Saturday, July 11, 2009
Interview: Jesse Michaels (Operation Ivy, Classics of Love, Common Rider)
When I first started getting heavily into punk around 9th grade, Operation Ivy was one of the first bands to really resonate with me. Their simple message of individualism, unity, and nonconformity was uncompromising, but never without a glimmer of hope hidden beneath. Years later I heard my first taste of Common Rider and was blown away to find out it was the same singer as Operation Ivy, Jesse Michaels. Since then, I have collected every piece of music he has done, from Operation Ivy bootlegs to the four-song Big Rig EP, to Common Rider and beyond. When I heard Jesse Michaels and his new band Classics of Love was coming to Minneapolis, I jumped at the chance to interview him and could not be happier with meeting him and finding out more about his life and projects. In a 2003 interview, Michaels said of the late Joe Strummer, “I was lucky enough to meet him and he was everything one would hope for in somebody they looked up to.” Now I can say the same of Jesse Michaels.
You can click Read More for the interview.
How are you doing? How does it feel to be alive and on tour in 2009?
It feels good…and bad. Up and down. Which is pretty much how it always feels.
So you’re playing a little mini Midwest tour, and then heading to Europe on the Plea for Peace tour?
What we’re doing is playing five shows—Chicago, Minneapolis, Springfield, Elgin, and one other, and then we’re going to the UK. We basically had two trips planned, and they ended up merging together.
Is it weird at all to be on a tour—no less have a charitable foundation—named after a song you sang 20 years ago? [Operation Ivy’s “Plea for Peace”]
Well, not exactly. For one thing, it wasn’t one of our more well known songs. It came out a long time after we broke up. And also, Mike [Park] has really made it his own thing, so I don’t even think of that association very much.
Have you ever toured without an album to support?
Yeah, Op Ivy did. Op Ivy toured without an album to support. We had a 7-inch at the time.
Do you have the material to fill a whole show now?
We have 14 songs now, so it’s a pretty strong setlist. And then we have an EP that we’re selling [only] at our shows. [street date is June 23rd]
Do you do any of your solo songs on tour with Classics of Love?
Many of the solo songs ended up being Classics of Love songs, so yes and no. I do those songs, but I play them with a full band now so it’s a little bit different.
Speaking of your solo stuff, you did some acoustic shows with Jeff Ott last fall. How did the idea for those come about?
Someone approached me to do some shows, and it took me awhile to learn how to play and sing, because I didn’t really know how to do both at the same time. And Jeff got on board, and then Kevin [Seconds] got on board. And it just worked out really well. I was happy to play with Jeff, I hadn’t seen him in years. I mean, we used to be friends, we used to run the streets of Berkeley and take drugs and stuff. And now we’re both older and we’re both a lot more healthy and normal, although still probably pretty crazy. It just worked out, it was a nice time. And it was great to play with Kevin too, he’s a great guy.
Do you stay in touch with other veteran East Bay punks and old bandmates, like Tim Armstrong [formerly of Operation Ivy], Aaron Cometbus [in S.A.G.], or even Billie Joe Armstrong [who played on Common Rider’s Thief in a Sleeping Town]? Are you still close with any of them?
Well Billie Joe is in a whole different world. Once you’re a superstar, you’re almost like in a different universe, so he’s not easy to stay in touch with, though I’m always happy to see him every time I bump into him. Aaron actually lives in New York, though we do stay in touch when we can. And the Op Ivy guys I don’t get to see very much just because we have separate lives, but I’m always happy to see them when I do.
One thing I’ve been curious about—we live in this information age of instant accessibility to almost everything—yet as far as I know, there isn’t really any S.A.G. [an early band consisting of Jesse Michaels, Aaron Cometbus, and Jeff Ott circa age 12] material floating around out there. How is this? Do the recordings still exist?
Well, when me and Aaron were 12, we did some songs on a tape recorder, and that’s what that was. It wasn’t a real band, and it was never put out except on really obscure tapes. Aaron is an archivist, and I’m sure he’s got that stuff buried somewhere, but who knows where. I don’t think anyone [else] has it, basically. And it’s recorded on a tape recorder, two kids in a bedroom, so you can imagine what it’s like. It’s not gonna be number one with a bullet on the billboard charts or anything.
One thing that did get re-released two years ago was Energy/Hectic/Turn it Around on Hellcat. It had gone out of print on Lookout! but what was the process involved in re-releasing it?
Lookout! more or less folded, they were having problems, and so we decided to move it somewhere a little bit more solid. It’s a pretty popular record, and we wanted it to have a more solid situation. Lookout! was having a lot of problems, and Op Ivy, since we’ve broken up we just kind of want to let it be, let it do its own thing. It’s great that people still love the music but it’s not like we want to be taking trips down memory lane, so we just never really dealt with it. And then at some point things got so crazy, it’s like “We have to move this,” because people were jumping off Lookout! and it looked if we didn’t do something smart, we could end up doing something stupid. So then we decided to move it. And we did the work, had the meetings, and got it somewhere where we felt like it would be a good place for it.
Since many of the solo songs became Classics of Love songs, did you do the solo shows and tour with the idea of getting back into playing live music, or were they entirely separate occurrences?
I prefer playing in a band to solo stuff, I don’t really like playing solo stuff. But I will if it’s the only way to play music. I didn’t have a band of people to play with, but because of the process of the solo shows, I ended up meeting people. I got in better touch with Mike Park, and he really helped me set up the band.
What can you tell us about the band and the EP?
I think it’s a pretty universal punk rock sound. What I’ve experienced after many years of going to shows and playing shows, there’s a certain electricity that happens when some bands play. It doesn’t so much matter what style they’re playing, but you can feel it, and it’s raw and it’s powerful, and it’s great. In other words, you can go to a Black Flag show or Ramones show or Stiff Little Fingers show, and you would feel this vibe. So what we’re trying to do, to put it very simply, is play really good punk rock music with high energy. That’s the main thing. To try and capture that electricity that’s always been around and put it out there. People say it has a very East Bay sound, I’m not exactly sure what that means, but a lot of mid-tempo stuff. Pretty strong melodies, but without being too pop--we’re not trying to be a pop-punk. But we do like hooks and big choruses. My favorite bands historically have been the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, Social Unrest from the Bay Area, the Adverts, Buzzcocks, the Misfits…so all those things are in there but there’s a lot more. There’s something new happening there that doesn’t have a name yet.
How did your friendship with Mike Park develop?
I met Mike in Florida at some ska show that he was involved with, I’m not sure if it was the Plea for Peace tour or not, but he was there. It was a Florida ska band, and I think Mustard Plug played, the Toasters played, Buck-O-Nine, anyway, that’s irrelevant. Anyway, I met him, he’s a great guy, we hit it off. Then later on when I was doing Common Rider, we ended up being on the Plea for Peace tour and he was always around, and we just developed a friendship in that way.
Not that I necessarily want to have a political conversation—most people who are familiar with your music and work with PunkVoter should know a little bit about your ideas—but there’s one line in particular from Common Rider’s “Firewall” I wanted to ask you about that says “This creature of appetite is bound to devour itself one day.” Are we at that point already? Banks are collapsing, people are overspent and in debt, is this what you had in mind or are you more optimistic about the current situation?
Well, I’m not optimistic or pessimistic. I just deal with each thing as it comes. The “creature of appetite” line, not to be too analytical about it, it’s about the way people in general live based on their appetites and desires. For example, “I want to be rich,” “I want to have kids,” “I want this,” “I want that,” it’s part of the human condition, I’m not saying I’m any different. If you look at society, that overall pattern of billions of individuals living that way creates these monstrosities like corporations and wars and so on. And to me, if there is no consciousness change in human beings, eventually it will have to destroy itself because it’s a destructive entity. Human beings—they way they live now—are a destructive entity, it’s not even a matter of argument, you can just look at the world. So it was a statement about that, but it wasn’t really a political statement, it was just an observation, kind of a common-sense observation.
You studied Buddhism for a period in the 90s, is spirituality something that you’ve taken with you from that experience, or was it more of an experiment or trial that has since ended? Is it something that’s still affecting you?
Yeah, it definitely is. My life has a spiritual basis. That’s not to say that anyone else should do what I do or think what I think. I think you can pretty much dispense a religion and still be on the right track. I just think there’s more to life than what we see in the daily world, and I’ve experienced it. And it’s really very simple. I’ve noticed, and I’m not a Saint by any means, but I’ve noticed that when I manage to decrease my habitual self-centeredness, I’m happier and better, and people like me more. Because I’m expressing authentic personality rather than a false face. That’s the way I try and live and the way I try and do that and is how I treat you. I try and treat people around me well, and I try and do things that are motivated by the aspirations to do the right thing and be conscious of that. So if that’s spiritual, then yes I still do have those values. Again, I’m not perfect, I have the same normal human appetite and ego desires just like everyone else, and I don’t strive to be perfect, I just strive to have an overall sense of pointing myself in the right direction in terms of doing the right thing.
What was the last album you heard that really blew you away, that really knocked your socks off?
Probably the Observers record called “So What’s Left Now,” it blew my mind when I heard it. There’s lots of records I’ve liked, I like the new High on Fire record… but that [Observers] one really blew my mind. I heard a song from the new Dillinger Four record that really blew my mind, really fucking good song.
Good thing to be saying a the Triple Rock!
What’s something that’s on your mind a lot?
I think a lot of people wonder how to just live. Because life is confusing and difficult and no one likes to talk about it and I don’t blame them. And since I’m a little bit older than most people who are involved with this scene--I don’t exactly have a lot of advice-- but I will say that if you experience a lot of confusion, depression and anxiety, drug problems, anything like that, you’re not alone. Things aren’t usually as bad as they seem, and things can get better if you point yourself in the right direction. And I don’t mean to be Mr. Posi-core, but that’s something that when I was in my 20’s, if I had heard someone a little bit older say that I would have found it encouraging. And being a little bit older—I’m 40 now—I’ve found that it’s true. If you try and do the right thing, things get better. It takes time, but that’s my message.
Is there anything I didn’t cover you’d like to add?
Here’s something that comes to mind: I think that bands should spend less time getting all their performances perfect on their records. It’s better to sound like a real band than to have everything stapled to a grid, and I think the aesthetic of making everything sound totally perfect has hurt music. And I think it’s more of a product of the music industry than what people actually want to hear.