The sound and the fury

November 16, 2007


Several years into the bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you'd be hard-pressed to find any American, regardless of their specific political convictions, who doesn't occasionally feel like screaming in anger and frustration while watching the nightly news.

Plenty of musicians have attempted to put those feelings into song, but few have been as successful as the Florida punk band Against Me! "Protest songs in a response to military aggression / Protest songs to try and stop the soldier's gun / But the battle raged on," guitarist-vocalist Tom Gabel sings on "White People for Peace," the most striking track from the band's fourth album, "New Wave."

Typical for this songwriter, the lyrics are a mouthful. But reading them doesn't do justice to the way they sound on record, where the band's furious rhythms and massive walls of guitar combine to make the sentiments seem absolutely anthemic.

"I always write lyrics first," Gabel says. "I'm a strong believer that there are only so many guitar chords, and those are inevitably going to repeat themselves. I think that if you write the lyrics first and then adapt the melody around those, the cadence of the words will dictate what the melody is, whereas if you write the chord progression first, there's a space that you have to fit the words into, and I don't want to be limited in what I want to say."

Gabel has had plenty to say ever since he started performing in the late '90s -- just a 17-year-old kid from Gainesville, Fla., with an acoustic guitar and some occasional help from a friend on drums. By the time he released his first full album as Against Me!, "Reinventing Axl Rose" (2002), the guitars had gone electric, the sound had become much more hard-hitting and the pieces were in place to make the group -- currently completed by bassist Andrew Seward, drummer Warren Oakes and second guitarist James Bowman -- one of the most popular acts on the skate-punk/Warped Tour circuit.

For "New Wave," the band signed to Sire Records and worked with Madison, Wis.-based producer Butch Vig (Garbage, Nirvana) to craft its biggest and most rousing sounds yet. Like every punk band that's made the leap from the indie underground to a major label, Against Me! has garnered charges of "sellout." But Gabel says he's been getting those -- and ignoring them -- for years.

"I think that one of the unfortunate things that happened with punk was that it was originally supposed to be this type of music that had no boundaries and borders as to what you were playing. It wasn't, 'This sounds like punk'; it was all these different bands that sounded nothing alike making up the punk scene. Then that movement got really split, and New Wave came from there.

"I didn't realize it at the time that we titled the record 'New Wave,' but Seymour Stein, who started Sire Records, was actually the one who coined the term 'New Wave' [as a more marketable alternative to 'punk']. I thought that was kind of fitting, being that we are a band that came from the punk scene, and here we are making our major-label debut and people are going to say we aren't punk anymore."

Gabel thinks a lot about whether it's possible to have a genuine alternative culture in an era where any spark of youthful rebellion instantly becomes a scam for Hot Topic, iTunes and Starbucks. "Is the culture now a product that's disposable?" he sings on "Up the Cuts," another memorable new track. "All the punks still singing the same song / Is there anyone thinking what I am? / Is there any other alternative? / Are you restless like me?"

By his own admission, Gabel is much better at posing these questions than providing the answers. But he clearly believes in the power of music to inspire if not actually affect change -- which brings us back to "White People for Peace," one of the last songs written for the new album.

"Up to that point, some of the songs had kind of skirted the fact that there's a war happening right now, but I really wanted a song that completely addressed it. At the same time, it was named what it was named because I recognize the fact that I'm a white kid who comes from a fairly privileged middle-class background, and I'm traveling around in a posh, comfy tour bus, and I get the privilege to get up onstage and play my guitar every night. I can turn the war on and off in my life whenever I feel like it, and there's something extremely cliched and trite about that."

Yet what is the artist's alternative: to simply ignore the world around him?

"Exactly: Either you talk about it and you're a little cliched, or you don't talk about it and you ignore what's really happening and what you think about it.

"I feel like I'm going to sound extremely cheesy saying this, and that's unavoidable, but music is almost like a spiritual thing for me," Gabel concludes. "You can't put into words what it's like when you hear a song that just hits you, and you're like 'That's it!' When you hear a song and you fall in love with it, for years and years, when you hear it again, it will take you right back to that time and place in your life. I still have some mixtape songs that will take me back to when I was 16 or 17 years old and what I was doing at that time. Video games don't do that, and nothing else really does."