Sunday, February 18, 2007

Arts: Against Me! = Sell Outs

By Jon Reiss

Is it okay for someone to burn a nation’s flag and at the same time stuff their pockets with that same nation's money? If a band with a message sings for a major label, does their message become diluted or is it a step toward reaching more people? Why is it that we get so mad when one of our favorite bands becomes popular?

When indie rock first made its way into the mainstream, a funny thing happened. Bands that had spent their high school years writing about bullies and jocks beating them up began playing to crowded stadiums full of the very same bullies and jocks. When Rage Against the Machine became a big deal in mainstream music, people argued over whether Zack De La Rocha’s human-rights-oriented speeches between songs had any affect on the mindless masses who preferred the music as background for beer drinking and fighting. At the heart of it all is the “Underground” or “DIY Punk Scene.” When a band from such a scene grows too large to stay within such small confines, controversy ensues.

That, at any rate, is the story of Against Me!.

The band, (Tom Gabel, Andrew Seward, James Bowman and Warren Oakes), formed in Naples, Florida in the mid-nineties and became known for their clever and subversive anarchist lyrics. The band’s breakout album Reinventing The Axl Rose features songs like “Baby I’m an Anarchist,” in which they sing about throwing bricks through Starbucks windows, and the title track, where they sing about rock stardom versus hard working musicians who play for the love the music and the scene. “We want a band that plays loud and hard every night," Gabel sings, "and doesn’t care how many people are counted at the door/ They’d travel more than a million miles and ask for nothing but a plate of food and a place to rest/ Everyone will leave that the memory that there’s no place else in the world this is where they’ve always belonged.”

Against Me! delivered on their promises. Last summer the band played a benefit for the now defunct historic punk club CBGB’s. By the end of their set, the bouncers had fled and the stage was bombarded with kids. Finding the actual members of the band was like a Where’s Waldo. One kid had picked up a dropped guitar and in front of him stood Against Me!’s guitarist showing the kid how to play the song. Almost everyone stood side by side with the singer, singing along to the infectious chorus of the last song with everything in their hearts. However, there was a moment during the show in between songs when amongst the calls from fans requesting various songs, someone yelled “Baby I’m a Capitalist.”

In the past year, they’ve been voted “Most Controversial Band” by and graced the covers of loads of music magazines as a result of their jump from strong indie record label Fat Wreck Chords to a subsidiary of Universal. That landed them on the same label as Mandy Moore.

Early fans also disapproved when they demanded their first record on founder of Plan It X's Chris Johnston to be given back to them because they did not like the packaging. Plan It X is a label that subscribes fully to DIY punk ethics and charges no more than 5 dollars a CD. On recent Against Me tours, the band has been met with everything from protestors outside their shows to slashed tires.

“People ask me if I am an activist and I say, 'Yes, I am a musician.' I know this may sound cheesy, but I have seen the patterns and results, and I believe in punk rock," says Johnston, who also sings in the band Ghost Mice. "It saved my life [as] it has saved many others. It woke me up to a world I never would have known. There was a time about four years ago where they [Against Me!] were a highly inspirational DIY punk band that made people feel powerful and hopeful. They are no longer that band. The message got lost at the mall.”

Against Me’s New Wave will be out in late spring on Sire Records, when they will tour with Riverboat Gamblers and Fake Problems.

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