Laura Jane Grace: At Home With the Misfits and Outcasts

True trans soul rebel discusses new band, new record and more

Laura Jane Grace’s musical career has been remarkable going back over 20 years to her founding of Against Me! as a teenaged, punk howl from Naples, Florida’s ’90s cultural vacuum. In 2016, Grace assembled Laura Jane and the Devouring Mothers, which also includes Against Me! drummer Atom Willard (a former member of Rocket from the Crypt, Social Distortion and The Offspring), and bassist Marc Jacob Hudson (Against Me!’s sound engineer, and recordist and mixer at Fenton, Michigan’s Rancho Recordo studio), for a tour of small venues which, along with stripped-down versions of Grace’s songs, featured her reading from the journals that served as source material for her autobiography: Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout.

“The most important lesson I ever learned from punk was ‘question everything,’ and that will never stop being relevant and important ”

In the summer of 2018, the trio recorded its debut Bought To Rot, with Grace tweeting at the end of July: “I recorded an album. It’s a solo album, except that it’s not cause my friends did it with me.” In early November (on the heels of an Against Me! tour of South America), the record was released on Bloodshot, the Chicago label best known for its alt country and roots-based indie releases.

For those who might view the pairing of Grace and Bloodshot as incongruous, Grace disagrees: “In a lot of ways, Bloodshot is the most at home with a label I’ve ever felt, in that they’re a self-described label for misfits and outcasts. I’ll always want to be where the other misfits and outcasts are.”

 

Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers. Photo by Katie Hovland

 

At SXSW 2019, Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers will kick off a spring U.S. and Canadian tour that will stretch through the end of April. In addition, Grace will be a Featured Speaker at the SXSW Conference in the Music Industry & Culture track.

Prior to her return to SXSW, which she first attended in 2003, she generously answered a few questions:

In reading your reminiscences about your teen years in Naples and Gainesville in Tranny, how do you think Florida’s culture (or lack thereof) both influenced and motivated you?

Laura Jane Grace: I started going to punk shows in the early/mid-’90s. No bands toured through Naples. None. There was no punk scene at all. When we wanted to see bands play, we went to St. Pete/Tampa. The scene there seemed so huge and intimidating. It seemed so diverse and active, too: punk bands, ska bands, hardcore bands, SXE bands, people making zines, people doing record distros. It all felt so united, too; it was a real scene.

It’s funny, though, ’cause once I wrapped my head around what was happening in the Tampa Bay area, Gainesville felt like the next step forward … that much more intimidating. By comparison it felt like Gainesville was where the true artists were; the bands that were making serious work that was unique and respected outside of Florida. Maybe that’s because it was a college town.

I’m thankful to have come up in Florida, though. What was going on there back then was unique. Florida had to invent its own version of punk rock, and I’m proud to have been a part of that. Isolation does great things for art.

 

Laura Jane Grace. Photo by Clair McAllister

 

As a follow-up on the Florida-theme, in light of its well-earned reputation for consumerism and conformity, why has it also produced such unique and visionary artists (like say, Tom Petty)?

LJG: To me, it always seemed like Tom Petty didn’t want much to do with his Gainesville past. He always wanted the Heartbreakers to be considered an L.A. band, which was intriguing to me but also I kind of got it after I had lived in Gainesville for a while. The scene there always felt like it wanted you to succeed but only to a certain point, then it wanted to pull you down and keep you in your place.

Maybe that’s Florida in general, and maybe that’s why it produced such unique and visionary artists: The desperation of thinking “I’ve got to get the fuck out of this place!” makes you work that much harder on your art if that’s your only shot at escaping.

It has been over 40 years since the Sex Pistols and the Ramones and their contemporaries emerged, do you view punk still as a viable social and musical movement linked to its original form?

LJG: Yes, 100%. The most important lesson I ever learned from punk was “question everything” and that will never stop being relevant and important. I think it’s punk’s ability to continually evolve into something completely different that keeps it viable. It’s not about a particular style of music or sound; it’s a mentality, an ethos, an approach to making art, or destroying it.Why do you think Against Me! was such a lightning rod for “sellout” backlash (which you describe in your book)?

LJG: Because we were an anarchist band singing songs about anti-capitalism, and we started making money off of our music. I get it.

As I said, punk rock should be about questioning everything. On the flip of that though, punk rock should also be about thinking for yourself, being true to yourself, and I knew what I was doing. I knew that music was what I wanted to do with my life well before I discovered punk rock or anarchist politics, and money has never been my motivation.

I knew that I was caught in the capitalist trap too: we live in a capitalist society, and if I couldn’t support myself playing music, I would have to make money selling my time working a shit job that I hated. Being a high school dropout with a couple of felonies on my record, my job options felt pretty limited. Working a shit job instead of pursuing music seemed like way more of a sellout move to me.

 

Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers. Photo by Bryce Mata

 

In what way do you still adhere to the DIY ethos of your youth? What are the core values that you see as still being relevant in this interconnected/digital world?

LJG: I think DIY in punk is a phrase that has been perverted somewhat. Saying something is DIY has become more descriptive of a sound than it is an accurate description of the ethic.

But even taking the term Do-It-Yourself at face value is a little misleading. No one can do it all by themselves … but you should absolutely be willing to do whatever it takes if needed. No part of the machine is more important than another part, and it takes the whole to make it work. At its best, DIY is about community building and working together with other people.

When I was starting out, no one would put out my music, so I put it out myself, dubbing cassette tapes and handing them out to friends. The interconnected/digital world has made that even easier – anyone can self-record music and put it online: instant distribution that’s accessible worldwide. There used to be a lot more gatekeepers involved in getting your music out into the world.

But saying you’re a DIY band and that you do it all yourself leaves out and steals credit from all the other people that it takes to make a good scene. Not everyone has musical ability but that shouldn’t mean that they aren’t allowed to be involved in music if they want to be … You can’t do it all yourself, and if anyone thinks they can they’re a megalomaniac, which is gross.

Laura Jane Grace will be a Featured Speaker in the Music Industry & Culture Track at the 2019 SXSW Conference on Thursday, March 14. Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers will perform at the 2019 SXSW Music Festival.

SXSW will be held March 8-17, 2019. The Music Badge gets you primary to all SXSW Conference Music & Convergence Tracks, Music Festival showcases and Comedy Festival showcases, as well as secondary access to most Interactive and Film programming. See you in March!

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