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Against Me!'s Atom Willard on Laura Jane Grace's Gender Transition: "It's My Journey as Well"

Against Me!
Against Me!
Ryan Russell

In 2012, Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace took the world by storm when she publicly revealed herself to be transgender. Though had we been paying attention, we would have noticed the not-so-subtle cues in the band's lyrics, like these from "The Ocean": "If I could have chosen / I would have been born a woman / My mother once told me she would have named me Laura."

The past two years have been good for the band. Against Me! recently released its seventh studio album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which at times reads like Laura Jane Grace's diary. The songs are raw and have a strong sense of urgency, as the singer reveals her desires, fears, and secrets.

We recently caught up with Against Me!'s new drummer, Atom Willard, to discuss where the band is now and how Laura Jane Grace is doing.

Up on the Sun: You've been a touring member of quite a few bands. How did you get on board with Against Me!?

Atom Willard: Everything came about when they had a drummer emergency in January of 2013. They had a plan to tour Australia, and it was like "Oh shit, the drummer quit, would you do this, would you be available?" I was like, "Holy shit, I'm available for this month." I went to Florida and we practiced a few times in late December, and we went to Australia and played a bunch of shows and it went really well. We really hit it off and it seemed like an easy, natural fit. Laura asked me while I was there, "hey, would you be interested in recording a record with us," and I was like, "Yeah! That would be great." Right after that Australia trip, we took a little bit of time in Los Angeles, and just went in and did it. From there it was just like "Well shit, that went really, really well." I had a good time, I like these songs, I like these people, and I joined the band.

You've performed with a variety of bands. I'm sure they're all pretty different, but how is performing in Against Me! different than say, Rocket From the Crypt or The Offspring?

Those are two very different references. Rocket From the Crypt is a band I was in from the beginning, when I was, like, 18 years old. That was technically my band, and being in the Offspring, I was technically an employee. I played with and for them, but I wasn't a member of the band. Against Me! is much more like the Rocket situation. I'm here and able to contribute and be involved on all different levels of the band. That's a lot more appealing to me than working for the Offspring or Social Distortion, where it's fun and great to play that music, but you're not in the band.

When you recorded the new Against Me! album, was drumming on it more your creative vision, or did you follow the band's idea of what they were looking for with drums?

I definitely made my mark on that record. You can tell that it's me and it's my style of playing. There were a couple of things, in "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" for instance, where she's like I really want this kind of beat, and I'm like, okay. Kind of like this? She's like well, kind of like that, but more like this and she plays me this Crass song and it's like okay, and she definitely had something very specific in mind.

One of the things that made me feel so comfortable and confident in joining the band was the way that we worked together in the studio. She wasn't opposed to any new ideas or fresh ideas about things, and she also had a good idea of what she wanted. It's very hard to work with somebody that says "Well, I don't like what you're doing, but I can't tell you what I want." That doesn't get us any closer to a solution. So, it was nice to work with her in that way, because Laura has a very clear idea of what she likes and why she likes it, and that's the kind of thing that I can work with all day long. I don't care if the trumpet player has the best idea for a beat, as long as it's the best idea that we use.

 

That chorus of "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" so biting. I feel bad for her, because that situation sounds so difficult.

Absolutely. She is someone who's not afraid to fight for something she believes in. She's not going to back down from a fight. The lyrics and a lot of these things are really indicative of what she's been going through the past 30-some odd years of her life.

You've been in the band since she went public, correct?

That happened in 2012 before I joined. I had heard about it. I was a fan of the band, and it didn't affect me in any kind of away that was like "Well, I'm not going to listen to that music anymore." The only thing that came to mind was "I was wonder if that's going to change her singing voice" because I'm such a huge fan of Against Me's vocal sound. When I had the chance to ask, she says, "No, I'm never going to do anything to change the sound of my singing voice. I love my singing voice."

That's one of those things I was curious about but wasn't sure if I should ask.

It's a common thing. People are always asking when they see pictures of her. She's very much in transition, and it's a long ongoing, probably lifelong process but you can't really tell what that sounds like, but it's really great to have the new record out and have a reference point for anybody. Or you can scour YouTube and see any show that we've been doing.

I've seen you guys three times since she went public, and to me, it's the same show. Laura Jane Grace just has longer hair, but it's still the same energy. From what I've seen and read online, it seems like fans are being pretty positive, have you noticed the same in your experience?

We've really had nothing but an overwhelmingly supportive and positive response. In all honesty, people seem to really love the new record and love the sound of it and the way we sequence the record, which song comes after which song, and every different aspect of it. Also, [seeing] the people come to shows and how affected they are by our performances.

I can't tell you anything other than it's been insanely awesome. People are very supportive of her and everything that she's going through, and I see a lot of people who are empowered to go through something that maybe they've been considering or battling with. Whether it's transitioning, or stating their sexuality to their parents or their loved ones, or if it's just quitting a job, anybody can draw parallels to overcoming something in their life that is very difficult to face head on, and watching people interpret what we're saying and what the message is to relate to their lives is a pretty great thing.

I can only imagine what she's going through, but I do believe it was a very important record to make because people are having that sort of response, and it's the first of its kind.

You always want to make something that affects people. No matter what your music is, if it's intended to make people dance, you want them to dance. If it's intended to make people think, you want them to think and be able to create something that can reach people on so many different levels and really affect them in a way that's overwhelmingly positive. It's a pretty big feeling.

We're all in this together. If I didn't completely support her and the way that she's going about her journey, it's definitely my journey as well. It's something that we're all in together and I'm happy to talk about it.

Have you gotten burnt out answering questions about Laura's transition?

Here's the deal, no matter what your record is about, people will always want to talk about similar aspects of it. The fact that we have something here that we can talk about that is actually meaningful and actually has some kind of impact into people's lives or into society. If we can bring gender diversity awareness to a world that is pretty uneducated about it, I'm happy to answer that question 10 times a day. If you want to talk about how great my drum solos are, hey, I'll talk about that, too [laughs].

 

Were some Against Me! songs challenging to learn?

It's interesting because they've had so many different drummers over the years, so there's really such a diverse group of players that have done all these different things, have had all these styles, that give me a real sense of freedom because you can take what you want from each guy and inject that into your version of the song.

When I'm playing "We Laugh at Danger," I'm not keeping a lot of the parts that were originally written, but there are certain elements that you feel you have to incorporate so that the song is the song. Really, the funnest part about doing any of that stuff was creating this new version. [Creating] this new Atom, James, and Laura version of the song that never existed before, and people know the song because the lyrics are the same and the notes are the same and all of that stuff, but we've evolved, and it's a whole new world of slightly different variations.

What are some of your favorite Against Me! songs to play?

The one with the drums in them, and the one with the guitar, I like that. I really like them all. Every time I play "Black Me Out," it's such a powerful thing. I can honestly say that I get goosebumps 90 percent of the time we play that song live. It's a pretty cool feeling.

By looking at your Twitter, I get the impression that you and Laura are besties. Did you know each other at all before you started drumming with Against Me!?

[Laughs] I definitely met the band, but I didn't have a lot of hang out time with anyone, so basically, it's just been since I started up in January of 2013, we've been building a real friendship. There's just certain people that you meet and you hang out with and you click. We really do have a thing where we all get along really well, and we just have the same things that are important to us, if it's our sense of humor, whatever it is, that's what's us bringing us together, we're definitely on the same page with shit.

Against Me! has been getting a lot of press from larger publications. Has this impacted your fanbase at all?

I don't know, I can't say that I pay a lot of attention to a lot of music blogs. I'm a little bit off the radar in that way, so I can't say who's being talked about. I can't really say that I've seen a change in the landscape of people that are coming. There seems to be music lovers at every show. People show up and you see all kinds of different t-shirts on these people, and you figure people go to a concert and they're going to wear one of their favorite t-shirts, so it's like, "wow, okay, that's your favorite band, I wouldn't picture you to like a band like us." I think you can sort of gauge [laughs] what person you are by if you're wearing a Used t-shirt or if you're wearing a Panic! at the Disco t-shirt, or if you're wearing a Black Flag t-shirt. They're sending a message in some way whether you want to or not. If my only exposure to you is from behind the drums or watching you crowd surf or jump around in front of us, that's all I can draw from it.

Gee thanks, now I'm going to have to plan an outfit for your show.

Just know that I'm watching [laughs].

I take it you're not the type to look up YouTube comments?

That's a pretty deep wormhole that you don't really want to get into because it doesn't matter how many glowing reviews or amazingly positive things people have to say, if you see one negative thing, that just ends up sticking with you, and you're like, "fuck! whatever!" You get defensive, and it makes you feel funny about it, and at the end of the day, what's the basis of that?

Just know that you're happy with what you've done, and you're proud of what you've done. Ultimately, that's the only thing that matters. Whether I achieve those goals on the record or with whatever, that's all I need out of it.

Against Me! plays the Nile Theater in Mesa on Wednesday, May 21.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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