October 17, 2003. Gainesville’s Market Street Pub feels more like an Elizabethan theater than a bar. Not in a sense that it’s opulent, but given it’s dim, wooden, and rowdy. A tiny balcony overlooks the equally tiny stage, forming a sort of square around the floor. It’s the kind of performance space built for a mob of drunken groundlings, one of the earliest incarnations of the mosh pit. Still, the crowd has remained relatively calm throughout the first few acts of the city’s second annual Fest.
So far, the masses have bobbed their heads politely to the razor-sharp punk of Stressface and laughed at the toilet hip-hop of White Dove Frisbee Team, a duo known for their outlandish costumes and rapping about George Rebelo’s foreskin. An elder statesman of the Gainesville punk scene, the quiet Rebelo drums for Hot Water Music (the headliners of the night), and will eventually serve as pitch-hitter percussionist for The Bouncing Souls and, for exactly one album, Against Me!. Gainesville is nothing if not circular. Some might call it incestuous.
But, tonight, Rebelo sticks with his day job at HWM, leaving Warren Oakes behind Against Me!’s skins. Bearded, hyperactive onstage, and wearing a black T-shirt, Oakes resembles many of the band’s fans in the crowd, which explodes into a phalanx of slam dancing as he beats out the opening Western snare rolls to “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong”. Bowman fires off a ghost town lick of his own over the thump of newcomer Andrew Seward’s bass before Grace — then going by her birth name, Tom Gabel — starts howling lyrics about the powerful, if tragic, romance of her grandparents.
Unlike most of the songs on Against Me! is Reinventing Axl Rose (their first proper full-length), “Guinness” avoids anarchist politics. It avoids politics altogether, instead opting to focus on a familial legacy of alcoholism. More specifically, it focuses on clinging to love in the face of the addiction. It’s an intensely personal narrative — that’s narrative, not ethos — that hints where the band will head in the future. No one knows it now, but various lifestyle changes will ultimately result in Grace’s disillusionment with anarchist activism and Gainesville as a scene, and thus, Gainesville as a city.
In this moment though, in the swampy autumn of 2003, the audience continues to thrash. Anarchists rub elbows and crowd surf with jocks, townies, and kids who just go to college nearby. It’s a fan base that’s slowly beginning to diversify.
“Early on, [it] was strictly made up of political activists,” Grace tells me.
It’s a decade later, about an hour before the band’s set at The Intersection. We’ve moved from the green room to their tour bus so our interview isn’t drowned out by the opening act. Grace sits across from my photographer, Sergio, his assistant, Chris, and myself. She’s bundled up in a leather jacket, her chest-length brown hair hanging out of a ski cap and over her shoulders. Her eyes are steely, yet welcoming. Outside the bus, the air is crystallizing into a snowstorm, while inside, a reality show that no one recognizes hums silently on the television. It’s something about home improvement, nothing more than a digital fireplace that none of us pay attention to.
Like Grace, the three of us are all Florida-to-Chicago transplants, having each moved to the Windy City after graduating from Florida State University, located in Gainesville’s bizarro sister city, Tallahassee. I grew up near Tampa, Sergio in West Palm beach, and Chris in Grace’s most recent stomping ground of St. Augustine. Naturally, the conversation quickly becomes about our geographical roots. It’s just something that happens when you meet a fellow Floridian, someone else who comes from the muck of one of America’s weirdest, stickiest, and most notorious states. Chris often walked past the St. Augustine church referenced in “White Crosses”, where each titular symbol on the lawn represents an abortion. I ask Grace if she ever came close to actually smashing them like she describes in the lyrics.
“Well, after you write a song about that, you kind of don’t want to do it, because you’ve basically incriminated yourself, right?” She laughs. “If there were to be a large number of crosses smashed there at that church, I’d worry that I’d be a suspect really quick.”
Our discussion moves back to the band’s early days, when Against Me! formed in Naples as a duo comprising Grace and original drummer Kevin Mahon. Shortly afterward, they decided to move to Gainesville. For anyone who hasn’t been there, Grace sums up the scene, or at least how it was in the late ’90s and early ’00s:
“When you grow up in Florida, Gainesville is the place you gravitate towards if you’re into music or, specifically, punk rock. It’s a college town. Everyone lives kind of consolidated in the downtown area. So, you can exist, finding a roommate and finding a house to live in for $100 a month. You don’t have to have a car. You can walk everywhere. It’s one of those cities where, once you meet people, everyone works in the food industry, so it’s easy to live off of hookups. You go to the burrito place for lunch because your friend works there. You go to Krishna lunch because the Krishnas serve free lunch. And there are shows happening, and bands, and legitimate recording studios to play at. The music side of it was definitely appealing when I moved there, but the activism side of it really drew me there too.”
During this time, Grace’s activism ranged from volunteering with Food Not Bombs to helping form protest workshops and youth liberation summer camps through the Radical Activist Network (RAN), a loose collective that met once a month to “do something fun and talk about political organizing.” As far as music went, the only true home the band could find right away was among the Gainesville anarchist community.
“At first, Against Me! didn’t fit in at all with what was happening in the Gainesville music scene,” Grace remembers. “There was Hot Water Music and they were the biggest thing ever. There was that whole scene around all the No Idea bands. The original Fest was really hardcore-oriented, and our band, at the time, was just acoustic guitar and buckets. So, we would play at the Civic Media Center, which was kind of our crowd.”
A volunteer-run library described by Grace as “a hub for activists,” The Civic Media Center allowed the band to book their own shows. Other venues came calling once Against Me! expanded their sound. Warren Oakes — a fellow anarchist that Grace met through RAN — would go on to replace Mahon, joining flagship bassist Dustin Fridkin as the band’s first formal rhythm section. Along with Bowman, it’s the lineup heard on Reinventing Axl Rose.
“We ended up putting out a record on No Idea,” says Grace. “When that happened, I felt like we really started to be a part of the scene in Gainesville.”