For the last two decades, Iron Lung has been a damn near unstoppable force in the world of DIY punk and hardcore music. The two-man power violence project is now an institution in the West Coast underground and the record label bearing the same name continues to churn out release after release of quality chaos. I called up drummer /vocalist Jensen Ward to chat about his early influences, his favorite albums and of course, all things Iron Lung.
I’m talking to you at 11:30 tonight. I’m assuming you just got back from practice. How many days a week do you practice?
It depends on the band. Every band that I play in, with the exception of the one that played tonight, is all people from out of town. With this band Nasti, two of the guys live in Olympia and the rest of us live in Seattle. That’s as close as I get to having a local band. And that band only practices once a week. All the other bands are intermittent at best. Iron Lung is actually playing a show this weekend in Petaluma and I’m flying down to Oakland to practice for a few days before that on Thursday. And then Innumerable Forms, which is the other operative band I play in, we’re actually playing some shows in February and we usually we get together like two or three days before we actually play shows and just kind of rehearse. I just practice on my own for the rest of the times. Unfortunately, I don’t have a cool set up where I practice twice a week in one band that I play in like other people do. But I don’t know if modern life really warrants that sort of behavior anymore.
That nice easy routine just doesn’t exist for me.
So, how many bands are you in officially?
Here’s three bands that actually play shows. But I have a bunch of other project things that I’m working on. Two of them are kind of secret. I can’t really talk about those.
Not yet at least. Before we get into the Iron Lung stuff, let’s talk about that Innumerable Forms record. I mean it sounds kind of corny to talk about the hype, but you guys got on a bunch of Best of 2018 lists. That must have cool to see.
Did we? That’s cool. I saw one list. What was it? CVLT Nation or something and they were really cool about the record. All of the reviews for the record that I’ve seen have been really positive which is great and I’m glad because it took us like 500 years to finish it. I’m so happy that people are enjoying all of the work that we put into that one. We’re actually gonna start writing a new one this summer. We’ll see how that goes.
Hopefully that doesn’t take another 500 years.
Well, you know what it was? It wasn’t the writing of it that took a long time. It was the mixing and recording that took forever. We tracked everything separately, because there’s five of us in the band and we live in four different cities. And the other guitar player in that band is on tour all the time with his other band so we never get to play or practice or record all together. So, that’s why it took us so long to do it. We went back and forth with mixing for like a year. It was ridiculous. We mixed it the first time and I just didn’t like the way the whole thing sounded at all. We actually ended up going with someone else to mix it completely.
So, we had to start from scratch again three or four months after we started it. It was really frustrating. We kept the same tracking because we recorded it with this guy Ryan in Boston. Ryan is a drummer and all the people in Innumerable Forms are drummers so it was great. We were all on the same page, all sort of talking about how we loved recording with click tracks. [Laughs] Which is like, a funny thing to talk about. But it was great. It was really comfortable. Except the studio was freezing cold but for that record it was kind of perfect for it to be that cold.
Fits the vibe.
Dude, I couldn’t feel my fingers when we were tracking! We may as well have been fuckin’ outside. Jesus Christ. But it came through — all that pain and torment came through on the record. I’m really happy with how that one came out.
You seem to stay pretty busy. You put out a bunch of records this past year on Iron Lung Records, you’re playing Petaluma on Saturday with Iron Lung, you’re talking about these other projects you’re in. Do you have a job or career aside from all of that? How do you balance all this stuff?
I do have a job, yeah. I work at Scarecrow Video. Readers might not know that video stores still exist and it is like one of two still left in Seattle. It has the biggest private video collection in the world. It’s insane. It’s like 130,000 plus movies. I’ve worked there for 10 or 11 years now. I don’t work full time. I used to, but I kind of went down in hours. I had a kid a couple years ago so I ended up having to stay home a lot more because my wife has a real job [laughs]. So, she makes more money that me and I kind of do this loser teenager job and also play in rock bands and put out records.
Hey, you’re the cool dad.
It’s kind of funny. On paper some successful person would be like “what the fuck? Okay man, I don’t understand how you live.”
At least your kid is going to grow up with some really awesome music and films.
Hell yeah, for sure. Or at least I think it’s pretty sweet. He may not like it at all. I don’t know. We’ll see. All he likes is Lightning McQueen and some Paw Patrol thing. Kids programming is definitely not what we need to talk about for this interview. Fuck that.
What were your highlights of 2018 for Iron Lung?
For stuff that we did, Iron Lung played in Mexico in February of 2018 and that was super fucking cool. We had never played in Mexico ever, not even Tijuana. We just never got asked (Laughs) So we never went. We don’t tour places where we don’t get invited. Which is lucky for us because we’ve been invited to a lot of great places in the world. But we never ask to go there. I guess we just feel like, if someone wants us to tour there and they go to the trouble of inviting us, chances are that tour is going to be a lot more interesting for everyone involved because they want us there. As opposed to like, “We want to go to Namibia,” so we have to find some guy on the internet and I feel like I would just be putting someone out. “Hey guy, you don’t know me. We’re in this band that may or may not be cool but we really want to play in your country. Do you think anyone will care?” And the guy will probably be like, “Yeah…I guess. I’ll try.” I’d much rather have “Holy shit we’re so excited for you to come over. Please come over.” That’s what I want.
So, we went to Mexico finally and it was fucking great. So much fun. The people were awesome. The food was amazing. We went and did all this really fun shit and because it’s just two of us we just traveled in a car. It was just such an easy, great thing. We’ll do it again. That was the highlight for the band, for sure. And then after that we didn’t play a single note until this show that we’re playing next weekend. I had a lot of hand problems. I had carpal tunnel syndrome and de Quervain's syndrome and some trigger finger and all kinds of hand issues. I had to get some hand surgeries and I actually still can’t play drums right now. I’m almost ready to start playing again after all the healing and all the stuff I gotta do. I’ll tell you, after playing drums for two decades and then not being able to play for a whole year, it fucking sucks. I’m losing my mind. The show I’m playing with Iron Lung this weekend, we actually taught someone else the drum parts.
Yeah, I was gonna ask about that.
We’ve never done that before. We’ve played shows and had people come up and do vocals and we did two shows where we invited a bass player to play with us, but aside from that it’s always been just me and Jon. This is a really weird thing for me. I’m kind of tripping because I have to just sing. It will either be great or it will be stupid.
I’m hoping for great.
Me too, yeah. I mean, I’m planning on making it great. I’m gonna do the best that I can do. But not having to sit behind a drum set and actually sing this music is pretty exciting. It’s like, so violent and so crazy. I have a hard time imagining what it will be like unleashed, you know? I don’t have to sit still. I don’t know what I’m gonna do.
You could do your Cro-Mags impression.
I guess, I don’t know. But isn’t a Cro-Mags impression just a Bad Brains impression?
Fair enough. Do a Bad Brains impression?
Yeah, why not? I can backflip.
Give it a shot.
Sure [laughs]. No problem. I could also just lay down on the stage.
So, you’re going to be doing your first show with Iron Lung in awhile this weekend. What are your plans for 2019 for both the band Iron Lung and the label?
With the label we kind of decided we’re gonna stick to doing about 20 releases a year. Which is a lot. The way I want to do it ideally would be two releases for the first 10 months and then November and December just not do anything. Who really wants to buy a record during the holidays? Nobody, it’s weird. I guess some people do for the Black Friday Record Store Day thing but I think it sucks and I don’t take part in any of that. So, that’s kind of the plan, just grind ‘em out super hard for 10 months then just let it go for the end. Just ease in to the end of the year. Then we can concentrate on doing other stuff. I kind of tried to do that for 2018 as well and it mostly worked out, but you know, if it were up to me, I would make sure everything is on a schedule because it’s way easier to deal with. But when you deal with bands, that almost never works out.
Bands are made of people and people are just unreliable for the most part. They make great music, but boy sometimes getting them to give you that music on any sort of format or artwork for it is next to impossible [laughs].
On the main page of the Iron Lung Records website it says “We Know What We Like and What We Don’t Like.” It’s pretty out in the open.
Yeah, that’s a bold statement. I think about that statement because it came up as a joke originally. I may have said it onstage or something in response to someone trying to heckle us. The idea just kind of stuck with me after that and I really like that. I like having that as a guideline. It makes you think about the things that are in your life. Even if you go to a restaurant or something and you sit there and you’re like, “Alright I’m gonna have this mashed potatoes and gravy and this chicken fried something” and you sit there and you think about it like, “Do I like this? Do I want to eat this?” “No, you know what? Fuck that shit, I’m not eating it.” You just know. You have to decide whether you like the thing or you don’t like the thing. I mean, you can try it. You can listen to a record and go, “Ahhh I don’t know.” But sooner or later you’re gonna have to make the call. You’re gonna have to roll the dice and see that if you can’t make a choice, then you probably don’t like that thing so just move on.
You know when you like it, right?
Exactly. You’ll know. When there’s something that speaks to you, you’ll know it. It’s like an undeniable truth. You’ll hear a record and be like, “Holy fucking shit this is the best record I’ve ever heard.”
Early on growing up there were certain records that I knew I was supposed to like. I didn’t, but I tried so hard to like it. They just didn’t grow on me.
I imagine a lot of people go through that. I went through that too. All your friends are like “You have to like this Vanilla Ice record. It’s the greatest.” And at the time it was coming out, I was like “Well that Queen track that they’re sampling is really interesting sounding. But this Vanilla Ice asshole? I don’t give a fuck about this guy.” It was like, “I don’t like that, but I like this other thing.” But it’s great because it leads to something else. You know like maybe the album you’re supposed to like is influenced by something that’s great. I just kind of go with the thing that’s great. I love listening to influences of influences. It’s like an endless quest, you just keep finding all this shit. So, I love to just go backwards when you’re listening to music and find out who influenced the thing that you like. It’s great. And in the end, you don’t have to like Vanilla Ice [laughs].
Aside from presents from your parents or friends, what was the first album that you purchased on your own?
The first thing I bought on my own without even knowing what it was, was from a place called Wherehouse Music by my house and I was like 8, maybe. I stole money from my mom’s purse and I went there and I picked out two tapes because I had 20 bucks. It was AC/DC Back in Black and Ratt Out of the Cellar. [Laughs] Both were great that day, but AC/DC Back in Black has been a cornerstone album for me since then. I’ve always liked it and it’s always been good. Every time I listen to it, I’m like “Fuck, this record is good.” Every song is good. Everything about it is perfect. They’re the best rock n roll band of all time in the world. Some people will debate that, I’m sure, but that’s fine. I mean, they do it. They have all of the things that you would ever hope to…If you were to look up the definition of a rock 'n' roll band… it’s them. [Laughs] I mean, sometimes I’m not in the mood for the more boogie woogie blues stuff they do. Like sometimes it annoys me, but it’s still perfect for what it is. But I mean, their rockers are timeless and are great.
Back in Black is filled with some of the best riffs ever written, for rock music.
You’re making me want to just go listen to that right now.
It’s so fucking good, man. You should listen to it.
What made you take the transition into hardcore and punk music? Do you remember the band that did it for you?
I do, actually. Around the same time—probably like ‘86 or so—there was like the punk guy in my neighborhood. You know, purple mohawk and the whole look. I was just some shithead little skate kid so I used to ride my skateboard out in the parking lot of the apartments because there was a good curb there. That dude was always around and I would see him all the time. I just started talking to him. He was way older than me. He was 15 or 16 or something. He was like, “Do you like punk?” and I was like “I don’t know what that is. Sure, why not?” So, he just gave me three tapes. He gave me Black Flag My War, Subhumans The Day the Country Died, and Dead Kennedys Plastic Surgery Disasters.
Damn. That’s a good little intro pack.
Yeah, those three tapes. It just blew my mind. I was like, “What is this? These people are so mad and weird.” Everything was so ugly and offensive and great, you know? It’s fucking great. I still love all three of those records.
He changed your life with that little transaction.
He really did. I never knew his name, but that was big for me. And then, like, I had a weird childhood. I couldn’t live with my mother anymore when I was 12. I went to live in children’s homes and foster homes and stuff. When I moved to the children’s home I had to go to a different school and I made new friends and one of the friends I made was Metal Matt. Metal Matt was awesome. His life was the best. His parents were totally cool and supportive and he would make chainmail. [Laughs] I was like, “What’s chainmail?” I’m still wearing hammer pants. I didn’t know what I was doing.
One of my other friends was this guy Conrad and him and his friend had a rap group and so I would hang out with them and we would listen to Public Enemy and Jungle Brothers and all this great rap music that was coming around at the time. Which was pretty early day for rap stuff, too. It was very fresh. I didn’t have the reference for a lot of that music at the time, of course, but I just heard it and said, “I like this. Run-D.M.C.? I’m into it.” I think it was right around that time that tour came through town. And I snuck out of my house and went. I saw Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C., and Public Enemy. It was insane.
I liked punk music and the two mentalities of those two types of music, coming from the streets and coming from people who haven’t had the greatest time in their lives, I identified with those two types of music. So with Metal Matt, I was like “Hey, you guys like Public Enemy? I love Public Enemy.” “Hey, you guys like Black Flag? I like Black Flag.” And he was like “Yeah, that stuff is cool, but have you heard the At Death’s Door compilation?” So he played that for me and it was the same thing all over again. Like “Holy fuck, what is this?” Beneath the Remains is still either the best or the second best thrash record ever recorded. I mean, it’s amazing.
What are a few of the grails of your record collection, ones that you would never get rid of?
So I have a 12” version of Rudimentary Peni’s Farce EP, which is a 7”. Historically it’s a 7”, but Southern Records in their infinite wisdom decided that they would make promo copies to give to radio stations or something. It sounds like a bomb going off compared to the 7”. It’s amazing. I finally tracked one of those down and its such a good…I mean that’s my favorite band of all time and so that’s definitely one of the coolest records that I own, that ill never ever ever get rid of. No doubt about that. What else? The Dicks Hate the Police 7”. That was one that took me forever to find a copy of and I did and I love it so much. Hate the Police? I mean that’s up there in Top 5 punk songs ever written. It’s fucking great. The Pestilence Consuming Impulse LP. That one I had it on tape then I had it on CD then I found a copy on vinyl.
Then weirdly I went through this period where I only listened to it once a year and I got rid of it. I don’t know why I did that since it was already the third copy that I had. I kicked myself so hard about it. Then I got another copy as a birthday gift from a friend who knew I had been lamenting the loss like “I just wanna hear 'Dehydrated' so bad but I can’t because I don’t have this fucking record.” I’ve had it ever since and I’ll never let that one go, either. I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess it was like a folly of youth or something.
What are a few albums people would be surprised the guy from Iron Lung is into?
I really like Jim Croce’s Greatest Hits album. [Laughs] "Time in a Bottle" just strikes a nerve. It’s such a great song. I saw a skateboarding video that had Rodney [Mullen] skating to these Jim Croce songs and it’s at the end and his mom is dying of cancer or something and he put “I love you mom” at the end. I don’t know why, but that made me love this music. That made me love these songs. Just because there was something so connected about the whole thing. Maybe I was jealous because I had a weird time with my childhood and I hadn’t spoken to my mom since I had moved out. Maybe I was like, “Man that’s nice. What a lucky dude. He’s got a mom he likes. And that likes him. That’s great.” Anyway, it made me listen to that music in a different way I think.
What else? I recently got into this woman Vashti Bunyan who is like a '60s sort of chanteuse folk singer. Its great. She has this sort of haunted vocal style and she’s not singing about lords and ladies Fairport Convention type shit. Its more “I’m gonna take a country trip by myself and these are the things I saw.” It’s a little less "Scarborough Fair" type folk music and more this like depressed pop folk. I don’t really know how to explain it. For someone who listens to a lot of music I sure don’t know the lexicon for it. [Laughs] I just hear things and they stick in my head and I end up finding records and I like them there’s no filter, really.
You know what you like and what you don’t like.
It’s true. I just let it come to me. When I really like something, I sort of grab onto it with both hands and never really let it go. This other thing I got recently id this guy Rabih Abou-Khalil. He’s like a Lebanese oud player who was living in Beirut during their civil war in the '80s. He moved to Germany in ‘83 and starts jamming with all these jazz dudes. All these guys are like listening to Miles Davis records and stuff so he’s like, “I’m just gonna start playing with these guys.” And he decided that he’s only gonna put out his own records and he’s only gonna do things on his own. No label, no manager, just him. But he makes this music that’s like a mix between Middle Eastern world music and also '60s style jazz. Like mid-60’s Miles Davis, John Coltrane US stuff mixed in with Middle Eastern Turkish and Lebanese vibes. It’s the coolest combination of things that you wouldn’t think to put together. But the thing that’s great about it is that it was coming out in the '90s.
Do you have any advice for people in the punk and hardcore music world who might be thinking about starting a label?
Yeah, get ready to spend a lot of money and not really make a lot of it back. I think you’d be doing great if you could break even. It’s so incredibly difficult to make any kind of money doing a record label. So, don’t plan on that. That’s the biggest piece of advice I can offer. The other biggest piece of advice I can offer is to really only release records for music that you believe in. If someone comes up to you in 10 years and says “Why did you put this out?” You better be able to back it up. (laughs) And also you better still like it. [Laughs] So plan on liking that music forever if you’re gonna make it a thing that will last forever. Anybody can put out a Bandcamp demo or whatever. That stuff comes and goes. It doesn’t matter. But when you make a record, there’s a permanence to it.
It’s physical media that’s going to continue to be in this world.
Yes, and whether it’s in a dollar bin or it’s in a museum, it’s gonna be something that someone cared enough about to make. They went through all the trouble to get all the people that it takes to make a single record. They paid for the services or they learned how to master on their own or whatever it is they did to make this record possible. They jumped through a lot of hoops to make this thing. And If you’re gonna do all that work, just make sure that its something that you love. Because other than that, what is the fucking point?
Don’t do it for the money. Do it because you know it’s good. Even if only you think its good. There’s a lot of shit out there just to put out to make money off and it’s the worst.
The Iron Lung store can be found here.
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