Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to sit down and have a no-holds-barred telephone conversation with Against Me! Front-woman Laura Jane Grace, who had been touring North America with arena-rock band Green Day, but still found time to chat while filling time before a show in Arkansas. For those unfamiliar with Laura, she is an openly transgender singer/songwriter, social activist, punk rocker, and author. She has appeared on such programs as The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and taken some very direct stands against the Trump administration (including some choice Twitter comments just last week about the Tweeter-In-Chief’s activity since the mass flooding in Puerto Rico).
Currently on their own Against Me! headlining tour with The Dirty Nil, Laura has become somewhat of a pop culture icon for her very outspoken beliefs and never-say-die attitude, and that’s just what an audience can expect from her when the band returns to Canada this Friday and Saturday night with shows in Toronto and Montreal.
I was pleased that she was willing to speak so candidly with me, and didn’t mince words when it came to Donald Trump and what she feels are mere distraction tactics by those on the right. Efforts by the Trump administration to repeal the Transgender Bathroom Bill earlier this year have become fuel for her angst and she had little trouble sounding off on the issue. The “bathroom bill’ is the common name for legislation or a statute that defines access to public facilities by transgender individuals, such as public restrooms.
“Obviously like anyone even paying attention slightly to what is going on with the current administration in the US recognizes that there is no shortage of moments where you’re just like slapping your forehead and going ‘what the Fuck?’. It’s kind of totally a scary time, and the transgender community as with the rest of the LGBTQ community, are not the only communities under attack by the Trump administration. I think in general, it feels like the world is under attack by the Trump administration. But in particular, there is just like this continued focus on stripping away rights and protections of people. I have commented that it feels like a more evil thing than we are usually used to in politics. Going out of your way to push things backwards is just like a clear sign of an agenda of dehumanizing groups of people and separating groups of people, and making a group of people a target. That is not the kind of society that I want to live in. Certainly not.”
When asked to comment on criticisms that sometimes the left appears to be regressive in that it seems to cater to special interests and too many subsections of our society and doesn’t seem to be satisfied unless their agenda is fulfilled, Laura did not mince words or feelings in sharing her disapproval with what she felt was a falsified message. She made bold arguments that those blaming the “Bernie or Bust” movement for allowing Donald Trump to rise to power aren’t being objective with their commentary, and that to suggest that sub-cultures within the left are providing ammunition to the neo-liberal, right-wing conservative moment, comes across to her as disingenuous.
“I think there are many levels at play there, and that’s a really complicated thing. You can kind of go off on many different tangents from many different angles with. Particularly with Bernie Sanders. Like you know, I would be totally open to making the argument that maybe the (2016 Presidential) Democratic primaries were rigged, and maybe Bernie Sanders should have been the one that was on the bill, but let’s go beyond that. Moving beyond that, I really strongly believe that people’s issue with Hilary Clinton was really specifically that she was a woman, and not likely anything to do with politics, and certainly not anything to do with her emails, as has been demonstrated here lately with reports that Vice-President Mike Pence used a personal email for government business. It was never about emails, and it was never about Benghazi. Most people still don’t even know where Benghazi is on a map.
‘These were just specific things to point to because it was the idea of a woman leading, and unfortunately to me, it’s not very surprising that after such a significant step of progress in the United States with eight years of having our first African American president that of course the next president that was elected would be some racist, crusty white guy. That just sadly makes total sense to me. I think that is really a reaction to that. It’s so abundantly clear to me that the agenda of the Trump administration is a white agenda. It’s based on nationalism. It’s based on racism. It’s based on sexism. It’s based on homophobia. It’s based on transphobia. And it’s based on not giving people equal rights. I think it’s really false and inaccurate, and condescending to say ‘well the left shoots itself in the foot by having all these different subsections.’ For anyone, no matter how unique they are, to say ‘I demand equal rights as a human being’ to be dismissed as saying ‘that’s just too specific, your needs are like whatever’ is just bullshit. Equal rights for everyone, regardless! That’s my philosophy. Equal rights for everyone! The left is coming from a place of ‘we would like rights and this group of people would like rights that you have’ and the right is always coming from the place of ‘no, we would like rights that you don’t have. We want your rights to be taken away, and that’s always what the argument breaks down to, and I can’t see how anyone can agree with their tactics.”
We exchanged cynical laughter about how there always seems to be an excuse, drawing the often used example of how we should help our own homeless before taking in Syrian refugees, and then we say ‘that’s great, what would you like to do?’ only to hear nothing because they don’t actually want to help anyone.
“Yeah, um, they don’t want to help them. That’s the part, totally. Marriage equality is a perfect example of that too. You have one group of people who can get married, and all we are saying is there is another group of people who are saying ‘we would like to get married too.’ It’s the same with the pro-choice argument, where no one is saying you shouldn’t have the right or the choice to have a baby, it’s just that some people believe that they have a right to control their body and to be able to have an option, you know? I strongly agree with that, and that’s what it’s always come down to. It seems like to me it’s like you know, that’s obvious bullshit.”
Shifting gears, the conversation veered towards some of the imagery that the band has become known for, including the dystopic white crosses that were illustrated in Laura’s book, accompanied by rough song lyrics and personal journal entries that would go on to inspire the successful album of the same name.
“In Saint Augustine, Florida, which is where I lived at the time, which is just a small town on the east coast of Florida, there was this church that was close by my house that at least once a year put up four thousand white wooden crosses on their church lawn to symbolize, you know, every abortion that happens and they put up this big billboard with it, with pictures of children’s faces and whatever pro-life verbiage that was on there. And it was just such a fucking eyesore to see every day, and you know, at the time I was about to become a parent, and had my daughter on the way, seven years ago now. That was just this really significant, and really telling example of Saint Augustine in general. I mean, Saint Augustine is such an interesting place. It’s the oldest city in the United States, and quite possibly the oldest city in North America I believe, and it just has this immense history of bigotry. It’s the only city in Florida where Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed for coming and protesting the Monson Motor Lodge. There is this horrific but famous photo of the owner of the Monson Motor Lodge pouring acid into a recently desegregated swimming pool where people are swimming in it. And you could easily Youtube video footage of race riots happening on the beach, and still to this day the city is still very segregated and very backwards in so many ways. That’s what that song harkened to.”
When asked about her inner demons, Laura didn’t mince words about her own struggles with substance, and how recovery looks different for each person. Against Me! has had to start from scratch on multiple occasions based on being dropped by their record label, changes in artistic direction, legal battles, and off and on sobriety. Yet, in every situation Laura seems to find a way to manage her own silver lining.
“You know, it is what it is. Every day is a new battle, and every day is a new journey. But you know, I look at all that and I am thankful for the experiences. If you look at any artist’s life that sticks with it, you know they have those ups and downs. That’s the music industry. I don’t expect that to ever change. You have your struggles, and you sort of become a better person because of it. You learn from it, and it ends up making your art better in my opinion, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
In regards to being the last bastion of mainstream punk rock and how Against Me! inspires others, Laura speaks from a place of personal pride as well as bashful humility.
“Let me tell you something in regards to touring with Green Day (in spring 2017). As you know from reading the book (Tranny), Green Day was the first concert I ever went to. And so it is surreal for me to be on tour and share the stage with Green Day. It’s amazing, being that I was that kid who went to see Green Day when he was fourteen years old, dyed his hair green, and decided to start a punk band from that experience. You know, the first night on that tour, I was standing on the side of the stage and I was watching Green Day play, and I turned around and I looked into the audience. I saw a thirteen or fourteen year old kid there wearing a black button-up shirt with a red tie and their hair dyed black and kinda’ spiked, you know emulating (Green Day singer) Billy-Joe (Armstrong), and it was so comforting and inspiring and reassuring to me because especially knowing the scale of when I first saw Green Day play and they were probably playing at a venue the size and capacity of what we could fill now on our own headlining show. But you know, for Green Day, a headlining show now is like for 20,000 or 30,000 people. It’s these huge arenas. And knowing that with like one hundred percent certainty that there will be at least one kid who left those shows and went home and started their own punk band, and will go on and change the world in a positive way. I just find it so reassuring, and I often have those worries of you know, ‘Is the scene dying?’ or ‘what will become of music, what will become of punk?’ you know, ‘how are things changing?’, but seeing that kid, and knowing that each night, I just felt so reassured. And it’s really inspiring.”
At this point in our conversation, I couldn’t help but gush a little, and talk about how the Against Me! mega-single “Thrash Unreal” would go on to inspire my own upstart record label “Recovery Records,” and I disclosed that I had been dealing with my own addictions and trying to find myself, and how sometimes we get lost. When divulging how far I had come in my own personal journey, it was and continues to be easy to overlook the changes you’re making because they’re not always directly in front of you. Each time I hear that song, it still gives me chills, and it amazed me how much that song still touched me today like it did ten years ago. So I asked her point blank, say you’re a group like mine (Project Mantra), who is starving and striving for an audience larger than 20-30 people, trying to make that indelible impact. What type of advice would you have for people who are sometimes painfully themselves, all the time and struggling to find their impact?
“You speak so passionately, and I am glad that song (Thrash Unreal) still resonates with you. I’m glad that song ever resonates with anyone. You know that the point of that song is in so many ways, never wanting to shame someone for their addictions. I think that is part of the change that needs to happen, and for it to be accepted. You know, like you’re not a ruined person just because you have struggled with addictions. Or whatever. Or vices of any kind. I think when talking about finding an audience or making a change in the world, or trying to do something out there with music and stuff like that, I always tell people when they have similar questions like that, is that they should never judge an audience. Be willing to play for anyone, and anywhere, at any time, under any circumstances, and give it your all! Whether that’s on a street corner, in some bar, in a living room, or basement, or whatever. And just to not give up! Everyone thinks that they always suck at first, and usually everyone thinks they suck even further down the road. You know, like you finish your song or you finish your record, and you have this feeling or idea like ‘I’ll never write a song again’ or ‘I’ll never make a record again,’ or ‘oh God I’m crap,’ or ‘this record is crap that we just recorded.’ That’s always been part of it for me, and I know it has for others been part of it too. You know, a lot of it is also just seeing what works. Seeing how you connect. You know, if you go and you play a show and you’re like ‘okay, I’m really struggling with speaking to people from the stage in between songs,’ or like ‘what am I doing right, what am I doing wrong?’ You have to work at these things. You have to go and do your research online or whatever and watch videos of others bands playing. Go to other shows. See other bands play. See what works for them, and take that and make it your own, and work it. But you know, it’s a craft. That’s why they say that, because it’s like you never get to this point where you’re like ‘okay, now I am on autopilot. Now I can just coast.’ You just have to continually, always work at what you are doing if it is what you love.”
As the music industry continues to change, I took this time to build on her previous answer, and made a point of asking her about her social media presence and how she finds it an effective tool to connect with fans. We also talked about her reaching out to Leah Fay of July Talk recently when she made some public stands when she was being catcalled at a concert in the early half of the year. That’s a huge part of the music industry is dealing with sexism. Being an attractive woman on stage, I can imagine it’s ten times worse. But either way, it seems pretty prevalent, and it seems to be the basis of a lot of music too. So I was curious if Laura had some opinions to share on sexuality in the music industry at this time?
“I think Leah is great, first of all. As we have talked about, I am a huge July Talk fan. When it comes to social media, it is interesting talking about that stuff now. My view has always been that things like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram are great because they cut out the middle man and give you direct access to your audience, or like whoever. You can literally reach anyone on Twitter, which is unfortunately demonstrated by what is happening with Donald Trump. That’s like kind of the ugly side of it. Realizing that it means that as well. We now have a Twitter president. Which is crazy to me, but nonetheless I digress. Unfortunately, so much of the music industry is sexist, and it is misogynistic. and I think that is reflective of how much of that is how our society unfortunately is too. I wish that things would change, and the only way to make that change possible is to go out and to support diversity. If you are in a position where, like, I know myself when I am trying to decide what the bill will be for a tour and who we are going to take out, I want to see diversity on stage. I want to see diversity behind the scenes too, but I don’t just want to be on tour with men. I don’t just want to be on tour with whomever behind the scenes or on stage, because on stage I want to see diversity, because I believe that contributes to having a more diverse audience, and that will just make your shows better. You know, that if everyone is there, then everyone is welcome there, and that is going to make your audience comfortable. That’s what I want. At the very least, I want our show space to be a place where everyone feels comfortable, regardless of age, race, class, gender, or sexuality, whatever. I just want them to feel that way. And unfortunately, we are often trying to create that space inside of a space that is inherently not representative of that, like some shitty bar, where for the night you are trying to take it over and make that out of it, when usually it is the complete opposite of that. Really though, you just have to speak out, you know, just like Leah did. If you see an instance of that, whether you are a part of it or you experience it, speaking out against it and calling attention to it and saying ‘hey, this is bullshit, everyone this is bullshit,’ — that needs to be done. That’s so essential.”
As a huge David Lynch fan, who has allowed his artwork to inspire much of my own, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask her if “Shapeshift with Me” (which is not that far ideologically, introspectively or thematically from “Firewalk with me”) was at all inspired by the brooding existential mellow-drama that at the time of this interview was gearing up for a return to television some 26 years later, hitting on themes that challenged and continue to challenge a lot of cultural norms.
“ I am a huge David Lynch fan, and I feel like that’s the reference that not many people got. It’s so cool, and I appreciate that you got that. I’m a huge Twin Peaks fan, although I didn’t, I don’t know, that second season wasn’t that great. But I have high hopes for this new season, and we will see what happens with that.”
In “Tranny,” Laura talks about how one of the hardest parts of being on tour is how to fill the downtime, stay in control of her challenges, and not allow her would-be vices to rear their ugly heads before or after a show. I wanted to delve into this issue a little, because at this point in their career, Against Me! is playing a unique mix of support-act slots on bigger shows and headlining dates in small clubs. Both dynamics present different challenges and headaches, and much different scheduling needs.
“ Yeah, that’s one of the reasons that I am perfectly happy to talk with you right now, because I am literally sitting in a parking lot in Little Rock, Arkansas where there is nothing around but I see a Burger King, and a gas station. So, yeah, you do have a lot of down hours on a tour like this. And you know, part of the reason we are playing those headlining shows on the side is to keep it interesting, and you know, to break from the routines, so that we’re not only going and having days like today, and that’s just so important when you’re touring. But you know, the approach is definitely different. Opening for a band like Green Day in a venue of that size, obviously you have a shorter set time, so like in a way it kind of like becomes more of a sprint than a marathon. Where at our own headlining shows you’ve got to pace yourselves a little more, because with more time you have the opportunity to play more songs. But for a show like tonight you just like get up on stage, and go for it. It’s like just fucking give it all we’ve got. You don’t have to save anything because you’ve only got that little space of time. And in some ways, you know, you realise being in an opening band situation on an arena tour, you’ve got nothing to lose. All you have to do is to gain fans. Most people in the audience, percentage wise, they don’t know who you are. They’ve never heard of you. So just go out there and do your best. Have fun with it. Be thankful of the moment that you’re living, and where you’re at. And really, I look at tours like this as a learning opportunity. I see Green Day play every night, and I take notes. Literally, I will bring my notepad with me and will make notes like ‘they do this at this point, or play this type of song here.’ You just try to learn from it, and from someone who has more experience with it. And you know, I’m so grateful for the opportunities that they afforded us. Just to be able to reach people with what we have to say. It’s an incredible opportunity, and an incredible tour to be a part of.”
When addressing how sometimes people are not so kind, and it has nothing to do necessarily with the changes in your lifestyle, but more with your commercial success, Laura wasn’t afraid to admit that while those challenges have been present in the past that she seemed confident that the atmosphere is beginning to change. Now with a meaningful book out there for the masses to consume, and her showing up on the Daily Show, and doing songs with Miley Cyrus, Laura is becoming a very prolific figure in our pop culture. I was curious how she found some of their old school fans responding to her now. Are people generally more supportive now, or are there still people at the shows who are there merely to hurl insults?
“You know, I think at this point we have actually kind of crossed that divide. It’s changed, because definitely starting out, you know as you read in the book and I have talked about, we did get so much flack for any change we made as far as like record labels, or touring with a bigger band, but like I really feel like that’s died down for whatever reason. Maybe being that people aren’t surprised anymore that we are touring with a band like Green Day or doing a song with like Miley Cyrus or something like that. Or maybe, hopefully, best case scenario, people might see the value in that. I mean to me, like, I did two songs with Miley. One of them was me, Miley and Joan Jett. For the song the three of us did together, I was like ‘yo we should do “Androgynous” by The Replacements, because it’s an amazing song that has a great message and Joan had already covered the song with her band, and we had also been covering it. But I also knew without having to verbalize it that it’s also a great act of subversion, because you’re introducing how many millions of Miley Cyrus fans to THE REPLACEMENTS! There’s like so many fucking 12 or 13 year old kids out there now who have certainly never heard of The Replacements, who now know at least one badass Replacements song. So now they can go on and discover that, and I really think that reaching a bigger mainstream audience gives you greater opportunities for subversion, and to really make change and to be true to your roots and properly continue on good things. And that’s like something that I will ultimately respect Green Day for too. We’re here talking about that 13 or 14 year old kid in the audience, and every single night they get up on stage and Green Day plays “Knowledge” by Operation Ivy. And like, fucking yeah. That’s another generation of kids who are turned on to those bands and turned on to that history. And that’s what it is. It’s like teaching history through music, and making sure those roots are still there. I know I certainly see that connection. I only ever see a stage as a physical necessity as in, well if you get enough people in a room you are going to need something to elevate you to stand on so that everyone can see you. So that you’re like present. And then comes the major tours and security guards, and arenas…And it is an illusion. Go home, start your own band. One day you could be opening for your heroes. Don’t let these moments get to you. Nothing is unattainable. You could be up on that stage. Fuck, one day we could be opening for you. That’s the message.”
During this segment of the conversation I couldn’t help but bring up The Clash. As one of those heroic bands of yesteryear that have directly inspired every artist mentioned in this article, there is definitely a level of revisionist history that so often becomes attached to legendary musicians. I personally know hard right ‘Reganomics’-style conservatives who see The Clash as a major influence, just like some on the left, and I know they were one of my big influences for not only ever picking up a guitar but also a microphone and standing for something. It’s where a lot of us learned about social issues of isolation, and class warfare. It was my introduction to international issues. I had previously seen Against Me! cover The Clash on stage, and I wanted to hear Laura’s take on whether she thinks a band like that can resonate with some many people from all sides of the political spectrum so universally?
“Sure, yeah. They’re the only band that matters. And because what they created was undeniably true. Sure, they’re great catchy songs, but they’re speaking truth. Joe Strummer (front-man of The Clash) spoke truths. And sometimes those truths weren’t always flattering to themselves. Songs like ‘Safe European Home’ written after going to Jamaica, and coming home and going ‘oh shit, this is just culture misappropriation. We are just these white people coming to Jamaica, thinking we’d be like accepted here. We got to get to our safe European home.’ And like, you know, it’s amazing too, because I agree. The Clash informed me politically in so many ways, but you’re talking too about how they were really singing about situations that you couldn’t always necessarily relate to. As myself, a teenager in south Florida, and for you, I’m sure like ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’. I didn’t even really know what that meant. I didn’t know where ‘Hammersmith Palais’ was. But I understood what was being said, and being able to cross those divides really speaks to the ultimate powers of truth, that The Clash and so many other bands like that spoke.”
As my time with rock’s most interesting front-woman began to wind down, we returned to the basics, and I asked what does the future of Against Me! look like?
“Um, you know, I both think about that a lot, and also try not to think about it at all. If there is anything that I have learned from everything, it’s just to enjoy the moment and live in the present. But at the same time, my nature is to just always worry, and think ‘okay, what happens next.’ I imagine that, like I said earlier, that’s the way it goes. Is it your time? You’re going to have those moments where you fail or you get dropped by your record label, or you’re going to put out a record that people don’t like. That’s just the nature of being an artist. You just keep going. Being an artist isn’t about being super successful commercially, so you just give up. That’s not the reward for me. That reward is kind of an aftershock affect-type thing. The reward for me is the completion of the task you set out to do, like ‘I want to write a book,’ and the second you are finished be like ‘I did it, there it is.’ And everything else afterwards is just like some weird thing that kind of happens. I guess, if you wanted to know what the future is, it’s that I want to keep going as long as I can. I just want to play music. I love travelling. I want to be able to share that with my daughter, and I want to be able to continue to be working as an artist.”
When asked if the teenage angst that once propelled her to put pen to paper and guitar picks to guitar strings still exists within her, recognizing that not everyone is against her anymore (I know, I wrote that line myself), Laura continued down the path that this conversation began on, and turned her sights to Trump.
“You know, I wonder if I would be inclined to answer differently if Trump weren’t president?! If there wasn’t like this sweeping trend throughout the world that’s sending us in a scary direction? It is things like that which are reality tests, where things are not all bread and roses. And you just go along and live happily ever after. The struggle continues. And the reasons that I got involved with playing political music specifically and starting a punk band, and wanting to change the world, and have a meaningful platform for that — those reasons still exist, as demonstrated by that election (in 2016). There is still that need for the anger. If we were living in some kind of fucking utopia, than like yeah sure, I’d be like, you know what, I’m going to retire and I’m going to go smoke pot on a beach. But we’re not there. The struggle continues, and so many of the things that you are talking about and bringing up like attacks on LGBTQ kids, and bathroom issues coming up, those things are important to me because they affect me directly in my personal life. I speak out against those things because I need them to change to be able to survive. I know that’s also necessary for other people too.”
After more than an hour on the phone, I had finally exhausted my list of questions and was honestly awestruck by how much of her time she had freely given a super fan with her words tattooed on his body. We had talked about music, about The Clash, about Hilary Clinton and Mike Pence. We had run the gamut. But there was one more piece of advice I had to ask for, and she was more than happy to not only play the part of spokeswoman, but also of role model and friend. I had a friend who wants to come out to their in-laws as transgender. They asked me to ask her how they might go about doing that, and how should they approach it?
“Well you know, I will say there were a lot of like negative aspects to coming out the way I did, but there were also a lot of benefits to coming out the way I did, in particular. I’m not suggesting that your friend should come out in Rolling Stone magazine or anything like that, but specifically doing it in kind of a non-confrontational way, where you’re giving this person the information that you want to say and you want them to hear, but you’re not standing in front of them, steering at them and waiting for their reaction. You’re giving them the time and the space to process and think about it, run through their reactions, and come to you if they want to talk about it. I kind of see a lot of value in that approach, because being in a situation where you feel like you are kind of asking for acceptance, or like apologizing for coming out as who you are…you should never feel like that. You should be able to say ‘this is this, that is that, and this is who I am.’ And if someone has an issue with that, or has a problem with you that’s their problem. It’s not your problem at all. They need to work on themselves. You don’t need to work on yourself. I really just think giving people the space to process that information properly, that there is value to that.”
So then I asked “How can I be a better ally?”
Her final response before we said our goodbyes and hung up the phone…
“Listening. Honestly, listening! That’s all!”
I hope to see you in the pits this weekend my friends.
Against Me! is on tour supporting their album “Shapeshift With Me.” Laura and her band hits the stage at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto this Friday, October 6th and the Corona Theatre in Montreal this Saturday, October 7th. Ticket information is available through their website at www.againstme.net. Her book Tranny is available wherever good books are sold.
Author’s Note: Passages of this interview have appeared in other publications previously (such Liberal Canadian). This article is the work of me and my passion for a great songwriter and advocate. I approve of sharing Laura’s message far and wide, and am happy to lend my work wherever in an effort to do exactly that.
Additional Author’s Note: As a note of caution to anyone who’s made it this far who might even remotely consider being an asshole like the one I personally witnessed in Ottawa after a killer show by Against Me! at the Bronson Centre…your mindless bullshit ruins it for all of us. Respect an artist’s personal space. Enjoy the sights and sounds, but don’t be a prick. Their tour bus is their home. Some of us want to enjoy a moment with friends and idols, and when you act like a selfish and arrogant piss-ant, you compromise those moments for the rest of us. So keep your hands and your lewd comments to yourself. We don’t own the artists. They lend themselves to us.