Rank Your Records: Laura Jane Grace Ranks the Seven Against Me! Albums
The frontwoman looks back at one of the most beloved (yet most divisive) catalogs in modern punk.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
On Christmas day of 1996, Laura Jane Grace picked up an acoustic guitar and recorded some songs in her mother's house in Florida. It was an inauspicious beginning to a band called Against Me!, one that would go on to release seven full-length albums, tour arenas opening for Green Day and the Foo Fighters, and rile up the punk community every step of the way.
This month, after finishing a nearly two-month long tour, Against Me! will return to its onetime home of Gainesville, Florida, to play The Fest. And though the band and The Fest have a long history together, this time Against Me! will be playing their first album, 2002's Against Me! is Reinventing Axl Rose, in sequence for the first time ever. With this full-album performance happening, it seemed like a good time to have Grace sit down and rank her band's albums. Days before embarking on the band's headlining run in support of 2016's Shape Shift with Me, Grace and I sat in a park and discussed the band's catalog. She came prepared, with her handwritten list in a notebook for reference. And even though she made some last-minute tweaks to it, she turned in her definitive rankings, telling stories—and doling out criticisms—with the unabashed honesty she's known for.
7. Searching for a Former Clarity (2005)
Noisey: What about this record don't you like?
Laura Jane Grace: The songs. [Laughs]
I feel like Searching for a Former Clarity is really full of good intentions. Where we were as a band right then, we were all very present, all very committed, all trying to do it, but very unrealistic in the amount of time we gave ourselves to do it. We'd done two full-length records and just started touring, touring, touring. This was the first time in the band's career where we were like, "We're taking a break from the road. We're gonna hunker down and write a record—craft the great masterpiece record." We had those lofty ambitions, but we only really gave ourselves three months to do that.
And it ended up being the longest record the band ever made.
There's a lot of fat on it. There's a lot of stuff that could have been cut that would have made a more concise record. A lot of the songs just weren't fully realized visions. So, for one, it's because it was a longer record, and the amount of songs we still play off it to this day is significantly less than other records.
What songs would you cut?
I would cut "Even at Our Worst We're Still Better Than Most (The Roller)," I'd cut that song from the record. You don't need it.
But off that record, we still play "Miami." I will begrudgingly play "Don't Lose Touch" every once and awhile.
What do you have against that one?
Oh, we played that song to death. We played that song fucking every show for probably ten years. I was just at the point where I was like, "I'm done! I'm done singing that song."
The record, too, in my opinion, suffers from a little too much self-awareness. I've always believed in writing what you know, and our experience at the time was going through the stupid, major label bidding war stuff. And I was really influenced by Cursive's The Ugly Organ and the idea of criticizing the art world. So that was really where my head was at. I was consumed with it just because those were the circumstances. I had a hard time seeing beyond that, subject matter-wise, because all I had going on was my band.
A lot of bands make that kind of record, but this one I think gives a lot of insight into the minutia of being in a band. Like "Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners," where you're listing off the percentages that go to agents and managers.
Which are accurate percentages!
But I think that's what makes it interesting. Though, reading your book, it sounds like Fat Wreck Chords wasn't behind it from the start.
Which was crushing. There was no confidence in it either. It was like, "Our label hates the record. Our fans fucking hate us. We're trying to be something but we don't even know what we are really." I'm happy that I don't dislike the record or feel bad about it because we were just wasted and we weren't really trying. We were legitimately trying, and we put a lot into it. We built out the basement of the house I was living in into a practice space. We put blood, sweat, and tears into it.
With Axl, it was a band that was playing these songs and they were really me and Kevin [Mahon, Against Me!'s original drummer]'s songs. Cowboy was us coming together as a band. And I always wanted to be a band. With Searching, I was really like, "Everyone, let's contribute. Let's all contribute to the songwriting." And that just didn't work for us. It was trying to push a square peg through a round hole. We just weren't meant to write together as a band, but we were trying to.
6. Shape Shift With Me (2016)
This is your most recent album, why is it so low?
For no real negative reasons. It's probably my favorite, sonically. I'm happy with the fact that it's not an overproduced record. Each of us has a guitar track and that's it. Creatively, I felt great about it, and I loved writing that record. It was like, "I have an idea, let's record it," and there it is. But it's newest. I'm not that artist that's like, "My newest shit is the best shit I've ever done."
Most people would put it at number one just because of that.
Oh, totally. And I fully recognize with this record that it's almost like an accidental record. It wasn't my focus then. I was doing the book, and I could have just done the book, gone and done a book tour and been busy for a full year. It was just that, writing the book, I ended up distracting myself with songwriting. And because I was deep in a book, songwriting had to be really superficial. It was just, "How do I feel right now? I'm gonna write a song and that's gonna be an escape from working on the book." It was fun, and it was easy, but as far as weight of the material, it's a little light.
Was this record at all motivated by how long Transgender Dysphoria Blues took to make and that, with the book, you were doing so much looking back that you wanted to show you were still active in the present?
Totally, yeah. I didn't want to feel that way of putting out the book and then going on tour and feeling like we were a touring greatest hits act or something like that. Or like, this is the book on a tour. And that's not dishonest in any way, because that's the truth. We're a band, and we like touring and we still want to be doing this thing. It's important, and it's necessary, but at the same time I really think that this version of Against Me!, present day Against Me!, can make a better record.
Which is a really exciting thing.
I'd like to think so. That's what keeps me involved in it. The next time we write a record, knowing that I don't have to work on a book at the same time, it is so much fucking easier when you don't have to write a book at the same time as working on a record. While also being a parent. And just by law of muscle-building too, the strain of balancing book and record at the same time, by having that one thing gone you're like, "Oh shit, I can lift this, no problem." I can do even more than I did with it last time mentally because I have that capacity.
5. Against Me! as the Eternal Cowboy (2003)
If I were to criticize this record, I would say that it's really short. I talk about it in the book, where we bluffed our way into the deal with Fat. They were like, "Do you have a record ready to go?" And I was like, "Yeah, we got it. We're ready to record it." Then I hung up the phone and was like, "Oh shit. We need to write some songs quick." And this is still us just getting in the rhythm and understanding how you do it, by going on tour for a long time and coming back prepared to make a record as opposed to just always starting over at square one. It's a rushed record in that way. There are some things that, because we were rushed, actually turned out well. "A Brief Yet Triumphant Intermission" was just that we didn't have lyrics and were recording it anyways. But looking at it now, I kind of dig that.
It has a lot of that, with this instrumental song and some acoustic songs and then also probably the fastest songs in the band's catalog. Was that a function of needing to get it done?
Again, I wanted to be a band. I want to be a fucking band. And we're becoming the band, and it's the four of us. We had recorded everything up until then, aside from four-track recordings, with Rob McGregor at Goldentone in Gainesville. We went in as we normally did and demoed. And it's weird, because I've always had trouble with the concept of, "This is a demo recording and this is the recording." No, they're both just fucking recordings.
So we did that with Rob but, I don't know, I was ambitious. I really wanted to grow beyond the Gainesville scene. I wanted different experiences other than Rob McGregor's studio. Not to knock his studio, I just wanted different things. At the time, being really into The Replacements, Ardent in Memphis was where The Replacements recorded. And I wanted to make an analog record. I wanted to be honest as a band. I wanted to go in and play, I didn't want to edit shit and fix shit. So the record came out of the fact that there isn't punch-ins, that's just the band playing.
I remember that night so vividly, of coming back to the hotel room and we're listening to it and just realizing it's all too fast. All these songs are too fucking fast. We were just nervous when we went in and were tracking, and we recorded them all too fast. At that point, we had never messed around with listening to a click or remembering the tempo we were in. It was just whatever the mood was.
There's definitely songs that seem to have some deliberate speed-ups.
Deliberate? [Laughs] There are definitely ramp-ups, and some of that is deliberate, and some of that is the performance, but we turned a 30-minute record into a 24-and-a-half-minute record. And then we had to stretch that even more by putting a little more time in between songs to just stretch it out.
Was Fat like, "Oh, you just turned in an EP?"
I don't think they knew what to really think. At the time, there was no focus on us. They just signed None More Black, and None More Black were poised to be the band that was gonna do really good by Fat. And we were this little fucking band from Florida and they just happened to be putting out our record too. But the record did end up doing really well. A lot of those songs, ratio-wise, we still play. We still play "T.S.R.," we still play "Cliché Guevara," we still play "You Look Like I Need a Drink," we still play "Turn Those Clapping Hands into Angry Balled Fists" fairly often, we play a lot of those songs. Those songs held up, and the songwriting I still really like, and I do like the way the recording sounds, I just wish they were fucking slower.
And with how that record sounds, it definitely stood out. It didn't have the signature Fat drum sound and the guitars were played without much distortion.
And I think that made us stand out on Fat. It was like, we're different than these other Fat bands. That first tour we did in support of it was Rise Against, Anti-Flag, None More Black, and us. We stood out for those reasons and it worked for us.
One of the most biting pieces of criticism of this record was a friend saying to me that the last song, "Cavalier Eternal," was a throwaway song similar to the last song on Dear You. They made that comparison and I was like, "Fuck, it's so true." But my song has held up better than the Jawbreaker one.
4. New Wave (2007)
This one is the big turning point. You signed to Sire and the punks automatically hated it, but critics seemed to love it. How did you feel as you were going through that?
It's an uneven record in that I really fondly remember the time recording it and then do not like remembering the time of touring for it. It was really fulfilling, and we felt like we succeeded in the recording of it, and that feeling went away the second it came out. The label's reception of it was that it was a failure. Which is weird, because it was critically acclaimed. It was Spin's number one album of the year, but it was almost a compliment with a slap. It was like, "You're the number one album of the year but you're not big enough to put on the cover, so we're gonna put Kanye West on the cover. But you're still number one!" But are we really?
Did it just not sell well enough for them to deem it a success?
No, it didn't, but it's still the highest selling Against Me! record. But from a major label standpoint, it didn't even do 250,000 [copies]. It sucks because, on the one hand, we knew it'd never succeed, but we wanted it to. We really wanted it to. And then seeing that press you're like, maybe? It was a difficult time. And touring was just not easy for it.
Songwriting-wise, I think it suffers a little bit from the Searching for a Former Clarity thing in that it's so honed in and focused on one thing. I love, love, love the recording quality of New Wave. I love the way the record sounds and I think it's held up consistently in that it still sounds good. Songwriting-wise, we still play 60 percent of the record, 70 percent of the record. It holds one of Against Me!'s worst songs. "Animal" is a terrible fucking song, right? So it has that not working for it. But we still play "New Wave," we still play "Thrash Unreal," though I'm burnt out on fuckin' "Thrash Unreal."
Well, like "Don't Lose Touch," it's been ten years of playing it.
Our running joke as a band, between me and Atom [Willard, drummer] specifically, is, "Do we need to play the third verse? Would you miss the third verse if it was not in the song?"
And we still play "The Ocean." The significance of that song, even just press-wise and narrative-wise, it's got a place in the canon. But just looking at it, that's where I have to throw that record.
What about touring in support of it soured you on the record?
We shot ourselves on the foot with the very first tour we did in support of the record before it was even out. We toured with Mastodon for a month. And it was a just a fucking party. It was non-stop partying. And after a month of that, I was destroyed. I was depleted. I needed two months off, not to go right into putting out a record and flying all over the place. And it was just negative energy, people giving you the finger, calling you a sellout. As much as you want to be like, "It doesn't affect me," being around that much negativity took its toll. Or at least it really started to take its toll. And I got arrested shortly after that for when I snapped, and that was a dark cloud hanging over the rest of it. It took four or five months for the court case to clear up, and that was just a dark cloud hanging over touring.
3. White Crosses (2010)
Having read your book, I assumed this would be lower given how tumultuous the writing and recording process seemed to be.
The writing and recording process of it, there was turmoil going on but, at the same time, it was focusing on work that was my escape and was bringing me through it. I was naively thinking, "We can get out of this problem if we write a hit record." I was going to focus harder on songwriting than I ever had before. I was feeling really inspired and encouraged by the fact that Butch [Vig, producer of White Crosses and New Wave] wanted to work with us again. He thought we were so awesome that he wanted to do it again, and that was a huge confidence boost. And I wanted to bring it because of that. And the outside pressure of about to be a parent, and racing against the deadline of making a record before your kid is born, it was intense. But I felt like I rose to that occasion. I wrote something like 30 fuckin' songs for the record and just really worked on songwriting. And again, I worked on learning things about the studio. I think the fact that it is a record that a lot of people say, "It's overproduced" and don't like, for the reasons other people don't like it, those are the reasons I really feel proud of it.
What about that kind of production appeals to you?
I guess it's kind of looking at it objectively. I always get really frustrated doing interviews when people are like, "Your new record sounds different from your last record. Why is that?" It's like, because we used different fucking microphones in a different room in a different year, there's a different preamp and a different compressor. And I want different experiences in the studio. I want to learn how to use equipment, apply it, then learn something else the next time around. And that was an experience of learning, to an even more extreme degree.
Going in with New Wave, I felt like Butch was still like, "I'm going to protect this band and make sure they maintain who they were going into it." But with White Crosses, he understood that I didn't give a shit about that. I wanted a hit record. I want to swing for the fences. We're going for a grand slam or nothing here. It wasn't someone pushing me to do something I didn't want to do. Any of those things people complain about, like using melodyne on the vocals, it's like, yeah, I wanted to learn how to use melodyne, and I couldn't get someone else to come into the studio to sing into a microphone to fuck with their vocals. It had to be my voice that was the one that was manipulated. So I see the record in a different way. I see it as the songwriting of it and the recording of it. Songwriting-wise, by this stage, on New Wave I'd abandoned the idea that we were all going to write together. New Wave was the major label debut and I was going to write all of those songs. And I did. And I felt really accomplished. And the next time I was like, "I'm going to do it again. I'm going to write even more songs."
Having worked with Butch on New Wave, did you feel more prepared to turn in that kind of hit record you wanted?
At that time, the fear of the label interfering was alleviated. I had full confidence that Butch could deflect anything, and it would be the record we wanted to make—the collective we, of the band, Butch, and Billy, who engineered it. The label was going to have minimal influence in the way I was worried about initially. That being said, I was going into it with a real please-everybody attitude and was open to label input because we needed a hit record. How do I make a hit record? How do I make the label happy? Because the label has to be happy to work the record. They're going to be less apt to work the record because it's the second major label release. If it doesn't do fuckin' really well right off the bat they're gonna completely withdraw any support from it and it's gonna disappear. Which it did. That's exactly what happened. But looking at it, there's not a shred of doubt I have that's like, "Well, maybe if I just tried a little harder." I rest totally easy because I fuckin' tried.
2. Against Me! is Reinventing Axl Rose (2002)
You've got to give credit where credit's due—those songs carried my career for however fucking long they carried my career. While maybe a lot of those songs have come out of the setlist now, we played the shit out of them for 20 years. But we play "Walking Is Still Honest" and "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong" every single night. Every single fuckin' night. And I wrote those songs when I was 17. I'm fuckin' 36, you know? You just have to acknowledge that.
Looking at the songwriting of the record, the songwriting that's good on there is completely accidental. I didn't know what I was doing. Anything that resembles the structure of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus was just an accident. It's like, wow, I just knew how to do that instinctively. But it's my least favorite recording quality of any Against Me! record.
That's not a surprising statement.
It's a terrible sounding record. The snare tone on that record is just abysmal. The snare was a 12-inch and had a tambourine in the center. It was a Sonor Jungle kit that Warren [Oakes, former Against Me! drummer] used on that record. And it was just the weirdest-ass fucking drumkit. And I recorded a Martin acoustic guitar through a Peavey amplifier to get my tone on that record. It's just what you have around, and that's what you make. We recorded the album all in one day. We listened to it and were like, "Oh shit, that's too fast," then went back and re-recorded it in a second day. Though the version of "Walking Is Still Honest" is the original version from the first day.
Then, also, looking at it, it's really a collection of songs that were written under different contexts. The only three songs that were written by that band, me, Dustin [Fridkin, former bassist], James [Bowman, guitarist], and Warren were "We Laugh at Danger and Break All the Rules," "Jamaican Me Fuckin' Crazy," (ed. "Scream Until You're Coughing Up Blood"), which is a prime example of a joke that was funny at the time, and it's clearly not funny 20 years later, and then "Politics of Starving." We managed as a band to write three songs together before going in and recording a record. So it always felt like kind of a copout in that way. But the record had the life that it had, so it is what it is.
It's funny, because aside from "We Laugh at Danger…," those songs you wrote as a four-piece you never played all that much. Is it weird relearning them to play the full album at Fest?
It's a strange thing. And we've had this happen a couple times just because of lineup changes, where you have to sit down and relearn a song you already thought you know, and then you realize you're not playing the same things as each other. "Oh shit, what did I do here?" And when you don't know how to write a song you go back and, structurally, you're like, "What the fuck? This doesn't make any sense."
And I had the same approach to chord formations. Just like, "That sounds good, I'm gonna make that a chord." So "Politics of Starving," last night I was sitting in front of my stereo going "What was that fucking chord?" I think James has it more figured out than me, and I had Atom [Willard, drums] send me mp3s of him playing drums to those songs with him going like, "What do you think of this? Because I don't know how to emulate it otherwise."
So are you trying to recreate it as close to what it was or are you smoothing some of the edges?
Dustin who played on the record is gonna do the set with us. While Atom will still be playing drums, it'll be somewhat of a reunion. And James, Dustin, and I have known each other since we were freshman in high school, so I'm excited about that, and Dustin's been excited playing through the songs again.
And this was all my idea, and it was all really arbitrary. We usually get a Fest offer, and we're usually busy and we can't do it. And we also did the first six or seven Fests, so it's good, we know what it is. But for whatever reason, we had the other tour and were like, "Let's do it!" And we started talking about it and I was like, let's just do Reinventing front-to-back. There was no premeditated thing. It was just my idea, I got us into it. I hate nostalgia. But every once in awhile I have real nostalgic urges.
I think that's just part of being alive. It's dumb, but sometimes it can be real fun.
Yeah, just the idea of playing some songs with Dustin would be really fun.
Going back and relearning the record, there are things you can't understand songwriting-wise, but are there any moments that you're still proud of and think were well captured?
The lyrics. The lyrics on that record I feel really proud of. I don't know what makes something last and change in meaning but, to me, that's the sign of a good song, if it is has longevity. But the reason it has longevity is because the meaning of it has the ability to change. So when I play "Walking Is Still Honest," it doesn't resonate the same way as it did when I was 17 or 18 or whatever, but it still resonates. I get different meaning from it, and I think of different things when I play it. "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong" is an even more clear example. It was touching to me and it always meant a lot to me to play that song because it's a song about my grandmother who I loved dearly and who passed away. And it always made me think of that. Then I named my daughter after my grandmother. Now, I get up onstage every night and, when I sing that line, "I'm not coming home tonight," I think of my daughter. Because I'm not coming home tonight. It has a different meaning to me, but it's still just as meaningful. Having songs that have the ability to do that is rare. I don't know what to attribute that to, maybe just naive honesty and putting your heart into something and it working out.
1. Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014)
This one was pretty hard earned—band members left, your studio was destroyed, you got divorced. Were you surprised that you were actually able to get this record out into the world?
Completely. It goes to show you that it's not always one thing or the other. The recording process was miserable. It destroyed the band—half the band quit during it—but I'm not sure if it could have happened any other way. I knew the amount of work I put into the songs, and I knew they needed to be realized, they needed to be recorded, they needed to be out there. And at the same time, I'd done so much work on it under the name Against Me!, there was never a feeling that I could just slap my name on it and it'd just be my solo record. It was an Against Me! record. It's just as fucked-up and as weird of an experience as everything else.
It had the same thing Axl did. Realizing something had a power of its own and was gonna go out and do things on its own and you can just ride the wave of it—which is what you want. It was our sixth record and people were reacting to it the same way they did our first and second record—which they didn't to our fourth and fifth records. [Laughs] It was fuckin' rad. It was a reboot for the band, and it was really inspiring as an artist. It shows you that you're going to have highs and lows in your career and you've got to keep working for it, and you will be rewarded for your work. I don't have any plans to quit playing music, but I'm sure my career will have similar peaks and valleys.
Having come out of that valley, how did it feel to have this renewed interest in the band?
It takes some of the pressures off you. I still want to feel pressure, you know, but I don't want to feel a certain type of pressure. I want to feel the pressure to write the best songs I can, record the best records I can, and put on awesome live shows where it feels like the band is growing, changing, and staying alive. But you realize what it's dependent on and what is actually good and healthy to make those things happen. It's realizing that you've had your first "return to form" and it gives you a confidence boost. But it is gonna be like that, and what ever fuckin' happens happens.
But yeah, so many things happened with Transgender Dysphoria Blues. And that's another thing, jumping back to Shape Shift With Me, is that going into it, I knew doing Transgender Dysphoria Blues 2 wasn't gonna happen. You can't expect for your next piece of work after a piece of work that nearly killed you to measure up or be the same. You have to accept it for being a different experience and let it flow like that. I nearly died making that record. I did lose my mind making that record. It was important to approach it in that way. And looking at it in terms of sacrifices made for a record, Transgender Dysphoria Blues has the most sacrifices made for it.
Sonically, it's not my favorite record. It was recorded at three different studios. There are things where I listen to it now and I kind of cringe. I wouldn't be surprised if in the next few years I go back and have it remixed and remastered.
What makes you cringe?
I don't like the snare tone on "Dead Friend." If you listen to that compared to the rest of the record, it's drastically different. It's miraculous, and a real testament to Atom, how great his drum parts are. He didn't really know those songs and just went in and came up with those parts. And I love that, but it could have been different had we been a band for a little bit longer and played the songs a little bit longer. But I can nitpick anything. I can fucking break down and deconstruct anything.
You said part of what you enjoyed about making your earlier albums was the chance to learn things about recording. Did this record give you the chance to implement those things in your own way?
Oh, totally. You make a record, and you learn something, and you think, "This next record, I want to do it that way and learn from it." And then you do that thing and you learn that you actually don't like doing that thing. Or maybe it's too much to be the engineer and the songwriter and the singer, maybe I do need someone else to tell me certain things. And the band dynamic changes with the people involved. You need someone to fill certain roles, and it just changes. Going into it, comparing Transgender Dysphoria Blues and Shape Shift With Me, sonically, I love Shape Shift With Me more than Blues. I love the songwriting more on Blues than Shape Shift With Me. But I love the way the songs came for me on Shape Shift With Me. As a songwriter, you always want a song to come to you and you don't want to work for it, and those songs just came to me. And that's a really great feeling, when you're not working for it or second-guessing.
The amount of time spent writing Blues was really similar to Axl. A lot of bands' first records are so good because they've had their whole life to write them, right? And songs get good when you play them over and over in a practice setting, then you take them on the road and realize what doesn't work live. That's how you age a song, kind of like wine. And that's why your second record isn't as good, because you're rushing to follow up and you haven't let the songs age, which Cowboy suffered from. With Blues, it had the time to age. Songs aged in the same ways as Axl. They were played by a full different band in the same way. A lot of them were written with us and Jay Weinberg, and he never played on the record.
To have a record like this, where you really worked for it, and to put it out on your own label—after that subject being such a sticking point for people—did it feel like you were in full control of the band and its trajectory?
It felt great. It's funny though because, with that, that was definitely part of the thought process. We went through the major label world and I wanted us to really stand on our own. I didn't want the label it was on to be a connotation for people, like, this is a Fat Wreck Chords release or this is a major label release. But for the amount of people who were harping about what label it was on in the past, no one gives a shit when you're independent again. That wasn't a focus point. No one was like, "Cool! You're running your own record label!" In a lot of ways, professionally, people overlook that in a way. And I kind of get that now. Going forward, I realize the limitations with that. It made sense for those records, but I'm not sure we can do that anymore going forward.
And I'm sure now, having the experiences you've had, you can probably make a pretty informed decision about what label you end up on.
You hope. You really fuckin' hope.
David Anthony is on Twitter.