If there’s one fanbase out there who truly knows the definition of patience, it’s that of Floridian punk band Against Me!. In the four years since releasing their fantastic seventh album, Shape Shift With Me (which this scribe will happily defend as one of their top three releases, no matter how unpopular that opinion may ring at large), we’ve come annoyingly close to receiving a follow-up – first in 2018, before the material was scrapped in favour of Bought To Rot, an album by frontwoman Laura Jane Grace with her side-project The Devouring Mothers; and again in 2020, before the Coronavirus pandemic forced them to cancel a touring stint that would’ve led directly into a month of studio time.
Promises of a demo compilation – sneakily released under the pseudonym Angela Baker to avoid label dramas – were also cut when Grace decided instead to focus on recording a solo album in isolation. Thankfully however, that album – the 14-track Stay Alive, surprise-released on October 1st via Polyvinyl – is fantastic. It’s bright, dry and narrative-focussed, almost every track comprised of Grace and her acoustic guitar unfettered, all kinks and cracks laid bare as she sings and strums her heart out. It was recorded with fellow Chicago-based rock dog Steve Albini, whose skills as a decidedly hands-off collaborator came in handy when Grace strived to forge as organic an encapsulation of her songwriting as possible.
Stay Alive is the product of panic attacks, existential crises and isolation, frustration towards the music industry in toto and a defiant desire to rebel against the notion that art shouldn’t exist in a time when its profitability isn’t optimal. It’s a record steeped in anger, and yet, it is truly beautiful. And so we caught up with Grace – via Zoom, much to her chagrin against the platform – to discuss how she was able to imbue such beauty in a scenario so ugly.
You have a new album out! Outta nowhere! Holy shit! How does it feel to have just launched this one into the ether all of a sudden?
It’s been like an anchor point for the past couple months – every step of the process has kept me grounded, whether that was setting the date to record or the mastering afterwards, or finishing the artwork for it, or the release itself. And now with the way it’s being done, it’s like, “Okay, we’re going digital first and then the physical release will be in a few months, then there’s shows…” There are still more anchor points coming up. But with this endless drift of time that we’re in right now, I’ve needed those anchor points to keep me sane.
This is your first proper “solo album”, but you did have the Heart Burns EP all the way back in 2008 – had you tried to do another solo record since then, or has your mind just always been elsewhere?
I guess I don’t necessarily approach it like that mentally, y’know? The categorisation that happens to stuff after the fact, to me, is usually pretty inconsequential. And if we were having a private conversation, I would just be like, “I don’t give a f***.” It doesn’t matter to me. Band record, solo record, side-project… Call it what you want, y’know? It doesn’t make a difference to me, because the process is always the same – I start out writing songs on my guitar in my office, and then I’ll bring them to the band if I feel like it needs to be a band record… But it’s all about finding what feels good for the songs in the end, and the way that everything lined up for this record was inarguably what felt good for the songs. But I don’t know… I think from hereon out, any record I do that isn’t with Against Me!, I want it to be billed as my ‘very first debut solo record’ [laughs].
I think the biggest thing that surprised me when I was reading about this album is that these aren’t all new songs. Have you been writing much over the past year?
I went through a spell over the summer where I wrote a lot. It was right after recording [Stay Alive], I was writing every day. It kind of comes and goes – right now I’m really busy doing press stuff and focussing on that element of this record, and I kind of can’t wait to get back to the writing part of it. But no, the way this year kind of played out was that we thought we were doing an Against Me! record – we spent a week in the studio in January, then another week in February and another week in March, and then we went out on tour, and three days into that, the tour was cancelled and we all went home.
None of us live in the same city – or even the same state – so it was pretty apparent that everything was at a kind of stand-still, and we weren’t going to be able to continue making the record. But at that point, I had, like, 30-plus songs written. I had an abundance of material. And it’s not like I just took these songs that were going to be the Against Me! record and went, “Now it’s a solo record!” It was more like, “There’s all these songs, and we don’t know when we’re going to be able to continue working on them.” And idea of, like, “Okay, what if this lasts a year? What if it’s two years?” Two years later, we come back and we finally get into the studio together, and I’m like, “Hey, remember these 35 songs I have? Let’s get right back into them!” That is not at all what we’d want to be doing.
So I kind of looked at the batch of songs that I had, and I picked out the ones that seemed like they’d make the most sense for a record – and also like they were lining up effortlessly with what was going on right now. Because I mean, these are the kind of moments you live for as a songwriter, where you’re like, “Oh, the creative subconscious is speaking to me right now! I’m tapped into it!” And if you’re going to wait to release those songs, it almost steals that excitement from them, and then people think you’re playing off of the moment as opposed to rolling into it.
There’s that narrative that songs can live and they have personalities of their own, but the caveat to that is that songs can also die – they can stagnate and grow stale. So you want to make sure you get the songs out there while they’re still kicking. On another note, I feel like this record is very much a natural progression from Bought To Rot in terms of those folkier, more storytelling-based songs. Would you say this is just the direction you’re heading in as a songwriter nowadays?
Maybe that speaks to the isolation – I’m just talking to myself more and more. I’m trying to entertain myself and remind myself of where I’ve been, y’know? As you lose your mind, you start to create scenarios for yourself to live in as a way to keep yourself from crashing. But really, I don’t know. I guess I haven’t really thought about it. I have a hard time seeing where I’m going, when it comes down to it. I can look back and see where I’ve been, but I find that I like where I end up better when I’m not trying to plan the destination, and I’m just kind of rolling with things.
So how quickly did these songs come together? Are they very spur-of-the-moment in that you’d have the idea, tuck it away and move on to the next?
Well these songs were written over a two, three-year period of time, and they had taken on a bunch of different forms – there’s full-band versions of all of them, and those full-band versions are much more fleshed-out with all the intros and re-intros and bridges and stuff that are more instrumental-based. So when I decided to do [the record] this way, it was about stripping all those parts off and getting back to what the core of what the song was at the start. And that was just acoustic guitar and vocals. I had fleshed out every possible angle a song could head in, tried it every different way, and then just pulled back to the bare basics of it. But in preparation for going into the studio with Steve, I was very focussed. I timed it with the moon – I was like, “Alright, it’s a full moon tonight, so starting tomorrow, I’m going to practise these songs every single day. I’m going to run through them at least once, every day for the next complete moon cycle, until the next full moon.”
So a year or two from now, will we get full-band performances of these songs?
Well to me, there’s no reason why we can’t do that. With what we were just saying about how songs can die, it was just that I needed to get these songs out now, in whatever form I could. And y’know, going back through the history of Against Me!, that’s the way the band started – I would write songs, record them as acoustic demos, and then we’d flesh them out as a band. That’s what the majority of Reinventing Axl Rose is: different, more full-band versions of songs that were already recorded in a much more stripped-down element. So in looking at it that way, there’s no reason why we can’t come back and [play songs from Stay Alive as Against Me!] if we want to.” After this pandemic shit plays out, if we want to come out of the gates swinging and go on tour immediately as Against Me! before we put out a new record, well, we still have new songs that we’ll be able to play.
It’s just about not putting any limits on things. Because that’s where everything was getting stuck with [the eighth Against Me! album] before we had to pack it up – thinking, like, “Oh it has to be this one way.” Going, “We’re Against Me! – there’s four of us and we have to record the songs this way, and everyone has to have a part to play.” We were having trouble with that in the studio, and I was reaching a point of frustration because it’s like, I can sing, I can play guitar, I can write the songs… “Everyone else, you’ve gotta do your own thing.” If we’re not lining up in the moment and it’s all feeling forced, then f*** it, y’know? Let’s just walk away from it. When a pandemic basically is telling you, “Walk away from it for a second,” then you have to walk away from it.
I was going to ask if it felt like you’d come full-circle in a way, given how the early Against Me! stuff was all acoustic.
100 percent! And consciously, too. Especially in feeling like, “Alright, look – this time sucks. It sucks for everyone.” And there have been so many times over my career when fans have come up to me and been like, “Hey, I’d love to hear you do a record like [Reinventing Axl Rose] again!” Or even with Heart Burns, people being like, “I’d love to hear you do another thing like Heart Burns.” So if there was ever a time to just flay myself out to the fans and go, “F*** it, sure,” it’s now, right? I’m just like, “Sure, if it would make you happy, I’ll do it. That would make me happy, to make you happy.” Because f*** it, dude, we need some fan-service shit going on right now.
Did you go with Steve Albini because you knew he would be right for this record, or because you’re both stick in Chicago, did it just sort of work out?
Both of those things! In terms of being able to make a record, I realised that I could do it as long as I adjusted my scope – I just had to figure out how to make a record here in Chicago, because that’s where I am. And so I had to ask, “What is within my means?” I don’t have my band here, but I still could do it by myself. So where could I record? And then I realised, “Oh, Electrical Audio is right down the street!” I’ve always wanted to make a record there, and I’ve always wanted to do a record with Steve Albini – I’ve been a fan of the records he’s made for decades, and beyond that I’m a fan of his perspective, of his personality and his politics and the way he approaches making music, specifically in terms of being a recording engineer. And that’s what I wanted; I wanted someone to set up the microphones, press record, make it sound good, and not give me their opinion.
I didn’t want someone telling me, “Try doing the song this way,” because it didn’t f*** matter! It wouldn’t have made anyone any more or less happy if I had added another double to a chorus, or a synth under a drum line – the shit I feel like we were getting caught up on as a band, trying to please all these people who, when it comes down to it, are never going to be pleased anyway. I just didn’t give a shit about it anymore. I wanted to do it my way, 100 percent, and not have anybody give me their opinion on it. That may sound a little selfish or whatever, but I just wanted it for this record, so I did it. And I knew Steve would be into that – I knew that as long as I was practised when I went in there, he would be down. As long as I wasn’t wasting his time in any way.
Also, he’s an analogue recording engineer, and that was so important, because I wanted the opposite of a f***ing Zoom call. I wanted no computers involved whatsoever. I didn’t want to look at a screen while making the record – I wanted tape. I wanted an actual document of a recording. Because we don’t have live music right now, and if everything that’s coming out on record is some f***ing Frankenstein bullshit that’s made in Pro Tools in, like, 50 takes that are all edited together, then we don’t have anything. There’s nothing left of live music then, y’know? So creating an actual document, it was going, “This is me right now. This is the limit of my ability right now – this is me singing in a room in Chicago during a pandemic.” It’s not a collage, it’s just a photograph – a musical photograph.
So depending on how long this pandemic stretches out, what happens with that potential Against Me! record? Do you try to do the Frankenstein Pro Tools thing with everyone’s parts being done in different places around the country? Or would you not even consider that?
Well first of all, I’ve cancelled my Pro Tools subscription. I’m so f***ing over Avid. The idea of it being a subscription service is just so distasteful to me, and it’s so wrong – the idea that you’ve got to rent the means to make a living as a recording artist, from this company that just sells you a code to unlock their program, that’s just f***ing wrong. But from my home studio setup, I record a lot with Logic, and I also have LUNA that I’ve been messing around with. I don’t know – there’s advantages to being able to edit some stuff if you make a genuine mistake in an otherwise perfect take – I’m not a total purist. It’s just that [the approach we took with Stay Alive] seemed like the right move for right now.
And with that being said, it seemed like the correct approach to take was the most efficient one as possible, so we were spending the least amount of money on studio time as we could. If all you’re reading about in the headlines are stories of people losing their jobs and businesses closing, then the idea of making some over-the-top, really expensive, like, “We spent three months in a studio and it cost half a million dollars” kind of record… That seems so distasteful. While people literally can’t pay their rent, or are doing GoFundMe campaigns for f***ing healthcare, I can’t justify dropping six figures on a new album. So wanting to be as efficient as possible in the studio, it was a matter of going, “Learn the song before you go in to record it – know how to play it, and then play it.”
Speaking of which, we totally have to talk about guitars. What were you playing on this record?
I recorded this whole album on my Australian Maton guitar! I brought three different acoustics into the studio with me – I brought in a Gibson, a Yamaha and a Maton, and I was thinking I would do it with the Gibson, but the Maton just sounded the best. And that’s the guitar on the whole record. I bought it when I was touring Australia with Chuck Regan in 2008. There’s not even a DI – it was just strictly, like, a ribbon microphone on the guitar and a mic on my vocal, and that was it.
Is that your go-to for when you’re having a casual strum at home as well?
I have this new Yamaha – I think it’s a CSF or something like that – and that’s been my at-home guitar for a while. But I’m non-monogamous when it comes to my guitar relationships. I get wrapped up into deep affairs with them that last for extended periods of time, but I love guitars and I have a lot of guitars, and I’ll switch back and forth depending on the mood.
I can’t decide whether I shouldn’t ask about the two weeks where Angela Baker existed because it’d be a faux pas, or because I’m assuming you can’t talk about it anyway?
I can talk about it [laughs]. I was just losing my mind. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had a complete nervous breakdown… Well, not a complete nervous breakdown – I’ve had a complete nervous breakdown before – but I had a total anxiety attack pretty early on where I was trying to… I mean, a pandemic hit, basically, is what happened. But I was trying to figure out what to do with my time, and I had these songs and I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to start releasing them online for people to hear. Just for fun.” And with those songs in particular, I couldn’t release them under the Against Me! name, so I was trying to be a little obscure about it. Angela Baker is a character in the Sleepaway Camp movie series, and I don’t know, it felt like that moniker made sense somehow.
I’ve been talking about this for a while now, and I’m sorry if it’s annoying at this point [ed’s note: Laura has been telling us about this project since early 2017], but three years ago I recorded a record of Mountain Goats covers, and I was finally going to release that right after I did the Angela Baker stuff. But the management I was working with at the time, they were like, “Don’t do that! Don’t do that! Don’t release those for free! You need to hold onto them.” They were trying to stop me from doing that, and I was like, “No! F*** this!” I completely shut down, I blocked everyone in my cell phone, I cut everyone off from me, and I isolated. And then I was like, “I need to clear my head right now. I need to get back to basics.”
That was when I decided to make this record, Stay Alive. And I was like, “Everyone is going to tell me not to do this, but if I listen to everyone else, then I won’t make a record at all during this period of time – I’ll be sitting around, waiting for some strategic moment that makes sense in a business-y, music industry type of way, and I just don’t want to f***ing do that.” So I just kind of shut myself down to everybody and shut off my phone, and then I quit smoking weed and made a record!
If there was ever a time to break the “rules of the industry…”
Well see, that’s the trick – never trust anyone who tells you, “There are no rules now,” because the truth is there were never any rules! And someone who believes there were rules is just going to believe there are rules again. And f*** that person. That’s what it really is! So no, there aren’t any rules of the industry – go with what feels good! And y’know, honestly, I’m the type of person where what feels good to me, and what makes sense to me as an artist, doesn’t always make sense to other people. And those people will try to dissuade me from it, or discourage me from exploring an idea, and they won’t see where I’m heading with it. And I can’t live like that anymore. I just can’t do it.