Against Me!: Reinventing Actual Roles

Posted by Scott Heisel on 30-May-08 @ 01:04 PM

From their youthful anarcho-punk roots to their current stint in the big leagues of the music business, AGAINST ME! have always played to win. That's because the only punk-rock rulebook they follow is the one they wrote.
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Among the first pieces of Top 40 memorabilia you'll see upon entering the Hard Rock Hotel And Casino in Las Vegas are Britney Spears' schoolgirl outfit from her "...Baby One More Time" video; the pinstriped bikini Christina Aguilera got "Dirrty" in a few years back; and the bright red suit Kid Rock donned in his "Bawitdaba" clip that eventually helped him shift more than 11 million units of Devil Without A Cause. This is not the type of place you'd expect to find Against Me!, considering their typical wardrobe of choice is black Tee-shirts and matching jeans, and a definite dearth of physical assets to exploit on MTV. But the Gainesville, Florida-based punk band are in town to play local radio station Area 107.9's Big Damn Holiday Jam, supporting Angels & Airwaves. With a growing hit in "Thrash Unreal," from the band's major-label debut New Wave, comes obligations to radio stations spinning the track. The past two weeks have seen the band play similarly slapped-together holiday shows stretching from Boston to San Diego, but this date is special: It's Against Me!'s final show of 2007-show No. 182, to be precise. That's roughly a gig every other day for the entire year. No matter what people may say about the band, no one can deny they're one of the hardest-working bands on the circuit today.

They're also some of the biggest jokers. When a representative from their label escorts AP to the band's eighth-floor hotel suite, bassist/vocalist Andrew Seward is lying shirtless on the bed, a gesture that's made to either break the ice or make things really uncomfortable. "Oh, hey," he says nonchalantly, then, realizing no one else went through with his idea, he puts his shirt back on and curses his bandmates for not playing along.

The cramped hotel suite has a beautiful balcony view overlooking the city. In typical contrarian mode, the entire band- guitarist frontman Tom Gabel, guitarist James Bowman, drummer Warren Oakes, and the now-shirted Seward-are all dressed in their standard black T-shirts and jeans and facing the opposite direction, their backs to the window. When asked what inspired him to start Against Me! over a decade ago, Gabel plainly quips. "I was just bored."

The foundation for Against Me! was laid in 1993, when Gabel and original bassist Dustin Fridkin together discovered the Sex Pistols and Operation Ivy during the summer between seventh and eighth grade. Gabel spent much of his childhood bouncing from city to city as an army brat, living in Naples, Italy, for three years, before his parents divorced and his mother moved him and his younger brother in with their grandmother in Naples, Florida. Gabel and Fridkin became fast friends in middle school; the following year, Bowman joined their stable. The three were separated later that year due to repercussions from a fatal car accident.

"These two kids were riding in the back of a pickup truck, and it drove over the median, flipped and killed them," Gabel explains. "One of the kids was a redneck, and James made some comment like, 'One less redneck I gotta worry about,' because it was a kid who used to beat us up all the time. [The rednecks were] ready to beat the shit out of us, and the school officials were just watching [and] totally did not give a shit. Dustin and James' parents withdrew them because the principal told them they couldn't guarantee their safety."

Bowman's mother sent him to St. Petersburg to live with his sister, where he joined local punk band the $cam$; Gabel dropped out at 16 after running away from home twice, eventually moving to Gainesville in 1998 and playing bass in a grindcore band called Common Affliction, selling plasma to pay rent. While he had dabbled with his solo musings in Naples, once Common Affliction broke up in '98, Against Me! became much more serious-at least as serious as a two-man band playing pickle buckets can be.

"I tried playing with [Kevin Mahon, original drummer] one time and he [was] on a full kit and it was horrible," Gabel says. "I got the idea that he should play on a much more minimal drum set, just a snare and two pickle buckets." The musical chemistry between the two was electric, and that year the duo released Vivida Vis!, a 10-song cassette. Bowman re-entered the picture in '99, as did Fridkin, although the lineup was never 100 percent stable (Bowman didn't play on any of AM!'s early releases).

Regardless, things were going well for the young band; they were actually starting to draw crowds on the road. But no one could have predicted what would happen the morning after the final show of their 2000 tour. "We [went through the drive-thru] at a Wendy's outside of Atlanta," Bowman recalls. "I remember turning around [and] handing out french fries, then Tom's like, 'We're gonna get hit!' and I was like, 'What?' and then just seeing headlights."

Those headlights belonged to a speeding semi truck that didn't change lanes quickly enough when the band tried to merge onto the highway, clipping the van. ("We spun sideways and the two left-side tires blew out, then we rolled three times," remembers Gabel.) The van and the majority of the band's equipment were destroyed-yet despite receiving no injuries, so were the band. Mahon quit the group outright; Bowman "freaked out" and moved back to St. Petersburg. Gabel and Fridkin continued playing together acoustic under the name Reinventing Axl Rose, but Against Me! were effectively over.

Enter Warren Oakes. Although the drummer grew up in Sarasota, Florida, Oakes is the only member of Against Me! actually born in Gainesville. He began crossing paths with Against Me! in the late '90s, seeing acoustic performances in trailer parks and campgrounds. "I thought it was a fully intentional thing, like Tom wanted to do acoustic," Oakes says. "I remember complimenting him after a show on how well it all worked, and he was like, 'I'm going crazy; I wanna rock!'"

With Oakes joining the band and Bowman soon returning from his self-imposed exile in St. Petersburg, Against Me! took shape once again. Soon, they created what would become their landmark debut, Reinventing Axl Rose. But it didn't come easy. "We booked two days [in the studio]," says Gabel. "The first day, we recorded everything and ended up having to scrap everything because we just played so fast. There's actually a complete other version of Reinventing Axl Rose; I still have the masters of it. The second day was originally intended for mixing, we had to [use to] re-record everything and mix it all. It was a really rushed process."

After hooking up with local label No Idea and releasing Axl in early 2002, the band began experiencing two distinctly different reactions. Their passion was striking chords with thousands of punks nationwide, but already the band's original fans (weaned on basement shows and resorting to Dumpster diving to live) were turning their backs on the band, only because they had taken a very basic step in musical evolution. "The fact that I was playing a traditional drum set was the first [issue] for some people," says Oakes. "Like, 'Where the fuck is Kevin? Who the fuck are you?' We've been vindicated by time, over and over again. You just wait till the next record comes out." Seward was one of many who fell in love with Axl instantly, and when Fridkin quit the band in June 2002 to return to school, he moved from Tennessee to Gainesville "within three weeks with a whoppin' $80 to my name." After recording The Disco Before The Breakdown EP less than a month later, Against Me!'s lineup was officially locked into place.