Jesse Michaels is back and he's gone hardcore. Although the East Bay native was the lyrical mastermind behind extremely influential ska-punk band Operation Ivy, after the band collapsed in 1989, he seemed to fade from public view. Michaels briefly resurfaced with Big Rig, and then again with Common Rider. But, while both of those bands had thought provoking themes, and perhaps featured deeper introspection, neither seemed to have the youthful fire of his earlier releases, and both groups seemed to dissolve with more of a whimper than a bang.
But now, Michaels has joined up with San Jose trio Hard Girls, to form Classics of Love. Again, Classics of Love features Michaels' lyrical singularity, but his words are now carried by the most energetic, fiercest, straight-up-slamming music that has ever been connected to his voice. Not only that, in contrast to his earlier work, the upcoming Classics of Love LP finds Michaels directly pointing fingers against corporate greed and railing against fiscal fiends. Because Classics of Love is about to release their first full length, staff writer John Gentile met up with Michaels to talk about the new self titled release, why he's been so prolific the last few years, and if he's so influential, why doesn't he drive a Bently?
In other interviews, youâve stated that you are not interested in politics by nature. But, this seems to be a very directly political record. What made you decide to right such an album so expressive in the political sense?
There are a lot of reasons. Things are coming to a head politically. Bush was bad enough and people expected relief from Obama. But, instead, we get one outrage after another. The National Defense Authorization Act, the bank bailout- which most people saw as a big scam, tax free low interest loans to the people that gave Obama an advance. It has gotten to the point where I donât always like to write political material, but this is from my conscious. I would be remiss if I didn't make a political record at this point in time.
On the other hand, I have always liked music with a political edge. The new Classics of Love record is not a hardcore record, but it has a strong influence of the hardcore records of 80âs, which were mostly political, which were so important for me. They were an organic expression that was simple and were extremely passionate. It was quite natural when writing those kind of riffs and working for those riffs when recording this album to write the lyrics that I did.
Youâve been fairly quiet the past decade, but this record seems to be getting a lot of interest. What is it like to have so much sudden interest after several years of being in the shadows?
I donât really listen to my own music. I canât hear it. I only hear shit in my head. Iâm a pretty confident person, but I can be a really self critical person. Lately, weâve been getting good feedback, so Iâm just surprised and grateful. No one ever disliked the band, but it hasnât exactly had extreme enthusiasm from most sectors. So, were getting people to like it. Having some kind of success is nice, but were not like were going to be making a lot of money.
Some artists, such as perhaps Greg Ginn, donât seem interested in whether the audience is receptive to their work, while others seem to value audience enjoyment. Do you create your art just for you, or do you factor in the reception that it will get while creating it?
Itâs a paradox. I want my art to be a service. You want to give people a transcendental experience. No matter what youâre doing, you want to show them something magical, whether itâs Picasso or Discharge. The thing is, in order to make really good art, you have to also have a part of yourself that doesnât think about critical response. At the same time, you have to create what people think and care about, all while not creating for them.
For a long time, you put out almost no music. But, between Classics of Love and your new folk-rockish influenced band, Passage Walkers, youâve been prolific and maintaining a high level of quality. Why are you suddenly so active?
Well, letâs see. Iâm not exactly sure. In the last year or so Iâve gotten way more productive. Itâs hard to tell when Iâm inspired and when Iâm just not. I wish I could call upon it more. I would have done more along time ago. The thing about what I just said, the thing about it is, the Classics of Love thing, we recorded a bunch of songs, but thatâs really just the result of over two years of work. We practice maybe twice a month. Weâve been developing the songs for quite a while, actually. Itâs kind of like the old overnight thing that really takes two years to do before anyone knows about it, so it just seems sudden.
But also, with Passage Walkers, Iâve started playing with this guy Mick Leonardi. We have a songwriting chemistry and write songs in about two minutes and then I go home and agonize over the lyrics for weeks. I have to give credit to the collaboration between me and Mick, because weâve just been writing so well together.
You are currently studying English. Have any of the classics affected your lyrics?
No, not really… It has in a way. I took a creative writing class and I tried writing poetry and it sort of opened some doors. My lyrical process is autonomous and has its own life. I have influences. I have been influenced by Bob Dylan, Dave Berman of the Silver Jews, Elvis Costello. Itâs pretty much its own thing. It kind of comes out by itself.
In punk rock, a lot of our musical heroes, such as Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone, tend to get deified, and treated more as elements or icons than actual people. It could be said that you are perilously close to beatification. Does the treatment of "Jesse Michaels" as an ideal ever affect the real Jesse Michaels' thought process?
Iâm aware of that some of the work that Iâve done has gotten attention in some quarters, and also that some people donât give a shit. I donât really let either view affect me too much. Iâm not out there out all the time. 23 hours a day, Iâm not doing my musical stuff. In my day to day life, Iâm dealing with my own insecurities and worries, the same as any one else. It doesnât even occur to me. I just try to get through the day and do the best that I can. I am really happy that some of the stuff has been meaningful… and Iâm willing to milk that to get my other stuff out there.
One of the members of Classics of Love is currently in Chicago studying a graduate program. So, is Classics of Love on hiatus, broken up, still active, or other?
You know, the standby name is Labor of Love. We just maintained the band against all common sense and done it in a casual, low, steady way. We havenât had the rewards some other people have had in music, and we havenât tried to promote the band in a serious touring force. Even though weâre in hiatus, I donât see why we canât continue to grow and make music together.
I think itâs fair to say that you are somewhat reticent to do interviews. How come?
Generally speaking, I avoid interviews. Thereâs a certain set of questions that people ask over and over again and they havenât read all the old interviews, and they just write whatever comes to mind. Basically, put simply, I am really sick of answering the same questions. It makes me feel a little bit crazy, and I understand why people who do a lot of press get nutty. They have to do the same thing over and over, and it makes you feel like a ghost. It makes me feel like people are leading me to a purely oblique projection, which is just a weird feeling. That is uncomfortable and I donât love it.
Along those lines, some artists, such as the 75 year old Lee Perry, seemed to be energized by the audience, while other artists, such as Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse, seem to be drained by the audience. Almost by opening themselves up so much, the audience takes more than they can give. Do you ever feel that live shows or interviews are that way for you?
Interviews and live shows are two completely different things. Live shows just depend on the shows. When you play live, you just want a great response. I donât think that I have the kind of mystique that people go crazy just because Iâm there- people still want a good show. People wonât just settle for a retread of a good past. Iâve played plenty of shows where nobody gave a shit. Iâve also experienced some great shows. You get energy from the crowd. Thatâs what makes us play better.
As for it being draining, I donât really experience it that much. Itâs fun and still meaningful to me. It is not a full time thing. Sometimes, I experience this thing where people will meet someone and people have an idea that has been amplified and itâs difficult for that person to live up to that. But, for me, it is not frequent enough that it becomes overwhelming. For example, say I got in a huge band when I was 20, I probably would have responded like Kurt Cobain… I wouldn't kill myself, but the same type of things I think I would experience. But, I donât have to deal with it that much.
It seems that whenever you are mentioned, the name Operation Ivy comes up. Is that a burden or a badge for you?
For me, with that band, I am interested in what I am doing now. But, I am very happy that itâs still meaningful and that young people like it. But, I donât always want that to be my identify, because it was 22 years ago. I can be like someone who was a high school football star, and is talking about the "big game" at 40. On the other hand it still new and is being by young people all the time, so it makes me glad that they can still get something from it.
Certainly, you are extremely influential, but you havenât been necessarily made rich off your music. Are money and art diametrically opposed?
My view on making money from art is that when anybody who makes art makes money, itâs one of the good guys winning. Iâd rather see someone from a punk band make their money from the band then punching the clock where they aren't going to utilize their talents. I havenât made any money off art in several years. If you wouldn't be doing it without the money, you shouldn't be doing it at all. I donât think money is anything to be ashamed of- itâs the icing on the cake.
Do you feel slighted that your level influenced isnât paralleled by your income?
No, I donât. I feel that Iâve been very fortunate. Iâve gotten some money, and have gotten some recognition, but Iâve been able to keep that shit out of my ego. So for me, Iâve managed to have this life, where I get to play music, where I donât have to be changed by it, and thatâs kind of the way I like it. I never got to buy a house, and some of the other people who have gotten bigger did get things like that, but I did manage to keep doing what I was doing. Although Iâve worked my whole life, it has been easier to create what I want to create.
I also do understand why Iâve seen bands get involve with major labels. Often their music isn't affected, but you see them become more cynical. Big Business is a machine, a tool that can be used for different things. What you are dealing with is an entity that has no conscious. There is a reason why corporations have officers. Itâs more of a military designation than anything else. Their sole imperative is to make a profit. If there is some philosophy or mission statement, it is geared towards which is most acceptable- which is geared towards a profit motive. Bands go in as sensitive and idealistic people and get chewed up and spit out. The vast majority of bands are going to get dropped. If someone can make it work, good for them. But, most bands end up regretting it.
So then, do you feel like youâve been chewed up?
I donât feel that Iâve been chewed up, probably because I wasnât that active, and I was still doing independent music and I didn't get deeply involved in the music business. Opportunities didn't present themselves. If they did, I wouldnât say I wouldn't do it, but Iâd be cautious and remember what is important- Not because I want to be a saint, but because I want to protect my own creative impuls