Against Me! snarls into stardom

From left: Warren Oakes, Tom Gabel, James Bowman and Andrew Seward are no couch potatoes when it comes to their raucous, rebellious music.

From left: Warren Oakes, Tom Gabel, James Bowman and Andrew Seward are no couch potatoes when it comes to their raucous, rebellious music.

Google Tom Gabel + yelp and you get 4,550 hits.

Tom Gabel + howl yields 34,700.

Tom Gabel + growl: 58,000.

"I've always wished that writers would describe me as a cross between Jim Morrison and Axl Rose," said Gabel, the gravel-voiced lead singer of acclaimed Gainesville punks Against Me!, speaking by phone en route from the Bonnaroo Music Festival to a gig on The Tonight Show.

Sure, that works. It's certainly better than some descriptions of his distinctive rasp, which run the gamut from "Howitzer-throated" to "amelodic nasal honk."

Unlike the prettyboy pop-punk popularized by groups like Fall Out Boy and Good Charlotte, Against Me!'s sound is all sawdust and razor wire, equal parts agitprop, folk fury and 3 a.m. barroom singalong. And Gabel's voice — like that of guys like Tom Waits, Mike Ness and, yes, Jim and Axl — often overpowers the music.

And even though his band is headlining this year's Warped Tour, Gabel — an Army brat who lived around the country and abroad before settling in Naples at age 12 — has always seen himself as a bit of an outcast.

"I think my experiences growing up in Florida opened my eyes to a lot of social injustice — it enraged me as a youth and made me feel really alienated," he said, "(Naples) was an incredibly wealthy city, and it's incredibly right-wing, and it's very much a retirement community. I think the town has progressed over the years, but at the time, it was not a very youth-friendly place. So if you were a kid, just out on the streets or whatever, you were bound to run into trouble with cops. I definitely got harassed by cops."

Gabel moved to Gainesville when he was 18, mostly "for the music scene and the cheap rent." And it was there, in the bars and coffeeshops (and, once, a laundromat) around the University of Florida that Gabel found his nonconformist voice, both as a singer and a songwriter.

Against Me! developed a hard-edged rep for acoustic punk protest songs that name-checked Condoleezza Rice and Ronald Reagan and begged angsty teens to Turn Those Clapping Hands Into Angry Balled Fists (the title of a song from 2003's As The Eternal Cowboy).

That was, until 2007, when New Wave, their plugged-in, major-label debut — produced by Garbage drummer Butch Vig, who also helmed Nirvana's Nevermind — hit the shelves. Like Green Day's American Idiot, New Wave managed to be angry, insightful, topical, daring and catchy as all hell.

Gabel's lyrics took on all comers — posers, politicians, moguls, fans, himself — with an eff-you vigor, and established him as a songwriting force critics couldn't ignore. Spin crowned New Wave the best album of 2007. Rolling Stone called Against Me! the best punk band on earth. Aussie pop star Ben Lee was so moved by New Wave he covered the whole thing, song for song. Springsteen's a fan.

Naturally, some dyed-in-the-denim punk fans — especially those who haunt punk message boards — found the band's sudden success a bit hard to swallow. "We've gotten tons of criticism for every move we've made along the way from our fan base," Gabel said. "We knew everybody was going to be upset no matter what we did."

Not that he's losing sleep over it. In fact, the lyrics on New Wave single Up the Cuts even seem to call out Against Me!'s more narrow-minded fans: "All the punks still singing the same song / Is there anyone thinking what I am? / Is there any other alternative?"

"When I was younger and just getting involved in punk," he said, "there were a couple of different periods of being 'punk,' and giving into that development. The first half was very much a nihilistic, let's-get-f---ed-up-and-drink-beer-and-do-drugs type of thing. And then it became much more politicized, like, 'Let's try and do something active, and start Food Not Bombs and stuff like that.' But never at any point was it like, 'Punk rock means getting on the Internet and criticizing (artists) on message boards and sending them nasty e-mails.' I don't relate to that at all, because I never experienced that in my adolescence, and neither did my friends. That was not what punk was about."

The ironic thing? Gabel himself recently started a blog (though, he adds, "I loathe the word blog") to help pass the time on this year's Warped Tour. He sees that outlet as a tool to help make him a better songwriter, especially as he begins penning tunes for Against Me!'s follow-up to New Wave.

"Journal-style writing is another style of writing," he says. "I think it's important to branch out like that and try to test yourself, just to see what happens, so you don't get stale doing the same thing over and over again."

Gabel doesn't have to worry about sounding like anyone else. His vocal cords will make sure of that.

Warped Tour 2008 The Warped Tour is Friday at Vinoy Waterfront Park in downtown St. Petersburg. Doors open at 11 a.m., music starts at noon. Tickets are $31.99 at Ticketmaster

Against Me! snarls into stardom 07/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 3:31pm]

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