On her new solo record Hole in My Head, the folk-punk singer and Against Me! founder gets back to basics: her voice and her guitar against the world.
Laura Jane Grace’s schedule from last December through the first month of the new year was, to put it gently, busy. She performed with Dinosaur Jr. at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, then spent some time in the studio working on a top-secret cover project. She got married in Las Vegas, and flew to Mississippi for a week of recording with Drive-By Truckers’ Matt Patton. She hopped up to Memphis for Lucero Family Christmas, then played solo dates in St. Louis, Denver, Omaha, Minneapolis, and Lawrence, Kansas. In early January, she performed at a star-studded fundraiser in Wisconsin before jetting to Greece for a string of solo shows. Grace doesn’t take the intensity for granted. Over her 25 years as a professional musician, she’s learned the value of momentum.
“When things are moving, just keep moving,” she says. “I’m not trying to jinx anything, but I’m really looking forward to this year, and the future.
”Grace, who is best known for fronting iconic punk band Against Me!, has spent a good piece of the past four years trying to get her momentum back—the sort of energy that feels like a trademark for the singer and guitarist. Since she was a teen, her life has revolved around the seasons of music work: writing, recording, promoting, touring, repeat. Against Me! was three shows into a tour leg when the Covid pandemic slammed the brakes on that 20-year routine, and emotionally, Grace went flying through the windshield.
“My world was just completely turned upside down and shaken around,” she says. Since 2012, she had built her off-the-road life in an apartment in Chicago, but a shift in her personal life meant she had to split her time between there and St. Louis. There were some benefits: Grace couldn’t crank her amps in her apartment, and finding spare private space to play and record would be cheaper in St. Louis than Chicago. She found a studio there called Native Sound, which used to belong to Son Volt’s Jay Farrar, nested above a bar in downtown St. Louis. “I was like, ‘Shit, if Jay can make that work, so can I,’” says Grace.
Laura Jane Grace - "Birds Talk Too"
“When things are moving, just keep moving. I’m not trying to jinx anything, but I’m really looking forward to this year, and the future.”
That studio is where Grace recorded Hole in My Head, her third solo record, which was released on February 16. It’s a lean, uncomplicated folk-punk joyride. Though the opening, title track jolts the LP to life with a full-band punk-rock crush of melody, harmony, and abandon, the rest of the album is primarily about Grace’s vocal cords and her acoustic guitar. “I’m Not a Cop,” a fuzzy, crust-punk, doo-wop ditty, mashes together Modern Lovers’ off-kilter tone with a ’50s rock ’n’ roll shuffle. Then, “Dysphoria Hoodie” pares it back to just Grace and her acoustic for an ode to a baggy Adidas sweater—her greatest protector on days when she doesn’t want the world sussing her gender. Drums and a gritty electric check in again on the short, sweet firecracker “Birds Talk Too,” but otherwise, it’s all acoustic, propped up by a handful of bass lines and some good old handclaps, a tambourine, and shakers for percussion. Why did Grace pull back from years of full-band chaos?
“I mean this in the best way possible, but this record’s coming from a place of fear,” Grace explains. “Fear challenges you and makes you grow, and takes you out of your comfort zone. I think artists are most prolific and do their best work when they’re coming from a place of survival.”
Hole in My Head’s cover art, captured by Dave Decker and illustrated by Annie Walter, shows Grace behind the State Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. The recognizable cobblestones remind Grace of being a teen, doing “deviant shit” in that very alley with friends.
Entering her 40s in 2020, Grace was back in survival mode, a familiar place for her as a teen in Gainesville, Florida. Longtime fans will know this story well: After moving around the world with her family, Grace landed in the inland college town, a military brat turned anarchist punk. Between benders and doing “deviant shit” with friends, she started performing solo as Against Me!, with just an acoustic and her powerful, pitch-perfect roar. She played alone in dives up and down the panhandle before Against Me! solidified into a band. (Even then, their first recordings were as DIY as you can get: Original drummer Kevin McMahon played a bucket drum on the first two Against Me! EPs, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it makes an appearance on their first full-length, the now-iconic Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose.)
“I think artists are most prolific and do their best work when they’re coming from a place of survival.”
Against Me! went on to sign with a major label and release two hi-fi punk-rock records, both produced by Butch Vig: 2007’s New Wave spawned their biggest hit with “Thrash Unreal,” and 2010’s White Crosses dipped further into arena-rock waters, an anarcho-Springsteen hybrid. This era famously cost Against Me! a good chunk of their earliest supporters, who felt burned by the band’s “selling out.” Their van’s tires were slashed on tour, and Grace was cussed out on plenty of occasions. But the band cut things off with corporate and went independent again for 2014’s scrappy Transgendered Dysphoria Blues, the first Against Me! record that explicitly detailed Grace’s experience as a trans woman.
That was 10 years ago. It’s as if Grace hit some uncanny peak with the major-label signing, and has since been slowly retracing her steps back to her crust-punk origins: After two solo records accompanied by her backing band, the Devouring Mothers, she’s back to just a voice and a guitar.
Laura Jane Grace's Gear
With Against Me!, Grace ascended from crust-punk streetnik to major-label star. But after two corporate records, the band went rogue again.
Photo by Tim Bugbee
- 1963 Fender Jaguar
- Rickenbacker 370
- Yamaha LJ16
- Fender Twin Reverb
- Rickenbacker TR7
Strings & Picks
- Ernie Ball Everlast Coated Acoustic (.010–.050)
- Ernie Ball Regular Slinky (.010–.046)
- Dunlop Tortex Standard .66 mm picks
Other similarities appeared over the last few years, as if some cosmic clock had been reset and she were back at square one. As a kid, she had spent summers and winters going up to Missouri, where her father lived. She always hated it, and this current era, where that state came back into her life, offered a chance to reconcile with the past. She decided to start working on music again on her own to minimize the risk of greater financial losses—if one week of solo shows got canceled, it would just mean she personally was put out, rather than four band members and five crew. But after decades of touring with a group, going back to just six strings and a voice—something she’d not done on a regular basis since her teens—took some finessing. “You feel afraid in the same ways, but again, a healthy fear,” she says.
“If the whole house burns down, if I can make it out with my acoustic guitar, worst-case scenario I’ll be busking on a street corner and hoping people throw change into the guitar case—but I can feed myself.”
“It’s an exercise in self-reliance,” she continues, “and it’s a comfort to always have that there. That’s what I think is beautiful about the acoustic guitar, is that you’re stripping it down to the bare minimum, and I know, ‘Okay, as long as I have that, I’m okay. If the whole fuckin’ house burns down, if I can make it out with my acoustic guitar, worst-case scenario I’ll be busking on a street corner and hoping people throw change in to the guitar case—but I can feed myself. That’s a comforting feeling. Those barebones tools as an artist; that’s self-reliance and that gives you self-confidence and self-esteem, and then you build from there.
”Plus, just like the modest recordings of early classic rock ’n’ roll songs, Hole in My Head never feels wanting in its simplicity. Grace notes that we don’t listen to Buddy Holly or Dion’s “The Wanderer” and wish there were more modern flourishes or a more discernible kick drum. The aesthetic works, and since she was going it mostly alone, it’s what Grace chased.
When it comes to acoustics, Grace prizes one criterion above all: Does it break strings?
Photo by Travis Shinn
Her coconspirator on the record wound up being Matt Patton, mentioned earlier, who provided bass and backing vocals for six songs. Grace had never met Patton before when he drove from Mississippi up to St. Louis in February 2023 for the sessions—X, then Twitter, brought them together in a moment of “total kismet,” says Grace. The two became fast friends, and Grace says the connection with Patton is her most cherished part of the album. “He took a total chance coming to St. Louis,” she says. “His contribution is immeasurable.” Patton returned the favor last December, hosting Grace for some sessions at his Water Valley, Mississippi studio.
“Those places that people refer to as ‘shithole’ cities, or the places where no one wants to be, I have this natural urge inside of me…. I’m like, ‘I dunno, maybe I want to go there.’”
Grace and Patton worked with engineer David Buzzbee at Native Sound, and Grace brought along four guitars to get the job done. Her all-black Yamaha LJ16 was—and still is—her acoustic of choice, a guitar with which she says she shares “a total soul connection. When it comes down to acoustic guitars, the thing that I’m most concerned about onstage is, ‘Does it stay in tune and does it break strings?’” she says. “That thing does not break strings, so I fucking love that guitar.”
Her 1963 Fender Jaguar and ’70s silver-panel Twin Reverb—both of which she bought off of original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch—were in regular rotation, as was a handpainted Gretsch gifted to Grace from her longtime tattoo artist. Her signature blackout Rickenbacker 370 can be heard on the record, too. But no pedals at all were used, and the low-rent grit of “Hole in My Head” was coaxed not from Grace’s Twin, but from a Rickenbacker TR7, a dinky solid-state 1x10 amp. Grace remarks that she’s obsessed with making records with tiny amplifiers these days. “Maybe it’s cause the studio was upstairs, and I’m like, ‘Fuck, I don’t wanna carry a big amp upstairs,’” she chuckles.
Grace loves her new part-time homebase of St. Louis, Missouri, even though it’s not exactly a prime destination. That’s part of the appeal.
Photo by Tim Bugbee
Over a year on from her introduction to the city, Grace now feels a fairly legitimate affection for St. Louis. Unlike Chicago, which always overwhelmed her, St. Louis is manageable: You can get just about anywhere you need to be in 15 minutes, and rents haven’t spiked to unlivable levels the way they have in other cities. Grace fell in love with the city by bar-hopping, starting with the Whiskey Ring, right under Native Sound. Grace is sober, but that made bar-hopping all the more doable. She could slug nonalcoholic beers, then drive to check out another corner of town.
St. Louis is an underdog city, which endears it to Grace. “Those places that people refer to as ‘shithole’ cities, or the places where no one wants to be, I have this natural urge inside of me that if I hear someone talking about a place like that, I’m like, ‘I dunno, maybe I want to go there,’” she says. “Maybe it’s just a rebellion against the opposite of, that place that everyone else wants to go, I don’t want to go.”
Grace leads a rip-roaring acoustic set last summer in Southern California, captured here in stereo audio by a dedicated fan.
His playing and production pack a potent punk punch, and now he's leading the group into new darker, more atmospheric territory with the album Bodies.
AFI has always surfed their own dark wave. Although lumped in with the rest of the Warped Tour pack during the pop-punk explosion of the early aughts, the quartet from Ukiah, California (a few hours north of San Francisco) has been defined by their dramatic aesthetic and melodic, hook-laden songwriting—with both typically more refined and art-minded than those of their immediate peers. AFI's anthemic, radio-ready songs and charismatic frontman, Davey Havok, are often the focus of the group. However, the band's secret weapon has long been Jade Puget, a fleet-fingered guitarist and Havok's trusted cowriter. (The band is completed by Adam Carson on drums and Hunter Bergen on bass.)
Puget's airtight, hardcore-punk-informed rhythm playing and spirited riffing have provided much of the wind in AFI's black sails since he joined the band in the late '90s. Puget has also had a hand in co-producing AFI's albums since the breakout 2003 major-label release, Sing the Sorrow, and has helped shape and expand the group's sound by introducing electronic elements and leaning harder on the goth-rock atmospherics that have become a fundamental part of AFI's songcraft. Puget's instinct for pulling sounds from genres outside of hardcore and pop-punk (not to mention the band's striking visuals) hasn't just kept AFI's music vital and interesting. It's also telegraphed the direction subsequent generations of punk bands would take with shocking clairvoyance.
AFI - Bodies Full Album 2021 (Audio)
AFI recently returned with Bodies, a follow-up to their 2017 eponymous release (also known as The Blood Album). Bodies' 11 tracks present the band in its most mature and arguably creative form to date. While uptempo tunes like "On Your Back" and "Begging for Trouble" are reminiscent of classic AFI, they look beyond the band's distorted punk roots towards the intrigue of post-punk and '80s death-rock in a way that's fresh, without sacrificing AFI's essential personality. As a guitarist, Puget is happiest mining the creative playing found in those sub-genres, and says, "If I had it my way, I'd write only essentially '80s post-punk and '80s-style death-rock. That's really what I want to write! Guys like Daniel Ash [Bauhaus, Love and Rockets, Tones on Tail] and Wayne Hussey [the Mission, the Sisters of Mercy] are important to me. There's lots of really cool guitar stuff going on, on those records. I think because of how lo-fi a lot of it was, it wasn't taken as seriously as it should've been … but that stuff is incredible."
TIDBIT: AFI's latest was recorded in Jade Puget's home studio. Puget learned production watching Butch Vig and Jerry Finn at work.
No song on Bodies flexes Puget's post-punk muscles and atmospheric guitar chops as hard as the haunting, Morricone-meets-Robert Smith groove of "Dulceria," which features layers of lush guitars, a punchy, understated baritone 6-string solo, and an inescapably catchy chorus. "I have a Schecter UltraCure guitar, which is Robert Smith's signature model, and it's really cool looking, with a Bigsby tremolo," he relates. "So, I thought, 'I'm going to do a sort of Cure thing,' and that guitar really informed my playing because I wanted to put in some nice tremolo parts and clean flourishes. It's not, like, a full guitar track; it's little moments between the vocals for me to shine—which is not something I do often—and I think it formed the character of that song. The amps for it were all in-the-box, and I was using all kinds of plug-ins. Nowadays, you can create a guitar tone that no one's ever had before, which is pretty incredible! Not that the tones on 'Dulceria' were necessarily that crazy, but I like to throw different combinations of stuff together to create something unique, and that is an example."
"I've read that people get weight-relieved Les Pauls that don't sound great, but I think I just got lucky and got a super sweet one that sounds incredible!"
In addition to playing guitar and co-writing the songs on Bodies, Puget helmed the album's production and engineering. The lion's share of Bodies was tracked in his home studio. While it's certainly not uncommon for artists to track at home in the DAW/pandemic era, Puget has the distinction of having honed his production chops alongside luminaries like Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth) and the late Jerry Finn, who many credit with sending pop-punk to sonic finishing school with his productions for Blink 182 and Green Day. Finn and Vig both worked on the production of AFI's Sing the Sorrow and Decemberunderground. Puget makes no bones about his admiration of Finn's guitar production skills and the impact left on him. "As a producer, he was the best when it came to achieving great guitar tones. I'll never be able to recapture Jerry's magic and I'll never be the same perfectionist he was, but I learned things [such as] making sure when you're double-tracking rhythm guitars that you're not lazy about making sure the parts are well-matched, and doing things like having a third guitar up the middle of the stereo spread with a rattier tone that gives a bit of fullness to a big rhythm stack."
The current AFI line-up, from left to right, is Adam Carson on drums, guitarist Jade Puget, frontman Davey Havok, and Hunter Bergen on bass.
Bodies' guitar fiber is heavily layered at times ("Tied to a Tree"), but Puget approached the instrument in a decidedly thoughtful and measured way. He explains: "As I've developed as a producer and songwriter, guitar isn't really where I'm trying to show off. I'm not trying to have every song be this giant stack of guitar tracks that hits you over the head. It's become more of a special tool for me." Puget's freewheeling, less-is-more approach to tracking the guitars on Bodies marks a major shift away from the guitar consistency he sought on AFI's past efforts. "I used to get a rhythm tone I liked and that would be the rhythm tone for the entire record. Now, I want the guitar to be doing something different on every song. I'll use a drastically different sound and I do a lot of stuff in the box now, because there's so many crazy things that you can do to your guitar when you work that way. Maybe I just have songwriter's ADD, but I want to explore something new with each song, so you might be losing something with the coherence of the record, but you gain a new sonic palette with every song, which is also cool."
"I'm not trying to have every song be this giant stack of guitar tracks that hits you over the head. It's become more of a special tool for me."
Puget still fires up a big tube amp when a song calls for AFI's signature wall of palm-muted guitars, as heard on the ridiculously catchy track "Looking Tragic." "I still use tube amps and I used my Diamond Nitrox head a lot, which I also use live. And I used my Line 6 Helix a lot, which is a great tool. The world of guitar has become so vast and the purist in me is sometimes embarrassed to say that I do so much in the box, and I still do use outboard gear because you'll never be able to really recreate the sound of a cabinet in the studio pushing air. There's something that physically happens with the tonality that no amount of in-the-box tech will recreate, so there is something to be said for doing some things the old-school way. I found when it came to do something heavy sounding, it just wasn't working for me. And I still use tube amps and cabinets live, and that is something I don't think I'll ever change." For the effects used to shape Bodies'most luxurious guitar tones, Puget's plug-ins of choice were the Valhalla DSP VintageVerb, and Reflektor and Replika from Native Instruments.
Jade Puget's Gear
AFI's creative heartbeat is driven by the collaboration of charismatic vocalist Davey Havok and guitarist Jade Puget.
Photo by Debi Del Grande
- Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul Cloud Nine
- Gibson Les Paul Studio
- Custom Yamaha Revstar
- Schecter UltraCure
- Fender Bass VI
- Diamond Nitrox with matching 4x12
- Line 6 Helix
- Valhalla DSP VintageVerb plug-in
- Native Instruments Reflektor and Replika plug-ins
Strings and Picks
- D'Addario (.010–.046)
- Tortex .60 mm
While the guitarist truly enjoys his trips down the sub-menu rabbit hole when it comes to crafting unique tones, for his instrument, he still reaches for his trusted Les Paul Studios, which he's used for his entire career with AFI. Their simplicity and lighter weight make them Puget's ideal axes for the road and for his high-energy performances. However, his main guitar on Bodies (and many other AFI albums) was a limited edition Gibson Cloud Nine Les Paul, which he describes as a weight-relieved Custom Shop '59 reissue. "I got that guitar when we were making [2009's] Crash Love. I called Gibson and asked if they could send down a guitar for me to use while we did pre-production, and I expected them to send some piece of shit guitar, but they sent me—I think on accident—this high-end, limited-edition guitar. It sounds so good and it's been my most beloved Les Paul since I got it. It's stock. I've read that people get weight-relieved Les Pauls that don't sound great, but I think I just got lucky and got a super sweet one that sounds incredible! Mine is on the bright side for sure, but there's something magical about it. It just has this tonality that's even across the whole spectrum, so if I'm playing a big rhythm part with major barre chords and playing every string, it just sounds so full and beautiful and clear, but it has a thickness to it that's great."
Rig Rundown - AFI's Jade Puget & Hunter Burgan
Other guitars that made important appearances on AFI's latest include a Yamaha Revstar that Puget used while triple-tracking rhythm parts, which helped him avoid the tonal redundancy that can happen when using the same guitar to track a part several times. He reached for a Fender Bass VI to layer bass parts, yet another instrument Puget was inspired to buy as a fan of Robert Smith's work on the Cure's early records.
"I love blues and I love punk, so I don't really know where I got the tapping thing from."
Puget has never been afraid to lace AFI's songs with fretboard theatrics and was particularly fond of throwing two-handed tapping into AFI's tunes at a time when that technique had not yet returned to vogue outside of the metal world. (Listen to the burning solo on the 2003 classic "Dancing Through Sunday.") But he is unsure of exactly how the athletic side of his playing developed. Puget ruminates: "I was never a guitar god guy, and I never followed the guitar virtuoso guys, because I came from the punk world. I love blues and I love punk, so I don't really know where I got the tapping thing from. I just started doing it because it was fun and it sounded cool, and I incorporated it into my sound. As far as tapping coming back around, it's funny and cool and I think it should! It's a really cool technique and I don't see why it should ever go out of style, and I think Eddie Van Halen really introducing it to the world the way he did should make sure that it's here to stay forever."
As Puget has gained more production experience, he's diversified his recorded guitar tones. "I used to get a rhythm tone I liked and that would be the rhythm tone for the entire record," he says. "Now, I want the guitar to be doing something different on every song."
Photo by Josh Massie (@scatteredpictures87)
Even though Puget possesses the chops and admits to enjoying a good shred session for fun (and has even posted clips playing accurate Stevie Ray Vaughan and Cannibal Corpse guitar covers on Instagram in recent months), when it comes to his own art, he believes too much technique can be the death of inspiration. Puget's anti-technique philosophy is something he's happy to stand behind, and one he had affirmed during the downtime of the pandemic via the wisdom of late singer/songwriter Bill Withers, of "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Lean on Me" fame. Puget says, "I was watching this documentary on Bill Withers and he said, 'Virtuosity is the enemy of creativity and artistry.' I had come to a similar realization and found that to be true: The better you become at your instrument and the more you know about music, the worse you become as a songwriter. Look at Paul McCartney or any of the songwriting masters of the last 100 years, and they don't tend to get better as they age. I've always pondered why that is and I think part of it is the more you learn your craft and the more you learn your instrument, the more it steals from your artistry. So, I try not to learn too much about the guitar. I want to continue to do new stuff on it, but I never took lessons and I can't read music and I really don't want to learn too much about it for that reason. My way of attacking that is I work harder and harder as a songwriter."
AFI's Jade Puget on Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing" - Hooked
Beyond Puget's killer production chops and formidable, maturing guitar work, the real key to AFI's continued creative growth may lie in the rare bond the guitarist and songwriter shares with frontman Davey Havok. When asked how his writing relationship with Havok has changed since the pair first started working together, Puget is quick to point out that it hasn't. "How we do the raw songwriting really hasn't changed in 20 years! We sit down in a room face-to-face, and I have a guitar, and we'll just work on chord progressions and melodies. Even the very first time in 1998 when we sat down to write a song together, Davey and I immediately had a synergy and focus, and this singularity of purpose that we still have to this day. We never fight or argue, it's never awkward or tense. It's a great working relationship. It's bizarre because most bands that have been together as long as we have seem to hate each other. They don't want to be around each other, they have separate dressing rooms, but we don't have that."
Riff Lords: Jade Puget of AFI
Even though he heard it years before picking up the guitar, Mark Knopfler's influence still creeps into this rocker's repertoire.