The narrative of Gainesville, Fla., punk band Against Me! is one of consistent upheaval. Since Tom Gabel adopted the moniker for his agit-folk solo project in 1997, the band's biography counts two van crashes, three near breakups and four drummers. Now add to that timeline a break with a major record label, Sire Records.
After signing with Sire in 2005, Against Me! released two albums—2007's New Wave and last year's White Crosses. Those records, both produced by modern rock maestro Butch Vig (whose credits include Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day), proved to be Against Me!'s farthest-reaching. New Wave landed itself at the summit of Spin's best albums of 2007 list, while White Crosses made that same publication's top 40 in 2010. Like their spiritual forbears The Replacements, Against Me!'s major-label tenure shed most of the band's rough, scrappy punk trappings, and highlighted Tom Gabel's keen songwriting with a fuller, more polished sound. Their grit was ground finer than before.
But in late 2010, with the band's two-album contract fulfilled, Against Me! decided to leave Sire.
The decision, apparently, wasn't an easy one. Against Me!, a notorious touring machine, halted in the fall of 2010, canceling dates in October and November before announcing the reason.
"This past October a culmination of circumstances were engulfing us and we had to take some time off from touring to go home and sort things out," wrote Gabel in late November. "After almost a five year relationship, we are leaving Sire/ Warner. "We have nothing but gratitude towards all the people we worked with at the label and feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to make the records we made while with the label."
The decision to leave, says Against Me! bassist Andrew Seward, was the result of many factors. "One of the main ones," he says, "is that pretty much everyone who was with Sire and Warner Brothers when we signed ... are gone. They had a big shake-up—a restructuring, if you will—which is really a nice way of saying a lot of people got shit-canned."
Against Me!'s biography is marked not only by conflict but also the tenacity to find a way to soldier on. And so far, their free-agent status hasn't hurt the band. They'll begin their first proper tour in months this weekend, making their third stop at Cat's Cradle on Tuesday. The band, says Seward, is booked solid through August: "I don't think us leaving is really going to hinder us much. We've been traveling and touring for so long that I think we've landed on our feet, and we'll be just fine if not better. There's not a lot of fear.
"As of now, we're just kind of enjoying the freedom of having whatever choice we wanna make, we can make," he continues. "Everything's still up in the air and that's a good thing."
That flexibility is particularly beneficial in the midst of the continually unstable music industry. Online piracy continues to eat away at the labels' bottom lines, so aggregate album sales figures continue to drop. The stability of a record contract no longer seems like such a safe bet. As Seward puts it, "It's a great thing we're a touring band."
Without a label, Against Me! has more opportunities to work outside the box. As Gabel told Spin in December, "I'm looking forward to being able to move quicker and feeling unburdened in that way. Right now, with everything being wide open, it feels like we can do whatever we want. We can put out a record as quickly as we can write the songs."
Seward echoes his bandmate: "We could rent an old church, rent an old house and set up one mic and record. Or we could record with Butch again if we want to. We can do what we want."
But recording isn't on the schedule—not yet, anyway. For now, Against Me! is ready to return to the one thing that's remained constant: touring. Save for its recent hiatus and uncharacteristically canceled shows, the quartet has been, and remains, a band in motion, as acknowledged by the title of their 2004 tour documentary, We're Never Going Home.
"It's been a while, and I'm chomping at the bit to go play," says Seward, at home with his 6-month-old daughter. "It's going to be good to go do what we actually know how to do."
The future remains uncertain for Against Me!, but it's a welcome uncertainty, with any trepidation assuaged by a return to the road, which seems to be as hotly anticipated by the band as by its fans. But if the band's past has taught us anything, it's that change follows them everywhere. So does adaptation.
"Our band definitely has a past," Seward says. "But we own the past. We own everything we've done."