Shirley visits Laura Jane Grace at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles during the 10 year anniversary of her song, I Was A Teenage Anarchist. A decade later, it’s core message is still true for Laura, but in a totally new context.
Episode 11: Laura Jane Grace - LE
Shirley: The Jump is a podcast where I, Shirley Ann Manson, sit down with musicians and talk about the one song that changed everything.
Shirley: Laura Jane Grace, known as the frontwoman of Against Me!, is an immensely talented and strong willed musician. Facing the fire from her own fans, she stayed true to her own sound as it evolved with her surroundings, and her life. From the indie days in Florida, to her solo project, Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers, she is unapologetically herself. I have immense respect for Laura, and was so grateful that she found time for me at a rather hurried time in her bonker schedule. I adore her, and you will too. Laura Jane Grace, I can't believe you're sitting opposite me. It's been so long since I last saw you. And it's so exciting to see you opposite me, and sitting on a blue velvet couch. How are you?
Laura: I'm excellent. Thank you for having me, thank you.
Shirley: So, um, and I've been listening to you all week obviously cause I'm doing my homework ‘cause I'm a good gal. And, so I'm, I'm well in, back into the fold because of course as I said, you know, uh, I've known about you for a long time through my drummer, Butch Vig, who was your producer for two of your big records.
Laura: Two records with Butch. Yep, our two major label records.
Shirley: I remember him playing you- some of your music from your earlier records in his kitchen. And then him saying to me, “I think this band is really special and I'm thinking of working with them. What do you think?” And, he played your band and I was like, “They're great. You must do this. They've got a great voice and a great vibe, and they sound really vibrant. And, so then, yes, of course, he's now madly in love with you. You know that, don't you?
Laura: I appreciate that. It's a- I have a very deep respect for Butch.
Shirley: The song that we are going to be discussing today, um, is from one of the records you've worked on with Butch.
Laura: Yeah, it's from White Crosses, which was our second record working together and our second record for Sire, Warner Brothers. Um, and so- our final major label record with this whole like being asked to do this, I realized like I don't have a hit song, you know, like I don't have like number one hit singles or anything. So when asked about the concept for this podcast, I was like, “Oh this is interesting.” So I gotta really, like, think about a song that like made a definitive switch for me, in kind of less clear cut obvious reasons. Like if you're a band and you had one number one hit single, it's like, well that's the song you're going to talk about. But so I chose talking about I Was a Teenage Anarchist in part because I'm here in LA now doing these full album shows, one of the nights we're doing White Crosses in full and 10 years ago exactly was when I was in LA finishing the record. It could have been today that we finished the record 10 years ago. Exactly.
Shirley: I just got the goosebumps. That’s so cool, ‘cause I did think it was interesting when I heard that- they told me, you know, what song you picked. I had my own ideas of what you might have gone for. And in fact when I spoke to my husband, who as it turns out was the engineer on this particular record.
Shirley: He said the same thing. Like, “Interesting. I hope you'll ask her, you know, why this is an important track in the history of your discography.”
Laura: It is the most clear cut of any song I have that is like a dividing line of a before and after in my life of a, like, there's no going back from this.
Shirley: I’ve got the lyrics here. Would you like to read them? ‘Cause you’re a poet, and I feel-
Laura: Oh, I know it, I know the lyrics. [Laughs]
Shirley: Okay, give it- just, set it up for me so we get the punchline.
Laura: “I was a teenage anarchist.” No, I don't know the lyrics, no. [Laughs] Um, the, “I was a-” fuck do I know the lyrics? “I was a teenage anarchist.” [Laughs] Uh, how does the bridge go? “I was a teenage anarchist, but then the scene got too rigid. It was a mob mentality. They set their rifle sights on me. Narrow visions of autonomy. You want me to surrender my identity? I was a teenage anarchist.” So, every other verse just goes back and repeats the, the next part, right? “But the scene got too rigid-” or whatever. But the third verse, the cho- the bridge, the line is, “The revolution was a lie.” We had recorded the whole entire song, already finished the vocals, and then I was at Butch’s in his basement rewriting just that line for like a week straight every day, coming up with like four or five different, like, uh, “The revolution left me blind,” but the- right, just like, seriously, that was one of them at a point before landing on “The revolution was a lie.”
Laura: Like the title, I Was a Teenage Anarchist, I was very much just, like, originally with the idea inspired by, like, Michael Landon's I Was a Teenage Werewolf. It, it was kind of comical. One of the things I've really always liked most about punk rock and punk bands that, that are self critical and will like be critical of the punk scene in particular. Um, I don't know if you ever got into Chumbawamba. They had a song called Give the Anarchist a Cigarette. They're anarchists, but they're being very critical of the anarchist punk scene. And I always loved it when punk bands did that, or even with, like, Crass being really critical of The Clash, or like The Clash being really critical of The Sex Pistols, you know? I just, I liked that about punk bands when they do- would do that with other punk bands. So like, this song had an element of that and with that present in the air, okay, well by saying this, like any of like the punk fans that we had first starting out are going to see this as such a fuck you, that there's just no turning back, and, and going back to our roots in a way after the song.
Shirley: But what, so wha- what was going on in your life at that particular time?
Laura: Well, the song was written in 2009 some point in 2009. I had the idea for the title first and I was like, “That, that, that phrase, I want to write a song around that phrase.
Shirley: That’s a good provocative phrase, right?
Laura: Yeah. Um… and-
Shirley: Where are you? Where are you in Florida?
Laura: I was in Florida. We wrote most of the record in Florida and then wrote a couple songs out here in LA when we came out for pre-production. The other reason I chose this song specifically is because it's, it's, it's a shining example of why sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen is actually a good thing and it's- of any song that I have, it's the most collaborative I've been. Most of the time, people are very curious then will have this attitude of like, “Look, you get this like original spark for a song and you have to shelter that. And like if you let too many people come in and have their opinion and, like, give their voices on how it should change, it's going to ruin it. You're going to lose it and the song's going to be gone.” Of any song like I've ever worked on, this is the most I've tried hardest to appease other people again and been happy with the results of like-
Shirley: Which is not really your style, is it?
Laura: No. Well to some extent I'm really open minded when it comes down to it. I do take outside criticism, I have a thick skin. Like someone can be like, that sucks and I'll work to change it.
Shirley: But your earlier records were much more purist, I mean.
Shirley: You were started known as being an uncompromising, you know punk rock kid.
Laura: Right, right. Well, and that's like the- I think that with punk rock and with, with myself in particular, a lot of times that's just defensive. If you don't guard yourself, then you're going to get steered into situations where after the fact you're going to look back and be like, “Ah, damn it. If I would've just like stood up for myself. I got railroaded into this,” and once you were in a more comfortable position, sometimes it was harder to drop that outside shell and Butch to his credit was, was able to get through to me and really, like, show me that you can let your guard down, and you can work with other people and get a great result that you're happy with and you can learn, you know.
Shirley: You really knew who you were as an artist at this point. Is that fair to say? Because it was your second major label album-
Laura: No, no, I was having a complete identity crisis.
Shirley: Well, hold on one second! Right hold on, well that's good to know. But you had done what, two or three independent records? Three albums?
Laura: We did three full lengths-
Laura: Before we signed to Warner, and then New Wave was our major label debut and then White Crosses was the, the second record where we already knew we're fucked. You know, like our first record did not go gold. It sold- like for us, it was a success. You know, we sold like 150,000 records. It, like, doubled our sales of our previous indie, we’re like, Holy shit, this is amazing, but I knew writing on the wall, like the major label is not happy with this.
Shirley: And, I’m at- So I- I come from experience when I ask you this, um, what- that must've been very difficult when you are signed to a major label and you know that they have expectations and you find yourself, inverted commas, failing these expectations.
Laura: Sure, and I knew in reality too, like the second record's fucked, no matter what we do, we're just fucked, you know like-
Shirley: [Laughs] You sound like me!
Laura: ‘Cause they're contractually obligated to put it out and they're going to put a little bit of marketing in it. But if it doesn't hit, like within the first week, you're just screwed. And you know, like in reality, it's not going to hit in the first week because like, that's just like one in a million shot, you know?
Shirley: And did- so do you think that may have impacted your, your approach to the production of this record?
Laura: No, w- at the time, um, we were being sued by a former manager and I was like, desperate. I was like, “I am going to give this everything I have. I know we're fucked. I know it's not going to be a hit. We've like- you know, I know the realities of the situation we are in but I am swinging for the fences. I'm going to try everything, I'm going to listen to everyone's input and I'm going to just approach it as diplomatically as possible and try.”
Shirley: When you said that you felt like you were having an identity crisis, was this as a result of this, like, case that you were having against your former manager or?
Laura: A little bit of that? A little bit of just like the age we were at, you know like I was 29 years old, about to turn 30, so there's the cliche of like, Oh my God, my twenties are ending. I'm turning 30- I'm about to have a kid literally about to having- have a kid, like my daughter Evelyn was born a week after we finished this record.
Laura: So it was like working down to the wire, but coming out of the punk scene, like we've alienated ourselves from this punk scene that we grew up in. You can't turn back, moving away from Gainesville, Florida, moving to LA. Like I, you know, I arrived here in LA and I just like, I didn't know who I was and that, that was the hardest thing I had living in LA was like, I'm a huge believer in this, the psychic subconscious, you know, and for me writing, I'm very much um, location oriented. I have to know who I am in a place and be able to know how I reflect off other people or off my environment. And LA has so much to it and there's so many other creatives going on that I just couldn't grab anything. I didn't know who I was here. And like in a psychic subconscious way, like I couldn't find the frequencies of where to tune into to, just like, to run with it. So LA was crushing me, I was like so scared of everything that was happening in my personal life. Like the band life was obviously so much stress with, like, all these, with a lawsuit, with the major label reality, with just like inner band tensions. I got arrested for an incident in Tallahassee where I got into an altercation in the cafe because someone was calling me a sellout and I overreacted. Um, I had court charges hanging over me for like most of the period of time that we were touring on New Wave. Um, we fell apart as a band while touring on New Wave, had a new drummer. So again, it was like the identity crisis within the band of, “Who are we with this new drummer? Who are we now?” Like even, you know, at the time where it's like the decade was changing. We were going from 2009 into 2010, which doesn't seem like that big of a deal, but it does like I tune into stuff like that. I'm a strong believer in the idea that you know, you have a good song if it can be stripped down to just you and acoustic guitar. You can add anything else to it after the fact, a full fucking orchestra, doesn't matter, but as long as it works on an acoustic guitar, you have a solid structure.
Shirley: Yeah. What influences are on, I Was a Teenage Anarchist? That you, if any. I mean, are there, are there artists that you reference or is it just purely you? Like-
Laura: Okay, I- I'll tell you, uh, one influence that you may not ever, or no one may ever pick up on, but there's a Michael Hutchence influence in there from INXS with, uh, at the beginning of the song, there's the, “Ah, ah, ah. Ah, ah, ah, ah,” So, I was listening to a lot of INXS-
Shirley: Why? Interesting.
Laura: On my morning running playlist. I love INXS, um.
Shirley: Okay, this is a surprise to me, I must admit.
Laura: But like there's a bunch of INXS songs where he'll do like some kind of like “Come over here,” like type of thing, you know. [Laughs]
Shirley: Oh yeah.
Laura: Like whispering to the mic and it's one of those songs where like, I don't know, there's like hits, but then there's just songs where you're like, “I did the thing that I know I'm supposed to do where it works, you know?” So even if it wasn't a hit, it was still a success to me in so many ways. You know, although it was, I should say it was number one at commercial radio in Canada. So, thank you, Canada.
Shirley: Now with the advantage of hindsight, we know where this story goes, but back then when you were making this record, and I think, uh, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the fact that you were also going through a lot of questions about your gender.
Laura: Sure. Yeah, and, and this- living in LA at that period of time, like was- I was so low, you know, like just lowest of low in my dysphoria, in not knowing what to do, especially with a kid coming and just-
Shirley: Playing that traditional role of a man.
Laura: It like amplified the dysphoria of like you're going to be a father. This crushing feeling, not of, like, I don't want to be a parent, just like I can't be that role like- er, I don't know, like, I just don't want to hear that word. I don't want to like- I was drowning in it, you know, just completely drowning in it. I'm always such a strong believer in like, you know, like, a good song will rise to the top. It'll find its audience. It’ll find the people that are supposed to hear it. Maybe that's not immediately, but I have more long term vision and more long term faith in things than that.
Shirley: Now when you talk about, you know, when you came up with the phrase, you knew it was a great phrase-
Shirley: And I know that you see it sort of a cartoonesque type of approach, but it's also- does sound to me very sincere about your disillusionment with that scene.
Laura: I was a teenage anarchist.
Shirley: I know you were. [Laughs]
Laura: Yeah, so it was true. You know, like I was a teenage anarchist, you know, and, and, and my teenage years were very much over. Feeling that like you're getting old, feeling like you're no longer a teenager, no longer in touch really with the scene that you came from as a teenager.
Shirley: Was it almost like a defensive motion to write that song because you felt self-conscious?
Laura: It is defensive. Yeah, I can, I can acknowledge that. Sure. You know, you're like cutting yourself down before other people can cut you down, you know? But at the same time, like, and I've, I've pointed this out to people a lot before who've been critical where it's like I'm not a teenager anymore. So the past tense of saying, “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” is acknowledging that I'm not a teenager. It's not saying that I don't believe in anarchism anymore; the past tense lies in no longer being a teenager.
Shirley: Mhm. How do you view yourself as a musician? Are you a poet who puts your, your words to music? Do you, do you- are you a songwriter? Are you a performer, a singer? Like how do you view yourself in context of music?
Laura: In my secret ego- if when I die, they put ‘poet’ on my gravestone, I would be very happy, you know?.
Shirley: Yeah. I mean words are clearly very important to you. Do you read poetry?
Laura: I do. Yeah. I read constantly too, I’m a veracious reader. Yeah, mhm.
Shirley: I know you're a big reader, yeah. But, um, do you have a favorite poet?
Laura: Um, jeez, I don't know. Uh, recently I finally tracked down a copy of Ode to Walt Whitman by Gabriela Lorca and I loved that. It was beautiful.
Shirley: Your voice has remained singular and consistent through your entire, you know, transition. And I was wondering if that is because you like me, I can't escape my voice. My voice is my voice, you know?
Shirley: Or whether you wanted to define yourself in this way, and that was what you were stamping your authority on the, on, on your sound, I- I was curious about that.
Laura: I, my voice is my voice as you said. You know, and that being said, like, you know, my voice has changed so much over our records ov- ‘cause I mean my- this band started when I was-
Shirley: You were a baby.
Laura: 18 years old, you know, 17 years old. And so like, you know, initially between like our first and second and third record, people would come up to me and they'd be like, “Why? Why did you start singing different?” And it was like, I can't control it. You know, I had a trachea shave in December and that was really scary.
Shirley: And does that not affect your voice in any way? Did you worry that it might?
Laura: No, I was worried. I was very worried. Yeah, uh-huh.
Shirley: Did they, did they warn you beforehand that there was a risk?
Laura: They said they'd be very careful. [Laughs]
Shirley: Oh my god!
Laura: Wing and a prayer, right?
Shirley: Has your writing changed since your transition? Because my feeling was, “Wow, if you are someone who literally is trapped in a reality that you really have no connection to, that must affect how you put your creativity, right?
Shirley: So, to be then freed, did you feel a shift?
Laura: A hundred percent.
Shirley: And so how do you feel that your writing has changed since you, you won yourself?
Laura: It's, you know.
Shirley: It’s huge. I mean that's a huge, it's such a difficult, still culturally, you know, it's still such a mystery to so many people. The idea of any kind of non-binary gender is so confusing to so many people.
Laura: Sure. Well it's an endless source of inspiration in that way, of like existing as a trans person in the world. Just like your everyday interactions with people. Often the times, you know, I can go to the grocery store and come away from it, like, having someone been an asshole to me and think, “Well I can fucking write a song out of that.” And that's why you keep writing because it- otherwise if you did- you know like I- I often do interviews and stuff where people want to tie it up with a bow of like, “And then you live happily ever after”, you know-
Shirley: Yeah, if only.
Laura: And it's like that's not the fucking way it works. I still realize like as a transgender person, I'm not really welcome in society. Like as a whole, like fuck, the Supreme Court right now is ruling on whether or not it's legal to fire transgender people, you know? Like-
Shirley: So insane. And do you feel any kind of responsibility to the LGBTQIA community in any way as a writer? As an artist?
Laura: I mean that applies directly to the song and the message of the song. I have a complete fear and aversion of any kind of groups of people, whether that's like, you know, school classrooms, whether that's the military, even bands, you know? [Laughs]
Shirley: Particularly bands [Laughs]
Laura: Yeah, but so like when it comes to, you know, I came out, I've, I was very, I'm very thankful that I was embraced by like the trans community, by the, the greater LGBTQ community. But then at the same time, there's this part of me that recognizes like that's a mob in its own right. I need to think for myself always and just like, I want to do my own thing. I don't want to be beholden to any group ever. I don't want to like, I don't like being part of, part of a group. I like being an individual.
Shirley: So when you talk about I Was a Teenage Anarchist, essentially you- you're talking about just this, like this, these, these, these sort of rules that are cast for us all, right?
Shirley: And how it applies to even lefty, like, you know, rebellious groups.
Laura: Well, when I was younger, and I didn't fit in anywhere, and I felt alienated, and I didn't necessarily know that it was because all that I was going through. I didn't have the words for it. I wasn't owning up to myself, whatever. Um, you know, like I found the punk scene and the anarchist scene and thought, here's a community of people that are open minded and where I can just be myself, you know? So I gravitated towards it, and then I found myself in the punk scene and the more involved I got in it, the more people were like, “You have to be a certain way and you're making these decisions and we don't agree with those decisions.”
Shirley: The uniform.
Laura: And to me- Yeah. And to me it was like, well, wait a fucking second. You told me this was about thinking for myself and I'm fucking thinking for myself. [Laughs] So, it was infuriating to me and it made me angry, you know? Like it just pissed me off and then it was like, “Well fuck the punk scene, then and fuck everybody.” You know? Because I'm thinking for myself and, and a lot of it was like I'm making decisions, knowing what I know about myself, having this mess of confusion inside of me, knowing that I am in the world, like, who I am, and you don't know that, but stop judging me for making these decisions, you know? Because I'm making them because I know who I am. And so that was what the song was about. You know, it was, like, signing to a major label, like, growing as a band, making the choices of other bands we toured with, working with Butch. You know, like I was making choices because I knew what I wanted to do and I was getting criticized for it.
Shirley: Thank you for your time today, and for sharing that with, with an audience who are listening right now as we speak.
Laura: [Laughs] Thank you.
The Jump is an original series from MailChimp, and I'm your host Shirley Manson. It's produced by Lyra Smith in partnership with Little Everywhere, executive produced by Dann Gallucci, Jane Marie, and Hrishikesh Hirway. Original music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway.
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