Band To Watch: Militarie Gun

Matt Welch

Band To Watch: Militarie Gun

Matt Welch

When everything went to shit, Ian Shelton drove straight to his practice space and emerged with his new hardcore band Militarie Gun.

It was March 2020, and Shelton had been in rehearsals for South By Southwest with his powerviolence band Regional Justice Center — he’s the drummer, vocalist and only constant member. Then, SXSW was cancelled. Then, everything was. So there he was, alone, driving himself to the brink of insanity in his practice space every single day, trying to cope with this terrifying unknown the only way he knew how. That would become Militarie Gun’s first EP, 2020’s My Life Is Over. He’s since made two more — this past June’s All Roads Lead To The Gun and September’s forthcoming All Roads Lead To The Gun II — now joined by guitarists Nick Cogan and William Acuña, drummer Vince Nguyen, and bassist Max Epstein.

“I’m not a person who’s had a day job. I fucking direct music videos and go on tour,” says Shelton. “There’s nothing else in my life. So if my brain was set on ‘I’m gonna go play music’ and then I can’t, I don’t feel like I have a reason to live.

“[Hardcore is] the most important thing in my life.”

Shelton was introduced to punk growing up in the Bay Area; first Blink-182, then Operation Ivy and Rancid, the Dead Kennedys and Anti-Flag. His tastes grew heavier and more aggressive the older he got, the more he felt like a misfit. As a pre-teen he moved to Enumclaw, Washington, a mountain “redneck” town best known for an ultimately fatal horse sex case, and by then he needed the outlet more than ever. “It is a very beautiful town,” he says, “but the attitude and mindset is a lot less than beautiful.” There, punk rock shaped his leftist political consciousness and a confrontational attitude that has lasted him to this day: “I used to get suspended from school. It was a super conflict-based time. I [still] have this mentality of if you’re not gonna like me, then I’m gonna give you a fucking reason not to like me.”

Meanwhile, home life was turbulent. His parents were alcoholics, his adolescence marked by their cycles of relapse and sobriety; neglect followed by over-compensatory strictness. “It would [always] end up being some sort of intense struggle for power. My mother is sober now, and we have a really amazing relationship. But there was a lot of chaos and trauma.” At 15, he attended his first major hardcore show, headlined by Ceremony, and what he found there amid the sea of limbs, sweat and skin was vital. “There was nothing better in the world than singing the ‘I got problems, I’m a fucked up kid’ line [from “I Want To Put This To An End“]. That catharsis became an obsession. That’s why I think I’m stuck making hardcore punk records at almost 30 years old, is that there’s something I’m still trying to get out of me that I haven’t.”

Later, he moved to Seattle and then LA, where he formed Regional Justice Center after a string of less successful bands. That band became a fixture in the nationwide hardcore scene; it’s named after the jail where Shelton’s brother has been incarcerated since 18, and suitably, it’s abrasive, intense and deeply angry.

Once the pandemic arrived, though, Shelton craved more room for nuance, for introspection. “I do try to find ways to express vulnerability in [Regional Justice Center], but it’s not the place to do it. I love indie rock. I love melody more than I love aggression, but I really love when the two can come together.” That would become his manifesto for Militarie Gun.

With his influences, he charts a journey through indie rock and post-hardcore, picturing the band as a link on a long-established chain. “Bands like Modest Mouse [took] what Fugazi and Sonic Youth did and then [were] like, OK, we’re gonna take it even farther melodically. So in the year 2020, I was looking at what Modest Mouse did, what Fugazi did, what Sonic Youth did, what Jesus Lizard did, and trying to make something even more melodic while still maintaining aggression.” Shelton’s vocals are never less than scathing, but what’s behind them can be shimmering and leisurely or tight and urgent, depending on what particular inspiration struck him that day. Maybe he was listening to Black Flag, or maybe it was Guided By Voices. “You’re never gonna get the same record twice, ’cause I’m always gonna be listening to a different song on the day that I go to the practice space.”

After weathering the financial anxiety of his touring and freelance work disappearing, Shelton ironically found himself in the best position he’d ever been in once his unemployment benefits came through during the making of the All Roads Lead to the Gun EPs. But, restless and confrontational as ever, he still had some bones to pick with the music scene. Dismayed by the glibness of social media cancellations and the impermanence of the streaming age, he wrote “Disposable Plastic Trash” (“This punk shit needs to pay, man/ Can’t survive, I need a wage, man”.) Meanwhile, “Ain’t No Flowers” takes aim at some of his peers (he doesn’t name names) who disavowed hardcore in favor of more “mature” sounds, and nods to the flower iconography that often marks the change. “A huge portion of the lyrics for [Militarie Gun] are spiteful weirdo shit, because I had nothing productive going on in my life,” he says.

During the pandemic, Shelton started using psychedelics for the first time. He had always had an addictive personality, but it had never manifested in substance use; more in “stupid things” like obsessively buying Adidas clothing or hunting down specific records. Though he soon quit after a bad trip, the experience gave him a new perspective towards his upbringing, which he explored on “Background Kids,” singing, “Imagine something so good you’d fail your kids.” “It was the first time I was feeling like I understand why someone would stay in this state,” he says. “That felt like a big moment for me — a new moment of empathy towards everyone who raised me.”

It’s that same addictive tendency that drives Shelton’s urge to be constantly making music and touring. That too can become toxic, engrossing him to the point of neglecting relationships and every other part of his life. “If I’ve been too busy to write but I feel like I have things I wanna try, it creates this under-my-skin anger. There’s just no other option but to get it done.” Although, he never stopped working during the pandemic — between the three Militarie Gun EPs and a Regional Justice Center LP — the time off the road forced him finally to reflect on shortcomings he’d been outrunning. “I’ve been going on tour at least every other month since I was like 17. So when it finally came to a screeching halt [I was] like okay, I guess I have to figure all this shit out.”

His spur-of-the-moment lyricism with Militarie Gun, all of which was completely improvised in the vocal booth, helped him sort through that backlog, he says. “You end up arriving at whatever’s subconsciously nagging at you that day. I was singing about things I didn’t think I wanted to sing about, like a breakup I had gone through and things like that. I had to let my subconscious bring it out of me.” “Fell On My Head” and “Stuck In A Spin” acknowledge his feelings of failure within a relationship, while “Big Disappointment” — the new single out today, available to stream above — deals with failure of a different sort, that of feeling unable to control his anger or transcend cycles of trauma.

“Ultimately I’m constantly thinking about my own failure to communicate,” he says. “I think the human experience is just constantly failing, and hopefully having the self-awareness to reassess and fail less the next time.” ‘Try to live my life with nothing to hide and no one to fight,’ he vows on the bridge of “Big Disappointment.”

Shelton acknowledges the embarrassment and melodrama inherent in working through his feelings in real time, but at the same time, the explosive catharsis of hardcore was a lifeline in a uniquely stifling time. “Songwriting is masturbatory, it’s egocentric,” he says. “You’re obsessed with creating songs because you wanna see a reflection of yourself. [But] if I didn’t have [Militarie Gun], I don’t know what my life would have shaped out to be. I would have probably just gone crazy, or I would have got more into drugs. I don’t see that there was a healthy route besides this.”

Besides, the self-absorption of songwriting is offset by the communality of experiencing music. Shelton has conflicting feelings about letting people into his world with music: “There’s a struggle of wanting to be loved, but also being like, I hate everyone. So my goal is to create some Venn diagram of bringing people in, and then being like nah, fuck you.” But the day we talk, Militarie Gun are set to play their first ever show hours later, the thought of which has kept him waking up every morning for months. He tells me later on that the show “couldn’t have gone better,” but beforehand there are no nerves, just cool anticipation. He’s a man always at war, and he’s ready for a ceasefire.

There’s just one concern. “I feel like sometimes I use words that aren’t very relatable,” he says. “Like, I use the word ‘primordial’. Will people sing along to the word primordial?”

01 “Big Disappointment”
02 “Disposable Plastic Trash”
03 “Background Kids”
04 “All Roads Lead To The Gun”

09/24 Oakland, CA @ Starline Social Club #
09/25 Anaheim, CA @ Chain Reaction #
09/26 Los Angeles, CA @ 1720 #
10/01 Hesperia, CA @ Collective 47
10/02 Fullerton, CA @ Programme
10/03 San Diego, CA @ Whistle Stop
10/06 Las Vegas, NV @ Fantasy Factory
10/07 Salt Lake City, UT @ The Beehive
10/08 Denver, CO @ Convulse Fest
10/09 Omaha, NB @ Outrspaces
10/10 Minneapolis, MN @ Caydence Records & Coffee
10/11 Des Moines, IA @ Subsect Skateshop
10/12 -Milwaukee, WI @ Cactus Club
10/13 Chicago, IL @ Subterranean
10/14 Detroit, MI @ The Sanctuary
10/15 Cleveland, OH @ Mahall’s
10/16 Pittsburg, PA @ Mr. Roboto Project
10/17 Wilkes Barre, PA @ The Hive
10/18 Washington, DC @ Pie Shop *
10/19 Middletown, CT @ Rednawa Collective *
10/20 Boston, MA @ Hardcore Stadium *
10/21 Providence, RI @ News Cafe *
10/22 Queens, NY @ Trans Pecos *
10/23 Philadelphia, PA @ Kung Fu Necktie *
10/24 Richmond, VA @ The Camel
10/25 Charlotte, NC @ The Milestone
10/27 Atlanta, GA @ Disorder Vinyl
10/28 Birmingham, AL @ Seasick Records
10/31 Gainesville, FL @ The Fest
11/02 Chattanooga, TN @ The Coffin Company
11/03 Nashville, TN @ Drkmttr
11/04 Indianapolis, IN @ Hoosier Dome
11/05 -St. Louis, MS @ Sinkhole
11/06 -Kansas City, MS @ Revolution Records
11/07 Oklahoma City, OK @ 89th St.
11/09 Dallas, TX @ Three Links
11/10 San Antonio, TX @ Paper Tiger
11/11 Houston, TX @ Satellite
11/12 Austin, TX @ Ballroom
11/13 Odessa, TX @ Cactus House

# w/ Fiddlehead, Object of Affection
* w/ SPICE

All Roads Lead To The Gun II is out 9/10 via Convulse Records. Pre-order it here.

Derek Rathburn

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