Inge Johansson’s jacket is speckled with buttons. I study them as he combs his coal-black hair in the green room’s mirror. We’re backstage at The Intersection in Grand Rapids, Michigan, about two hours before Against Me! is scheduled to play.
One button flashes brighter than all the others, a small white circle that reads “The Most.” I recognize the band immediately. Like many people who sang about Florida and are from Florida, The Most never made it out of the state. They rarely even made it out of Gainesville. Despite penning a string of idiosyncratic yet powerful anthems, The Most is only remembered by a handful of people, most of whom are like me — Florida ex-pats that work here at Consequence of Sound.
Still, if anyone else knows about The Most, it would be one of the members of Against Me!, a band whose name has become synonymous with Gainesville culture, although in a much different way than Tom Petty or the University of Florida Gators. I ask Johansson about his button.
He stops combing his hair for a moment.
“You know them,” he asks, smiling.
I nod, then make sure we’re talking about the same Most — The Most who broke up after only one album, The Most who will unfortunately never reunite since their lead guitarist died in 2009 while mastering the record. Johansson cocks his head and informs me that we’re speaking of different groups. The Most he’s repping is a Beat band that hails from his native Sweden (the university town of Umeå, to be exact). Later on, I’ll discover that he actually plays bass in this band, but was too polite to point out my idiotic blunder.
Of course, these are all facts that should have been obvious as soon as I stepped backstage. I knew well before the interview that Johansson was Swedish and now lives in Norway. Hell, the guy was in The International Noise Conspiracy. And, even if I hadn’t done a lick of rock-journalist homework, his accent should have given away that he’s not from Gainesville. But none of that mattered, because, like many others, I’ve long thought of Against Me! as a Gainesville band, or at least a Florida band.
And I probably always will, even if I shouldn’t. These days, only two current members are true Floridians: guitarist James Bowman and frontwoman Laura Jane Grace. And, as of August, neither of them permanently live there anymore. Grace recently moved to Chicago and Bowman spends most of his time in New Jersey with his partner and their child.
As Grace puts it, “It’s the first time in the history of the band that none of the people actually live in Florida.”
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.”
Reinventing Axl Rose also extended the band’s reach beyond their college town roots. I first heard Against Me! while living in New Port Richey in 2002. I was right about to graduate high school, and a group of us were hanging out at a soccer field in Mitchell Park for one reason or another. None of us were anarchists. I don’t even think most of us were Democrats. My buddy Byron blasted “Pints Of Guinness Make You Strong” from his rusted brown pickup while the rest of us tossed a Frisbee around.
When the gang-vocaled chorus echoed throughout the parking lot (“And she said just like James/ I’ll be drinking Irish tonight!”), I missed a pass. Forgetting about the dropped disc, I jogged to Byron’s truck. Who sings this? He told me it was a band called Against Me! “That’s Against Me! with an exclamation point.” They were from Gainesville and really rocked. Politics never came into the discussion.
In a way, they still don’t for me, and I suspect that’s the case for many of the band’s contemporary fans. As much as I agree with their open-mindedness and the way Grace thinks people should be treated, Against Me! shows and records are more about an energy for me, a shared emotional and physical love of the music. It just feels good to sing along to it. It feels powerful to sing along to it.
Still, fans like Byron and I were somewhat in the minority, even by the fall of 2003 when the band released their second studio album, Against Me! as the Eternal Cowboy, on Fat Mike’s seasoned punk label, Fat Wreck Chords. A good deal of Against Me!’s core followers fell into the anarchist camp, a mindset Grace was slowly starting to drift away from, at least formally.
“When the band started out, [Kevin and I] were anarchists. But, as we grew, and especially once it was me, Warren, James, and Andrew, me and Warren identified as anarchists. But James and Andrew very much didn’t. Presenting this unified front of an anarchist band just wasn’t accurate anymore. It put us in a weird position sometimes because I still wrote all the songs and wrote all the lyrics, and wanted to talk about the politics that I wanted to talk about. But it was weird to pigeonhole us or represent us as something that we weren’t.”
Most people believe that the backlash from purist Against Me! fans began with New Wave, their major label debut. But Grace says it started much earlier, with the release of Cowboy.
“I remember a real defining moment for me was when we played this show in Long Island,” she begins. “It was organized by a 16-year-old girl who was a fan of the band. And we had just signed to Fat Wreck Chords. And all these kids who were part of the punk scene, who we thought were our friends, came out and were trying to stop the show, were trying to physically stop us from playing our instruments. One of the kids slashed all of our van tires.
A couple months later, the same kid came out to another show to do the same thing, just to be a jerk and be confrontational. So, we’re standing outside of the venue, and it was probably a stupid scene. I’m yelling at this kid and he’s yelling back at me, calling me a sellout. And then, I looked to my right, and I saw out of the corner of my eye this punk kid, this activist kid, pick up a brick. I realized then that this kid will bash my fucking brains in right now, all because we made a record with Fat Wreck Chords.
To see that in comparison to what I thought were the politics behind the scene, what being an anarchist or activist meant… it just shattered it for me. It just made me see it as such a lie and so full of shit. I just do not want to be part of a group. I want to be an autonomous individual and base my politics on what I’ve experienced, and the choices in front of me, and what I know to be true because I lived it.”
Aside from feeling alienated by the community that once embraced the band, both in Florida and throughout the rest of the country, Grace found it difficult to be a productive activist in Gainesville simply from a logistical standpoint. “The only activism I could really do was play benefit shows,” she explains. “Just because I was never really in any one place for a long enough period of time. I fell out of touch with a lot of the friends I had in Gainesville just from being gone.”
If you examine the history of the band from Cowboy onward, all aspects of their career inevitably lead to severing ties with the anarchist movement and, more tangentially, Florida. Consider the titles of their third and fourth albums (Searching for a Former Clarity and New Wave, respectively) or the recent song names that give a finger to the scene (“I Was a Teenage Anarchist”). Even the weather during the recording of their most recent album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, urged the band to get the hell out of dodge, almost in a biblical sense.
“Towards the end of when we were making the record, there was a weekend when there was some really heavy storming in St. Augustine, and a tree fell through the building.” Grace is referring to Against Me!’s own Total Treble Studios, a place that’s now “abandoned and completely uninhabitable.”
Then there are the various personnel changes of their rhythm section. Oakes left the band in 2008 to be a restauranteur (he owns and runs the bar/venue/Mexican joint Boca Fiesta to this day), with Seward departing this past May, effectively ending the Against Me! lineup that any longtime fan in their late 20s or older remembers seeing. Although neither musician appears to be as entrenched in the activism scene as before, Gainesville remains a big part of their lives.
“I just kind of wanted to be in Gainesville more, be with my family more, and work,” Seward told Punknews.org in September. Both he and Oakes have formed new bands. Seward plays with his wife and a handful of friends in Human Parts, while Oakes drums for the aptly named Sunshine State.”You give people ownership of a place in a weird way when you haven’t been there in a while,” says Grace. “For me, it feels like Gainesville is Andrew and Warren’s now.”
I ask her if she still keeps touch with either one, and while she only speaks positively of them, she confesses she hasn’t talked to Seward in months and Oakes in years. The absence of communication isn’t just limited to former bandmates either.
“I don’t have a single friend that I keep in touch with in Gainesville,” she reveals. “I don’t know anyone there anymore.”
So, does she still consider Against Me! a Gainesville band?
“Against Me! didn’t start in Gainesville,” she contends. “We started in Naples and we moved to Gainesville. We definitely rose to popularity in Gainesville, and we were a part of that scene just by being on No Idea, but, in some ways, I never truly felt like we were a Gainesville band. At the same time, I do miss Gainesville every now and then. I just don’t know if I’d ever feel comfortable living there again.”
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that Transgender Dysphoria Blues deals with that exact thing; Grace came out as a transgender woman in May of 2012. The lyrical content is the opposite of the band’s earlier material, the words turned inward rather than externally celebrating a group movement or specific ideology. It’s political, yes, but in the most personal sense imaginable. This change in tone coincides with two new full-time members: Johansson, who didn’t come aboard until the most recent tour, and drummer Atom Willard, who recently replaced Jay Weinberg and has served as a hired gun for everyone from The Offspring to Rocket From the Crypt and Danko Jones.
Grace calls both of them, “for lack of a better term, fucking professionals,” adding: “They’re amazing musicians who will practice in their own time.” Better yet, the geographic displacement isn’t even an issue, at least musically. Although Grace wishes she could hang out with both of them more, “it’s easy to get together before a tour and only have two or three practices and feel really confident.”
We’re about to finish the interview when Willard bursts onto the bus with a bag of fast food. Good-natured and wide-eyed behind a pair of square-framed glasses, he sits down to eat before the show. We tell him that we’re talking about Florida. He laughs, remarking on the bizarre nature of the state (“There are alligators everywhere“), and swearing that he’ll never move out of California, where he’s lived since he was five.
“I know Florida’s fucked up,” agrees Grace, “but Florida’s one of those places where, if you live there long enough, it becomes a part of you. There’s not a single road in Florida I haven’t driven at this point.”
I ask what the strangest thing is that’s ever happened to her in Florida. Anyone who’s lived there, no matter how briefly, has a bugnuts Florida story, and I’m sure Grace is no different. Willard laughs, recalling tales he’s heard from Grace and Bowman on the road. Grace thinks for a moment, then begins:
“I was probably 14 years old. And the pot dealer that I went through at the time was this guy who would do a Native American presentation at all the elementary schools. I remember him dressing up in full Indian regalia to do some traditional chanting, and dancing, and give a history lesson to the students. He wasn’t full-blooded or anything like that.
Later on, he ended up being the pot dealer for all the local kids. I remember one time going over there and getting really stoned. It was just me, him, and his wife, and he was like, ‘My neck is really hurting me. I need you to crack my neck. I want you stand behind me, lift my head up, and turn it from side to side. But if you do it wrong, you’re going to kill me. So, my wife is going to hold a fucking knife to your throat. And if you kill me, she’s going to kill you.’
There I was, 14 years old, stoned out of my mind with a woman holding a fucking knife to my throat while I cracked her husband’s neck. So, I guess I did it right. I’m still here.”
Photography by Sergio Soltero. Artwork by Cap Blackard (Buy prints + more). Titles by Steven Fiche.