Busting genre norms can be a career-threatening undertaking for any band. Especially one firmly entrenched in a genre’s sound. Skate punk broke into new stratospheres alongside the bands that propelled punk into the mainstream sphere through the 1990s. While certain California bands were the face and sound of radio airplay, Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords were amongst the labels whose bands bubbled just below the surface. This “EpiFat” sound of bands- melodic skate punk- proved to be the right sound for those looking to delve into the underground of the punk catalog.
Ten Foot Pole are one of those bands that solidified their place in perhaps the genre’s finest hour, writing and releasing albums that would help define the era. Born as hardcore act Scared Straight in 1983, they became Ten Foot Pole as their sound progressed in the early 1990s, releasing seminal albums Rev (1994), Unleashed (1997), and Insider (1999) on Epitaph. Now more than 20 years since their music first reached across the globe, they’re preparing for the release of their most ambitious and creative work to date. Their new album, their first since 2004’s Subliminable Messages, takes skate punk and rock opera into territory neither have been before; combined together into what would be best describes as “Milo Goes to the Opera”.
Escalating Quickly is that work, 11 songs that will turn skate punk upside down and inside out. We spoke to guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter Dennis Jagard about the band’s new album, what he’s been up to over the last few years, working with producer Ryan Greene once again, and just what it took to create Escalating Quickly.
Thanks for taking the time to have a chat- wow, this new album- how does it feel now that it’s done- your first new studio album since 2004?
It’s a relief to finally be here, sharing the new songs! But also it’s a bit scary, like I’m going to show my baby to the world, knowing there will be some haters and trolls savaging this work my brain and heart is so tied up in.
I really dig the album, doing things that I didn’t think punk bands could or wanted to do with sound. Pushing limits, being creative, layering sounds- what was the catalyst for really doing something different?
Oh, it’s great to start an interview with a nice review, thanks! A few years ago we did a retrospective album called Setlist where we re-recorded, and sometimes rearranged a bunch of our favorite old Ten Foot Pole songs, and threw in a couple of new tracks. I considered that record a modern reference/summary of our history/identity—to show how hard, fast and loud we could play those old songs I wrote, and still add worthy new songs to the collection. One major reason we did that was so that new audiences could have a current, great sounding reference to take home from shows. Also, I wanted to solidify our reputation and street cred, to give us the freedom to let go of the past, to push forward without feeling a need to prove that we are punk or hardcore or fast or heavy or anything people might expect. We could just make music. And after writing and recording about 9 records of fast, 2 guitar straight ahead songs with this band since 1984 (we were called Scared Straight before Ten Foot Pole), I thought it was time to experiment more—slow things down, have fun with sounds, have guests bring in fresh ideas, and let Ryan play keyboards;)
And Ryan Greene of course, how was it back working with him again? You guys last worked together for Insider (1999)?
It is always fun and fulfilling to work with Ryan! He fully recorded/mixed/produced Unleashed and Insider, but he also helped us record drums and rhythm guitars for Subliminable Messages (then he got busy with his “real” customers so we did the rest our own way). Ryan really took my goal of doing something “different” to heart—and just went over the top with some ideas such as harmonies, guitar lines, keyboard lines, and sound effects.
How did you come up with the ideas and sounds for Escalating Quickly?
Ryan really gets credit for pushing the envelope of ideas and sounds. I wrote almost all of the songs as simple acoustic tunes (Scott Hallquist wrote “Forever Road”, which I thought was an amazing, epic metal tune). Then I made demos, playing very basic rhythm guitar parts, using virtual drummer in Logic, and adding bass—I’m not a bass player! Then I gave those songs to Ryan and the band (especially Scott Hallquist and Keith Divel), who digested them a bit and we played some songs live. Then Ryan really embraced the “different” plan and drove changes in the songs that gave them much more personality, movement, layers, and shredding. I don’t think it happened overnight, but rather little bits at a time that led to a multi-layered extravaganza, like nachos!
Everyone loves nachos! The song “Numb” for instance- it’s like space-themed punk pop-opera- at least sonically- how fun was it to write this song?
I had a lot of fun writing the song, but I didn’t realize it was going to have 80’s keys and space-themed punk opera. Mostly I wrote the song out of frustration of being criticized at work for trying too hard (worrying too much, that made me prepare a lot). But I especially enjoyed that when I played it for people, they instantly started singing along with the high pitched “Numb” vocal.
How did the writing and recording process differ from say, Unleashed or Insider? Was it more freeing, less constrained to having to sound a certain way?
The sounds came quite a bit after the writing process. I mostly wrote the songs on acoustic guitar while on tour as a sound engineer for Jimmy Eat World and then “Weird Al” Yankovic. I only recently re-discovered a love for acoustic guitar, as I realized that I could sing and play my songs all by myself, in a way that was fun and sounded nice (I got bored trying to rehearse with electric guitar by myself while on the road as an engineer). I committed to singing/playing daily. And gradually started to sing/play in front of people, as my courage grew based on occasional positive feedback from random strangers, and sometimes fans. I shared new songs, especially trying to get people to sing along on the choruses—so songs like “Don’t Be a Dick” (“Dick dick dick dick”) and “Everything Dies” (“dies… dies… dies…”) and “Numb” (high pitched “Numb”) became my favorites to play on sidewalks, and eventually small shows. Even Jimmy Eat World fans, waiting out on the streets before shows, really loved to sing along with new songs (if I introduced myself first). And found that I instantly knew if I was ashamed of new songs when I sang them on sidewalks—so I threw away all the songs I was not proud of, which I call “trial by humiliation.” I think this songwriting was a lot more intensive and critical than the songs cranked out in the ’90s when I only sang with the loud band and it was hard to even hear the vocals. We did make simple 4 track demos in the ’90s, but nothing like our recent demos, as far as knowing what the song is really going to be like (I mean, before our guitarists, Ryan Greene, and guests add amazing new ideas).
And with Escalating Quickly, I really wasn’t trying to write 90’s skate punk songs—I was just trying to write good songs, not worrying about the genre. I’m expecting some people will be bummed we didn’t stick to the formula (especially keyboard haters), but I think it was time to try something new (especially dueling guitar solos). Maybe the next full band record (I mean the one after the upcoming acoustic project), we’ll go for something harder and more aggressive…
You had a lot of guests and friends on this record- Dan Palmer, Joe Raposo, Sean Sellers to name a few. How did the dynamic of the record change and how did they add to the sound you were looking for?
In addition to our usual guitar soloists Scott Hallquist and Keith Divel, bringing in guests, and just letting them have fun, was part of the idea to try to capture some exciting, improvising parts on top of the basic music which was fairly planned/stable. Especially the guitar dubs sessions, there was a bit of giggling, as Ryan encouraged the guys to just cut loose and have fun. I guess especially for people in a known band, with genre expectations, as well as that band’s culture and dynamics, it can be fun for musicians to come in where they don’t have much to risk, they can just play and have fun. Ryan is an expert ringleader of musicians having fun—he has brutal honesty if something sucks, he gets VERY excited when things are rad, he’s very efficient with technology, and he’s (nearly;) always right! So quality work gets done fast, which really helps with keeping musicians interested in working with us again. Originally, for example, I invited Dan Palmer (Death by Stereo and Zebrahead) to come in and play a guest solo or two… and he ended up there for several days, even joining Dan Jacobs (Atreyu) on dueling guitar leads!
I understand that it’s been busy away from Ten Foot Pole for some time, doing lots of other projects and work outside of the band. Was there something in particular that meant this was the right time to do a new Ten Foot Pole record?
I’ve been wanting to do a new album for a while, but this was finally the time when I had the songs that I felt I needed to share, that were worthy of sharing. Luckily, I had a few good years as a sound engineer and had a few bucks I was willing to gamble/invest (and a friend in Quebec that said my family could live in his mountain cabin if I lost our home due to TFP). So I paid for the record production, starting in late 2017, with hope/faith that I could get crowdfunding help (which is now our Patreon subscription efforts) to recoup the investment (so my kids can eat), as well as hope that I could find a real label willing to be a partner to help us make vinyl, get music in the stores, and help with art, marketing and other professional label duties that I could not do… and that is where Thousand Islands Records joined the picture. I met TIR owners Cynthia and Bruno only in 2018, but they were so kind, helpful and professional that I immediately wanted to be on their team, and we became partners! I just hope enough people buy the record that their investments are covered so their faith in TFP proves to be beneficial for their family.
You guys released Setlist in 2017 on El Hefe’s label- were there plans to do a new album for Cyber Tracks or was the plan originally just to do Setlist and find a new home for the new music?
The original plan was to do a full new album, but after releasing many new albums in that time frame, Cyber Tracks had circumstances causing them to slow down a bit. I’m extremely grateful for Hefe and Jen for believing in TFP and enabling us to record and release Setlist, which I’m very proud of!
Unleashed is still one of my favorite records- it was an important one for me, I was living in Indonesia at the time and I actually had to fly to Singapore to get this CD – how do you look back at this time period, being one of the wave of bands that really helped bring the genre into the mainstream? (That was my convoluted way of saying thanks)
Thank you for sharing that! Those kinds of stories, and the friendly people at our shows, really make all the work of being in a band worthwhile! I look back at the Unleashed timeframe as an exciting, but scary time for me. I had always been the guitarist and a main songwriter in the band, but it was before Unleashed that we decided to make me the singer too, as our previous singer, Scott Radinsky was a full-time major league baseball pitcher (he went on to do great with Pulley). So while I was, and am, proud of songs like “John” and “ADD” on Unleashed, I also had to experience the emotional impact of knowing that a good chunk of our fans were not happy that we moved on without Scott (we still have some trolls to this day, 25 years later!). So it was an amazing time for me, moving into the attention of singing in front of crowds and meeting lots of people, but also tricky and sad knowing that some people were disappointed. We moved forward, and made lots of new friends, with albums like Insider, Bad Mother Trucker, and Subliminable Messages … but it still hurts when I hear negative reviews—I just want to please everyone I guess. That said, the line I wrote in John: “Dennis it’s so good to see you” was a bit cheeky, I guess, showing the punk attitude that I can include my name in the song lyrics… but after all these years, so many people randomly sing that to me… and it makes it feel worthwhile.
What are the plans for the rest of 2019?
The album release is May 10th. The first tour starts in California May 24th and goes up through US, quite a bit in Quebec, and then across Canada to Washington. I can’t announce anything else yet, but we are hoping to circle Europe in October/November as part of a package… And trying to figure out ways to get to Australia, Japan, and in support slots of our favorite bands. Links to our tour dates, presales and our Patreon information (subscriptions that help the band, with some sweet benefits) can be found at TenFootPole.com.
Ten Foot Pole’s new album, Escalating Quickly, is out May 10th on Thousand Islands Records.
Dreams and Devotion: An interview with Strung Out’s Jason Cruz
For Strung Out’s Jason Cruz, art is more than just the music he’s known for. It’s the dreams and emotions he writes and paints as well.
For almost 30 years, Jason Cruz has been synonymous with the art he’s been crafting. That art of course, is his work as songwriter and vocalist for Simi Valley melodic punk rock outfit Strung Out, who since 1990, have been writing hard-hitting, emotionally-charged music that became part of the wave that brought punk’s into the mainstream consciousness in the mid-1990s. Strung Out’s three albums of that decade, 1994’s Another Day in Paradise, 1996’s Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues, and 1998’s Twisted By Design, proved to be the perfect answer to those who sought out the deeper underground of punk that bellowed below the surface of Green Day’s Dookie and Offspring’s Smash.
For many listeners like myself, Strung Out and many of their Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph brethren meant a world of new music wrapped in the subcultures of skateboarding, surfing, punk attitudes, and a vibrant urgency that echoed sounds of rebellion and independence. While pop culture acceptance for just about any form of art and music seems fleeting, Strung Out have never wavered from what they do; now three decades into their history and nine albums deep into an ever-impressive catalog. Songs of Armor and Devotion is perhaps the band’s finest work since they first burst onto the scene. Composed, yet still breathing fire, its tracks still exhibits that “debut album energy” but comes with the benefit of the wisdom of touring, writing, and experiencing the world three decades over.
However, for Jason Cruz, art is more than just Strung Out. He has quietly and not so quietly been honing his craft as an artist and a painter, coming to light on a musical front by painting the cover art to his band’s 2011 “Best Of” album Top Contenders: The Best of Strung Out, and NOFX’s 2013 EP Stoke Extinguisher. But one look at the wide spectrum of art he’s painted and you can see that it’s more than just album covers. His painted work, like his music, seems to come from the same passion and emotion that drives his lyrics and songwriting. Now he embarks on a new chapter as a children’s book writer, taking inspiration from his daughter to write There Are Such Things As In Your Dreams, a bedtime story born in dreams.
We spoke to Cruz not long after the release of the band’s new album to talk about the long-lasting influence of Strung Out and to discuss his art and how they share the same creative head space. We also spoke about his upcoming art exhibit and his new book and the toll and triumphs of the tour cycle.
Congrats on Songs of Armor and Devotion. It’s stellar work; how do you all feel about the release and response to the record?
Cruz: I’m glad people are digging the tunes. I’m anxious to get em out on the road and see what they turn into. See if I can keep up with RJ. It feels like another new level to explore.
But you’ve been busy with a lot of projects- tell us a little bit about the children’s book you have written? It was inspired by your daughter?
Cruz: The book is called There Are Such Things As In Your Dreams and it’s basically a bedtime story. My daughter just spoke the title one day as we hangin’ out having one of our talks and it stuck. I thought it was the most beautiful thing she ever said.
What’s the story of the book?
Cruz: It is basically a bedtime story trying to explain to a kid what the hell dreams are and how cool they can be. How the adventures you dream at night can only pale to the ones that await you when you wake kinda thing.
How long did it take to write and create the book?
Cruz: I worked on the story, which is more like a poem, and all the illustrations for just over two years. Anywhere I could set up and draw. In between shows, on planes, at the desk at home, wherever. Once I told the kid I was gonna do this book she made sure to ride me pretty hard about getting it done so she could take it to school and read it to the class.
What’s the approach like writing the book in comparison to writing songs for a new Strung Out record?
Cruz: Pretty similar process I guess since they both involve rhythm, flow and the use of imagery and imagination. With a song, it’s a collaborative process. Each member adds an element to construct this thing. With the book, it was all me. Inventing as I went along until I had enough elements to unify the idea as a whole. It’s a lot harder flying blind like that. I guess I kept this first attempt as simple as possible for that reason.
Where can we buy the new book?
Cruz: All the usual modern day outlets like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Baby. It will also be available on my site as well.
I’m looking at some of your art and I like how different the pieces are. For instance, the difference in emotion, style with pieces like “Choke”, “Rise & Fall”, and “Church Fix”. What are some of the things that inspire your art and what were some of the inspirations behind these pieces?
Cruz: Oh I guess just the love of doing is what really inspires me. To be an artist. To challenge myself. To learn my craft and grow. I could never stick to a certain style or look very long because I’m just too moody I guess. I need the freedom to move around and explore. Always trying ‘get it right’ whatever that means.
Is creating art a completely private and solo process for you?
Cruz: Completely. I guess that’s why it can be so maddening at times and so fulfilling at the same time. Like what nerve do I have to even attempt this?!?! What is this whole art thing?!?! Is this good?!?! And somewhere in between all that doubt, there is joy and fun. Problem solving and improvisation.
What are some of the things when looking back at this 20+ year career with Strung Out do you hold as the most important to you? Is it the records? The consistency with the work or the influence you’ve had for listeners around the globe?
Cruz: To be able to keep living my life in a such a way is all I can ever hope for. Making true connections. As long as I am a good person, as long as I am good to my muse and never take anything for granted and always be awake and alive I am grateful.
Is there one album you look back as particularly important to the band and yourself? Say one that you felt like thing were heading in the right direction?
Cruz: For me, I’d have to say it was the pseudo acoustic record we did called Black Out the Sky. That record was super important in our development as a band and as human beings. It kinda loosened any restraints we thought we had and really showed our fans and ourselves the possibilities of our union as a whole.
I’ve always loved Suburban Teenage and Twisted By Design because I think both records hit at the right time for me (I grew up in Indonesia and discovering your music was a big part in who I was and am); plus I learned that bands could hit hard just as much as they sang with emotion- but I think Songs of Armor and Devotion is very much in the same vein. What was the songwriting process like for Songs of Armor… and when did you guys start writing the record?
Cruz: It all happened really quick. Once we set aside the time to write and record we wasted no time and the ideas all came very fast and effortlessly – for the most part. We had a lot of ‘pent up‘ energy and angst I guess you say.
I love the song “Crows”- did you feel like it was a great stand-alone song- were there reasons why you didn’t want to put it on a record?
Cruz: Who knows? Looking back I don’t even remember. It seemed like it didn’t really fit anywhere but it was too good to just let go, so yeah, that song is kinda like a sad pretty little island.
You’ve got an exhibit coming up in October that will showcase your art and your new children’s book. Is the process of creating a new exhibit the same for you as say, planning an upcoming tour? What can we look forward to at the exhibit?
Cruz: Luckily I have help from some really great people. I’ll be painting up until the last minute so any and all help is greatly needed and appreciated. Along with the illustrations from the book I will also have on display a series of new oil paintings.
Steve Caballero is also part of the exhibit, was it a natural process working together with Steve on this? How did this come together?
Cruz: Steve is a blossoming artist and a great human being. I guess I just got extremely lucky on this one.
Strung Out have a North American tour coming up with The Casualties. How’s life on the road these days, are you guys all still enjoying being on the road?
Cruz: Ask me that on the last week of the tour and you’ll get a different answer than now.
I got to see you guys twice the last couple of times you were down in Australia; will we see you here sometime next year?
Cruz: Yes, I believe something big is in the works for Spring.
Do you have a road map for the next few years or are you happy with playing things as they come?
Cruz: It’s more a map of the ocean and I am chained to the wheel.
Jason Cruz’s Fine Art Exhibition and children’s book launch takes place Friday, October 25th, 2019 at the Copro Nason Gallery in Los Angeles. Tickets can be booked here. More information can be found on Jason Cruz’s official website. Strung Out’s new album, Songs of Armor and Devotion, is out now on Fat Wreck Chords.
All Work and All Play: An interview with The Drowns
The Drowns prove that having the right work ethic goes a long way
It’s been a busy year for Seattle punks The Drowns. The band, whose individual histories stretch back some 20 years, are a rough and tumble blend of street punk bravado and positive attitude that found its footing with their 2018 debut album View From the Bottom. With tours, festivals, and new music already checked off in 2019, The Drowns put the “work” in working class rock n’ roll with no rest in sight. Fresh off the release of a new 7″ titled The Sound, the band are prepping for their first ever Japanese tour in October and are working on their new full-length album due in the near future.
On top of the globe trotting, the band will take part in this year’s Rock The Ship Festival, their label’s annual punk rock escapade on the high seas, anchoring a lineup that includes noted bands like Cock Sparrer, CJ Ramone, and Subhumans. We spoke to vocalist Aaron Rev about the new 7″, the terrific street punk anthem “The Bricks of Ol’ Rainier”, and what they’re looking forward to next to cap off an already packed 2019.
I really enjoyed the new 7”- how has the reception been, and how are you guys feeling about these new songs?
Rev: Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. So far, so good. The reception has been incredible. And we love the new songs. We just got back from a month and a half tour, and the new jams went over great.
It sounds like the band is very in tune right now and that things have continued to go strong since the debut album?
Rev: Totally. We also have a pretty intense work ethic, so right when we are finished with something we are already working on what’s next. Just keeping the ball rolling.
The songs on the new 7” SOUND amazing- where did you guys record and produce the record?
Rev: We working with our brother Jesse O’Donnell from the band Noi!se at his studio the Autopsy Room in beautiful Tacoma WA. Working with Jesse was great. He’s a great guy, and a great engineer. He’s really got an ear for this type of music, and he pours his heart in to it.
What’s the story behind “The Bricks of Ol’ Rainier”?
Rev: I live in the south end of Seattle. Years ago I moved to a neighborhood called Georgetown. It was incredible. Tons of artists living in a kind of shitty area, just for cheap rent so they could keep creating. When I’d first moved there, it really was one of the greatest points in my life. I was surrounded by incredible people who inspired me to create. But, we all started to see the gentrification coming, because nothing that great could last forever. The Georgetown neighborhood has a huge building in the middle of it called Rainier Cold Storage, where they used to make and store Rainier Beer. They ended up tearing part of the building down, and for me that symbolized the beginning of the end of what we had. When they were tearing it down, I broke in at night and stole some bricks for the old building, and when I have them around, they serve as reminders to carry the spirit of what we once had along with me wherever I go.
You’ve been playing a bunch of shows over the last few months- how have they been? How are these new songs translating to the live setting?
Rev: The shows have been CRAZY! We’ve gotten tons of support and a great reception to all of the new material. It was a killer tour.
For those who may not be familiar yet, share with us a little history of the Drowns.
Rev: We were all friends in different bands, and we’ve all been in the game for 15-20 years a piece. Our respective bands started to slow down, so we all decided to start a project together. Also, not many bands we knew of were playing the style we wanted to play. So we got together, started writing, and just haven’t stopped.
Are you guys splitting time between Seattle and LA?
Rev: Our drummer Jake lives in LA so we just fly him back and fourth to accommodate, and we head down there. With the internet, it’s surprisingly easy to keep a long distance band going these days.
Speaking of Seattle, I saw on your Twitter that some of you were at a Sounders game- is soccer the sport of choice for The Drowns?
Rev: Totally. Huge soccer fans. MLS and Premier League. Some of us are big hockey fans too.
It’s funny because I felt that “The Bricks of Ol’ Rainier” has that stadium anthem feel to it (at least in my head), that its a great song for thousands of people to sing together.
Rev: Hell ya. I’ve worked with the Sounders in the past with my old band. I’d live to have The Downs work with them. It’d be a perfect fit.
Pirates Press has been releasing some great music this year; you guys are in great company. What were some of the reasons for choosing Pirates Press as the new home for your music?
Rev: First and foremost, they are incredible people over there. You be hard pressed to find any other label active right now that gives a shit as much as they do. They are hands on, they are passionate, and they care about the bands, and the music, and the fans. They are truly a great example of how a label should be run.
You were at Punk Rock Bowling this year- how was it? It’s such a massive looking festival from the outside- Did you guys have fun?
Rev: It was KILLER! The lineup this year was insane. The setup of the festival this year was perfect. And, we were crazy surprised when we started playing at 3:30pm and right after we hit that opening chord and turned around, there was a sea of people! We felt so humbled by how many people cane to see us. It was insane.
Are there already plans for a new full-length to follow View From the Bottom? What are the plans for the rest of the year?
Rev: We are definitely always working. So you can bet that you’ll hear about new material soon. But for now, we are going to hit Europe and Japan later this year. And keep on moving.