Getting to know Against Me! at Lollapalooza

Tom Pilcher

Before his band played the afternoon of Saturday, August 7 at the Adidas MEGA Stage, I talked to bassist Andrew Seward of the longtime Florida punk band Against Me! about “selling out,” working with producer Butch Vig and still playing punk music in his thirties.
After the interview, the band stirred up the sweaty crowd at the MEGA stage with hoarsely shouted group vocals, undeniable energy and willingness to play old favorites like “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong.”
It was easy to see why so many major labels kept ringing their bell in 2005, and why they inspire such a fervid following. The band’s unique blend of punk energy, folk lyricism and traditional rock sensibilities is inspired, and no one pulls it off quite like they do.
Tom Pilcher: So are you guys going to get to catch any bands while you’re here?
Andrew Seward: Honestly, no. I would like to – I’d like to catch tomorrow, but I’m not going to miss an opportunity to go home for 48 hours or so.
TP: I don’t blame you.
AS: I really like The National a lot, so I’d like to see them. I saw them at Harvest of Hope in St. Augustine, Fla. two years ago, and I thought they were great. I’m going to start a band like that, where I just sing in a baritone voice [laughs].
TP: So you’ve been touring really heavily this year behind the new record [“White Crosses”].
AS: Yeah, pre and post-record.
TP: And you’re going to Europe later this year to tour with F*cked Up and a few other bands.
AS: Yeah, that’s in October. They’re going to do a very extensive UK tour with us, like two and a half or three weeks. We played some festivals with them before, and we’re all fans of their band. And there’s also a band on that tour called Crazy Arm, and they’re from England. They’re amazing though.
TP: That should be a good tour, then. You’ve had some member change-ups recently. George Rebelo [formerly of Hot Water Music] started played with you on drums, and Franz Nicolay started playing keyboard too. He used to play in The Hold Steady, right?
AS: Right, and also a band called World/Inferno Friendship Society from Brooklyn before that. We’ve been friends with Franz for forever though, and George too. With all of that stuff going down, it’s more organic, it’s not like this shit is pre-conceived – it’s just how it goes. I mean, Tom [Gabel, lead singer] started the band by himself such a long time ago. I guess James and I have been in it for so long either because we won’t go away or because we’re just so used to it.
TP: So have these changes affected the band dynamic at all?
AS: Well, I mean, it’s definitely affected the dynamic. Warren [Oakes, their former drummer] was in the band for eight or nine years, and we toured all over the world, and we’ve all known each other forever. Everything’s fine though. It’s all good. George has always been our friend, but we’ve never hung out to the extent of touring like this, except for touring with Hot Water Music once. It’s always a breath of fresh air to have some new blood and some new people in, and that’s not a knock on Warren at all. It’s just a breath of fresh air.
TP: What made you decide to add keyboard to the mix? You were a four-piece band for so long.
AS: Well, there will be times when Franz isn’t with us, too. He’s getting married in October, so he won’t be doing that tour. I’m not sure what prompted it, but I’ll give a story, I don’t know if this is the answer [laughs]. We played at the Metro here in Chicago three or four years ago with Sage Francis and World/Inferno Friendship Society, and we played it all acoustic. Franz came up and played accordion on “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong” with us, and it was fucking awesome. We’ve always admired his handiwork on the keys and everything. Like the piano parts he puts in The Hold Steady’s songs and World/Inferno’s songs are brilliant. I mean, we’re not boring – we like to experiment if we can.
TP: I wanted to ask about the new record too. Butch Vig [famous producer behind Nirvana’s “Nevermind”] produced “New Wave” and “White Crosses,” but WC has a distinctly different feel to it. It seems like there are more big choruses and vocal harmonies, and some of it even reminded me of Bruce Springsteen, and not in a bad way.
AS: Oh, I take that as a compliment. But the goal of this band is never to make the same record. We weren’t going to make “New Wave” part two. And I can’t really say that there haven’t been any borders or limits, because there’s never been that on any record. Except on old records there were of course financial limitations, where we could only go into the studio for two days or something. People always hate or love our band, and that’s how it’s been for every record. No one’s blowing my mind here with criticism or love. I take them both in stride. But yeah, Butch did some layering with the vocals on WC, like Beach Boys style, and I like it.
TP: Both WC and NW to me feel, for lack of a better word, a little bit less angry or political than some of your earlier records. Do you think that’s true at all?
AS: You know, I don’t know if I agree or disagree. I’m a huge fan of Tom’s lyrics, which sounds so weird because we’re in the same band, but I think that’s a good thing to like what you’re singing. You have a song like “White Crosses,” which is so geographical. If you’ve ever been to St. Augustine, Fla., you can just imagine the streets of San Marco Avenue. But that song’s also about abortion, getting high, etc. So I think the album is more serious; “Because of the Shame” is a very sad subject about a friend of ours who passed. I’m totally not answering the question here.
TP: That’s fine.
AS: I’m trying to remember back to when we were making “Searching For A Former Clarity” [2005]. We all holed up in this house in Gainesville right off 8th Avenue – Gainesville’s a super small town – that was just damp and musty. We called it “Fort Jenkity” because we built our own walls with “insulation” and stuff. We thought, “Fuck yeah, we got this completely soundproofed,” and then the first practice, the neighbor calls the cops and complains. I remember we sent Warren over to like smooth-talk her. See, now I’m just going on tangents instead of answering anything. But no, I don’t think we’ve gotten less political, and I won’t back it up at all [laughs].
TP: What’s your songwriting process like for the group though? I know you said Tom writes all the lyrics.
AS: He’s the master craftsman, but we’ll all add our own little things. I’ll just give you an example, though. “High Pressure Low,” he totally had that bass line [sings bass line]. He took an extra week and drove out to Los Angeles by himself from Florida, a pretty long trek. And two days before he left, he went with Butch into his home studio and just demoed that, sent it to me, and then that was that. I love that song, I just love that bass line. Then you’ll have a song like “Suffocation.” I was fucking around on my upright bass at home, recording on GarageBand or something, and I made up that bass line [sings line], and then added some guitar over it. It’s a totally weird-sounding song, I never thought we would use it, but Tom liked it, and we used it. Tom is the absolute brains, you know, I’m trying to think in a Voltron way [laughs]. Maybe he’s like the torso and the head, and we’re the arms and legs?
TP: Yeah, something like that.
AS: I mean, everyone can play the shit out of their instrument.
TP: It certainly seems that way.
AS: Yeah, I mean fuck, we’ve been doing it long enough, we better know how to play by now. I’m not saying we knew how to play at the beginning, but you know.
TP: Speaking of the album, I read in an earlier interview that “Ache With Me” was your favorite song on the album. Is that still true?
AS: I mean, it kind
of comes and goes. I love that song, but maybe I’m just a sap for depressing-ass songs, but I really like slow, old country songs as well. Like old Hank Williams, just great lyrics and that really steady beat. That can also for The Replacements with the song “Androgynous” or “Here Comes A Regular,” something like that. Just droney and like really depressing lyrics. Or Mark Lanegan, Afghan Whigs, stuff like that, I love it. I remember that he [Tom] didn’t like that song as much, and I told him he was crazy, because that song’s great.
TP: It seems to balance out the record really nicely.
AS: On “New Wave,” there were so many B-sides, the only slow song was that B-side “You Must Be Willing,” which I liked a lot, but I can understand why it’s not on the record. “New Wave” was supposed to be like ten songs, and that’s all.
TP: Do you have a favorite tune from older albums?
AS: Like a lot of people, I’m always a sucker for “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong.” Every time we play it, I get the chills. In a way, it’s similar to the song “White Crosses,” because it tells a story, and you can kind of picture it in your head. You know, “sitting by the elevator door.” I love very image-driven lyrics, storytelling. VH1 Classic Storytellers. [laughs].
TP: [laughs]. Going back to working with Butch Vig, what made you decide to work with him for “New Wave,” and how did that come about?
AS: Well, I don’t remember exactly for “New Wave,” but for “White Crosses,” he basically asked us on a date. He asked if we wanted to make the next record with him, and we were like, “Are you kidding, or course we do!” Butch is a great guy though, one of the nicest guys we’ve ever met. Great producer, great mind, sonically. He knows his booze too, but we’re not advocating drinking a lot – we’re not actually complete wasteoids, no matter what we may look like. I know the first time, someone sent him demos or something like that, and he was on board. Oh, he came out and saw us on Warped Tour ’06 in Milwaukee, and he came back and started drinking shitty High Life with us, it was great. I’m telling you, he’s one of the nicest guys ever. When people actually talk shit about him on the Internet or whatever, like “he ruined their record” or something, it’s annoying. I mean, I’m not going to go to blows with someone over what they said on the Internet, but jeez, the Internet just has cut all the courage and balls off of everyone, male or female.
TP: Oh definitely, I agree.
AS: One day there will be repercussions for the stuff people say on the Internet. It will happen one day! [laughs]
TP: So kind of thinking back on your whole career, when you joined the group in 2002, did you have any idea the band would get signed to a major label, work with Butch Vig and open for bands like the Foo Fighters?
AS: No idea, absolutely no idea. Not to take away anything though, because when I joined Against Me!, I was so fucking excited. I was living up in Tennessee, and I got the drummer from my old band to drive me down with like a mattress, a bike, a shitty bass, and a shitty bass amp. And $200. I had to live on Jordan’s floor for like the first month before I got my “studio garage” behind somebody’s house. Being in Against Me! has been the best thing I could ever ask for in my life, because it’s been a tremendous amount of adventure, getting to travel the world. We’re very lucky too, because we don’t tour with assholes. The Foo Fighters? The nicest guys in the world. Some people are like, “I don’t get why they toured with the Silversun Pickups.” Here’s what you get: they’re fucking awesome, they’re a good band. They might not sonically be in the same sphere – well, actually, I think they’re in the same sphere, but some people might not – but they’re a good band. You’re supposed to make shows interesting, not just have a bill of eight punk bands. I mean, you can, that’s fine, but it’s boring.
TP: Yeah, the basement shows I used to go to would have a hip-hop group, a punk band and a ska band, and it was great.
AS: Yeah, whatever level you do it, make it interesting.
TP: So, how has Sire Records worked out for you so far? You seem happy with it.
AS: Once again, I don’t know how many misconceptions people have, but they’re great. We’re completely on our own creatively and all that.
TP: That’s what you want.
AS: They’re basically just the label, they put out the records. I mean, they give us input too. For example, they’ll ask us, “What song should we put out as a single?” and we’re like, “I don’t fucking know, you’re the record label, you pick it. We like them all.” They’ve been nothing supportive though. Sire has such a good history of bands too. I mean, they’ve had some shitty ass bands, and they currently have some shitty ass bands; I’m not delusional. But, I’ll just go for the glory of being on the same label as The Ramones, The Replacements and Regina Spektor.
TP: Why did you choose them over any other label?
AS: Really, just for the logo. [laughs] No, we had some super nice people offer us record deals, but this felt the most right. Getting to actually meet and hang out with Seymour Stein was pretty cool. I know Bill Paxton, the actor, used to work in the mailroom at Sire Records, and he got his band to get a demo deal through Sire. So he’s friends with Seymour Stein, who is the president of Sire. Bill came to a show once in New York City though, and that’s my best celebrity sighting ever [laughs].
TP: Fans have always accused Against Me! of selling, even going back to your move to Fat Wreck Chords.
AS: Even before that. People were pissed when “Reinventing Axl Rose” came out on No Idea Records instead of Plan-It-X Records. And I’m saying this when I wasn’t even in the band then, so this is from the outside perspective. I mean, it’s always the same. With each record, there’s an influx of love and hate. Every move we make, even having Franz play with us. Any move we make brings that on, but it’s not disturbing. Honestly, when people stop giving a shit, that’s going to hurt us. So keep the hate going! [laughs]
TP: That’s a great way of looking at it.
AS: I think one of the biggest things is that we’re all very honest people, and for some reason, people don’t get that. You’re a completely nice person, we’re having a nice conversation, therefore this is nice. If you were coming on like “why’d you sell out, asshole?” I’d be like “fuck you, I don’t want to talk to you.”
TP: Exactly.
AS: I mean, it’s simple. I’m not saying that a lot of bands play politics or try to be too nice, but it’s true: Some bands bend over a little too backwards for people, and I think the whole deal is don’t lose your spine, you know?
TP: Right. It doesn’t seem like you guys have “sold out,” even though a lot of people think that happens when you sign to a major label.
AS: I think the proof’s in the pudding. We can still stir up shit, I don’t know why we still do, but it happens. I just like playing music.
TP: And you guys clearly haven’t forgotten your roots, because you still tour with smaller punk bands like The Flatliners, or other bands that might not be as well known.
AS: I don’t think that we think we’re a “popular bands,” if that makes any sense. We’re still stoked when people come out to shows. We make a conscious effort to tour with bands that we know, and that we like. We’re taking the Young Livers out – they’re from Gainesville and they’re friends of ours. Off With Their Heads, another great band – they’re great friends of ours. We keep our ear to the ground for good music, and also, our friends from back home keep us up to date as well.
TP: Do still feel connected to the Gainesville scene in some way?
AS: Definitely. I guess I’m saying that because we’re friends with the guys who own the bars who book the shows, but we’ve been friends with t
hem since we moved down there, so it’s just a natural thing.
TP: To me, it seems like you’ve developed a more nuanced, mature take on punk over the years. Do you think that’s true?
AS: If you want to put it that way, yes. I would say that we’re just not afraid to go for it. We don’t want to put limitations on ourselves. We want to travel the world as many times as we can. If 10,000 people wanted to come see us play at some crazy arena, why wouldn’t that be awesome? I’m not saying that we’ll do anything to get there, I’m just saying it’s a great thing that we do and we’re very lucky to get to do it. I’m not a religious person, so I feel weird using the word “blessed,” but it sort of describes how I feel about this. I mean, 12 hours ago I got to play at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. It’s a beautiful outdoor venue going towards the Observatory, and I’ve never been there. I’m a 32-year-old man and I get to experience new things all the time, and I’m not going to stop until my arms fall off. Once again, I don’t think I answered the question. [laughs]
TP: [laughs] That’s fine, I have no problem with that. Do you think the punk scene has changed significantly in the past 10 years since the band has been around?
AS: Well, no, because I think the punk scene is always evolving. You could probably look back in its history, and I’m sure the same politics happened with Operation Ivy, with Green Day, with whomever. Music has changed, the distribution and the access to music is completely different. The whole world’s different, technology is way different. So get an iPod and hop on. I mean, I love carrying around 60,000 songs in my palm, but I still have my vinyl collection too. I just really like it when it comes with that .mp3 code.
TP: Oh definitely, those are the best. I just have one more question though. What are your plans for the band when you finish this tour? You’re not writing a rock opera or anything, are you?
AS: No, no, I’m working on a bass solo record. [laughs] No, that would be the worst thing ever. We’re touring until Thanksgiving, and this is our last show in the states for a while. Then we’re going overseas, and we’re actually going to play two shows in China, which is amazing. I’ll post a picture of me on the Great Wall hanging out. We’re just going to keep the adventure going, we’ll make another record sometime and keep going. We’re still very interested in this. We love it.
TP: It’s good that you’re not sick of each other by now or something, since you’ve been at this for so long.
AS: I mean, we do get burned out sometimes. Like I said, I only slept two hours today, but I’m feeling pretty good.
TP: Well, thanks Andrew, this has been great.
AS: No problem, nice meeting you.