“Realising everything is fucked is great”
One of the most enduring and important voices in punk is back with ‘Shape Shift With Me’. Listen up, with Against Me!, it’s always one hell of a ride.
Words: Ali Shutler.
The story of Against Me! is one of struggle and constant rebellion. Front person Laura Jane Grace has been leading the band through the fire for close to two decades and she’s got the scars to prove it. Years in the making, fraught with confusion and battling to simply exist, 2012’s ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ was the sound of a band on the very edge of oblivion. It’s an album fighting back. The story of Against Me! is one of struggle and constant rebellion, but this isn’t that story. This is what happens next.
“I had to destroy my life. I had to come out as transgender after years of being in the closet, then have everything fall apart, have a suicidal nervous breakdown and go on tour. That’s how you make art,” explains Laura. “You fuck up your life and then you write about it.”
The soundtrack to this new tale comes in the form of ‘Shape Shift With Me’. It might be fiery and drenched in decay but it’s the Against Me! record with the most unburdened positivity. “I wanted to make people get up and want to do something. I wanted to make them say, ‘Yeah, let’s go. Let’s have some fun. Let’s have an adventure’.”
Making Against Me!’s seventh album felt like “the closing of a chapter and the beginning of a new one,” starts Laura. “Although I feel like that chapter’s already closed and we’ve started another new one. But that’s how chapters work, right? We’ve read through that one.” As much as this record marks a new start for the band and they’re eager to read on, there’s a continuation from what came before. “Some of the songs were what I was working on immediately after finishing the last record in the period of the time before the band really got going.”
Against Me! lost two members around the creation of ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ which probably contributed to it “almost feeling like the end of the band in a lot of ways. We didn’t even feel like there was going to be touring for that record. I was just hopeful that the record would be released.” Like they always do though, Against Me! endured. Atom Willard and Inge Johansson joined the long-standing partnership of James Bowman and Laura. “As we started going with the band, touring on the record, and as each show was happening, it just kept getting better and better. I felt really inspired by that and just started writing songs.”
‘Shape Shift With Me’ just happened. Before the new-look band really started working together on anything new, they had two days off in a row from tour and wanted to go to a studio just to see what would happen. They ended up at Ardent Studios, which is where ‘Against Me! as the Eternal Cowboy’ was recorded. “It’s a beautiful studio with beautiful rooms and in the middle, there’s this courtyard which was really peaceful and tranquil. I sat down while everything was being set up and wrote a song. It came quickly and was fun to write. We recorded the song straight away and that experience, that’s the template we wanted.” The song may not have made the cut but from there on out, the band set about capturing what was happening as it happened. The idea that “it all has to feel that easy,” became crucial. “I don’t want it to feel like I’m slaving away on some big process.”
While this was all going on, Laura Jane Grace was also finishing her memoir ‘Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout’. “The book was all about looking back and being reflective, this album had to be immediate and in the moment. This is what I feel right now, this is the idea right now, let’s go ahead and capture that. There weren’t many roadblocks when it came down to it.”
‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ was plagued with the sort of bad luck that saw a tree come crashing through the roof of Against Me!’s studio, destroying it. This time around though, the band “got lucky with a lot of things.” With the group scattered, Atom in LA, James in Florida, Inge in Sweden and Laura now in Chicago, they needed a new base camp. Turns out Marc Hudson, the band’s front of house engineer and tour manager also has a studio in Michigan. That’ll do. “We’d just be practicing in between tours and we’d just say, ‘Why don’t we just go ahead and record something. I’ve got a song idea, let’s go ahead work on it’. Everyone’s there and everyone’s going to participate and it just continued.”
Because of how it was created, ‘Shape Shift With Me’ feels open. Despite the band carrying over the energy from their ever-improving, always brilliant, live show, making this album “definitely felt like a parallel universe. The studio is in the middle of nowhere, just in the woods. And it has windows, which is nice and means you don’t feel trapped in this box. In the winter, there’d be snow all around and we’d be looking out the windows and seeing the bleakness of snow covered fields. That’s the total opposite of being at a show that’s crowded with people or being crammed onto a tour bus. It had an influence on the record.”
Against Me! has always been a reflection of Laura’s life. “I don’t write fiction,” is the long and short of it. ‘Shape Shift With Me’ is a record bristling with the desire to find intimacy set against a backdrop of a world that seems intent on tearing itself apart. “It is a record about falling in and out of love in a lot of ways, trying to figure out what that means as a trans person dating, examining gender and power roles and power dynamics in relationships and what influence gender has on emotion. What influence testosterone has on emotion versus oestrogen on emotion, but it’s definitely set against a crazy world too.” Starting with ‘Pro Vision L3’, a song named after airport body scanners, and finishing with a song about driving home from tour, the whole record is a trip.
“We were trying to make sure every emotion was covered. You start out in the airport, you’re going through the body scanner, you’ve got foreign language coming into your ear and you’re a little disorientated. Then you’re off. Romance, lust and falling in love, there’s the good, positive emotions, and then there’s the fallout at the end. The hate, the heartbreak and the confusion.” ’12:03’ like the song says, is about it being “12:03pm on a Sunday morning. I was sat in a high-rise apartment building in Seattle, waiting on this girl to call me, learning to roll cone joints better and everything that day was going to have a pineapple back, I don’t know if you’ve ever done a shot of whiskey followed by a pineapple juice but it’s delicious. ‘Norse Truth’ is the cold truth, it’s about the vitriol of a relationship.”
As for ‘Suicide Bomber’, “obviously there’s so much terrible, heartbreaking tragedy in this world today. There are more and more incidents of it and the idea that being scared, the phrase itself ‘suicide bomber’ is obviously meant to be shocking. Headlines like those are how people are controlled, but what if you think about it from all perspectives of loss. If someone is a victim of an attack, obviously there’s the terrible loss of whoever’s family and friend that is, but I also ended up thinking about the perspective of the parents of somebody who would do that. Being a parent myself, the idea of what if you had a kid that grew up to do this terrible, unspeakable thing. How would you then have to process your love for your child? The song is also coming from the perspective of loving someone, even though they’re a monster. Where does love end?”
After the last record came out, Laura heard grumblings from people bemoaning, “Oh, is every record going to be trans this and trans that?” There were also people being positive with the same expectations. It’s led to an attitude, she says, of “fuck you guys, I just want to write about love. I want to write dumb love songs.”
“I wasn’t even being that reactionary with it because that’s what was happening to me,” she continues. “I hadn’t ever had that chance to write in that way. Coming from the punk rock world, you’ve got to write about politics or anarchy and social issues, which is all good and all relevant. Obviously we’ve got loads of songs that are about that and I care about social justice, I care about those issues but at the same time, I don’t like feeling constrained as a writer. I don’t like feeling, ‘you can’t do that’. Anytime it ever feels like there’s a wall or a block or someone’s telling me you can’t do that – fuck you, I’m going to do it.
“I wanted to write a record about romance. It’s wider than that but there is a lot of that. When it comes to a sexual identity for transgender people, they’re generally fetishised. It’s like something out of porn. Saying I am transgender and I would like to be recognised for equal rights, that extends to being able to express sexuality or being able to say I deserve love too. If it’s sex between two consenting adults, then it’s fine. That’s part of culture for everyone else. Every fucking song on the radio is about a guy or a girl singing about a broken heart or about falling love. To be accepted into society, transgender people should be able to participate in that to and present their perspectives on it.”
As Laura continues to bare all, her life an open book (from November, literally), the sense of being real is a question raised throughout ‘Shape Shift With Me’. “I want to be more real than all of the others, I want to be more than all the rest,” sings ‘Delicate, Petite & Other Things I Will Never Be’, while ‘Norse Truth’ snarls “I wanted you to be more real than all of the others. I wanted our love to be more real than all of the rest.” It’s a line that Laura’s had since writing ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ and it comes from asking questions. “What is realness? And, what is real when it comes to love? I got deep into a rabbit hole of wondering what it really means to love someone. I’ve been estranged from my wife for three years now, this is my second marriage and going through a divorce you wonder, after a period of time, am I just not capable of love and what does that really mean? What does love even mean?
“Examining that with a transgender lens where I’m starting to date, be intimate or romantic with someone in a situation where I’m transitioning gender, how do they view me? The things that they say to me, the things that have been said to me before by other people, or I’ve said but I’ve said from a different gender perspective, those moments are really oddly disorientating. You recognise you’re in a position that you were in previously, but last time you were in this position you was presenting as male, now you’re out as trans. How does that influence things? It fucked my head up. I couldn’t stop thinking about those things and that’s what I wanted to write about, exploring that idea and figure out what it means. What does it mean when you say you love someone? Is it just primal? Is it just the need to fuck, to procreate, and to make more people. Is that it, is that the depth of love? Is that the depth of attraction or the depth of needing intimacy? A little push, a little screw, is that all it means?”
‘Shape Shift With Me’ isn’t an overtly political album but we’re at the point where being yourself is a political act. “I truly believe that. There is diverseness to it. Even if a trans person did a fucking hand soap commercial on television, then it would be subversive ‘cos they’re a trans person. You’re subverting the mainstream. I think in this day and age, it is a revolutionary act to just be yourself, to just not give a fuck.”
Whatever shade ‘Shape Shift With Me’ paints and whatever’s asked of it, that flickering of positivity is always present. “I guess it was because I had a lot of unburdened positivity. It was almost a desperate, maniac positivity. When you’re pushed to a point of desperation you realise ‘OK, if I’m going to survive, this is just the way it is so I might as well be happy.’ Realising everything’s fucked is great. Wanting to be open and having no choice, that’s how I’m going to have to survive. I’m going to have to go out there and meet the world with a really open mind and a good attitude because that’s what I’m hoping people meet me with. It’s just approaching life from a different mentality, a different way of looking at things and a different way of carrying yourself in the world, y’know?”
As ‘All This (And More)’ suggests, Against Me! will carry on. It’s something Laura makes abundantly clear. “As long as I’m alive, I’m sure I will,” she says, of having plenty more stories to tell. ‘Shape Shift With Me’ is the perfect time to listen up and join in. The invitation is there in the title, capturing that “unpredictable way of feeling still in flux. You don’t know what you’re changing into, just that you are actively changing into something. It’s about daring someone to come along, continue to love me, shape shift with me. Take my hand and come into the unknown. Let’s see where this takes us. Let’s go on a ride.”