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Laura Jane Grace on Her New Album, Still Loving Florida, and the Future of Against Me!

'People are ignorant of what it means to be transgender, and people are ignorant of what the real issue is when it comes to stupid things like f***ing bathrooms.'

Source: Travis Shinn
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Laura Jane Grace can swear up a storm. She's also one of the most prolific, empathetic, and funniest musicians on the planet, dropping the f-bomb freely into a discourse that runs from growing up in Florida, to finding her way in the punk rock world as the frontperson of Against Me!, to her new solo album, Hole in My Head, which drops today via Polyvinyl Records.

After building a reputation as one of the country's preeminent punk rock bands throughout the 2000s, Against Me! entered a very different era in 2012. That was the watershed year when Grace came out as transgender, and very publicly began her transition in an era that was certainly accepting, yet still tentative in how to approach an identity that few had spoken about so openly before. Grace, naturally, told her story with full force on Against Me!'s landmark 2014 release Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which won the band an even larger audience of admirers. Until... 2020, when the pandemic hit the fan, Against Me! went on hiatus, and Grace was left to chart her own course in music.

Joining Q via Zoom from Chicago, Grace bears a wide smile as she discusses Hole in My Head, her follow-up to 2020's solo debut Stay Alive. By turns raucous and introspective, the album offers a stirring collection of stories as told by Grace and her sole collaborator, Drive-By Truckers bassist Matt Patton. (For the album's upcoming tour, they'll also be joined by drummer Mike Yannich, aka Mikey Erg).

But first, let's turn our attention to Gainesville, Florida, where Grace became the first rock musician to receive the key to the city since native son Tom Petty last October.

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Source: Bella Peterson

Laura Jane Grace's second solo album, 'Hole in My Head,' was released on Feb. 16.

How did it come about that you went back to Gainesville and received the key to the city?

The past two months have been surreal. But even the past three or four months, it's all been this dream sequence in a lot of ways. Florida is a really unique place, and no matter what, I love Florida. It is a paradise. That's why all those right-wing a**holes love Florida because it is a literal paradise. But they're f***ing ruining it. Whether that's f***ing up the Everglades, or selling off the f***ing spring water, and ruining the f***ing Gulf. You name it. Being unprepared for f***ing global warming and rising sea levels in Miami. There's always been crisis and always been just horrific things happening with migrant farm workers in Florida... the treatment there. There’s so much f***ed up things, so much disparity and wealth gaps between areas of South Florida. You can go on and on.

But Florida at its core is a magical, f***ing paradise. I will always have love for it. And I think Gainesville in particular, has always been this fortress of forward-thinking people. And a lot of that is because it's a college town. Things have happened in Gainesville, like far before me, with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bo Diddley, Sister Hazel, Hot Water Music, Less Than Jake. In general, Florida has always had a really incredible vibrant music scene and punk scene. The history and connection I feel in having grown up there, and the experience I had going to shows. I know Florida front to back, and it's so varied and different from Pensacola to Miami. But getting the key to the city is also like, kind of f***ing ridiculous. I didn't even know what to say. I still don't know what to say. Like, thank you, of course, but like...whoa!

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The mayor [Harvey Ward, Jr.] presented it to you, right?

Well, the mayor did it, but I think what is evident, though, is what age we're at now. Right where the people who were of the scene in Gainesville where Against Me! was based and happening in the early 2000s. All those people are adults and grown up and hold jobs, like government jobs or work for the city. I went down there earlier last year and I played a show at High Dive and did a thing with the Gainesville Sun and met some people. I think the idea was put forth amongst people from that experience and to also promote Fest 21 which was happening. It was definitely meaningful to me. I have definitive connections to, and such early formative memories of, being like a scared punk teen on the streets. I know what those days meant to me.

Source: ℗ © Laura Jane Grace/YouTube

Laura Jane Grace Live - I'm Not a Cop - Fest 21, Gainesville, FL - 10/29/23

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So what happened was: I went down to Gainesville, was given the key to the city. It was incredible. Fest 21 was amazing. Played two sets, and they were both awesome, and then got the worst case of Covid I've had. I think it was like the fourth time I've had it, but it was terrible. I was lying on the couch while I was sick, and I coughed funny, and I pulled all the muscles in my lower back, and I was just f***ed up for weeks on end.

Recovered from that, and then ended up meeting the love of my life [Paris Campbell] and falling in love, getting engaged, and then getting married. Then we were in Greece for a week. Had never been to Greece before. I played two shows in Athens, played one show in Thessaloniki, went and toured the Nigrita Prison in northern Greece, which was an insane experience. We went swimming at the Gates of Hell at Thermopylae and saw where the Spartan battlefield was. We climbed a little ways up Mount Olympus. That was pretty cool.

Can you talk about your recording session for the Red Hot organization yet?

I can loosely talk about it in that we recorded a song together, and it's a cover song ["Surrender Your Gender" by Jayne County] and it's for the Red Hot series. It was Elia [Einhorn]. He came together with the magic to get everyone there in the studio. It was awesome. I mean, just a surreal day of recording with some of my absolute musical heroes.

Paris and I were down [at Dial Back Sound] in Water Valley, Mississippi also in December. We were with Matt Patton and Mikey Erg, who are gonna be on the tour in March. We recorded a six-song EP. We're in the process of mixing and mastering, which will hopefully be out later this year. It’s just been jam-packed.

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And your album hasn't even been fully released yet. You went to Greece on a special invitation, correct?

I did some soundtrack work for this documentary called Walls. A short documentary funded by the Onassis Foundation. It focuses on the Nigrita prison in northern Greece. I adapted a C.P. Cavafy poem, then took the English translation and set it to music and made it work lyrically. And then from that relationship, the Onassis Foundation invited me over there to be a part of a series called Stages Alive. We went over and shot two performances, one that was an intimate house show type thing, and then one at the Onassis Foundation, and then also got to do all the classic tourist stuff. Go to the Acropolis and the Parthenon.

But, as you said, the record isn't even out. There’s been this painful gap between when the record was recorded and when it's now being released. Cause I recorded the record in February of last year, so to have to wait that long for an album to come out as an artist is like... it's brutal inside. You can't move on emotionally. There’s stuff back piling. It's getting jammed up. And I need to have a flow to life in that way. It's sometimes hard to fight for that.

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Source: Onassis Cultural Production

Walls - A Film by Christos Sarris - Official Poster

What sort of changes have you seen since 2014, in terms of the sort of misinformation that continues around exactly what it means to be transgender?

We're talking about almost two different things. Unfortunately, I think all of us are kind of living in compartmentalized existences in that way. You're trying to focus on your daily life and be happy in your daily life, with this foreboding awareness that politically the state of the country or the state of the world – sh*t's kind of on fire. And there's an election coming up, and it's a terrifying election, and it's an exhausting election, because here we are again faced with the same f***ing sh*t, obviously. And it's gonna be just more Trump and more Biden. And then there is this daily barrage of terrible things happening towards the trans community legislatively, that it's hard to keep track of it.

It is kind of reasonable to be like, "Well, what's going on in the state I live in?" I pay attention to Florida because I have a Florida connection. But for a lot of trans people, I think it's hard to know where to look: Which is the most horrifying thing? Which is the most pressing thing? There is a real lack of "What is the central organizing factor that is going to create some form of resistance?" I oftentimes struggle with, "Where do I direct people to donate? Where is the best place to get involved?" I don't know if anyone knows the answer to those questions, or I don't know how effective the best place is to get involved. Unfortunately, it feels like in a lot of ways we are behind the curve and that is scary.

And what sucks about what’s happening in Florida is that makes people move away. That was the case for me, growing up: "I can't wait to get the f*** out of here!" But when you move away, then you are no longer voting in that state. And then you are no longer part of the political process in that state. So, I don't know what the answer is. It feels overwhelming. And I feel hyperaware of all these things that are happening. But I, like everyone else, feel ineffective at being able to battle it. But then I feel on a personal level, you take the joy when it comes your way, and just try to live.

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I know as a trans person, my experience, even within the medical community, is that it's been a hell of a lot easier in Chicago. It breaks my heart for trans people in Florida, knowing that the system of gatekeepers is set up much more strictly and that the problem is that people are ignorant. People are ignorant of what it means to be transgender, and people are ignorant of what the real issue is when it comes to stupid things like f***ing bathrooms. As if these people ever gave a sh*t about the bathrooms. I tour around the world. I travel. I go into public restrooms all the time. I see the state of them. They're covered in f***ing graffiti. They're covered in racist sh*t. They're covered in f***ing pedophilic sh*t. These are cisgender people who are writing that stuff on the walls. There are actual predators in bathrooms. It's never been about anything like that, right?

But these people at the same time are then battling education where they're saying, "Let's ban these books from school. Let's not talk about transgender people. Let's not talk about queer people." They're effectively cutting off the next generation, and it's about keeping people ignorant. That’s what it's ultimately always been f***ing about.

Then they can keep their private beaches and they can keep their f***ing golf courses and they can keep their f***ing community, living in homes that are named after whatever natural habitat they bulldozed to f***ing build it. Like 'Osprey' or 'Eagles Landing' or 'Fox Nest' or whatever the f***. I mean, I don't know what the statistics are now, but I remember in the late nineties it was something like there were more golf courses in Florida than anywhere else in the United States. The amount of environmental damage done by f***ing golf courses with fertilizer runoff into the f***ing drain, into the water, into the f***ing aquifer, just for these rich a**holes to f***ing whack around a ball.

Source: ℗ © Laura Jane Grace/YouTube

Laura Jane Grace - Hole In My Head [OFFICIAL VIDEO]

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The themes that you have on this album feel very inward. I know it was just Matt and yourself recording the album, however the first song, “Hole In My Head,” has you screaming, sounding like a full-on band. And the video is pretty scary.

There’s an irony that, as a Floridian, you'd appreciate with the video. I was supposed to be in the video. I had flown out to California to be in it. But there was a f***ing hurricane in Los Angeles! So it f***ed up the shoot: "How often is there gonna be a hurricane in Los Angeles?" You're used to that in Florida, but it was barely a Category One. As a Floridian, I'm like "This is nothing. What do you mean? The video shoot is canceled and everything?" [Laughs]

Listening to the album, it’s pretty much all acoustic. "Dysphoria Hoodie” is catchy as hell and explains a lot, and then you’ve got a rockabilly sound in “Punk Rock in Basements" which feels very Jonathan Richman.

Well, I think it was circumstance dictating the sound. And you know, I f***ing love Jonathan Richman, and there's multiple musical references to him. But also, if you're referencing Jonathan Richman, you're then de facto referencing The Velvet Underground, because that's who Jonathan Richman was referencing. Then I'm faced with a situation where I didn't have a drummer. So, leaning on your own skills for the percussion element, that meant constructing simple rhythm tracks, using things like hand claps or tambourines. I had a drum machine I put in there. But then we would record actual kick drum, an actual snare drum performance to it. But I can't play drums really.

But when you go for that type of sound, that's what they were doing. That's what Jonathan Richman was doing. He was working with what he had. He usually tours with just a drummer. Even Buddy Holly recordings. "Everyday" is handclaps for the whole thing. [Sings and claps] "Every day, it's a-getting closer." That's amazing. That was the biggest song in the country back then, and that's all the elements that were present. If you listen to a lot of modern pop music, it's really simplistic. It's stripped-back elements. There's a voice, there's a percussive thing. There's a melodic thing. I was trying to do that in a punk structure and using what I had to work with. I put out the call via Twitter or what was then Twitter – I know it's more of a dumpster fire now – but, I was like, "I need a bass player. I need a drummer" and Matt, who I'd never met before, but I've been a long-time fan of the Drive-By Truckers was like, "I'll play bass." And so he drove up from Water Valley and stayed with me in St. Louis and every day we went into the studio for a week and we just worked it out. It was awesome. His contribution is immense.

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What has the feedback been like so far?

This record really came together while on the road, and I always find it beneficial. If you are trying out songs, live as you write them, then you get that immediate feedback. It's harder to play a new song in a set because the audience doesn't know it. It really has to be a good song to be a new song to play in the set. Talking about "Dysphoria Hoodie," I've been playing live since 2021, and it's always gone over really well. Similar with all the other songs, I would just immediately after writing them, would throw them in the set and see how it worked. So, knowing that they already stood on their own, to go into the studio and then record them is a confident feeling.

So, you find that's much easier if you know what you're going in with, rather than just sitting around on a groove.

Sometimes you can get into the trap of writing and recording a song in a studio that works really well in a studio, but then you try to play it live, and it does not work well. That's because maybe you're not able to perform it in the same way or maybe there's extra instrumentation you added in the studio that you can't actually perform live because you're only one person. With a lot of these songs, there is further instrumentation. There's a drum machine, or there's Matt playing bass. But I've still played them in their stripped back version, and I know at their core they work alone. So, it's a good song.

Whereas working backwards, you find, "Oh, sh*t!" when you take away all those other elements you put in there. It doesn't work live and that can be a sh*tty feeling. Because then you're, "How do I promote this? How do I share these songs with people?" People talk about the first album that bands put out and how it's hard to have the sophomore follow-up. There's the sophomore slump, and it's because you have forever to work out your first record. You can refine and refine and refine. But once you put out that first record, any other record, you have less time between. So, you're trying to almost unnaturally age songs, like wine.

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Source: ℗ © Rough Trade Publishing / Against Me! / YouTube

Against Me! - True Trans Soul Rebel (Reading 2015)

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It feels like Against Me! is on an indefinite hiatus, due to everything that's happened, personally and professionally. Have you considered a band situation with them again?

It was nice coming out of the pandemic to be approaching it as just a solo artist, me and a guitar, because things were so uncertain coming out of the pandemic. It'll be a band on the March tour. Me and Mikey on drums and Matt on bass and I'm doing a run in May, trying to figure out a band for that. I love playing with a band, and I love playing with Against Me!, but things got weird in the pandemic. I feel like that communication lately kinda opened back up, and that there stands a chance that we'll start doing stuff again. I'm sure many people had this experience of "the pandemic happened, and our relationship changed" and you don't necessarily know how to verbalize the change that happened. And for us, it’s been going and going and going for like 20 years, nonstop. And then something happens that makes you stop. You don't have any choice.

It's been four years and none of us have seen each other, not really talked. Everyone had to figure out how to survive a pandemic. And then people started focusing on other things that they hadn't been able to focus on for a while, because everything else had always been about the band. So I think it's reasonable to have been at a place of burnout and needing a beat. But not to break up, not to make some kind of brash, "We're done!" type of statement. But it's not just me. It's like four other people, and I've always been trying to make it evident that, I'm out there, I'm playing the songs I want to play. I love Against Me! and I love all the other band members, and I want to be with them. But also I like to play on my own, too. I don't necessarily take a different approach with songwriting from one to the other. I just write songs.

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Source: Polyvinyl Record Co.

Laura Jane Grace - Hole In My Head

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For people out there who just want to perform and it's their livelihood, to stop that was devastating. It makes you re-examine what you're doing: Is this sustainable?

I like this record. I feel strong and confident about the songwriting on it, and I really attribute that quality, in my perception, to the fact that I was then put into a position where I was scared. I was out of my element. I was challenged. It felt like I'm not on stable ground. I don't know what the future of my band is. I'm going over to St. Louis, not knowing anyone in St. Louis. I felt bewildered in a lot of ways, and like I was refiguring out what it meant to be an artist, and where my position was in that way, and still figuring that out. That's part of being an artist and being a songwriter in particular. The way album cycles work is every time you put out a record you have to then figure out who the f*** you are again and redefine yourself.

And you shaved your head!

Oh, and this – you know what? This reminds me of something. You'll appreciate this, Florida-wise. I was on tour in Europe in the summer of 2022, and I got my head tattooed. That meant shaving my head. It was nice, after having long hair for a good decade or so.

The record cover of Hole In My Head, which is the image of me ripping open my head and stuff exploding out? That picture, the base picture, was taken behind the old State Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida. The State Theatre is a spot that I grew up going to shows at, and I know they've renamed it now, [Ed. Note: The Floridian Social] but if you look at the bricks on the ground, it's the alleyway behind the State Theater in St. Pete. So the cover is Florida on the record.

And what about writing another book?

There was my book that came out in 2016. But I journal every day and I have ambitions to continue writing. And I definitely would like to.

As soon as you get off the hamster wheel?

Well, I agree with your sentiment of the hamster wheel. Except I don't feel like I'm just doing loops. I feel like it's going somewhere. I'm not really sure where it's going, but it doesn't feel like I'm running in circles or chasing my tail. It feels exciting. And maybe the future’s unknown in good ways.


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