Interview: Laura Jane Grace brings her storied, still unraveling, songbook back to Florida

The Against Me! songwriter plays two sold-out shows in Ybor City.

click to enlarge Laura Jane Grace - CHRIS BAUER
Chris Bauer
Laura Jane Grace
In Gainesville, Laura Jane Grace used to spend days working for the Dignity Project where instructors taught students how to fix donated cars with the understanding that they’d take night classes to get their GEDs. The rides were then sold to disadvantaged families at well under cost (the second generation of the Project sells them for $1,000-$1,500). Grace told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay she wouldn’t be able to fix modern cars now dependent on computers, but she still feels confident about doing the basics—changing brake pads, alternators, oil changes or a cap and rotor.

“As a mechanic, I was never that great, let's be honest,” she laughed. “I was really good at taking things apart and then when it was time to put them together being like ‘Oh shit, what goes where?’"

She’s a much better at songwriter and author anyway.

For a quarter century, Grace, frontwoman for legendary Florida punk band Against Me!, has picked life apart but put it back together as part of a career that’s spawned more than a dozen releases.

A good chunk of that work will be reunited with Grace’s Tampa Bay fans this weekend when she plays two intimate sold-out shows in the courtyard of The Bricks in Ybor City, a district she’s visited as both headliner and concertgoer over and over during her formative years in Florida. Grace said she’s looking forward to escaping the gray cold of Chicago—a place she’s called home since leaving the Sunshine State a decade ago—and caught up with CL just weeks after her birthday.
“Twenty-six years old,” she joked. “Hard to believe, right?”

Not too far-fetched, but in so many ways, Grace is much different than the person she was at that age.

In her 20s, Grace saw Against Me! release its debut studio full-length ahead of two more, anarcho-punk informed LPs that eventually landed the band on Warner Brothers’ Sire Records and in the studio with producer Butch Vig. The ears behind Nirvana’s Nevermind helped the band record New Wave, a record named Spin’s No. 1 album of 2007 (Rolling Stone put it at No. 9). The output leading up to, and on, New Wave found Grace spilling her guts in now trademark fashion and connecting with a community in search of belonging.

But the critical acclaim didn’t sit well with certain fans who labeled the band sellouts. At one point, the pressure and stress on Grace’s band, combined with abuse from rigid and idealistic followers, led to a coffee shop altercation before a 2007 show in Tallahassee. Grace was arrested on a battery charge after the band’s show at Beta Bar—the same week Against Me! headlined Jannus Live in St. Petersburg.

Grace, who’s actually 41 years old, was 26 then and would totally do that part of her life over again.

“Not that I'm like, fucking ancient or anything, but I felt much older turning 30 than I did turning 40,” Grace said, adding that hitting the milestone at the time filled her with existential dread.

"Oh my god, my 20s are over, and I'll never do anything interesting again, nothing interesting in life will ever happen again. This is it, might as well retire to Florida," she explained. “But turning 40, I did not feel that way at all. It also hit me by surprise, but looking back at my 30s, I liked myself better as a person in my 30s than I did in my 20s.”

And she’s been treating herself better, too.

Grace—touring behind a surprise EP, At War with the Silverfish, released in late September on Polyvinyl—is four years sober, 10 years past coming out as transgender, doing yoga, raising a daughter and even running so much that she was on track to do the 2020 Chicago Marathon. That race was canceled due to coronavirus, but Grace kept running as a coping mechanism to escape the weird world we were all living in then; she ran hard enough to break her foot.
“I definitely was overdoing it last year and paid the price,” she said. “It's no joke. You gotta stretch out and all that shit before you go running and take care of your body.”

While Grace arrives in Ybor after a 20-month period where we all could’ve taken better care of ourselves, the sets are a chance to heal and be back with old friends that’ve hung on so many lyrics for more than 20 years.

Solo shows are a low risk way for Grace to strike a balance between wanting to be out on the road full bore with her band and staying home. Over two nights, she plans to play a mix of new songs, Against Me! stuff along with solo tunes—basically whatever she wants.

“This is kind of a more safe, reasonable way to do it as we come out of these uncertain times,” she said, explaining that a canceled show means eating just one plane ticket instead of the 10 required to do an Against Me! Gig. “You just want to be a part of a joyous gathering and have people singing because it has been a second so it feels really good to be out there.”

Plus there’s no telling who you Grace might run into.

In August, she played an alley in between Dumb Records and Good Heart Tattoo in Springfield, Illinois. After the set someone introduced themselves. It was the daughter of Chris George, a teacher who gave Grace her GED classes as part of the Dignity Project. George’s wife also worked for the project, and Grace had not seen them since.

“​​Their kid grew up and is an Against Me! fan and is a punk rocker and is politically active and minded,” Grace said.

For Grace—a military brat who landed in Naples and then slowly made her way up to Chicago—music brings out the purest form of herself.

“With records, when you feel like you actually made something that resonated, that feels like a hit—it doesn't matter if it's a hit in the pop culture sense of the word, Billboard charts and shit like that—but you had a hit, you connected with people, something resonated, you got a point across,” she said. And meeting that kid in Illinois was one of those moments.

Grace might’ve been a lousy mechanic, but she’s always been unafraid to reach inside in the hopes of keeping things in good working order.

“It was so awesome, and so fucking rad to see it all come full circle,” she said.

Read our full Q&A below.
I won't ask you if you're happy today, but I do want to tell you happy belated birthday.

Thank you; 26 years old, hard to believe, right?

I don't know if you want to answer this question, but, OK, 26, your 20s were a really formative time for you. You felt like the world was against you. Would you go back to 26 and do it differently? I assume the answer's no?

I would, but I mean hindsight is of course 20/20. I've actually been talking about this a little bit with some people from time to time, who are also around my age and everything—not that I'm like, fucking ancient or anything like that—but I felt much older turning 30 than I did turning 40.

When I was turning 30 I was so full of existential dread and I felt like, "Oh my god, my 20s are over, and I'll never do anything interesting again, nothing interesting in life will ever happen again. This is it, might as well retire to Florida." But turning 40, I did not feel that way at all. It also really hit me by surprise, but looking back at my 30s, I liked myself better as a person in my 30s than I did in my 20s.

I just had a better time in my 30s, and I think that entirely speaks to age and wisdom, immaturity and all those obvious things, but it's surprising to actually be there and to have that perspective now as opposed to listening to some asshole like myself tell you that.

It's positive. Your fans have always looked up to you in a really deep way; you have a deep connection with them, and it's really cool to hear you talk about how you're doing yoga. The most unhealthy thing you do right now is probably running too much right?

Yeah which isn't even a joke as far as unhealthy goes. Literally, I broke my foot last year; last year, at this time, I was so depressed and in a dark place. We're fuckin like right there, the government's falling apart, pandemic is raging,and then I fucking broke my foot. And it was just totally from overdoing it with the running. There are much much more unhealthy things I could be leaning into as a coping mechanism to live through these crazy times that we're dealing with, but my coping mechanism has been going running. I definitely was overdoing it last year, this time, and paid the price. It's no joke; you gotta stretch out and all that shit before you go running and take care of your body. You know?
Are you on some shit where you want to qualify for the Chicago Marathon?

I was enrolled actually. And I was supposed to run in 2020 and then they canceled it. I had been legitimately training, and I was in a good spot to run it in 2020, and then they pushed everyone's enrollment over to 2021, but after I had the broken foot, and the fuckin' head fuck that this past year was, I just was not on my game with with training and, and my foot still kind of feels weird sometimes when I run for too long, so I once again deferred my enrollment to next year.

They're understanding about it just because of the circumstances, and I was running for charity or whatever, but I really enjoy running. I miss touring, but running while on tour is just like a great way to see a city, and if you push yourself to wake up early in the morning, and get out there and go for a run and just get lost in a place, you'll have like a way real experience, and you'll start your day off every time right.

I want to ask you about that a little bit later, but now I'm picturing you running in Ybor City. You obviously have a deep relationship with Florida, but you are now running around and might go for a jog when you're here in December. If you do, how much of the town do you think you still recognize? Obviously Against Me! was supposed to play Crowbar—and that got canceled because of the pandemic—but the last time you were here might have been Orpheum for Pre-Fest or something like that.

I think the last time we were there was for Pre-Fest in 2017, was it, right? It's crazy because I grew up going to shows in the Tampa/St. Pete area, and Ybor, in particular, has just changed so much since the 90s from what it was like when I was hanging out there. But it's one of those weird things—and so many places are like this in Florida just because of the nature of Florida, and Ybor had its own separate thing happen—where in Florida in general, they usually don't let a building be older than 10 years before they can knock it down and build a new one. So anytime I come back to Florida, it's this mix of familiarity, but also newness.

I don't know what hotel they're gonna put you up in, but the neighborhood definitely looks different than the last time you were here. Thinking about neighborhoods, I like that story you tell about your mom when you were in Italy and how she went out of her way to really assimilate and be a part of the neighborhood. Have you been able to do that much at your new spot on the northside? And kind of be like your mom in that way? Do you aspire to be like your mom in that way?

I admire her for sure, and I would love to it's it's a little different—you know, Chicago is not a foreign country. My mom definitely threw herself into and immersed herself in Italian culture, learned the language, learned the cooking. I think the equivalent of here would be like learning to enjoy deep dish pizza, and that's just never going to happen for me.

And the tchotchke system for parking, right?

Luckily—oh my god—I'm so thankful I have my own parking space at my building, so I don't have to deal with that. But I've been in Chicago for like a decade now, and it's a hard city to assimilate to. I've never really found my footing here; it's just very different from Florida, very different from other cities I've lived in, and in general just different from the South. There's a part of me that's just so from the South that it's always abrupt when I'm in other places where people aren't as friendly. You know, just like small shit like saying "hello" in the mornings or stuff like that. There's a part of me that will never change.

I hear you. And obviously we know about your relationship with Florida, you coming over to Naples and kind of making your way up to Gainesville, and then going up to Chicago. You started talking about neighborhoods, and I was thinking about something you posted on Twitter around Thanksgiving when you said your daughter groaned as you walked in with an acoustic guitar. Is that in Chicago? Is she living with you there?

Yeah.

Why do you think she's over your acoustic guitar? Did she like the Silverfish record? I picture you with your Walkman with Def Leppard Hysteria in there? What does she have in her version of the Walkman?

It's definitely streaming, that’s her version of the Walkman. Though she has an actual Walkman that she was listening to last night; I usually make her mixtapes for her birthday. She definitely, at this point, has her own very defined taste. She's into lots of K-pop and loves My Chemical Romance. The past couple days in particular, after watching the Beatles documentary "Get Back," every morning on our ride to school we've been listening to The Beatles and then going through solo records of the Beatles. We listened to so much shit, but you my daughter does not listen to my music. I would not want her to.

You would not want her to?

Well it's just awkward, not for the content or anything. It's like, what am I going to do? Come home from the studio and make her sit down at the table, put the headphones on, and sit there and stare in her face while she listens and be like, "What do you think? You like it right?" But you know, I'm sure me walking into the room with an acoustic guitar, they're prepared for me to bust out in some kind of showtune song or sing something ridiculous—because that's usually what I do—so I'm sure that's why they were groaning. Not as much as the commentary on just the acoustic guitar itself. I think all acoustic guitar players are maybe a little subconscious in that because it's an instrument that is sometimes used for questionable purposes. So I get it. It can be used for good and it can be used for bad, let's say.
I'm with you. I like to hear stories about you interacting with your kid. My kid's two, so he's just starting to get into music and stuff, and it's fun to talk about tha. I really enjoyed "Black Me Out," and it was interesting to hear you say that sometimes you feel like you have trouble communicating. Some of that might be linked to being a sensitive person—and I read this in Paste, actually—and that there's this table flipping part of your personality. In that context, can you talk about times when you've been in a conversation where you actually felt heard and you were effectively communicating? What's that like, when it's working?

Well, I think in general there's different stages of acquaintance with people. Oftentimes upon first meeting people, I feel like I can communicate clearly, but maybe once I'm ingrained in relationships, I oftentimes over communicate. I'll talk about the way I feel all the time. It's not like I'm in this locked box, and I'm in a room with a band, and no one knows how I feel. I'm letting everyone know how I feel constantly and that changes oftentimes, so I'm sure I drive people fucking nuts.

But in general I've always found music to be the most effective way to communicate, and songwriting, or art in general. And that's oftentimes why it can be frustrating even doing press after you put out a release, where oftentimes people want you to, in an interview, explain a record or a song or a piece of art, and you have to effectively communicate the feeling you were trying to get across for the song that took you a year to write.

The actual thing I'm trying to get across is communicated in the song. I can't put into words better, or else I would've.

With records, when you feel like you you actually made something that resonated, that feels like a hit—it doesn't matter if it's a hit in the pop culture sense of the word, Billboard charts and shit like that—but you had a hit, you connected with people, something resonated, you got a point across. That's always a great feeling.

No, I feel like Tito's team did a good job explaining, you know, the nuances of the record and the metaphors about your thoughts at night and how they came to feed...

Oh, I hate album bios.

Somebody has to write them...

You spend months in the studio working on this record, and then it all hinges on a fuckin' album bio. So not only do you have to be good at writing and recording and singing, you have to be good at fucking giving talking points for an album. I always want to just copy and paste the Ramones old album bio or band bio, which was very straightforward and to the point. I won't try to paraphrase, you can Google it and read it, it's great. If you ever see one that's from me that reads like it was actually written for the Ramones it is just because I stole it.

And at this rate you're always gonna have a record to put out. I love that you're very aggressive about saying things like, "Hey, if I have a binder full of 30 songs, I gotta put some out before I can get another one in."

But people have this tendency—since we're talking about it, and I'm totally into talking about this—people have this tendency especially with album bios in that moment where they ask, "Alright, why are you doing it this time?" `Where it's like, "Fuck you." Like, what do you mean? Why am I putting out a record? Because that's what I do, motherfucker. You should know that at this point. I don't even mean that for just me personally. I feel that on behalf of every musician when it's not their first record, and you're not just being introduced to them. You have to justify why you're still putting out records or putting out music? It's like, that's just what I do. Why do I do it? Because I fuckin' like doing it. There isn't any deeper thoughts or motivation behind it besides this is very joyful to me, and I enjoy it and I plan on continuing to do it so expect another record from me eventually, hopefully, too, you know?

It's not like you're gonna all of a sudden be into coffee roasting. I'm gonna ask you about words, staying on the communication thing. Obviously, your career is built on words, strung together, all coming from deep inside of you. You said that there are so many things about yourself that you didn't understand at a young age because you simply didn't have the words for it, but you found them. As an adult, and who you are right now—26, fresh off a birthday—are there some things about the world that you still don't have words for at this point?

I'm sure there are. Fuck, I hope that life is still full of mystery, and that I'll still learn things as I go, you know? And I guess that's maybe part of that table flipping instinct that I have to have, too. Oftentimes you seek a definition, or you seek a description for something, and then once you've arrived at it that doesn't mean it has to always apply, or it always rings true in the same way. Fluidity is a beautiful thing. Why would you ever want to box yourself into an, "It must always be this way" type of living in any sense? I just find that anytime you try to rigidly define something, you'll surprise yourself in wanting more room for definition.

And you're obviously back out in the world. I think you just played Wisconsin, and you're going to do the short run in Ybor where you'll be back in front of roughly 250 people across two nights. You told this story about finding a childhood desk of yours and you'd written some stuff underneath, You'd mentioned that you think you were attracted to this gang mentality of being in a group or having a family when you felt alone. Then you kind of found that in the band, but at one point that gang mentality almost destroyed you, and you've talked at length about that, and the way your fans viewed you as the band progressed. What's your relationship with belonging like now?

I will always seek that out. I'm not trying to be in any way like woe is me. I know that this past two years, everyone circumstances have been fairly fucking isolated. I miss being around people, and I miss working as a part of a team and I'm hopeful the world will continue to move towards a better place where we can get back to stuff like that. I think that that's just so ingrained, or sold to us in ways when we're younger—I don't know, either it resonates or it doesn't—but it's like an archetype, for sure.

Whether that's the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Gang of Four, or if it's like your favorite comic book heroes the Avengers. It's always like a group, and you want to be a part of that group. And you kind of are socialized like that, even at a young age, to have your group of friends.

For me coming up in a military family, that's kind of part of the military mentality, too. Whether that's like your platoon, or your squad—and it's so prevalent in movies that I watched growing up, and everything and then that is the band dynamic. Again, talking about that Beatles documentary, just having watched it freshly; I've been thinking about it so much with them, because it's like, "Oh, they're like that." They were the template of a band. I don't know. There's something beautiful about it, and something kind of eternal about it, but also something kind of completely of this era or of rock'n'roll that I just have always been attracted to. But then it extends to politics even into communal living. I would love to live in a commune or be part of a collective. That’d be awesome.
Cool. That's really cool to hear you say that. I know we're running short on time. I was gonna ask you about "Day Old Coffee." I'm happy that you won't have to drink day old coffee, and I know you feel like it's the worst song you ever wrote. But the video is cool, as you mentioned. So you got the Wisconsin show under your belt, and you'd mentioned that there's a little bit of muscle memory loss because of the pandemic and as far as playing live and interacting with an audience from the stage. How is it now? What can Ybor City expect when they see you on these two nights? You mentioned on Twitter that you wrote the best song and you wanted to share it with people—is that a song we haven't heard? Are you going to play it? What can we expect across the two nights you think?

Yeah, it's cool. I've been going out since August, doing two or three shows every month. A couple of them are shows that were planned, but then some stuff that's come up, last minute stuff, where it's like, "Oh, cool, that'd be fun to do." You know, like, played in an alleyway in Springfield, Illinois back in September. I did a live stream thing in the patio area at the Polyvinyl Records offices, or last month I did Green Bay and St. Paul.

I would love to be out there on a full tour with the band and everything like that, but at the moment taking on the smaller stuff, there's just way less risk involved to where if something were canceled, and it's not like, "Well, shit, we bought 10 plane tickets." We ordered all this merch or there's a bunch on the line because that really hurt in 2020, having to cancel a full year of touring.

It's been nice to be able to kind of strike the balance of, "I want to be out there. I want to be playing shows." But this is kind of a more safe, reasonable way to do it as we come out of these uncertain times.

It's crazy, the first couple of shows realizing the loss of muscle memory and having those moments where I'm like, I don't remember how to hold my guitar, or shit like that, but it comes back to you. It was cool realizing like at the first show or two where there's just such a good feeling of everyone being happy to be at a show and to be around people and to sing along. And it kind of makes shows easy in that way where it's like, play the songs people want to hear. I want to play a new song or two—that'll be fun—but I plan on playing a mix of Against Me! songs, solo songs, whatever. You just want to be a part of a joyous gathering and have people singing because it has been a second so it feels really good to be out there.

Alright, I know we're at time here and I wanted to ask you before we get off if there's anything that you hadn't said but I want to sneak a quick one in. Can you still fix a car?

Well not a modern car. Everything changed to being so much about computers. If your car is having a problem, you take it to a mechanic and they plug it into a computer and the computer diagnoses what's wrong. It's been a second since I worked in a shop or anything like that, but I feel pretty confident—like I could change a pair of brake pads, or I could definitely change an alternator or do an oil change, do spark plugs, cap and rotor, or whatever. As a mechanic, I was never that great, let's be honest. I was really good at taking things apart and then when it was time to put them together. being like "Oh shit, what goes where?"

It's really cool—and I'm romanticizing it here—but it seems like you changed a lot of peoples' lives in that program that gave cars to young moms in need.

I think it's still going to some extent, too, the Dignity Project, which is rad. That was just such a unique and incredible experience.

I mentioned that Springfield show. I had the coolest fucking craziest moment at that Springfield show where this this punk rocker came up to me, and they were like, "Hey, my name is such and such. I'm so and so's daughter." And it was the daughter of the night school teacher who gave me my classes at the Dignity Project, because that was the deal—they taught you how to work on cars during the day and at night you had to go and get your GED. So the teacher who was there—his name was Chris George, him and his wife Tina worked for the Dignity Project—and I had not seen them since, but their kid grew up and is an Against Me! fan and is a punk rocker and is politically active and minded. It was so awesome, and so fucking rad to see it all come full circle like that was just like one of those moments.

That's awesome. So the Georges, the Springsteens—Laura Jane Grace and Against Me! changing American homes for the better part of 20 years. I know we're out of time. Is there anything you wanted to make sure got out there that is not being mentioned or said in the latest round of press that you want to communicate?

No. I'm really looking forward to coming down to Florida though, it'll be nice to escape the gray cold Chicago for a second.
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About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his intro letter and 2021 disclosure. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The Daily Beast. Products...
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