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Jesse Michaels of Operation Ivy / Common Rider

by Margo Tiffen

After the last chord has been struck, the retrospective album mastered, the final bloody bar brawl swept up, and a band is no longer, all that remains is a legacy. Some bands are cut short before they fulfill their promise, others drag themselves and their fans through dry motions over the years until they at last fade away.

Of those members left standing, some remain in the spotlight. They form new bands, try their hand at production, run record labels; others fall into obscurity. Sometimes they disappear under mysterious circumstances, but it's not always that dramatic. Usually, they've just ceased to continue doing what they were so well known for.

One person in particular everyone seems to be curious about "what happened to..." is Jesse Michaels, frontman for late 80's East Bay band Operation Ivy. Operation Ivy were among the first to mix the lethal combination of English 2Tone ska with punk rock and lay the blueprints for the genre as we know it today. You would be hard-pressed to find a band that was around for such a short period of time with such a small output of material, yet had a vast, pervasive influence.

When Operation Ivy broke up in 1989, the other members of the band all continued on to successful punk rock careers. Matt Freeman (bass) and Tim Armstrong (guitar) went on to form Rancid, Dave Mello (drums) started Schlong. The question was, what the hell happened to Jesse? It was hard to believe that someone with that much presence would just silently fade away. Rumors abound; some contend that Jesse was a Christian missionary in Africa, some say that he was a Buddhist monk in seclusion, some even threw him to that catch-all of missing celebrities, the dreaded AIDS virus. None of these, however, turned out to be true.

Jesse is alive and well and living in California. I caught up with him just as he was about to embark on the release of his first album since the disbandment of Op Ivy. He has a new band, Common Rider, and their album Last Wave Rockers is out on Panic Button, Screeching Weasel's label. In fact, the lineup of Common Rider consists of 2/5 of Screeching Weasel with Jesse on guitar and vocals, Mass Giorgini on bass and Dan Lumley on drums. Jesse describes Common Rider as hard rock n' roll with a rocksteady influence.

'The last couple years I've been listening to a lot of Toots and the Maytals and Alton Ellis and old rocksteady stuff. So its definitely got some Jamaican-type washed out flavor but it's a little bit slower tempo. Definitely slower than the Op Ivy stuff,' he says. The rest you can hear for yourself...

What have you been doing since Operation Ivy?

Jesse: Basically I've just been kind of living the life of an average twenty-something type person, trying a lot of different things. I went to school for a little while.

Where'd you go?

Jesse: Just community colleges. I moved around a little bit, I did some traveling. I studied Buddhism for awhile. You might have heard the rumors that I was a monk in Tibet. That's not true, but I was into that for awhile. A whole bunch of things. Trying to find myself a little bit.

I've been to Europe, lived in three different states, I went to Central America for about a month. I've been around.

Have you been working at all?

Jesse: Well, I've been lucky enough that I made enough money off Op Ivy that although I've had to work occasionally, most of the time I can get by on that. I have a pretty low-maintenance lifestyle, I live cheaply and I've been able to get by a lot of the time without having jobs. Which has been very nice.

That's cool.

Jesse: Yeah, definitely.

Did you find it strange that after the band ended, it became this huge thing? I heard Tim and Matt say that the reason you decided to stop was because it was so big, but I was never really clear on exactly what happened.

Jesse: Yeah, well, it didn't really bug me that much. We mainly got big after we stopped and because I don't go out of my way to be in the limelight, to tell you the truth, I just didn't really experience it very much. Every once in awhile I'd meet someone who was really, really into it and it seemed kind of strange. Most of the time I liked it -- you know, wow, this really meant something to people.

There weren't clear enough photos and it wasn't enough of a kind of media event that things would happen like getting recognized on the street or even at shows. I've never been recognized at a show. Or if I have, people have been very tactful about it. So, really, it was pretty low key.

My main reaction has been that I think it's totally cool, I really like it that it's big. It's kind of a little treat. We never really expected it but I'm definitely not complaining.

Have you been in any other bands after Op Ivy?

Jesse: I did one kind of project with these guys who have been in various other bands, it was called Big Rig. Basically we just played for a couple months and we put out a little ep on Lookout!

Do you still keep in touch with the rest of the guys?

Jesse: As much as possible. I talk to Dave the most but the last Warped tour I stopped by and said what's up to Matt and Tim.

It seems that people are passionate about Operation Ivy because it's obvious that you guys were very passionate. A lot of it may involve the political aspect of Operation Ivy and the lyrics.
You said you went on a journey to find yourself after the band broke up. What did you see happening around you that influenced you when you were writing the lyrics back then? What have you found since?

Jesse: First of all, everything that I wrote in that band, I was nineteen years old. It's not like a focused program. I was basically kind of a confused kid doing my best to express the truth that I felt.

I grew up when I was a teenager listening to punk at a time when punk was -- and I don't mean to say punk now is bad at all -- at a time when in that type of music there was a lot more emphasis on content than style. Do you see what I mean? Because there wasn't any set style. A lot of the bands that were coming out, for example The Clash or Black Flag were just really coming out strong straight from their souls. It was gritty, raw, powerful music. And I think that that kind of potency of emotional content was what I was shooting for as a singer.

Whether or not that was successful, whoever listens to it can be the judge. That was definitely something that I strived for and I think the whole band kind of did, too. Although we never talked about it, like, 'okay let's be intense and very passionate'. It was just kind of the way we played. Especially the way we played when we were together. We had a very unique chemistry. So that might address the whole thing of 'why was it intense'? And I don't really know, it's just that we got together and something really clicked. For whatever reasons.

I think we all had personal - I don't want to say issues because that's such a cliche - but we were all very emotional people and this was our outlet. When we came together, it sort of multiplied on itself. So it was a very powerful thing... What else did you bring up?

Well, I feel it's almost like reading a book that really affected you and meant a lot to you and then never knowing what happened to the author. I was kind of wondering if you could talk about where you went mentally, theoretically after that...

Jesse: I follow what you're saying, I think. You know, it's always a dangerous thing explaining art or music. Because the whole point of music is to say something that you can't put into words, right?

Right.

Jesse: So with that in mind, and taking the risk of doing that, I'll try and explain it. Basically, when that band was happening, I had this sense of mission to try and break through somehow and express something real in a world that I felt was becoming increasingly desensitized and empty. For me, it was never a political thing, it was always about feelings.

I am not a political person but I'm a highly emotional person and my feeling in the world at that time was that, holy shit, when I look at the world around me there's this increasing numb emptiness to life in the modern world. And I think people are feeling that but they don't know how to express it and I want to stand up and say 'this is messed up'. Say that there's still a life that is going on in the heart and that things are still real and that's being lost in the modern world.

You can't really put it into words but if I had to, that was kind of what I was shooting for, just from a lyrical standpoint. But I was also very confused. Like I said I was nineteen, I hadn't figured out that much.

After the band broke up I went through a long period where I was extremely depressed. I wouldn't say I was an alcoholic but I definitely was into the drinking pretty hardcore and my life was very fucked up for a long time. I was just trying to soul-search and find a little meaning in life. I think a lot of people go through that in their early twenties. In fact if anyone who ends up reading this is going through that, then hang in there because it ends eventually.

I was trying to plow through this mental bullshit and I did that by just exploring a whole bunch of different things. I don't really know if the story has a neat ending, but it kind of does in a way because about three years ago I got really sick and tired of being depressed and confused and I realized that I had some choice in the matter. That the problems I had weren't because everything is hopeless but because I was deciding to check out.

So in terms of my personal life, I just started getting my shit together, making some plans and getting out of bed in the morning. Exercising and eating and all those simple things that you're supposed to be able to do naturally but I had sort of forgotten how. Part of the result of that is I decided to get back into music because I feel that I still do have something to say.

By the way, as long as we're talking about all this serious stuff regarding music, I do want to say that my main thing about music is that the fun aspect, expressing joy, always comes first. I think it's great to talk about the underlying issues but I do want to say that it's all not really that serious. The main thing is always having fun for me and the profound stuff is sort of an afterthought. I guess it's just that music to me is extremely meaningful, but it's a meaning that happens in the heart. So when you start to talk about it, sometimes it sounds like it's some kind of political or intellectual program and that's not necessarily accurate.

What are some of your musical interests now? Who do you consider to be your all time favorites?

Jesse: Oh shit, don't get me started.

I want to get you started! That's the point!

Jesse: The Clash, I love The Clash, I'm crazy about The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, The Saints, Sham 69, the band Social Unrest with their original singer from the Bay Area. I think he's one of the best singers of all time.

What's his name?

Jesse: His name is Cretin Chaos and basically I ripped off his vocal style to a major degree, so.

Wow.

Jesse: Yeah. (Laughs) If people hear Cretin Chaos sing, they'll be like, 'oh, I see where he got all his shit'. I guess that's kind of like the punk stuff. I really love hip-hop, I've always loved hip-hop. Tribe Called Quest, this group called Main Source that never got really big, but they were just pure New York old school hip-hop and they were great. Some of the bands with real great vocal skills like Poor Righteous Teachers.

God, a lot of stuff. I love standards like Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald and Sinatra. I'm also really into country, actually. Old country. Hank Williams Sr., Merl Haggard, George Jones. I like a lot of the female vocalists like Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. What's her name who did 'Stand By Your ManÓ? Um, Tammy Wynette. It's stupid, but I love her. I'm really a huge music fan and always have been. Buddy Holly, that's another one that's huge. I'm crazy about him.

You know, there's a certain kind of music that I hear and it probably is different for every person. There's certain artists and songs that I can't even explain it... It's as if they speak from another world. They take you into a whole different world that really is just innocent and beautiful. It's a cool thing. I think music is like a spiritual thing for people who aren't necessarily religious. It helps you to see another dimension of life you might not see just working in a job or going through life without it. I think that's what appeals to me about it so much and why I'm trying to get back into it a little bit.

It's really a defining element in all of the artists that you mentioned. I think there's this one quality in every great performer and great musician that's just really astoundingly obvious. No matter what style of music it is, you can always find somebody within that style who's got that special thing. That particular style is just the way that they choose to present themselves. The way they channel it.

Jesse: Definitely. It's a cool thing.

I'm sure you probably miss the feeling of playing and being involved in something like that.

Jesse: Yeah, I did miss it. I missed it without even realizing it until I started playing again.

You didn't play guitar when you were in Op Ivy, did you know how or did you learn afterwards?

Jesse: I didn't really know how and I've learned it since then. Sort of. Believe me, I'm no Joe... Satriani. I basically play well enough to bang out some pretty simple songs. I've always liked simple stuff the best anyway. Most of my favorite guitarists are people that a real practiced musician wouldn't think much of, but that's my favorite stuff.

What writers do you like?

Jesse: I like some classical literature, I was big on Tolstoy for awhile. But I really enjoy reading a lot of crap, you know? Like true crime shit and bad crime novels. I really like reading those mafia exposes, those are really fun for me. Then I also read more smart stuff. My father is actually a writer so I grew up surrounded by books.

Really? What does he do?

Jesse: He writes short stories and novels and everything. There's a movie called The Men's Club, which he actually wrote the screenplay for. Although that movie didn't come out the way he wanted it to, that's one thing people may have actually heard of.

I'm always reading something. I just read White Noise by Don DeLillo and I really enjoyed that. I love Bukowski, too. I'm almost embarrassed to say it, but I dig him. I think he's hilarious.

He's great. I wouldn't be embarrassed. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?

Jesse: Well, I just thought maybe I can recap what I said about music. The stuff I wrote on the new record, its got the same kind of spirit as Op Ivy did, although the music is different. It's extremely passionate and it makes an attempt to be real. At the same time, it's mainly an expression of happiness, it's about having fun.

There's always a thin line because on the one hand I really do care and want to put something out there that's real, but on the other hand I don't want to be a monk. I'm not one of these PC punk rock purists. You know, I kind of like money. It's okay with me to make money. I like sex. I'm not completely politically correct.

At the same time, I think it is good to have music be something that's a little bit more than just entertainment. Especially since I think in the world right now, we're all looking for something that is a little bit more real than what you get on TV, or in the movies.

 

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