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Punk band Against Me! to perform in Fargo after lineup change, lead singer’s transition to being a woman

Punk rock band Against Me!, (from left to right) Inge Johansson, James Bowman, Laura Jane Grace and Atom Willard, will perform Wednesday at the Aquarium in downtown Fargo Ryan Russell / Special to The Forum

FARGO - Atom Willard wasn’t quite sure what he was getting into when he joined Against Me! in January 2013.

Willard, 40, built his reputation as a solid drummer in groups like Rocket from the Crypt, The Special Goodness, The Offspring, Angels & Airwaves and Social Distortion, but didn’t know how he’d be accepted by die-hard supporters of Against Me! when he replaced Jay Weinberg. Longtime bassist Andrew Seward also left last year, replaced by Inge Johannson, meaning the band’s rhythm section is all new.

“There are very few casual fans of the band,” which makes a stop Wednesday at The Aquarium in Fargo. “It seems that everybody is very invested and very excited.”

Then, too, was the question of how singer-songwriter Tom Gabel’s transition to a woman named Laura Jane Grace would be accepted after she first revealed herself as a transgender person in 2012.

After joining, Willard and the new lineup recorded the band’s sixth studio album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” which was released Jan. 21.

Instead of finding controversy or a waning fan base, something that might have been expected with this big shift, Willard said the band has instead received encouragement, critical acclaim and acknowledgment of Grace’s status as a trailblazer.

“It’s almost surprising how easy it’s been in terms of gaining support and having longtime fans be right there with us,” he said. “I think that the fact that her voice hasn’t changed, and isn’t going to change, that’s most people’s hesitation, if any. I think that’s something that we all hold dear as Against Me! fans, because I was definitely a fan before I was a member.”

Indeed, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” certainly is still an Against Me! record with the same sound and style that earned Gabel, and now Grace, an international following since 1997.

Against Me! first announced it was working on its sixth studio album in late 2011, but the tracks that members put down were scrapped for tours. Just as that album was nearing completion – the only thing left to do was record vocals – former drummer Weinberg left the band, and they decided to start over again when Willard joined.

That final recording process began in February 2013 and completed that June.

At first, Willard said he had to carry out previous commitments to other bands, which was why he didn’t tour heavily with Against Me! during his early tenure. But he’s been a full-time member since last September, and said he was still able to help the “pretty established” new songs evolve into their current form in the recording studio and on tour.

“In many ways, it’s a different record than what they had previously began recording,” he said. “It would not have ended up like this had they completed it in 2012 when they were initially doing it.”

Willard “couldn’t be happier” with the final product, and said it’s an exciting record to have worked on.

“It’s something that I’m really proud of, and I’m proud to be a part not only because of the music and everything, but also standing right next to Laura Jane Grace as she moves forward in the world and her transition and everything associated with that,” he said. “It’s an exciting thing, and something that we’re all proud to be a part of.”

Grace would never label herself as a trailblazer, but Willard said the label fits – she’s clearing a path for others to follow, he said.

“She is definitely setting a great example for people, young, old, whatever, across the music community, and as fans and musicians that there’s a way to be happy with yourself and there’s a way to get there,” he said. “You just need to have the courage to do it.”

Grace is currently finishing a book about her experience, and also is wrapping on an original AOL series that documents her transition.

Against Me!, too, has high hopes for the near future, Willard said. The band is recording all of the shows on its current tour, including its Fargo stop at the Aquarium on Wednesday, and will release a live record early next year.

The new lineup also is discussing its next record, and he said there are plenty of new ideas that could make it to an album sooner than later.

“The time that was between (2010’s) ‘White Crosses’ and ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues,’ that was much longer than the gap that will be between the next full-length record,” he said.

For now, Willard said the band is focused on delivering the high-energy shows it’s always been known for, even if things have changed.

“That’s definitely the approach is to have as good of a time in as short of a time as possible,” he said. “We’re going to do 70 minutes of extreme fun.”

IF YOU GO WHAT: Against Me! with openers Creepoid and Venus De Mars

WHEN: 9 p.m. Wednesday; doors open at 8 p.m.

WHERE: The Aquarium, 226 Broadway N., Fargo

INFO: Tickets for this 21+ show are $20; available at, the Tickets300 box office, Sickies Garage or by calling (866) 300-8300

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson has been a Forum reporter since 2012 and previously wrote for the Grand Forks Herald.

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