Tom Gabel, frontman for the anthemic Florida agit-punk quartet Against Me!, is talking about recording the band's recently released fourth studio album, New Wave, when the conversation turns to self-sabotaging.
Gabel confesses that he's provoked friends, lovers, colleagues, and strangers — all in the name of "having something to write about." Thing is, sometimes he didn't even realize he was doing it. "I fear total happiness," he says. "I guess, in retrospect, there've been times I've caused some drama to keep that from happening."
Whether he intends to or not, the singer and guitarist cuts to the heart of why, a decade ago, he chose the name Against Me! — with exclamation point writ large — for his various projects. He first used it as a moniker for his solo Billy Bragg-style acoustic performances during his anarchy-inclined teenage years, when he also published a radical lefty 'zine, Misanthrope. Then Against Me! became the name of his band, which is rounded out by guitarist James Bowman, bassist Andrew Seward, and drummer Warren Oakes.
In order to thrive, Gabel needs something to fight against, whether that be The System, his immediate environment, or even his fans — many of whom, if you read the message boards and comments strewn across the internet, are pissed off at him for jumping from indie label Fat Wreck Chords to Sire/Warner Bros. They claim he's forsaken undercooked recordings in favor of a big, Butch Vig-produced sound for New Wave. In essence, Gabel sold out his principles, they shout. It's a hackneyed accusation, yet it's one that continues to stir the indier-than-thou crowd.
And while many of Gabel's predicaments are of his own design, there are other outside forces that occasionally make his life a real pain in the ass. "When I take a step back, I'm like, 'This is awesome — I love the fact that I'm exhausted from doing this, and I love to be at the end of my wits,'" he says. "I enjoy the stress of it. I enjoy if something bad is happening, instead of everything working great. Being able to do this at all is what's important, and having all the problems that are associated with it is what's amazing about it. That's when you know it's real and you're alive."
Not that things are all bad. Hardly. New Wave is a commercial and critical hit, and deservedly so. From the opening title track (a call-to-arms plea for change, in which Gabel affixes his ardent bellow to propulsive, semi-acoustic strumming) to the paradoxically combative rock of "White People for Peace" (a protest song about protest songs), the album merges the Clash's conscience and Social Distortion's crunch. It's consistently rousing and undeniably hooking as it rages against various sociopolitical machines.
But if some diehards are deserting Against Me! in a huff, new fans are filling the gap — including other artists, ranging from indie darlings Tegan & Sara to rock legend Bruce Springsteen.
Gabel insists he's happy that his latest batch of songs has connected with listeners. But, he adds, songwriting is typically a selfish pursuit. "I was going through a lot of problems in my life, and writing [2005's Searching for a Former Clarity] was a cathartic process to get through those problems," he says. "And it helped. I had a bunch of songs that I came through it all with."
Still, Gabel can't quite shake the adversarial relationship he has with some of his fans. "There's a lot of people that get upset because we don't play some older songs," he says. "It's hard to explain to them that I'm almost 27, and those are songs I wrote when I was 17 years old. That's a long time ago, and you're faking it if you get up there and continue to play these songs, when you just don't feel that passionately about the subjects anymore."
Gabel says he's simply wired to fight; he just can't be content with being content. He cites his upbringing — as an Army brat who moved from base to base, town to town, and country to country — as a major factor in shaping his volatile personality. But at least he's looking for a little stability and happiness. Next month, he'll take a couple weeks off from the road to marry his longtime girlfriend.
And while he has no immediate plans to fuck up that relationship, Gabel says he won't be deterred from his guiding philosophy: "I think even if everything were to all crash down, it would be a beautiful thing. Even if it was like, 'Your record label is dropping you, your manager is dropping you, the booking agent is dropping you, and all your fans hate you.'
"But it would have to be totally irreplaceable," he concludes. "Not totally irreplaceable as in you die, but there's always coming back. That's a challenge too. Years from now, [I want] to be able to look back and be like, 'Yeah, I did all of that with my life, and it was a total fucking ride.'"