Interview: Against Me! and Laura Jane Grace Face (and Rock) the World with ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’
By Scott T. Sterling
“Your tells are so obvious/ Shoulders too broad for a girl/ Keeps you reminded/ Helps you to remember where /You come from” – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
From the very first line, Against Me!’s sixth full-length album dives right into the heart of frontwoman Laura Jane Grace‘s life experiences around her decision that she would be living as a transgendered woman after spending most of her 30-some years as a man, born Tom Gabel.
Grace channels all of the rage, fear, doubt and bravery that inevitably comes with such a choice into the album’s 10 tracks, which roar by in less than 29 minutes with the precision and energy of the Ramones combined with taut songwriting chops reminiscent of classic Cheap Trick.
While the album’s emotional core powers Transgender Dysphoria Blues, what shouldn’t be lost in the conversation is that through Grace’s many personal discoveries, Against Me! has produced arguably the best album of their career that is already well in the running for one of the best rock full-lengths of 2014.
“The thing is that having been a band for 17 years is that unfortunately, most of the time people aren’t actually paying attention to the music, and they’re picking out some other inconsequential thing to focus on to talk about in an interview or whatever,” Grace says with a sigh during a recent interview with Radio.com. “And for years, our band was always about what label we were on, and ‘oh, you’re sellouts ’cause you sold to a major label’ or ‘you’re sellouts ’cause you’re on Fat Wreck Chords’ or whatever, and that was always the focus. That completely overshadowed the music for years.
“So now if the focus has shifted to something else, it’s just inconsequential,” she added. “The people who are gonna listen to the music and know what it’s about are those people, and there are always going to be those people. But otherwise, people are gonna focus on things that don’t really matter.”
Still, it’s hard not to be inspired by Grace’s bravery by being so forthright in regards to her transgender status, which has made her something of a new folk hero to many in the LGBT community and beyond.
“There have definitely been people that have come out and said they were inspired by what I did, but I always try to drive it home the fact to them that making that connection is the support that I need too,” she insisted about any newly acquired hero status. “Part of coming out and being public with it is that I was really isolated where I was in St. Augustine (Florida). I didn’t know a single other transsexual or transgender person. So having the opportunity to meet people, just though being open… If they’re looking for support from me, I’m looking for an equal amount of support from them.”
In order to achieve the hard-hitting sound on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Grace had a very specific target when the band went into the studio, explaining that “sonically, the approach was a little different in wanting to make a more stripped-down record and a more aggressive-sounding record… and wanting to go for a really big guitar sound, but at the same time not wanting to go for a really big double-tracked guitar sound. Just wanted to make it punk. The two references I gave to Billy [Bush], who mixed it, was that I wanted it to sound like the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls.”
Leaving the major label Sire Records after just two albums (2007’s New Wave and the aforementioned White Crosses, both produced by Butch Vig), Against Me!’s new album will be released on the band’s own imprint, Treble Tone Records.
“Doing your own label is scary. It’s really scary,” Grace laughed. “We did our last two records on a major label, and that experience towards the end felt very stifling. There was too many cooks in the kitchen and too many people telling you how to do your art. So I really wanted the opposite experience with this record, of having complete freedom to do whatever we wanted. So it’s been liberating in that sense. But at the same time music in general, you really gotta hustle to make it in a band these days, and to make a living doing just that.”
On the downside of that rock and roll hustle is the ever-present threat of stolen gear that looms over all bands. It recently hit Grace pretty close to the heart.
“I actually recently had $10,000 worth of guitars stolen from me by a moving company, which was a drag because it was all like the guitars that had the most sentimental value,” she said. “My bass that I got when I was like 13 years old that I played in all my first punk bands. My Telecaster that was a birthday gift from Butch [Vig] and Billy [Bush]. It was a total drag. They were insured, so I got insurance money for them, but it’s amazing that moving companies… they kind of have carte blanche to steal from you, because when it happened it was like, ‘OK, well who do you call?’ You call the cops, and they tell you to call someone else because it’s across state lines, so you have to contact the Department of Transport Authority or whatever. They make you jump through a bunch of hoops, and it’s like no one’s going to get arrested for stealing your stuff. There’s a special place in hell reserved for guitar thieves.”