Laura Jane GracePhoto by Chris Bauer, courtesy of Clarion Call
Laura Jane Grace reflected upon an early moment of The Carousel Tour, which began just last week. The tour features Against Me!’s frontwoman sharing a bill with friends and fellow punk rock veterans Anthony Green and Tim Kasher and is slated for a stop at White Oak Music Hall Sunday, May 15. The moment Grace pondered during our phone chat was also a bit of a metaphor for the nervous excitement she and her tour mates are experiencing as they return to the road, a place where all sorts of magic can happen.
“Last night, one of the most incredible moments happened in Chicago where Anthony literally asked a kid in the crowd to come up on stage and just gave him his guitar and asked him if he knew a song and the kid started playing and Anthony sang along. And the kid nailed it!” she said, seemingly still astonished. “It was just one of those moments when you’re holding your breath waiting for disaster to happen, waiting for it to all fall apart, and then it doesn’t. And it’s beautiful.
“As Anthony put it on stage last night, you’ve got to be prepared. When that moment happens, when the door opens, you’ve just got to walk through the door and have faith,” she said, talking about that specific moment but maybe also about resuming shows for live audiences, too. “Just trying to create an environment where unexpected things can happen and magic can happen is really pretty wild.”
It’s the sort of moment fans have missed and musicians like Grace, Green and Kasher have longed for over the pandemic’s slowdown. Presenting music to crowds is important to these acts and they all have new music to share. Grace released two solo projects recently, 2020’s critically hailed Stay Alive and a 2021 EP titled At War With The Silverfish. Kasher, also of Cursive and The Good Life, dropped new music last month, a solo album titled Middling Age. Green, who is lead singer for Circa Survive, Saosin and The Sound of Animals Fighting, presented his first collection of children’s music last year. That EP's got the perfect title and notion for kids’ music. It’s called Let’s Start a Band.
Some of the fun of being in a band is the togetherness of touring, something Grace has done since Against Me! bowed 25 years ago. She’s toured with the group, her side project The Devouring Mothers and as a solo artist. But, she admits starting this tour feels a bit different.
“You know, if we had been having this conversation two years ago I would have been like, yeah, I don’t have any anxiety before going on tour but this is the first proper month-long tour since COVID hit and it’s kind of astonishing really how much re-learning is involved, and that’s down to small things like realizing I’ve packed way too much stuff in my suitcase or just feeling like my whole pre-show routine is thrown off and re-learning how to do it all,” she said. “This particular tour is a really unique tour in that it’s me and Anthony Green and Tim Kasher and then we brought our friends Megan Siebe and Alex Kerns. Megan plays bass and cello and Alex plays drums, they’re kind of accompanying each of us onstage.
“All of us are riding in a bus together. Some of us have known each other a little bit over the years, like me and Tim have toured together before, but it definitely has the feeling of an episode of MTV’s The Real World where all of a sudden we’re thrown into a bus living together, finding out what happens when eight strangers are picked to live in a loft and start getting real.
“It’s been pretty amazing,” she reported once we’d shared a laugh over this analogy. “It’s been really inspiring.”
“The tour itself was Tim’s idea really and Tim asked me if I’d be into it and then I suggested that we ask Anthony. Each of us has our own defined set,” she said and noted that each leg of the tour also features an opener. In Houston, it’s Florida emo folk act Home is Where. “But, within our sets, each of us will come up and do songs with each other and Alex and Megan will accompany and play along, too. And, we’ve just kind of been figuring that out as we go, where on the spot each night someone will be like, ‘Hey, do you want to do this song tonight?’ and then someone else will be like, ‘Oh, that’d be rad. Can I join you on that song?’”
We suggested that shows a level of trust and friendship the tour mates share and Grace agreed that they are friends and do trust each other, primarily because of all the experience each tour member has playing live shows. But she also believes it’s okay to try a new model for live music now.
“Really, coming out of the pandemic, I don’t want to just go back to the way it was, you know? I wanna approach things in a different way, so that means being uncomfortable. That means having that sense of ‘this could fall apart,’” she offered. “That unknown is a good thing and it gives you the space to learn and to grow and to become something new and to figure it out as you go along. And that’s exciting. That speaks to the true heart of rock and roll, spontaneity and creating in the moment and seeing what happens and having fun with it.”
Grace is speaking from experience, from her history coming out as transgender and becoming an icon in the LGBTQ community. Her willingness to grow has made her an accomplished activist, author and musician. Lately, she’s become a member of the Recording Academy, the group which oversees the Grammys.
“I’m a regional mayor of the Recording Academy, which is mind-blowing to say,” she laughed. “Yeah, I am a mayor. Mayor Grace.”
She said she respects the Academy’s attempts to create diversity and new energy and believes efforts to be more inclusive will benefit the Recording Academy and its artists on the whole. Maybe the notion of “Mayor Grace” led us to ask about any traditional political aspirations she may have. Or, maybe it’s because she’s headed to Texas and spent formative time in Florida, two states introducing legislation targeting gender identity and sexual orientation. Could she see herself one day in a conventional political position?
“I don’t know. I think it’s a really interesting question,” she said. “I think that also, for all the reasons you talked about with Texas, and even pointing to Beto O’Rourke and his connections to the punk scene, it may seem like it’s not that wild of a question. It’s not that far off if someone who used to hang out with At The Drive-In and played with bands with those people could go on to hold political office.
“I don’t know. I’m not the type of person who pretends to have the answers. I more so really enjoy asking questions and also I’m appreciative of having a platform, but I’m also really grateful for opportunities to lend that platform to other people and let them speak,” she continued. “I see the ultimate value in music having a political message. I don’t think that music or artists should be apolitical. I think the artist’s role is to be reflective of where society is at or to be a part of that discourse and that if music isn’t saying something or if your art isn’t saying something, what’s the point, really? It’s like trying to find that balance between acknowledging that you don’t necessarily know all the answers while at the same time trying to say something.”
Despite the current attempts to turn the dial back on progressive gender identity strides in Texas, Grace said “I have nothing but love for Texas, I lived in Texas when I was a kid. I grew up in the Fort Hood, Killeen area, I lived there like four years, my dad was stationed there.”
And, she’s a fan of its punk music. She said some nice things about Houston's own Days N Daze (full disclosure: author's son is in that band) and shared the secret that she’s recently worked with Austin's A Giant Dog on new songs. She said she considers Sabrina Ellis “the best vocalist/frontperson in punk rock or rock and roll right now.”
“There’s good people everywhere,” she said. “That’s kind of even the messed up thing, I believe the majority of people are good and that’s it’s a minority of people, the assholes out there, that are making it hard for everyone else.”
Grace’s interest in people and inquisitive nature has led her to opportunities to do some interviewing over her career. She did some journalism for AOL Originals in 2014 and more recently we were big fans of her sit-down with We Are the Union's Reade Wolcott for Vans. If she could choose to be interviewer or subject, which would she choose at this point in her career?
“It depends. Honestly, a conversation with someone like yourself, it’s great. Because it feels like a real conversation and it’s not the same questions,” she said and reminded that she has actually written a memoir that’s covered many of those “same questions.” “I definitely do like asking questions of other people and letting them speak.”
What would she ask herself? If Laura Jane Grace was both interviewer and interviewee, what’s the one question she’d ask? Her answer brought us full circle to the tour and this present time, with its residual uncertainty and anxiety but also all its hope and promise.
“I guess I kind of do interview myself every morning, where I wake up and I say, ‘What happens next?’ And I never know the answer. That’s a pretty okay thing.”
Laura Jane Grace joins Anthony Green and Tim Kasher for The Carousel Tour, Sunday May 15, 2022 at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 N. Main. With Home is Where. Doors at 6 p.m. for this all ages standing room only show in White Oak’s downstairs hall. $25-$30.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.