An Interview with Jesse Michaels
Jesse Michaels fronted the now legendary punk/ska band Operation Ivy from 1987 until they disbanded in 1990. Operation Ivy had a way of writing seamless punk/pop/rock/ska songs whose effects are still being felt today. They managed to release some comp songs, a couple of 7-inches, and a full-length album called Energy (eventually, Energy added everything from their other releases, essentially creating a complete discography). Two of the four members of Op Ivy, “Lint” (now Tim Armstrong) and Matt Freeman, went on to forman early incarnation of the Dance Hall Crashers, but left before any recordings were done. Armstrong and Freeman hooked up with Tim’s roommate, Brett Reed, and createdRancid.Armstrong took the vocals duties and guitar while Freeman played bass and occasionally sang and Reed, who didn’t play drums prior to Rancid, learned to play drums. After the band’s self-titled debut album, Lars Fredrickson joined on guitar, occasionally taking lead vocal duties.The band went on to release some comp songs, a few 7-inches, and five full-length albums, and became huge in the punk and alternative (MTV) scene, and Armstrong started his own ska label and built a home studio. Within the last 10 or so years, Armstrong has stayed active and present in music, but ex-Operation Ivy singer Jesse Michaels quietly disappeared from the music world, leaving fans to speculate his activities and whereabouts.
It’s been said that he became a Buddhist monk in Japan, a teacher in Canada, and even an actor on a Spanish soap opera; not all of these things are wrong. Jesse did study Buddhism for a year in California, not Japan. What he DID do was everything from get back into school, take a trip to Nicaragua, and live all over the country. Michaels briefly resurfaced in 1994, releasing an EP with a one-off band under the moniker Big Rig on Lookout! Records, giving fans hope that he would return soon and start a “real” band. His lyrics and vocals seemed to only get stronger during his sabbatical. Eventually the songs kept building up and Michaels had the need to get them out. This is where Common Rider comes in.
Last Wave Riders contains 15 songs completely (lyrics, music) written by Jesse Michaels, but recorded with Dan Lumley (Squirtgun, Screeching Weasel) on drums and Mass Giorgini (Squirtgun, Screeching Weasel) on bass The songs turned out to be a combination of ska, pop, rock, and dub and rocksteady-flavored reggae. Michaels explanation for the mix of styles on Last Wave Riders is, “there haven’t been any major musical shifts. I’ve been listening to the same stuff for 15 years, but I do think that over the years I’ve learned what my strong points are vocally, and I try to steer towards them.” The aggression and volume of Operation Ivy might not be present, but the passion and great lyrics are just as present as they ever were. When asked to elaborate, Michaels says, “it’s kind of the same thing that Operation Ivy was about: we live in troubled times, and instead of hiding our heads in the sand, let’s face the fact that things are scary, but let’s face them with a strong hope that there is something real and truthful within ourselves that can get us through it. Let’s have a good time and celebrate that there is still good in the world. The only difference now is that I’m listening to Toots and the Maytals instead of the Specials.”
The question I think everybody wants to know is, where have you been for the last 10 years?
Jesse Michaels : Well, 10 years is a long time. I don’t know why it took 10 years. It’s a complete mystery to me. I did some school. I did a lot of dumb shit that people in my generation — in their 20’s — generally do. For a while I studied martial arts… I basically just tried out different things. I moved around a lot, and I had relationships. Just the normal stuff that you do in your life. Basically, after Op Ivy, from like 20-26, it was an intensely rough period in my life. I was just a crazy punk rocker. I don’t want to put my business out on the street, but I will say that I got into some fucked up shit. But I did manage to come through it, and I think that some of the positivity on the Common Rider record is because of that. I mean, obviously there are songs, specifically “Rise or Fall,” and certain other ones, that just talk about life and how it can be hard and difficult and fucked up and painful, but that there’s always a possibility of persevering and arriving at a different level.
What made you decide to come back to music after 10 years?
Well, like I said, the songs just accumulated, and I just felt it was time to put them out. Also, I had been playing for years, trying to learn how to play guitar and everything, and I started to have a different experience when I was playing, where these songs were really jumping out of me. I just felt the need to put them out one way or the other.
When Operation Ivy broke up, did you think you’d come back to music, and that it would take 10 years?
After Op Ivy, I really had no intention of playing again, but I started writing songs, and over time they just accumulated to the point where I didn’t feel comfortable just sitting on them. Also, once you’ve played live and done that, it’s like an addiction. When we were doing the record, I just realized how much I loved it and how happy I was to be back in it.
I’ve noticed your name pop up in artwork credits over the last few years. Are you still doing that?
Yeah. I did a lot of artwork for Lookout! and other Bay Area bands and labels. I’m still doing stuff like that. In fact, I just did an interview with Thrasher , and I did a little piece for that, and I’m kind of getting back into it. It’s interesting, because I’m getting back into art at the same time I’m returning to music. They’re kind of both coming back together. I’ve always done art, and I’ll always come back to it.
You did the artwork for the Common Rider record, right?
Yeah. The design on the Common Rider record is incredibly simple, which was my exact intention, because I wanted to do something totally different. I also do that crazy real intricate shit. If we do any other records, I’ll throw some of that stuff on there.
Let’s go back to when you first started to play. You were in a band called S.A.G., which Aaron from Crimpshrine was also a part of.
Me and Aaron from Crimpshrine used to play together when we were like 12 years old. We played this noise music that sounded like Flipper. We didn’t really know how to play, so it was just this noisy music. Eventually Jeff Ott, who also went on to be in Crimpshrine, came along, and he started playing with us, but he was like twenty times better than us. I played guitar, but I didn’t know any chords, so I just played with my thumb. I was also writing lyrics and singing. It was right before my voice changed, so it was really something. At that point, I ended up getting kicked out of the band for smoking too much pot, and I also moved to Pittsburgh. They played together for a looooong time before they became Crimpshrine. I just want to make it clear so people don’t try and go looking for our demo tapes (laughs).
Then you went on to play in a hardcore band called Screaming Outlash, right?
Yeah. In Pittsburgh, I played in a hardcore band called Screaming Outlash. This was when the metal crossover thing was big: Cro-Mags, D.R.I., all that shit. So we were kinda like that. I also played drums in a couple metal bands like Corpse Grinder and Necropolis, but I wasn’t the greatest drummer, to be perfectly honest.
What were some of your favorite bands around that time?
I loved American hardcore, because there was a time when, and I don’t want to get nostalgic and turn this into a VH-1 special, but there were like 20 or 30 hardcore bands in the country. I was really into that you could literally know about every band in the hardcore scene. I liked Minor Threat, Negative Approach, the Fixx, Violent Apathy, White Cross… I really liked the raw hardcore sound back then. I was crazy about the Dischord stuff.
Did you like Void?
Void was my all-time favorite, actually. I loved that singer. I thought he was so crazy and great. DC was always the shit. Once I started to get into more melodic stuff, I loved Marginal Man. I got a little into Rites of Spring and some other stuff like Soulside. Basically, I just loved everything I heard that came out of there [DC]. I just bought it all. As long as we’re talking about hardcore bands, I just want to say that the most underrated band ever is the Zero Boys. They were like the greatest punk band, but for some reason, they never got that much recognition. It could have been timing or their label, but they were really great. I’ve always loved the Clash. Ever since I got into rock & roll, I’ve always loved the Clash. For some reason that music really spoke to me. I think London Calling is one of the best records ever. That’s up there with the great Stones records and everything else.
I feel the same way about the Energy album.Operation Ivy’s music and popularity has only gotten bigger with each year, eventually selling over 500,000 copies of Energy. What do you think it was about the band that turned them from a small Berkeley punk band into the somewhat leaders of the ska revival and mixture of punk and ska?
We were very lucky, because at the same time there was this whole scene starting in Berkeley where a lot of bands that were unusual and different from bands before started to play. So we’re kind of one of many bands that were like that. Why our thing caught on so big, I don’t really know. I think it’s great that it did.
Although there are some styles present in Operation Ivy, the band doesn’t really reference itself to any band before it. What was it that led you to the style you came up with?
I can definitely cite my influences. I can’t really speak for the rest of the band, but I’m pretty sure that theirs are similar. For one thing, there was a ska scene in Berkeley that most people don’t know about, in the mid-’80s, and it was like a high school, really young scene. The bands were intense, they were like punk bands. Tim and Matt played in one of those bands called Basic Radio. They were a really great band. They were already playing with a sort of similar energy and feel as Op Ivy, but it was a different line-up and definitely a lot less punk [than Operation Ivy]. There was also this great band called the Uptones that would get on stage and just tear shit up. They did the whole 2-tone thing, but they got on stage and they looked and played like a punk band, really dynamic and exciting. People would be stage diving and going crazy at their shows. I’m not going to say that Op Ivy wasn’t original, but Op Ivy was definitely influenced by some things around us.
But the combination that the four of you developed out of that is amazing.
Tim is really the man as far as that goes. He’s just an amazing songwriter. He doesn’t think about style; he just plays whatever comes out of his heart. I think it sort of flowed out of that creative spirit in him, you know, to be completely honest. When I got back to Berkeley, I was just so happy that there was this punk scene, because there was a scene in Pittsburgh, but it [was] over 21, a little rougher, just not as much fun and low-key. I was just so happy to be part of this underground scene.I used to follow Crimpshrine around and go to every Crimpshrine show I could. They were just my favorite band. It was neat to see your friends move from the garage into playing shows. That was my inspiration to get into another band.
One thing I’ve always loved about your lyrics, and Last Wave Riders is no exception, is how you can address a problem or bad situation realistically, but still come out of it with a positive perspective and solution without sounding corny or annoyingly up-beat, instead of just saying “fuck it. My life sucks and that’s how it will always be,” and losing hope.
That’s something that I’ve always strived [sic] to do; I don’t think I always succeed, but I try to. The thing about it though is that you have to be careful when you’re trying to be positive because it can easily turn very sugary sweet and corny. So my goal when I’m writing is to keep things positive and hopeful, but without getting into bullshit optimism. My favorite thing about punk is that it’s REAL. I would rather listen to a truthful band that’s negative and dark than a sugary sweet, bullshit, happy band, but on the other hand, when you can combine some positivity and also have that raw edge, I think that makes the most exciting music there is.
How would you compare your songwriting today to your songwriting in Operation Ivy?
The message might be a little more simple and straight forward, just because I’ve grown as a person. When I was in Op Ivy, I was very sincere, but I was 19 years old and pretty crazy, which I think is as good as it is bad, but it definitely lands as a more clear composition now. Operation Ivy was about raw energy, and that has its merit, too. Now I manage to say the same sort of thing, but with a lot less words, for better or worse. There’s some people who prefer sort of raw energy, and that’s great too. I guess what I’m trying to do now is to keep it as simple as possible and have a — hopefully — easy and direct message.
On the Common Rider record, you wrote all of the lyrics, and for the first time, music. When did you start playing guitar?
I’ve been playing about 5 or 6 years, but I just pick it up sporadically. I never practice steadily.
I read in the Ben Weasel interview in Jersey Beat that you’ve written over a hundred songs in the last few years. Are they just lyrics or completed songs or what?
What he said is true, but I’ve never committed them to tape or anything like that. It’s very hard to finish a song without knowing who you’re playing with, because usually I tend to write to the strength of the band I’m playing with. The final arrangement doesn’t usually come until afterwards, but I certainly have a lot of material to work with. Basically, my goal right now — and this is not carved in stone because I always change my mind — is to try and do a tour where we’ll introduce some new songs on the tour, especially since we’re gonna want to do a more beefed up set because of all the ballads. I already have a vision for another record, whether it will come to pass, you just never know. I have an idea for another record which will be kinda like this one, but a little more on the raw side. Because I do have stuff that I written that is a bit more intense.
So you do plan on touring?
Well, this whole thing has been so kind of spontaneous that I’m just taking it one little step at a time. The next thing that we’re working on is the possibility of touring. What we’re doing right now is talking about getting a guitarist, because a lot of the songs have two guitar parts, and practicing with him and going on tour this fall. Beyond that, I don’t really have any plans, except I will say that I’m really enjoying being back in music, and I will almost definitely continue.
I really like the Common Rider album a lot. It’s not Operation Ivy, but it’s got the same spirit behind it. Some people won’t like it because it’s not Operation Ivy, but I think it’s a good thing that you didn’t try to duplicate that sound, because it’s been done already, and you obviously have more to offer than just that sound.
I hope that’s true. Anytime you put out a record, there are going to be people who hate it and people who love it. I will say that the songs from the Common Rider album come completely straight from the heart. I wrote those songs on a kind of intensely personal level. There’s some people that it will work for and others it won’t, but I think it’s worth a try. There’s something to be said about just raw power and energy, too. Maybe on the next record I’ll do that more. When I wrote the new record, it was kind of a reflective time, so I just got a lot more into the emotions and personal stuff.
How would you describe the record?
One of the differences between this and the old stuff is that there’s love songs. The only love songs in Operation Ivy were like “Bombshell,” which isn’t exactly a tender ballad. [laughs] Maybe my emotional range has just broadened a little bit, which will annoy some people, but I guess that’s where I’m at. I guess I’ve kind softened up.
Another thing that people want to know is what you think of Rancid?
I really like Rancid. I think they’re a great roots punk band. Live, there are very few bands that can touch them. They’re absolutely amazing. Obviously, I’m biased in their favor [laughs].
Do you still talk to them a lot?
The last time I talked with them was at the Warped Tour. I haven’t talked to them in a while, but it’s basically because I lived 2000 miles away.
I know over the years you’ve stayed in touch, and you’ve even done album designs for them. What do you think led to Operation Ivy breaking up?
Basically, it was just time to move on. Even though it might not have made sense to the people on the outside, I think it made sense inside the actual situation. I think it made sense that we move on and do something else. I think some bands just aren’t made to last 5 or 6 years.
Just like Minor Threat. They couldn’t have kept going at the same pace for another 3 or 4 years. If they did I think the music would have suffered. Operation Ivy and Minor Threat are alike in how they burned bright, but when you burn that bright you burn out quicker. You both did an album, some 7-inches…
I don’t mean to compare us to Minor Threat, but I agree. It’s a similar sort of bright energy… It wasn’t made to last forever.
So what’s up next for you?
We’re basically working right now on getting a good guitarist, because I just have a high standard of playing live. I don’t want to go out there and be mediocre. So if we can get together, because you have to remember we’ve never played out yet, then we’re definitely gonna hit the road.
Good luck, and thanks for your time.
Thank you, Tom. I’m really glad you like the record. My mom likes it, and that’s what’s important [laughs].