Talking crime and punishment with Ian Shelton of Regional Justice Center

On RJC's new album and the cycles that make us who we are.

Talking crime and punishment with Ian Shelton of Regional Justice Center

Back when I was freelancing full time the only thing that brought me joy—aside from a publication finally paying me after sending 37 emails asking why they hadn’t paid me yet—was when I felt like I was able to convince someone to let me do something totally wild on behalf of their publication. It happened when I got Dan Ozzi (who has a book coming out that you should pre-order) to let me write 4,000 words about Jud Jud. Or the time I got paid a couple hundred bucks to eat Taco Bell’s nacho fries, a thing I would literally have done for free. Or as it pertains to the subject at hand, the time I facilitated a conversation between Wound Man’s Trevor Vaughn and Regional Justice Center’s Ian Shelton for the Talkhouse about powerviolence.

For those of you not in the know, powerviolence is a genre that’s been debated literally since the term was first coined when Eric Wood yelled the names of a bunch of super fast hardcore bands in the song “H.S.M.P.” and followed it up with “WEST COAST POWERVIOLENCE.” Since that moment people have argued about what is real powerviolence (the bands listed in that song) and what is fake powerviolence (literally anything else) but I’m not super interested in genre-based purism.

The inner-workings of the powerviolence scene are, of course, incredibly nerdy and literally like 500 people in the entire world care about this discourse, but getting to talk to two people in extremely good modern powerviolence bands at a major outlet felt pretty cool. Since then, Ian and I have kept in touch and he’s continued putting out killer records with Regional Justice Center as well as with his new bands Militarie Gun and S.W.A.T. (Sex With A Terrorist). RJC’s got a new album called Crime and Punishment coming out on Closed Casket Activities on March 5, and much like their last LP World of Inconvenience, it’s very good no matter what genre you want to call it.

World of Inconvenience grabbed me not just because it was a great hardcore record but because Ian’s an adept musician and writer, so he was able to drop in subtle musical references that might slip past you if you’re not listening closely. I mean, hell, the album ends with Ian lifting a drumbeat directly from a Beatles song and dropping it into the break of a hardcore song. That type of thing is very sick, and the fact the album actually was about something only added to it.

Though the topic has been beaten into the ground by every single person who has written about the band, for those of you not in the know RJC is a collaboration between Ian and his brother Max, who is currently incarcerated. Max collaborates as much as he can while being in jail, and the subject matter of World of Inconvenience hits on his circumstances as well as Ian’s attempts to support his brother when there are literal walls between them. And while that’s incredibly fertile territory, Crime and Punishment takes things in a different direction.

It’s a record that puts Ian at the center, seeing him explore the toxic cycles that get passed down from generation to generation, and how breaking those patterns is often easier said than done. In short, if you’ve ever had your family members get into a fist fight on the front lawn while all your neighbors watched, it’ll be an album you can probably relate to. But what’s even more notable is how Ian has a real ability to set a scene and tell a story while using lyrics that are incredibly blunt. Where a lot of fast hardcore bands just have a person barking sentence fragments at you, Ian builds a world in these songs, and it’s not a particularly pleasant one.

So I called Ian up and we talked about the band, the record, and a whole bunch of other stuff. In the words of Eric Wood: Let’s fuckin’ go.

I know you’re a prolific guy, and that’s proven out by starting two new bands and writing a new Regional Justice Center record, but you’re also a bit of a road dog. Did having the touring element taken away from you change your approach to writing and recording at all?

It definitely changed. And in the coming year, it’ll become clear that it changed everything for everyone. But for me, I am such a restless person and, at first, I was already planning on doing the RJC LP within a month of quarantine anyway. But what it ended up being was that I started doing these things with Militarie Gun just to ease my restlessness, and there was no real grand scheme, I was just trying to expand my musical palate that I can put out. It was just something to do with this time while I wait. But now we’re going into year two of no touring.

I write endlessly but now I feel like there’s no outlet for it because I don’t have the ability to promote it and I don’t have the ability to do the things that I can to make right by anybody investing in the record. There’s just constant uneasiness and there’s constant restlessness. I feel like maybe a large amount of that restlessness is that I feel like I’m still trying to prove myself, and I feel like I haven’t had that chance. I’ve toured really hard on records that I feel aren’t as good as the records that I have now. So if I can tour really hard off these records, hopefully I can actually start to become the musician that I want to be in the public’s eye.

When I talked to you for the Talkhouse the conversation was really around the idea of authenticity and purism in this specific musical style. And RJC definitely got hype off World of Inconvenience, so does it feel like you now have to do that again and prove that record wasn’t just some fluke or some trendy, hype-based thing?

I don’t know, I guess it really doesn’t have a base in what I’m trying to prove almost. I just think that, every time I go up to bat, I feel like I haven’t really done it yet. I haven’t achieved what I wanted yet. Regardless of any hype, I’m just trying to prove that I’m better than what I just did essentially.

But I don’t even know if I’d put it in those terms. I’m just like, “Oh my god, this obliterates the last thing.” Every time we go up and do it, that’s how I feel. So with that, you want to be like, “Look! This is better than the last thing. You should like it better.” So I don’t know, it’s weird. I feel like I’m trying to prove myself to nobody, but I just feel this need to push and push and push, but I don’t ever actually think about the person that I’m appeasing with this push if that makes sense? It’s just a specter on the outside of my life that’s faceless.

I totally get that. I always feel like I’m always trying to write a better piece or do a better interview than the last one, but no one ever actually says anything about the ones they don’t like. And I guess to tie it into Crime and Punishment, there’s this class dynamic at play about not coming from much and people kind of looking down on you, and I always wonder how much growing up a certain way just makes you always feel like you’ve got to prove something because at any point someone could take it away from you.

I don’t even know if it’s necessarily that, and maybe you relate to this, but it’s more about ownership of it, you know? The song “Sickness on Display” is literally about this experience of being fucking white trash and there’s all the fights on the front lawn, and that idea of being a fucking spectacle and that inability to hide away with your fucked-up-ness, and that’s the whole thing with the whole project. It’s not about the shame of the way that I was brought up, it’s about owning it and making it something new.

People get rich off of poor people’s tragedy and it seems like it’s rarely made by people from within. I won’t ever claim to be like… I would say that my family grew up on credit cards. It wasn’t like I was ever deprived of what we needed, and we had the toy drive Christmases and things like that, but I never went hungry. I wouldn’t say we were poor, but we were lower class and we acted like white trash. But I don’t know. I think since those various moments of being with family and a fight happens in public, or it happens on the front lawn, or someone’s getting arrested in front of the house, it was just like, I can’t hide from this. I just have to spin it my own way.

A lot of times as a kid I would spin it as comedy. I would tell these crazy stories to my friends like, “Haha, isn’t this crazy? Isn’t my mom stupid?” But it’s just a continuation of that. It’s a way to rationalize the shame and make it into something new.

World of Inconvenience had more of Max’s experience in it, but it seems like since you put out “KKK Tattoo,” which is more about your looking at your dad and asking what if you ended up like that, RJC has focused on your experiences a little more. It’s kind of zooming out on exploring the failures of the criminal justice system and goes back in the timeline to talk about what puts people in those situations in the first place. How did you start exploring that while still having this all fit in with the project’s bigger theme?

The initial intention of the record was to be half written by me and half written by Max. With that, I had some songs written that were my perspectives on things, which are “Dust Off,” “Taught to Steal,” “Sickness on Display,” and “Inhuman Joy,” and those were kind of the things that fucked me up and the actions that it’s beaten into me. It’s about my own bad behavior that I’ve learned from those things, and my goal was to have Max write about the same events from his own perspective. But then through talking to him about these specific incidents I found out that they weren’t the things that traumatized him. And that was a weird zoom-out moment for me. And this is something that I’ve known the whole time, that even though we have the same upbringing, there are completely different things that fucked us up.

It was almost this very self-absorbed thing thinking that the same things affected us in similar ways. And so that’s when I was like, alright, this record is about me and my own cause and effect, and there is a lot of overlap between Max's and I’s stories, like being homeless straight out of high school and things like that, all the violence, all those things are in both of us, but this record is really much more about my own cause and effect with my family. The initial intention was that Max and I were gonna write the lyrics, and I was actually gonna interview my mom for the record, but then it didn’t end up materializing. It ended up being more self-absorbed than anything else, honestly.

It’s funny, because I’ve noticed a similar thing with my step-brothers and some of my friends. We were all present for the same moments, but the ones that stuck to me aren’t the ones that stuck to them.

Yeah, that’s it. Exactly.

In “Absence” you say, “Roots wrapped around my neck / Stranglehold on what I’ll become,” and that’s a line that really jumped out to me. To kind of go back to “KKK Tattoo,” I’ve not seen my dad in 15 years, and I spent a lot of my teenage years being so worried that no matter what I tried to do, because I have his blood and his genes and all this shit, that I couldn’t get out of it and end that cycle. This record being so focused on trying so hard to break the cycles of abuse and trauma, how was it for you to start digging into that and really looking at your other family members and yourself, when this project used to be more of a personal exploration of larger societal and systemic failures?

I feel like I’ve always been reflecting on them in a way. This record, I was just trying to take the most empathetic route to each underlying issue. In “Dust Off,” that’s a story about a family member starting to do Dust Off because they saw it on Intervention. It’s about the depravity of, in that moment, you’re doing it because you want to be fucked up. You want to pass along your hurt onto somebody else by making them experience this sheerly fucking ludicrous event. So I kind of just wanted to look at it through the lens of how you’re passing on your pain, you’re passing on your trauma, and I think that’s essentially the underlying issue with addiction: You’re attempting to pacify your trauma and transfer those feelings on to something else. And the thing that happens is that you end up creating the next generation of addicts through that. But the thing is, I’m never trying to never be judgmental about it, but it’s about trying to understand that the underlying issue to all of it is that nobody wants to feel pain. You’re trying to do everything you can to get rid of it.

I feel like I’m going completely off base on your question, but I’ve just never rejected thinking about all of this. My friends have always had to hear some insane story at the drop of a pin. And with this record, I wanted to embrace that. These are the same things I’ve been saying for so long, so why not just put them on the record?

But I try to speak in more coded terms. After “KKK Tattoo” I saw a general willingness for people to take me out of context. But I was like, alright, I don’t need to spell it out for people. As long as I can say what I want, and it means something to me, I don’t need to spell it out as clearly as I have in the past.

I feel like after that you kind of took a step away from social media. Did it start to feel like you were putting so much of yourself out there and too many people were having the ability to weigh in and they weren’t meeting you where you were?

It coincided with being so preoccupied with the creation aspect that it stopped being as relevant. Social media is an outlet for boredom. If I’m busy, if I’m creating something, I don’t need it. And so, with that, I was spending four hours at the practice space a day, I was trying to walk so many miles per day, at a certain point I was just doing things where I didn’t need social media.

And after “KKK Tattoo,” looking into a fall with still no shows, I was kind of losing it a little bit. That coincided with a moment where there was this feral-ness going through social media and it just felt like the antithesis of everything I’m about. If you look at the way this specific record is laid out, it’s about empathy; It’s about understanding why someone is fucked up; It’s about not writing somebody off. I’ve never written somebody off, and I don’t think I will. In my heart and in my soul, I don’t think they’re bad people. I think that they could do better in their lives.

Early in my life, I was made aware of a family member sexually assaulting another family member, and I had to be around that person. And when that person died, it was like, okay, now we have to rationalize this complicated past. I can’t just denounce them on social media and everything’s solved. Unfollowing someone isn’t justice. It doesn’t solve anything. And that’s what is so hard about watching people takedown certain people, because they are bad people and they could do better. Those people should take a step away from their platform and improve their lives. But it all just has nothing to do with what I’m trying to do. I was just witnessing the antithesis of everything I felt happening in the public sphere, and I just had to get the fuck outta there.

But I am still there because, at this point, if you delete your account you look like you’re trying to hide from somebody or something. So I just unfollowed everyone and tried to un-motivate those apps for me.

It’s easy not to look at them when there’s nothing to look at.

Exactly, yeah. Now I open it for two minutes at most and am just like, “Oh yeah, still nothing there.”

Let’s get into the lyrics here. What I like about RJC is that where other fast hardcore bands sound like a singer is just shouting nonsense, you’re able to tell these stories and express these ideas in, like, five words. How much editing do you have to do to get these songs to that place?

It’s all pretty much a first draft. What I did specifically with this record is I overwrote all the lyrics and, with that, there were way too many lines. So it makes it that much easier to be like, “This line is cheesy. Get rid of it.” And this is a serious problem I have on RJC records, but I’ll be writing lines as I’m singing. So it’ll literally be the first thing off the top of my head, but then I’ll leave the studio and be like, “I don’t know what this line is.” So I’ll just try to reverse-engineer the syllables and figure out what I’m saying. I would say that Militarie Gun is fully stream of consciousness, because I don’t write down anything before I start singing, but this isn’t that far off either. I just think conceptually and then hopefully bury it a little bit and end up where I need to be.

Do you ever worry about overworking stuff with that approach? Just constantly doing subtle revisions until you feel it’s perfect?

Sometimes I think I’m like, “Ah, that sounds like I was trying.” Not that I want it to sound effortless, but it’s interesting because I’ve done multiple interviews now and that “Roots around my neck line” has been brought up and, to me, that feels overwritten. It feels dramatic. To me, that’s the closest thing to a high school lyric on the record. But with that, if there’s a lyric you are embarrassed of, often times that’s the lyric that everyone relates to the most.

That’s really funny, because when I talked to Anika Pyle about her new record, we talked about how sometimes the thing you’re most uncomfortable putting out is the thing that resonates with people the most.

Exactly. And that’s because that’s where the emotion is. For the writer, the stuff that ages the worst for you are the things you’re most sincere about. I mean, I can be cold and callous about a line that sounds hard, and I can be proud of that line forever because it sounds hard and it’s not rooted in emotion. Whereas the thing that I feel so melodramatically in my fucking soul, that’s not going to age with me, because that feeling will fade. And that’ll be the thing that people will gravitate towards. With Militarie Gun, I’ve been like, “Eh, this line sounds dramatic” but it’s like, well, I guess that’ll be the one people will like. So I try not to shy away from it. I just try to embrace what I was saying in that moment even if it’s not how I feel now.

I know that RJC is really your project with Max, but there are other people in the band. Did they write any songs for the record?

“Sickness on Display” was written by Che Hise-Gattone who plays in RJC and Video Prick, and then the song “Solvent” was written by Alex Haller, who has been around since the start of RJC. The rest of the record was me, but those two songs were untouched by me. It’s my drumming and timing, a little bit of input here and there, but they are their songs.

Taylor Young who produced the record, he was really involved. I would send him every demo and he would suggest this or that and really poke around in the songs and really make me think about them in another. So there’s a lot of other people’s input in the record, but in terms of actual songs, there’s not many songs written by other people.

How did it feel working with a producer who was getting into the songs like this? You had a clear intention for the record, so did it feel weird to have some parts get interrogated like that?

That’s what I want. If you’re working in a vacuum all the time, it’s not like I’m changing myself or changing what I’m putting into my brain that much. To get new perspectives on something is what you want, because you don’t want to keep making the same record over and over again. It would be very easy for me to be like, “I’m the guy. I’ve got this.” But what I’m more concerned with is expansion. I want to grow as a musician and not just make the same records.

So how do you approach expanding the sound while staying true to what you think the sonic core of the band should be?

There are a lot of really rudimentary rules that go into it and that’s the guiding the light. There’s a certain chord relation that I stick to, and there’s a rhythmic tie between the guitar and the drums, and it’s that they stay exactly on top of each other. If you think back to songs like “Muck” where there’s that little extra note hammer-on situation, and the drums do that with the guitar. And that, I think, is a defining thing of our sound, that the rhythm of the drums and guitar are exactly the same at all times. A lot of people would do something different with that after so long but, instead, I’m trying to find new rhythms that the guitar and drums can do together. That’s where a song like “Absence” comes from. We were gonna cut that song because it felt like it was too far out for RJC, but it works. It’s new, it’s expansion, it feels satisfying, and it sticks to that rule. There are just little guiding principles and you find the right moment to break them.

Do you care if people are going to be more critical of how much this fits into the powerviolence scene at large because of it?

My concern all along has been, “How do I make my own version of this thing that I love?” I never was concerned with the purist thing, because my goal was never to call us a powerviolence band. Up until the Wound Man split, I completely shied away from it, but Trevor wanted to do the “Death to False Powerviolence” T-shirt. And I have my own read on what it is as someone who has Neanderthal and Man Is The Bastard tattoos, I have a lot of feelings on that, and I would not call us a powerviolence band. I would call us a hardcore band. So with this I was like, what if we did it a little more metal and a little more brutal? And with that, you embrace that you’re going to turn people off. Because you’re expanding, people could turn on you completely.

I think of the early days of Nails and people were like, “That’s not a powerviolence band.” But guess who never said they were a powerviolence band? Nails. That’s just brutal fucking music. And that’s what I have an interest in making: brutal music. It’s about shaking off the ties and saying “fuck everyone.” Because while it’s about proving yourself to some audience you don’t see, it’s about saying “fuck you” to that same audience.

We’ve talked about this before, and you’ve said that because you view RJC as a project, you also see it as having an end date. But now that you’re opening things up a bit, do you still see it being a finite thing?

It’s interesting, because I feel as though it’s opening up audience-wise at a time when there’s no shows. It does seem like it could be successful thing, but this is the longest gap I’ve gone without writing a new RJC song. And that says a lot about the creative aspect of it. I’m not gonna say this would be the final RJC record but, at the end of the day, if it was, I’d be very fucking happy. I’d feel as though I’d be able to say what I wanted to say both musically and lyrically and feel very accomplished in the completion of the project if that’s the case. But we’ll see what happens on the other side of the pandemic.

And with the expansion of other people writing for this record, I’m very interested to see if collaboration is that next step towards the next record. There hasn’t been a moment in RJC’s history where I haven’t had new songs ready to go until now. We had World of Inconvenience written before the demo was out. I had Institution written around the time that the Wound Man split was coming out. There’s never been a point where it’s all been released, and this will be the first time of not having a single new thing. Creatively, that feels like it says something to me that I should follow but, at the same time, that’s just how every other musician works where they wait two years and write another record. They’re not all fucking psychopaths that write a new record before the first one is out. But it’s a new perspective for me.

It’s interesting to hear the concern about not being able to tour, because obviously there’s the money involved with it, but historically, not a lot of the original powerviolence bands ever toured. I mean, until fairly recently it wasn’t even possible to see Despise You. So do you think the project’s success fully hinges on playing live?

I think it has a huge effect. What RJC has done and why we’ve built what we’ve built is that you build your own personal relationship with music. I think we were able to build a shorthand with our audience where I was connecting with their background first and foremost. People would come up to me at a show and be like, “My brother’s locked up” or “My dad’s locked up,” but then they come to the show and they experience the song live, and that’s where the connection solidifies itself. Music is about going out and experiencing it and creating that next bit of dopamine that goes with that sense memory. With that, I think that every record that’s released is going to suffer. Not everyone can be Frank Ocean where you make the record that just stands above everything for years to come just because it exists. And I certainly don’t think I’m an artist of that caliber anyway. I just wish we could go out and play these songs to their full potential and build that full connection with that audience.

To swing back, I know that the intention was to have you and Max each write half of the album but that ended up changing. What was his involvement like with the record and has he heard the finished product yet?

He hasn’t heard it yet because he has to wait for it to be on JPay to get the music, but in the end, it felt like I was trying to push my narrative onto him, which is exploitative and isn’t right, and I’m not going to force him to be involved in something he’s not passionate about. So that’s when it kind of took off for me. The thing that him and I talked about was that I thought he has the same conquest mindset that I do. So that sound clip that he had, he’s like, “I was homeless. I wasn’t concerned with anything, I was concerned with where I was gonna sleep tonight.” And when I was sleeping in parks when I was fresh out of high school, the little bit I did beyond couch surfing, I was just like, “How’s my band gonna do it?” So that’s a fundamental difference between him and I, so that’s why that sound clip stands alone on the record. That was a thing that made me realize we are not the same beast. That’s where the split in my creativity started to happen.

To close this off, you’ve worked with Mark McCoy on the art on the record again, and I wanted to hear why you think he’s able to express the meaning of the records so well without putting a single piece of text on any of them? What does his work say to you?

When Mark sends art, he sends six images. It’s not like, “Hey, here’s what I was thinking for the cover.” It’s just images labeled “one,” “two,” “three,” and so on. It’s the ultimate self-curation in that moment, because it makes you ask, “What does each one say to me?” That cover image, we went back and forth for a long time with people insisting there should be some words on the cover, and from the start I didn’t think it needed it. There was a lot of discussion, but in the end I just said, “Nope. No words.” Because it says everything it needs to. It says you’re trying to get away from something. It says you’re trying get away with something. The world of rubble behind you, it just says so much about the intention of the record. That character could be going to a new life or could be going to do the same thing that he’s been doing.

Some of the other images in the record, that grocery store one, that’s a direct reference to “Taught to Steal.” When I talk to Mark about the art, I tell him about what I’m trying to build conceptually and lyrically and then he goes and does his own thing. He’s kind of building this burning world and, at the same time, I feel like the empathy is built in the “Taught to Steal” one and the one where everyone’s just robbing each other. That’s kind of where it ends up being. So it’s just what speaks to me the loudest, which is what the cover image is. He’s an artist who can build a concept and build a world through the 12-inch work that we’ve done. It’s built up this cohesive sense of a society, and I’d love to compile all the images he’s made for us and just do a show with that.

It’s all intentional, because one of the things we talked about a lot was how Escape From New York was a huge reference. The idea of the world behind a prison wall, and on the first LP we have the image of Seattle behind the prison wall. Your open world is actually a prison. In Institution, we have this image of a luxury apartment behind prison bars. And Mark has his own intense meanings, because I’ve asked to change something before and he’ll not say no, but he’ll explain why he’s doing it and why we shouldn’t change it. One was the liquid substance on Institution, it kind of maybe looks a little goofy, but he was like, that’s to show that the person that is the cop that is serving the system is the same pawn of this overarching institution. So it stayed the same. People can make a joke about it looking like chocolate milk or whatever, but it’s that idea that we’re all the blood of this system. No matter what side you’re on, we’re all made to serve.