Laura Jane Grace: “Getting Arrested Politicised Me”
It was just over six years ago that Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender at 31. Her announcement brought some much-needed attention to LGBTQ rights in the music industry (and beyond), while simultaneously thrusting her into the limelight more than ever before. For the first time since starting the band in Gainesville, Florida at the age of 16, Against Me! were being written about by, among others, The New York Times, Elle magazine and The Guardian, publications who had never before acknowledged the political punk band’s existence, let alone featured the radical, left-wing, anarchist-leaning band within their pages.
At the age of 14, Laura was beaten up by police in Naples, the Florida city where she spent her formative teenage years, and became heavily politicised as a result. Ever since, she’s been an advocate for critical, independent thinking and for championing the human rights of the oppressed. When she came out, however, it turned her into an accidental (if also very willing) spokeswoman for the trans community, something cemented with Against Me!’s sixth album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, in 2014, which explicitly addressed the singer’s lifetime struggle with gender dysphoria and her decision to transition.
The last few years have not necessarily been easy on Laura, who’s lived in Chicago since 2013. Prior to coming out, she suffered from deep – and often suicidal – depression brought on by her dysphoria, and in 2014, she and her wife, Heather Hannoura – with whom she has a daughter – were divorced. That, coupled with rising fears about what Donald Trump’s administration means for the rights of transgender people, has led to what she’s described as something of a ‘roller coaster’ of an existence recently. Nevertheless, she is as energised and ebullient in conversation as she is on Bought To Rot, the first album by Laura Jane Grace And The Devouring Mothers, which features Against Me! drummer Atom Willard and longtime engineer/mixer Marc Jacob Hudson.
“One of my friends who listened to this record,” she laughs, “said that it sounded like I was walking into a room trying to start a fight with everyone. And I’m fine with that.”
Was it liberating making this record, because you didn’t have to subscribe to whatever is expected of Against Me!?
Laura Jane Grace: Totally. When I was beginning to talk to Bloodshot Records about it, I told them that we’re just trying to do a project that’s specifically focussed on songwriting and musicianship. I really spent a lot of time with these songs making sure I was happy with every bit of melody, every chord change, every lyric. And you don’t have to look back at the back catalogue and see how it fits in with anything because it’s just its own thing. So it’s been fun in that way, feeling kind of limitless with it.
When you came out in 2012, suddenly all these magazines and newspapers who’d probably never even heard of Against Me! were writing about you as a person. Was this a way to bring the focus back to the music, as opposed to Laura Jane Grace?
A hundred per cent. Although it’s tricky, because it’s such a conflicted thing. On the hand I was feeling that really hard, where I was like I don’t want people to be sick of me, or sick of Against Me!. We’ve been hitting it really hard the last couple of years, and on one hand you recognise that maybe we should take a little bit of a break. But then on the other hand, as a musician, it’s like ‘Well, I don’t feel like taking a break – I feel really good and I’m having fun writing songs and I want to do this.’
One of the most provocative songs on the Devouring Mothers record is I Hate Chicago. That’s the city you live in and yet you’re ripping it to pieces – even though you make the disclaimer that it’s actually a divorce song in the lyrics.
Well, Chicago is an interesting place like that. I think a lot of the record is really about identity and figuring out where you belong, especially from a transient viewpoint – you know, when you’re always moving around and when that’s how you live and that’s your lifestyle, where do you actually belong? And when I’m not on the road, I’ve been in Chicago for five years now – so at what point am I allowed to say ‘I live in Chicago. I’m a Chicagoan.’ There has to come a point when you’re allowed to say that about the place where you live. And being that, traditionally, I’ve been someone who’s written from the perspective of being from Florida – so many Against Me! songs reference Florida – to all of a sudden find yourself excommunicated from the place where you once lived and identified with, it’s like ‘Okay, well I can’t write songs about Florida anymore.’ I’ve always been someone who really writes about their surroundings, so it’s like ‘Okay, I live in Chicago.’ And Chicago is an interesting city in that it’s a jerk city. It’s not a nice city. It prides itself on being jerky. That’s part of its identity, like ‘Yeah, we’re a bunch of assholes here.’ And maybe a little part of that is brutally hard winters or the history of the town with mob violence and stuff like that, but at the same time the violence hasn’t gone away. Murder rates in Chicago are astronomical, gun violence is astronomical, you’re living in a place where you don’t feel safe that your kid can go outside an play outside of your house – that takes its toll on you. And also to feel like ‘Okay, I live here, this is where I am, I can’t move’ but at the same time I don’t feel very wanted by the place. I don’t have a social life or friends in Chicago, so it’s like ‘Fuck you, Chicago. I’m here whether you like it or not.’
Laura Jane Grace & The Devouring Mothers photo: Jonathan Weiner
But does it make sense to be in a place that you don’t like or that doesn’t like you? Presumably your kid lives there…
So that’s a big reason, but is it not difficult to be somewhere that you don’t really want to be? Or are you used to that from Florida?
There was a little bit of that in Florida for sure. Although Gainesville was different – Gainesville is like a little oasis in all of Florida, but the rest of Florida is kind of like a running joke amongst the nation. But it’s an interesting juxtaposition and it’s something that I think a lot about, like at what point in your life do you get to find place where you’re like ‘This is where I belong’ or ‘This is where I should be’? And if lacking that feeling is because of other people making you feel that way, then fuck those people. You belong where you are and no-one can tell you don’t belong somewhere. Only you can tell yourself that you don’t belong somewhere.
Do you think you ever will belong in Chicago? Or will you have to move somewhere else to find your place?
Well, I think that’s kind of the point behind the record – it’s like I’m coming to terms with the fact that I do belong there. That’s where I am and I belong there just as much as anyone else.
But you don’t feel at home there?
I don’t know if I will never not feel more at home on the road, more at home in motion, and I think that’s just something after however many years of touring that’s just a part of me. I feel way more at home in a hotel room or way more at home on a tour bus than I ever do stationary.
You’re 37, almost 38, now…
I am. But print that I’m 26!
Sure! But that means you’ve spent more than half your life in a band and on the road. What effect has that had on you?
Well, even from a young age, my dad was in the military and we moved around every couple of years, so I already had that nomadic lifestyle when I was born. And I enjoy it. I really think there’s so much benefit to travelling. You get to see the world and you get to experience different cultures and meet different people, and you realise all the ways that we’re connected. And for me, it makes me lean towards more of a minimalist lifestyle, which I think is better for me and which I recommend to people if they can get behind it. I get anxiety when I have too much clutter, when I have too many things. I like to be able to fit everything into a suitcase and when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.
Do you think that’s also aligned to your political beliefs, that it’s part of this anti-capitalist strain that runs through you?
I do think that. And also, I think that the more you get, the more you’ve got to lose. When I moved to Chicago, I had an unfortunate incident where the moving company that we used stole like $15,000 worth of guitars from me – and it was guitars that had real sentimental attachment. I had insurance, and the insurance company paid for everything, but at the same time it was like the bass guitar that I learned to play bass on and played in all my first punk bands and the guitar that Butch [Vig] gave me for my 30th birthday – like real sentimental value you couldn’t get back. And I’ve had a couple incidents like that over the years where you lose something and there’s this instinct that developed in me of like ‘Well, I don’t like that feeling of having something someone can take away from me.’
That’s far from the traditional American viewpoint and its culture of consumerism, of ‘Buy! Buy! Buy!’ – did you always feel at odds with that as a young punk?
Yeah. That attitude really gives me anxiety and it gives me a dread, that idea you have to keep consuming, keep getting stuff, like work to consume – and I mean that’s kind of the idea even behind the album title Bought To Rot, like buying stuff you don’t need to waste it.
Yet people in the U.S. love that. And they also seem to like having their lives be dictated to them by a) corporations and b) politicians who don’t have their best interests at heart whatsoever. And people are very happy to see others suffer.
Yeah. As long as it’s not them. It’s dog eat dog.
Obviously, Against Me! has been railing against that for a long time now – what can bands do to help change that, if anything?
Well, I think there’s great importance in talking about things and in drawing light to issues and starting conversations and just putting yourself out there – being visible and talking about things and getting up on a stage and saying this is how you feel. That’s empowering. That’s what punk rock did for me, being a young kid in Florida who felt like they had no voice and no-one that was listening to them or anything like that. Punk rock – and especially DIY punk rock – taught me that I don’t need to ask permission from someone to stand up and say what’s on my mind. Or I don’t a stage even to do it – I could do it on a street corner if I have to. Those were totally invaluable lessons.
Naples must have been a bit of a culture shock, too. Isn’t it one of the richest places in America?
Yeah. When I lived there, Collier County – which is where Naples is – had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the U.S.. And it’s an odd place, because you go there and if you’re walking around downtown there are no homeless people. There are no signs of poverty – it’s just completely swept to the outskirts because so much of the economy there is tourist-based and it’s all retirees. And that’s who the law enforcement caters to – it’s certainly not youth that it caters to. It’s an odd place for sure, but it’s a beautiful place, too. There’s so much natural beauty there – it’s unfortunate that it’s disappearing into urban sprawl.
That’s where you were beaten up by the police at 14. If that hadn’t happened, would you have gone down the road you went down in terms of politics and punk and music?
I do not think so. Before I got arrested, I was into punk, but it was very much like ‘I want to be Sid Vicious and I want to kill myself by the time I’m 27 kind of thing’, so very nihilistic and self-destructive. And a lot of that was not seeing any way out of Naples, like ‘I’m never going to escape and I can’t live here, so I’ll die.’ Getting arrested politicised me. It was immediately after that that I discovered Crass and was like ‘I’m going to be an activist, I’m going to start a zine.’ And now this was more the type of music I wanted to focus on.
You might have been a skinny, white kid, but there’s not a big jump to make between your situation then and the brutality that, overwhelmingly, black people are subjected to by cops in the U.S. on an almost everyday basis.
The only thing that’s changed between now and then is the existence of cell phones. So that in and of itself – just capturing brutality – has made it so some officers have been held accountable where in the past they wouldn’t have. The main point, though, is that the system is broken and that police officers, judges, the courts of law – if they want to fuck you, they will fuck you. They will come after you, they will skew evidence, and if they want to beat the shit out of you, they will beat the shit out of you. The idea of police violence is almost an accepted part of America, that that’s what the cops do. And obviously African-American communities receive the brunt of that and it’s such a fucking racist, white supremacist system that it’s terrifying. I don’t know how to change that and it doesn’t seem, unfortunately, right now that it’s changing for the better anyway. It seems like a slow descent into fucking fascism all across the world right now.
And looking at the recent Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court Justice hearings, for example, it’s not as if the opposition are even helping – a Democrat voted to confirm him, which pretty much says everything you need to know about the US political system.
Because they’ve been bought. Their campaigns have been paid for by special interest groups. They’re in the pockets of people. And everything’s been so skewed now that no-one knows what the truth is – like, the truth doesn’t matter, even when the truth is even obvious.
Can we talk about some of the drug stuff you went through when very, very young?
The druuuuug stuff (laughs)!
The drug stuff! But how did that impact you? Would you change that? Would you go back and say ‘Hey, maybe I shouldn’t have done LSD and cocaine when I was 14 or so’? Or again, is that something that’s made you who you are all these years later?
It’s such a complicated thing to talk about. Because on the one hand, I think that really what the issue is is not having anyone to turn to, not having anyone to talk with, not having any resources available – especially in pre-internet days of not being able to even fucking Google search any information on transition. So looking back, it’s not a question of wishing I’d done something different, because I don’t think I really had a choice. Those were the people that were there for me, who, unfortunately, were those dark corners. And then, on the other hand, I do really think that the perspective that comes with some drug usage does expand your mind. The idea of if you’ve never smoked weed before, you should try smoking weed. Try it! Don’t have an opinion on something if you don’t know what it is. And it does open your mind. Whether or not that should be done when you’re really young, no, I don’t think that. Of course not. But at the same time, it’s interesting talking about marijuana, where I got arrested for marijuana when I was 13 or 14 years old, and now all of Canada just legalised recreational marijuana. So many of the dangers that were presented for marijuana in particular that everyone knew was never true anyways and that alcohol was always more damaging of a drug – I wish that that would have been the attitude back then. I grew up in Italy for a period of time before moving to and living in Florida, and I’d go back a couple of times to visit when I was a teenager, and the attitudes culturally around drinking for younger people in Italy were that it was much more socially acceptable. When I was 15, 16 and I went back there with my mom and my step-dad, when we went out to dinner it was fine that I had a glass of wine, whereas in the U.S. my mother would have been thrown in jail if she’d been caught giving me a glass of wine. And I think when you have that attitude, like in Italy, the tendency to binge on things isn’t there because you’re not worried about getting caught. The attitude isn’t ‘We need to steal some alcohol from a liquor cabinet and drink it as quick as we can before we get caught and we need to be wasted.’ It’s a different attitude. And I definitely think a lot of it was circumstances. But at the same time, not having resources and not having guidance I do not think is healthy and I do not think is good and I do wish those circumstances would have been different.
Why do you think that the U.S. is so much more repressive?
For drugs in particular, I think it’s because it’s a fucking racist, white supremacist system. The drug war was designed to incarcerate African-Americans, and if you look at the statistics of African-Americans who are incarcerated versus white people, the numbers are drastically different. And even the things that I was arrested for when I was younger, the punishments that I received – even though it sucked and I was still punished – compared to the kids my age who were African-American kids at my school and who were arrested for the same things, they went off to juvenile detention centres. I was given community service. I think that it’s plain and obvious to see.
And now you have a lot of – largely black – people in prison serving life sentences for possession of marijuana thanks to the three strikes and you’re out rule, for something that in Canada and certain US states isn’t even a crime anymore.
Right. And with all those things in particular, if you’re an addict, that’s a disease. Addiction is a disease and that’s not something that you can help, so to try and frame it as having a choice or whatever – maybe there’s the initial choice that you never should have touched a drop of alcohol ever in your life, maybe that was a choice you shouldn’t have made, but after that, if it turns out you’re an alcoholic, that’s not something you can help. It’s something that’s in your brain. And it’s strange with alcohol in particular – I think most people in bands and their relationship to alcohol – and other drugs, too – and the way it revolves around their jobs is different to most people’s normal lives. Right now, I’m on a break. I haven’t had a drink in 59 days straight. I do that from time to time, where I need to take a break and not have a drink for a while, just to make sure I have that ability and I’m not an alcoholic. Because I’ll talk to people and I’ll be like ‘Hey, we’ve been on tour for a month right now and I’m pretty sure we’ve been drinking wine every night after the shows for a month straight so that’s kind of like we’ve been binge drinking for a month – are you sure we’re not alcoholics?!’ And everyone’s like ‘No, we’re not, this is totally normal’ and I’m like ‘Are you sure we’re not alcoholics?’ You need to exercise every once in a while to make sure you have control!
When you went through your transition it understandably seems like Against Me! became much more about personal politics. Firstly, do you think that’s true, and secondly, where does that leave you in terms of being a spokesperson for inequality and injustice on a wider scale? Does that make sense?
It totally does, and I agree with you. I think that part of that is growing up, that when you’re younger it’s a lot easier to see the world in a black and white way and be like ‘This is the answer! It should be an anarchist world and everyone should live in a squat and go to punk shows and eat tofu and that’s the answer!’ And as you get older, you’re just like ‘I don’t know what the answer is.’ All I know is what I experience and that’s all I can speak to. I don’t want to speak on anyone else’s behalf and I don’t want to represent a group. I have a fear of organised groups, be it schools, churches, the military. I don’t want any part of it. But I also really, really strongly believe that the personal is political and taking a song off Bought To Rot – Manic Depression – and saying ‘This is a song about manic depression’…if you examine further, like why manic depression?, it’s like ‘Well, it’s a drag feeling like you don’t belong in society and you aren’t welcome in public places, that most people would rather see transgender people dead than participating in society.’ That’s depressing if that’s your waking reality and you’re like ‘Oh shit, another day in Suck City.’ So writing from those perspectives is writing from the perspective of living in this world, and there’s politics to that.
Words: Mischa Pearlman
Main Laura Jane Grace photo: Jonathan Weiner
Laura Jane Grace & The Devouring Mothers’ debut album Bought To Rot is out now through Bloodshot Records.
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