Laura Jane Grace's rebel music: "I doubt you’re gonna find a successful civil movement or social movement that doesn’t have a soundtrack"

Salon talks to the Against Me! singer about protest songs, her docu-series "True Trans" and writing her memoir

Published October 2, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

  (APRichard Shotwell)
(APRichard Shotwell)

As anyone who’s caught Against Me! in concert lately will testify, the veteran punk band is in a particularly ferocious and inspired-sounding period. Thankfully, the quartet — frontwoman Laura Jane Grace, longtime guitarist James Bowman, bassist Inge Johansson and drummer Atom Willard — have captured this moment in time with a new live album, “23 Live Sex Acts.” The record documents songs from the band’s entire career — from the scrappy early songs “Don’t Lose Touch” and “I Still Love You Julie” to the major label-era jams “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” and “Thrash Unreal” and recent songs from 2014’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.”

When not fronting Against Me!, however, Laura Jane Grace is a busy woman. She’s the music curator of MTV's “Rebel Music” series, which explores the way activism and political music manifests itself around the world, and was also nominated for a News & Documentary Emmy for her AOL original show, “True Trans.” The compelling multi-episode documentary series weaves Grace’s own personal transgender coming-out story with the lives and experiences of transgender and gender-variant people from all over the U.S. In between all of this work, Grace is putting the finishing touches on her memoir — and is also on the precipice of recording new Against Me! music.

Grace talked to Salon on Labor Day, while she was holed up in a hotel in New York. “I don’t usually get to sleep and I’ve gotten to sleep for the past 24 hours, and it’s been kind of heavenly, I’ll be honest with you,” she laughs.

What was the genesis for deciding to release this new Against Me! live record?

Laura Jane Grace: We’ve been on tour for the last two years in support of our last record, and as we were touring, it felt better and better and better. Just as we were playing tighter as a band, that’s was what started getting said backstage after the shows. It’s like, “Wow, we really should be recording these shows, and we should do something with it.” [Laughs] And then we were like, “You know, we can do that. Let’s just do that.” So we did it.

We wanted to capture a snapshot of a“that was us when we were touring then” type of deal. And so many of the older songs have changed and grown, and they’re played differently than they were recorded, just being that it’s a pretty new band now. [We kind of wanted] to give ownership to everyone in the band of our older songs, and to give a… bookmark in a way. The close of a chapter and moving forward, you know?

A song like “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” when you guys play it now, there’s almost a more wistful, nostalgic bent than it had in the past. How has your relationship changed to other songs in the Against Me! catalog?

That one in particular, every time you play it, you’re further and further away from being a teenager. [Laughs] [That’s] what really causes a lot of that wistfulness, of like, “Ah yes, back in the day when I was a teenager, and now I’m in my mid-thirties.” It’s funny — songs are strange in that oftentimes the real meaning of them will reveal itself to you over time. A lot of the songs that I’ve been playing the longest are like that, where what it meant to me to play it when I was 20 years old doesn’t mean the same when I’m 30. And in a good way. Some of them, though, you play them, and it brings you right back to that time and place, and you can always feel that attachment to where they were coming from.

I saw Against Me! in Cleveland this summer, and the band was easily the best it’s ever been live. I mean, obviously Atom Willard’s insanely good, and then Inge’s an incredible bassist. What else do you think is contributing to the obvious chemistry you guys have now?

It took a really long time to get to a place where the four people in the band are all on the same page as far as knowing why they’re there, wanting to be there for the same reason, and wanting to really focus on music and play music and be a band — and be really appreciative of that, and not have this other thing on the side that they feel drawn towards too. Having that is really invaluable. And then we’ve just gotten lucky, too, with the past couple years of touring with the crew that we’ve had with us — like, our road crew has been the right combination of people. That can really make or break a tour or a show for you.

And everyone was just so exuberant on stage. It’s nice to see a band where everyone is having fun. That should be obvious, but I see so many bands where it’s like, you don’t want to be up there; you’d rather be, like, anywhere else.

[Laughs] I mean, when it comes down to it, our whole reason for being there is that hour up on stage. We’ve tried to be really cognizant of the fact that for some people going out to the show, [it’s] this thing they’ve been looking forward to for X amount of time. They got their tickets and it’s their night out or whatever, and they’re going to it. And your [own personal] experience of traveling to get there to the show, maybe it was like you had some crappy travel with the airport or whatever. But it was totally different than [the experience of] those people. So you’ve really gotta recognize that when you’re there at the show, it’s like… that’s the thing. That’s why you’re here, and that’s why you have to make that all worth it.

Your AOL docu-series “True Trans” was nominated for an Emmy. What does that mean to you to be recognized like that?

It’s really kind of alien to me. It’s one of those things that you never, I guess, really expect to hear. Or when you get the email about it, you’re like, “What? Really? Wait, what?” I mean, it’s awesome. It’s really cool and humbling and makes me feel really excited. Even just being nominated, it’s a cool thing to say happened. It’s nice to get recognized for something in that way, for sure.

When you were filming the series, what was the most illuminating thing for you personally?

Really just making the connections, and being in the room listening to the conversations. It became a thing where the cameras weren’t really even thought about. And having the conversations, and being able to relate to people’s experiences, and realize things I was really stressed out about, or maybe unsure or depressed about, that I wasn’t the first person to be unsure about those things [and] to be struggling with it.

And then really to see the power of having those conversations and the way that could reach and educate people — knowing that, okay, hopefully whatever’s filmed goes on to reach people. But [also] knowing that the five people who are even working on the camera crew on the series, [we were able to watch] them as they understood more about trans people or gender-variant people, as they listened to more and more of the testimonials and videos. In real time being able to watch people understand something, relate to it, and have it become a non-issue was really satisfying.

You’re also the music director of MTV’s “Rebel Music” series. What did the artists that you curated and spotlighted on the series teach you about your own music?

It really re-demonstrated to me the importance of protest music. And that when it comes to music like that, artists will find a way to record and get their music out to people no matter what, even if that’s like, you know, dubbing it on a cassette tape and passing it out, putting it online, or bedroom-recording style on any recording medium that they could get. And that “by any means necessary” recording is rad, you know?

Seeing those records, and seeing songs develop in other countries… At this point I, of course, love punk music, but I don’t only listen to punk music. And I’ve been lucky to travel a lot, and go to a lot of different countries and experience protest culture in a lot of different countries, and to see that kind of music firsthand — and see the way that people’s movements is really carried by music. And I doubt you’re gonna find a successful civil movement or social movement that doesn’t have a soundtrack to it.

What was kind of your process of curating this music? How did you discover the artists?

Well, a lot of it was really pretty limited, unfortunately, in that, when [you’re] focusing on some place like Myanmar or Venezuela or whatever, there were only so many bands that fit the criteria of being able to be showcased on the show. So really it was MTV just coming and being like, “Here are the bands that we’re choosing through, and here are the ones that we’re focusing on,” and listening through stuff. Oftentimes that’s kind of the amazing thing, too, is that you’re listening to a song [and] you can’t understand the language that it’s being sung in, but you understand the intent behind it. It’s pretty powerful, speaking to that.

You’re working on your memoir as well. Does it have a release date yet? What’s the status of it?

No release date yet, but yeah, I’m perpetually working on it. It turns out writing a book is a lot harder than one would think. [Laughs] But it’s been happening, you know. A lot of it’s just been slow because I’ve been touring and playing shows and everything like that. It’ll definitely be done within the next couple months, and then hopefully be out not too long after that.

That’s one thing I was going to ask, is how writing that is different than writing songs.

I always start with the lyrics when it comes to songwriting, so on the one hand it’s not too different. But you’re using a different voice or I guess sticking to one voice. And then you have a lot more… like with songwriting, I know that if I fill up one page of normal notebook paper, then I probably have enough lyrics for a song, whereas opposed to a book you just have to keep going and going and going. [Laughs] It’s just a little more drawn-out of a process.

It’s hard, too, when it’s your own story, you know, and you’re looking back and remembering things. And things that may have way bigger importance to you might not necessarily have as big of importance to an audience or someone who doesn’t know the story. So figuring out even what’s interesting or what needs to be focused on, especially because my problem isn’t having a lack of material, it’s more that I have too much material. This memoir is based on tour journals, and I’ve totally transcribed all my tour journals. I had something like a million words, so cutting that down into a book under 100,000 words is an undertaking.

That’s ridiculous! That’s like a massive editing job.

It took a long time just to transcribe everything, and I was really determined that I wanted to do that. I wanted to fully transcribe all the journals, and it took a while. That was really the biggest thing that’s held me back.

Now you know how journalists feel when we have to transcribe hours and hours of interviews…

Oh, it’s brutal, right?

It is brutal! [Laughs] It’s just tedious.

Well, there’s no creative element involved in it. You’re just typing, you know? And to spend a lot of time where you’re not being creative sitting in front of the computer is like… your back starts hurting. [Laughs] You start thinking about all the other things you could be doing. But you get through it.

As you were transcribing the journals, was there anything that really stood out to you as you were going back and reading things you wrote a long time ago?

A lot of it was just remembering certain things, and remembering the moods you were in when certain things [were] happening, and forgetting about certain circumstances. Which was a real healthy exercise. When trying to write any kind of present-day narrative about the past, to actually be able to go back and in your own handwriting relive what you were going through was really a good tool to have, and really interesting to look back on.

What’s more interesting, too, is, having gone back and read through all that stuff is… I read this book recently called “On the Road with The Ramones” that was like… it’s kind of an oral history of The Ramones, and it goes through talking to all of them and all the crew and everything. [It was interesting] reading through that, and knowing what I’ve read through of my own journals and remembering what I do of touring experiences, [and] realizing how much everything is the same — [and] how much has changed, too, at the same time.

Yeah, there’s dodgy venues, dodgy bathrooms and dodgy promoters…

And there never being any ice at venues in Europe. [Laughs] Stuff like that, you know?

Really? That’s so bizarre.

Yeah, that’s always the joke. We’re always like, you know, “Let’s trade in the guarantee tonight for a tub of ice so we can all have ice in our drinks.” [Laughs]

Why is that?

You know, I think — well, in general it’s a lot more common to just drink beverages warm over there, like warm beer, warm sodas, like that’s a thing. [Laughs] You ask for ice and even when you do get ice, it’s usually like two cubes in a cup and you’re like, “I want a full glass of ice right now!” [Laughs]

The band has some tour dates at the end of September, but then what’s on the horizon for you after these wrap up?

Yeah, we have up until the end of the month where we’re still playing shows, and then we’re just going right into the studio. I’ve just been kind of like… we’ve been working on the new record as we’ve been going, while we’ve been touring, and have a good handful of songs. So we’re ready to just start going for it and see where we get by the end of the year.

What are the songs sounding like? What’s really been inspiring you?

In general, it’s been a really travel-based record so far — or travel-based songs. Songs written while on the go in different locations and inspired by the experiences of travel is so far what I get of it. But it’s a little too soon to really have any perspective or grasp on a definite direction.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Against Me! Laura Jane Grace Lgbt Music Punk Transgender Issues True Trans