You should know him as the singer for Only Living Witness, Miltown, Milligram and Raw Radar War. Or maybe you’ve heard his guest vocals on the “No Heroes” Converge record? Anyway, in September 2007 I got in touch with Jonah Jenkins and on the following pages you can read what he had to say. Still an interesting read if you ask me. It’s a reprint of the interview in Some Will Never Know #1 (a slightly updated version of the version I posted on Asice.net before)
So how are you doing? Busy times?
Yeah, I try to keep as busy as possible, because my brain requires it…but sometimes I have too many things going on.
Alright, let’s get your brains working. We’ll start at the very beginning. You started singing with your mother in choirs right? How do you look back on that period now? I can imagine it being a pretty big influence vocal wise?
It was basically in church, and the groups that form around small community religious life. I am not religious now, and wasn’t then, but my parents wanted to give me an opportunity to make the decision on my own. As soon as I was “old enough” by their estimation, the choice was mine, and I told them that church was not for me. We stopped going. I had been in martial arts for a little while around that time, and fortunately I had shifted my focus into that realm before I became a teenager. It worked a bit better for my own discipline, tolerance and confidence.
As for influences. What/who did influence you as a singer (aside from those choirs that is)?
Apart from my earliest influences, listening to my parents music, and singing with them…I didn’t start to develop what I consider to be my own style until I had music to call my “own”.
H.R. (Bad Brains), and John Sox from the FU’s/Straw Dogs were two of my biggest influences in the hardcore scene…I loved any and all brutal music, plus melodic screamers like John Joseph and John Brannon…because I had been a melodic singer, I always wanted to focus on melody coupled with the energy of hardcore, punk and metal. I could list dozens of vocalists that influenced me in the 80’s, but I’ll stick to just three more: Jeff Pezzati (Naked Raygun), Ian MacKaye (when he was in Minor Threat) and Rollins.
“After singing that first demo, I drove home with the worst headache of my life and bled profusely from the nose.”
So after the choirs… Only Living Witness was your first band right?
I had actually joined a band before that, called “Blind Surgeon” but I left mainly because of the name. We did one unreleased demo together. It’s like Metallica and early death metal influenced crossover, with my vocals, before I understood much about singing aggressively. After singing that first demo, I drove home with the worst headache of my life, and bled profusely from the nose. It took a while to learn how to breathe properly.
Damn, sounds intense! So I guess that didn’t work out and Only Living Witness came on your path?
I formed OLW with Eric Stevenson, who had been the drummer for Formicide, a band that he had joined with his brother Kevin already playing guitar. They had originally been called Eleven, with a different drummer.
Formicide was from Tewksbury, MA, the Merrimac River Valley in Massachusetts, which is near where I had grown up, in Litchfield, New Hampshire. I had seen Formicide, as they were one of the first local metal bands that I loved. I used to go nuts at their shows, and eventually reviewed their music for a zine that I did. When Formicide wanted to call it a day, Eric called me to see if I was interested in starting a group. Blind Surgeon had done two shows, and Kevin Stevenson had seen me perform, and suggested me as the vocalist. I formed Only Living Witness with them, and we did our first 4-track demo, based mainly on a song that had already been written. That song with a Formicide song and two others became our first official demo.
Did you guys fit in with the hardcore scene? I mean, were you guys accepted at the time, since you’re a bit different musically?
We played fast music, that was generally more aggressive than the more popular HC bands in Boston, which were shifting into the beginnings of “post-hardcore”, except for a few. Plenty of bands still played aggressive music, but when we started out, Sam Black Church and Only Living Witness were a little faster, a little heavier and a little more technical than the rest of the bands…so we played (sometimes together) with metal AND hardcore bands.
OLW stood out in the hardcore scene, because we were metal, and vice versa…we never attempted to play in one style, we were generally more interested in playing straightforward aggressive music. Melody eventually filtered in, but not as much at first. We were shooting for our own sound, as we saw in bands like Zoetrope, Holy Terror, Leeway, Cro Mags and Slayer…all of whom could easily play with both metal and HC bands.
As for acceptance, we had some, but mainly we had a lot of friends that would come to see us…and we had some friends that could help us get good shows…Mainly Shawn McNally of Cringe Productions. He ended up managing Sam Black Church. Also Jon Regan booked us on some great hardcore shows…so we did develop a fan base before anyone really had heard of us outside of Boston. Eventually our demos got traded around the world, maybe because I traded a lot back then.
I’ve read somewhere that “Prone Mortal Form” was loosely based on the Russian movie “The Beast” lyrically. Did you do something similar with other records you did?
The Beast was a huge influence on the first album’s lyrics as a whole, though not every song. The second album was more of an amalgamation of concepts from everything I had been reading up to that point in my life. Both albums were focused on personal challenges and reconciling one’s own internal processes with the external world.
The second album was written after reading A Brief History of Time, as well as thousands of articles that I saw while working in the Interlibrary Loan office at Widener Library, which is the hub of the Harvard College Libraries. I saw this massive amount of information being received and sent from one of the centers of academic research in the world, and just wrote line after line about my own perceptions of these topics…only some of them made it into songs. I learned so much in a short period of time…I just wanted to express everything that I was feeling with as few words as possible.
Something you learned a lot about as well are contracts I suppose. During Only Living Witness you’ve been in something that probably is best described as contract hell. Want to tell a bit about that? Warn everyone to never sign contracts like that?
I used to proselytize about this…but fewer and fewer labels are able to get away with what they used to do as “standard industry practice”…now those practices are the larger labels’ undoing. Nice people work at many labels, especially Century Media, in my experience, but the businesses themselves are entirely loathsome to me. The most money I’ve made off of any music was recently when Shadows Fall covered “December” and that was diminished greatly by the disgusting royalty arrangement that Century Media sets up for all of their bands. OLW were not alone in getting screwed…and I had to sign similar contracts to get away from Century Media. Now I’m free of all contracts, and, except in very rare instances, I’ll never sign one that is more than a page or two, ever again.
Although we were all friends with Bob Maloney, and he’s incredible as a musician, the song writing process was not what we all wanted it to be in that incarnation. We got a new bass player, Jeff Turlik, who had previously played guitar with our drummer Zeph Courtney in a band called StompBox. They had one album on Columbia/Sony. Once Jeff joined the band, it was easier to move toward the AmRep / early SST sound that we all loved.
As for those contracts, how did the 2CD reissue come to live?
Century Media approached us. I have no idea why they chose not to release it in Europe, as I’ve been asked by dozens of people why it’s not available over there without it being called an import from the US.
“I remember Eddie from Leeway putting the couch out of the dressing room for the audience to sit down, and they did…”
It’s a great release as far as I’m concerned, but was it something you guys wanted or was it a contractual obligation?
It fulfilled nothing in our contract. As far as they are concerned OLW still owes them 4 albums and well over 40,000 dollars.
It’s not comprehensive either, because Century Media wouldn’t allow us to include the cover songs we’d done because they didn’t want to pay the royalties for them.
That’s a shame. Were there any plans for a reunion at that time, to go with the release you know?
We had talked about it often, but it just hadn’t been working, because of the complexities of the band members’ lives. Also, we had been very wary of the motivations of Century Media. They still hold the publishing rights of three of the members of OLW, “in perpetuity, in the known universe.”
How about vinyl releases for those two records or the reissue? There never were any, right?
A friend that recently moved from Canada to New York has offered to release it, and he got the blessing from Century Media, but I haven’t heard from him in a while. I’m sure money is an issue for him.
2008 UPDATE: REFLECTIONS RECORDS WILL BE RELEASING THEIR 2 ALBUMS AS A 2LP.
Hope he works it out. Those albums deserve a vinyl release. Something else, you guys did tour Europe. How were those shows? Do you remember any of it? How about The Netherlands?
I remember almost all of it. What a great time, and yet it was difficult, like any tour. The first tour was with The Cro Mag(s)…John Joseph and friends when Century Media released “Near Death Experience.” That was almost a month and a half. The second tour was with Leeway, for about a month. We hit 14 countries in total as a band…it was all a great time, and a learning experience. We met amazing people all over.
When we played in Amsterdam, I remember Eddie from Leeway pulling the couch out of the dressing room for the audience to sit down, and they did…
I’m sure it was a mix of boredom (because every band goes to Amsterdam, nothing is exciting anymore) and a bit of weed smoke that encouraged the audience to sit down during Leeway’s set.
People were very nice to us all over Europe, especially in Prague, Vienna, Paris and Stuttgart.
That’s a nice story about the Leeway show haha, never heard that before. Let’s close the chapter on Only Living Witness. I’ll ask you the question you’ll be getting a lot I think. An Only Living Witness reunion… Really never going to happen?
We’ve got a one-time reunion planned for some time in January of 2008, to take place in Boston. We’ve had a few practices and they’ve gone very well.
That’s amazing news! Let us know when there’s a date set. I gotta arrange tickets!
2008 UPDATE: THE ONE BOSTON REUNION SHOW TURNED INTO TWO AND NOW THEY’RE EVEN PLAYING A FINAL SHOW IN EINDHOVEN (NL) ON THE 30TH OF AUGUST.
That’s a great way to close off the OLW chapter. After it you formed Miltown right? So how did that came together?
After OLW, I wanted a break from the hardcore and metal scene, because Boston was experiencing massive problems with violence, and clubs closing. I wanted to play more straightforward melodic music for a while.
I started to write songs with a couple of different groups of people. Miltown and Milligram (which was basically me, Darryl Shepard (ex-Slapshot and ex-Roadsaw), and Bob Maloney, and we had no official name at first)…neither band had a drummer.
I was approached by Warner Brothers/Giant/Revolution Records about working with them, and though I knew that it would be difficult, I was eager to get away from Century Media. After a lot of negotiation, Warner/Giant/Revolution agreed to pay Century Media for my recording contract, and Century Media agreed to also take money for my publishing contract. So, once Century Media received a check, I was on Warner/Giant/Revolution.
Because Miltown found a drummer first, I went with Miltown, for the time being. Because of an introduction by my friend Jacob Brennan, of Cast Iron Hike, I formed Miltown with Brian McTernan (ex-Battery, Salad Days studios)…he asked to play with his friend Matt Squire, and although I did not like Matt’s musical directions initially, I agreed, mainly because Brian insisted. We found a bass player from common friends, and a drummer the same way.
Miltown only existed for two years. How come? Just stopped working, or any special reason behind that?
Check http://www.electrical.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?t=24292 for the Miltown story, plus it has a discussion about my and others’ major label dealings. By the way, about Miltown…Matt Squire went on to produce Panic At The Disco and a bunch of other music that I dislike. Brian McTernan went on to do a lot of great projects, and I still consider him a friend, even though we haven’t spoken in years.
I think it was with Milligram though you tried out some more harsh vocals for some songs the first time. How did that come up?
Milligram’s first incarnation worked well for a few years, but three of us wanted a more angular, dissonant, aggressive sound. Although we were all friends with Bob Maloney, and he’s incredible as a musician, the song writing process was not what we all wanted it to be in that incarnation. We got a new bass player, Jeff Turlik, who had previously played guitar with our drummer Zeph Courtney in a band called StompBox. They had one album on Columbia/Sony. Once Jeff joined the band, it was easier to move toward the AmRep / early SST sound that we all loved.
You guys were supposed to start recording an album with Milligram when 9/11 happened right?
Yes. We were booked for the studio, New Alliance, to start basic tracks on 9/11/01, for an album that was going to be called “Death To America.”
…How did that influence you as a person and did it reflect in the song writing in any way?
It didn’t reflect the song writing for that album, as it was already written.
Of course, didn’t think of that. I can imagine it made quite an impact though, the whole world was shocked by the event. But for us it’s still a bit of a distance, you know.
It filtered more into lyrics for Raw Radar War, but in a more abstract way. Many of the lyrics on Milligram’s This Is Class War touched on personal topics, about how I related to the world around me…a lot of it was about my family, my own mistakes, and some were about my interactions within our band.
Around the same time you also started a label. Traktor7? Where does that name came from and any specific reason why you started your own label?
I had released two 7″s before that…the Cast Iron Hike 7″, and one by a band from Boston called Honkeyball. My label was called Secular Records. I still have plenty of both of those records.
In 2002, a friend approached me about starting a label. We had been promised 20,000 dollars to start by another friend. After we had lined up a few releases (Milligram, Lamont and Crash and Burn), we found out that the funding had been cut in half…so we had to change our plans drastically…but it worked out in the end.
“We were booked for the studio, to start basic tracks on 9.11.01, for an album that was going to be called Death to America”
How about the name though. Traktor7?
My partner in starting T7 is a hockey fanatic, and his favorite Russian hockey team is TRAKTOR, and his favorite hockey player was the Boston Bruins’ Ray Bourque, number 77. I like the name because it’s unique.
I’ve heard some talk about the unreleased “Tales of Never Letting Go” Miltown record, maybe going to be released on your label? Any truth in that?
Yes, the demo versions. Warner Brothers owns the album that was recorded at Longview Farm, but the songs all belong to the group. Because I ended up losing money at the end of Miltown (my band business bank account, which I had been keeping the band’s tax money was emptied by Matt Squire)…I own the recordings of the demos.
I will still release the demo recordings with the band, and share the profits after I recoup my pressing costs, but I am having them remixed by the awesome Glenn Smith: ampsvsohms.com
Sounds good, looking forward to that release! Any other releases coming up on Traktor7?
The only other planned Traktor7 release will be the next RRW album, hopefully next Spring. We’re writing it now.
So at the moment you’re doing Raw Radar War. It sounds like the soundtrack to the end of this world to me, in a good way that is. Can you tell us some more about the ‘new’ band?
This band has been together since 2002, and we work very slowly, mainly because we are friends before anything else. It takes time to negotiate song structures, sounds and everything else when talking to friends, in particular. We all have strong opinions and value each others’ input…and we want to make the best songs that we possibly can, within the parameters of our abilities.
You released a LP on Land O Smiles and a split 7″ with Deer Creek on Game Two Records. What are the future plans for Raw Radar War?
We have two tracks appearing on a split 7″ box set, on Land O Smiles, but there will only be 250 complete box sets pressed. We want to have a new album/CD out next year…we’re working on new songs now.
Between all of these bands you did quite some guest vocals for other bands. How do those collaborations happen usually? They probably just call you or something? Any special stories on one of those?
Friends of mine that play music have asked me to contribute to various projects. I don’t always have time…and sometimes the vibe might not work for me…but I have released music with a few different projects. I think my favorite was the 5IVE’s Continuum Research Project songs…it was a great opportunity to combine rough, angry vocals and melodies and harmonies. Incidentally, the lyrics and melodies to Stockholm Blues were first written for the first Miltown song, but it never worked with that group.
Working with Converge was very easy, as they are super laid back guys, but it was Jacob’s lyrical content…I only contributed melodies. I generally like to write my own lyrics. I love how that song came together, though…I’m very proud of that project, and I feel lucky to have been included.
Of all the things you’ve recorded throughout the years, aside from the collaborations that is. Do you have favorites yourself? Something you’re the most proud of or have a special connection with or something?
I think “Innocents” and “This Is Class War” are my favorite projects overall, but I am particularly happy with how the concepts, artwork, and lyric/vocal contributions that I made came together for RRW “==”. It is the most cohesive (if you include all of the elements) of anything I’ve done so far.
“I think Innocents and This Is Class War are my favorite projects overall…”
As for favorites.. what kind of music do you listen to yourself? Anything we all need to check out?
I’ve always had very eclectic tastes in music, but that’s not as uncommon now that people have access to every style with a mouse click. I like to learn about new and old bands all the time, through trading mainly. Some of my favorite discoveries, new and old are:
The Dogs (from Detroit), Urinals, Faust, Neu!, Bright (NYC), Man The Conveyors, Defcon4, La Gritona, Harvey Milk, Fela Kuti, ASVA, Fourway Anal Touchfight, Teddy Fire, U Can Unlearn Guitar, CockESP, Madeleine Peyroux, Autopsy, on and on…
Do you see yourself doing solo singer/songwriter stuff in the future? Like Johnny Cash or something?
No. I prefer collaboration. If I were to write songs for an album like that, I would definitely work with friends. I prefer the process. It’s relatively easy for anyone to work alone, but the end product isn’t always as strong as it could be if other people were involved. Just as organisms grow stronger through sharing of genes, cross pollination, I believe that art and music and music benefit greatly from collaboration.
I guess so, more than the sum of parts right? Where do you see yourself in 20 years anyway? Not only music wise. In life generally. Any things you just want to have done by then? Goals you’ve set?
I want to have an art degree, and hopefully my masters in library information science. It will take me a while, but I am patient. I have a good life, a great job, I own my home, and I have amazing people as friends. I would like to have traveled a lot more by then. I’ve seen most of the US and Europe, but I’d like to travel to Finland, Australia, Japan, Peru…and so many more places. I love to learn and travel is one of the most enjoyable ways to learn, passively or otherwise.
You work in a library. A logical question would be, what book made the most impact on you?
No single book has had more of an impact than so many that I have loved. Also, I don’t believe that the construct of a “book” is as important as it was to the world before digital technologies provided myriad non-linear learning environments. In fact, I’d have to say that the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series had more of an impact on me than any particular novel. Also, “Select Epigrams of Martial” provided me with a short-attention-span glimpse into why history and language are not necessarily boring topics for even a 9 year old. None of the epigrams were intended to become part of a book, per se. And the same is true for The Odyssey, which was more of a collection of stories surrounding a character…I read that when I was young and it changed my perceptions of the commonalities of lives across millennia. It also helped me to understand why questioning authority figures and gods is imperative for human self actualization.
I read some of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books as well! I can remember two Young Indiana Jones stories I’ve read from that series. I thought there were amazing indeed. I don’t think I’ve ever read books like that after those though… Anyway, since your surrounded by books a lot, did a fanzine called Look Again and wrote lyrics for your band. Did the thought of writing a book yourself ever crossed your mind?
I have thought about it. I would probably have to include many stories that could never be published while the characters are still alive, for a variety of reasons, so if I do write a book about what I know, it might have to wait to be published for quite a while.
Ok, final question. What the fuck is up with absurdisms.com haha?
The name says it all, I think.
Okay, that’s a wrap as far as I’m concerned. Thanks a lot for taking the time to go through all these questions with me. I’ll let the ending up to you. Feel free to get anything off your chest.
Thanks for taking the time to ask these questions. I truly appreciate all of the support from the new and long time fans of my music. I love to hear from people, positively or negatively.
2008 UPDATE: FINAL SHOW INFO: THEY’RE PLAYING AN EXCLUSIVE EUROPEAN SHOW @ THE LOUD FROM THE SOUTH FESTIVAL IN EINDHOVEN (NL). FOR MORE INFO CHECK: WWW.LOUDFROMTHESOUTH.COM.