Inside Against Me!'s "Transgender Dysphoria Blues"
Laura Jane Grace is the kind of frontwoman who locks eyes with stagedivers as they leave her realm and collapse into a sea of outstretched hands. She beams, either clutching at the mic stand before her or barreling down on the neck of her guitar, anchored by both as kids backflip and vault themselves off the lip of the stage and into the crowd. More people in the room are singing along than not; most bodies are represented by a raised fist or two, depending on the professed dedication of those present and their familiarity with the new stuff. It takes about a song and a half for the swirling vortex of a clumsy pit to devour the congregation, and throughout it all, the bright lights and busy atmosphere don't obscure Laura's vision. This is familiar territory. These fans are familiar faces. These choruses go over just as well in Brooklyn as they do in New Haven, Boston, DC and Philly. This is an Against Me! headlining tour, just like any other.
... Except it's not, exactly.
When Against Me!'s last record White Crosses was released in 2010, Tom Gabel had not yet revealed his gender dysphoria, nor had he left his former name behind. Two years later, Gabel would open up to Rolling Stone about his transition from Tom Gabel to Laura Jane Grace, detailing struggles with identifying as transgender and making the life-changing decision to leave Tom in the past and live as Laura in the future. Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the record Against Me! is currently touring behind and the one they'll release on January 21, is the first body of work helmed by Laura that tackles these hugely personal themes while maintaining the unshakeable fortitude of the voice Against Me! fans have come to rely on. Before taking the stage in Williamsburg, Laura walked us through Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the process behind it and the moments leading up to this, the beginning of a liberating epoch in the life of a punk singer and her band.
Would you say that Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a record-long anthem?
For me, as a songwriter, my natural inclination is always to go towards writing things that you can sing along with. Audience interaction has always been a big part of our live show. The response is something I've always wanted to be included in every record we put out. The trick has always kind of been the juxtaposition in having lyrics that sometimes are dark and personal and putting them in that context, where the song is still hooky and catchy. In a way, the lyrics and the music are separate things from each other.
I can see that, but I also think that Against Me!'s punk leanings really make a compelling pair to the subject matter of Transgender Dysphoria Blues. You've never opened up about your transition quite like this before, and though you've always been pretty forthcoming, you're framing your experience in a way that's approachable for your fans to listen to and process--the words tell a different story, but the chords sound familiar. Does this record make you an unofficial spokesperson for trans artists in rock and roll?
I'm obviously putting myself out there, and it's pretty blatant, naming the record Transgender Dysphoria Blues. I have to be prepared to talk about those things. I want to talk about those things and am obviously willing to talk about those things, and I'm sharing a lot with the lyrics on the record and everything like that. For me, it's more about wanting to have a dialog, wanting to have a conversation with other people and not necessarily wanting to come across as an expert, because I'm not an expert. I don't have all the answers, be that all the answers to represent the transgender community in general or even the answers for myself, as far as having it all figured out. I'm very much trying to live one day at a time and take it as it goes. Everything that I could've said, I said on the record.
Have Facebook and Twitter been beneficial when it comes to getting the message out there this time around? You've got a strong social media presence, and Twitter wasn't as big a deal when White Crosses came out.
Social media has only made it easier for making the band and myself accessible, which is something I've always tried to do. When the band started out, I would just write letters back and forth with people. We've always had a P.O. box, and when [fans] were writing to it, I'd always make the effort to write back, even if it was just a postcard. After that, the band had a Hotmail account for years, and I would spend hours answering emails sent to the Hotmail account. Then I would spend hours answering MySpace messages. Twitter is great, because it's like text messaging with the world, you know? That's just always been important to me. It's one of the lessons I'll always retain from punk rock: don't put yourself on a pedestal, be accessible to people and make an effort to have a real connection, if that's what you hope the music is doing.