Last winter, isolated and iced-in several months into the pandemic in her North Side Chicago abode, Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace bonded with her neighbors, an experience that helped inform a series of new songs.
“All of our driveways in the back were iced in and I literally was out there with two of my neighbors for a good three or four hours with a crowbar just smashing ice and scooping it down this alley,” Grace tells Rolling Stone, adding that they all worked in silence, as if alone. “But then the next morning, when I saw them, they were like, ‘Hey,'” she says, laughing. “And that was it. It was an acknowledgment. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m in. I’m respected by my neighbors because I broke ice with a fucking crowbar for three hours.'”
That fateful meeting, in part, helped kickstart her new surprise EP, At War With the Silverfish, which dropped Wednesday — specifically on the rollicking new song “Long Dark Night,” where a sense of place and monotony merge into inspiration. And it didn’t end there. Frozen in place for months, in the middle of a pandemic, daily rituals as mundane as her morning wakeup took on new resonance, as evidenced in the darkly humorous “Day Old Coffee.”
Being home also found Grace thinking back over her history, memories both painful and joyous finding their way into her music. “They’re kind of like those odds and ends inner voices inside your head as you’re spending a year and a half inside of your apartment,” she says. “You have a lot of time to think back and reflect on things and miss people and everything like that. And then there’s madness that generates, too.”
Grace can’t remember a last kiss in “Smug FuckFace,” but fondly recalls one in “Yesterday Pt. II”; meanwhile, she contemplates the fleeting days of youth while rejoicing in friendship on “Electro-Static Sweep.”
The Against Me! frontwoman recorded the EP partly at her home studio, TinyQuiet, and at Electric Eel in St. Louis, Missouri; her Devouring Mothers bandmate Marc Hudson also recorded some of the tracks and mixed the EP. Having a home studio gave Grace immediate access to laying down tracks whenever the muse struck her.
The immediacy of being able to record also filtered into her recent approach to releasing music, where planning ahead can be futile. Grace, who recently delivered a Trump-mocking set at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, has been tentatively performing live — something she has sorely missed when things shut down — but things remain precarious. She currently has a smattering of U.S. shows booked through December. “It feels all so uncertain, so jarringly uncertain,” she says. “And I really try to not get excited about things because I don’t want to be disappointed if they do get canceled, you know, and I’m just trying to like take it a day at a time.”
Grace spoke to Rolling Stone about keeping up momentum in an uncertain world, how she stayed grounded amid the chaos, and the next Against Me! album.
This is the second project you’ve created in the midst of the pandemic [the follow-up to 2020’s Stay Alive] — and it’s your second surprise album in as many years. Why this model?
You want, obviously, to make art that’s timeless and will last and everything like that, but also at the same time, as an artist, you feel a sense of immediacy of: “Oh, I just created this thing I’d really like to share it with you.”
My inner nature is to want that, not like, “Oh, I just created this thing and now I’m gonna wait a year to share it with you” — like that just sucks, you know? Especially now… it’s not like you can line up the tour schedule for the record, either… Doing it the old way just doesn’t really seem to make sense [versus] doing it in a way where you’re sharing as you go and then hoping that that all cumulatively adds up to momentum down the line, where everything will line up.
Was the approach to making the album immediate as well? It sounds very now, like pandemic fatigue was setting in while you were working.
As a songwriter, I push myself to keep writing songs — even if it’s not for a specific purpose — as a way to stay grounded and stay feeling productive because it’s something that I can do pretty much in any situation. So during a pandemic where the rest of your life is gone, right, that was a grounding thing to grab on to.
But then at the same time, I really didn’t wanna write about the pandemic, you know? I didn’t want to sit down and try to write “these swing for the fences [songs], and this is the song that’s gonna like solve the pandemic!” It wasn’t like that, either. It was just like: This song made sense to me and I know the meaning behind it. And then kind of realizing then, too — as you’ve been accumulating songs over such a unique period of time that — well, in order to move on, I just want to do something with these songs.
Do you have insomnia? A lot of these songs felt like they came from late-night reminiscing.
Yeah, and especially even relating to the title… silverfish eat books, they eat records… and I have a very large vinyl collection; I have a large book collection. So silverfish are these insects that I’ll every once in a while see scurry across the floor and then I’m like, “All right I need more cedar chips… How do I get rid of these silverfish?”
But you spend a year and a half locked inside of your apartment and, I don’t know, they became a metaphor in a way. You know, songs are only about like two or three things ever, right? Love songs dominate the world, right? And if you’re in a year where you’re basically not living, you’re inside your apartment, it’s then only going to be natural that you’re thinking back to your past adventures, past lives, past things that happened and then to feel in ways that it’s slipping away, that you feel the decay that’s eating away at your memories.
And you’re like, “Wait, how did that happen again?” Or, “Wait, when was the last time I saw you?” Or like, “Wait, how did it all go down?” You feel like you’re battling to hold on with that, right or wrong. I feel like that. And that plays into insomnia, too. There’s late nights up where you’re haunted by the memory of something and what do you do with that? I tend to write songs with that.
You recorded at home, but how did St. Louis end up being in the mix?
I found a studio spot there and I’m taking a chance on this studio spot and trying to get something going for the next Against Me! record, for whatever the next record record is. It used to belong to Jay Farrar from Son Volt. It had been sitting empty, so I just kind of stumbled into it, like I needed a change from Chicago.
I was freaking the fuck out here and so saw the opportunity to go there and I had this Audible project that I just finished that just came out recently that I recorded there. And so after we did the Audible project, I just jumped right into this and that was kind of the first thing that happened there. After a year and a half of not really being able to turn up an amp inside my apartment, I needed a space where I can go to and be as loud as fucking possible whenever I want.
What are your plans coming up for Against Me!? You mentioned potentially recording Against Me! in St. Louis?
That’s the hope that we’re moving into now. It’s been tough. Being in something that’s moving, moving, moving for 20 years to then have it come to a complete stop, it takes a second to get going again. And with everyone being in different places, we needed a place where we can meet up, make it happen, so that’s kind of what I’m hoping to be moving into now.
I’m glad that you’re so prolific right now. It’s good to see people who aren’t fully shutting down during all of this.
Right on! I’m going to go back to lying on the floor now and just curl up in a ball and cry, but, yeah!