There are big bands, and there are important bands.
It didn't used to be that way — the two used to go together much more frequently than they do today.
I'm talking Beatles big; I'm talking Zeppelin big.
Who's that big now? A quick look at the Billboard Top 200 album-sales chart shows Hilary Duff, Brad Paisley, Mariah Carey, the latest installment of the reprehensible Now That's What I Call Music! compilation series, and ever-loving 311 in the first five positions. Are these names important in the cultural-canon, furthering-artistic-expression, what-will-the-aliens-think-1,000-years-from-now sense of the word?
The current gulf between popularity and cultural significance is easy to explain. The entertainment industry is ever more adept at marketing to an ever more receptive, compliant mass audience. Its assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, it can, to a substantial degree, dictate "big." It cannot, however, dictate "important." That's still something only the material, the times and the enduring passion of the discerning listener can decide.
Though its members would likely shudder and stammer to hear it, Gainesville's Against Me! is arguably the most important band in punk rock right now.
It's not because the group is making sounds never heard before, but it's for some of the same reasons the bands Against Me! recalls — The Clash, X, The Pogues, Billy Bragg — continue to captivate and influence. Hewing to its independence and commitment to personal expression with a fierceness that borders on nobility, this little Florida folk-punk quartet rejects the cliques, dogma and trends of its scene, but embodies that scene's essential elements of community, rebellion, societal awareness, primal catharsis and temporal resonance.
Against Me! won't ever headline Madison Square Garden; hell, Against Me! probably won't ever headline the Warped Tour. But the band is a nearly perfect distillation of everything that's right about the concept of punk, at a time when the reality of punk seems completely without identity. It's a band that's making timeless music in an environment that makes just using the word seem ridiculous.
In short, Against Me! is important because it's exactly what punk rock needs, right now.
Not too shabby for an act whose principal member doesn't quite know how the hell the band happened in the first place.
"It's all been kind of a big accident," says singer and guitarist Tom Gabel. "It was never intended to be anything, especially anything that went this far, at all. It's been a nice surprise. There were no real expectations."
Five or six years ago, Against Me! was Gabel feeding songs into his little four-track recorder; it was Gabel, or maybe Gabel and a friend, bashing on acoustic guitar and screaming at coffeehouses and parties and local shows. A catalog of short-run vinyl releases built up; so did band members (including James Bowman, a former Tampa resident some might remember from primal-hardcore outfit The Scams). But even electrified, the project never lost the rootsy, protest-song vibe that set Gabel's music so far apart from the evolving modern-punk norm.
"I definitely think that in the beginning, that was the catalyst for getting it all going," Gabel says. "I was playing in a punk band that was probably a pretty generic punk band — not to be insulting, I still have a place in my heart for what we did — but I just wanted to do something different and, being limited in resources, I just kind of started playing my guitar and recording."
In '02, the Against Me! that the worldwide all-ages scene knows was introduced via the full-length Reinventing Axl Rose, a flawless blast of organic, anthemic musical energy. Many called it the best rock record of that year; it's become one of Gainesville label No Idea's best selling releases (now in its seventh pressing), striking a chord with punk fans everywhere on the strength of both its dated-yet-fresh sound and a unique and varied lyrical approach that puts issues large and small, the political and the personal, under the same magnifying glass.
After another No Idea release, the EP The Disco Before the Breakdown, the group, at that point an underground-circuit headliner, made waves with some purists by signing with the larger, more pop-punk-associated Fat Wreck Chords. Fat Wreck is by no means on the level of a major, or even one of the larger, more mainstream-friendly indies, but within the insular and often sadly myopic scene that had nurtured Against Me!, cries of "sellout!" were nonetheless heard.
"You know, in a way, for better or worse, whenever I'm presented with a situation where I feel like people might have a bad perception ... when presented with that option, the thought that people might not like it made me immediately think 'yeah, let's do it,'" says Gabel. "It almost makes it more enticing. We knew there was going to be some fallout, but if you make your decisions based on what other people are going to think, I don't know if you have any business making music."
The band's maiden voyage for Fat Wreck, As The Eternal Cowboy, garnered even more new fans. As emo and screamo sounds roped in kids from the mainstream, Against Me! was making real connections with its audience, inspiring a tangible electricity at its shows that was almost scary in its intensity. And as fine as the band can be in the studio — and the brand new, burning and eclectic Searching for a Former Clarity is fine, indeed — it's onstage (or on the floor, or in somebody's backyard) that the group's importance is impossible to miss. It's not a show, or a set, or a performance. It's communion, catharsis, exorcism, all of the things that the people who buy Hilary Duff records and Now! compilations apparently don't want or need from music, all of the things that raise it above entertainment, make it sacred.
Against Me! knows this. It's as sacred to Gabel, Bowman, bassist Andrew Seward and drummer Warren Oakes as it is to the people in the audience. That's why, instead of taking a few more days at home before leaving to play this fall's Fat Wreck Tour, they're taking their CD release party for Searching for a Former Clarity all across their home state. That's why they fill clubs and theaters and houses without ever wondering when or if they'll ever fill auditoriums or stadiums.
That's why they're important, regardless of how big they ever become.