With her next set of jams starting to take shape, Australian Guitar dives into the ever-evolving mind of punk goddess Laura Jane Grace. Words by Matt Doria.
Friday, May 5th 2017. It’s abysmally frigid outside, but in the sweaty confines of the underground club Against Me! are tearing to shreds, state of the art heating systems (commonly referred to as ‘circle pits’) keep us all nice and toasty. Between chant-calling choruses and bloodied yells, frontwoman Laura Jane Grace rips on a sweat-stained Rickenbacker 360, every battered semi-hollow strum rippling through the hall like a tsunami fighting an earthquake.
“It’s cool that you picked up on it being a 360 specifically,” Grace nodded a few hours earlier, “Because it has the 330 body style and the 330 inlays, and the only thing that makes it a 360 is that it has the Ric-O-Sound input jack.” In a recent video run-through with US publication UberProAudio, she likened such to “putting a CD player in a Civic and calling it an Accord.”
“But it’s a 360 Noir and it’s one of 25 made, and it’s so f***ing beautiful,” she gushes to us. “The all-black Rickenbackers are just, like, the toughest guitars ever made; they look like the guitar Darth Vader would play!”
Grace’s love for the (very un-)humble Rickenbacker flourished early in her youth; “I was always just fascinated by their look and their sound,” she says, her tone akin to old romantics thinking back on schoolyard crushes.
“The first CD I ever owned was Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, so I was always drawn towards the chimier high-end sound of Teles and Ricks. The price range sort of kept them out of reach when I was younger; I ended up trading another guitar to get my first Rickenbacker, and since then I’ve just never looked back.”
It’s a habit of collection now: she has three of those ultra-rare 360s – “No, wait! Four; I have four now” – two 330s (one of which in an adorable ‘bumblebee’ yellow), a 650C Colorado, a 370, and, “I forget the model number, but it’s the John Lennon-style guitar they put out.”
In the gory, searing bends on new cuts like “Haunting, Haunted, Haunts” and “Delicate...”, it’s easy to see why Grace froths the 360: it handles melody like a dream, but its tones are numbing and coarse and instantly spur pits to explode like fireworks. It’s hard to believe she initially wrote those jams on delicate acoustic guitars.
“I live in an apartment now, so I have to keep things a little more low-volume,” she explains. “I have a Gibson J-40 and a J-45, and they’re kind of my go-to guitars for writing. I bring the J-45 on tour with me – as far as string noise goes, it’s just amazingly silent. With most acoustic guitars, when you’re sliding your hand up and down the fingerboard you get that ‘fssht-fssht’ sound, but with the J-45, there’s nothing. It’s like a ghost guitar for changing chords, so that’s my jam.”
Grace tells us that her writing process is a mix of carefully determined perfectionism and manic bursts of spontaneity; much of her prose is penned on the road, and though Against Me! are far from soon to settle touring in support of their seventh album – last year’s career-defining Shape Shift With Me – new songs are slowly brewing away. “I have!” Grace keenly declares when we ask if she’s been writing much of late. She’s quick, though, to clarify that a new release won’t come as promptly as Shape Shift did after 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues (henceforth TDB).
“I think the reason there even was an Against Me! record so soon after [TDB] had to do with the fact I was also working on a book [Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout],” she says, “And for the first time ever, the pressure was off songwriting. That dictated the way a lot of these songs feel: writing the book involved a lot of looking back and thinking about the past – being really far up your own ass in that way – and so writing for the record became a distraction from that. The record and the book were finished at the same time but the record came out before the book, so I was in this cycle of publicity where I was doing a lot of press and then a lot of touring straight after. I was so busy that I wasn’t feeling very creative for a long time, but I kind of re-hit a stride recently; I’ve got maybe three or four songs in my pocket now.”
Even if new music is a ways away from hitting our ears (the “Stabitha Christie” single just dropped, but it was pulled from the Shape Shift sessions), Against Me! have a long history of road-testing songs in their earliest days – a trend that Grace is adamant will carry over into the band’s next era.
“I’ve always been a strong believer that you need repetition to work out how you actually feel about a song,” she says. “Y’know, when you’re making your first record, you have all the time in the world and the songs really age with that. But then with the second, third, forth or whatever record – when you’re on that timeline of, ‘We need to get another record out within a year!’ – you don’t have that same amount of time for the songs to age. So you need to just repeat them, over and over so that the parts that don’t necessarily feel natural to you have a chance to evolve into something that does. And it’s the same playing live: often times, the experience of playing a song in the studio is so greatly different than when you’re playing it live. You need to age it onstage to know if you even like the song, really.”
In the case of their 2016 opus, live demoing also paved the way for collaboration to flourish between Against Me!’s four personalities. Where earlier albums had seen Grace take fluctuating degrees of control over their musical reins, Shape Shift was a full-band effort through and through, which in turn led to what could be argued as their most open and dynamic sounding record.
“I think that was kind of in response to the way [TDB] came together,” Grace admits. “That record obviously had a way more isolated writing process, and I just wanted to do the opposite of that with this one. And that’s also coupled with the fact that most of [Shape Shift] was written on the road. Marc Hudson – who tour manages us and does our front of house – has a studio that we recorded the album at, and that kind of became our base. The four of us all live spread out in the US, so before and after every tour, we’d get together there, I’d have a couple of song ideas kicking around, and we’d all put them together as a group.”
But whether fans can expect the same all-for-one/one-for-all attitude to be replicated on LP8 remains to be seen. Perhaps by way of the vicious unpredictability Against Me!’s timeline has been plagued (and at times, blessed) with, Grace is staunchly unwilling to make any solid predictions. When the question is posed – does she see the band continuing to write as a four-piece? – she sputters a hesitant, “Um... Yes and no.”
“I love [collaboration] and I definitely encourage that,” she elaborates, “But at the same time, I’ve always been the type of person to actively avoid repetition. I don’t like doing things the exact same way that I did the last time, so I’m always looking for a different experience and a different process. But I like it when everyone participates and everyone contributes something to the process.”
As for the potential of a third party being thrown into the mix, one particular collision of artistry that seems likely to unfold (and one fans have prayed for since their acoustic cover of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma!”) is a collaboration between Grace and Australian Guitar #119 star Frank Iero.
In a late-2016 chat we had with him, the ex-My Chemical Romance axeman noted that he’d jump at the bit to work with Grace – who, as expected, is also open to the idea: “I hope so!” she quips excitedly when asked if a joint record was possible. “Yeah, I really hope so. Frank’s great, and the tour we did together was magical so I’d love to do more touring with him as well.”