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His six strings ring out opinions

With the band or on his own, Against Me! lead singer Tom Gabel lets you know exactly what he's thinking.

October 25, 2008|August Brown | Brown is a Times staff writer.

For Tom Gabel, the singer and guitarist of the Gainesville, Fla., punk band Against Me!, voicing dissent is less a means of changing the political tide than trying to find his own place in it. His band's 2007 LP, "New Wave," was a pop-savvy punch in the eye to not only America's foreign misadventures but also to the efficacy of protest music and the cynicism of both lovers and the music business.

However, Gabel's new solo record, "Heart Burns," due out Tuesday, saves its sharpest knives for Sen. John McCain on the song "Cowards Sing at Night." The lyrics, many of which were culled from excerpts of the presidential candidate's memoir, "Faith of My Fathers," seem withering in Gabel's hands: "Come back home, Johnny, come back home from Vietnam. Your war is over."

"I was hesitant to write that song at first," he said. "I didn't want to make a judgment call about somebody I didn't know. But he's someone who can make a direct effect in my life, and I disagree with so many of his policies and stances that I can't think his election would be a good thing."

It's not the first time Gabel has taken on a Republican figure by name; see 2005's "From Her Lips to God's Ears (The Energizer)," which wrangles an unexpectedly anthemic chorus from the name "Condoleezza."

"When I'm writing, I'm expressing an opinion and representing what's already happening, and that's what the function of a movement is," he said. "I have no interest in being Rage Against the Machine."

This week, Gabel's poised to deliver his message with two shows in L.A. On Tuesday, Against Me! will perform at the Wiltern, and on Saturday, Gabel will headline the Revival Tour's stop at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. The folk-leaning outing gathers a collection of punk singer-songwriters, somewhat like a town-hall meeting for the safety-pin set.

Over the last two years, Against Me! has grown further away from the basement-show circuit that supported its first four albums and tours. Gabel and bandmates James Bowman, Andrew Seward and Warren Oakes took flak from some of their longtime DIY-leaning fans for signing to Sire Records, tightening up their production with producer Butch Vig (Nirvana's "Nevermind") and ratcheting down Gabel's throat-shredding howl a bit.

The band has dipped toes into the upper reaches of the Billboard Modern Rock chart: The 2007 single "Thrash Un- real," about an aging but defiant scene hanger-on, peaked at No. 11. For a group that lamented "all the tastemakers drinking from the same glass" on its major-label debut, they seem to have made peace with life on a corporate-owned label.

"It's incorrect to think that a major label is all that different from an indie -- the main difference is size," Gabel said. "We knew the record would be initially divisive, but we don't regret a thing."

The Revival Tour is a throwback to the five-bands-for-five-bucks days Against Me! has left behind. Gabel, along with Chuck Ragan of Hot Water Music, Tim Barry of Avail and Ben Nichols of Lucero, perform as a kind of three-hour folk-punk round table, with each artist taking turns at the microphone and accompanying one another on instruments.

"I'm so proud of [Against Me!] -- to see them doing what they do now and remember when I saw them playing on buckets in an alley is incredible" said Ragan, a Gainesville, Fla., native himself and a guest on "Anna Is a Stool Pigeon." "You may not see someone for a couple years, but the way you keep up with them is through their music. I'm so excited to pick up Tom for this and sing with him every night."

Gabel will play a selection of songs from "Heart Burns" that showcase his more ragged songwriting. Some songs are driven by just a voice and guitar. "Anna Is a Stool Pigeon," a countrified indictment of the trial that landed environmental activist Eric McDavid in federal prison on a conspiracy to destroy property conviction, proves his knack for lyrical reportage is intact.

Gabel has admitted that writing such songs amounts to spitting in the wind in the current political climate. Against Me!'s "White People for Peace" brutally lays out the futility of singing "protest songs to try and stop the soldier's gun." But "Anna's" plaintive yet bleakly wry hook, "Eric fell in love with an FBI informant," suggests Gabel still knows that the quickest way into the guts of government is through an audience's heartstrings.

"Eric might serve 20 years for conspiracy after being entrapped by FBI informants," Gabel said. "It's important for me to get this out in real time. I wanted this record to be a part of the election."

august.brown@latimes.com

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