"White People for Peace" opens with a bristling beat and an anthemic guitar lick, setting the stage for the song's quixotic appeal. We're presented with a situation that could be every war, with each side queued up on the border praying to their God that his grace should bless them. Meanwhile, protestors sing songs to stop the violence, an obviously impotent action whose futility becomes apparent as the war continues through the second verse: "Civilian casualties have been a cost that was predetermined," sings frontman Tom Gabel.
While bureaucrats debate, the war "without reason" rages on. The repeated chorus reminds us how nothing changes. The last verse turns to the eternal nature of conflict, as God and those in protest watch the unchanging charade silently. "There was a purpose to be served, and fortunes to be earned," sings Gabel. The battle rages on, the chorus notes, because human nature is obdurate when it comes to selfishness. A poignant, if desperately cynical, track.
We caught up with Gabel at the band's practice space/clubhouse in Gainesville, Fla.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How did "White People for Peace" come about?
TOM GABEL: It was one of the last songs written for the record, and I forget where we were on tour—in Europe somewhere. I remember I wrote the lyrics sitting at some café, outside a hotel, and I remember we wrote the music for it when we were staying in London. The song came together pretty quick and underwent only a few changes before we recorded it. It was just one of those songs where it pretty immediately hits everyone from the band. But yeah, it's a pretty good song.
Was there anything that was a particular catalyst or inspiration for the song?
Well, I don't know if you've heard about this, but there's this conflict happening in the Middle East. Not many are aware of this, but I'll fill you in: Unfortunately for the last three records that we've written, the same war has been happening. I feel, as someone that writes, I try to pay attention to everything that's happening around me, whether that's in my personal life or the outside media or whatever. Anywhere I can get information, I'll take it. And so it's unavoidable to be paying attention to the fact that there is the war happening for me.
Like I said, it's been happening for the past three records that we've put out, and I've always made an effort to address it in some way or form. Some of the songs have been a little more direct and definitely naming the names of political figures that were involved. So when approaching writing "White People for Peace," it was kind of like, "How can I approach writing this song that will apply to a much broader picture?" Thinking just an overall, like trying to do a general overview of war, and so taking a stance that can apply to any war, not just the kind of war that's happened.
I wonder if this song would've been written if you hadn't had three albums through the same war?
Probably not, no, probably not.
I was curious if you'd seen the movie The Watchmen.
It got me thinking about the nature of war and peace. It fit in with the song because the song seems a little bit cynical about the ability to change human nature.
Well, if it walks like a duck.
In view of the movie, what do you think about the character of the Comedian, because the most galvanizing character in the movie was not who I expected, but the guy I disliked from the beginning. What your take was on him and our human nature?
An interesting question. I think that what I found believable about the Comedian was that I think that happens to people. I think your viewpoint develops almost by your perspective of it. Maybe that sounds a little weird. Like I feel if you go through certain experiences and the more knowledge you have about something and the more you see how it works, it changes your perspective on it. I think that people start out very idealistic about stuff. The more and more they get involved and get into it, the more cynical they get. A certain amount of that cynicism is almost just and deserved.
With regard to the movie, the character in the end proves to be either idealistic at his core. At least he has some moral compass or shred of human decency within him.
I think one of the things that happens to people as they get more and more involved with whatever we're talking about—we're trying to make a general application—is that I think as people grow older and older they get more apt to be less likely to want to explain their actions, and justify how this applies to their moral viewpoint that they have.
There's a moment where the do-gooder character goes, "What happened to the American dream. The comedian replies, "This is the American dream." I was recently talking with the musician from Joe Buck Yourself, and asking whether wealth and good times had warped our sense of entitlement and our sense of responsibility to each other?
It's something that for a younger generation, and myself being part of that of younger generation, it's hard to have a real perspective, you know? I think that if you're older and you've been around long enough that you've seen enough presidents come and go and you've seen a couple wars come and go, I think you have a way different perspective on stuff like that. It's hard to understand that when you're younger, you know?
How do you feel about the things you see people doing to each other, like defrauding friends of millions of dollars, even at government levels, and yet we have a guy coming in that promises change. Do you have hope?
I want to have hope. I want to take Obama becoming president as a really good sign. And I want to think that maybe things will change a little bit. But then the cynical side of me thinks, "Meet the new boss same as the old boss." When it comes to all of the economic issues, and everything like that that's definitely the major talking point in the media these days, I don't understand it. I don't understand Wall Street. I don't understand how any of that works. So I think that's what's allowed people to get away what they're getting away with. It's that nobody understands what they're doing, so how can they call them on it. It's really hard to have a developed opinion on something that you don't understand. For me, I just know that means I feel confused often, feel afraid often of the future and what do you do with it. For me, I've always written and just sort of talked out those feeling and what I'm thinking about. That doesn't mean I have any of the answers. It just means I have opinions and I'm a loudmouth.
Then beyond your own personal needs, is there a use to protest songs?
I think the purpose protest songs have served is not as the impetus. It wasn't the protest song that started the protest. It was already happening, and then the song came along to it. If you look at any social movement throughout the ages, the songs that came from that movement were just kind of like anthems. Some songwriters I feel take a point of documenting something that happens and then that song very much defines that movement. Some songs are written to communicate ideas, some songs are written to create a feeling of camaraderie and make everyone feel like they're in it. Those are the purposes it serves. It doesn't keep it going. It doesn't start it. But it definitely serves a purpose.
I can see that. I know discovering punk rock was my first realization that someone else out there felt alienated.
With punk rock, it's just a symptom of what was already with us. The mistake most people make with punk rock is that they think it is the end-all, be-all, and that's all you have to do is get into the music, live that lifestyle. You don't need for anything to change.
Speaking of change, it seems you're on the continuing New Wave tour.
No, we're starting over now. We like to think of this as the starting point for the new record. I don't want to think about it as we're still on the New Wave tour.
Tell me about the new record.
We've been home. The New Wave tour ended in October. We did our last tour of the States, and then I went on a solo tour in November with some friends through December. We took the majority of December off, and then started rehearsing for the new record and writing for the new record as of January. We've just been holed up here in Gainesville, Fla., in our practice space, working on songs and stuff. So we're kind of taking this upcoming tour and stuff as a way to blow off some steam and try out some of the new material that we hope to be recording pretty soon.
Is that style of wood-shedding—taking it on the road—something you've done in the past? Do you like kind of test-driving them?
For sure, and I feel like test-driving them is essential. We had the experience once of going in and recording a record that we didn't go out and play any of the songs beforehand. Then when it was time to tour on them, we realized pretty quickly these songs worked really well in the studio, but they aren't any fun to play live. Then we went on tour for year playing songs we weren't really that jazzed on.
How comfortable has your experience been stepping it up a level?
Are you referring to working with Warner Bros?
Well, I think there are a lot of things that go along with that. I assume you're playing slightly bigger gigs, doing more in a certain sense.
One of the things I feel we've been fortunate about as a band and what's been great—what's made for a more pleasant experience—is we've never taken a really big leap. We've just taken the next step. Where we've been as a band is always where we need to be. If, after 10 years I'm not able to support myself doing it, and not be able to have it be a sustainable thing, and we're not getting better/growing show-wise and label-wise, then we would be doing something really wrong. It just has always felt like venue-wise, label-wise and everything else, it's always made sense.
Obviously, there are lots of reasons to do a solo album beyond the idea of changing it up and being able to go without doing 3-hour soundchecks? But what were your reasons, and what was rewarding about it?
For me, I actually went into the studio not necessarily with the intention of making a solo record. When I started out, it was just myself and there have been records where it's been all four of us, two of us, three of us, myself again.
But it has been a long time since you've been alone.
It's been a little while for sure, but going into the studio, I didn't think it would be that weird to record a record by myself and put it out under the name Against Me! But then when I started thinking about it, it was like, "I kind of want to go out and play some shows, and do some touring and maybe do this a little more seriously by myself, and I can't go and do this by myself and play under the name of Against Me! anymore. If I can't play under the name live, than maybe I should just put this record out under my own name."
What was your experience?
It was great. I pretty much went into the studio just thinking and something I talked about with Butch and Billy who I made the record with, that I just wanted to have fun. If it was a little out of tune or it wasn't the best, as long as it was fun and had a good feeling, then that's what I wanted. I just didn't want something complicated.
Against Me! plays The Brewery Wednesday, April 15, at 8 p.m. with Off With Their Heads. Tickets are $10.