The former frontman of Operation Ivy tells us about breaking up the band, delivering diapers, and his new band Classics of Love.
I discovered Operation Ivy in my early teens, sitting in a basement while the rest of my friends were eating mushrooms upstairs. After a few years dabbling in “punk” bands (you know, Green Day, Biohazard, Marilyn Manson, Sugar Ray), thirteen-year-old me picked up the Operation Ivy CD in the corner, knowing that Green Day had covered one of their songs, put it on the boom box and listened to it three times in a row. The words Jesse Michaels sang have made generations of lonely kids feel comfortable with their alienation. Even as we grow away from the music we used to like, Operation Ivy still sounds as exciting blaring out of the P.A. at a dive bar as it did in those basements. After the band imploded, Michaels stayed out of the limelight, appearing for a few years at a time in the small bands Big Rig and Common Rider, while his former bandmates became punk icons. His most recent burst of creativity comes from Classics of Love, who have just released their debut full-length on Asian Man Records. The fact that Michaels has managed to stay level-headed, funny and approachable instead of becoming an egomaniacal rock star asshole is a real rarity and totally inspiring. I wanted to find out more about how he kept his head after all these years, so I sat him down for an interview.
VICE: When this story was pitched to VICE, the editor-in-chief said "100% yes. One of 12-year-old me's favorite bands." How do you feel about having had such a strong connection with so many young people?
Jesse Michaels: Ha ha, that's funny. I'm happy that kids like it because for me that age was when music was extremely important. I know a lot of people do okay in high school and just kind of weather the ups and downs of life, but my experience was pretty desperate. I was all fucked up for various reasons. To say that the bands I listened to saved my life would be way too dramatic but they definitely saved me from going crazy, and gave me something to identify with and obsess over. I needed it. So the fact that teenagers like it is meaningful to me. At the same time, I never think about it. It was more than twenty years ago and I have moved on.
Before you started making music, what attracted you to punk rock? What was special about your scene growing up?
The first band I really liked was the B-52's, so it was humor and weirdness that I liked at first. I immediately thought they were the funniest and coolest people in the world. And then I heard Devo, which was a little darker, and then the Ramones and then Black Flag and Dischord stuff. At the same time there was this tiny but really dedicated ska scene in Berkeley so that came into the picture. As far as the punk scene around Berkeley went, by the time I got to go to shows it was basically incredible bands, really smart, creative people, and then a bunch of people beating the shit out of single victims. People say there used to be a lot of fights at shows. There may have been a few fights, but what I remember were groups beating up single victims. Really cowardly shit. The people that glorify that part of it are crazy.
At what specific point did you realize Operation Ivy was going to be the kind of band with a legacy that would last long after its lifespan?
At some point in the mid-nineties somebody told me that there was a sea of Operation Ivy t-shirts at a Warped Tour show and I started to get it. That was a weird moment. Of course I'm glad that the band did well but I tend to think about it in terms of how it was when we were actually around. We were never big while we played, we were more or less a successful club band. We played house shows up to the very end. I'm grateful for the applause but it's not really the point.
Your bands have all existed for relatively short periods of time. Do you aim to keep the excitement of the honeymoon period or is it kind of a bummer when they fizzle out?
I'm usually kind of relieved. Music is really love/hate for me. I hate scenes, including punk scenes. I hate rock clubs. They are like big black boxes that rot your soul, probably because I don't do that well in that world. I'm not cool and I never have been. I can fake it but I don't really want to. The kind of conversations that people engage in at shows, at least the shows I go to, just drive me insane. I don't know how to do it. But I get really excited in the creative parts, like practicing, performing, writing, recording. I like that part so much that I keep doing it. It's worth it. That's what the Op. Ivy song "Jaded" was about. The good part is the real part, everything else is just people giving each other handjobs and talking about absolutely nothing.
What is the shittiest job you've held down during the long interims between your musical projects?
Well, taken literally, that would have to be delivering and picking up cloth diapers.
The new Classics of Love record is, in my opinion, the most urgent your voice has ever sounded and is definitely some of the fastest music you've ever made. Where did all this new energy come from?
Probably from the stuff we came up with together. The songs that ended up sounding the best were the harder ones and that's just the type of vocals they called for. It was totally unplanned. If I had any plan when the band started it was to do something post-punk and more grown up than what we ended up doing. But when we played, the harder, simpler songs always sounded better. Then the world kept getting worse and the music climate seemed to be screaming for people to make direct statements, even if it's passé to do so now.
While Common Rider definitely had some reggae elements, this is the first time you've really revisited ska/punk. Was it intentional to stay away from the genre many people credit your old band for creating?
Well, intentions never last very long. I have had every kind of intention. Every day is a new regime. We should do heavy rock! We should do something Celtic! We should do something that sounds like Fugazi plus Roky Erickson! Etc. They all last until band practice. Then if the song sucks, it dies and if it's good, it lives. Most of them die. It's a very right-wing approach. Four out of five songs die. For whatever reason two ska songs made it. The heavy rock song made it also by the way, it's called "Moving Pictures."
What is the darkest, worst "I'm giving up on music forever" show you've ever played? What brought you back from that?
Common Rider opened for Jimmy Eat World at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. Jimmy Eat World were super nice guys and they wrote great songs but to say their audience didn't give a shit about us just doesn't even come close. The Hard Rock had fifths of Jack Daniels in the dressing rooms. I got trashed, more or less. I forgot all my lyrics. I got into some kind of fight with the audience but I was drunk so I basically just slurred nonsense at them and tripped over monitors. The guys in the band, who are like the nicest people on the planet, were like "Fuck you Michaels! Get it together!" I remember thinking it would be cool if I vomited, but I couldn't. Then we went out to the Casino and at midnight the entire place filled up with beautiful prostitutes. I've never seen anything like it. It was like Eyes Wide Shut or something. But we had just enough really great shows on that tour to sustain us. Also, you know, it's like some kind of commandment that you just keep going on tours. Everybody knows this.
- Vice Blog