Punk Sell Out?

Against Me! would rather make a statement than starve.

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Against Me! DIY Sire Records Axl Rose punk Gainesville Republican House of Blues, 308 Euclid Avenue 7 p.m. Monday, May 14, $20.50-$28, 216-523-2583
Against Me!'s Tom Gabel (center) keeps an eye on his van's tires.
Against Me!'s Tom Gabel (center) keeps an eye on his van's tires.
In the spring of 2003, Denver police raided a small, inconspicuous warehouse space. What they found was Against Me! and a hundred or so spiky-haired kids, taken completely by surprise.

That night has become an urban legend that still makes the rounds in punk gossip circles -- mostly because of what happened after the cops shut down the show. The Gainesville, Florida group had supposedly agreed to make up for the disrupted set later that night at another semi-remote location. The kids came by, but Against Me! never showed.

"I don't think anyone ever asked us," counters frontman and guitarist Tom Gabel. "I'm assuming that we had a show booked the next day, and Denver to anywhere is a long drive, so there's no way we would have committed to another show."

Gabel is used to constantly dispelling ill-spun rumors that depict him and his bandmates as nothing more than punk fakers. Not too long after that show, the act switched from indie label No Idea to Fat Wreck Chords, a slightly bigger indie. It was a move that much of Against Me!'s underground following felt was a cop-out for the mainstream. Bill Florio, a columnist for the longtime punk zine Maximum Rock'n'Roll, incessantly railed against the decision.

"He was saying that they [our fans] should come to the shows and pour bleach on our T-shirts and merch -- just this insane ranting and raving in his columns, saying that we were the fucking devil," says Gabel. "We played at a Polish-American hall in Long Island, and there was this one dude -- Frank was his name -- and while we were playing, he'd gone out and slashed our tires. They weren't even trying to hide it that they did it. They were just like, 'Yeah, we fucking slashed your tires, you fucking sellouts.'"

Three words explain this twisted fanaticism: Reinventing Axl Rose. The 2002 debut was 11 songs of folk-punk charm that politico-rockers hailed as perfect smash-the-state anthems. For Gabel, who grew up on military bases and in staunch Republican neighborhoods, it was a musical outlet for his strong political views, which he had been ruminating since he first discovered punk rock in his teens. But as Gabel and his bandmates matured, so did their musicianship. Although the Florida boys remained steadfast in their anarchist beliefs, longtime fans felt more and more alienated with each release.

"It'd be ridiculous if we were still pretending that we were the people we were when we were 17 years old," remarks Gabel. "I would just really like to be judged on the music, as opposed to our legacy being this eternal battle of 'Are they sellouts, or are they not sellouts?'"

The subject of selling out was partially addressed in the 2004 tour documentary We're Never Going Home. In it, Against Me! debates the ethics of signing to a major versus staying true to certain DIY ideals. But about a year after the film's release, the band announced that it had inked a deal with Sire Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. (Its major-label debut is due out in July.) Not surprisingly, this flip-flop made Against Me! an easy target for further criticism.

"It's weird, kind of, when you're getting older in the punk scene, because you realize just how many people don't stick around and how many people move on and disappear," Gabel notes, referring to the band's major-label deal. "You realize that you're fending for yourself in a lot of ways. And that's kind of a frightening thing."

Against Me! has no qualms about the oft-disputed decisions it has made over the years. In some ways, every label change could be regarded as a superlative gesture of anarchist ideals; each one has been a way to remain a self-governed, self-sustained band.

"No one's talking about Learjets and high-rise condos here," Gabel points out. "We're talking about paying rent. I'm a fucking high-school dropout. I've got X amount of alternatives about what to do. I can work food service. I can work some shitty retail job.

"But this," he concludes, "this is what makes me happy."

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