Laura Jane Grace: comfortable in her own skin and making great music
by Chris Morin
Talk about a veteran band suddenly becoming more relevant than ever.
After roughly 17 years of making music, Against Me! has just released its most important album to date. At the beginning of 2014, the Florida-based punk band dropped Transgender Dysphoria Blues, its sixth full-length LP. The release is also the first by the group since Laura Jane Grace went public with her decision to transition from a man to a woman.
In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, the lead singer and guitarist revealed that at the age of 31 she’d decided to live as a woman — a process she called “liberating” and “freeing.”
The courage it must have taken for Grace to make such a decision — especially as someone making her living in the public eye — is remarkable. That courage is on full display in Transgender Dysphoria Blues, an album that speaks to the changes that have taken place, both for Grace personally and within the band, over the past few years.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a raw and uncompromising concept album that addresses misogyny, bigotry and homophobia. Musically, it’s about the most triumphant thing the band has done — which is saying a lot, considering Against Me! built its career on powerhouse guitar hooks and thundering audience sing-a-longs. Lyrically, the album is a raw portrait of Grace’s exceptional life, both on and off the stage. As Grace sings on “FuckMyLife666”: “There’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me.”
The record also, says Grace, nearly marked the end of the band’s career.
“It’s a different record in the sense that in the past, we had a plan for recording and it all went according to that plan,” she says. “So you record and everything goes well, and then you mix and master and you make a plan for it to come out, and everything happens in a very orderly manner.
“[But this one] was like being a runner at the end of the race, and me saying, ‘Take this fucking thing away from me.’ At that point I was hoping there would still be a band to tour, because it didn’t seem like there would be a band left when we were finished.”
Fans have embraced both Grace’s personal journey and the renewed aggression that Against Me! pours into Transgender Dysphoria Blues. That’s awesome, says Grace, but it’s not something the band obsesses about.
“Instead of thinking about if people liked it, the only concern was to make the album, go out on tour and to keep it together and to live one day at a time,” says Grace. “Everything else seemed really superficial. If people are going to like one album that you put out and then not like the next one, you have to disregard it and take it with a grain of salt.
“I mean, you want people to like what you do and hear it, but I don’t want to think about stuff like that anymore,” she says.
Grace (then known as Tom Gabel) started Against Me! as a solo act at the age of 17, writing caustic, political songs right from the start. Springing from the DIY punk scene in Gainesville, Florida — and playing its first shows in basements and laundromats — Against Me! gained a small but devout following with numbers like “Walking Is Still Honest” and “Baby, I’m an Anarchist”.
In 2002, the band (now a three-piece) released its first full-length album, Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose, on No Idea Records. Combining ragged folk-punk anthems with urgent, foot-stomping rhythms, the group gained momentum at a dizzying pace.
In the space of a few months, the band got too big for the basements and DIY punk clubs where they cut their teeth. Moving to theatre-sized venues, Against Me! was heading down the murky trail toward major label-dom, making the final jump when the group began opening arena shows for the acts such as Foo Fighters and The Cult.
But mainstream acceptance came at the cost of a huge backlash from their previous fans, who thought their music had become just as blandly mainstream as the arena shows they were playing.
Grace understands, although she says the band enjoys playing different types of shows.
“You can’t compare playing with the Foo Fighters to our own shows, because it’s not our show — it’s not our crowd,” says Grace. “Whenever we headline, it’s always been smaller venues. But throughout our history we’ve been a band that has been fortunate enough to play a variety of shows.
Grace also points out that Against Me! has since taken control of its own affairs. After severing its relationship with Sire Records, the band launched its own record label, Total Treble Music — a move that Grace calls revitalizing. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is their first record on Total Treble. It definitely can’t be slapped with the label “sellout.” The polish of the band’s previous album, the Butch Vig-produced White Crosses, is gone.
Transgender seems to have touched a nerve with audiences in the same way Reinventing Axl Rose did. Once again, Against Me! is writing dangerous, nervy and exciting rock songs.
Transgender seems to be attracting a whole new crowd as well, says Grace.
“I guess that’s one of the things about punk rock — the audience, to a point, always seems to be the same age. So I think for a certain amount of people in the audience, this will be the only album they’ve heard from us,” she says.
“And then there are always those people who have been with us since the beginning. It’s always been a mix.”