Interview with Jesse Michaels from Classics of Love/Common Rider/Big Rig/Operation Ivy
On the upcoming, self-titled Classics of Love LP, Jesse Michaels declares, “Life is a game where you see who gets the most money/Life is a game where you see who gets the most power.” Those are some cool punk lyrics on their own but the ex-frontperson of Common Rider, Big Rig, and Operation Ivy backs up the sentiments by starting rad bands that never get played on the radio, play huge tours, or cash in. Instead, Michaels just makes totally honest, somewhat trashy, energy-packed, and supremely melodic ’70s punk-inspired music with hardcore and ska leanings. So I was stoked when our mutual friend Mike Park asked me if I wanted to contact Jesse about his band’s latest release on Asian Man Records. Cramming 13 songs into 23 minutes, its brand of raging punk channels Bad Religion (“We Need a Change”) as much as The Specials (“Castle In The Sky“) . Of course, the breathless, humanist, blue-collar lyrics are pure Jesse Michaels. Here’s how the conversation went…
MW: I really love the Common Rider song “Classics of Love,” with its allusions to The Clash, The Who, Desmond Dekker, Ella Fitzgerald… It’s crazy that you wrote the blueprint or theme for your current group before it existed. Or is it?
JM: When I was writing songs for what would be Common Rider in 1999, I woke up with a song in my head from a dream. It was a slow, smoky reggae song along the lines of Burning Spear. The lyrics went “The Classics of Love are from the creator/The Classics of Love are no small matter.” Whether or not that had any spiritual significance, it had a very deep and emotionally meaningful sound and the phrase stuck. I used it in the Common Rider song, which is basically an homage to music, and kind of forgot about it.
I am pretty sure that it was our drummer who proposed it as a band name. For about two years, I regretted using it. Classics of Love is a bit sweet, you know? But we play music with anger in it, and now I am happy that the music is framed by a soft name. I don’t want to put more anger out in the world without also giving a nod to what is really important–love and forgiveness.
MW: I think it’s natural to have idealistic and revolutionary thoughts when you’re a young punker in your first or second band, and I was stoked to hear ample amounts of both on the new LP. How did you retain them after all the ups, downs, and detours?
JM: I really don’t know, but I rebel against punk’s smallness and narrow-mindedness just as much as I rebel against society’s larger forces. In terms of writing a song, the revolutionary spirit is something very real and alive for me. It comes from a sense of right and wrong, which comes from having a conscience. The world is quite damaged and the rich have always ground the poor under their heels, so I always want to do something political.
One thing I would like to point out is that although I receive a lot of credit for writing songs, the music is collaborative. I bring in all sorts of songs and go in whatever direction works. The direction comes from the people I am playing with, and the songs would be less than nothing without their bringing them to life. And that isn’t false modesty; that’s just the way it really is. For Classics of Love, punk works the best.
MW: You’ve been making music for a couple of decades. Are you the type of guy who is compelled to make music? Like you can’t sleep unless you crank something out? Or is it a struggle to get going when the time comes? Do you have a technique?
JM: It’s inconsistent, but when I feel inspired I get possessed. A typical scenario is that I’m bored and just going through life when I get involved with a little music just for fun. Then the fever takes over and I’ll work on stuff for hours without noticing the time passing. It’s like an altered state but it’s not one that I’m married to. It’s not my identity and it’s not the most important thing in my life. But when I’m in it, I am extremely passionate about it.
My technique is to start with a guitar riff, then make a la-la-la vocal pattern with a chorus, and finally hammer out the lyrics in a separate process. Lyrics take hours and hours; the other part is pretty quick.
One of the reasons I didn’t write much stuff in my twenties is that working on music was so overwhelming I would be miserable and depressed afterward. I think that’s why some of the most inspired songwriters get addicted to drugs; the process can be soul destroying. If that sounds dramatic, it probably is. But that’s how it goes down at least some of the time.
MW: How have your solo gigs affected your being a front person for a band?
JM: My three or four solo gigs taught me that I need help. I liked playing solo, but it is super challenging. The main thing is that I never learned the basic up-and-down strum, which is totally essential for singer-songwriter stuff. Even on the notes where you aren’t actually playing something, the hand always has to be going up and down. That sounds small but it’s huge. Although you can get along without it, you’re going to be limited.
Struggling with guitar and feeling the absence of bandmates gave me perspective on how much I depend on others to make music that really works. Maybe if I had kept doing it I would have overcome some of those problems, but I don’t think it’s my calling. For me, the magic happens in the practice room with other people more than it does in my bedroom with a four-track.
MW: Do you look at your body of work as having any sort of flow or evolution? Or do you see it as random and all over the place? Maybe it’s still too early to say.
JM: Unfortunately my body of work is kind of a mess. I have taken 10-year breaks, I hate touring, and I don’t really know how to play an instrument. It’s a miracle I that have done as much as I have. On the other hand, I know that when I have something to say with music, I get totally possessed by it. In that way, maybe I’m kind of a savant.
I’ve played with a lot of people who are more professional and consistent, and I’m astounded by their apathy. You’re in the middle of writing a song–which to me is more important than life or death–and they start fucking around with their fucking phone or talking about video games or something. I want to kill them. But they must be astounded at how I’m supposedly so passionate but then disappear and sit on my ass for five years.
So the answer is that my body of work is ridiculously streaky. But when I’m doing it, I really mean it, man!
MW: Mike Park is a good guy and must be a pleasure to work with. I only see or correspond with him now and then, but when we do the topic inevitably turns to basketball trash talk. Do you talk to him more about music or hoops? Are you a Bay Area homer like he is?
JM: Mike Park is one of the most infuriating people I have ever met. He comes over to my house all the time, shows me wads of cash, and says, “Alkaline Trio, baby! Fuck you, Michaels!” Then he starts eating all my food and complaining about how hard his life is. He clogs up the toilet every time and then screams at me for being too cheap to have good plumbing.
And we always end up on the court. Mike is 7 feet tall and you would think his height would be enough of an advantage, but he cheats. He elbows me and throws dirt in my face. The last time we played, he kept saying he was Kareem and I was The White Shadow. He beat me 21 to 3.
So, yeah, Mike is a great guy and I’m not saying don’t let him in your house. But if he knocks pretend you are not home.
I like the NBA, too, although I don’t think that there should be artificially created dynasties. Every team should have the exact same amount of money to work with and officials should not favor the home team or marquee players. But even though the league is totally corrupt, it’s such a great game that it’s still fun to watch. My favorite players of all time are Abdul-Jabbar, Olajuwon, and Garnett. I know Garnett is kind of a bully, but I love the way he moves. It’s extremely artistic to me, what these guys do.
I am definitely a Warriors fan. I love them so much that I still believe they can win the 2007 championship. This season, we need Chris Mullen to rip off his suit during a tight fourth quarter, come out in short shorts, and start dropping Js: “I’ll show you guys how it’s done!” That would make my life and that is what I need from basketball so I can heal from how lame Jack Nicholson and Jessica Alba’s team is.
By the way, the weird guy who sits next to Jack Nicholson at Lakers games is the director of the cult punk classic Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains. My mind was blown when I found that out!