CLASSICS OF LOVE released their debut full-length earlier this week via Asian Man Records and AP chatted with frontman Jesse Michaels about the new album, the chances of an Operation Ivy reunion and more.
Interview: Scott Heisel
It seems like you haven’t been this aggressive vocally in nearly 20 years. Has your voice gotten its second wind?
If anything, my voice is… It’s just the style of music. The last couple of years—Common Rider, all that intervening stuff—I was writing a different type of music. But this record was punker and more demanding of a very energetic, adrenaline-based performance. So that’s what I did. In other words, it wasn’t like a difference in quality of my voice; that’s what the type of music called for.
Did you have to remember how to sing that way?
Not really. It’s pretty natural for me. I’ve listened to fairly aggressive punk all my life, even when I was doing mellower stuff I was still listening to Jerry’s Kids and stuff like that. I love that stuff, even when I’m not playing it. So it was fairly natural.
There’s a little bit more of a ska influence peeking out on these songs versus the Classics Of Love EP, even though the bulk of it is Dag Nasty-esque hardcore. Did you have to convince your bandmates to include those ska flourishes?
If anything, they kind of convinced me. [Laughs.] Mike Park told me we should do ska songs, and I was like, “Yeah, whatever.” Because he’s crazy about ska. But then I said “Why not?” We tried it and it sounded good. I was surprised that it worked, actually. Not everybody can play ska. Not everybody has the feel for it. We tried a song and it sounded good, so we just went with it.
When you have pretty good chemistry with the people you play with, it kind of has its own momentum. I fooled around with the arrangements a little bit, and there’s certain go-to things that I try to include in any song, no matter what the style of music—like dynamics, having a good hook—so it all fell into place pretty naturally. Although I will say we’re very selective about the songs we end up keeping. For every song we keep, we try probably three or four, and they don’t quite work.
Classics Of Love is the first time you’ve played music with people who are significantly younger than you. What did the age difference bring to the band dynamic for you?
Not that much. Truthfully, it barely occurred to me that they were younger. I have a kind of childlike… I’m kind of an ageless person in a certain way, or maybe I’m just immature. I tend to be able to relate to people who are younger than me as well as I can people who are my age. We have a similar sense of humor.
A lot of people view you as an elder statesman of punk. What do you think about that?
[Laughs.] I’m not really that involved [with the scene]. I kind of do it as a hobby. I don’t really feel that deeply affiliated with the punk scene; there’s things I love about punk music and ideas that I like, but there are things about it that drive me crazy. I’ve pretty much moved on in my life. I’m not doing laps in the pit anymore or drinking 40-ouncers in the alley, or any of that shit. So in many ways I’ve moved on, but on the other hand, I still love it creatively. This band has been a chance to have a little fun with it without it being life-consuming or becoming a controlling identity for me.
Do you think you needed that much downtime between records to get to that point? The last Common Rider record was 2002.
I’ve never been all that consistent about playing music. I do a lot of other stuff; I’m a painter, I’m a writer, I’ve been going back to school. I guess I was a bit sporadic with the music, and I don’t really know why that is.
Was it difficult to write a novel knowing that some people view you as the son of Leonard Michaels?
Not really. My father was a great writer, and obviously it helped me to have grown up around books. But he traveled in very academic circles; he was kind of a writer’s writer. I get along with people like that, but I’m a different type of person; I’m more of a normal guy. It’s a different world. Most people don’t really believe that talent is genetic, so it’s not like people who liked his stuff will be particularly interested in what I’m doing. I’m working with a different audience. I’m sure people will probably draw some connections, but I also write in a much different style.
You’re very much a non-fiction writer on the Classics Of Love record. Would you say that’s accurate?
It is in one sense. I’m writing non-fiction stuff. But on the other hand, I think the process is kind of similar. You kind of enter the same imaginative space, wehatever you’re writing. My father was a very poetic writer. He was very well known for his prose, for these carefully crafted sentences. That’s kind of what I did with lyrics, although it’s a completely different genre. In some ways, it’s similar. In other ways, it’s completely different.
The one song that sticks out to me is “Gun Show,” both musically and lyrically. Are there certain moments on the record you’re most lyrically proud of?
Well, “Gun Show” is probably one of the more poetic songs. It’s basically about being in a punk band; it’s kind of a romantic song. It’s an us-against-the-world song, inspired by a Stiff Little Fingers song. I was stoked about that one. I feel pretty happy about all the lyrics. We used one song for every three we got rid of, and we weeded it down to the good stuff.
Were the songs you threw out completely written from a lyrical standpoint?
Not so much. Some of them. I always write reams of lyrics for every song, because I free-associate a lot.
Do you find yourself picking those songs’ scraps for other songs?
Oh yeah, I definitely pick up the scraps. For me, there’s something about inventing something new which makes it more interesting. I’ll use the lines I remember from old songs, especially choruses. I don’t go back through the old piles of lyrics, though. It sort of has to come out of my imagination to have creative energy, if you will.
The name Classics Of Love came from a Common Rider song. Was there a specific relevance to that song that made you want to choose it as a band name?
Well, I don’t know exactly… I don’t remember exactly how it came up. Our drummer was the guy who wanted to use that. I was a little bit skeptical because it sounds a little bit too sweet. That song title actually came to me in a dream; I woke up from a dream and I had a song going through my head called “Classics Of Love” which is not the one that Common Rider recorded. But anyway. It’s just sort of a phrase that’s been batting around in my head for a long time and it ended up feeling right for this band for whatever reason.
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I think the record is very classic-sounding; are there any moments on it that you think are modern or contemporary?
Well, I actually think it’s a very modern thing to survey old stuff. You see all these bands that came out since 2000 that are doing old-school hardcore like Set To Explode or Government Warning; they really capture the old sound in a way that bands in the ’90s never got right most of the time. But they sort of update it by taking the original spirit and energy and playing it in a very pure way now. The fact that there’s a completely different context kind of reinvigorates it. In that sense, I think the fact that we’re doing something old, in a way, is a very modern thing to do.
Your lyrics still carry a political undercurrent. Do you view Classics Of Love as a political band?
Um… I wouldn’t say we’re a political band. We’re basically just a bunch of idiots. The lyrics are definitely political. The issue is quite simple, which is money controls politics. That’s what it all boils down to. That’s what a lot of the songs are about. The control of wealth over politics has reached kind of a critical mass. It’s always been bad, but now it’s globally world threatening. I don’t believe that music is a means to an end; I don’t play music to try and change anyone’s mind. But the subject is so in-your-face right now that it’s just obvious material for songwriting, especially for punk music.
Why do you think that bands shy away from taking on those important sociopolitical causes?
My view is if you don’t feel it, then you shouldn’t do it. Songwriting, or any kind of writing, is really kind of about going with an internal compass that has nothing to do with the world at large. You gotta trust your instincts. If people don’t have instincts to write that stuff, that’s just the way it is. I do, because it’s what’s on my mind. But if my instinct was to write happy love songs, I would do that regardless of what was happening externally.
What is the endgame for Classics Of Love? What do you hope to get out of being in this band?
It’s kind of a means to an end. I just think about the next practice, the next show, the next record, and do it bit by bit. I don’t have any long-term projections. I’m not planning on playing punk music for that much longer; my voice isn’t super-strong. But while I still have a little gas in the tank, it’s fun to do and I love the music, so we’re having a go at it.
The band have been semi-active at best in terms of touring. Is that something you’d like to see increase this year, or are you comfortable where you are?
We’re all super-busy. We play shows selectively. If it seems like it’s gonna be a good show or a special show, we’ll take it. We’re probably gonna do a little bit more touring in support of the record; it kind of depends on what opportunities come up. If a band we really like offered us a supporting slot, it would be hard to pass up. There’s probably going to be less touring than some other bands, but we definitely will get out there and play shows.
Who would you want to support?
God… I would have to think about that. We generally get lumped in with pop-punk stuff, but I don’t know if that’s really who we’re best suited for, even though I like that music. It’s always nice to play with a band that already has a draw.
There seems to have been a distinct line drawn recently where you have a number of distinguished songwriters like Blake Schwarzenbach or J. Robbins who, instead of going back to the well of their old bands, they’re forming new bands and moving forward. But at the same time, you have plenty of people who are revisiting the ’80s and ’90s and reuniting their old bands. I’m sure you still get asked all the time about Operation Ivy; are you of the mindset that it could never be relived, or is that something you’re still open to?
Operation Ivy had kind of an unblemished record, as far as staying underground goes. It’s not because we were super-super-uptight about anything; it’s because we were a garage band. We didn’t get big till after we broke up. It feels to me that it would be kind of a shame to take that very pure thing and subject it to booking agents, cuts at the door for merchandise and all that bullshit that goes along with being in a bigger band. While it’s tempting—I’m not exactly made of money; I’m doing okay, but… [Laughs.] Money is a nice thing, and I know a lot of people would enjoy it, so while it’s tempting, I think it’s a little more classy to leave it alone. That being said, I wouldn’t completely rule it out, but the short answer is no, there won’t be a reunion. It’s very unlikely there will be a reunion, because it would be in poor taste. I’m very happy that people are still interested in that music and that it still has an appeal to younger kids.
Are there certain bands you think have gotten back together and done it right?
Well, let’s see… I went and saw the Buzzcocks, and I was expecting a letdown, but they totally blew me away. They were amazing. They were so spot-on. I think it can be done. I don’t have anything against people doing it in general; it just doesn’t really feel right for me. I think it can be done tastefully.
Do you think there’d be a better chance of Common Rider getting back together since that was more of a conventional band, not a garage band?
In some ways I do, but on the other hand… Playing music at the lower echelon is kind of tough, because it costs money. I’m doing other things with my life; I don’t have a lot of time to invest two months and stop everything and practice [for a reunion]. Again, I wouldn’t rule it out, but probably not.
What do you foresee your career in music moving into after punk rock? What’s something you’d like to do that you haven’t done yet?
First of all, I don’t want to rule anything out. For all I know, Classics Of Love could play for another 10 years or whatever. Who knows? Every time I end up making a plan, it ends up changing anyway. But other stuff: I’ve been doing a country band that does sort of Johnny Cash by way of Leonard Cohen-type country. That’s been really fun. That’s something that’s a whole different approach to music. It’s much more contemplative; it’s quiet. There’s no possibility of a fight at one of shows, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] That’s part of it with the punk stuff. I love punk, but I’ve reached an age where I never really need to be in a room where there’s likely to be a fight again in my life. It’s so stupid. It gets old.
For a punk band, you wanna have people moving, you wanna have an aggressive, energetic response. But that doesn’t necessarily connote violence. People get it wrong because they don’t know any better. We’ve had lots of shows where people were going crazy and jumping all over each other and there wasn’t a hint of hostility or macho shit. I know that Ian [MacKaye] didn’t like physical dancing; he wasn’t into the pit. I understand why: He came from the ’80s era of hardcore, and he wanted to do something different. I thought it was kind of revolutionary that he did question the status quo of a bunch of dudes running around in a circle slamming into each other. But for me, playing in a punk band, the ideal situation is where people are energetic and a little bit physical, but it’s okay if you’re a girl, okay if you’re gay, okay if whatever. It’s not a macho thing; it’s a shared energy type of thing.
With all those qualifiers in mind, then, could you pinpoint over your career the best show you’ve ever played?
I’ve played a lot of good shows. [Classics Of Love] played some really incredible shows in England. We had a fantastic show in San Diego, probably one of the best Classics shows ever.
Op Ivy had a lot of great shows. Op Ivy actually played this show in Providence with Fugazi and Verbal Assault, which was amazing. Op Ivy played with the Zero Boys; that was pretty incredible. Not just because of the bands we were playing with but because the crowd was fantastic. I’ve had quite a few really good ones.
What are some newer bands you’re really into?
I like the neo-hardcore stuff. I’m already out-of-date. I heard the Richmond, Virginia, and North Carolina neo-hardcore stuff, then there was a scene around here with bands like Nightstick Justice and Socialside and other bands like that. That stuff is really cool. Truthfully, I listen to a lot of music; at this very moment, I’m not that up-to-date on great, new punk but one thing I have noticed is every time I do a little YouTube search, the number of good bands is astounding. Far from good punk music being dead, I think the opposite is true: It’s almost like there’s so much of it, it’s hard to keep track of. alt