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Mil-Spec Talks New LP/Book, Zine Culture, Riley Gale

Toronto, CA Mil-Spec released their Changes EP in 2018 to a big splash. The four track effort was a revelation — a short release that kissed up against Turning Point, the Revolution Summer movement and ’90s post-hardcore to create a concise, highly repeatable release that left fans curious for a full length.  With latest effort the World House LP (out now via Lockin’ Out), the band not only fulfills that promise but also takes a wide leap forward in terms of complexity and songwriting. What’s more, the band lays it all out in a companion 88-page book (available via Shining Life Press) that details their influences, lyrics and ideas on the record, interviews, a gigography and more — essential for any fan of the band, and required for those looking to truly understand Mil-Spec’s journey.

With the new LP out now, we talked to well-spoken guitarist Matt LaForge about the new effort, the incredibly fascinating book, Turning Point, COVID-19 in Canada, Power Trip and more.

Hard Noise: Who were your musical heroes in Canada while you were on the come-up, and why? 

Less Than Jake - Silver Linings. New album out December 11, 2020.

Matt Laforge: I’m 40, so we’re talking in my case about a 30-plus-year come-up. I was born in 1980, which means I was the right age for all the big underground-breakthrough moments of the ‘90s: Nirvana, Green Day/Offspring, UK club music. Before that, my first love was ’80s rap. The Canadian media being what it was back then, I rarely heard much beyond the pop-crossover commercial stuff like Fresh Prince, Young MC and Tone Loc, but still I was hooked right away because it was so obviously not of my own culture.

That’s what made it fascinating — like getting messages from another planet where people wore cooler clothes and spoke a cooler dialect of English and were more fun-loving and full of life than anyone in my orbit of stiff, laconic, rural white central Canadians. The thing to keep in mind about Canada is that it’s incredibly small and, at the institutional level (government, school, media, etc.), it’s incredibly provincial and insecure. Milan Kundera has this thing about the literary cultures of small nations (which also holds for their musical cultures): “Small nations hold world culture [and especially U.S. culture] in high esteem but feel it to be something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality.”

Punk and hardcore — and also the “alternative rock” of the early ’90s golden age — was like rap in that it offered a cosmopolitan escape from Canadian provincialism. If you live here, you’re constantly told it’s your patriotic duty to hold the line against the creeping ubiquity of U.S. movies, music, books, and TV. Culture up here is treated almost like a national-liberation project.

Kundera again: “The small nation inculcates in its writer [and musician] the conviction that he belongs to that place alone. To set his gaze beyond the boundary of the homeland, to join his colleagues in the supranational territory of art, is considered pretentious, disdainful of his own people.”

You’re not allowed to be in the mix, basically, if you come from a little pissant country like Canada. But that has never seemed to apply to Canadian punk and hardcore bands. The good ones — from DOA and SNFU to the Doughboys to Fucked Up and No Warning — didn’t see themselves as obligated to play the navel-gazing hometown-hero game. They sought out and were granted international respect. They’re in the canon. I think a lot of us up here have been inspired by that. “Heroes” wouldn’t be the right word for them, but I definitely see Mil-Spec as trying to follow in the footsteps of those bands.

How did you approach this release differently in an effort to up the ante? What makes World House different in writing and approach than your previous efforts? 

The main goal was to make sure we had material that would cohere and hang together, thematically and sonically, at full length. Maybe that’s tautological or too obvious to point out — “Our strategy for making a good record was to make a good record” — but there you have it. We had a loosely-connected set of half-formed ideas for lyrics and imagery that we were pretty sure would amount to something like a unifying concept or organizing principle for the album. Even now, I’d have a hard time explaining what the concept or organizing principle is, other than to say it has something to do with the sensation of belatedly facing certain facts about the world while also considering the strong possibility that those facts are contingent — things didn’t necessarily have to be the way they are, they could have easily been otherwise. It’s a grim feeling, on one hand, but the beauty of it is that we know we’re not alone in feeling it.

The upside of making music in a charged-up, unhappy era like ours is that people’s hearts tend to be more open, in a sense, even if they’re outwardly more miserable and angry. People are looking for something out of music right now that they don’t look for in better times. So we just wanted to find a way to honor and commiserate with what we took to be a widely shared set of feelings and impressions.

Music-wise, all we did was trust ourselves in the writing stage to be better, as a matter of course, than we were two years ago. We just followed our instincts on the theory that our best ideas were probably still ahead of us. I think the album proves that we were right. Also we wanted the record to be, as they say in the business, “dynamic” — i.e., we wanted to achieve some healthy degree of variance, in “vibe” and “feel,” from one song, or group of songs, to the next. That accounts for a song like “Parade,” which some people really like and others can’t stand.

How are things faring in Canada? Has the band been able to maintain productivity with all of the uncertainty going on? Considering that this record was in the can late last year, have you been working on additional material? 

Southern Ontario wasn’t nearly as dispiriting or restrictive a place to be locked down in as other places were, but we got mired in inactivity during the spring just like most everyone else. We did more than nothing from March to June, but not much more. We wrote some new music but not as much as we might have. It wasn’t until the summer, when we stepped on the gas to get the book put together, that we became worthy of being called productive. We’ve since made enough headway on new music to all but commit ourselves to doing a new record, which we should be able to record, probably in an abandoned commercial real estate office, sometime in 2021.

While the record stands alone, the companion book is a pretty incredible look into your chemistry as a band, influences, ideas and more. Why did you create it? In the age of information, why did you feel the need to dive in so deeply? 

We’d wanted to do something like the book for a long time. Dan and I, especially, the band’s effete tote-bag caucus, thought it would be fun to put the Mil-Spec name on something that looked and felt like a Partisan Review-type literary journal (the modern examples would be n+1, Dissent, or even the CIA-funded Paris Review. Stuff like that.) But we also knew that a project like that would take a tremendous amount of work that there was no reason to believe we’d ever buckle down and do.

But then came the pandemic. Besides having more time on our hands, the no-gigs situation created the problem, common to everyone putting something out this year, of how to make our release stick. We saw the book as our best chance of giving some weight to what would otherwise be a here-today-vaporized-tomorrow e-commerce drop. It was a way of creating the kind of context for the record that would usually be created by playing shows. In the good old days, you’d listen to a record either before or after seeing the band live, and it was in the live setting where you found out how they dressed, how they acted, what sorts of people they tried to be, what they wanted you to believe they cared about, how they talked to each other, how they saw themselves.

If you don’t have that information, if you only have recorded music, you don’t have enough to make a meaningful bond or connection. Music is the richest and most expressive artform but it’s still a highly mediated and stylized way of communicating. Nobody who isn’t a sociopath or severe narcissist breaks into song or pulls out a guitar in the middle of a conversation. You don’t really know much about someone if all you know are some songs they recorded.

So that and the extra time was what motivated us to do the four months’ worth of work required to make a book that matched what was in our heads. We wanted the book to be a way for people to hear the sounds of our voices, so to speak, which meant that it needed to have a sense of humor — since our songs tend to be sober and serious and a little on the mawkish side, frankly — and it needed to show our shameless pseudo-intellectualism alongside our more trashy and gossipy and shit-talky side and it also had to be a vehicle for all the art/design talent in the band. We wanted to show people who we like to think of ourselves as aligned with, where we come from, how we see ourselves — all that stuff you might have picked up on if you’d been able to see us live. Part fanzine, part literary journal, part expanded liner notes for the album, part print podcast.

The companion book opens with a pair of stories about Riley Gale and Wade Allison. As a musician, how do you think the passing of each affected you? What were you in awe of with respect to their individual projects?

As I say in the piece I wrote about them, the loss of those two just feels impossible — impossible because they seemed indestructible, like higher life forms destined to do and be more than the rest of us. This is weird to say, but I think they were admired to a degree that borders on dehumanizing. It’s not fair to hold people to superhuman standards, even if doing so is our way of trying to love them.

It’s unfair but maybe unavoidable in Wade’s and Riley’s cases —  they really did loom as large as everyone says. Mil-Spec tried to articulate something related to all this on our 7” two years ago, with the song False Spring, which eulogizes Mark Baumer (our friend who died in 2017 while walking barefoot across America; it was an art and activism project) — eulogizes him by likening him to the Challenger shuttle crew. The idea was that we fail to contemplate the vulnerability of people who undertake impossible-seeming endeavors like, say, walking across America barefoot, or transitioning from schoolteacher to astronaut in mid-career, or writing and playing music that, to paraphrase Sam Reiss, belongs to the universe. So when people like that pass away, we can’t accept it. We didn’t admit the possibility that it could happen, which we should have, since these people were human, and all human lives are fragile.

Riley. Like everyone, I loved him as a frontman and vocalist and person. But the thing that awed me was his writing. Language was his medium, and he had real genius for evocative phrases and for synthesizing references. I wish he could have done all the writing he planned to do. The other thing about him is that he really believed in communities, especially ones that orbit around music. As I say in the tribute, a lot of us who hang around music scenes simply stop believing in them at some point. Riley never did.

Wade just exuded mastery. He made people want to be him. I bought a black Les Paul Standard because that’s what he played. (It was not because of Porcell.) I took my pick guard off because Wade’s guitar didn’t have one. It’s embarrassing to admit that I, a spindly redheaded egret of a man who can barely play guitar, took active steps to emulate Wade, but that’s what I did.

Jonah Falco tweeted about this recently, and I have to echo it: my permanent image of Wade is him onstage, shirtless, face hidden by the long hair he had circa 2008, slowly and deliberately taking a knee mid-song and remaining in that position while effortlessly playing a solo. He’s barely moved the whole set and then out of nowhere he just takes a knee? Who would think to do that? It was like some kind of holy rite. Incredibly powerful for being so understated and… odd.

You include a tongue in cheek, yet remarkably interesting and accurate “five point plan for career development” in the book. Your point about “zines being more relevant than bands” is specifically interesting… care to share that theory?

We commissioned that piece from our friend AJ. The thing about zines being more relevant than bands is partly a joke referring to the fact that AJ never stopped championing zines, even during the darkest days. He rode out the lean years and now the chickens are finally coming home to roost. Without speaking for him, I’d guess that he would agree, at least in part, with what I said before about our book: a record isn’t enough to make a full impression, and if we’re all going to be stuck without a gig to piss in or a window to throw it out of, then we’re going to have to preserve the “community” by other multidisciplinary means.

There is a eulogy to Skip from Turning Point in the book. Do you recall how you came to TP and what initially attracted you to them? 

My early attraction to TP came in the ’90s during my teenage phase of vacuuming up every classic straight edge band I could find. My initial interest in them was at the basic level of “this band’s name and imagery indicate that they belong to the category of bands that I’m trying to know every last detail about.” And of course the demo and 7” delivered on the promise of their name and image arguably better than any other band of that style.

In an earlier draft of that eulogy in the book, I tried to make the case that TP were the best-ever interpreters of that youth crew sound. I mean “interpreters” in the sense that they, unlike YOT, Bold, and the other first-gen YC bands, didn’t have the burden of inventing the sound and aesthetic. They had the luxury of adopting the style ready-made — all they had to do was play it absolutely perfectly. No band has interpreted the style better. Of course, they went on to pioneer a sound and sensibility of their own, with the LP and split and comp songs, but their mastery of the early Revelation/Schism sound is, as far as I’m concerned, as impressive as anything else they accomplished. The TP demo is one of my all-time favorite recordings.

I have a lot of other Big Ideas about Skip and TP that I go into at length in that essay. I would just direct people to the book, rather than try and short-form it all here.

You state in the book that there are very few good hardcore LPs, a take that many agree on, and that it is stronger as a singles/EP culture. Later on you discuss releasing things more often as a plan for shorter recordings. Why hasn’t hardcore and maybe even rock in general adapted the model used by the rap crowd?

Seems like the string-of-singles approach is happening more and more in the distorted-guitar world — Turnstile comes to mind — but no doubt it took longer to catch on there than in other genres. Among rockers, there’s clearly still some kind of post-’60s residue of vanity and sentimentality about the album — as the fully realized artistic statement, the novel on wax — that just never existed to a comparable degree in rap and electronic music. There are also probably traces of the old chauvinism about rock being “smarter,” “realer,” or more profound than rap and disco and racialized music in general; something about rock bands needing a full-length format to accommodate all their brainpower and authenticity.

Punk and hardcore were supposedly invented as a reaction to that kind of self-importance in rock, and it’s true that the “culture” came of age on the strength of short-form records, but, to be honest, I don’t personally agree with hardcore people who say things like “This is a singles culture!” I haven’t seen any real evidence of that. Anyone who’s spent time in the punk or hardcore scene in the last 30 years knows how self-important and pretentious we can be about the scale and scope of our amazing ideas.

That middlebrow Rolling Stone-magazine dream of the album that cements you as the voice of your generation is alive and well in our world. We talk all the time about the scarcity of great hardcore LPs, not because we think it’s futile or foolish to make a hardcore LP, but because we all dream of making a hardcore LP that joins the tiny pantheon of greats. We all want to make our White Album or Vol. IV. On that scale, World House is roughly equivalent to an early Local H album. Not bad.

Another remarkable thing about the book is you explain, in extreme detail, all of the lyrics, references and how they intermingle. How do you respond to the criticism that lyrics should be up to the listener’s interpretation? Is your message as a band diluted or sharpened by specificity?

I respond to that criticism with a lot of collar-tugging self-doubt. I agree strongly with the idea that lyrics are best left to the listener’s interpretation, and it’s absolutely true that annotating our lyrics risks demystifying them to the point of ruining them. But weighed against that concern is the importance of giving credit where it’s due. Our lyrics incorporate so much from other people’s work that it seemed straight up wrong not to publicly cite all the sources. Maybe it’s the newspaper editor in me. I worked for a decade in a field where no one is allowed to write anything unless it’s attributed to a source. So the give-credit priority won out over the don’t-over-explain priority.

As protective measures, we tried to keep the tone light where we could and we were at pains to say things like “Our intention here is to cite sources, not spoonfeed you an interpretation.” But of course there’s a lot of exposition and specific context that’s bound to direct the listener’s response. That’s the risk we took. At a bare minimum, I think we can stand behind the annotations as a standalone piece of writing, even if we did, in fact, ruin the lyrics.