With short black hair, clean khakis, and a plaid button-down shirt, Jesse Michaels could pass more easily for a biochemistry grad student than a punk rock icon. Far from intimidating, he speaks quietly and laughs easily and often, a demeanor which belies the fact that, as the singer and main lyricist for the seminal Berkeley punk band Operation Ivy, he is arguably one of the most important punk figures of the last 20 years. In the late '80s, that band helped establish the sound that revolved around Berkeley's 924 Gilman club and also paved the way for the mid-'90s punk explosion.
As one of the first bands on Lookout Records, Operation Ivy played a role in putting the popular Berkeley label on the map; their sole full-length album, 1990's Energy, is now a punk classic. As Lookout's president, Chris Appelgren, explains, "The music, attitude, and style of Operation Ivy defined a large part of what Lookout Records is. Operation Ivy were very popular very early on, and their popularity continues to grow. It's an incredible phenomenon."
More specifically, the band helped usher in the third-wave ska revival and led to the successes of punk-ska crossover acts such as Sublime, No Doubt, and Sugar Ray. Not to mention Rancid, formed by Operation Ivy members Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman. When Operation Ivy began, Freeman explains, "no one was playing that type of music." Adds Armstrong: "A lot of people didn't even know what ska was." Appelgren agrees that Operation Ivy changed the course of popular music. "To me," he says, "it's interesting how many groups continue to be inspired or influenced by Operation Ivy."
Sitting in Au Coquelet, a quiet cafe a few blocks from the UC Berkeley campus, that all seems very far away. Two punk kids walk by Michaels, wearing battered black sweatshirts peppered with patches from bands like the Subhumans, Neurosis, and AFI, and they don't so much as glance at him. "I never get recognized," he says with a shrug. "In the photos from the Operation Ivy records, I look a lot different than I do now."
Common Rider, Michaels' new band, is his first large-scale musical effort since Operation Ivy. Its debut album, Last Wave Rockers, was released earlier this year on Chicago-based Panic Button Records. Assembling the band, Michaels -- the group's singer, guitarist, and songwriter -- enlisted bassist Mass Giorgini, guitarist Zach Damon, and drummer Dan Lumley, all of whom play in the long-standing Chicago punk outfit Screeching Weasel. "I was trying to start a band with various people, and it never quite clicked," says Michaels. "So I called up Ben Weasel [Screeching Weasel's lead singer], and he mentioned that his rhythm section -- Mass and Lumley -- would be happy to play with me. They were so into it that they seemed to work out the best." Michaels doesn't see the distance between him and the rhythm section as posing a problem. "Screeching Weasel doesn't really tour," he explains. "They're more focused on recording, so that's not a conflict. We haven't hammered out all the details, but it seems almost 100 percent that we'll continue in this form. It's not a project. It's definitely a band."
Last Wave Rockers has more of a well-produced pop sound than the raw, noisy garage production favored by most punk bands. The songs on the album draw from many influences -- punk, pop, rock, jazz, folk, ska, and hip hop. In fact, the first track on the album, "Classics of Love," is a tribute to that variety: "Midnight Marauders spinning on my stereo/Mr. Desmond Dekker's got a crown made of gold/The kids are all right, that's what I hear/London calling but I have no fear." So, appropriately, the most successful tracks on Last Wave Rockers blend the smoothness of rock-steady ska, the backbeat of hip hop, and the hoarse urgency of punk: the raw anthem "Signal Signal," the beleaguered but insistent "Conscious Burning," the hard-won wisdom of "Rough Redemption," or the whimsical nostalgia of "Deep Spring." Last Wave Rockers often paints a bleak and haunted desert landscape tinged with loss, sadness, and a consciousness of growing older in a fractured and disillusioned world, but also with plenty of energy, and faith in the ability to chisel out a second chance.
"This album is a lot softer than Operation Ivy -- let's face it," says Michaels, who traveled to Chicago to record Last Wave Rockers. "It would be really easy for people to brush it off. But a lot of people have embraced it." Ben Weasel, a longtime friend of Michaels', and co-owner of Panic Button Records, disagrees with Michaels' description. "Regardless of what Jesse says, Last Wave Rockers is a punk album. Simple as that." Weasel has a point -- it's true that the clientele at Common Rider shows hasn't changed much from the Operation Ivy days. At a sold-out performance at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall last month, punk kids waited in groups outside, hoping to score a ticket, and inside the venue was packed with people sporting old Operation Ivy T-shirts, sweatshirts, and patches.
Michaels isn't complaining -- he's honored that Operation Ivy still has such a large and devoted following -- but Common Rider is his new opportunity, not an attempt to relive former glories. If he wanted that, he would've gotten around to it sooner. While Armstrong and Freeman formed the platinum-punk Rancid and drummer Dave Mello founded Schlong, Michaels simply disappeared. Rumors circulated that he had renounced worldly possessions and retreated to a Buddhist monastery in Northern California. Or had he moved to Africa? Tibet? There was that most dreaded of celebrity rumors, that he'd contracted AIDS. "I did live at the Zen Center in Marin for a year," Michaels explains. "For me, Buddhism is a way to look at a deeper side of life. But I definitely never renounced worldly possessions."
The other rumors, Michaels says, are "absolutely untrue. I spent three years in Florida. The Berkeley punk scene was pretty crazy back then, and I wanted to move somewhere that was a bit slower. In 1993 I did this project called Big Rig. I lived in Pittsburgh." Michaels pauses briefly and shrugs. "You see, Tim [Armstrong] and Matt [Freeman] knew from a very young age that they wanted to be musicians. I didn't."
As for the success of his former bandmates and friends in Rancid and Green Day, he's sympathetic and supportive. "I'm happy for them," he says. "I totally support them and respect their choices. I know it sounds diplomatic, but it's true. They're still the exact same guys, you know? It's higher stakes for them now." Michaels cautions that he doesn't necessarily have the same aspirations as Rancid and Green Day, though new projects are in the works. Two new tracks will be featured on upcoming samplers from East Bay labels Adeline and Lookout, and a new album is slated for release before the end of the year. "I've never played a show larger than the Great American," says Michaels. "I might try something larger and think it sucks, or I might fall in love with it. One thing I'm sure of is we're going to perform, one way or the other. A lot."
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