SXSW Music Featured Session: Laura Jane Grace, Our Lady of Punk, Devours SXSW
Against Me! founder on the “demonstrable power of punk”
By Beth Sullivan,
12:20PM, Fri. Mar. 15, 2019
Only one day into Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers’ tour for their debut LP Bought to Rot, Laura Jane Grace joined music writer Kayleigh Hughes for a SXSW retrospective on her life and career as the founder of seminal Gainesville punksters Against Me!, her experience coming out as transgender, and the “demonstrable power of punk.”
Grace, whose father was an Army major and worked for NATO, moved from Fort Hood, Texas, to Naples, Italy, where the family lived for four years. At the time, recalled Grace, who was then 8 years old, “Living in Italy meant growing up without MTV.” But Grace didn’t let the lack of exposure to popular American music stop her from pursuing her calling, telling Hughes she ordered her first guitar, a $100 Harmony acoustic, from a Sears catalog. “I just always knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a musician,” she told the crowd. “I never had any doubts.”
On the heels of her parents’ divorce, Grace moved back to the states, settling in yet another culture-shock of a locale: Naples, Fla. Now 12 years old, Grace got her very first taste of the hard rock sound and grunge as Nirvana was “blowing up.” South Florida wasn’t a great place to be a kid, said Grace, who dived headfirst into drugs, starting bands, and getting into trouble with any and all authority. Hughes asked how this time in Grace’s life led her to punk music.
“I guess I kind of stumbled into punk,” she answered, explaining her earliest exposures were through seeing the Sex Pistols’ band name spray-painted on walls in Italy and metal bands who’d wear punk shirts and paraphernalia, like Duff McKagan from Guns N’ Roses donning the Sid Vicious collar. “So I started wearing the Sid Vicious chain and lock because Duff did, not realizing it was a Sid thing.” Music-wise, Grace first looked to classic rock bands, but quickly realized it wasn’t for her. (“I went through a really unfortunate phase with the Doors,” she recalled to laughter from the crowd.) Softer sounds, too, were a no-go. “The attitude of hippies and stuff like that when you’re getting beat up didn’t really offer much refuge.” Punk, though, offered an answer. “At first, it was much more the appeal of ‘live fast, die young’ – the feeling you were never going to escape, and the nihilism of it all.” Then, after getting arrested for the first time at 14 years old, it was “a politicizing moment that definitely opened my eyes up to all the other things that I think are more important about punk,” she added.
Grace’s first band experience may have been a Presbyterian church youth group, but it was at 17 years old that she founded her legendary punk act Against Me! In the beginning, Against Me! was an acoustic-heavy solo act that was very much “an activist band” that was the “antithesis of the corporate rock scene.” Eventually, Against Me! fanned out into a full lineup with a grittier edge, releasing their first full-length LP Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose in 2002. Hughes then steered the conversation toward the band’s history as framed by their pre- and post-major label discography, an exchange in which Grace revealed just how much backlash – from fans, other musicians, and the media – Against Me! received for moving to major label Sire Records.
In 2012, Hughes noted that Grace came out publicly as trans in a Rolling Stone article. On coming out, Grace revealed, “I didn’t really have a choice, it was just happening.” She remembers the period as “terrifying, absolutely terrifying,” a time in which she isolated herself in the studio with writing Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which would become Against Me!’s first album post-Rolling Stone article when it was released in 2014. Touring Transgender Dysphoria Blues was a “gratifying” experience, relayed Grace, who said for the first time ever in her career, she finally knew “everyone in the room [is] on the same page of you.” Grace has since penned her memoir Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout with the help of Noisey’s Dan Ozzi, and starred in the AOL reality web series True Trans With Laura Jane Grace.
Now seven years since the article’s publication, Grace says she still feels terrified and like a “pariah” more often than not. She pointed to her day-to-day fight to survive as a trans person, something that’s not always so apparent to the public but a reality she – and other transgender folks – very much experiences in her personal life; like, per her example, when she’s out shopping at Target. “The way a trans person is treated in those situations versus the way a trans person is treated when they’re in a situation where they’re a public figure are two totally different things.” With her public platform, she believes she shares a responsibility to educate folks on these struggles, as it not only helps others in the trans community but Grace as well. “Any way that I can use my career or my platform to push along transgender visibility in the mainstream and society serves me on a personal level in that it will make day-to-day existence when I’m not doing this that much easier.”