Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace: “The new album is all about dealing with gender dysphoria”

It’s been more than six months since Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace came out to Rolling Stone as transgender, and she’s been riding a wave of momentum ever since, writes JODY MACGREGOR.

Earlier this year Tom Gabel of Against Me! gave an interview to Rolling Stone in which he told the world that from now on he would be a she, and would go by the name Laura Jane Grace. The response was predictably polarised. On the unofficial fan forum a scan of the article was posted, followed by responses that varied from supportive (“Proud of her and I will punch anyone who is a dick about it”), to not-so supportive (“Being gay I get. Being Transgender is fucking weird. I love you Tom but wow.”), to just plain confused (“That girl was at the secret show in NYC last year”).

That revelation has dominated every conversation about the band, who are currently recording a new album. Their first since leaving Sire Records in 2010, it will be called Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Looking back, that should perhaps have been a clue, as should lyrics like, “And if I could’ve chosen, I would have been born a woman/My mother once told me she would’ve named me Laura” from their 2007 album New Wave.

When I talk to Laura Jane Grace she’s at the band’s new studio in Florida where they’ve been working on that album, which they plan to release on their own label, Total Treble Music. It’s the day before Thanksgiving – which will be spent with her wife and daughter at bandmate James Bowman’s house – and she is in suitably good spirits.

Just recently at a gig you had a microphone stand kicked into your face and after that I saw you were tweeting about it, joking about going on Kickstarter to crowdfund getting a diamond grill for your teeth. I’m glad that you could make a joke about it because if I had some of my teeth shattered I don’t know if I could be in a place where I could make a gag about that.

You know, unfortunately after it happened I smashed a guitar. It was during the last song of our setlist and it was an accident – there was some kid crowdsurfing and he kicked the mic stand and it knocked the microphone right into my teeth – and I had my eyes closed at that moment and I was singing or whatever, and all of a sudden there’s a microphone in my mouth and there’s just chunks of my teeth, shards of my teeth in there too. “God fucking dammit!” was my initial reaction. And I smashed the guitar and immediately felt better. Just walked off the stage and then was able to joke about it, you know, find a sense of humour about it. But man, it really fuckin’ pissed me off even more than it hurt to be honest.

That’s such a great rock thing to do. Your immediate reaction is “That’s it, I’m gonna smash my guitar.”

Well I couldn’t smash the kid!

Back in May you did something indescribably brave. You told Rolling Stone that you were transgender, and there’s a couple of things I’d like to ask you about that. The first thing is why you chose to get the story out that way? Were you familiar with that particular journalist’s work, or was it a way to get the story out to everyone all at once?

Not particularly familiar with that journalist, with Josh Ellis, no. I mean, I subscribe to the magazine, read the magazine, and we’ve done interviews with the magazine, been in the magazine before. Really, it was just like the idea of being able to do it all at once. At this point, being a band for as long as we’ve been and travelling the world and touring and all that, I’ve met tonnes of people and the idea of having to individually, one-on-one send emails, to tell our fans – how do you tell your fanbase? How do you tell all these people that you know? And just doing it all at once seemed like the best and most efficient way to do it.

Really, I’m lucky because it was something that was able to normalise it for me. Like, my next-door neighbours for instance, they’re kind of square. They’re normal people. They’re in like [the] house-building industry or whatever. So to be able to walk over and hand them a copy of Rolling Stone as opposed to trying to awkwardly explain something to them when they don’t really know you, then are left to their own imagination to decide what it was you were exactly telling them. To just be able to hand them a magazine with an article and for them to be able to be like “Ah, this is Rolling Stone Magazine and this is what it’s saying” kind of makes it, I don’t know, it was a lot easier that way.

That was, what, six months ago now? So what’s it been like in the time since then, living as a woman?

It’s, phew, it’s been a whirlwind. To be honest, I have zero time for reflection on any of it. I did the interview probably a month-and-a-half before it came out so there was a pretty long period of time where I knew the interview was coming out it was like, “This is the date, the exact date that everyone’s gonna know.” For that period of time it was slow-moving. Some days I wanted that day to get here quicker and some days I never wanted it to come. It was a slow-moving period of time, but ever since then everything afterwards has just flown by and I’m riding a wave of momentum.

One of the details I thought was interesting, you mentioned that you didn’t want to drink because you wanted to experience this soberly.

For me drinking a lot of the time had to do with dealing with dysphoria and with numbing yourself. You’re dealing with this thing that you don’t know how to deal with and you’re depressed about it so what do you do? You fucking drink. Dealing with my emotions and dealing with the dysphoria and making proactive decisions in my life, [it was] an effort to break a cycle of alcoholism and to get out of that lifestyle because I didn’t see any future in it other than death.

What’s the reaction been like – you mentioned wanting to get the story out to your fans – what’s the reaction been like from your fans and at concerts?

I’ve been completely overwhelmed with how positive and how supportive everyone has been. I’d never imagined it would be this humbling of an experience. I have no words for it, it’s just been overwhelming.

I’m glad about that. You’re coming to Australia for the Big Day Out and a couple of sideshows and honestly, Australians, we aren’t always the most open-minded people in the world. I hope that you get a good reaction here as well.

[Laughs] Thanks, I appreciate it.

When you announced that Against Me! were coming for the Big Day Out there was this very funny video, the whole band singing and clapping. Whose idea was that?

It was my idea actually. We were all like, “OK, we’ve gotta think of something for the Big Day Out video.” We were on tour and that just seemed like a good thing. We’re all really big Killers fans so we’re really excited that The Killers are gonna be on it. I’m predicting probably, if we have any interaction with them, we are going to annoy the hell out of them.

“For me drinking a lot of the time had to do with dealing with dysphoria and with numbing yourself”

Is that something that you do backstage at festivals? Track down the one band you’re big fans of and hassle them?

Not purposely trying to hassle them, but if you’re playing with a band that you’re excited about you wanna meet ‘em, and you go into a tour like that being, “Yes, let’s become best friends with The Killers and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs!”

When you are playing these shows next year, will you be playing songs off the album you’re recording now?

Yeah. We’ve been working on this record for the past year and a half and maybe one of the songs is a little older than that? We’ve been doing sporadic touring throughout the last year and as the songs come together we’ve been throwing them into the setlist, but you recognise also that kids are coming out and they’ll want to hear older stuff, so we’ve been sparing as far as how many we’re putting in. But we’re definitely more excited about playing new songs. I think that as we get closer to the album coming out we’ll be able to play more and more new songs.

You’re producing this album yourself? What made you choose that?

There’s a lot of reasons, really. The last two records we made we were really lucky, we had an awesome team of people that we worked with. Butch Vig producing and the engineer, Billy Bush. I really recognised those opportunities for what they were in that both Butch and Billy are extremely talented and have a lot of knowledge, so I just paid as much attention as I could during those records. I say it a lot in interviews but I look at those record experiences as the closest I’ll get to college. I finished that, those records are done, so now it’s like time to apply all the knowledge you’ve learned and test the theories and do it on your own.

Of course going in, deciding to transition and everything like that, was definitely not some decision that I made overnight and it was a long time in the making and a lot of thought went into it. Knowing that you’re going to make this major life decision and then you’re also gonna keep doing what you do – you’re a musician and you make records so how can you do that and feel comfortable knowing that you’re gonna be doing all these things? The idea of going into a stranger’s studio and working with some stranger as an engineer when you’re working through issues with something really intensely personal, I just didn’t feel comfortable with it. I needed to build a space where I felt completely uninhibited, where I could make the record I wanted to make and that kind of meant doing it literally all on our own. We found a building, laid down the floor, put in the ceiling, built the walls, got all the gear together. I mean, we’ve been amassing gear over the years but we got the major recording rig, ProTools rig, and then have just been going for it. I’ve gotten into recording a couple of other bands, you know, really just trying to make the most out of having this space.

What were some of the specific things that you learned from working with those guys on two albums?

Well, there’s really no end to the things. A lot of it’s boring, technical stuff that would seem obvious, like make sure the guitars are in tune [laughs] and paying attention to timing and mic placement technique – to selecting pre-amps, amplifiers, guitars, microphones. And then just how to get the right feel for a song, and how to make a song work in the right way in the actual writing process of it, and putting it together. How to demo a song and get it ready to the point where it’s ready to go into the studio, you know?

I’ve heard that Butch Vig is very particular with bands and he’ll go to their concerts before starting work and he’ll do things like listen to demos months in advance. I guess you’ve got an advantage there in that you’re already going to your own shows, you’ve already heard your own demos.

Right. One of the biggest things that we learned from Butch – and that works for me with my personality – is taking the approach that it’s done when it’s done and not feeling rushed. Taking the time to do demos, listen to the demos, let ‘em sink in, and when you’re recording never feeling like, “We gotta get it done! OK, it’s done! It has to be now!” Taking the approach of, it’ll be done when it’s done and when it feels right. Taking that approach to making records is what I want to do.

And this album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, it’s a concept album, right?

Yeah. I mean, loose concepts. Every record’s a concept record to a certain extent. It’s a collection of songs that are defined by a period of time in your life if you’re at all an autobiographical writer, which I am. But for me going through transition, even prior, before coming out publicly or whatever a lot of songs were about dealing with those emotions so it’s all about dealing with gender dysphoria, really.

Have you created a character to tell this story through or is it purely autobiographical?

Kind of a little bit. Loosely. Not necessarily one that you could name or anything like that, but some of the songs aren’t necessarily straight-up biographical. Sometimes it can be easier to talk about a made-up character and to use the character to go through emotions you’re feeling or whatever. Even like with older songs of ours, a song like ‘Thrash Unreal’ off our album New Wave, that’s not about a real person, there’s no specific person, you’re making up a character and talking about things you’ve dealt with in your life.

“I don’t think the new album will be as polished as White Crosses.”

What should we expect it to sound like? Should we expect it to sound like White Crosses and New Wave?

I don’t think it’ll be as polished as White Crosses. It’ll have a different sound to it if for no other reason than it’s recorded in a different building, it’s recorded with different microphones, console, everything, and it’ll be kind of my sound: Me trying to develop a sound in my studio. I think that as far as listening to it, it’s got really, really aggressive moments and it’s got really, really quiet moments but I don’t think it’s gonna sound like a completely different band or anything.

One other thing I wanted to ask you about was New Wave, the entire album was covered by an Australian singer-songwriter called Ben Lee – did you listen to that and what did you think of it?

I did, I was totally flattered. It was completely out of the blue, we just got a call one day and our manager was like, “Ben Lee covered your record.” I was like, “What?” And not only did he cover it, but it was actual studio versions, it sounded pretty good and there was effort put into it, which was amazing too. Again, it was just really flattering.

I was surprised to discover that Ben Lee is an Against Me! fan because you’re very different sounds.

You know what’s funny too, it was either last time we were [in Australia] or the time before that, we played a show, I want to say it was in Adelaide? It was a good show, there was maybe like two, three-hundred people there or something like that. Played the show, went back to our hotel and I turned on the TV and there was Ben Lee doing a televised performance there in Australia, covering ‘Thrash Unreal’. He’s playing to a couple thousand people all on national television, meanwhile we were playing at the club down the street to two, three-hundred people. It was a weird, surreal moment.

The last thing I wanted to ask before I let you go is about the song ‘Americans Abroad’, which is one of my favourite songs of yours. How does that song go down when you play it overseas? Do you play it a lot when you play outside America?

Yeah, it always feels more relevant when you’re playing outside of America, cause the song was written touring in Europe. It only took us a little while of touring internationally to realise that oftentimes when you’re travelling internationally, you don’t wanna hang out with other Americans. It was kind of like a long-running joke for us. You’d be on tour in Germany in this club, hanging out with Germans, and you hear these loud, obnoxious American voices and you’re like, “Oh fuck, avoid those people. It’s not gonna be fun.” When you’re put into those positions where you see yourself reflected, see yourself reflected in other cultures, oftentimes it would be embarrassing, and that’s what the song came from.

Big Day Out 2013

Friday 18 January – Showgrounds, Sydney

Sunday 20 January – Parklands, Gold Coast

Friday 25 January – Showgrounds, Adelaide

Saturday 26 January – Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne

Monday 28 January – Claremont Showgrounds, Perth

Against Me! Big Day Out sideshows:

Thursday, January 17 – The Manning Bar, Sydney

Tuesday, January 22 – The Hi-Fi, Melbourne