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Break Free: An interview with Ten Foot Pole

Escalating Quickly is 11 songs that will turn skate punk upside down and inside out. We spoke to Ten Foot Pole guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter Dennis Jagard about the band’s new album.

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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.

Ten Foot Pole - Escalating Quickly

Escalating Quickly

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.

Ten Foot Pole
Photo: Chris Spicer

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.

Interviews

Like a Hurricane: An Interview with Year of the Fist

Year of the Fist are a much needed short in the arm of rock music. We chat to vocalist/guitarist Squeaky.

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Oakland based rock n’ roll band Year of the Fist are the kind of the rock n’ roll band you can’t bring home to meet mom. Evoking the sounds made famous by labels like Sympathy for the Record Industry, Year of the Fist are “a hurricane of swirling rock n’ roll poundage”. Unrelenting and visceral, their music is the unforgiving wave in a sea of safe rock music; a sentiment best exemplified by their brand new full-length album, Revive Me. And like the title itself, Year of the Fist are a much-needed shot of energy; raw, no-frills, and urgent.

We caught up with guitarist and vocalist Squeaky, who, along with the band, have just returned from a short trek through California and Nevada to showcase their new album. We talk about the history of the band, their fantastic new record, Oakland, small-town shows, and rock n’ roll.

Congrats on the new record- reception has been positive to it (we loved it)- how do you all feel?

We are all very happy with the way the album turned out. The last year and a half working on felt like an eternity but it’s done and I am stoked.

How did the writing and recording for the record go? It sounds fantastic- did you self-produce or work with someone in the studio?

The album is self-produced and the recording was a multi-step and studio process.  We were lucky to work in some amazing studios with some terrific engineers.

Do you have a favorite song from the new record? Or maybe one you all love playing live in particular?

I believe I can speak for everyone when I say “Ghosts” is one of our favorites off this album to play live. And speaking for myself, “Red Lights Flash” is another one I really like playing. 

Revive Me is your third full length; what were some of the things you wanted to get done with this record- things maybe you learned from the two LPs prior?

It is actually of 2nd full length. In between the two, we released a 4 song EP.  To be honest, I always have an idea in my head on how I am going to approach something and it never works that way. There is always a curveball, an emotion, a gut feeling that pulls you a different direction. So I am trying to get better at going into something with no direction to be honest ….. we’ll see how that works out.

You are based in Oakland- are you guys all from the area and how did Year of the Fist come together?

Our lead guitarist, Katie, is the only member from the Bay Area. I am from the East Coast. Our drummer, Hal, is from the Mid-West and our bassist, Serge, is from Russia. Hal & I met on tour in different bands, I believe sometime in 2006. He lived in Washington and I was in California. Hal eventually moved down to Oakland and we started YOTF in 2011. We anticipated it being a 2 piece band but after writing the first few songs we knew that wasn’t going to be the case. I knew Katie from playing shows throughout the Bay Area,  so she jumped on board, then skip ahead 8 years, we found our bassist, Serge. We played with several bass players over the years but now I feel we have found our fit. Serge was one of us within minutes of meeting him.

Do you remember what your first experience with rock n’ roll was? Was it a show, something on the radio, a record, or a band?

I was raised in a rock n roll household so I don’t recall a 1st experience, my upbringing was the experience. As far as going to punk shows, I was living in Richmond, VA and I went to my first punk show at 12 or 13. I was immediately drawn to the energy. I was already playing guitar but after seeing a hundred punks packed into a tiny, sweaty club and feeding off the energy coming off the stage I knew I wanted to be the one on the stage.

What makes Oakland a good place for a rock n’ roll band? Is it the venues, the community?

Oakland has its ups and down with good punk venues to be honest. It seems we will have a ton of good rock venues for a few years and then it takes a nosedive for a few years. It’s tricky like that. Oakland is such a diverse city it keeps every band from being full of a bunch of white straight men. It’s a breath of fresh air.

And some of you pull double duty in multiple bands?

We sure do. Hal & I are in a 2 piece rock band called Cut-Rate Druggist while Katie has a solo project that goes by her name, Katie Cash, and a rock/funk band called Skip The Needle. Serge is the only smart one by not burning the candle at both ends.

You played a bunch of shows in July- across California and then to Nevada- what are some of the things you enjoy most about being able to play these songs live?

We just wrapped up that quick 4-day run and it was terrific. There is nothing like seeing people singing the words you wrote, seeing their body move to a particular part in a song that makes your body move the same way, to have someone tell you how much a song means to them. It is so therapeutic. It is the best shrink that I have ever had.

I used to live in Stockton; it was a tough place when I lived there. But it was always exciting to know bands stopped by (when they did)- how important it is to you guys to find new cities and towns to play in each tour?

Really? You lived in Stockton? What a small world!! 

I really enjoy playing smaller cities/towns. The crowd isn’t as jaded as big cities. I don’t mean that as an insult, hell, I am probably one of those jaded people. Living in a big city you can see awesome local and touring bands any day of the week, it gets taken for granted. When you go to a smaller city that has 2, maybe 1 rock show a month, people appreciate that you drove 4-6 hours to get there.

What are the plans for Year of the Fist for the rest of the year and beyond?

We have some light US touring in the fall along with playing FEST in Gainesville, FL. And maybe getting some rest!

Year of the Fist’s new album Revive Me is available now via Heart On Records.

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Neon Love: Introducing Okay Cool

We talk to LA duo Okay Cool about their debut single

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On the fourth or fifth time I listened to Okay Cool’s first single “Back To You” I hear a voice from the other room chiming in, “this song is really great my love”. It’s my wife, who often spends moments in the other room passively listening to my music. Okay Cool, the suave duo comprised of Jenna Maranga and Rich Gonzalez are on the cusp of releasing their first single and amongst the myriad of music my wife listens to second hand, this is the one she comments on.

It’s only been two years since Okay Cool formed. Once separated by the continental United States, both Maranga and Gonzalez call the City of Angels home. And it’s “home” home. Maranga, who has spent time in New York, has returned to the city she grew up in, reuniting with her friend that spent many summer days at her parent’s house (the same one they still live in now), by the pool drinking margaritas.

I imagine the formation of Okay Cool as happening under the Los Angeles’ night sky, summer some time, clad in the aura of neon lights. But the truth is, their formation happened much more organically, as Maranga explains; “[Rich] has a really cozy studio in his house in Crenshaw that you just want to spend time in, sipping bourbon and hanging out with Billy the pup. Though we didn’t go into it expecting anything like Okay Cool to be born, we genuinely loved the songs we were writing. We were both feeling giddy about the sound we were moving toward and the relaxed vibe — it was like we were making a soundtrack to our time together”. And as you listen to “Back To You”, you get that — a certain vibe, the soundtrack of two artists making music over bourbon and hanging out with Billy the pup. But as the listens multiply, you know that it’s also much more. Clad in the silky smooth vibes of R&B and soul made famous by artists like Sade, Okay Cool channel the timeless sounds of sophisticated pop that resonates on a multitude of levels.

Sade was an escapable name in the 80s, one that crossed the globe. But when asked if Okay Cool purposely set out to make music like Sade, the answer may surprise you; “For me, this sound is just kind of what naturally comes out when I produce music. Jenna’s project Isla June is quite different from our sound for Okay Cool, which is the best part of this project in my opinion. Jenna has a unique ability of shaping her voice/writing style to most genres. I’d like to think Jenna brings out the best in my production style.” Gonzales says. But flip that on the upside and you have Maranga’s differing approach; “That’s why I need Rich! It totally comes naturally to him. I’ll be honest, for me, it was more or less intentional. Most of the music I’ve written over the years has been loud and energetic with a lot of belting vocals and sonic builds. I wanted to do something totally different in the realm of Sade (whom I love), and Rich is the perfect counterpart for that. His writing and production are some of my favorites to sing melodies to — they immediately spark ideas, and his jazz background has given him an innate sense for structure and arrangement. His songs just flow so well.” Combine the two approaches and you have Okay Cool’s debut single- classy production that crosses soul and jazz with electronica and a golden voice that melts.

They seem to work in concert because even though they approach Okay Cool a little differently, the collaboration works. And whether you listen to “Back To You” to find comfort in the night sky after a long day, or find it as the perfect soundtrack on a weekend drive’s winding roads, the song’s gradual build and composed crescendo is the refined kind of cool.

“Back to You” was one of those songs that just fell into place. The song is a bit of a love letter to mother nature, and a subtle plea to give her back what she deserves

– Jenna maranga, okay cool

Gonzalez found inspiration for his music from some historical greats, and his production sizzles with the kind of refinement his influences are known for; “Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Count Basie among other jazz classics. I also listened to a lot of classical music like Percy Grainger, Chopin” he says. His influences ultimately helped shape Okay Cool, and as Maranga states, they aim to pave a new path for the genre while paying artistic homage at the same time; “I have been a fan of Stax and Motown soul forever, and as a 90s kid I grew up with an iteration of R&B that was impossible not to love. The more I learn about the history of both genres, the deeper my appreciation and respect for it grows. I’m glad we can give a little nod to it in our own music.”

“Back To You” is only the first step for Okay Cool, the initial foray that will be followed by more singles and an EP. But when pressed about a possible full-length album, there is no doubt one is on the way. Yet as you talk to both Maranga and Gonzales about Okay Cool you realise that they both approach the project with both a seriousness to creating art and music, but at the same time, realizing that the journey of creating it, can come with a lightheartedness and a joie de vivre that makes it all worth it in the end; “we’re having a good time inventing the brand around Okay Cool and cultivating a vibe that’s fun and not taking ourselves too seriously.”

Listen to “Back To You” and you’ll feel the same — art and music that sounds timeless, like those artists that came before them. But it is also full of life and pulls you into the present moment, making you smile. Whether it grabs you on the first listen, or it hypnotizes you on the fourth or fifth listen, “Back To You” leaves you eager to hear more. And what else could you want from your first single?

Listen to “Back To You”

Okay Cool’s new single “Back To You” will be available July 10th on all streaming services. You can find more Okay Cool on their website, Instagram, and Soundcloud.

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