Militarie Gun (C: Ian Shelton)
Photo: Derek Rathbun
"A Joyful Burden": How Ian Shelton Of Militarie Gun & Regional Justice Center Makes Art Out Of Negativity
Take a look at some of the press surrounding Ian Shelton and you might think of two words: prison reform. One of his bands, Regional Justice Center, is named after a direct-supervision jail in Kent, Washington; their latest album is called Crime and Punishment. His other band's called Militarie Gun, which would seem to say it all. Plus, the punk drummer/screamer is at the age, 29, when sociopolitical ardor tends to blaze bright and hot.
The complicating factor? Shelton almost never sings about incarceration.
"People say I sing about the prison system. It's not even true!" he tells GRAMMY.com while hoofing it to an L.A. recording studio. "What I've done with my space in the press is that I've talked about it." Shelton goes on to cite the interconnected private prison firms Securus Technologies and JPay—the former a vehicle for video communications, the latter for information technology and financial services.
"They are for-profit things that nobody even knows," Shelton says. "They're like shadow companies. They don't have a Twitter. They don't have any public accountability. They're just these huge f**king billion-dollar corporations that exist and profit off something people don't talk about."
He's preoccupied with this topic because it hits him close to home. Back in 2016, his then-18-year-old brother was arrested and sent to the Regional Justice Center. Shelton misses him every day.
Shelton hasn't reacted to this traumatic event like a typical 29-year-old might. Instead of taking to Tumblr or reposting cartoon infographics (perhaps with the word "carceral" in there), Shelton alchemizes his anxieties and self-doubts into music. A lot of music. In just a decade, he's amassed an unwieldy discography, and his latest band, Militarie Gun, just released their vibrant, diverse EP, All Roads Lead to the Gun, on June 4 via Alternatives Label.
Across its four tracks—"Ain't No Flowers," "Don't Pick Up the Phone," "Fell on My Head" and "Stuck in a Spin"—you won't hear a single line about changing the world or even a declared "what" without a qualifying "how." Slogans are cheap; human expression is priceless. Within Shelton's music—which borrows elements of hardcore, adds melodic information, and uses non-core instruments like acoustic guitar and Mellotron—you'll hear him questioning, incinerating and reforging himself.
"It's an actual compulsion. It's a problem!" Shelton says about his unscratchable creative itch. "You're happy to create because you're not having to be weighed down by everything behind you. It's the one thing where it has nothing but forward motion, even if it is about something in the past."
Shelton has plenty of experiences still nipping at his heels. His mother had him in her early 20s with no small amount of personal baggage in the first place. Alcoholism and relapses were common; Shelton remembers attending AA meetings as a child just because his mom didn't have a babysitter. "I think the catchall of 'alcoholic home upbringing' is pretty much how to describe it," he says. "Probably no more or less than anyone else has gone through."
Until the age of 6, Shelton was an only child. That's when his first younger brother came along; two years later, another. Due to the turbulence and frequent parental absence at home, his relationship with his brothers took on a parental hue. Understanding there was trouble at home, his teachers deemed Shelton at-risk and pulled him out of class to attend "drug classes with other bad kids," he says.
"That was more exposure to the idea that, 'Maybe I'll go smoke weed after school than trying to help me integrate with people I had less in common with,'" Shelton says. "I have this theory about the way people treat at-risk youth. They're actually further pushing them toward the fringes of society and not trying to save them and bring them back in."
One of Shelton's brothers, who was 18 at the time, caught an assault charge and was sent to Regional Justice Center. By then, Shelton had been consistently creative for years, playing in punk bands Seattle's New Gods, Drug Culture and "a large amount of hardcore and youth crew bands."
For the latter band, Shelton wrote "To Cope" as an extended hand to his imprisoned sibling. "That was about me literally feeling like my brother was running out of ways to relate to the world and that I wished I could help him find a way to cope with everything," he explains. Around then, he cemented family and interiority as his creative lenses, not petitioning against societal ills.
After years of slugging it out in others' bands with all the attendant trappings, including three rehearsal sessions per week, Shelton was ready for a change. Citing an inability to "entrust someone else to have enough to say or be willing to work as hard as I was," he struck out with his own band, Regional Justice Center, in 2017, casting himself as the drummer, lead vocalist and driving force. Naturally, that band exhumed—and, Shelton claims, improved—"To Cope."
That same year, Shelton joined Self Defense Family, a genre-catholic ensemble in the vague proximity of "post-hardcore" with international members in and out. Their leader, Patrick Kindlon, is an unconventional and magnetic singer who—unlike most in the self-conscious punk scene—holds forth freely about sex, race and the cancelations of the week, often on podcasts like "Worst Possible Timeline."
Shelton's association with the older Kindlon helped him shed his self-consciousness, which was no small feat in a backstabbing, cliquish subculture. "I've definitely done things that intentionally turn off certain subsections of the audience," he says. "I know there are certain kinds of people who love music who actually just love being upset, so I try to do things that drive them away from what I do."
In 2021, Regional Justice Center released Crime and Punishment, which packs more ideas into 13 minutes than some punk bands do in 300. A combustible mix of grind, fastcore and other subgenres, the album tackles Shelton's lived nightmares head-on. One jarring example is "Dust Off," which Shelton named after the compressed gas duster a family member would abuse. In spite of—or maybe because of—the whiplash runtime, the listener is left pleasantly exhausted.
Militarie Gun's All Roads Lead to the Gun represents another side of the coin. The distortion and screams remain, but the music is uplifting, melodic and borderline beautiful. Rather than prepare lyrics in advance, Shelton launched into each vocal take extemporaneously. What always resulted, he says, was something subconsciously nagging him that day.
It's on All Roads where the philosophical inspirations of two of Shelton's favorite bands, the Beatles and Guided by Voices, clearly show. Lennon and McCartney wrote pop songs haunted by the early deaths of their mothers; GBV's Robert Pollard wrote songs as an escape from suburban, formatted tedium. There's a direct link between their cathartic prolificity and Shelton's.
So he keeps moving, drumming, singing, and writing, an engine of activity beholden to no one. The last track on All Roads, "Stuck in a Spin," is both the darkest and most joyous of the whole EP. "That song is literally about my self-destructive nature," he says. "I would say that 'alchemy' is a really good way to describe it, because you're not thinking about what you're doing. You're not thinking about the best therapy at the moment."
Shelton's brother should be out of prison by February 2022. These days, they're frequently talking on the phone, plotting the music they'll make together. He doesn't want to reveal his brother's name at the moment, but he looks forward to his brother's chance to make a name for himself and tell his own story. Until then, Shelton will continue doing what he always does: Hurtling forward so he doesn't lose momentum, tip and fall.
"My theory on it is that it's about keeping your hands busy so your mind can tap into that subconscious thing that's nagging at you," Shelton says at the end of the call. "It's a burden, but it's a joyful burden."