Indie, DIY: Both labels applied to any artist who’s chosen to build a career outside the machinery of the mainstream music business. But there often comes a point in the path of every indie act when it finds itself faced with the question of whether to become part of that machine in order to move to the next level.
For Tom Gabel and Against Me!, the answer to that question was simple - hell yeah (when the right offer comes along)! Signing with Warner Records’ Sire imprint presented the band with opportunities it never had before, like access to a much broader audience and the chance to work with a full-time producer for the first time.
Gabel started Against Me! a decade ago as a solo acoustic act, belting out punk and folk rock songs of rebellion in any venue that would have him. Over the next 10 years, he expanded the band, which now includes James Bowman (guitar), Andrew Seward (bass) and Warren Oakes (drums), and released a trio of successful albums on indie labels along the way.
In 2005, the album Searching For A Former Clarity broke into the mainstream charts and attracted the attention of execs at Warner. Gabel and the band were offered the opportunity to sign with the label, and, after pondering the question for a while, decided to go for it, largely for the opportunity to work with producer Butch Vig.
Not that the jump to a major label hasn’t come without its share of controversy. As is the case with many indie acts that go major, some of the band’s fans have accused it of selling out and abandoning its values. Gabel just wants them to shut up about it and listen to the music.
“It totally irritates me,” Gabel told Pollstar. “It’s a boring subject. People have their minds made up and there’s nothing I can really say that’ll change people’s minds if they think one way. And the people that think the other way, you don’t need to change their minds. They already get it.”
The singer explained the band has always been driven to grow and move forward, and had reached a point where it was starting to spin its wheels.
“Bands have arcs to their career,” he said. “It was important for us to keep moving in that upward trajectory as opposed to stagnating and reaching a point where we said, ‘Well that’s it. That’s all we want to do with our band.’
“We started off playing in basements and touring around in that scene. You got the feeling after a while that you were almost that party’s private band for the night. It kind of got to be like, ‘Wow, this is really exclusive.’
“We want to travel around and play shows that are advertised to everybody, not just the cool people and the hip people. We want to be playing in places that are comfortable for anyone to come out regardless of age or social status.”
The band’s agent at Pinnacle Entertainment, Ryan Harlacher, started out as a fan and friend of the band. He said it was that drive to succeed coupled with a passion for the music and the fans that prompted him to sign them.
“The first tour we booked for them was 16 dates across Canada,” Harlacher told Pollstar. “For a band their size, that’s a pretty intensive tour to do in Canada. That’s kind of the way it’s been from the get-go. After the Canadian tour, the next tour we did was a 71-city tour across the U.S., playing all 50 states. It’s stuff like that that makes them very unique. They’re much different than any other band I’ve ever worked with.
“They really pay attention to what they do and they care about it a lot. I think that’s the thing that you see more than anything. They just really care about the way that they do things and they really care about their fans. Just because they can play for 3,000 people in New York doesn’t mean they’re going to skip the 500-seater in Birmingham.”
Fans return that devotion, following the band on tour and singing along with gusto at every show. Harlacher doesn’t think the move to a major label has changed Against Me! at all, especially on the road.
“It all goes back to the way that the band maintains control of what they do,” he said. “They’ve always paid very careful attention to things like ticket prices. They’re constantly stressing to me that they want to keep ticket prices low. Out on the road, they do their own merch and they keep their merch prices low.
“Plus they’re a band that promoters like working with. They’re a band that, while they’ll play for Live Nation and AEG, they’ll also still involve the local people that have been with them from the beginning. “Any band that comes from their scene is going to receive some sort of attention for making the move to a larger label, but as far as things go in the touring front, they’ve just kind of kept doing things the way they’ve always done it. No matter what’s happened over the last five years, they’ve always put on the same show. They play with the same amount of energy and intensity that they’ve always played with.”
As far as where the band goes from here, Gabel said “the sky’s the limit.”
“If we were so lucky to be the type of band that could fill stadiums, I’d be fine with that. I’d like the challenge. Obviously if tomorrow we were booked into a stadium tour, that would be a bad thing, but I would never put any kind of limit on the amount of people we’d like to play for.”
Against Me! is on tour in the U.K. through the end of October and then they’ll return to the States to finish out the year supported by hip-hop artist Sage Francis. After a short break, the band will head back out in the New Year for what Gabel said is “a long road of touring ahead of us.”