As the frontwoman of Florida punks Against Me!, Laura Jane Grace runs a tight ship. The band is remarkably consistent and has been since their inception in 1997, so when it was revealed that LJG was working on a new album, fans assumed it was an eighth Against Me! title, right on schedule. Instead, she announced Laura Jane and the Devouring Mothers, a new group built of two familiar names and fellow enthusiasts—Marc Jacob Hudson, longtime pop-punk producer, and Atom Willard, current Against Me! drummer. Their debut album, Brought to Rot, is an eclectic exploration of their musical passions filtered through her punk ethos. The music is personal, maddeningly quick witted, and a welcomed break from expectation tied to her flagship band. More than anything, though, it’s something new—not a solo record, or the mark that Against Me! is ending—but an exercise in what she calls musical “non-monogamy.”
I spoke to Laura Jane Grace last Friday (the album’s release date) to learn more about the concept, Devouring Mothers, their new album, abandoned retailers, American decline, and how to remain motivated, active and political in an often unwelcoming world. This conversation has been condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Hey, Laura Jane, happy record release.
LAURA JANE GRACE: Thank you very much. It’s also the first day it snowed this winter in Chicago.
That’s gotta be symbolic. It was also just your birthday—happy belated. How did you celebrate?
Well, I released a record. [Laughs] I played a show at the Hideout here in Chicago. That was the plan all along. I wanted to record this summer, put it out November, have a night-out show on my birthday. I don’t know why I was fixated on turning 38, it’s just what I wanted to do.
Knowing you to be an activist in as much as you are anything else—a musician, an author, a memoirist—I feel a responsibility to ask about midterms. What’s your read on the results? How are you feeling about the world right now?
It beats you down. It’s something I sing about on the record as far as, like, being addicted to your phone. Part of being in a band is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, check your email, check your text messages, no one calls anyone for anything so you’re trapped in this cycle—chop, chop, chop, midterms, midterms, midterms. It, psychologically, really starts to get you after a while. You try to look for small moves towards the left as positive signs while at the same time, trying to fight the thought that it’s all fucking rigged anyways.
We were touring in South America in Brazil during the election there. It was an Against Me! tour, but the last two were Devouring Mothers shows. One of the last shows, in Rio, the venue hadn’t sold enough tickets or whatever, and said, “We need to cancel this show and move it to another venue that’s a little smaller, it’s fine, but we’re worried about safety because it’s a half-indoor half-outdoor venue right near where there are some rightwing protests. I can’t guarantee they won’t come and fuck people up, or whatever.” Being in restaurants and seeing people yell at each other about politics, and seeing that it was the younger people who seemed to lean right and the older people leaning left, it was a really crazy experience.
I don’t have any answers. I know you don’t have any answers—none of us do. Part of me fighting against that is staying motivated and trying to be the best version of myself. You try to make small gains where you can.
So why a new project, Laura Jane and the Devouring Mothers? My immediate sense, in listening to this record, is the freedom of pursuing music without having to consider Against Me!’s own storied history. A new band and a new name suggests a sort of limitlessness. At the very least, a first record and an eighth are very different beasts.
One hundred percent! A lot of it is being true to what [this project] is, the components of what this is, and the three people who made it. There’s been some confusion with knowing if this is a solo record or a band record, but it’s all an equal approach. It’s all me and Atom and Mark. It was equal songwriting.
In 2015, 2016, I was finishing up my book. I was sick of sitting in front of my computer so I booked a two-week tour and was doing a mix of reading what would become the book and performing Against Me! songs. I asked them [Atom and Mark] to come on the tour. And it was like, there’s three of us, we’re a band, we need a name, the Devouring Mothers. Two summers ago, we recorded a bunch of demos together and I thought, I want to do a record like this, a record before another Against Me! record. Some record label people were trying to discourage me from that idea, but it stuck with me. The more we got into it, the more we realized [the songs we were writing] were not Against Me! It was the three of us; it was our own thing. We were able to be free in the way you were talking about—I didn’t wanna focus on a back catalogue, on trying to figure out the next step. I just wanted to write some songs and play some shows. Against Me! is still a band and we’re still working on that.
The topic of non-monogamy is touched upon on the record. I don’t think musical relationships should be like that. I think you should be able to play with other people.
That feels true to the spirit of DIY punk communities—go to any city anywhere and it’s likely that musicians in a particular scene are in everybody’s band. You’ve also described the Devouring Mothers project as “a mixtape.” What exactly do you mean by that?
I’ve always loved the physical mixtape. It’s how I did the first Against Me! recordings. I’ve always been fond of the medium. I really got back into them and making them for friends, and that’s what I was doing while we were recording the album and writing the record. That was apparent, musically, in the record because it’s reflective of Mark’s interest, which may be different than why me and Atom are into. I do see that when I listen to the record, so when I hear it, I hear, like, the Danzig reference in one song. That was the approach.
The band name, too, is interesting. I read in Australian Guitar Magazine that it’s a reference to French feminist artist Niki de Saint Phalle, and her “Devouring Mothers”—sculptures meant to challenge the stereotypes of women. In some of her illustrations and books, they’re literal devourers of men, and some men depicted with multiple penises to reflect a super phallic power. In that context, the devouring mother is more powerful than the most powerful dude because she eats the motherfucker. Is that the inspiration?
It is. We were on tour in Spain and went to the Guggenheim in Bilbao and Niki had an exhibit. A whole floor. Watching her videos and listening to her talk in person, I was just fascinated. I picked up her book from the gift shop on my way out and thought, That would make a great band name.
You have a daughter. Does your motherhood appear on this record at all?
The last song on the record, “The Apology Song,” that’s a song for my daughter. Wanting my daughter to know that she’s always enough, no matter what she’s got, and wanting it to be an easy ride for her. As a parent, you’re always terrified you’re fucking everything up. That’s the state of being, and I’m not an exception to that. I have those fears, especially as a touring musician whose gone a lot.
The sequencing, then, is powerful. It comes at the very end.
It’s also a way to apologize before leaving.
There are so many quotable moments on this album, but I think a lot of kids are going to read a mission statement in the first line of the first song, “China Beach”: “Learn to trust yourself/No one else matters/Respect the source/And always welcome failure.” Was that intentional, to come out of the gates swinging?
Yeah, 100 percent. There’s all this stupid pressure when picking the first single off a record, that it’s supposed to somehow encapsulate or represent the record. That was hard for this one, so we went with a song that was a little prettier and maybe fool people into thinking there were 100 songs like that, especially working with a punk-country label, though there’s some of that on the album, too.
That feels like a really writerly choice—to get people into it immediately and then take them on a ride they might not have expected.
I’m big into “you gotta pump yourself up sometimes” songs. If you’re going through a tough period maybe write motivating song, write a manifesto song. Redefine what you’re about right now. I’ll write those songs, and that’s one of them. Those are the things that other great artists have passed down to me. Trust yourself. Trust your instincts. Go with your gut.
There’s certainly room for self-effacing humor on the album, too. “I Hate Chicago” made me straight up laugh, which is a challenging thing for a rock song to do without being unbearably cheesy. I think a band like Pissed Jeans does that really well.
I like them a lot.
Then, of course, is the revelation in you singing: “You caught me, this is actually just another divorce song.” I think it catches the listener off guard. Is funny self-deprecation a natural place for you to go?
That’s probably a coping mechanism for me, a way of existing. When it gets down to it, the song is about being pissed off. But the actual sentiment behind a lot of this isn’t as always cut and dry. Chicago is an interesting place. It’s kind of a fucking jerk. I’ve lived here for five years now and it felt like coming here, maybe it’s coming from the South, but people are really unfriendly. There’s a musicians’ workshop that I go to so I can play guitar really loud—it’s full of musicians—and yesterday I walked through there and said, “Hello, how’s your day going, excuse me, I’m sorry,” to at least six different people ,and none of them said anything back to me. It’s aggressive driving; I spend two hours a day sitting in traffic driving a total of 14 miles. It’s a scary city sometimes.
There’s that sense of wanting to find your place in the world that comes along with traveling. Then, finding yourself in a place where you can say, “Okay, I exist here. I live in Chicago” and feeling at odds with that place... I can’t get up and move—my kid is in school. This is what I’m doing. Fuck you. I have as much right to be here as anyone else. That feeling of being displaced and at odds with your environment is very much a part of being a trans person in general, in the world—taking everyone’s fucking bullshit.
You site Tom Petty as an influence—where and how does your Petty come out?
The first record I ever got was Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever. I was 8 years old. I had a boombox with a CD player in it. When I was 13, I got a Traveling Wilburys electric guitar. It was my first electric guitar. I didn’t know who the Traveling Wilburys. I was just given this guitar. It didn’t play very well. When I was 18, I moved to Gainesville, [Florida] and Gainesville is where Petty and the Heartbreakers were from. Their mark on the city is just there. I had a chance to see them play Gainesville in 2006. It was amazing. Petty has had that influence on my life. I’ve always been a fan. Then when he passed away last year—as a musician, when you hear about any musician passing away, it affects you and you think about it and you take a look at where you’re at and what you’re doing. You take stock. And with Petty, I really did that.
We ended up playing a couple covers in the set each night. I did the math and realized he was doing Full Moon Fever when he was 37 years old, and I was 37 years old at the time. I thought—there’s no reason I can’t do that. You don’t need to break up your band. You can go and do this record and do it with other band members from the Heartbreakers and just write some songs. There are some goofy-ass songs on that album. “Zombie Zoo” is my favorite song on that record, but it’s a goofy ass song. It’s a silly song. It’s that awareness of inhibition that’s so freeing about it. It’s just fun. Fuck it.
In going with the theme of this record, Bought 2 Rot, you accumulate things that initially has so much potential but ends up going to waste. Whether that’s fruits and veggies that you buy at the store, or its other things. I had this guitar, a 1964 Fender Jaguar, that I bought off Stan Lynch from the Heartbreakers when I was living in Gainesville. It’s a beautiful guitar. You can tell he never played it. It was pristine. I was afraid to play it, so I just kept it in a case under my bed. I never did anything with it until Petty died. Then I played it all the time and it sounded really good, and I thought, It could’ve been on Full Moon Fever. And it could’ve been! It was one of their guitars! It was just sitting there wanting to be played—it was a drummer’s guitar, which makes it like Michael Jordan’s baseball career. It wants to be Michael Jordan’s basketball career. Eventually I was like, that’s the guitar for the record.
Is that where the title Bought 2 Rot came from? I thought it was an explicit criticism of American greed. The album cover is a dilapidated K-Mart. Nothing says life under late capitalism like shuttered chain stores.
Yes, the smallest scale being those fruits and veggies to the scale of a huge, abandoned K-Mart that could be used for anything, something good for the community but is, instead, rotting. That’s America right now: just fucking rotting and going to waste because of stupidity. That K-Mart in particular is close to where the record was recorded, by one grocery store we used to go to once a week. We’d always walk through the parking lot, starring at this fucking K-Mart. Nothing defines American decline like this fucking K-Mart. Growing up, we shopped at K-Mart and remember the stigma that came with wearing K-Mart shoes when you’re a teenager and shit like that. I find it haunting.
In preparing for this conversation, I found myself thinking about a somewhat infamous thing Kathleen Hanna says about what Bikini Kill fans ask her at events. Essentially, she’ll get a lot of women coming up to her and sharing something fucked up and traumatic, and she’ll find herself trying to console the person—or, at the very least, attempting to leave them with something meaningful to consider. But with the sheer amount of people doing that, she runs the risk of becoming a “feminist Barbie” or “Xena the Warrior fucking Princess,” almost a parody of herself. In the six years since coming out as trans, I’m wondering if have you found yourself feeling similarly. You’re so vocal and proactive in the trans community; I’m wondering if there’s a balancing act inherent in doing the work, continuing to do the work and also avoiding the limitations of folks treating you like a poster child for trans punks. Does that make sense?
That totally makes sense. And it’s hard to navigate. Oftentimes, you’ll meet someone when you’re playing a show around the venue or doing a signing at a record store or some context like that. It’s really public. People want to try and take a picture with you. In that environment, for someone to lay something super heavy on you... I am a sensitive person. As a friend, if someone tells me something terrible that’s happened to them, or something terrible that they’re going through, my natural instinct is concern and to process that. If someone tells you they’re in need, my first thought is, How can I help this person? In that context, you can’t. There’s nothing you can do. It’s a lot to put on a person. Especially if drinking is involved, it takes a lot.
There’s other issues I have on my own like social anxiety and being in crowded rooms with people, loud noises—as a musician, I have hearing loss, fucking playing in punk bands for 25 years. The majority of my early years, I didn’t wear ear plugs. If I’m in a crowded place and someone’s talking to me and they’re very close to me, I can’t hear them that well. And if they’re super close to me, I can’t handle that. I have personal boundaries, too. Those are issues that you try to get around.
At the same time, you do make beautiful connections. I have had people come up to me and share things with me that have meant a lot that could’ve been overbearing in other contexts, but for whatever reason was right then. That happens, too. I’m human. I’m not perfect. I use art as a way to survive. I’m lucky in all those ways. I want to help people as much as I can and that has its limitations. They need to recognize that.