Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"Sound System" by Operation Ivy/Jesse Michaels

ARTIST: Jesse Michaels of Operation Ivy
SONG: "Sound System"
WRITERS: Jesse Michaels, Tim (Lint) Armstrong, Matt (McCall) Freeman, Dave Mello 
ALBUM: Energy on Lookout! Records/Hellcat Records
YEAR: 1989
SITES: Jesse Michaels, Operation Ivy
BUY: Operation Ivy

High school sucks. Junior high sucks even more. In the middle of my thirteenth, royal blue-haired, miserable year on Earth, sweet solace came in the form of a nineteen track album by a West Coast band called Operation Ivy. My best friend and I would hole up in his bedroom and dissect every word of that record, and then write our favorite lines on our Vans and jeans. The music told us that we had choices, opinions that mattered, and a right to our feelings. On top of all that - it also made us dance.

These days, singer and lyricist Jesse Michaels can be found out in front of his current band, Classics of Love, who keep the spirit of punk alive with their own brand of Oakland rock. He graciously accepted my request to talk about "Sound System," the second song from Energy, Operation Ivy's epic release. It's so cool, I may just have to draw a boombox on my jeans. 

BA: Jesse Michaels! I owe you a debt of gratitude, man. I’ve danced around to your music more than you will ever know. Thank you for that, and for doing this interview.

The debt of gratitude is all mine, literally.

BA: I’m not sure if anyone’s brought this to your attention, but the Operation Ivy album pretty much changed and saved lives when it came out. "Sound System," in particular, was like a call to stand with music against whatever life threw at you. Was that what music meant to you at the time?

Yes, I think that is a really accurate reading of that song. In particular your phrase, "stand with music." I never thought of it that way but that is exactly the point of the song, and in general the spirit of a lot of the Opivy songs. Recognizing a force in music which is redeeming and standing with it against "whatever life threw at you." I would try to unpack it more but I think you nailed it.

BA: These lines have such a wisdom to them:
“To resist despair, the second makes you see...
To resist despair, because you can't change everything...
To resist despair, in this world is what it is to be free.”

Where did that awareness come from?

Quite honestly, that awareness came from personal anguish and deep unhappiness. I was desperately conflicted and frustrated as a kid. A lot of Opivy's lyrics are about political grievances, but really, the emotional content is pretty personal. The songs are about politics and issues and stuff but the "subtext" of the songs is about personal or internal struggles. That particular passage is about finding hope in this great invisible power of music when everything else seems really overwhelming and impossible.

BA: The lyrics are so smart – and you skillfully manage to say quite a bit for a song that’s only two minutes and fourteen seconds long. Part of that is due to your fast-pace vocal delivery. I’d love to know how that style developed for you.

Well, at that time I really liked fast-talking rap and reggae artists like Shabba Ranks, Shinehead, and so on. There were others but I can't remember their names . . . more came later, like B.O.N.E and stuff, but at that time there were just a few. I always liked the sound of theatrically over-packed vocals. The song "Pay 2 Cum" by The Bad Brains was another one. I mean, I was a teenage boy and I liked displays of bravado, it was impressive and exhilarating. I tried to use that style in a way that complimented the song and didn't make it too busy.

BA: The vocals are great, and there’s a real feeling of band participation throughout the song, where people jump in and out of singing with/around you. How were the decisions about who-sang-what arrived at?

A lot of it was pretty intuitive. Tim was a guy that you couldn't keep away from the microphone, he was always chiming in like Flavor Flav or something. That was just his thing and it really worked for the band because my voice is very mid-range and his really cuts through. Also, my whole vibe was pretty earnest and and he had a more informal feel so it warmed up the songs when he added his bits. I had some hand in the vocal arrangements, I would often choreograph call and response type things, but it was also very organic. The band had strong instincts, it often felt like the song was already written and we were just kind of falling into our natural roles. That was definitely the case with "Sound System." Tim came in with a blueprint for the song and everything just sort of fell together.

BA: How did the writing of this song go down? Did you guys have a jam that you wrote the lyrics and vocals to, or the other way around?

Typically, Tim would come in to band practice with an idea which would consist of a riff and a raw vocal pattern. Sometimes he and I would hash it out before band practice and other times we would put it together on the spot. I think for that song he had the chorus and his vocal break written ("Wake up in the morning bust the shade let the sun in" etc). We jammed it at his house and wrote the basic structure. I remember him playing it for me in his tiny bedroom and I could literally see the shade and the boom-box he was talking about in the lyrics. Of course, memory is a funny thing, I wonder if I just imagine that in hindsight?  Anyway, the build-up intro in the beginning was put together by the whole band. Like somebody said, "Let's start it quiet and then do a stop on the one," and then Tim threw in that Roddy Radiation (The Specials) type lead. Once a basic verse/chorus pattern was set up with the band, I just improvised over the music-bed until I found a vocal pattern that worked. Then I took it home and wrote all the elaborate word-play and stuff. A big part of song-writing for me has always been sitting for hours in front of a notebook, playing the song in my head and sculpting the language around the vibration, if you will.

BA: As an East Coast kid, I blew it with seeing you guys live. I know that the band was only around for two years. How long had you been playing "Sound System" live before it was recorded?

I think we had been playing that one for maybe a year before it was recorded. We only went on one tour and didn't even play in New York City so I guess a lot of the people that are into it now didn't see us!

BA: Tell me about the recording of this song for the album. It sounds truly live. Is it?  If so, how many times did you run through it before you thought you had the right take?

The recording was very live. I did the vocals in the booth but those guys played everything live except for leads. I think the amps were isolated. I don't think we did very many takes of anything. I don't exactly remember but I think we did 19 songs in maybe 3 or 4 days? That's just how it was back then. We were pretty tight, I mean we played a lot and had toured. Also we had tried to record the record before so we had that first recording session as practice for the second one. That was the punk ethos and it worked for what we were trying to do. The engineer, Kevin (Army), could not have been better. He had a great bedside manner, pushing things along but sometimes asking for second takes. He knows how to facilitate creativity and not over-manage the process.

BA: What is this song to you now? Is it like and old friend, or an ex that you hope to never speak to again?

More like an ex! I can't stand listening to my own music, but I am really glad it works and I am very inspired when it's being written and recorded. After that, I am done with it and want it to go away! I don't know why that is, just an instinct.

BA: Who were your biggest influences when you were writing this beloved piece of music?

For this particular song I would say The Specials, The Clash, The Selecter, and Public Enemy - you can hear the Chuck D influence in the line, "Contained in music but somehow more than just sound" . . . and then a lot of it is just pure invention.

BA: What’s your favorite song right this minute?

Right this minute, since I was thinking about Public Enemy, the song "Rebel Without a Pause." In general, I listen to a much broader variety of music than I used to (you know, a lot of "grown up" stuff ha ha), but that track still makes the world split wide open for me.

BA: Dude, I can’t thank you enough. High-five for the music, and for telling us all about where it came from.

Hi five to you for such a thoughtful and intelligent interview and for your amazing work.

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