Laura Jane Grace on punk, pizza, Tom Petty, and transgender rights
Don’t get Laura Jane Grace started on deep dish pizza. It’s one thing by which the Against Me! frontwoman simply cannot abide. Unfortunately for Grace, deep dish is a staple of her current home of Chicago, perhaps explaining why her latest album — Bought to Rot from new side-project Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers — includes a song titled, quite directly, “I Hate Chicago.”
That is merely one of the 14 new tracks from the album (out Nov. 9 on Bloodshot Records) that marks the latest chapter in Grace’s musical journey. EW spoke with Grace about the record, her historical connection to the late, great Tom Petty, the most important song she ever wrote, the songs she wishes she hadn’t, and how times — and her relationship with Against Me! fans — have changed in the six years since she came out as transgender.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you have this new album with one of your Against Me! bandmates, drummer Atom Willard, as well as your Against Me! sound engineer, Marc Jacob Hudson, on bass. So why is this not an Against Me! record? Why put this album out as Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers?
LAURA JANE GRACE: I guess, in a way, this album needs to be thought of as like an orphan looking for a home in the world. A couple years back, when I was finishing up work on my book, I had kind of reached this point where I had been sitting in front of a computer screen for two years, and I was losing my mind, so I was like, “I need to go out, and I need to see if some of the material I’m working on works in front of an audience.”
So I booked this two-week-long tour of the east coast, and I asked Mark and Atom…to come out and do the tour with me. And the tour was kind of a mix of spoken word, reading from what would become the book, and then also playing Against Me! songs. And we played some covers and stuff like that, and it was a lot of fun. But…it was like, “Okay, well, we’re a band, we’re playing these shows, we should give it a name.” So, I dubbed the project the Devouring Mothers, and afterwards I was like, “That was great. We should try recording something.”
It’s really just being honest with ourselves, that it wasn’t Against Me! that wrote the record; it was the three of us. I always try to look at music as not having to be a monogamous thing, you know? And it’s all part of a family.
I understand this album is pretty heavily influenced by Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever. What was it about him and that record that really spoke to you?
There are two levels to that connection. Last year, when Petty passed away, that really knocked the wind out of me, and gave me pause to think. My first record I ever got was Full Moon Fever. My dad gave me a copy when I was maybe nine years old or something. And I listened to the heck out of that record. I loved that record.
And my first electric guitar I ever got was a Traveling Wilburys’ model electric guitar. And then when I was 18 years old, I moved to Gainesville, Fla., where Petty & the Heartbreakers were from, so it was this huge influence of my life. And when I was talking about doing this record, it was good to be able to point to that record in particular, because a lot of the people were like, “Oh, it’ll confuse people, it’s a distraction, does this mean you’re breaking up Against Me! or what?” And I was like, “Look, Tom Petty did Full Moon Fever. He still went on to do many records with the Heartbreakers. You can do this, it makes sense.”
So there was all that influence it had on it, but then really directly, when I was living in Gainesville back in 2003, I bought this beautiful 1964 Fender Jaguar off of Stan Lynch, who played drums in the Heartbreakers. And I also bought this beautiful ’70s twin reverb amplifier. So the Jaguar was in pristine condition, and I was always kind of afraid of it, and I’ve kept it under my bed for all these years, and I only took it out every once in a while.
Yeah. So when Petty passed away, I was sitting alone there playing along to the records with my Jaguar, and I was like, “This guitar sounds like it could’ve been on these records,” and I was like, “Dang, this guitar was probably sitting there in the studio, when they were recording all these seminal hits!” And I kind of developed this story, projecting this story onto the guitar, true or not, of what it would be like if you’re a guitar. I honestly believe that guitars have souls. And if you’re a guitar, all you want in your existence is to be played, you know? To be used on records, or to be played live.
So here’s this beautiful 1964 Fender Jaguar guitar that…was probably like, “Oh please, Petty, just pick me up and play me.” And so I thought, what a shame it was never played. This is this guitar’s moment. This is what this guitar was born to do. It has to be played on this record. So I used the Jaguar on every song on the record, and the twin as well.
Speaking of the record, you have this song “I Hate Chicago.” I know you live in Chicago, so what’s that all about?
Well the song is kind of tongue in cheek. It’s a jokey song. It’s a little bit kitschy. But, I think that anyone in Chicago will agree with this, where Chicago’s kind of a jerky city. Chicago prides itself on being a mean city. And I’ve lived in Chicago for, like, six years now, and it’s strange moving somewhere where circumstance kind of puts you, and you just have as much a right to exist there as anybody else, but you feel like you’re having to politely ask for your space to exist somewhere. I got to a point where I was over that. Where it’s like, “I have as much right to be here as anybody else. Like it or not, I’m here, Chicago, and I’m part of you, too.”
And then, you know, maybe on a more superficial level, I just really can’t stand deep dish pizza. I grew up in Italy, so for me, Naples pizza is the only type of pizza that there really is.
And the funny part is, I bet people probably love it when you play the song in Chicago, right?
I’ll tell you, this past summer we played the Wicker Park Street Festival, and as an encore I got up, and I did that song. And as I was walking up on stage, it’s really rare that you can have a song where before you play it, you realize, “This could be dangerous. The crowd could turn on me right now, and throw things, rush the stage,” you know? Most songs, the worst case scenario playing it live is just being met with ambivalence. But to have a song where you’re like, “People might really react negatively,” it’s like a truly exhilarating experience. But, I got up there, played the song in front of however many thousand people, and people were laughing. They got a kick out of it.
You’ve been playing some Midwest dates. When someone first starts out in a band, touring can be a blast, but after 20 years, I can imagine it loses some of its charm. Do you still enjoy touring?
I love touring. The sleeping on people’s floors part, I kind of have gotten to a place where I can’t do that as much. I think one of the earliest rules you learn about touring is that if someone says, “Hey, yeah, it’s fine, y’all can come over and sleep at my place,” that most assuredly means A) they have like two or three roommates that they have not asked if it’s cool if you stay over, and those roommates will be angry and will want you to leave first thing in the morning. And B) it means they’ve got at least five or six cats and they have not cleaned the litter box in like four months.
Do you have a song or two from your career that really holds a dear place in your heart, either for the meaning of the song, or just, “Wow, this is one that really holds up”?
To me, the songs that I’m most thankful to have been a part of creating are the songs that are able to adapt and change over the years and that mean different things to you at different periods of time in your life. I think one of the best examples of that would be a song that I wrote when I was like 18 years old called “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong.”
I wrote that song for my grandmother, who passed away at the time, and her name was Evelyn, and now I have a nine-year-old daughter named Evelyn. To get up on stage and sing that song every night — the meaning changes, and it still means just as much, if not more. It’s one of those moments where I continually will be playing that song, and can kind of have out of body experiences while playing it, and recognize how far I’ve come in life, and I’m thankful for that.
As a writer, I know sometimes I come across old things I wrote, and it just makes me cringe. Do you ever have that experience with any of your old music?
Oh, of course, yeah. I mean, there are two sides of that, too. There are the lyrics you cringe at, and then there is the songwriting you cringe at. Like, “What were we doing putting a bridge after the first verse?” It’s all part of it, and you learn from it. But most of the time, if there’s a song that specifically, lyrically, that I feel really uncomfortable with, and it’s kind of lost the meaning, we just don’t play it, and that’s just part of staying true to yourself.
It’s been six years now since you came out as transgender, which was inspiring for a lot of people. We’ve seen some strides since then in terms of folks in mainstream society becoming more understanding of gender dysphoria and what that is. On the other hand, we have a presidential administration now talking about erasing protections for trans people. How do things seem different to you now than they were back in 2012?
The world kind of seems like a darker place. You need to remind yourself sometimes, and have perspective of how far everything’s come — like in the generations before your own generation, strides that were made, and the work that was done in advancing protections for everyone, everyone having civil rights, and equal liberties. And that’s really what it’s all about, is that transgender people deserve the right to happiness, and to exist, and to just like, be protected under the law as equally as everyone else does. Having access to healthcare, having access to not being discriminated against for jobs, for housing — these are just basic human rights that everyone deserves, and no one’s asking for any special treatment. It’s just being able to exist, and do what makes you happy.
How did your relationship with Against Me! fans change after that announcement? Did you feel a deeper connection with them?
I think it’s impossible as an artist, when you really open yourself up, and put yourself out there, to not feel a deeper connection. Even if it is at the cost of losing some fans, those fans were the fans you never really had a connection with anyways, ’cause they were never understanding where you were coming from. To put yourself out there though, and to be accepted by the people that have been accepting and supporting, it’s just that much more meaningful for everyone involved. And, creating a show space where everyone feels welcome, regardless of gender, sexuality, age, race, class, or anything like that, is so important. That’s what a show should be. And the best parts of punk rock, that speak to those ideals, have always been what attracted me to it.
So what’s the status of Against Me!? More live dates anytime soon, new record, what can you tell me?
We just got back from South America. We were down there for the past two weeks. I have these shows this month with the Devouring Mothers, and then after that, we’re jumping back into making a new record. So we’ll be out next year, and we’ll play some shows, and we’ll get a new record out sooner or later.
Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers’ Bought to Rot is out now on Bloodshot Records.
This interview has been edited and condensed