It’s a Thursday afternoon in early June and Atom Willard is sitting backstage in Berlin, telling jokes, making cringeworthy puns (How do you find Will Smith in a snowstorm? You look for the fresh prints), and talking about how much he misses his two French Bulldogs. For Willard, the 41-year-old drummer of punk band Against Me!, life on the road is simply part of the deal of being in a touring band, but it’s still not an easy adjustment after all these years, at least where his dogs are concerned.
Luckily, he’s found that Europe is full of Frenchies, which—along with regular photo updates from his wife—keeps him from missing his own too much.
“I am horrible about dogs in general, like I just wanna make out with them,” he said, discussing how he approaches strangers’ dogs. “I always ask, I try to always ask…to be considerate, because it kinda bums me out when people just run up on my dogs…but as soon as I get the go-ahead, French Bulldog, French Kiss, you know what I mean?”
Willard, who joined Against Me! in 2013, is what you might call a well-seasoned pro, at least in the rock drummer circuit. He’s played in countless bands, including Rocket from the Crypt, Angels and Airwaves, Danko Jones, Social Distortion, and The Offspring, either as a band member or as a hired drummer, and it was during his stint in other bands that he first played a show with Against Me!
“I played a show with them in 2007 maybe? And I was like, ‘What. Is. This? What the fuck is this?! It’s so cool!’ And I was just hooked instantly,” he said.
After the band’s fourth drummer, Jay Weinberg, quit in 2012, a mutual friend of Willard and lead singer Laura Jane Grace put them in touch, which led to Willard joining full-time, including recording on the band’s sixth studio album, this year’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.”
Since then, Willard has repeatedly shared that being in Against Me! is a perfect fit for him.
“It’s been so comfortable on every level: on a personal level, on a musical level,” he said. “[Grace] and I really connect on so many musical planes, like, I feel like I know what she’s gonna do and how she’s gonna do it. We really play off each other really really well. And personally, like, it’s just so been so easy, you know. It’s been really like we have the same sense of humor, we all have about the same threshold of tolerance for stuff…it’s nice that we’re all kind of on the same level.”
Though Against Me! had four drummers before Willard, he noted that it’s been an advantage rather than a disadvantage. This is because being one of many means that there was no one way to do things, thus enabling him to carve out his own niche and style while still adhering to the Against Me! sound.
“You know, it’s interesting, because I’ve been in so many different bands and played with bands that have had 10 or 15 records or something before I got there. And it’s like, there are certain things that you just can’t mess with. You really need to adhere to what’s there and what’s been established,” he said. “That said, Against Me!’s had many many different drummers, a bunch of people here before me, and with that comes kind of a different approach to songs, because nobody’s really gotten used to it being done one specific way for this whole amount of time. There are always the records to refer to, but a lot of those records in this instance are not very well produced, and the drums are almost hard to hear and tell what’s going on, and so I’ve really been allowed to do what I want and make my way through the songs in a way that could really feel like I get to say what I want to say, and yet stay true to the spirit of the song.”
As an example, he mentioned specific drum parts in the song “I Still Love You Julie,” from 2002’s “Reinventing Axl Rose”—parts which are integral to the song’s structure and both are expected to remain and should remain. But there are other places where he has free reign to mix things up.
Not only that, but Willard said that there’s a certain sense of freedom for all of the members, due in large part to the fact that everyone knows their parts and knows that the others know their parts.
“Everybody’s able to play their stuff so confidently [and] everybody’s comfortable within the area that we need to be…there is a certain amount of trust,” Willard explained. “There’s [also] a certain sense of uncertainty in some of the songs, because we don’t really know how we’re gonna go. And I really do have the freedom and I have their confidence that no matter what I do and no matter how I take it, they know that I’m gonna be where I need to be…so that’s, it’s an exciting prospect to…do things that are not structurally predicted. And they follow me.”
Another aspect of the band Willard covered is the idea that even though things do change from song to song, the live version of the band sounds like the recorded version of the band.
“What you’re hearing out there is what we’re actually doing, and what you hear on the record is what’s coming out of the instruments,” Willard said. “I think that people become desensitized to that, because it is such a widespread thing [that] people are playing along with backing tracks.”
At the same time, however, Willard posited that the indie-folk movement was born out of a backlash to technology and the ‘inauthenticity’ of bands playing with pre-recorded sounds and backing tracks. The way he sees it, people will eventually reject that as well and find some middle ground back where rock and roll is—though only time will tell if that’s the case, or if it’s just the optimistic rock and roll breeding of Willard speaking.
Either way, regardless of what other bands are doing, being in Against Me! is life-affirming for Willard in many ways, and not just because he’s playing rock music. Being a drummer in successful bands for the past 25 years—more than half of his life—has certainly provided him with a good sense of direction and purpose, whether that means doing the right thing for yourself or knowing how to appreciate it when you are.
“This feels right. This feels really good. It’s just, it’s natural, and it’s just happy. I’m just enjoying it. And I think it’s important: no matter what you’re doing, if you have a moment of happiness…you can take a second and try to snapshot that,” he said. “It’s hard to do that. It’s hard to be in the moment and not just be always looking ahead…it’s like, there’s a lot of shit happening all the time, and part of it’s pretty great. Well it can be, if you can look at it for what it is.”
Furthermore, Willard noted that if you’re not in a place where you’re happy or satisfied with your progress, you should figure out how to get there and do what it takes to arrive there. And it was at this point he mentioned Grace—who came out in 2012 as transgender—as someone who not only saw a glimpse of happiness and went for it, but also overcame odds that many people never even have to think about in their lifetime.
“I’ve never been around anybody so courageous and, like, just full of fire and graciousness all at the same time…the results are there. She’s happier than she’s ever been. I mean, I knew her before just a little bit, and I could never get a read. I never knew, like, ‘Do we get along? I don’t even know?’ Like, ‘Big fan of your band but I kind of think you don’t like me?’ And she was just unhappy. And now, she’s herself. And she’s just, I mean she’s still a scrappy punk rocker, but she’s the nicest, sweetest, and it’s really neat to see that kind of evolution,” Willard explained. “There’s a lot of integrity in the way that she’s going about her transition…imagine taking that first step. And how fucking hard is that. How much of an internal battle must that have been, and how difficult. So I just have so much respect for that. So what I’ve learned is just that this reaffirms your faith in the fight for what you believe in. Don’t give up, don’t let other people tell you what you’re supposed to be or how you’re supposed to be.”