Interview with project mastermind Ian Shelton

by Michael Thorn

Deep within the genius collective known as Men’s Recovery Project, the notion of the internet as a toilet stall was put forth. While, yes, it does smell like fucking piss, one of the best stirrers of shit active on the internet is Ian Shelton. Mastermind of that jackhammer of a band known as Regional Justice Center, Shelton is a shit-talker and a provocateur, rivaling some of the best in the genre. But it’s not all about pissing on your shoes, shit-eating smirks, and fuckery for fuckery’s sake. There is always a deeper purpose, a deeper drive for Shelton – around his brother’s incarceration, around a consciousness of effort, and a desire to curate the experience of his chosen medium. The focus of purpose is what inspires this discussion around art, music, photography and powerviolence.   

Why do you hate photography?

The answer is that I don’t hate photography. I love photography. I’m a photographer. I make my living as a filmmaker. I love cameras. I love documentation. But the point that we’ve gotten to in the culture is so Instagram-centric – it feels very vapid to me, and it feels just very hollow. And that is amplified by the amount of documentation. I think documentation is important in moderation, for me personally, because if there’s too much documentation, there’s not enough living. And so, with this current moment where there’s literally six cameras pointed at a band performing, or the part that really bothers me is when they’re entangled in the performance.

You shouldn’t be able to see a camera on stage. It’s not a part of the performance is my personal opinion. And it just bothers me the way that they intersect, it’s as if photographers are audience member plus, or a lot of time it seems that’s the way they are viewing themselves. This whole thing started because I was on tour with Drug Church. Playing Programme [festival] has always been a weird thing, so many photographers always show up. And when Regional Justice Center played there, I would notice photographers getting between what I viewed… me and the audience. They would be inserting themselves in that space in a way that made me aware of them, which I hated, ’cause it made me feel like I was performing for Instagram. And it took me out of the performance completely.

But then, when I was on tour with Drug Church, it’s like they were 360 degrees surrounded by cameras. Like, there were literally four or five behind, six or seven in the front row, two or three on each side. It was 360 degrees, and when I went to sit in the front, I was asked to move by a photographer.

And I was like, I’m here to enjoy this. Like, I don’t care about your Instagram, ’cause that’s where all this is ending up. And I don’t think that bands care about it in a way that makes it important to be on someone’s Instagram.

I hate the kind of culture of, the band is on the stage and they’re performing for you. Personally, the ideal show for me is the band and the audience are one, and they’re giving each other energy. And so, having people on stage, whatever, I don’t give a shit about that. Where I think I find commonality with you, though, is when there’s 600 photographers sitting around somebody, and it’s all you, and there’s not that opportunity for the give-and-take.

Which I do as well, definitely. And I love that space of creating other mediums of it. And we wouldn’t have the same level of over-documentation if that was what it took to publish a photo. Now, with the level of ease that you can just put things into the world, which I think it affects every level of creative expression. You have people picking it up that wouldn’t otherwise, because literally they think that they just have an audience immediately. And so that, all the way through playing in bands, creating music videos, creating photos.

I make zines myself. At this point, I don’t feel that I can publish my photozines, because I would be made fun of for being a hypocrite, so I’m not going to do it for a long time, probably. But I have so many collections of photos that I would love to be putting out. And I just put them on my Instagram. One, they’re not popular, because isn’t what people wanna see out of me, but two, that’s not the space that I feel that I feel that they… I want people to hold it and look at it and see it.

And as far as talking about the stage, in sharing the space with the audience, I think that is a very important thing, but I also do think that it’s kind of different for a performer. You go to a hardcore show and that’s clearly the case, that’s everybody’s space. There’s not a place in that room that friends couldn’t go, or the audience couldn’t go. But you go see a different band and maybe that would be inappropriate, to have that have that same give-and-take with the audience.

That’s always kind of the way that I view it, what’s the performance that’s being curated? Which obviously isn’t also a thing that a lot of bands within DIY are thinking about necessarily, but for me, I do these interviews with my brother who’s locked up for our records, and then I do a special one for our live show as well. And I’m trying to curate as much of an individual experience as I can that’s specific to the performance that you see. When you see us the next time, it’s gonna be different. I hope.

And so for me, I love the give-and-take of the energy that we get from the audience, but at the same time, I don’t necessarily want them in our space, because I feel like my space is already so confined by the limitations of movement that I have by being behind a drum set.

Do you think that that attempt to define space and the reclamation of space itself plays into what you view as your art?

Somewhat. I mean I just think… that the space is specific. I actually talked about this on my podcast with Patrick just recently, it’s kinda funny that you hit me up in the timeline that you did, ’cause we were talking about this. What the result of the conversation was, was like, you wanna curate an art space to make more money, to where you can play a venue where you’re able to do that.

Obviously, you can’t do that in hardcore – literally every light in the room is on, which is the worst thing for a performance possibly, in my opinion. I hate it.

But I don’t know, it’s difficult, ’cause you want to have a vibe, and you want people to feel like they’re getting an experience, and it’s really difficult within the live space alone. And that’s why, when you add this other thing of over-documentation while you’re performing… for me, it makes me feel like I’m blocked in, especially if I feel like a photographer’s boxing out the audience members to where I can’t see them, and I’m just seeing a camera in my face. That’s like, I no longer feel the performance. It doesn’t feel right to me.

In thinking about the context of over documentation, there’s a line I go back and forth on. In an ideal world, shit photographers would stay home, but I also feel that way about bands. There are a lot of bands where it feels like they’re not putting in any effort. It’s a vacation for them, and I’m just funding their road trip. There’s a lot of photographers that are like that, too, just shooting to post online, or on Instagram, or whatever… I mean, to me, if you’re not printing your photos, I don’t think you’re a photographer.

But I also don’t wanna be a total gatekeeper. I don’t want to shut people out, because there was a point in time when I was in that shit band that probably shouldn’t have been on tour. And the same thing goes with photography. When I first started taking pictures, it was with a point-shoot when I was 14 years old. Those photos are terrible. I’m glad I don’t have them anymore.

Yeah, cause you’re supposed to be accepting and allowing everybody in or whatever, but I think that being told that you suck is powerful. I think that I only got better because I was told my first band was terrible. I only got better because I always had this feeling, like when I started doing filmmaking, it was like, “ah, if only somebody would just give me the money right now, I could create the thing.” But guess what, I couldn’t. I couldn’t create the thing. I wasn’t good enough.

The whole idea of aspiration is to get through the next gate, and so without gatekeeping, what is it? What is the process? If someone tells you you’re good right when you start, are you gonna get better?  I don’t think so.

There’s the opportunity to suck and to be told that you suck. You know what I mean?

I just think that… how are people supposed to get better if you don’t give them a chance to practice?  But at the same time, how do I owe [it to] someone to be their guinea pig? Why is my performance the sacrificial lamb to their shitty photography? And what I’m doing is curated – it’s as pretentious as it sounds, honestly – but I put all this effort into making our set what it is, and trying to create a very specific thing, so when people interject in that, it’s offensive, I think. And because they’re not thinking about it, they’re literally just pointing and shooting, you know?

Which is another conversation of the degree which different art forms take. Photography is an instant art form in the documentation aspect. You have all your years of crafting your eye and everything leading up to that moment, but in that moment, you’re pointing and shooting. ’Cause you know what you like. Whereas a performance is something that someone has to drive eight hours for, all the crafting that goes into it, even if it is a shitty performance from a band that isn’t curated or whatever, it still is… [t]here’s just different degrees of effort put into various forms of art, and so it is difficult. When one can supersede the other is obviously a delicate conversation that people don’t really wanna have.

Do you think that because of how deeply personal Regional Justice Center is to you, that it elevates that passion around performance?

I think my passion for art is ultimately what is propelling this idea. It does upset me when a performance is over, because I’m not in it. It’s so weird, we’ve kinda talked about it as a band a lot, but I’m not having fun while we’re playing. I don’t understand what I enjoy so much about this. It’s almost more that I have to do it for some specific reason, but I’m actually angry. There’s so much frustration that goes into it, as far as feeling like everything’s constantly going wrong, feeling like everything sounds bad, feeling like there’s all these weird things, and then being fueled by the adrenaline of playing drums and exerting myself so hard is like… I’m actually aggro in those moments, in a way that I can’t control.

And so, when something steps on it or interferes, it really sets me off, because in my head, everything is going wrong already. ’Cause everything sounds bad, everything’s whatever, and then my adrenaline’s just pumping. So, I think it’s more just my passion for art in general, which I know is so fucking corny to say about hardcore, ’cause I think people are anti-art at this point. It’s that overload constantly that makes things non-artistic, and because people who are not serious about art are just as capable of putting out what could be art to somebody else. And so now we have this new generation of people that I think don’t take it very seriously, don’t respect it, don’t think about it.

The reason why I got involved with punk in the first place is because I felt like I had to, this is the only thing that’s ever made sense to me. I think this shit is important. I view this in the same context as… if you read interviews with Dez or Dukowski from Black Flag, it’s because they had to. There’s just something that drives you, and it’s the only way you can feel sane in some ways.

Yeah. Yeah, I definitely don’t know what else I would be doing. The good contrast in this whole thing as a project, my brother and I got into hardcore and he got into drugs. We had the same upbringing, and we just found our different paths in those two things that we were, for lack of a better word, passionate or compulsive about.

I will kill myself if I have to work a normal job, ’cause I just… I can’t turn it off. And so, I just want to make money the best way I can, as far as making it survivable. I was a truck driver. I was a screen printer. I was a house painter. I tried so many things, but all I did every day was, I could hear songs in my head. I was writing stories in my head all day. I couldn’t turn it off, and my inability to act upon those things was making me miserable. And so, I just found a way to make my life work in a way that I can just create things constantly instead. It was that, “Now I have to create things I don’t wanna make.” That’s the new reality.

There’s some times I have to do creative things that I find creatively soul crushing. But at the same time, it’s better for me, because it gives me the leniency to create what I need to create. And yeah, I’m so lucky that somehow this magic combo landed. That I got into hardcore first, and that gave me the DIY mentality to figure out how to make the things I wanted to make, and try to create the path that I want.

With this being this intensely personal project around your brother’s incarceration, and the very real feelings that are expressed in it, do you feel like it actually translates to a lot of people?

No, not at all. Almost in no way at all.

People decrease us to being an anti-cop band. That’s what people view us as, I would say that’s what most people view us as. There’s not a single anti-cop lyric or sentiment expressed, besides the fact that there’s these symbolic representations of cops that are used to illustrate a point. Like the cover of World Of Inconvenience. That cover, Mark made that to show the way that cops are used to be a part of a burnt-out system. So, the smoke is coming from within him, and he is a part of the burnt-out system. Same thing with the liquid on our second record. It’s meant to be this unifying force, like, this cop is liquid, and the people behind bars are liquid. And it’s all to symbolize [that] we all are used to serve this greater system. Whereas that turns into “the anti-cop band.” Again, not a single lyric. People are like, “that’s the prison reform band.” I’ve never talked about prison reform.

People know that we have this loose affiliation to prison politics in some sort of way, and it’s not about these things. So, I know 100% that none of it is landing with people. There are people that do get it, but as far as the general public, I get asked all the time, “where do you get those sound clips from?” Not everyone’s reading the interviews and the press pieces, and blah, blah, blah. And I don’t expect them to. It’s not gonna change the art that I make. I think it’s only gonna get more complicated with this next record, ’cause I’m actually gonna bring my mother into the fold, in talking about the way that she fucked us up. Interviewing her on the next record and using that to overlap with my brother, and splitting the lyric writing for the record in half, and sharing teams between the two of us. And I can tell you, most people are not gonna understand it. They’re not gonna read the lyrics, for one, but it’s not gonna change that I’m gonna do it.

It gets frustrating to see my art be reduced to something it’s not about. It’s not even a misinterpretation, it’s just the literal surface level glare of something that they think is close. It’s not like they’re reading the lyrics and then saying, “this is the anti-cop band,” because if you could read our lyrics and get that, more power to you. I guess you really went in wanting to think that.

But if they’re not reading the lyrics, they’re not understanding anything about it, ’cause they’re not actually partaking in the art. So, I guess I’m frustrated in that, but otherwise I don’t care about explaining things. I don’t care about anything. I wanted to be fucking interviewed about the photographer thing a long time ago, ’cause honestly, I just wanted to get on with it. I didn’t wanna talk about it ever again because it’s not that interesting to me.

It’s only interesting to me when I can come up with the most clever joke I can. And in that, I had two ways of talking about it, where I was unintelligible and rude, or I was clever. Those are the two routes that I wanted to take, because I wanted to be offensive, ’cause I wanted to say things that would be purposefully riling that you couldn’t misinterpret. They’re so blunt and stupid that you could not misinterpret it. And so, with all that at the same time, I wanted to be explaining it, but I also was fine not explaining it. I was like, “think whatever you want.”

Or think that I care about art. That’s true, you can think that, or you can… whatever. You can think I’m just trying to get publicity for my band. There’s a combination of all three that is the truth, but at the end of the day, I didn’t care what people actually thought about it. And it’s the same through all levels of creation for me, so…

Ultimately, I’d say fuck ‘em.

All photos from Michael Thorn’s zine Razorblades And Aspirin – sold out online, but available through Revelation, Microcosm, Deathwish and Ebullition

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