Armed with a hefty set of new songs, punk rock act Against Me! are getting ready to release their seventh record. Going by the title Shape Shift with Me, the record comes 2 years after the bands’ critically acclaimed Transgender Dysphoria Blues record and 4 years after frontwoman Laura Jane Grace coming out as a transgender woman. This end of year will also mark the release of Laura’s memoir Tranny : Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, set to hit the shelves on November 15th through Hachette. Here to talk about the band, her book and her recent years since her coming out, Laura was kind enough to spare some time to grant us a phone interview.
So you’re about the release your next album in a bit. To start things off, could you explain the title of the record, Shape shift with me ?
Well Shape Shift with Me is a title that I kept gravitating towards. Its a line from one of the first songs written for the record and it kind of fitted the theme of being in motion, not really knowing what the changes are or what they mean but wanting to have someone come along for the ride all the same.
Could you give us a quick rundown on what the album is about?
Well this record was written on the road. We spent 2 years touring for our last record, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. In between every tour our home base was the studio in Michigan where we recorded the record, which is run by our engineer and tour manager Marc Hudson. In between every tour I’d have one or two songs written, so we’d demo them and at the end of two years we realised that we had a record ready to be recorded. There’s a part after being on tour after two years where you’re like “Okay, time for a break”, but this time we just felt like going right ahead to record the songs. We were scared that if we did take a break the urgency behind them would be gone, the moment would be lost on them. We wanted to capture the songs fresh from where they were coming from. With that being said, with each song being written while on tour, each tour was a different adventure and I can look at the record and know where I was for each track, what my feelings where and what it looked like. The song Delicate, Petite, and other things I’ll Never Be on the record was written in the winter, and I remember demoing the song and looking out the window of the studio and seeing nothing but pure white snow everywhere and overall bleakness. I can still close my eyes and see that when I hear that song. All This (and More) was written while driving back from the end of a tour and I can still picture the way the interstate looked and how the city looked coming up ahead of us. A lot of personal memories attached to the record.
So the album is more of a journal from your experience on the last few tours?
In a way it is a journal, and a lot of it is also a response to the fact that at the same time I was also working on finishing a book, which is about looking back at the past, going through old journals and reconciling te past. With so much going on in one area, with this record I wanted to focus solely on the present, on the now, on the way I felt right then. That’s the way it had to be in order to write a record while writing a book, they had to be opposites in that way.
The album cover for the record carries some strong imagery.
I guess it’s mainly about what it means to the viewer. I think it’s interesting because it identifies, based on your own emotions, what I means to you, which was the point. So much of the record is about relationships ; it’s about falling in love, being in love, falling out of love … and with relationships there are power dynamics. Being someone who’s openly trans, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about gender and the way it plays into those power dynamics. I heard someone who saw the cover say that it was misogynistic and I definitely see how they can see a misogynistic image, but I also heard about a man taking offense because he thought it was against men. Then you’ve also got other people that don’t have those issues. What the people say, they see. If they have issue on it, they identify the societal problem that needs to be worked through, examining what ways gender plays in the power dynamics in relationships and thinking about what would happen if we took gender away from the equation. Do those power dynamics still develop and play out? What does it mean? After transitioning, I found myself in positions where I would experience an emotion that I previously associated as being a “male” emotion before realising that emotions really don’t have a gender. It’s been really eye opening and it’s something that I continue to explore.
Has your stance or perspective on gender changed in any significant way since your transition?
Constantly changing ! My understanding of it is constantly changing and I’m constantly thinking about it. I’ve been trying to understand it more, seeing it from different viewpoints. I think it’s healthy, not being locked into something or being rigid. Figuring out what it means to love from a genderless standpoint and the roles of gender in relationships are things that I still think a lot about. You wonder “Is our relationship only about fucking?” Is fucking only about procreation? Is it really what it’s about? Is that why society is the way it is? Are we just programmed to reproduce? If we take away that urge and instinct, what meaning does love then have? What meaning does fucking have? When you strip love of gender, you strip love of all of those things. I’m not at all saying that I have the answers, I’m still trying to figure it out.
Given the title of your previous record, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, would it be appropriate to see Shape Shift with Me as a more assertive, which seems to also seems to be the case with the title of your book: Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout.
I wasn’t really thinking about that with the album title really. I don’t think being a “Shape shifter” is necessarily a trans theme. Anyone can be a shape shifter. I think the idea of shapeshifting plays into the idea that the body is just a vessel, that we’re more than the body and that you should have active control over it. Body modification is something that I’ve long experimented in, starting with being a teenager and getting piercings and tattoos. It’s something I even think about in terms of plastic surgery and stuff like that. It’s about having a control over your body and playing an active part in it, being open to the way your body changes naturally, because your body will change. You grow old, you decay, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be a slave to that. It can be an empowering thing.
Do you feel like your status as one of the most widely known transgender rock musicians has come in the way of some of your personal privacy?
Sure. In talking about releasing a book and stuff like that, I don’t feel like I have much privacy (laughs). I have very little of it most of the time. When you’d like to start a new relationship without any attention from the media or anything like that, starting a new relationship is hard. Having those outside pressures on it makes it only harder. I just try to push all of that out though, it doesn’t affect me on a daily level, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it but I am definitely aware of it.
Do you feel a certain degree of responsibility as a result of having received this attention?
I think that there is a certain amount of responsibility, if you have a platform, to use it to draw attention to important issues as opposed to trivial things that don’t really matter. I get more fulfilment out of using my ability to do an interview if it brings other people to it.
I’d like to talk about your upcoming book. What was the intention behind its release and what made this the right time to do it?
Well my book is based on journals and I kept them since I was 8 years old. I started working on putting everything together in a book about 4 years ago. I felt like there was so much weight, be it metaphoric emotional weight or in terms of how many memories I needed to reconcile that before moving on. Then there’s also the physical weight of having so many journals (laugh), so many boxes that I have to carry with me everywhere I go. I needed to do something with it, I needed to have a reason for carrying these things with me for all of these years. So before another 10 years of journals would go by, I felt like this was the time to do it, and there was already a lot of work involved to go through it all.
How long did it take to put it all down?
Well I’ve been keeping the journals since I was 8 years old, and I went through every single journal and transcribed it. It was over a million and a half words. The book is probably about 80 000 words long, so to edit it all down was a lot of work. I think most authors have the problem of not having enough material, but I just had way too much. Having someone like Dan Ozzi really helped me to sort out what was important and what wasn’t. Since I’m so closely tied to everything, it all seemed important to me at first.
Going back to an older track of yours to which your book title makes reference to: your lyrics to I was a Teenage Anarchist sparked off a response (a while back) from Tim McIlrath from Rise Against on Architects. What was your reaction to the track?
I don’t know, I got a laugh (laugh). It felt like he was misinterpreting my song, but thats’ fine. We’ve toured tons with Rise Against. It’s been a long time, but we used to know them back in the day. At the time it just seemed like posturing, you know? Like “Okay, whatever, sure. You’re more revolutionary than me. You can have it”.
Do you feel a certain growing distance between yourself and some of the scenes you used to be affiliated with back in the day?
I do for sure, and I think that a lot of the time it was coming from “opposites”. For me, I was into activism and political theory and revolution before I got into a band. Then the band took me more towards a way that was more about focusing on the music, simply because I wasn’t able to be anywhere for any extended period of time or be a part of a group anymore. I think that some other people were not coming from that same place and decided to get into activism as they started the band, that their band was going to be about activism. Sometimes it seems almost fake to me. Where is the real thing that you’re doing? Where is your actual activism other than getting up on stage and saying that you’re an activist doing something for the world. Instead of telling people that you’re doing amazing things, just go do it. As a die-hard anarchist, I will always feel suspicious of people trying to lead people. I fear leaders.
So you still consider yourself an anarchist but keep this aspect separate from your music.
Well I don’t see why there should be an obligation. There shouldn’t be the need to continually state that in your music. It should just be representative or already there if that’s the case.
I guess the title of I was a Teenage Anarchist goes back to the frustrating part where people put meaning into something you didn’t say. The song is called I was a TEENAGE Anarchist, and the past tense of “was” is because I’m no longer a teenager. I’m 35 years old. I WAS a teenage anarchist, I’m NOW 35 years old (laugh). So that’s what the past tense meant in that. It’s also just a stupid song. The title too, is inspired by I was a Teenage Werewolf, I liked the way the movie title sounded so I wanted to have song title like that, and now people take that as a complete disavow and whatnot, it’s just absurd.
To finish off, could you name one of your favorite albums, movies and books?
Favorite movie: I’d have to say Blade Runner.
Favorite book: Frankenstein, the original Shapeshifter.
Favorite album: I’m going to go ahead and say Shine by Crime & the City Solution, a recent favorite record that I’ve been listening a lot to.
Interview by Robin Ono.
A huge thank you goes out to the Staff at Him Media as well as to Laura for making this interview possible!
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