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Operation Ivy is a distinctive band from Berkeley, California, USA that existed just two years from 1987 to 1989 but laid the foundation for a new wave of ska closely interwoven with other styles like punk rock and hardcore. The name of the band comes from a series of nuclear weapons tests called Operation Ivy conducted by the United States.
Personalities who made up Operation Ivy were Jesse Michaels (vocals), Tim ‘Lint’ Armstrong (guitar, vocals), Matt ‘McCall‘ Freeman (bass, vocals) and Dave Mello (drums).
We would like to offer you a juicy and fresh interview with Jesse Michaels provided by Ilya Kasyanenko, a moderator of a very informative community ...And Out Come The Rancid devoted mainly but not limited to works of the members of the Rancid.
BTW in 2015 Ilya with Lyosha Livadniy created a booklet dedicated to the Operation Ivy album Energy. It’s a d.i.y book includes a Russian translation of all the songs from the album and a translated article with rare pictures of the band members where Tim and Matt talk about their childhood, acquaintance and early years of the friendship. This interesting work is available here, but for Russian speakers only :)
interview with Jesse Michaels
__ Did your desire to do music appear spontaneously or did you want to devote yourself only to it from your childhood?
I started doing music when I was around 12. Me and a friend liked punk music. We didn't know how to play but we decided to make music with a tape recorder and a guitar. He later started the band Crimpshrine. I went on to play in many bands, eventually Opivy.
__ Could you recall now a song that you heard in your childhood and which you can`t get out of your head?
Alternative Ulster by Stiff Little Fingers.
__ Did you study well at school? Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood?
I was a poor student. Interested in other things. Even though i wanted to do well in school, I just couldn't make myself do it and I dropped out. Much later, at age 40, I went back to college and graduated with honors. I studied literature. I don't know why I could do it when I was grown up but I could not do it when I was a kid.
__ What had you fancy for, besides art, before fate brought you to Gilman?
I used to be into monster movies when I was a little kid - Godzilla, Frankenstein, and so on. then I got into Dungeons and Dragons. Then I was really into comic books. When I was 12 I got into punk and forgot about everything else.
__ Was Crimpshrine your first band or were there some other bands before?
I was not in Crimpshrine. I played with those guys before they started Crimpshrine. I was in several bands as a kid. I sang for a hardcore band called "Outlash" and played drums for a metal band called "Necropolis" but I got kicked out because I was not a good drummer.
__ Tell us about the Gilman of your youth as it was seen by Jesse Michaels.
It was pretty fun and it was like a club house for me and my friends. It was our place. At the same time, it had too many rules and was too political. I mean, i am interested in political ideas but they tried to control how people think too much. Sometimes I like just a regular punk club. However, it was still a great place where I learned a lot, had a lot of fun, and saw many great bands.
__ How did you make acquaintance of Tim? And where did your desire to form a band come from?
I knew him through my friend Aaron (Crimpshrine). In Berkeley in the 80s everybody who was into punk would eventually meet each other because there was a lot fewer punk kids than there are now. I remember I met him on the street once and then later I met him at a party. He showed me how to pour from a beer keg properly. That is probably one of the first things he showed me.
__ Lyrics of Op Ivy are notable for its socially sensitive subjects, as for example in The Crowd or Vulnerability. When 'Energy' was released you were 20-22 years old, it`s the age when you think about girls and parties. Where does your revolutionary trait come from? Or did you always stand for the truth?
I was 18. Yes it is very political and philosophical. I was very unhappy and repressed and uptight. Now I wish I had been better at just having fun and fucking. I was too serious and I hated myself. However, I guess some good songs came out of it so that's cool.
__ Among our readers there are a lot of young musicians who tour just like you were hitchhiking from one city to another or going by road buses. It would be interesting if you tell us a funny story of Op Ivy times that happened to you on the road?
We played at a house where nobody ever stopped partying. They were a bunch of crazy alcoholics. Finally we went to sleep and they just kept going. They had a mosh pit in the living room even though there was no band playing, they were just listening to records and they started a pit. I slept in a hallway on the second floor. Somebody stepped over me while I was asleep and opened a door near my head. The door went to the outside even though it was 30 feet off the ground on the second floor. He pissed out the door. A freezing wind blew in. It was a nightmare. Things like this happened a lot.
__ What did you feel when Gilman started more and more to look like a talent show, not just a club, where like-minded people get together?
I don't think that really happened. Gilman hasn't changed very much and it has stayed true to most of it's original principles.
__ Have you ever a temptation to follow an example of Green Day or Sweet Baby Jesus and become a part of a major label?
Yes, if the money was right and we had good people and we were not getting ripped off, I would do it. I don't think being successful is a crime and I don't think punk has an obligation to stay underground. Have fun and do what you want. I would have not done it in the old days but it was a different world. Punk was very underground and major labels just ripped off and exploited punk bands. But now the people at the big labels understand it and there are ways that a band can stay true to their music and message and still be successful. You have to make a living. Music is a very, very hard road. It is fine when you are a teenager to say, "never sell out!" but when you hit 30 and 40 you have to think about how you are going to live in the world. I appreciate bands that stay underground but I do not judge or dislike bands that sign up with a major label. I would rather my friends be successful than broke but "perfect." fuck that. I am not saying big labels are good, I am just saying every situation is different and a band or individual should do what is in their heart. However, all that being said, I would not have signed with Opivy to a major label. when I say I might do it I mean with a different band later. Opivy was meant to be underground and I am glad we stayed that way.
__ The 28th of September, 1989. Gilman Street . Operation Ivy declared from the stage that it was their last show (though I read somewhere that it was the last but one). Does it means that you knew it previously that the band would break up? What were the reasons for it, were they creative disagreement or the desire to be always remembered as “a little, but an independent band from Berkeley that made influence on all modern punk scene”?
No I had no idea we would be much of an influence. We knew we were breaking up. We broke up because we didn't get along and we were tired of fighting. It was better. There was no desire to be remembered as a small independent band, I think I may have said something like that just so I wouldn't have to explain it.
__ We all know quite well who is Jesse Michaels, but for those who hear about East Bay and Op Ivy for the first time could you describe yourself in 3 key words?
artist, sensitive, sober
__ What band that played in Gilman Street impressed you most of all?
I saw many many good shows there but for some reason the one that made the biggest impression was Naked Raygun, even though they weren't my favorite band. They blew me away because even though they didn't move they had awesome stage presence.
__ What is your favourite Op Ivy song?
I don't listen to my own music but if I had to pick one it would probably be Sound System. My favorite songs to sing when I was in the band were The Crowd, Big City and Take Warning.
__ What was inspiring you to write lyrics for the band? Judging by their meaning the source of inspiration was far from something cheerful.
The unfairness of the world and the suicidal insanity of the human race where the subjects. The motivation was my own personal inner pain and conflict.
__ What does the Op Ivy logo mean? Who is that vaulting guy?
I just wanted to make a dynamic figure sort of like the guy from The Circle Jerks. Many people don't realize it but the guy on the cover of the album is the same guy on the cover of the Hectic 7", just filled in black.
__ As any other young band you must have been imagined that you are a band like The Beatles at Shea Stadium. Or were you kids who just wanted to be heard? Tim in the interviews said that even an issue of 'Hectic' was an occasion for a band to rejoice?
Yes, in those days if you got one song on a record it was a big deal. It was just a different world. It was hard to record. Nobody had any money. If you were lucky enough to make an album you usually had to do it in two or three days, a week at the most. The first time I put the needle down on a record I was on it was a strange feeling. Of course I mainly just worried about whether or not my vocals were good.
__ Billie Joe Armstrong says that Op Ivy were like big rock stars who were incomprehensibly brought to a small club in Berkeley . Did you really feel yourself like Led Zeppelin playing in “Leisure Centre for Culture”?
Not really. Billie is a nice guy. He just meant that we had a big energy and big presence. We worked very hard and we played like we were going to die the next day. We were lucky because everybody had their own thing they could do, just like a good basketball team. I don't think the band was perfect and I think there have been many other bands that were better but I do think we were fortunate to have a good combination of people who knew how to commit to performing, and people seemed to enjoy it.
__ Can you tell us in a nutshell how did you help Green Day with writing of 2,000 Light Years Away?
I was in a short lived project with Billie and a couple other people. That was a song we were kicking around. I jammed with him a couple times just for fun. I think I made up the melody of the vocals - that's it. Same with another song that appeared on a later album. No big deal. Happy to help.
__ What were you doing after Op Ivy breakup and before setting up Common Rider with Mass Giorgini?
Mostly drinking. I was a depressed alcoholic. Then I got sober and just worked normal jobs for a few years. Not very productive or interesting. I am sorry to say my twenties were mostly wasted.
__ Your paths with Tim and Matt have often crossed after band`s breakup. You took part in making the design of the Rancid debut album, you appeared with them on the same stage in 2006. And in 2012 you even wrote with Timebomb your common track. Is it possible that one day Op Ivy get together for a couple of shows? For example, in the Gilman?
No. I would play the songs for fun under a different name but Opivy had it's time and place and it is over. If Tim wanted to play some of those songs just for fun I might do it. But really, everybody has their own lives.
__ Do you keep in touch? I know that you enjoyed new album of Tim`s protege band – The Interrupters. Do you consider them as a reincarnation of Op Ivy`s former glory?
No, they are great but they are there own thing. I see and talk to Tim every once in a while. We both live in Los Angeles. It is always nice to see him, we have a lot of history together but we both have our own lives and don't hang out too much.
__ Have you ever thought about writing an autobiography? Larry Livermore`s books about forming Lookout Records are very interesting. Or you nevertheless more concentrated on shooting music clips and painting?
I have thought about it and might do it someday but most of my life I was very, very unhappy - mentally destroyed. So a lot of it would just be like "and then I wanted to die and could barely do anything for six months." Not very interesting. I am much better now but I have had serious problems with depression. I also don't care about writing about music scenes, I think it is incredibly boring. I know other people like it. I write fiction and film scripts. that is what is interesting to me.
__ Do you still believe in ideals of DIY-culture? Do you think that gerontocracy must disappear forever?
I don't know what gerontocracy means. It sounds like being ruled by people who are old. If that is true, I think young people are just as bad. I do believe in D.I.Y. culture but I mean, that could be anything. It can be good or bad. You know, nazi skinheads have D.I.Y. labels and shows. It is not good by itself. But yes, I absolutely believe in people creating their own culture, parties, shows, art and so on. I still to this day prefer house shows above everything else.
__ Do you believe that really talented young people can present themselves with the help of DIY or is it only a dream, nothing else?
Right now, in the US, there are probably 20,000 punk bands. Most of them are terrible but there are plenty of good ones too. there are shows all over the place. So yes, I think it is alive and well.
__ You have most likely heard that now there are difficult relationship between Ukraine and Russia/ That`s why we and our friends released by our common efforts antimilitary compilation 'STOP WARS' (download it), in which 32 bands from all parts of the post-Soviet countries. They call to put an end to the war and start peace dialogue. Do you think that such step on the part of music can really change something in current situation? Or to say it other words – is the power of art equivalent to fight against militarized aggression?
I think the best thing you can do with music is to write about what you like and what is important to you. I don't know if music has ever changed much. Then again, sometimes an artist can galvanize an entire nation so maybe it can. I don't know the answer really. I think that it can make a difference in individual lives which is important.
__ “Unity” is one of the songs which we chose as a hymn of our movement. Evolution's gonna come?
Unity is the natural state of the universe. That song is about truth. Unity is already here, we just don't see it because we are blinded by conditioning. That is my opinion. I still believe in that song and in most of the lyrics.
__ Suppose if Op Ivy existed in 2016, would they continue to play ska-punk or would they change style to playing stuff in the spirit of the new times?
I think the ideal thing would be that Opivy stay exactly the same. I think we had the exact right sound and if we had evolved too much it would not be as good.
__ Many our musicians consider that there’s nothing for them in the home land and that`s why they dream to leave their country and go to the USA. They believe that they will be appreciated and popular/ Is it really so? Or is it just a myth which you can dispel now by your answer?
Well I know that times are tough in many places in the former Soviet Union and Ukraine, and it is hard enough to survive. Playing in a band is a real challenge, I am sure. but it is also hard for bands here. There are so many fucking bands, nobody gives a shit. You have to be REALLY good for anybody to care. Still, there are a lot of bands that do pretty well and have fun. But if anybody thinks they can come out here and be the next Casualties or something, it would probably not happen. You never know though. If your band is super talented and original and you work hard, stuff can happen. The odds are not good. Music is a hard game. When I was a kid, punk was a lot smaller so ANY punk band had a guaranteed audience, just because people went to punk shows. There were fewer of them so people were interested. But these days, there are so many fucking bands, either you have to stand out, or play a very popular genre of music (like retro synthesizer music is big now or whatever) or be really good looking or whatever. By the way, I am not really in the loop as far as shows goes (that means I don't go to shows or know much about it) so I don't really know the answer. I am just sharing my impressions.
__ What would you advise in this case to young musicians, writers, painters? What should they do to represent themselves in the countries where the art wasn`t ever very popular.
Think of a practical way to make a living to support your art and do the best you can. Make your art for the love of it and always try to push the boundaries and make better work. If you are born to be an artistic type you don't have any choice any way. But don't try to rely on it for a living if the interest is not there. Take care of the basics of survival first, that way you can make art forever whether people get it or not. Ultimately though, you have to trust your own instincts - how can I really give advice to somebody I have never met in a situation I don't know anything about? What I said is just what I would do.
__ Would you like to continue music career and get the band together again? That`s concerning plans for the future.
No, I am probably done with music. I want to make movies and books. My interests have changed. However i still love music and it is important in my life.
__Thank you for such frank discussion, Jesse. And thank you for inspiration that we get from your music.
Thank you and best wishes and love to anybody who has ever listened to the music I was involved with.
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