Against Me! survive the major labels ... barely

Achieving clarity
By BARRY THOMPSON  |  March 11, 2011

 Against Me!
REINVENTING THE PUNK BAND “I’m still doing what I’ve been doing for the past 13 years,” says Tom Gabel (second from left), “which is playing music ... and trying to put some positive touch on the world.”

Against Me! played the best rock show I've ever seen.

This was almost seven years ago at Jackson Mann K-8 School in Allston, for a capacity crowd of about 300 people. Or maybe closer to 600. Or maybe fewer. I didn't take a head count.

Now this isn't one of those "I liked them before they got big" tirades, as they had already gotten pretty big by then. I'm not suggesting access to superior sound systems and more time to hone their craft have worsened AM!'s ability to perform, because I am not delusional. Nonetheless, I had never witnessed such condensed, unfeigned, unbridled excitement. I felt as if I'd shared something special, maybe important, with a bunch of strangers for 90 minutes. It's a happy memory. I prefer not to analyze it to death.

Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose (No Idea, 2002) and Searching for a Former Clarity (Fat Wreck Chords, 2005) stand as two of that decade's best records. These scrappy, folky-punky magnum opuses vindicate existential angst and make it into something sort of beautiful and lots of fun to yell and break shit along with. I will not analyze that statement to death either. I will purchase Total Clarity — their return to Fat Wreck Chords with a collection of outtakes from the Former Clarity sessions — upon its release in May.

Closer to the present day, AM!'s philosopher/poet/founder/scream-singer/guitarist from Saint Augustine, Florida, admits that he sucks at doing phone interviews. "It's totally awkward doing phone interviews," Tom Gabel concedes midway through the conversation. That is a minor complication compared with his inability or unwillingness to follow the script I'd mapped out to write this story.

This past fall, after a handful of label employees they'd worked with got laid off, AM! cut ties with Warner Music subsidiary Sire Records, a company that they caught a bunch of flak for signing with back in 2005. Every punk outfit that's ever graduated from the underground to the überground has suffered some backlash, but AM! got it worse than most. Why did that happen? "I don't have any theories," Gabel says, wandering the premises of the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, where AM! are about to open for Dropkick Murphys. (They'll also open for the Dropkicks at their St. Patrick's shows at the House of Blues next week.) "You'd have to ask people who hold that opinion."

But, hey, fair enough. I'll ask and answer the question myself: Gabel's lyrics have never crossed over into political rhetoric, but the anarcho-leanings of AM!'s early years attracted lots of people who really like Crass. People who really like Crass are often spiteful jerks.

Then again, the line between self-righteous posturing and idealism gets blurry, as Gabel acknowledges on "I Was a Teenage Anarchist," a Springsteen-esque single off AM!'s most recent, last year's White Crosses. "Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?" goes the chorus, with a nostalgic get-up-and-go. That seems an odd thing for a dude to write given that, when it comes to fulfilling ambitions typical of 17-year-olds brimming with belly fire, he's more or less hit the mark.

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