Militarie Gun's Ian Shelton on NOFX, Angry Fans, Hardcore, and Politics

Militarie Gun's Ian Shelton on NOFX, Angry Fans, Hardcore, and Politics
Photo by Daniel Topete

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Militarie Gun are undeniably one of the bigger success stories when it comes to 2020s rock music, they've found a lot of success with frontman and creative brainchild Ian Shelton's very winning approach to loud, melodic punk music. (I was already a fan of his powerviolence act Regional Justice Center, who are equally excellent at delivering a very different vibe.) They've got a new EP of re-imaginings, collabs, and covers out this Friday, Life Under the Sun, and ahead of its release Ian hopped on a call outside his Los Angeles practice space as he was taking a breather from toiling on demos. Read on:

The band's heading on their first headlining tour soon. How has touring been feeling for you in the last couple of years?
We've done it so much, it kind of comes in waves. We toured so much that I gave myself a vocal injury, and now I've come out of the other side of it figuring out how to sing better. It's been a fun process of conditioning, but I'm a slow learner, I guess. It took me 200 shows to figure out how to get better at this.

But right now, we enjoy touring more than ever. We had more fun and sounded better than ever on this European tour we just finished, and it was fun to try and play as many songs as we can every night. Some nights, we did 22 songs. European audiences have a higher threshold for that sort of thing—they don't want you to play short. But it was also fun to realize the limitations of it. "You know, those extra two songs do not make the set better." Maybe less songs is better because we played the better songs without filler, instead of playing as long as we can. It's just fun to experiment with that ahead of first proper headlining tour.

Tell me more about the vocal injury. In terms of recovering from something like that, what does it look like?
Learning better technique. It's not romantic to talk about. You have to go to a vocal coach and learn to achieve what you need to do to without being destructive to your body. A huge part of it that people don't understand is sickness. You can't cancel shows. Sleep Token was just in a massive drama on Twitter yesterday because their singer lost their voice during their London show, and people were super pissed. I'm sure they were crying internally, because I've been there. I've been holding back tears onstage thinking, "I've become so fucking humiliated by this moment." And it's not something that's relatable, because people don't understand the logistics. Ultimately, you have to take care of yourself.

I think there's been this feeling that audiences post-COVID have come to have unreasonable expectations on performers.
Context doesn't exist anymore. It's an objective, results-based lifestyle, which is not healthy.

How have you witnessed that?
At large. We did just experience this, and it was interesting to observe—it was my first true Gen Z moment with Militarie Gun. We played a show in Lyon, France, and I search our name on Twitter before the show and there was a group of girls quote-tweeting each other—it was clear they were a clique, and they all had 1975 lyrics in their vocals. They were like, "Militarie Gun's so hot," all these things. Then, the show happens, and they were up front and all got stage dove on. They now hate us as a band. Now it's our fault because we're not protecting our fans. They were very upset, specifically, about how there's older men jumping on them.

It was this really weird moment, because...there's so many factors at play. [Laughs] I'm like, "I can't believe I'm being blamed for this." But at the same time, I do understand that, being a teenager girl, you do not want men in their 30s jumping on you and kicking you in the face. Completely understandable. But you're also like, "Did you not look at any media surrounding our shows? You never saw a clip of us playing?" They were literally like, "I hate Militarie Gun now." They called us dogs. "I unfollowed these dogs." It was crazy. I sent a tweet apologizing that it happened to them, but that's the way of the show, I guess.

Militarie Gun have had this incredible rise over the last few years obviously, and this year was the culmination of that for you. It's also coinciding with people taking more notice of hardcore, obviously. It's an interesting position you're in, audience-wise. In relation to your background in general, especially compared to your work in Regional Justice Center, it's kind of a whole different thing for you. What has that been like?
It's always a super weird cross-section. Originally, I called Militarie Gun a hardcore band to piss people off. Clearly, it's not hard—we're truly a punk band, in a few ways—but hardcore's a funny word to throw on us, because we don't have breakdowns, and we have vocal melodies. But then Turnstile happened, so we're now part of a moment. Originally, what I thought was me just being like, "I'm gonna make a song that sounds like Third Eye Blind and call it hardcore, and that will make people upset," is now indicative of a larger moment, which is not something I ever intended.

It's a bizarre thing, but, at the same time, and not to completely namedrop, but Bob Mould goes around talking about how we're his favorite band right now. So, clearly, my calling us hardcore is not unwarranted if one of the legends of the genre is also talking about enjoying our band. The cross-section works or doesn't work, we get all these comments whenever the label runs ads being like, "This isn't fucking hardcore, this is gay!" I love all that friction, but also I'm like, maybe if they didn't see that word and were presented the same product, they might enjoy it if they didn't have to deal with this cognitive dissonance surrounding the word "hardcore" and what they're hearing. It's a very interesting thing in the marketing sense. [Laughs]

Tell me about your earliest experiences of making music and being in bands.
Thinking back on it, it's kind of similar to what it is currently in terms of the process and discovering a new sound. I'm from a small town, and nobody I made music with ever lived in the town that I did. It was always this long-distance, have to work on everything myself and present it to groups of people. As far as starting bands, I got Audacity early on and used a single microphone, recording demos that sounded like complete shit and sounded super off time because I didn't have great headphones.

That was the exact process Militarie Gun was started under—me and my iPhone, continually listening to something and going, "I want to try something like that," and then I just would, before finding something different to try out. It's always been about listening to as much music as possible and then trying to make as much music as possible.

You're on Loma Vista now. Has any aspect of your creative process changed as a result when it comes to what you have access to?
I'm a little bit lazier now because of the means I've been given. I recorded a bunch of instrumentals in studios with people a while ago, and now I'm singing on all the songs. I'm on the last song I have, and I'm thinking about recording it all on my iPhone to get more songs down, and I'm like, "Ahh, I wish I could just go into the studio and have someone engineer this, because I don't really want to deal with the headache of jamming with myself." I wanna do it in a more controlled and better-sounding environment, which would've never been my thought before—it was about by any means necessary. I still do that, but there's a reluctance of, "That sounds frickin' inconvenient to do this all myself. I wish someone else would do it."

Loma Vista has also been able to put me in rooms with people who are interesting and cool, and people are also willing to hit us up and be like, "Hey, we should do something together." We just did songs with Shooter Jennings, which, on paper, I don't think anyone would think that pairing would make sense, but I frickin' love working with him and I would do it any day of the week. He's just an awesome person to be creative with.

Tell me more about the art of working with other people for you, and how that differentiates from when you're putting stuff together on your own.
First of all, I'm more impatient than I am anything. It's not about the control-freak nature of making things by myself, it's just usually that there's no one around at the very moment I'm desiring to work on something. That's why things get created alone. But the process of collaboration is my favorite thing—getting in the room with someone you're gelling with and throwing out ideas. I don't have to wait for other people to generate the ideas.

I love putting something out there and having someone critique it and be like, "Why don't you try this?" That's where it's really fun for me. I'm not having to wait because of that impatience. Because I generally have a plethora of ideas, I'm not precious about one or another, so as easily as they were thought up, I'm willing to throw them away if the other person is like, "I don't like that." Then I'm like, "OK, time to move on to the next idea."

I want to hear you talk about Regional Justice Center, which is a different sound but, as someone who enjoys both bands, is weirdly complimentary to Militarie Gun.
It is a very similar goal. When it started, fast hardcore was not a thing. Everyone was doing the New York hardcore thing. Hardcore has gone through so many phases, and I like very few of them. It was pretty much the same mission statement as Militarie Gun, which was to try and reach people who were not just involved in "the scene." How do I find a way to find the weirdos on the fringes who don't feel connected?

At the time that RJC started, everything was hyperlocalized. Hardcore wasn't nearly as big. You'd go on tour, and 50 people was an amazing show—and still would be, in my opinion. It wasn't this moment that we're having now. It was so much more local, and there wasn't as many national standout bands that could draw tons of people. But RJC's goal was to make the pop version of powerviolence. All the songs have very defined catchy parts. That's something people have noticed, because they're like, "That gets stuck in my head."

That's my goal with any song—whether it's hyper-aggressive or hyper-poppy, it needs to be catchy enough to be stuck in your head. That being said, RJC is an incredibly limiting project, because it can't go too many places sonically without completely losing its identity and falling apart. So that's why Militarie Gun is born separately. RJC is format music. It has a template to some degree, and you have to do what you can within that template and make it interesting—but there still is a template.

RJC's name comes from a jail that your brother was incarcerated in. I'm curious to hear you talk about naming the project after that, and your perspective on incarceration in general.
My brother was in there for a year and a half awaiting sentencing, but my mother had spent some time there, and my stepdad as well. Even further back, my uncle was in and out of San Quentin my entire life. It was deeply affecting to me at the time. My younger brother, who I've had so much more of a parental relationship with, being locked up was really tough.

At the time, I was going to visit him two or three times a week, and selfishly I was like, "Regional Justice Center is a hard band name." It's funny, but it's hard. I never thought it would be what it was, which is kind of the thorough line with all of this stuff. I just made a demo because I was like, "I think all this fuckin' post-Hoax mid-tempo punk that's creatively devoid, I'm sick of this shit, here's something I want to hear."

Obviously, context creeps in, and I start talking about what it's about, and a lot of people are relating to it. It's a trauma that not only affects the person who's incarcerated, but the entire support system around them. It was very interesting to talk about those things and to shed some light on the more fucked up things that I was dealing with.

I wanted to speak on it from my perspective, too. Securus Technologies is this company that runs the phone lines, and they are literally extorting family members. It's a hostage situation, in a lot of ways. They are expecting the family members to dish out large amounts of money just to be able to speak to their loved ones while they're incarcerated. I just want to put those things out into the world, because I don't think anyone else knows this even exists.

But, also, I only use my position in the press to talk about that. There's no songs that talk about that. It's interesting to be able to step back from that and criticize it now, because people are like, "RJC talk about prison reform in their songs!" And I'm like, "Nope, and I don't think prison reform is possible, and I don't think it's going to happen ever, because the powers that be are stronger than I am." This is happening, and I wanted to be anecdotal and emotional about it instead of being didactic, which there would be no point of expressing.

Punk and hardcore have a long history of political expression in general. How do you feel like your own sociopolitical perspective seeps into your own music?
It's always anecdotal, emotional, and personal to me. It's the best way to make a point. The most political song I'd ever written was a song called "KKK Tattoo," and people got really upset with me. It was about how I met my biological father when I was 12, and he literally has a tattoo of a Klansman on his inner arm. I was reflecting on the idea that, had I actually had him in my life, I probably would've been racist, because that's what I would've been raised against.

There's this really woke ideal that racism is this cartoon villain that you punch and it falls away—the Scooby-Doo villain where you take the mask off and you're like, "Oh." In reality, you take off the mask, and it's probably you under there! I think some people got what I was going for with the song—I think a lot of people did—but people that love the outrage wanted to pretend I was being a white savior or something, when the concept of the song was, "No, I could be racist." It's not "I'm not racist."

It's not as simple as that, and as far as the political goes, I hate the black and white of everything. It's all very childlike, the way people approach everything, and it goes right up to mainstream media—this frickin' black-and-white "This or that." It doesn't actually have any meaning, and it doesn't work like that. Generally, I just don't engage in an outwardly political way. I anecdotally and emotionally make my appeals where I can, and I try to do it subtlety to not try and force-feed anyone, because everyone is turned off by being force-fed.

There's a cover of NOFX's "Whoops I OD'd" on this new EP. I'm always curious to hear people talk about NOFX, which is one of those things that are always in the air. I'm always kind of shocked how they've remained a name in American punk. What do they mean to you?
It was one of the first bands that I heard that was not mainstream and not totally obscure. It was this really awesome midpoint, and The War on Errorism was the first record I got—and it was the perfect record for this kid in the sixth grade who's really angry, but also really loves pop-punk. That record has always spoken to me so much, and if you pay attention to what song we cover, it does the same thing that a lot of Militarie Gun songs do: It starts with saying the craziest thing you can.

Subliminally, I thought it was important to cover it because it's this thing that rubbed off on me. And the melancholy of that song, as well as "13 Stitches" off that record, is something I've always gravitated towards. Plus, the songwriting is fuckin' crazy. They're playing fast but also doing Beatles chords in the middle of it. If you blink, you can miss how intense and interesting their songwriting is.

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Jamie Larson