Illustration by Dessie Jackson
Being a musician in prison isn't as romantic as it sounds. Sure, Gucci Mane has arguably released some of his best work from inside the pen, but for normal convicts it's pretty difficult to make music, especially when you're in a band.
To start, the equipment isn't good—not that you'd expect prison to have a legit music center where dudes with 25-to-life can hang out and noodle along to "Stairway in Heaven." Generally, the amps and PAs suck—but that only matters when you can find capable musicians who are down to write music together or jam, which as you can imagine is not easy. Plus, even if there is a practice space, good luck seriously shredding without pissing off the COs who don't want to hear your feedback-filled Sabbath covers.
Even if prison seems in theory like an inspiring place to create anti-authority art, forming a band that outlives the members' sentences is a rare feat. In the late aughts, I was locked up in FCI Loretto, a federal prison in Pennsylvania, where I met three musicians who managed to become an exception to the rule.
Singer/guitarist Jason Scott, drummer Pete Markovina, and bassist Johnny Dunlop are a rock trio called The Institution. They met when they were all locked up for various drug charges and ended up forming a band that's lasted beyond the prison gates. Self-described as "melodic, progressive rock" in the vein of the Deftones or Soundgarden, the Institution recorded dozens of songs in the belly of the beast, using a VHS recorder to lay down demos.
In the five years since the three members were released from Loretto, the band has played over 300 live shows, self-released a full-length album featuring material primarily written in prison, and are currently finishing an acoustic EP and sophomore LP in a real studio.
I caught up with lead man Jason Scott and drummer Pete Markovina via Skype to talk about forming a band behind bars, how prison affected the group's creative process, and what it's been like to keep the project going on the outside.
VICE: When you first formed the band, did you imagine it could be something after you were all let out of prison?
Jason Scott: I went home at the end of 2008 and we were three years into the band at that point. We started talking about taking the band to the street in 2006. That was always the plan: We're going to get out and do this for real. We were just setting the plan into motion and executing it. Pete got home in 2010 and John got home in 2011. He came right out to San Francisco where I was living. Pete was already here. The real world kind of hit John, our bassist, with overwhelming force, and he got lost for a couple years. But he came back around.
Pete Markovina: At first, there was no getting around the fact that the whole mini-world we created in this horrible prison situation was over when Jason was let free while we were still in there. But it's been almost five years since we've all been home and [the project is] still going.
What did being in a band change about your prison experience? How did it make incarceration better or worse?
Jason: Working on original stuff was what kept us focused in there while everyone else was playing dominos, gambling, and doing things of that nature, which really amounts to nothing. The music kept us focused. It was almost like we were free.
Pete: That's the result of making use of your time while in prison instead of watching TV, having a weekend orderly job, or just wasting your time. That was a big part of how we were able to do it. We all loved what we do and we put in the time and effort to practice. Jason became a master at guitar because he has like 10,000 hours [of practice] in. He knows all the chords, all the structure, and all the theory. That's what jail can do for you; it gives you uninterrupted time to practice.
Hegemony, your first full-length release, contains all songs that you wrote and honed in prison, right?
Jason: All except one. They were all written while we were locked up at Loretto. Pete worked in the library and he had access to a VHS recorder. He would sneak that thing down to the prison's band room during the day and we would record demos. Pete transferred those VHS recordings to DVDs on the libraries equipment, and we mailed them out and put them up on MySpace. Our music, which was illegally recorded in the institution, was then out in the ether.
Pete: We walked out of Loretto with like 42 songs complete. We call those "the Loretto Sessions" informally. That was a hell of a caper. We had no way to record audio except on VHS tape. It's all crackling and shit. We dubbed it to the DVDs just to hear it. It was pretty nuts, but it worked out good.
Were you ever censored or punished for being in the band in prison?
Jason: We were never really censored. The only time we got in trouble was when we were playing Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name," and I was singing the part that goes, "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me," and this recreation cop came down to the band room and threatened to shut us down, screaming and yelling.
How is it writing music now compared to when you were locked up?
Jason: It's harder to write out here because we're trying to get on our feet. There are 60 billion things to do and 60 billion more the next day.
Pete: The big difference is that when we were in there, we had those set days. I had my own practice times and they had their own practice times and then we had the band slots. The writing was a lot more abundant and fluent in prison because Jason had tapped into a really strong and creative streak and he was able to consistently come up with these riffs and ideas that he really had uninterrupted time and focus to work through. Him and John were really able to work through that stuff and we could put it together more efficiently.
Are there other bands like you guys who met in prison?
Jason Scott: One thing that makes our situation different is that we're a band that only played with each other. Most of the time in prison, it's groups of people that occasionally play together—not bands so much. I haven't heard of anyone that's exactly like us. When we first got out, the last thing we wanted anybody to know about was where we came from. We didn't want to be known as the jail band and have that stigma no matter what we're playing. But now we are with it because it has a lot to do with who we are. Time has allowed us to embrace our history in a way that we couldn't before, since we got our feet on the ground and we're rolling.
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