Rare is the word “evolved” used in contemporary punk rock and usually it’s reserved to describe Green Day’s transition from a band that thinks that poo is high art to one that composes a decade-defining concept album or punk opera about the sad political state of America in the oughts.
So when you use it, you better be prepared to back it up — something that Darren Ollinger is more than happy to do.
Six years and three albums into their career, he and his Calgary punk quintet Julius Sumner Miller and learned, grown and, yes, evolved, as their latest release We Teach Nothing brusquely yet beautifully suggests.
“There’s a lot more melody into it, I think, as opposed to just straight-forward bangers, which is neat because what we’ve established now, three album’s deep, is we’ve honed our own sound,” the frontman says sitting in a booth at the Ship and Anchor, where he’s also the longtime booker. “If you hear that, you know it’s a JSM song, which is really cool. We’re not emulating another sound, we’ve actually created our own stuff, which a lot of other bands can’t say.
“We’re balls-out, in-your-face aggressive and then there’s this pretty, beautiful harmony behind it. It’s very unique.
“Instead of just doing what’s hip in the world of punk rock, we just found our own path and we’re driving down it.”
We Teach Nothing is another old-school, relentless delivery of two-and-a-half-minute headbutts from the JSM boys, who are rounded out by guitarists Sean Hamilton and Monty Montebon, bassist Glen Murdock and drummer Scott Burton. But, yes, the distance they’ve travelled from their debut to now is one that is notable on a number of fronts. Hell, they’ve even progressed from eight songs on that 2016 original album Why Is It So? to 10 on 2017’s Rock Around the Radius and now 12.
And of those songs, here they’ve also shown the ability to mix it up in content, with Ollinger noting that “for every two hilarious songs there’s one serious song now.”
“It’s cool,” he continues, “because you have songs about Red Dawn and anti-religion songs and country music cover songs, singing about jocks who had better hopes in life.”
That latter one he mentions, Hockey, Girls, Disappointment, is a highlight on the album, which reunites them with producer Kirill Telichev and was recorded over three days. Lyrically, there’s some subtlety to it, but vocally is where the real treat lies, the song featuring a vocal round of the chorus.
“We’re row-row-rowing-your-boat into a punk song,” Ollinger says with a smile, noting a recent show where they performed it live the audience participation was off the charts.
“It was like Grade 2 music class with way more booze in it.”
That tune is quickly followed by, as mentioned previously, a song about the film Red Dawn, which has lyrics made up entirely of dialogue from the “1983 classic” about the Ruskies invading U!S!A! and starring Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell and Lea Thompson.
“I haven’t even seen the new one out of pure blasphemy,” he says of the 2012 abomination. “I was in Grade 3 when (the original) came out and I think I’ve seen it a million times.
“That’s the stuff we like to do. Everything can’t just be about a broken heart or being mad at somebody, you can throw some fun in it, get some pop culture in it.”
As for that country cover, it’s sure to be another fan fave. It’s an unrecognizable version of local artist Scott Macleod’s tune Drank the Ocean Dry. Ollinger approached him after seeing the songwriter perform it at the Ship and Anchor jam, asking if he could use the lyrics, which he then passed along to the rest of the band to turn it into a totally different song.
“I didn’t even tell them it was a cover, so there’s no connection to it,” he says. “We recorded it as a different song that would never in a million years, if you asked Scott Macleod, would be interpreted like that.
“I sent that to him and was like, ‘Here it is,’ and he was like, ‘Oh, my God’ — nothing but kind words and how honoured he was. That’s a neat way of keeping it interesting, other than covering your favourite Bad Religion song.”
It might just be one of the songs JSM will tee up at We Teach Nothing’s release show, Friday, March 8 at Broken City, but, then again, one of the other positives of moving forward and adding to the oeuvre is that the band are now in the position, Ollinger happily notes, where every set can actually be different. For purveyors of quick, punchy, punk that’s an enviable one to be in and not one that he necessarily thought they would ever get to.
That said, the band has not only met but exceeded all and every expectation from when they started more than a half-decade ago.
“I think years ago our goal was always to have the perception that we were bigger than we actually were,” Ollinger says. “And I think we’ve hit that level, where more people know us than should. It’s a great hustle that we’re really getting into.”
Yet, despite all of this talk of evolution, there is one rather glaring example of how JSM are pretty set in their punk ways. That is, of course, the fact that the album once again uses the same artwork — that of band namesake, Julius Sumner Miller, the genius who taught Canadian kids in the ’70s physics as The Professor on the brilliantly subversive Hilarious House of Frightenstein — albeit with a different colour scheme.
So, sure, they’ve gone from green to yellow to blue, but, still …
“I think it might be because we’re lazy,” Ollinger explains. “It’s not an original idea, but not enough bands do it. Sitting on a record shelf you know what it is. It’s always exciting to figure out what colour it’s going to be next.”
And just how is that decision made?
“I don’t know. I think it was just somebody said, ‘Let’s do blue this time.’ And it was like, ‘Sure.’
“Maybe one day we’ll have all of the colours of the rainbow. And it will be a beautiful thing.”
(Photo courtesy Trevor Hatter.)
Julius Sumner Miller release We Teach Nothing Friday, May 8 at Broken City.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.com. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at email@example.com.