In most cases, there are certain inevitable mistakes that are usually made on a band's second album. Everything from growing self-consciousness, improved playing technique, and the presence of a better studio can dilute the impact of an album. That said, I was floored at how much different yet the same ...As the Eternal Cowboy is compared to Reinventing Axl Rose. The mistakes I'm so used to hearing in sophomore jinx albums just aren't there. For the uninitiated, here's the unmolested template for Against Me!: acoustics are the core, wrapped around vocals, guitars, and drums. Basically, what could be done at a punk barbecue, all revved up and written impeccably. Anthems that you're not ashamed to sing, that sort of thing. Although there's been some minor backlash with bands like Against Me! and This Bike Is a Pipebomb being accused of jamboree punk, picking up the (Young) Pioneers banner that many wish would have remained buried, I just hear a great band, not afraid to listen to a broad swath of music. Hats off.
Interview and photos by Todd
Todd: I'm going to say a word. Keep that word in mind and go one a stream of thought from it. That word is skateboard.
James: When you said skateboard, I thought of shoe. Then I thought of my future brother in law - he's a skater - Rickie Dixson because I was like, "Hey I got these shoes for free."
Todd: What do you know about Rickie Dixson?
James: I love him. He's dating my sister. He's a good dude. He's a good friend of mine.
Todd: Have you ever seen him skate?
James: Yes, I have. I think it's really awesome. It's what he's done his entire childhood and he's really good at it and he has a chance to be pro in February.
Todd: Do you feel an affinity to him?
James: Yeah. He calls me his brother from another mother. And then I thought of my old roommate, Adam Volk, who skates all the time. The first thought I got of him was the giant chicken.
Todd: What's the giant chicken?
James: We had this giant fiberglass chicken in our living room for a long, long time.
Todd: Why did you have a giant fiberglass chicken?
Thomas: Why wouldn't you?
James: He went to visit his friend, Chris, all the time in Orlando and Chris lived two blocks away from this closed down fried chicken restaurant and they had this giant fiberglass chicken in a tree out in front of it and every time he'd go by it, he'd see the giant chicken and say, "Man, one day, I'm going to steal it." One day, he was at the house in Gainesville. He was, "All right, I'm going to visit Chris for a week. I'll be back." The week turned into two and a half weeks. He showed back up. He's like, "Yeah, do you want to help me grab something out of the truck?" He opened the camper top, put the tailgate down, and pulled out this giant chicken. It sat on our porch for awhile then we moved it inside because we thought someone would steal it. We took pictures with the chicken.
The first thought I got off of giant chicken was, "Oh, I owe Adam a lot of money from living in that house." Then I started thinking, "How am I going to pay him back?" And then I just froze.
Thomas: You said skateboard. We went to Epitaph today. They gave us free skateboards.
Todd: What was the graphic?
Thomas: It was Atmosphere. Then I thought of Goofy Foot, which was a skateboard shop down in Naples, Florida, where James and I used to live. Then I thought of Offbeat, which was a record store, which made me think of Patio De Leon, which was the name of the patio Offbeat was in, a little square. Then I thought of Adam because that's where I met Adam. Then I thought of Dynamite Boy because we played with Dynamite Boy one time at Offbeat. Not Against Me!, but a band I used to be in.
Todd: What band did you used to be in?
Thomas: A band called the Adversaries, although I think we were called Upper Crust at the time when we played with Dynamite Boy. When we found out about the other Upper Crust, we changed our name. Then I thought of Magadog, a ska band from Florida. It was just a really fun show one night, which made me think of the Specials. Ska, the Specials. I saw the Specials play in Tampa, which made me then think of Amanda, because we went to the show together, and that's my ex-girlfriend. Then I thought of the UK Subs, because I went to see that, too, with her. Then I thought of Billy Scam, because I remember seeing Billy Scam there at the show and I remember him telling me that Amanda was really hot. Then I thought of James because Amanda cheated on me with James and then I thought of Pignuts because that's what James used to be called.
James: Oh, you asshole.
Todd: Wait. Why were you called Pignuts?
James: Okay, the guy Billy Scam - we were at a party at his house and he was really drunk and he put on this porno that had girls fucking animals. It was in the background. I don't remember the entire story, but I remember someone saying, "That pig has really large nuts." And then the next day, I was referred to as Pignuts.
Todd: For how long did that go on for?
Thomas: That was for a good three or four years. What's also interesting is when I met James, he was J.R. So he was J.R. first, then he became Pignuts, and now he's James. He's matured.
Todd: Since it's a little odd, where does the band's name come from and why the exclamation point?
Thomas: The exclamation point is meant as "We really mean it," to add emphasis to it. I have a lot of trouble explaining it in the context that I meant it. I meant it in the context that it's used in sentences some times. In saying that idea, a feeling that gets to you, that's the place I was at when I came up with the name, very at odds with everything around me. I meant it in the context that it is used in sentences. If it were to be at the tail end of sentence and you were to chop off the first half of it, that is the context.
Todd: Like, "The wolverines are against me!"
Thomas: Yeah, yeah.
Todd: The exclamation point means you're scared or emphatic.
Todd: If you could bomb one building in the world and take everyone out of it, so you're not going to harm any people, you're just going to obliterate property, and you wouldn't get caught, what one building would you blow up?
Thomas: I don't know. The obvious answer [in stuffy voice], "I'm going to blow up the White House." I almost don't think I'd blow up a building.
James: I'd blow up the Space Needle. Growing up and never having been to Seattle, seeing it in movies and thinking, "Man, that thing's awesome. It's really huge, towering over the city," then actually seeing in person. It's very tiny. It's very disappointing, so I say, get rid of it. There's no need for it. Fuck the Space Needle. What's the point of it?
Thomas: That's a personal vendetta. At fifteen years old, I wanted to see fuckin' Coliere County Courthouse burned to the ground. The cops in Naples - we both grew up there - fuckin' shitheads. Nothing more would have made me happier.
Todd: What were you in there for?
Thomas: We both have multiple felony convictions stemming from when we were around fifteen years old in Naples: battery on an officer, resisting arrest with violence, resisting arrest without violence, obstruction of justice, a drug charge, a concealed weapon charge, and James has multiple counts of grand theft.
Todd: Can you go to Canada?
Thomas: We had to sneak across Niagara Falls as tourists.
Todd: When was the last time you played a place where it was either was either going to crumble or people were just going to pass out?
James: For me, it was in Portland at the Meow Meow. I had a heat stroke after we played. There were just so many people crammed into the room. If you look at the cover of the Disco Before the Breakdown seven-inch, there was a stage in that room and you cannot tell. People everywhere. People falling into you. It was awesome. It was a lot of fun. It was so hot. After we got done, we were packing stuff up and I just got really dizzy. I was in the bathroom and I was throwing up. Someone grabbed me and took me into this other room that was air-conditioned and made me drink bottle after bottle of water. I think that's the hottest I've ever been.
Thomas: That show at State Control Records in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was insane. It was the smallest record store I think I've ever seen.
James: It's on the second floor.
Thomas: And we're playing. I'm like, "God, this is fucking awesome." And everybody is really close. I'm looking over at the amp and I see it move. "Holy shit, the fucking floor is flexing underneath. We're gonna die. The floor's going to cave in." I start looking at the ledges, so when it does collapse, I can jump and grab onto something.
We played a show in Cleveland, Ohio one time and it was at this house called Fort Totally Awesome. After the fifth song, this person comes screaming up from the basement: "Everybody out! The floor beams are cracking!" Shows like that awesome. They're the greatest. It's such a cool feeling. Even if you feel like shit, it doesn't matter when you start playing and everyone's going nuts,
Todd: Has the response to you guys been pretty immediate? Thomas, you started out, individually, correct?
Thomas: Yes. And James started doing it a couple months afterwards. It's been very gradual, and, granted, it's been very lucky and it's been really good. Every time we've gone out, it's gotten better and better. So it hasn't been, all of a sudden, no one likes us, then boom, he we are.
Todd: A more philosophical question. Monkeys or robots?
Thomas: Have you ever seen a monkey knife fight? Robots can't fight with knives like that. Quick fuckers. Monkeys, hands down.
Todd: A lyrical question. How can you sing "Kill whitey" and not be joking, if you're white?
Thomas and James: It's tongue in cheek. It's called sarcasm.
Todd: I'm assuming - in your lyrics - I wouldn't say jokes, but there are a lot of things that are taken from different perspectives in your songs. What is the number one misinterpretation of your lyrics?
Thomas: I would say, "Baby, I'm an Anarchist" is one of them, that a lot of people don't get it. It's supposed to be a little tongue in cheek.
James: There's a line in "Reinventing Axl Rose" - it's "the beer is not the life of the party" - and people assume that we are a straight edge band.
Thomas: I think it's not so much that it's an individual song. I think it's an overall feeling that people get. Especially lately, now we're getting called sellouts right and left. A lot of the songs, I mean everything I fucking write, you know? I know exactly what I'm talking about. I fucking wrote it and I don't feel that I've contradicted myself in any way but I feel it's obvious that some people have gotten a different impression from that in some instances.
Todd: Anything particular people have called you out on?
Thomas: For selling out. For signing to Fat Wreck Chords. We played a show in Long Island on this tour and these two kids came and they stood in front of me the whole show, said my lyrics back to me, called me a sellout, put their hand on my guitar to stop me from playing. I went up to them after the show and was like, "What the fuck?" I was more upset that they crossed my physical boundaries of touching me instead of saying shit to me. After that, they slashed our fucking tires. A lot of people say, "Reinventing Axl Rose," the lyrics to that. But I don't see how, necessarily, it's contradicting it. We're people who have senses of humor.
Here, let me read you a letter we got tonight. This was left on our trailer. "Dear Against Me!, my friends and I have been huge fans for a long time. We live in Southern California. We've driven to Seattle to see you guys and we drove two hours to see you yesterday in Burbank and two and a half tonight. I'm sorry to say that this show is a huge disappointment. It cost fifty-seven bucks for our tickets" - and that's a combined total, I'm assuming, because it wasn't fifty-seven dollars a ticket. "All you guys played was your new stuff. You didn't play a single song earlier than Reinventing. Not to call you sellouts, but we think you have lost a lot of heart in your new stuff, and more importantly, you've lost three huge fans. But don't worry. You'll still be headlining shows with The Transplants. 'Baby, I'm an Anarchist,' 'Burn,' 'I Still Love You Julie,' 'Impact.' Those were the days. We're not talking shit. We're just deeply saddened. Your old songs were something. Now you sound like all the other mindless pop bands." Signed, Randy, Summer, and Kevin.
James: It kind of sucks to say that I'm used to hearing stories about people talking shit and the whole sellout thing.
Thomas: What do you do? As a band, as people who play music, you want to have as many different experiences as you possibly can. I would go insane if I played the same fucking songs every night and if I played the same, exact places every time I went on tour. I want to experience different things with life and I want to take something and see how far I can go with it. As long as that's doing it on a moral and ethical level, I don't see a problem. Getting shit for Fat Wreck Chords? People have a problem with Fat Wreck Chords because it's not hip, it's not cool. As a label, they treat their employees awesome. They treat their bands awesome. They're completely independent. They have no exclusive distribution deals. What's the fucking problem? It's because some people don't like some of their bands, but I don't care.
Todd: How are you "stronger than everything they taught us to fear"? What's happening to you guys would effect other people a lot differently. You understand where these people are coming from, but you seem very grounded on a deep foundation. Where do you think that comes from?
Thomas: I feel like I know what my intentions are and I know what I want to do. I want to play music and that's a really simple thing. I don't care if I'm playing to five people or five million people. I'd like someone to listen. That's kind of the point of it, because I feel like I have something to say. But that's the intention. That's the point.