In the past decade and a half, Atom Willard has drummed for numerous bands, but most notably, Rocket from the Crypt, The Offspring, Angels & Airwaves, and since 2013, for Against Me! While Willard’s musical resume is long, he says this one really feels like home. Against Me! is wrapping up the last leg of their tour 2016 spring/summer tour, which includes a few shows in Canada, including tonight’s show in Toronto. In our new interview, Willard discusses Against Me’s forthcoming new album, LGBTQ education, how wild Canadian shows are, and more!
You becoming a part of Against Me! happened pretty quickly and naturally. It seems as if it all just kind of fell into place. After the Australia shows, you were right into the studio recording Transgender Dysphoria Blues. How would you compare that to the transitions into the other bands you’ve worked with?
It was something kind of notable. As you said, it was a pretty quick and pretty natural transition. It felt right. Ultimately that’s what made me make my decision to commit to doing it full-time. It felt really good, not only playing the shows in Australia… I mean I was a fan of the band for years before that happened, so that was just a vacation. It was so much fun to be out there playing those songs with that band. I was like “oh my god, this is so much fun.”
As we were doing it, they started saying “hey, the new songs feel really good, would you want to do the record?” I said “yeah absolutely, that’s an incredible opportunity and there’s a studio near my house in Los Angeles, this is going to be real easy.” So she came to LA and we practiced for two more days just the two of us, then we banged out the record. Working with her in that environment after working in the live environment, I got a feel for what it would be like to be with the band and to work with her on a longer term. It just made sense, everything has panned out in that way too. It just feels pretty natural and organic. Which is really boring, there’s no drama or scandal. I can’t say “oh, we fight all the time and then we make up and it’s great.” It’s kind of boring, but at least it works well.
Yeah, sometimes that can be the most fun too. You don’t always need that fighting all the time to get the emotions going.
Yeah, that’s not my favourite environment.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues holds very closely to a very personal, defining aspect of Laura’s life and you came in for the recording process. How does being a part of all of that feel?
At the time it didn’t weigh in as heavily as it has since. I’ve really listened to vocal cadence and vocal placement and melody more than I listen to lyrics. That’s always been something I’ve done, and to be honest, when I was writing my parts for the record I didn’t completely grasp the tonality of the message until much later. I was hearing the recordings back and was like “oh, shit.” (laughs) It was almost an eye opening experience for me at that point.
Moving forward since, I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of something that has given so many people cause to reach out and talk about their struggles, their issues, the strength that they’ve gotten from seeing us perform these songs, or seeing Laura go through what she’s going through and the way that she does it. The grace and poise, or whatever awesome adjectives you’d like to use. It’s just the way she does it so apparently effortlessly, when I know it’s everything but.
You said it’s your journey as well and it’s of course going to be a different journey for the one taking it first hand and to the ones hand in hand with them. Could you share a bit about your feelings towards it and what the road has been like for you?
It goes back to that last question too. I’m with her constantly and I’m with her in the TSA line when people are disrespectful, I’m there when kids come up and they’re crying, they’re so nervous they can’t even get the words out to tell her how much she’s inspired them. You’re involved on all of these different levels, but at the same time I’m witnessing someone who is easily the most punk motherfucker I’ve ever met. Just going so far against what would be easy, what would be acceptable and what would be… she’s really taken the hard path because it’s something that she has to do and something that she believes in so strongly.
To see that is a reflection of that dedication to doing what’s right and doing what’s important, not only on a political level or an issue level, just personally. That for me is the definition of punk rock. Going against what’s expected because of what you stand for. Far be it for me to feel like I’m anywhere near (laughs)… I try to stand up for what I believe in and all that kind of stuff, but it’s an inspiring environment to be in.
The topic of transgender dysphoria is a very sensitive one, to many people, and it’s also one that has not been publicly touched on for a very long time – especially in the punk scene. Although, Laura is quite the icon. Have you seen any sorts of mixed responses towards the whole thing?
I have to say that at our shows and with our fans, everybody has been really positive. I don’t see anything in the negative realm. On the internet of course when everybody can hide behind their device, or their computer, whatever it is, people can say all kinds of stuff. You see that and you have to take everything with a grain of salt. People are people and people don’t understand, or people are so biased that they’re never going to come around. You can try to educate… I think that that’s the biggest thing that’s missing, a general widespread understanding of LGBTQ in general.
It’s a lack of education, or a lack of true understanding of what is going on here and that it’s a biological thing, it’s not something that you’ve chosen to do. Who would choose to put themselves through such turmoil? It’s education, it’s people that need to learn. They need to be taught about what it means, what it is, and how these individuals feel. But you have to be open to that to learn and a lot of people are closed off. I’m not going to be the one to fucking shove it in your face. Either you want to know, or you don’t want to know, and if you don’t, I don’t give a fuck. (laughs) I don’t have to convince you that is really difficult for millions of people. You go on living in your bubble and do what you’re going to do, it doesn’t bother me. Just don’t vote for Trump.
That box people live in like you were talking about, people are afraid of the unknown and because they don’t know about it or haven’t learnt about it they don’t understand. It’s really too bad.
There’s a follow-up album coming sometime after the tour, which is really exciting. What would you say about the sound? Is it anything like any of Against Me!’s previous records?
It’s done, it’s finished, it’s coming out. Blood sweat and tears. It’ll be in September. It’s a new record, it’s not part two, it’s not anything like that. It’s another Against Me! record and it deals with personal struggle, things that are hard for Laura, and things that are easy for Laura. There’s love songs and there’s hate songs. As far as the sound of it, it’s definitely not our drum and bass debut. It’s not a Mariachi record, it’s an Against Me! record. I love the way it sounds, I love the songs. Everybody always says that about their new record, but I’m excited about it because for me as a fan first and the drummer in the band second, I feel like it’s a bit of an evolution for the band, but it’s a comfortable one. It’s a comfortable step in a slightly new direction, which I think everybody is going to be able to get on board with.
The music they’ve put out over the years has always been very deep, raw, and about things a lot of people have struggled with. Are there any themes that they focused on before you came in that you related with and enjoy getting to play now?
I shy from that term because [when] I think of a theme it’s a woodland creatures costume party, or a batman party. (laughs) It’s like a themed thing. There are strings of sentiment that I can identify with and I think for me it’s always been about no bullshit. Tell me straight. Be honest, be genuine. If it hurts, that’s fine. Just give it to me straight and I feel like Laura has always sung from that point of view, always written from that vantage point where it’s a little less conversation, a little more truth. That whole idea is really the ongoing master mission statement. Don’t sugar coat it, just fucking give it to me straight. I’ll give it to you straight, 100 per cent, every time and hopefully you can deal with that, because if not, it’s going to get ugly. It’s not threatening, it’s not a confrontational thing. Just be truthful with yourself, or with others, just genuine.
I’ve always loved that, like you were saying, she’s always very… blunt I guess would be the best word for it… in her lyrics and songwriting.
Yeah, and it’s funny because there’s that and then there’s all these failed messages of gender dysphoria throughout her career with lyric writing. It’s like “oh, right!” I’m not talking about The Ocean, that one is very blunt. But there’s songs like Pretty Girls, where it’s thinly veiled. You don’t have to pick up on it, there’s lots of different things in there that I think once she came out, people that were connected and really familiar with the lyrics were able to get in touch with everything a lot quicker and easier. It’s been going on a long time and she’s artful in that way, she can sing real pretty. She’s got a real way with words, not me. I sit in the back and spit fire.
Over the years, you’ve been in many bands, beginning with one that you started in at the young age of 18, and progressing to some that even overlapped. How would you compare playing in a band that felt more like your own and joining into established bands like The Offspring, and Against Me!?
I was in Rocket from the Crypt when I was 16 and we went on tour when I was 17 turning 18 and I was in that band for like 10 years. Then I moved on and did different things and did some things more for a job and joining different things where… I love to play the drums, that’s what I love to do. You start doing that in different scenarios and you start to learn that you are playing the drums, but this isn’t exactly what you had in mind, or you miss that aspect of being in a band and not just being a hired person. Those are the kinds of things that have caused me to keep looking for a scenario that checked all my boxes.
Joining Against Me! and feeling that openness of the creative process and having Laura be very open to my ideas, input, and just my involvement on all levels from a pretty early time, it was like “okay yeah, this is a band.” This is people that work hard and work together. You have a leader, you always need a leader, but you don’t need a fucking tyrant, and there’s a difference.
I do feel home in a lot of ways. I feel like musically, the sentiment and feeling behind this band is really on par with what my first band was all about. Dealing with the inner workings and politics of this band is so much more conducive to the members being involved. It’s a band the way you want bands to be. Where this guy does this, this person does that, everyone has a responsibility and everybody fills a gap. It’s not just a monotone, monochromatic thing, where people are filling in the edges.
You’ve said that you’re kind of creating this “new, Atom, James, and Laura version” of the songs that never existed before. That must be pretty cool, almost like refurbishing old material. Would you say that you take a bit from every band you’ve been with into your style, if even inadvertently?
I’m sure there’s some subconscious overlap in there. I can’t really say I would’ve adopted any[thing] specific. You are who you are because of everything you’ve done. There’s nothing I could’ve skipped to get to where I am right now. I wouldn’t do anything differently. If asked again, yeah, there are parts that have been difficult and sucked, but here I am and I’m super stoked and happy right now. I think in every band I’ve brought a lot of myself into those situations. I’ve maintained my drumming aesthetic, if that’s a thing, more so than the bands have imprinted on me, if that’s a thing (laughs). It’s definitely hard to keep your own voice through doing so many different things, but at the same time I am me, hear me roar. I’m also a Leo, so this really works well, the lion reference.
You’re on the road as an official member of the band this time. What was it like being chosen to be their full-time drummer, especially now, touring with material your own hands were in?
The fact that I was involved in [Transgender Dysphoria] Blues, I did write parts, so I felt invested very early on and that definitely helped me commit to being in the band, being involved in that record. You’re going to be playing these songs and supporting this record for the next however long, it’s really nice to be involved on a record and then go on to play the songs. So yeah, I totally know what you’re saying.
Playing these songs now that Laura and I have written together, it’s another level of that. It does feel like a thing that you’re invested in, that you’re a part of, and that you’re proud of. It doesn’t make me play any more or less intently when I’m not doing that, but it definitely gives you a sense of pride and accomplishment when people are dancing to the thing that you were like “I really want it to go this way.” It’s like “fuck, it’s working!” (laughs)
The last leg of your tour includes a few dates over here in Canada. Do you find any difference in playing the states in comparison to here?
I will say that as a whole in general, Canadian shows are pretty energetic. Y’all aren’t really going to hold back. For whatever reason, we’re really not that far away, but it’s like not as many bands come there to these towns. I’m not sure, I can’t imagine that would be the case, but it does feel like you’re almost starved for high energy, good time music. So you come and you play and people are like “aaaaaaah!” Just losing it, it’s so much fun. It’s like going to South America or something and Spain, where you get that feeling of utter, true excitement. People are just so stoked that you’re there playing. Letting go, giving it their all. It’s pretty fun.
Not that the U.S. is a total boring thing. There are certain cities in the U.S. that go off more than others, but you get an overall sense in Canada where everybody’s stoked.
You were talking about how fans come up and they’re overwhelmed with emotion and stuff. Can you think of any that stood out to you? Anything that a fan came up and told you guys or thanked you for?
I don’t want to gloss over anything and not give these few people that this has happened with their due, but I’ll just say that there have been several people come up and say “I was on the brink of suicide and I didn’t feel like I had any way to get across the gap that I saw in front of me. Listening to your record and doing research on your band, finding out everything that was going on, gave me the strength to carry on and I’ve since gone on to do…” It’s that kind of thing [that has] you just take a step back and go “oh, fuck, I just play the drums.” It’s really… I don’t take it lightly.
It’s a really special thing to be a part of and I don’t accept full responsibility, I really don’t. But I do think that as a group and as a whole, we’re showing people what you can accomplish if you just put your head down, work hard, and do what you want to do. I think the people that support someone in a tough time, whether it be that you’re transitioning, coming out to your parents, just trying to figure out what you’re trying to do with your life, overcoming some kind of assault, who knows what people have, because everyone has something different and it’s all important. If you can just be supporting, a lot of the time my level of support is showing up and being invested and involved on a level where I’m passionate about what I’m doing, that shows support and that lends some kind of strength to everybody involved. Or so I’d like to think.
Even in the earlier stuff, there’s a lot of references. Some blatant, some underlying, about drug issues, and I think that spoke out a lot even before this.
Yeah. You get these people that come up and it’s hard for them to share as well, I don’t take that lightly. It’s a difficult thing to tell me “I’ve realized I was raped as a child from this age to this age and I blocked it out, but I’ve never been able to get close to anybody…” You’re like holy shit, we’re going deep. The fact that they have that need to share that with you tells you that you’ve really made an impression on them. That you’ve really helped them through a dark time, because you don’t just let that out for everybody.
It’s interesting too, because a lot of people talk about changing the world and it kind of shows that you really can do that, even in smaller ways, with music.
Yeah, it’s like, “what difference can I make?” I don’t know that you’re going to change too many people’s minds, but if you change one person’s mind about something that was going to affect them for the rest of their life, whether they knew it or not, that’s a thing. It’s worth even just striving for that, on every different level. I get so many people that come up and say “you’re the reason I want to play the drums and that I got my first drum set.” That’s awesome! That rules! What a great thing to hear. You didn’t even know that you wanted to do that, but then you watched me play and you got excited, holy shit you’ve got a talent. You can do that and you maybe would’ve never gone down that path otherwise. That’s a thing too. That’s the more fun talk than the super heavy dark one, but I like to have all of them.
This interview can also be found on Aesthetic Magazine’s website.