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Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, and Warren Oakes, the drummer for Gainesville, Florida's Against Me!, would almost certainly agree. Hailing from a state most renowned (aside from orange juice and election snafus) for its Christian-rock and hip-hop exports, Against Me! were forced to resort to unconventional means when it came to cultivating a national following for their politically charged brand of gutter punk. The band committed to playing at least 200 shows per year—but to hit their quota, they defined "show" loosely.
"For any given month of shows, 20 of them would be at someone's house," explains Oakes. "And when it wasn't in someone's basement, it was at a warehouse or in some random bookshop."
The rule at these acoustically deficient venues was simple: Play fast—fast enough that no one would notice that you couldn't actually hear what was going on. Their performances at those early, chaotic gigs also informed their approach to making records. In fact, their first, Reinventing Axl Rose, (released by Gainesville label No Idea Records), was cut in a single day—or two days, if you count the version they recorded and discarded one day prior.
"We went home [that night], listened to it, and realized that we were just flying through the songs. So we went back in the next day and re-recorded the whole thing," says Oakes, somewhat amused.
"And you know what? It still sounds like it was recorded in a day."
Speed remained a constant through the band's two Fat Wreck-funded follow-ups. As the Eternal Cowboy, from 2003, was recorded in 10 days, and the band needed only one additional week to complete the J. Robbins-produced Searching for a Former Clarity in 2005.
Their haste was both the band's chief asset and principal drawback. Some songs sound half-finished. But others—such as Clarity's opening salvo "Miami" and the rumbling "Mediocrity Gets You Pears (the Shaker)"—clearly benefit from the lack of deliberation. On these tracks, the band achieved a glorious recklessness, shunning obvious choruses and anything else that might be construed as overtly pop. Even J. Robbins's notoriously bright production seems to cave in the face of Against Me!'s raucous slews.
After Clarity, Against Me! found themselves in entirely new surroundings. Not only were they regularly playing proper venues, but hundreds of fans greeted them at each tour stop. Major record labels, predictably, began tailing them as well. But with the conditions that necessitated and shaped their sound firmly in the past, the band began to wonder if their new circumstances demanded a new approach.
"When you [play at places that] don't have a PA or mics on the drums, you're not even going to write that song where you only hit the kick drum once and it resonates throughout the room because that's just not going to happen at those venues," says Oakes.
"Because we were regularly playing at clubs [at that point], we wanted to be able to take full advantage. If we were going to be up there on a stage, we might as well make it big."
Invention came in the form of Butch Vig. The famed producer of Nevermind and mastermind of Garbage offered to record the band's major-label debut and equip them with the big sound they coveted. And true to Vig's word, after five months of studio time, which included extensive pre-production work, the band emerged early this past summer with New Wave, a shockingly purposeful yet simultaneously monstrous slab of vitriolic rock.
On New Wave, frontman Tom Gabel rages against everything from cookie-cutter bands to tame displays of political dissent. Oakes, along with his rhythmic counterpart, bassist Andrew Seward, provides the appropriately dyspeptic accompaniment. Vig deserves credit for keeping the melodies front and center throughout (as he did with Nirvana), so that even the darkest material remains not only palatable but downright tuneful.
"We can be the bands we want to hear," growls Gabel on the album's title track. He's right, of course, only who knew we needed them to be?
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