Laura Jane Grace's perfect day went down in Perth, Western Australia. It was Against Me! guitarist James Bowman's birthday and the band were on tour in the most isolated city on the planet. Stranded there, at the edge of the world, Perth lends itself to surrealism, and a kind of dreaminess filled Laura's day. After an early morning smoke, the band and crew visited Bon Scott's grave to hang out with the spirit of the late AC/DC vocalist. Then they walked to the end of the street to go go-karting, had lunch, and rode carnival rides.
"It was like, the best day ever," says Laura, "and afterwards I felt so guilty because I was so happy and I was like, ‘Yeah! Life rules!' and then you look around, and the world feels like it's falling apart. I feel guilty for having a good time, you know?"
It's a difficult balance, but a crucial one - to be mired in utter despair would be to lose all hope, for anything. So Laura turned the perfect day into the song ‘Apocalypse Now and Later', the lead single off her upcoming solo album ‘Bought to Rot'. The album comes after a huge couple of years for Against Me!, in which the band put out queer insta-classic ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues', Laura wrote and released a book, and followed it up with another AM album, 2016's ‘Shape Shift With Me'. As the tour cycle for ‘Shape Shift…' was wrapping up, Against Me! found themselves at a crossroads.
"We knew we were going to be taking a little bit of a break because we'd been hitting it so hard. So we started talking to labels and everyone we talked to, I was saying ‘Hey I think I want to do a solo record before we do the next Against Me! record, I've got these songs I've been working on, I'm not sure they're Against Me! songs and I think I want to do that'," Laura says. "No one was that enthusiastic about it. People were like, ‘Just do another Against Me! record' and I was like ‘Oh, okay…' I got disappointed, but in the back of my head I was like fuck that, I'm gonna do a solo record."
It was a good time to focus on other projects. Things were changing in Against Me! as bass player Inge Johansson left after five years with the band, paving the way for long-serving former bassist Andrew Seward to return to the fold. Laura says that during any time of change you have to work to find the positives, and it was good to have somewhere to direct her momentum.
It also, she says, felt dishonest to use the songs she had been working on with Against Me! drummer Atom Willard and producer/bassist Marc Jacob Hudson to form the basis of a new full-band record. They were never conceived that way, and despite the difficulty finding a home for a solo album, she was determined to release it by any means necessary. It was crucial that the album be represented by the people who created it.
"It kind of felt like me, Atom and Mark had a love affair. Like me and Atom, as a unit, being half of Against Me, had an affair with a bass player," she says.
One of the other central relationships behind the album is the one between Laura and her adopted hometown. After moving to Chicago in 2013, Laura says she struggled with the fact of living there, and the influence the city could have on her work.
"Historically I've been someone who's written from the perspective of living in Florida, and it took me a second to feel the identity of where I was living," she says.
To embed herself further in the scene, and build a more Chicago-centric musical identity, Laura decided to join up with Bloodshot Records. It was a fortuitous match.
"I've lived in Chicago for five years, and I don't really have any community here. I wanted to feel like I have some community, so I thought it would be cool to work with a Chicago record label. I realised that their offices are maybe ten blocks from my apartment, so I went in and was like, ‘Hey give me a record deal, put out my record'," she says. "I basically went in and applied for a job. I was like, ‘I want to work in Chicago, I want to have a record label here, so… can I have a record deal?' and they were like ‘Uh... okay?'"
Laura's desire to build herself a community in Chicago and work with a local record label might seem strange, considering ‘Bought to Rot' is unambiguous about her feelings towards the city. On the straightforwardly titled ‘I Hate Chicago', Laura lays out a laundry list of all the reasons the place sucks, from shitty pizza ("I grew up in Italy, so Neopolitan style is the only pizza I will accept," she says) to O'Hare airport, to the entire neighbourhood of Pilsen.
Halfway through the track she stops, caught out, and admits, "Alright. Christ, you caught me. This is actually just another divorce song." But, she points out, that doesn't mean Chicago isn't genuinely terrible.
"Chicago as a city prides itself on being a hard place to live. A really unfriendly place. It's like if you knew someone who was like, ‘Yep, I'm a real dickhead, that's me, I'm a fucking asshole to everyone I meet, that's my thing", and you're like, ‘That guy's an asshole', and someone said, ‘Why are you calling him an asshole?' It's like, well he'll tell you he's a fucking asshole!" she laughs.
"Chicago will tell you that it doesn't like you and it thinks you're crap and it's willing to step on you. It's a city that's overrun with corruption, there's horrible, horrible fucking gang violence. It's a tough place to be. But also the song is a little bit tongue in cheek, you know. It would be anywhere I was that I was directing that hate. When you're unhappy, you're just unhappy all around."
Still, she says, it is cathartic to sing about how much the place sucks.
"I remember the day that I wrote it I was in the new studio in Chicago, looking out the window like, ‘Oh what am I going to write about?' and I was just like, ‘God damn; I fucking hate Chicago'," she laughs.
‘Bought to Rot' doesn't necessarily take the position that Laura is right about, well, anything at all though. Album closer ‘The Apology Song' has her holding up her hands and issuing a blanket repentance for any and all wrongdoing. Originally the idea came to her as a good way to close a live set, but felt equally fitting to wrap up the album.
"It feels like a good thing to do, to apologise at the end of a record," Laura says. "Like, ‘I had a lot of things to talk about, thank you for listening, maybe I'm not right about everything… I don't know, I'm sorry. If there's something I've fucked up about, I'm sorry. I am.'"
She thinks about this for a second. "Seems like a good way to leave. Flip a table first, then apologise."
Taken from the November issue of Upset. Laura Jane Grace's album 'Bought To Rot' is out now.
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