Worldly Observations 

After enhancing its sound and signing with a big label, Against Me! shrugs off criticism

Once upon a time, a folk singer-songwriter named Bob Dylan, a young maverick with a passionate following, decided to test the waters of a new pond by playing his once-all-acoustic material with an electric rock 'n' roll band.

Some of his fans were outraged, condemning him as a traitor to their ideals and a sellout to the prevailing cultural mainstream, which at the time was dominated by acts such as the Beatles and the Stones. When Dylan's electric band debuted at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, listeners booed him and howled epithets.

Simply as a result of its name, the Florida-based punk band Against Me! virtually invites similar opposition.

It also receives flak from idealistic former fans who feel the group has sold out by (choose one): sprucing up its hitherto-bare-bones folk-punk sound; signing with major label Sire Records; and/or working with über-producer Butch Vig on the recent album New Wave.

Against Me! will appear this Sunday, Sept. 16, on the bill of the KFMA Fall Ball at Tucson Electric Park, along with Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill, Silverstein, Paramore and Operator.

Not only has the band has been criticized in print for catchy melodies that "rape" the lyrics, but its members have been threatened with bodily harm.

"Oh yeah, all sorts of stuff," marvels singer-songwriter and bandleader Tom Gabel. "People have protested at shows against us; we had our tires slashed, or people would write nasty letters. It's all very trivial, really."

If such attacks have tested Gabel's resolve, he doesn't show it during a recent telephone interview.

"As long as you're having a good time and doing what you love, that stuff doesn't matter. To me, selling out is going to work every day to do a job that you despise, or taking a desk job for the money when you know you could be making more of a difference."

In other words, Gabel and Against Me! strive to retain their integrity, no matter how polished their music has become. As he sings on the title track on the new album, "We can control the medium / we can control the context of presentation."

At the same time, though, Gabel is reluctant to provide simple answers.

He admits again and again in songs that he has self-doubts. For instance, in "New Wave," he leavens the manifesto-like message with questions such as, "Is there anybody on the receiving end?"

In the anti-war screed "White People for Peace," protest songs and even prayers are ignored. And in "Americans Abroad," Gabel condemns our culture's tendency to export ugly attitudes, while wondering if he's no different.

"I don't think anything's ever really black or white. In everything I write, I don't try to have answers," he says.

"I'm not trying to sell anything or promote anything or solve anything. I guess what would be best to say is that my songs are just observations of what's going on around us in the world, what people are going through. That's just as important as coming up with answers. That's probably the most valuable lesson I have taken away from punk rock."

While some longtime Against Me! fans may complain about the band signing with Sire Records, the label has a storied reputation for breaking such acts as the Ramones, Talking Heads, Pretenders and The Smiths, artists who transformed the mainstream by challenging it.

"Yeah, they had the Replacements, Madonna, you name it," Gabel enthuses.

But in terms of pure inspiration, Gabel has always looked to Dylan.

"He's had such a long career, and he's always done what he wanted to do, playing in so many different styles. But his music is still relevant to all listeners, no matter what the trends happen to be at the time. He's always gone his own way, and criticism from others never entered into it."

Performing as part of a multi-act bill, such as the Fall Ball, has both advantages and disadvantages, Gabel says.

"You're playing in front of an audience, and maybe not all of them are your fans; maybe some of them have never even heard of you. There's always something of a challenge about that. It's also usually a little hectic. You don't usually get sound checks, and maybe you have to play shorter than you would otherwise."

But enjoying other bands from the wings is a plus, and in Tucson, the headliner will be Smashing Pumpkins, a Gabel favorite.

"I've always been a big Pumpkins fan. We just played with them at a couple of festivals in England over the summer, and they haven't lost a step."

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