AGAINST ME!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an unrecognized classic – it doesn’t always sound pretty, but it’s beautiful, honest, and in terms of today’s generation, it’s a critical piece of history. It’s also a story that’s really worth listening to and in the case of the band that once called Gainesville home, it’s become the frame for a more positive future. With the group’s focus shifted towards a new record, we recently caught up with Laura Jane Grace and Atom Willard for a short Q&A – touching on everything from the Internet age to why Against Me! is currently indebted to making “DIY” a community again.
In a recent conversation with Marc Maron you explain that you were drawn to punk rock because “punk is like armor”. Do you still feel that way?
LAURA JANE GRACE: For sure. When I first got into punk it seemed like the attitude of it was about fighting back more so than just getting beat up, you know? Even if you were still gonna get beat up in the end, at least you were gonna throw a couple punches.
As an individual who took the time to create zines and programs like Food Not Bombs, how do you think the Internet is affecting journalism and activism today?
LAURA JANE: For activist communities it’s really helped with the spread of information as it helps give updates from protests and world events in real time. In journalism – I don’t know if you’d agree Atom – it dumbs it down a little bit. It’s good because anyone can do it, but then sometimes the standards are lost.
ATOM WILLARD: Like you were saying, the zine culture is completely lost because there’s just no avenue for it, but that was something that people would really pour a lot of heart and time into. Now it’s just so easy to have verbal diarrhea – constant facts or perceived facts – and with that you lose a lot of the gravity of what you’re trying to say. It gets lost in a wash of a million other words or tweets.
So would you say there’s a lack of accountability?
ATOM: Yeah, because when you did a zine that was very much your thing. You wanted to make sure you either really believed in what you were saying or knew it was completely factual.
LAURA JANE: But also at the very least if it wasn’t any of those things, it would disappear, as opposed to now where it’s on the Internet forever.
What advice would you give someone looking to start their own zine or project?
LAURA JANE: I think the importance of that is so much more now, in the Internet age. It all really scares me in a real conspiracist, 1984-type of way. If you do away completely with print media and everything exists in a cloud then that information is changeable, alterable, and hide-able as opposed to a physical thing. For a while I was really into starting this band called Social Media Friends which would have a strict anti-Internet presence. No interviews would ever appear online, we’d never promote a show in any way online…
ATOM: No songs, no lyrics…
LAURA JANE: Only cassette tapes or like… Edison cylinders… little wind up music boxes so they couldn’t be put on the Internet.
ATOM: I’m gonna email you about… oh wait, no I can’t.
LAURA JANE: Write me a letter, the way people used to!
ATOM: Kevin Costner is going to show up at your house.
You took on the engineering and recording duties for Transgender Dysphoria Blues…
LAURA JANE: Some of it…
Yeah, there’s lots of other credits in there but how did it feel to go back to your DIY roots and create something the way you wanted to create it?
LAURA JANE: I was very interested in learning more about it. It didn’t feel like I was going back because when you’re first starting out, you don’t know how to use a studio. So it was more like finally getting to the point where I could have enough experience that “I could turn that knob too” or “push that fader just as well now”.
ATOM: “I understand what this does to this thing and why”.
LAURA JANE: I think that’s what most people have missed about DIY culture. Because of the phrase “do it yourself”, they often assume it has to be a singular experience. But my experiences with DIY culture were never about being alone – they were always about doing something as a part of the community. If you were good at one thing, then that’s what you did. The drummer drums, the bass player plays bass, the singer sings, the guitar player plays guitar, and then you have the other people – this person is actually good at getting the record pressed and this person is good at doing the artwork and everyone did it together. It’s a collaborative thing and not just a solo endeavor.
Was Transgender Dysphoria Blues a collaborative effort?
LAURA JANE: It was a pretty isolated experience a lot of the time and the band was falling apart while we were recording it. I think going into this record it’ll be a lot more of a collaborative experience between the band and everyone that’s involved.
ATOM: It was segmented for sure because things were done in different places at different times and it was just broken up whereas moving into this next recording, we’re like, “We’ll all be together this time and that time”. It’s just much more about a single location.
Would you say you’ve grown in a creative sense over the past year?
ATOM: Being in Against Me! has really re-opened my eyes to the ability of playing with other people who are not locked into some kind of formula. Like playing with people who are willing to experiment and make themselves feel unsure at certain points to explore where that would go. That sounds a lot deeper than it really is – it’s just us kinda jamming – but ultimately not everyone can do that and after being out of that community for a little while, you really appreciate being back in it.
Have you been working on anything outside of music? Are there any goals that you hope to accomplish sooner rather than later?
So clearly you’ve just been taking it easy?
ATOM: She also builds these really intricate Japanese kites out of the most delicate rice paper.
LAURA JANE: (Laughs) What do you people want from me!? I barely sleep!
At times punk can be a bit limiting in its views – especially as you’ve said before that fans have slashed your tires in response to the band changing record labels. How has the support changed with social media now being a public platform for opinions?
LAURA JANE: There’s no accountability. You can say some pretty outlandish shit and it doesn’t have to be factually based but you’re putting it out there on the Internet. You often realize that people aren’t even looking for a debate; they just wanna say what they wanna say and that’s it, you know?
ATOM: If people are asked to justify their opinion or if you’re actually face to face with someone who’s said some inflammatory shit online, they’re usually not able to argue their point. No one says, “Let’s talk about it – help me see your side and I’m gonna help you see my side”.
You’ve been living in Chicago, correct?
LAURA JANE: Kind of. I’ve been making the new record in Michigan so I’ve been there for a while. I’m still in Chicago because my daughter is there.
What’s the community like there?
LAURA JANE: I have no friends in Chicago… so I have no idea (laughs). In the time I’ve lived there I’ve made three friends – one is my bartender, one is my pot dealer, and one is my electrolysis tech.
ATOM: That’s all you need though!
I spoke with Geoff Rickly a while ago and he noted “Laura Jane Grace and Against Me! are one of the only punk things I’ve seen in years.”
LAURA JANE: Thanks Geoff!
Speaking on that, he said: “Living your ideals and your life for everybody to see and to help empower people in a positive way is the highest thing punk could aspire to be”. Do you want to be a role model to others despite the pressures that come with that?
LAURA JANE: I don’t know… it’s more like I just want to survive and I just wanna be in a band and do what I do. I’m happy if people are into that and can get something from it, but beyond that…
ATOM: I’ve seen her be so incredibly supportive and helpful to people who are struggling with a range of things in their life and it’s never self-proclaimed. She’s never like, “I’m gonna help people, that’s why I’m here”. She’s so humble about it and so willing to offer help and guidance when she can but it’s not her mission statement.
LAURA JANE: More often than not I’m like, “I bet I can bum a cigarette off them” (laughs).