Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #130. Subscribe to our print edition here!
Though promises of an eighth Against Me! record didn’t materialise in 2018, frontwoman Laura Jane Grace has been anything but quiet. Matt Doria hits her up on Skype to vibe on her new, Australia-flavoured solo album.
The first lines uttered on Bought To Rot set a striking tone for the rest of the album. “Learn to trust yourself,” Laura Jane Grace snarls at herself on “China Black”, the opening track on her debut solo LP (released under the moniker of Laura Jane Grace & The Devouring Mothers, alongside Against Me! bandmate Atom Willard on drums and longtime collaborator Marc Hudson on bass). “No one else matters! Respect the source, and always welcome failure.”
Their name inspired by the titular book by French feminist artist Niki de Saint Phalle, The Devouring Mothers were born from the rubble of Against Me!’s eight studio album, which was initially set to be released sometime this year. Grace, Willard and Hudson would convene on a regular basis in Grace’s adopted hometown of Chicago, with the intention of writing for guitarist James Bowman and bassist Inge Johansson to buff out the finer details and release Bought To Rot as the follow-up to 2016’s Shape Shift With Me. But when Johansson stepped aside from the band, paving way for former bassist Andrew Seward to reclaim his title, Grace’s mindset changed.
“As the album fully developed,” she tells us, “The songs became so significantly us. It felt dishonest to just plug Andrew in and be like, ‘These are Against Me! songs now,’ even though it was me, Atom and Marc who had written all of them together.”
It’s easy to see why the trio feel so strongly connected to the disc. The writing process for Bought To Rot was uncharacteristically buoyant (as detailed in her book Tranny, Grace’s album‑making stints are commonly notorious for being clusterf***s), marked by spurs of inspiration unique from that of which she’d typically approach an Against Me! record with.
“It was so easy and laidback and efficient,” she beams of the trio’s work ethic. “[Atom and Marc] would come to Chicago every other week, and we would just work all week long. I’d take my daughter Evelyn to school at seven o’clock in the morning, drop her off, go to the studio space I have right by there and meet with those guys. We’d work for eight hours straight, I’d go pick Evelyn up from school, we’d do our thing in the afternoon, and then we’d do it all over again the next day. We did that every other week from the start of 2018, and by April, I was like, ‘Hold on, we have a record here!’”
Though it’s her sharp and authoritative, yet somehow soothing vocals that grab listeners at first listen, Grace is, first and foremost, a guitarist. An off-hand mention of her jet black Rickenbacker 370 (which we showcased in detail in Australian Guitar #122 – hit the website for that story) has her buzzing like a teenage romantic.
“I love that guitar more than everything,” she gushes. “The black-on-black is so sweet looking, and there’s just something special about it, tonally. It’s always a little more biting and a little more crunchy than any other Rickenbacker I’ve ever played.”
Grace is quick to shoot down our hopes of a signature Rickenbacker popping up (if anyone deserves one, it’s her – she has more Ricks in her collection than most hollowbody enthusiasts could dream of), citing that they’re just a little too stubborn of a company to make such a call.
“They’re the most unfriendly guitar company ever,” Grace chuckles, “But I respect that about them. I don’t know what it is from my upbringing that made me like this, but purely because they’re such assholes, I’m like, ‘Alright, hats off,’ and it makes me want to play their guitars even more. It’s the same with the coffee place that I usually go to around here – I like going there because they’re kind of mean to me. They’re never excited to see me. I tip ‘em a f***ing dollar every time I see them, but they’re just like, ‘…Meh.’ There’s no free coffees, even though I’ve been going there loyally every day for three or four years. But y’know what? I like that. It’s cool.”
With how synonymous the Rickenbacker 370 (and the 360 it’s based upon) is to Grace’s image, it comes a shock that there isn’t a strum of one to be heard on Bought To Rot. Instead, Grace tapped into a decidedly Australian inspiration: Rowland S. Howard (of The Birthday Party, and about 900 other iconic Aussie outfits). Grace notes that Howard’s sonic influence on the record outweighs any other, and to properly pay her homage to the late axe annihilator, she looked to replicate his signature guitar setup: a ’64 Fender Jaguar hooked up to a Reuss RSH-02 pedal, played through a Fender Twin Reverb cranked to 11.
Midway through our Skype call, Grace hops up, runs offscreen, and returns holding the Jaguar she tracked the record with. She’s visibly giddy, showing off the piece as one of her most prized possessions (when she heads on tour, she’ll have a separate Jaguar with her; this one is too special to risk weathering). We’re not sure what makes us smile more – the Jaguar’s kaleidoscopic sunburst finish, so glossy the light of Grace’s webcam flickers off it, or the way Grace swoons so feverishly over the guitar.
“Isn’t it just so f***ing pretty? Goddamn, I f***ing love this guitar,” she sighs. “I bought it off Stan Lynch, who played drums in Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, when I was still living in Gainesville. And when Tom Petty passed away in 2017, it gave me a moment of pause.
“One of the first CDs I ever got was Full Moon Fever, and Tom Petty was 37 when he wrote that record, so I was like, ‘I’m 37. I want to do this. I have this urge.’ I was playing along to some Tom Petty songs with the guitar one day, and I was like, ‘Huh, this guitar sounds like it could’ve been on one of the records… Oh yeah, it was owned by f***ing Stan Lynch, it very well could be on one of the records!’ At the very least, it was in the studio, y’know?
“When I got the guitar, it was pristine. Even though it was made in the ‘60s, it looked like it had never been played and had just been sitting in a case – and y’know, it was owned by a drummer – so I made up this story in my head that this guitar sat its full life in its case. And any guitar that’s ever been made just wants to rock, y’know? It wants to be onstage and it wants to be played on records.
“So this guitar was owned by a drummer, always around cool guitars and cool guitarists, in the studio with Tom f***ing Petty, but never got played on any of the records. And then it became mine! And I’ve been sitting on it too, just waiting for the right time. And now it’s that time, and the Jaguar is like, ‘Yeah, I wanna be on a f***ing record! I wanna rip! I wanna go play some shows!’ And I’m like, ‘Yes! I will give you that chance!’ So I feel like I’m very much bound to this guitar, karmically and psychologically.
“And y’know, it’s weird – sometimes the small differences are the biggest differences. I’ve done interviews for this record where people will ask, ‘What are the differences between this band and Against Me!?’ And it’s really just the simple things, like the fact that we’re a three-piece, not a four-piece. The dynamic is different; you change one person in the mix and the whole atmosphere changes. And I played Jaguars instead of Rickenbackers on this record – that made a real big sonic difference, and it inspired me to play differently.”
The album’s ties to Australia don’t stop at Grace’s setup, either. Against Me! have long found our humble shores to be a second home of sorts – it’s no secret that we love our punk rock, and we were one of the first countries to welcome Grace and co. with open arms – so we’re unsurprised (though honoured) to hear that our mate has thrown us a few nods on Bought To Rot.
“This album owes so much to Australia,” Grace muses. “Multiple songs on the record were written in Australia, or inspired by touring in Australia. We did Groovin The Moo in 2017, and that was just such a f***ing tremendous tour, and I got so much out of that. And the song ‘Apocalypse Now’ in particular, I wrote that while we were in Perth. I woke up that morning, and I was hanging out with a friend that I care deeply about; we smoked a joint, and then we went to Bon Scott’s grave and hung out there for a little while.
“At the end of the street where the cemetery where Bon Scott is buried in is on, there’s a go-kart place, so we went and rode go-karts. It was James’ birthday as well, so then we went to this restaurant and I had an amazing meal, and then we went and rode ferris wheels in the city. It was just one of those perfect days, and that directly inspired that song. And then ‘Airplane Song’ is inspired by Australia too… So much of the record is an ode to Australia, so on behalf of your people, thank you!"