Atom Willard has drummed for the Offspring, Rocket from the Crypt, Social Distortion and Angels & Airwaves. But he's found his home -- and a new spirit since he began pounding the skins for Against Me!
Much of that spirit, Willard said, comes from the band's followers, who are known to leap on stage and join singer/guitarist Laura Jane Grace for part of a song and always pack the venues where it plays.
“The one thing about this band that’s unique is the fans are so incredibly die hard,” Willard said. “You have very little ambivalence. People show up because they love it, really love it, or they walk away hating it. I’m sure it’s mostly the former. But sometimes somebody might get dragged to the show and not know anything about us. They could hate us. But most of the time we can win people over in one show.”
Willard, who joined Rocket from the Crypt at 16 and stayed in the band for a decade, joined up with Against Me! in January 2013, a fill-in drummer for an Australian tour.
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“It was kind of love at first sight,” Willard said. “We clicked right away on so many levels. That initial tour I did with them in Australia really clicked. Then I went into the studio with them to make the record. That was another level of fun, another level of clicking. Then everything was going so good, Laura asked if I wanted to join the band. Yes, I did. Very much.”
The album Willard recorded with Against Me! is “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” a collection of songs that are rooted in Grace’s transition from male to female. Tom Gabel, the band’s singer and lyricist, came out as transgender in 2012, and began living as a woman and became Laura Jane Grace.
By that time, Against Me! was already established as one of the better bands on the punk scene. Originally formed as a solo act by Gabel/Grace in 1997, Against Me! evolved into a full band for the 2001 album, “Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose.”
Four more albums followed, and the group’s previous release, 2010’s “White Crosses,” became its highest charting album when it reached number 34 on “Billboard’” magazine’s all-genre Top 200 album chart. Then came Gabel’s announcement that he was becoming Laura Jean Grace, a move to start the band’s own record label, Total Treble Music, and the start of work on “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.”
The hormone therapy drugs Grace is taking don’t change her voice. So she and the band sound the same on the record -- and live -- as they have in the past. But the group’s current live set contains plenty of “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” material.
“We do play a lot of songs off the new record, maybe a third of the set or a fourth,” Willard said. “But we cover everything. There are songs from the whole life of the band that people want to hear.”
Those shows are tight, loud affairs with the four band members (bassist Inge Johansson and guitarist James Bowman, who are the other musicians) playing off each other as if they’d been together for decades, Willard said.
“In such a short time, it’s incredible to think we do work so well together,” he said. “It’s an anomaly for me. We’ve been together for such a short time, but I can look at Laura on the songs where things can move and know just where she’s going to go. The same with James (Bowman). Everything flows on stage. It may not be what anyone is expecting, but it comes together.”
The group’s live chemistry is being documented on a concert album, “Live Sex Acts,” that arrives on Sept. 4, a 23-song set culled from the group’s 2014 shows in support of “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.”
That kind of onstage cohesiveness continues when the spotlights and amplifiers are turned off.
“The cool thing about this situation is it’s truly a band,” Willard said. “Laura and James have gotten to the point where everybody’s included in everything. Everybody gets together on the ideas, on the decisions, from the songs we play to what the t-shirts are going to look like. That’s kind of situation you want to be in.”
For Willard, the biggest difference between being in Against Me! and the other bands he’s been in is geographic. All his other groups have been Southern California based and made up of Southern Californians.
“I’m the only one from California now. Laura’s in Chicago, James is here in New York,” said Willard, who was walking through Times Square on his way to Rockefeller Center during the interview. “Our bass player lives in Norway and he’s from Sweden. Try to figure that out.”
So the only time you’re together is when you’re in the studio or on the road?
“So it’s all the time,” Willard said. “Some of that has been in Europe. But mostly, we’ve been circling these United States and making rock music. And there’s no end in sight.”
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Ace of Spades, 1417 R St., Sacramento