cool thing that we’ve always been lucky about, because we’ve gotten to play a variety of stages. There are different challenges to each. You just have to know that when you play in front an audience and it’s your audience, everyone’s there to see you. There’s totally something to be said for that. But there’s also something to be said for playing in front of a bunch of people who have never heard of you and you’re trying to win them over.
Is it strange for you to have gone from playing with other punk and hardcore bands to sharing a stage with some larger Top 40 artists?
I think something like that has to do with an audience’s perception of another band. For us, a band is a band, and that’s what you’re doing – you’re touring with another band. When it comes to playing big festivals or something like that, where there are bands and you hate their music, you realize the people in the bands are nice people and you have a lot in common, and at the end of the day you’re all just musicians trying to do what you love to do. You find that you have to respect someone for that, you know? So from that angle, I don’t separate bands. I don’t look at bands like, “Oh, that’s a Top 40 band and that’s not.”
One thing that’s been pretty consistent over the years is that you use a Rickenbacker guitar, which you don’t see a lot in rock these days. What initially drove that choice and why do you continue to play that guitar today?
I’ve always really liked them, especially for the type of sound we go for which is a lighter, less dense sound than say, a Gibson. They give off a loud, bright, humbucker chime and are top heavy. There some other guitars like that too, like a Telecaster.
Yeah, The Beatles made those Rickenbackers famous…
So did Tom Petty. There’s a bunch of people.
When I first began watching you in concert, you performed stage right with only one ear facing the audience, which isn’t too common for a frontman. These days you perform stage center and face the crowd. Why the change?
Well, initially I started out playing with one ear facing the drummer because we’d play in places that didn’t necessarily have the best PA or monitor system and I could hear the drums better that way. We’ve used in-ear monitors for the past couple tours and have been able to play in venues with good sound systems, so now I’m facing the front. In terms of shifting to center stage, Andrew [Seward, bass]’s wife had a baby this past summer. Knowing that he might be out with a baby at some point, we thought it would be odd for someone that was filling in for him to be at the center of the stage, so that’s when we started thinking about the switch. The other thing is that our friend Franz [Nicolay] has been playing keyboard for us at a lot of shows, which made us start to rethink the stage layout and setup and everything.
You’re going to be touring with the Dropkick Murphys later this year. If given the opportunity to join them on stage as a guest guitarist for a song, what song would you like to play with them?
Man, I don’t know. “Shipping Up to Boston” maybe?
Are you a pretty big fan of theirs?
Yeah, we toured with them in Europe a few years ago before we knew any of them. They’re super fun guys. We got along great.
You’ve compiled a pretty big catalogu of songs over the years. Be honest, if you had to pick up a guitar right now, how many of those songs do you think you’d actually remember how to play?
We’ve been practicing a lot recently because we’re about to go on tour and I’d say there are about 50 songs that we can play at any point right now. I have this crazy ability to remember some things though. After playing a song so many times, it just becomes muscle memory and I don’t even have to think about it, I just get up on stage and sing. So 50 songs may actually be 200 or 300 songs.
Going back a few years to the song “We Did it all for Don”…who is Don?
He was just a friend of ours. The song has nothing to do with him actually. Back in the day, naming songs was kind of like, “Whatever.” It wasn’t something we thought about – it was an afterthought. It’s like our song “I Still Love You Julie”…I don’t know even know a Julie.
You guys always play shows dressed in black. Will we ever see you wear white on stage? Or anything that’s not black for that matter? I mean the merch you sell isn’t always black, right?
I wouldn’t put it past us. It’s not that we’re all about black, we just don’t like wearing band t-shirts onstage or anything. We’re not trying to promote anything. So we’ll see.
You must get requests for some of the older songs all the time. Are there any songs that you absolutely refuse to play?
Well, the thing is that we’ve gone through so many drummers and a lot of our older songs were written specifically for that drummer. Like the song “Burn” off our Crime EP – those were songs that were specifically written for our drummer Kevin [Mahon]. Or if you really want to go back far, look at Vivida Vis!, one of our first records. Sometimes the lyrics are just so embarrassing and you think, “Why did I write that?” and with other songs, it’s been so long and you just don’t “feel” it anymore.
You’ve been playing music now for over ten years. Looking back, what advice would you give to your teenage self that was just starting off?
I wish I had been more patient. I regret wasting so much time and if I could do it again, I would have been more productive.
What do you mean? What’s an example?
Like, back in the day, it would take a year for us to plan a month-long tour. We would save up, buy a shitty van, be on the road, come back home and be broke again. Since we didn’t have any money and weren’t doing anything, we’d have to scrape up for another year just to go on tour again for a month. In retrospect, I’m like: “What the fuck? Why didn’t I just get a job and save some money?”
What was the last tattoo you got? Any plans for additional artwork in the future?
I got tattooed last week. Twice, actually. I got two big black bands on my ankles.
Do they have any particular significance?
What’s the coolest Against Me! tattoo you’ve seen on a fan?
I was in south Florida not too long ago, and I met a guy who had the cover of our Crime 7” on his back. It was a massive tattoo and the artist who did it did a really great job. The image really works well for a tattoo.
It’s been a long time since you wrote the opening verses to the song “Reinventing Axl Rose,” which are some of the most driven and honest lyrics I can think of in punk rock. Do you feel that Against Me! has lived up to those words?
Well, it’s an ideal to strive for. “We want a band that plays loud and hard and every night,” and I think we do that. I mean, fuck, we’ve played 1,600 shows or so in the past ten years. I physically don’t think it would have been possible for us to play more shows if we wanted to. We’re always trying to do better.
Before we end things, is there anything you’d like to tell the fans that are reading this?
Not that I can think of. We’ll be going on tour again here shortly and look forward to seeing everyone at the shows.