Laura Jane Grace Reviews 2014: The Against Me! Leader On Transitioning In Public, Getting To Know Her Fans, And Seeing A Ghost
Since coming out as transgender in 2012, Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace has been living in a kind of whirlwind, having not only spent the past two years navigating her new identity under the watchful gaze of the public, but also touring nonstop in support of one of the year’s best albums Transgender Dysphoria Blues, AND — if that weren’t enough — filming a web series, True Trans, that explores Grace’s own personal journey and helps illuminate the transgender experience. While all of this might be enough to leave most people feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, Grace seems to have happily taken it all in stride. I called her up to chat about the highs and lows of 2014, the making of True Trans, and what people can expect next from her band.
STEREOGUM: It’s weird to think that it’s been almost a year since Transgender Dysphoria Blues was released. How has this past year been for you?
LAURA JANE GRACE: It’s been epic. Absolutely epic. I think I’ve traveled more this year, racked up more miles, than any other year of my life. So many cool tours with cool bands, so many great times on the road with the band and with our crew. What else? Playing Letterman, getting to share a stage with fucking Joan Jett and getting to present her with an award. I went to Japan twice this year just to get tattooed, which was awesome. Also working on True Trans, lots of great personal stuff, spending time with my daughter … It’s been a great year. I think it’s only now that I’m really beginning to get some perspective on it. I have a couple of solo shows left this year, but the band is done touring for now, so having a second to really look back on things, it’s like, whoa. It’s just crazy.
STEREOGUM: Transgender Dysphoria Blues ended up being very well received, but I can only imagine that it must have been incredibly nerve-wracking at the time to release this record. Were you surprised by reaction?
GRACE: I just went into it thinking that every second of the experience was a kind of plus. The record technically came out in January, but we had started the tour for that record on New Year’s Eve and had been selling the record on vinyl at the shows. There had been so much waiting around and so many bad things had happened while we were trying to finish the record that I wasn’t exactly holding my breath about how it would be received. So yeah, it felt good.
STEREOGUM: It must be really gratifying to release something that is such an intense personal statement and see it be a commercial success as well. It really took on a life of its own.
GRACE: Totally. And you know, being a band that is now six records into our career, to put out a record and be able to play five or six songs from that new record and not have people in the audience treat it like, “Oh, here’s another new song, let me go get a beer,” but actually be singing along — that was awesome. Seeing that people at the shows were really into the record felt really good.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a sense of how your fanbase has or hasn’t changed over the past couple of years?
GRACE: I learned pretty quickly not to think about that too much, or not to try and figure it out. I remember that we were playing in Texas and I looked out at the audience and thought, “OK, who is coming to see us now in Dallas, Texas?” At one point this guy jumped up on stage — this very bro-looking, kinda jock guy — and then he lifted up his shirt to reveal his scars from a top surgery — the surgery in which a trans man has his breasts removed. I was totally blown away. I had to really check myself and stop making snap judgments based on appearances. I realized that maybe I didn’t really know our audience that well and maybe I had underestimated our fans. The one other real noticeable change that I felt — that I think we all felt in the band — was that shows just had a really good vibe. No one seemed unhappy to be there. Sometimes shows can have a really negative vibe, like even the audience doesn’t want to be there. Now it seems like there is this really optimistic and fun feeling at the shows: People really want to be there and it feels really good.
STEREOGUM: Against Me! shows were always very cathartic, intense experiences, but now there is an almost celebratory vibe at your shows — which, for those of us who see a ton of shows, is a really rare thing.
GRACE: I mean, to hear staff people at the venues talking about how our audiences were really nice and friendly was a very telling thing. Usually at the end of the night the staff at a rock venue is always, “Get the fuck OUT of here,” so to hear them on multiple occasions say nice things about our audience felt like a really cool thing to me. It felt like we were doing something right.
STEREOGUM: Looking back, it’s easy to see how a lot of the anger and aggression in older Against Me! material had to do with your personal struggle with your gender identity. How does it feel to play those older songs now?
GRACE: A lot of those songs feel really reinvigorated now. A song like “Pretty Girls,” which is off our 2005 record, was a song that we always HATED playing back then. I felt like I had to compromise on the lyrics in order to cover up what was really going on with me. It was just a simple line, but in changing those lyrics slightly to reflect the truth we can now play that song and it feels fucking rad. There are a lot of songs like that. When you can revisit them coming from this happier place, they don’t feel so tortured anymore. They can feel triumphant.
STEREOGUM: One of my favorite things about the True Trans series is that it represents such a diversity of experiences and so many different kinds of trans voices. As you traveled around and spent time with all of these different people, what were some of the things that surprised you the most?
GRACE: So many things. It was really my intention from the beginning to include a lot of different kinds of people and different experiences. After coming out publicly and really starting to transition in the public eye, I really started to feel this pressure to now fit into this new kind of box … but you don’t even know what the fuck that box is or how it is supposed to look. I needed and wanted to go and have all of these conversations — to talk to other people who were maybe much further along in their transitions or were maybe just starting out — and to also talk to people who maybe didn’t want to be identified as male or female, who maybe didn’t fit into the binary at all. The most surprising thing to me was when I talked to people who were much further along than me in their transition, often they were people that I had kind of known about and admired in an almost celebrity kind of way: Buck Angel, Our Lady J — and to hear them say that they are still figuring it out … that surprised me. And it made me feel a lot better.
STEREOGUM: It’s really amazing to know that this film series exists, and that a teenager living somewhere in a small town can watch these online and suddenly not feel so alone or so misunderstood. I just think that it’s a really profound thing.
GRACE: I hope it does have that kind of reach. I hope that young people — even if they aren’t necessarily fans of the music — can see this and get something from it.
STEREOGUM: The year is quickly coming to a close. Outside of all the stuff happening in your own life, what have been some of the things that have really moved and inspired you in 2014?
GRACE: You know, if you were to ask me to make a list of the top 10 records released in 2014, I don’t think I could. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t listening to music constantly, it’s just being on tour and traveling so much you just end up listening to really random stuff. I’d get stuck on a random song that really meant something to me — the song “Dog Years” by Luke Rathborne, for example. That was my May/June song. The song “New York Doll” by Robyn Hitchcock was another big one. I could probably make a playlist. Seeing Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine was a pretty big deal for me this year. I’m trying to think of things that happened outside of band world. Band world can be a pretty narrow view sometimes.
STEREOGUM: I always say people that overly romanticize being on tour in a rock band are usually people that have never actually done it.
GRACE: Totally! Still, one of the best things about this past year was being in the band. You know, there had been a period of time when being in Against Me! fucking sucked. It had become totally soul-sucking. That was the vibe on tour, nobody really got along. This year the combination of the people in the band as well as the people in our crew, it was just fucking perfect. Eight people on a bus. Every night we’d go out for dinner before the show and we just really made a lot of great memories. For example, at one point we were on tour in Europe — on a tour bus in Austria, going through the mountains — and we just decided in the middle of the night to go out and climb this mountain. We were drunk and it was the middle of the night, but we all went out and climbed this mountain. It was just epic adventure stuff. We broke into a swimming pool at one point. I hadn’t had fun like that in a long time, but I really needed it.
STEREOGUM: That’s how touring should be. It shouldn’t just be looking at the shitty identical backstage dressing rooms at venues.
GRACE: Right? I mean, I saw a ghost this year for the first time! I saw the ghost of a little boy run right past me at a venue in Buffalo. It was wild. That’s what tour should be like.
STEREOGUM: Hold up. I need to know more about the ghost.
GRACE: It was this place in Buffalo called the Town Ballroom. It used to be a speakeasy, and back in the day people like Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. used to play there. Underneath the venue there’s a tunnel that goes across the street that and used to connect to another building. There’s a series of weird rooms down there and this weird bathroom area at the end of this long dark tunnel. Apparently people like Al Capone used to hang out down there and supposedly all kinds of evil shit went down. So anyway, we played there in January and they took us down there to look around. It’s creepy as fuck down there but no one really saw anything, we all just got a little spooked. Then we played there again in October, so I took the band we were on tour with down there to look around. So I’m showing them the hallway and giving them the whole speech about the place and then, while everyone else is looking in one room, I turn around and this little boy goes running by right in front of me. Right into another room. I saw it. Immediately I got goosebumps and was just like, “I am outta here!” and split. After I calmed down I took these old Dick Tracy trading cards that I had and I went back down and left them in the doorway as a kind of offering to the little boy, as a way to make peace with him. It was fucking wild. I’m not the kind of person who normally gets into things like that, but I wouldn’t make such a claim if I didn’t really fucking see it. It was crazy.
STEREOGUM: I like to think I’m the kind of person who would hang out and investigate further, but in reality I would have probably fled.
GRACE: We were doing stupid shit. We bet one of our friends 40 bucks that he wouldn’t stay down at the dark end of the tunnel all by himself with no flashlight for 10 minutes … and he did it.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a sense of what 2015 will be like for you? Will you take a break? Or will the band immediately start working on a new record?
GRACE: I’m kind of just full-steam ahead right now. We recorded a bunch of stuff for a live record, so we’re putting that together now and it will hopefully be released in January. And we’ve already been demoing new songs in between all the various tours, and in addition to that I’ve been working as music director for this MTV show called Rebel Music, and I’ve also been working on a book on the side. I’m trying to stay busy.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a sense of what the new Against Me! music will sound like?
GRACE: It’s rad to be in a position where you can be in a band for this long and still not feel like you’ve explored everything you want to do musically. A lot of that has to do with the fact that, at this point with all the lineup changes, we’re basically a new band. Once we started playing this year and we realized how good it was — you know, having people from Rocket From The Crypt and International Noise Conspiracy in the band is pretty fucking cool — it just felt like it would be an absolute and total shame if we don’t make a record with this lineup. Obviously the last record was really me just raking myself over the coals emotionally, so I just really want to make a fun record — something that’s just really fun to fucking play and go on tour with. That might not sound like something terribly ambitious, but I think it could be great.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned Laverne Cox earlier, and like her, you’ve kind of been thrust into this position of being both a spokesperson and a kind of role model for trans people and trans-related causes. How do you feel about that? And has it gotten easier for you?
GRACE: You know, I kind of always shy away from that. I realize that I have this platform and I want to use it to the best of my abilities. I really just try and take the approach of being as real as I possibly can with people — rough edges and all. This is what you get, this is who I am. I try to never isolate myself at shows. I always try to be around and approachable and open to having a real conversation with someone — whether it be that they just like the band or maybe they are struggling with their own identity or have somehow found strength in what we are doing or whatever. If having a conversation with someone can help in some way, I’m always down for that. It helps me too. It’s not as if I have somehow completed the test or something. This is all still a work in progress for me too.