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[Q&A] Milligram's Jonah Jenkins on "This Is Class War," blowing out sounds, and turning intraband tension into noisepunk gold // 10.20 @ Great Scott



The late-'90s/early-'00s in the world of Boston rock was an odd space -- the tiny space carved out for local rock n' roll was, for the most part, occupied with Southern-fried stoner boogie, if you can believe it, Britpop-obsessed partykids, and a whole lot of play-by-numbers jangle pop. Which made the sonic outliers of the time that much more awesome; sure, there was the Providence noise thing, but that seemed a million miles away, meaning that when Jonah Jenkins rebounded from his time with New England '90s metal titans Only Living Witness with the knife-to-the-speakers noisepunk of MILLIGRAM, it was a beautiful, beautiful sound indeed (as lovingly documented in this early Phoenix feature on the band by now-Editor-in-Chief Carly Carioli). Milligram hit hard, hit fast, and then flamed out -- within the space of two years they had put out three records with two distinct lineups: the amped-up-stoner-rock of their self-titled 2000 debut EP and the follow-up mostly-covers Black and White Rainbow EP, and then the distorted-to-hell unholy roar of 2002's This Is Class War, a vicious speaker-shredder that only emerged after intraband tensions led to the band's dissolution.

Milligram are back, gracing us with a pair of reunion gigs at Great Scott in Allston, last Saturday's reunion of the first lineup, and tomorrow night's This Is Class War re-creation. On the eve of the gigs, I talked to Jenkins about those early noughts times, and about the comedown from his big label days to the lean-and-mean Milligram aesthetic. We featured Milligram in this week's print issue, but here's the complete talk with Jonah -- read it up and get psyched to have your head mowed off tomorrow night!

So how did this “reunion” come about?


Well, just a few events that happened nearly around the same time that made it exciting to at least practice together and then play a couple of shows; one was to play Tommy from Solace’s wedding in Asbury Park-- that was a fun show and a great way to pay back a friend from a long time ago. It was just great to hang out with friends and all. And then we did the Kyuss Lives! show in Worcester last year, and that prompted the whole thing with “Hey, while we’re practicing, why don’t we book a couple of shows?” These Great Scott shows we booked a year ahead in advance to make sure we’d have a venue! And now, after some practicing, it’s worked out well.

Was there a divide between the two Milligram lineups?

Musically, definitely. The first record’s definitely a lot more, I guess, melodic, for lack of a better word. I don’t know if it’s just melody but there was definitely more of a focus on catchiness in the songs, not sure if it’s necessarily more upbeat but it’s not as minimalist as the second record, that’s for sure.



When Milligram first came out, the first record made sense in the context of local stoner rock; but when This Is Class War came out, it definitely felt like you had moved into a place that other people weren’t occupying, at least in town. What was the reaction like?

We didn’t actually play a lot of shows with that lineup. We definitely got good reactions from people who liked the band already, and some of our friends were at the recordings, but because the record came out after we broke up, it was just a matter of people going “Oh wow, that’s the second Milligram record?” The dynamics definitely came from Jeff and Zeph having played together for many years so that provided another way to think about songwriting, and Darryl’s guitar playing was definitely influenced by the new rhythm section.

It seems like there was a comfortable zone for stoner rock at the time. Did you guys feel like you had to push things a lot further?

Yeah, we certainly were -- I was personally tired of being associated with bands channeling Sabbath, and Jeff and Zeph were as well. Darryl too, but it’s not as if he changed his style, he was just playing with a rhythm section that approached things from a Jesus Lizard standpoint rather than a more classic sound.

How did you feel about Milligram after it ended, was it an unfinished opportunity?

Not necessarily. We definitely had plenty more ideas in terms of songs, and as a result we might actually write some new stuff, we actually have some new songs. But what may have been squandered was the chance to continue the momentum that we had. That was a result of certain personal intraband dynamics, just stressors that didn’t need to be there. It’s much easier now that those stresses aren't’ there, much easier to focus and be productive.

Was Milligram spurred to greatness by the intraband friction, or did that stuff get in the way?

Probably a mix of both -- we certainly, during songwriting sessions when we had frustrations where we each wanted to contribute something, it resulted in, you know, odd time signatures and weird counts of how many times you repeat a riff. we’re rehearsing these songs now and going “oh, why are we repeating this 23 times?” It sounds like we were fuckign with each other, but we were also pushing each other to be as creative as possible, as a group.

This Is Class War sounds, on first listen, like a real mow-your-head-off record; but upon closer listen it’s a lot more diverse and dynamic than that.

We definitely focused on what wasn’t going on in our songwriting and went with it. Like “Summer of Lies” was basically an instrumental that Darryl had and when we went in the studio they kind of said “Yeah, go for it.” A few of the songs we had actually written with Bob, we have some demos of those that we did with Marc Schleicher. But so much of the songwriting was all over the place because we were challenging each other and trying to make a full length record that was unique, a bunch of disparate sounds that cohere into one giant unique object.

You guys did the Black and White Rainbow EP with all the cover songs on it, and you kind of got a reputation as a band that did killer cover songs. Was This Is Class War a kind of rejoinder to local people that thought of you as “the band that does the Misfits covers”?

The covers really just came from a bunch of fans of music wanting to play together and wanting to find a starting point. And sometimes it was a starting point of “Where do we start writing?” In the first lineup one of the covers that we did was cheap trick’s “Hello there”, and the first song we did onstage was “Goodnight Now”, which I remember turning off a bunch of people at the time because they thought “This is not what we were expecting”. So the cover thing was all about determining what was awesome about those songs to-- well, not necessarily steal from them, but learn from them. Part of it was also to be in a room together playing music we liked. It’s funny because back when we were doing those Misfits covers, Zeph was not really a fan at all of the Misfits. He said at one of the recent practices “It’s funny because now I’m a fan of the Misfits!” One’s taste in music can be reactive, and you can definitely get sick of everyone else talking about something and say “I am not interested in that”, and then once everyone else stops talking about it, it’s alright to like it again.



The sense I got at time of the rock world in Boston, especially the stoner rock thing, was that it was an indulgent time. And I saw Milligram as a reaction to that; you guys were Spartan, to the point, short songs. Especially the This Is Class War stuff like “Let’s Kill”; two minutes, direct, blunt.



It was entirely conscious. The band name really came from Zeph saying “Let’s use this name and use it as a metaphor for a potent, very small doses of music.” The whole sort of idea comes from the Minutemen, you know? Zeph, being a huge Minutemen fan was like “Let’s do that, let’s make different music and keep it concise.” That made me happy because I like really concise songs anyway. If you can do it in a minute or two minutes and it’s good enough, why ruin it for everybody? And that’s why Milligram shows were always very short-- like the Dwarves, we were huge Dwarves fans. If you can play a set in twelve minutes that will blow everyone away, you’re all set-- why play for an hour?

This Is Class War, as a recording, is really blown out and arty sounding-- where did that come from, that approach?

Mostly Mainliner and High Rise. That sort of Japanese psych garage stuff was a huge influence on us and we loved that attack that was added to the songs, it just gave it this extra boost of excitement. We kept trying to get Andrew Schneider to boost it in the studio-- I think we pushed him to his limit, and then when I went to go master it I think I pushed Dave from JP Masters to his limit. We used analog compression, we bounced to tape, bounced it down, and used analog compression again and it turned it into even more what sounds like distortion pedals but it’s all based in compression.

And it was taped distortion on the drum track?

That’s compressed drums, it’s forcing it to overload based on extreme compression, and same thing with the vocals. There's more distortion via compression on the vocals and drums than on the guitars.

Yeah, it seems like at the time everyone had figured out how to record a really economic warm rock record, with everything sounding really warm and nice, and that record was, after stuff like Ghetto Thunder, the next iteration of blown out rock.

Yeah, I’m bummed that Ghetto Thunder had to drop off the show, they were a huge influence. I was a huge fan. them, and the Cokedealer bands, all the bands around the edges-- Human Shield, just anything that was really fucked up and blown out, live in a club, how do you capture that? Too many recordings sound really clean, like they’re recorded at a radio station-- quiet guitars, loud vocals, and what’s the point of that?

So after the band broke up, did you get a lot of people mourning the loss of Milligram? how did the ensuing decade roll out for you guys in terms of thinking about this band?

A lot of it was just the fallout of putting out a record. I started Traktor 7 pretty much right after Milligram broke up, and the first release was what, 2002, and so I just kind focused on that. And I started a new band and I wanted it to be even more aggressive than Milligram. And the other guys had other various things going on. It wasn’t like nobody had anything to do!

You guys went through a period of touring and trying to do all that-- but by the time of This Is Class War, you had kind of moved past that. Did those experiences kind of color what wound up on the record?

Oh definitely. The tour that we did was pretty ill-fated. I ended up at the end of that tour with poison ivy over two-thirds of my body, we had a van that died after-- we went to Ohio, West Virginia for a show that was cancelled, New Jersey, and the van died at Sturbridge 100 miles away. And that was the Stompbox van. So it was a pretty sad state of affairs and it kind of confirmed what I thought about touring over the years, which is that there is a way to do it, with a lot of money, which can be kind of comfortable, but if you’re doing it all D.I.Y., no matter how much of that you do, it ends up being little more than a lot of dick jokes and bad smells.

Or cancelled shows that you drive ten hours for.

In the U.S. anyway. We attempted to book a tour in Europe and that fell through-- we were trying to book a tour with a Spanish band and we were on a French label but there was just no money.

By that point, you had been in much bigger bands, had walked away from a major label deal with Miltown; in the context of that, how do you see Milligram?

Well, it was intended to be the band that followed Only Living Witness, but we just couldn’t find a drummer. So I kind of felt like I jumped right into it as soon as Miltown broke up, and it was more in line for what I envisioned originally for after Only Living Witness. Obviously different people, different kind of songs. “My Own Private Altamont” was the first song I wrote after Witness broke up; it was with Darryl, and it was lyrically about all the bullshit that happened after all that stuff. So the whole major label process was very frustrating and I think I could have better handled it if it had been with the Milligram guys, just because they had already gone through it as well, with Stompbox and Darryl had a lot of experience as well. The Miltown guys just didn’t have a lot of experience with that so I was stuck having to deal with a lot of business decisions with folks who were just sort of starry-eyed. It would have been a lot of easier to deal with if we’d had a more unified front, I think.



Yeah-- it seems like the secret to understanding Milligram is that it was the band that you did after all of that. I mean, at the time there was talk, chatter about “How could someone walk away from a major label deal?” And Milligram was kind of the musical explanation/retort.

people should realize that I didn’t necessarily walk away from the deal, I just didn’t want to have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an album, which the label literally forced us to do. I offered them the Milligram recordings and they told me that, in their opinion, I was only giving them these demos, which were completely non commercially viable, in order to get out of my contract. Which was untrue! If they had started working with Milligram I would have been psyched-- but they wanted their pound of flesh for me not playing by their rules, so they tried to string me along for as long as possible. Basically when the label was folding, in an act of benevolence, the guy who signed me, who was losing his job, said to Warner Brothers “Just let this guy go”.

Was this a pivotal moment in your life, being “freed” from this whole thing?

I always had a halfway decent job so I could pay my rent, my mortgage, without being beholden to that machine, which is basically what the music industry at the time wanted of musicians-- they wanted to get you stuck in that pattern of borrow money, travel, starve, and always have to come back to the label for favors and/or more money, so that they could justify their budgets. I didn’t want that, I didn’t need that-- Miltown didn’t want or need that either, we could have recorded easily with Brian McTiernan and saved a bundle, but that was not acceptable. We had to work with a producer that they chose, they really forced that process. But you know, once Milligram was underway, I was basically not interested in any of that anymore, it was much easier to be playing with folks who just cared about the music.

If I was a old-school Only Living Witness fan, and didn’t follow your post-OLW stuff, and then years later someone played me some stuff by Raw Radar War, I might think “This is the same guy?” But I think Milligram makes it all make more sense. Was Milligram was an important part of your vocal transformation from the signature OLW style?

Absolutely. And the whole process of learning to sing with more of a compressed vocal style and less of an open clean melodic style evolved through Miltown because of the way were writing and recording songs. I was able to focus on different techniques, and with Milligram, with the blown-out guitars I had to think of new ways because it would sound out of place otherwise. I had to add more grit to it and it felt really good, it felt better because I didn’t have to focus so much on precision of tonality; pitch is always important but the precise tones were always so important in Only Living Witness because the guitars were so precise. When things got fuzzier and clattered around the way they did in Milligram, I was able to focus on a more percussive style and fuse it with melody, and I could scream more. And once I got to Raw Radar war, it felt alright to pretty much scream all the time!

It seems like, as a vocalist, you had quite a large say in the sound of Milligram, especially on the recording of This Is Class War.

Well, I’m extraordinarily opinionated, so that probably impacted it significantly, but we did spend a lot of time sitting around listening to music, and talking about sounds, so it’s not like I personally influenced the way everyone sounded. I did have a lot to do with the mastering process though, since I was the only one at those sessions. I knew how I wanted the band to sound, and I had a lot of theories on how we could sound while we were recording. We definitely pushed each other, we definitely pushed Andrew Schneider, maybe even to places where he wasn’t quite comfortable! But in the end, he understood it; there were tensions about it but it wasn’t like we were purposely fucking with each other, it was more like “I think this can sound like that and it doesn’t yet so let’s try to do that.” But I wasn’t going to pick up anyone’s instrument and say “Play it like this”, that would have failed miserably.

Was Milligram a reaction to being known as Jonah Jenkins, the voice and exemplar of a certain strain of New England Metal?

Oh, most definitely. We, in Milligram, were definitely focused on making the music that we all loved-- we talked about music constantly, we talked about bands that we loved, we talked about sounds and tones that we loved. And I think that we succeeded in what we were trying to do. And I think that I was getting away from what Only Living Witness was, whether consciously or subconsciously, based on what I experienced with that whole scene. There were certain elements that I just wanted to get out of my life, certain expectations that I wanted to get away from, certain comparisons that I wanted to make sure would never be made with this new band. I just didn’t wanted to be associated with quote-unquote alternative metal because it was a disgusting term, and I just wanted to make music that was interesting and sounded different and good.

MILLIGRAM :: Great Scott, 1222 Comm Ave, Allston :: October 13 + 20 @ 9 pm :: 21+ :: $12 : 617.566.9014 or greatscottboston.com

>> DBROCKMAN@PHX.COM :: @THEBIZHASLANDED
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