On last year's universally acclaimed New Wave, Tom Gabel of Florida punk veterans Against Me! left no doubt as to where he stood on a whole host of issues.
You want a rant about the pointlessness of thinking military conflicts can be stopped with songs about how much war sucks? Head directly to the agit-pop screed "White People for Peace" for a reality check. Sick of bands that build careers on the back of the MySpace nation? That's covered in the boiler-room folk-punk of "Piss and Vinegar," where lines like, "I heard the hype about your band/I've seen your videos playing on the TV" do everything but call out Panic at the Disco.
Popping up on every best-of-2007 list that mattered, New Wave was hailed as the kind of emotionally charged, unabashedly anthemic manifesto that recalled the glory days of the Clash. When Gabel calls in from a tour stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, he not surprisingly has plenty to say on whatever question is pitched his way.
And, setting him apart from 90 percent of those toiling in the ugly industry known as rock 'n' roll, he comes across as bullshit-free. In fact, he's honest enough to admit that, despite Against Me!'s best intentions, his band probably doesn't matter as much today as it might have 20 years ago.
"Obviously, less and less records are being sold each year, so it's more about touring now," Gabel offers. "Anyone in a band knows that the way you make money off touring is not just from playing the show, but also how much merch you sell. So much of the emphasis is about T-shirts and memorabilia and shit like that. And then, because the music isn't what's connecting people these days, labels and the fans expect all this networking through things like MySpace and Facebook and whatever."
All this only cheapens the business of being in a band, something Against Me! addresses in New Wave's slash-and-burn rocker "Stop!". Following the mantralike chorus of "Stop, take some time to think/Figure out what's important to you," Gabel snarls "On behalf of our fans, we'd like to accept this award/Smile for the camera, boys."
"None of that shit has anything to do with music," he argues. "It's more of a lifestyle thing, and that can be really frustrating at times. As opposed to being good at your instrument or good at writing songs, it's, 'Are you good at talking to people, are you good at reaching out to fans, and do you have a good personality that comes across on the Internet or the screen?' The importance of music has been diminished."
That's not going to stop Against Me! -- which includes drummer Warren Oakes, bassist Andrew Seward and guitarist-singer James Bowman -- from doing its best to make a difference.
Over the course of 33 pretty much perfect minutes, the band sets its sights on everything from drug addiction ("Thrash Unreal") to the instant dispensability of modern culture ("Up the Cuts"). Gabel acknowledges that, in some ways, the album operates as a window into his personal life -- another way of saying he's got more on his mind than who's going to get kicked off America's Next Top Model this week.
"The way that I've written has always been a little autobiographical," he admits. "These songs were written over the course of a year, so they are almost like a kind of personal diary or journal."
So while the hard-pop killer "Thrash Unreal" tells the story of a scenester who doesn't stop partying until her drug-laced stomach contents hit the floor, it's also about Gabel, who has battled substance-abuse problems. Lyrics like "No mother ever dreams that her daughter's going to grow up to be a junkie" show the singer to be as comfortable with personal tragedy as he is with big issues.
"While elements of that song are fictional, the overall themes definitely apply to my life," he reveals. "I've dealt with my own vices and drug addictions, and I tried to step back and put it in the perspective of someone else. It's funny how many women have written me saying 'That song describes me to a T; thank you so much for writing it.'"
For every grateful fan, there's another who can't get over the fact New Wave is the record where Against Me! makes its bid for something bigger than living-room gigs on the DIY circuit.
After three full-lengths on Fat Wreck Chords, the band jumped to Warner Brothers and then enlisted the help of super-producer Butch Vig, who's most famous for Nirvana's Nevermind. The partnership couldn't have been more successful.
Although New Wave was hardly a hyped release, by the end of 2007 Against Me! was being hailed as one of the breakout bands of the year, gracing the covers of Magnet, Alternative Press and Spin.
"Of all the things that Butch brought to the record, the biggest one was the sense of confidence that he had in us," Gabel reveals. "He's made so many records with bands that were our idols back in the day. Having him sitting there going, 'Your band rocks -- this is as good as any record I've ever made' was such a confidence boost."
And if there are those who'll insist that Against Me! doesn't deserve all that it's accomplished since the release of New Wave, Gabel knows exactly where he stands on that.
"It's frustrating," he acknowledges, "when you hear kids saying, 'We hate your new record, we hate these songs that you're playing live, we hate that you recorded with Butch Vig, and we're upset you're playing this venue, and not this other venue.' It's like, 'You don't like the venues we play, you don't like the records we're making and you don't like the songs we're playing.' Basically you don't like our band. So, you don't like anything about us, and yet you act like you're a fan and that we're betraying you. It really blows my mind."
Against Me! performs at the Vans Warped Tour on July 14 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre.
(This story originally appeared in the Georgia Straight.)