Published on July 10th, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant0
Interview: Laura Jane Grace (Against Me!)
We talk to Laura Jane Grace of Florida punk band Against Me! to talk about Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Caitlyn Jenner, and all points in between.
I recently got the chance to chat with Laura Jane Grace from Against Me! while they continue to tour like crazy in support of their recent album Transgender Dysphoria Blues. She was a really cool interview, and we got to dig into not only the music, but also the massive life change that inspired many of the songs on the record, as well as her thoughts on the barrage of think pieces on Caitlyn Jenner. She was amazingly open and a really smart conversationalist to boot.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: How is the album support touring going? You’ve been touring the heck out of this album.
LAURA JANE GRACE: Oh, we’ve been going non-stop, yeah. Like, since New Year’s Eve leading into 2014. That really kicked it off for us and we’ve been going steady since then. We’re on a short tour, coming up there, then we take a short break, then we go to Europe. Then a bunch of festivals and stuff in September. It’s been rad. Really great traveling, really great shows, really great experiences.
TFS: Cool. Are you still sort of recording here and there in between mini-tours?
LJG: Yeah, the set up that we’ve had going has been awesome in that our front of house person and tour manager, Mark Hudson, is also our audio engineer and has a studio in Michigan that we all just sort of base out of. In between tours we’ll meet up and…well, we don’t really practice because we don’t need it, considering how short the breaks are in between. We might end up demoing a new song each time, slowly working on a new record, to start recording in the fall. So we’ll have October to finish recording or keep going, and then after October we’ll kind of assess and see where we are. We kind of riding the momentum which is a great feeling, you know?
TFS: Are you going to move away from some of the themes of your gender experience in terms of writing new stuff or is that something you’re going to continue to explore pretty heavily?
LJG: For me it’s not about themes, it’s a lived experience. The basis of every Against Me! record has been my perspective, and my perspective has always been that of a Trans person. To frame it as something that should be moved on from, it’s kind of weird to think about it that way. I kind of follow where my heart goes, so we’ll see what happens with the next record. It’s hard to tell what it’s about or what it’ll sound like or anything like that. But it’ll be coming from my perspective, which is Transgendered, yeah.
TFS: Do you get tired of answering questions about your life or gender transition or do you see that more as a positive thing?
LJG: I try to see it as a positive thing and I try to focus in on it as being a part of the bigger movement of visibility that’s happening pretty much across the world, but in general really, in North America. I’ve realized at this point, having been in a band since I was 17-years-old, you put out records, you do interviews, and often times, the interviews don’t really focus on what you as a musician kind of nerd out about. Like, I played this kind of guitar on the record, or used this kind of microphone in this studio. Gear talk or whatever. Oftentimes it focuses on stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with the music. In the past it was this punk rock argument of whether or not my band were sell outs based on what label we were on, which was just asinine to talk about in interviews. So, at least this is relevant to the world and if me answering question truthfully and honestly can help someone out, or make a connection — and I have heard from people that there have been connections made — then that’s like, real to me. That’s valid.
If you look at the statistics on suicides or violence towards Transgendered people, job problems, things like that, it’s astounding. Trans people being able to be out with each other is a real life-saving thing.
TFS: Right. It’s funny because music journalism is generally kind of bullshit, right? You’re giving the story that’s the formed story about whatever band. It has to be easily digestible and fit the word count.
TFS: I always try to get around that a little bit. In a case like yours, I might not normally want to ask questions like this because it normally wouldn’t be about the music per se. It’s just sort of what people are talking about, or gossip or whatever.
LJG: Totally! Yeah, totally! That’s the way it works in the publicity world. Publicists send out a bio, and it has talking points, and most of the time I get it. It’s somebody doing an interview based on a bio they got. This vague knowledge of a story. I don’t take offense to it, but at the same time there are definitely ways to ask questions when it comes to something like that. And there have been incidents where I’ve done interviews where people just have no couth, or really don’t know how to approach the subject, but I try to make the best out of it. I really have seen it happen, where I try to speak to whoever is going to read this and hopefully a connection can be made there, but I also have the chance with you to make a connection and make a positive impression of a Trans person in an interaction. One of the best examples of this was, last year I did a thing for AOL called True Trans. I had a camera crew that followed me around for about a month on tour, like five people, holding a boom over my head, putting a wire on me or focusing cameras. These people were just hired by America Online to work on a project that they had no idea about. But I ended up forming a real connection with them. And seeing them get educated as they did interviews that we filmed with Trans people across the US, seeing how they adapted their pronoun usage and their overall perspective was really impactful and really demonstrated to me that you never know who you’re going to connect with or what kind of perspectives you’re going to change.
TFS: Right, and I think the reason why I’m comfortable asking you this stuff in context with the music is because it’s not some side thing that has nothing to do with anything — this is what the music is about. About your life. By asking you about this, I am asking you about the music.
LJG: Totally. That really ties into the live record we did, with the title 23 Live Sex Acts. In a way it was trying to be almost a greatest hits, like it was the perfect ultimate fan set list or something. But then also it really encapsulated touring for a record that was basically me continuing having to transition publically on stage. 23 Live Sex Acts is like gender performance up on stage each night, where sometimes I find myself singing older songs that were definitely coming from an older perspective, which was almost dysphoria inducing again, because you’re seeing it from this different way now.
TFS: Do you ever go back and retroactively change songs to fit your current transitioning point of view?
LJG: Totally! Completely. A perfect example of that would be a song called Pretty Girls, which originally appeared on an album we did in like, 2005. That was a song where I was definitely talking about dysphoria, but at the time I was not comfortable about being open with that. The lyrics that outed that in the song, I changed. Playing it was always kind of boring and we never had it in the set list. It was kind of a dud of a song. Since then, I’ve gone back and put the original lyrics back in and when we play it now it’s become a real band favourite. We really love playing the song. It’s funny how songs will grow and change like that. There’s definitely in my band, been like, line up changes too along the way, and I’m really proud of the band we are right now, and feel like it’s the best version of it in terms of being true professional musicians at the top of their game. Myself probably being the weakest link in that chain (she laughs). It’s really fun playing as a band right now.
TFS: The whole Caitlyn Jenner thing has been prevalent on the news and social media the last few weeks. Do you think that it’s helpful for people’s understanding or do you think it’s kind of a cause celebre that might work against the trans community?
LJG: I’m still trying to form a full opinion on it, and like, I was doing a lot of travelling when that all really happened. When the interview took place I was on tour in Eastern Europe. When the Vanity Fair cover came out, I was in Australia. So I was kind of removed from it. I write too, I do a column for Noisey. I definitely noticed from talking in those circles, people wanted opinion pieces on Caitlyn Jenner. On the Internet and that, seeing the back and forth and the real Trans people finding it really important to state that Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t represent them or speak for them, which is totally valid. Obviously, there was also a lot of the really over the top transphobic commentary that existed there that everyone knew was going to be there. And that’s disgusting. But also there’s been a lot of overwhelming support and trying to recognize the importance of that. How 2015 it is (she laughs). Like, Caitlyn Jenner is on the cover of Vanity Fair, you know? It’s pretty crazy. I haven’t watched the interview. There’s also the feeling the bond between another trans person. I know that coming out is really crazy and when you’re doing that in the public eye like that, you’re on this wild rollercoaster. I had nothing but love and support for her, I wish her the best. But then there’s part of me knowing that she already has everyone else’s attention, where I’m just like, I’ll just mind my own business, you do you and I’ll do me (she laughs). I support you, but I’ll do it from over here, you know?
TFS: Did you see the Jon Stewart piece on it? He started to set it up like, ‘Here we go, Fox News and whoever else is gonna say something shitty about her,’ but then feigned surprise when everybody seemed very accepting. And then he switches gears to show that the next thing out of all the commentator’s mouths was to basically start attacking her body image, like they’d do with any other woman in America. Which reminded me of the line from Gender Dysphoria Blues about having “shoulders too broad for a girl.” They were saying, yes, we accept you as a woman, but now we’re going to criticize your body and looks as such.
LJG: Right, right, totally. Which is really like, the trans perspective, the really valid point about it is that you’re setting up for most transgendered people or people who choose to transition is that those things are unattainable. The amount of money behind all the plastic surgery — not to knock plastic surgery in any way — but just knowing that Caitlyn Jenner’s had a lot of surgery, she has a lot of money, and fantastic wardrobes, getting her photograph taken by Annie Lebowitz. To be on the cover of Vanity Fair, she looks fuckin’ beautiful, but for most trans people, like, they don’t have those kind of resources and it’s a real struggle just to like, get to a place where you feel like you aren’t going to be physically fucking attacked walking down the street for not fitting into a gender norm. I don’t like the idea of creating pie in the sky stuff that’s gonna create something for other trans people feeling like, ‘oh shit, here’s another goal I can’t reach,’ this unattainable thing. And that being a further cause of depression or something. The beauty standards obviously that America has, photoshopping models, the kind of mindfuck games people play, eating disorders and everything, it’s crazy. I have a daughter, a little girl, and she’s gonna grow up.
TFS: This is a very obvious question, but in terms of your experiences…I know the best writing I’ve ever done is often in the wake of some kind of challenge or heartbreak.You talk about making a connection, and the song Gender Dysphoria Blues, it fuckin’ blew me away.
TFS: You’re making me feel all the rage and hurt that you’ve gone through, and I’m nowhere near your experience. To me that’s like you’ve punched through a wall of understanding and empathy, but also did it in a way that’s powerful fucking rock n’ roll. It’s angry, but it’s also sensitive. SO I guess the question buried in there is how do you think experiences like this do push someone’s art forward?
LJG: In a way, you’re really pushing yourself into a do or die thing. For me, feeling like, this is it, I am committed to this. At this point, I’m a high school drop out, I have a felony record, twice divorced. I’m not probably going to pursue a lot of other careers. And I’m a heavily tattooed, out trans person. I’m totally lucky in that I know what I love doing, and that playing music has always been what I wanted to do. I love travelling and I love being in a band and having that kind of family around you. I like meeting new people and being in a situation where you’re completely positive that this is you, where as before there was the doubt. I was in a situation that was dysphoria inducing and really uncomfortable to be in a position where taking photos for magazines or being in videos and stuff, being pushed by labels or whoever to represent the male singer in a band, and it was stifling. I didn’t know who I was then. I know who I am now. I know the experiences that I’ve lived, I know where I’ve been and I’m not afraid to do what I feel like I know I should do as an artist, and pursue what makes sense to me.
TFS: One more quick question — in terms of the live show — you’re practiced up like crazy. All that energy that’s on the album, how do you manifest that night after night on tour? What are we gonna see when you get here?
LJG: We’re well oiled at this point (she laughs). The show is really cool that we’re on right now. And the way it came about made me happy. I met Annie from Annie Girl and the Flight in the dressing room at Slim’s. I did a solo show there over Christmas. She came back and was like, ‘Hey, I’m Annie, I play in this band, you should check it out.’ People don’t realize that I actually do that when they tell me to check something out (laughs). I checked it out and it blew me away. I was like, oh, this band is amazing. So I contacted her to go on tour together. I’ll make it happen this summer. And then I discovered Frank’s [lero] record ‘Stomachaches’ and was listening to that. There was a weird connection we had with his older band where we had the same A&R guy at Warner and like, we had played one show together at like, a meth lab in Nashville in 2001 or something. But our paths never really crossed again. I always liked what he was doing and I dunno, maybe he liked what we were doing, so it was cool to have the tour come together. I really just reached out to him on Twitter and I was like, ‘Hey, I wanna do a summer tour and bring this band Annie Girl and the Flight. You should come too, it’ll be really fun. So it’s not one of those tours that was manufactured by agents talking to agents, it’s just a cool summer tour. I’ve got my daughter out with me and it’s been fun. That gives you the energy to get up and kick some ass, is what I’m saying (laughs).
TFS: Thanks so much for taking the time.
LJG: No, thank you — it’s been a really great conversation.
TFS: I love the album and good luck and have fun on tour.
LJG: Thanks so much, I appreciate it.