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.