Photo: Derek Rathbun
Militarie Gun (C: Ian Shelton)
"A Joyful Burden": How Ian Shelton Of Militarie Gun & Regional Justice Center Makes Art Out Of Negativity
Ian Shelton of Militarie Gun and Regional Justice Center misses his brother, who was imprisoned at 18. Rather than post an infographic about the prison system, Shelton chooses to scream and drum about his inner life.
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 fking 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."
Photo: Noah Kentis
On Militarie Gun's 'Life Under The Gun,' Ian Shelton Invites You Inside His Hornet's Nest Of A Mind
Reared on influences from the Beatles to indie rock, Ian Shelton crafted his band Militarie Gun's debut album as a missile against his enemies, both internal and external. The result is like no punk album you've ever heard.
There's a part near the end of Militarie Gun's debut album that Ian Shelton wishes he could fix. But he can't.
The band's lead singer and songwriter didn't notice it until long after said album, Life Under the Gun, went to print. It's in the penultimate track, "See You Around" — a keys-and-vocals breather reminiscent of '67 Beatles.
"He doesn't sing/ He doesn't sing to me/ When it used to be/ Something I'd like to see," croons Shelton — who in Militarie Gun and his grind band Regional Justice Center, has mostly screamed and barked until his melodic breakthroughs on Life Under the Gun.
"The very last line, I keep doing the same resolve on," he tells GRAMMY.com. "I did the same resolve on every line on that verse, and I hate it. I've listened to this a thousand times. I can't believe I'm just now realizing this sucks." Right then Shelton's voice shifts; it's like his inner critic has seized the controls.
"You f—ing idiot," he tells himself out loud, his breath quickening behind a black Zoom screen. "You thought that was good?"
Such is an interview with Shelton that clocks in at nearly two hours, with a full-band follow-up and many intense texts before and after. Talking to him at length is exactly like listening to his music — it's a hilarious, unvarnished, galvanizing, occasionally harrowing experience. But one that never feels like a put-on.
One minute, he's chewing on his wounds. "One of my main desires in life is to escape the embarrassment that I feel all the time," he says five minutes in. "For some reason, I feel like there's an invisible enemy on my heels at all times."
Another minute, he's scheming and enterprising like a young rapper — which makes a certain amount of sense, as Militarie Gun just signed with Jay-Z's Roc Nation for management, on top of landing a record deal with Loma Vista.
All this self-flagellation and slightly deranged ambition — and a whole lot more — made it into Life Under the Gun. But it's far from bluster and noise: Shelton, whose background is in face-punching hardcore, has blossomed as a singer, composer, lyricist, and performer in an incredibly short time.
On Life Under the Gun — out June 23 — Militarie Gun is filled out by guitarists Nick Cogan (also of Drug Church fame) and Will Acuña, bassist Max Epstein and drummer Vince Nguyen; the live lineup has shifted to include bassist Waylon Trim. In the co-producer's chair, alongside Shelton, was Taylor Young.
Militarie Gun is named after an inside joke that Shelton says "I'm unfortunately stuck with for the rest of my goddamn life." Their first three EPs, 2020's My Life is Over and 2021's All Roads to the Gun I and II, put them on the map as a band nominally in hardcore, but that bristled at its conventions and wore its orthodoxy like a bunchy suit.
In that sense, they're not dissimilar to Turnstile, the GRAMMY-nominated hardcore crew who augmented their sound with genre traversals and block-rocking beats.
But Militarie Gun have expanded beyond hardcore's boundaries in a much different way — via their sheer melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and emotional content. (The album that broke Turnstile into the mainstream, 2021's Glow On, didn't even exist by the time Militarie Gun completed the final demos for Life Under the Gun.)
From chord voicings to lyrics to performances and sheer attitude, advance singles "Do it Faster," "Very High," "Will Logic," and "Never F—ed Up Once" — along with inspired album tracks like "Think Less," "Big Disappointment" and "Sway Too" — are lightyears past their already appealing early material.
How did Shelton evolve so quickly, so profoundly? It happened while delivering weed.
For a solid year, Shelton — a Washington state native — drove around his adopted home of Los Angeles for eight to 12 hours a day, dropping off buds. "I was trying to put 10,000 hours into studying the blade," he says. "I was delivering weed, but the full-time job was studying music."
The artists doing spiritual work on Shelton: the Beatles, the Strokes, Gorillaz, Guided by Voices, Built to Spill… the list goes on. Between it all, he absorbed more than clever hooks or catchy melodies — he developed a knack for compositions that breathe and hold together with integrity.
"That's all just about observing the sonic real estate and going, 'Oh, that's empty,'" he says. "And then putting something there, because the instrumentals are completed before I even write a vocal part."
All this led Shelton to explore the neck of the guitar, unpacking melodies in an open and untutored manner. This jump between instruments puts Shelton in league with any number of drummers turned successful singer/songwriters, from Iggy Pop to Panda Bear to J Mascis — Brendan Yates from Turnstile, too.
One early morning — upon hitting the practice space before weed delivery — Shelton stumbled on what would become the galumphing "Will Logic." For "My Friends Are Having a Hard Time," he identified the essence of Built to Spill's "Carry the Zero" and wrote his own white-knuckled, mid-tempo ballad in response.
"A strange occurrence/ This train is on the rails," Shelton sings in his pained, raspy, yet incisive tenor. "How long until it f—s up and fails?"
In conversation, Shelton's train of thought leads to "Think Less," which happens to follow "My Friends Are Having a Hard Time" in the tracklisting. He'd cited that song earlier, in the same breath as his evocation of his "invisible enemy."
"I'm on some old-school beef," Shelton announces. "The people that I wrote [early Militarie Gun song] 'Ain't No Flowers' and 'Think Less' about, they talked s— about me to one of my friends a couple days ago and I just heard about it yesterday."
Said people are in a band Shelton won't name, but he'll allow this: "The song I wrote about them got 600,000 streams as of yesterday. More than triple anything they've ever done in their life. So, I'm like, 'We're good.'"
Despite being the most out-and-out hardcore moment on Life Under the Gun, "Think Less" is a musical marvel — from the fake-out guitar intro reminiscent of Doug Gillard-era Guided by Voices to the radiant chorus, where he's augmented with harmonies via James Goodson from the fuzz-pop band Dazy. (Mat Morand, a.k.a. Pretty Matty, also contributes backing vocals to the album.)
In stark juxtaposition, Shelton's vocal performance in the final verse sounds like he's peeling off his own skin: "List of people I f—ed over/ Do they think the same of me?" he howls. "List of people I've f—ed over/ Think less of me/ And I agree!"
"For some reason, I will believe whatever they say," Shelton says of those dispensing the haterade. "I wish that I had a really hardened ego to be like, Uh-uh. Instead, I find the kernel of truth and I stick on it."
"Seizure of Assets" is about when Shelton's car was towed by the city of Los Angeles. "I had too many parking tickets, and I literally didn't have the money to get my car back, so I just had to let them keep my car," he relates, deadpan.
With that in mind, it's clear who the "biting bastard leeches/ [that] keep suckin' on me" are. But in Life Under the Gun, those leeches are everywhere. They're most definitely in the sadistic cancel mob in "Never F—ed Up Once."
"Never F—ed Up Once" is about someone in the punk community who committed an indiscretion that went public; once the social-media bear was poked, he was summarily thrown out of his livelihood and craft.
This led to a shamelessly hooky song permeated with empathy, extending a hand to someone past the point of drowning: "When you wish you could stay, but you've been vilified/ When the bloodthirsty mob, it expects a life."
"I grew up going to AA meetings with my mom, and that fundamentally shapes the way that I see the world," Shelton says. "Which is through a lens, ultimately, of forgiveness. I've grown up around nothing but terribly flawed people. You are going to make terrible mistakes, no matter how you carry yourself."
With the album's centerpiece, "Sway Too," Shelton reached new heights of emotional and compositional complexity. What's more, he evades the binary between poppiness and extremity that tends to box in critical perception of Militarie Gun.
"I just couldn't be more proud of that song," Shelton glows, connecting it to the concept of trauma bonding. "What do you trust when your brain flips in trauma and lust?" he ponders at song's end. "What do you trust when it's love as smut?"
Accordingly, "I've never been more proud of a lyric," he says. "Sometimes, you don't even know that you're lying about things. My own brain, at least, is one that gets obsessed and tapped in on something, and then for a period of time, I feel a way and then all of a sudden it just dissipates, and it's one of my biggest flaws. And that song was really trying to take myself to task for that tendency."
If all of this sounds irreducibly heavy and ponderous, it doesn't come off that way; Life Under the Gun's sparkling melodies and production help all these bad feelings go down easy, and the first two singles distill these corrosive emotions into friendly doses.
In the power-popping "Do it Faster," Shelton drives himself up a wall waiting for word about the band being signed; in the equally sticky "Very High," he escapes a depressive spiral by getting absolutely ripped.
"Honestly I think there's something instinctual about writing truly catchy music, and whatever that is. Ian just has it," James Goodson, who sang backing vocals on the album, tells GRAMMY.com. "I also think the thing that really makes Militarie Gun click is that he's got this knack for combining the sweet with the sour. If one element is super melodic, he'll add another element that's really raw."
Life Under the Gun concludes with the triumphal, Who-like closer, "Life Under the Gun." "A life of pursuit," he summarizes, "Ends up pursuing you." After that ouroboros of a line, the song, and record, cut out right then, as if there's nothing more to add: Shelton's laid it all at your feet.
Militarie Gun. (L-R) Vince Nguyen, Nick Cogan, Ian Shelton, Waylon Trim, Will Acuña. Photo: Noah Kentis
Life Under the Gun can be enjoyed in two concurrent ways: it works as a voyage into Shelton's fractured emotions, maniacal aspirations and fever-pitch personality, and as a document of four or five men playing music.
"He definitely knows exactly what he wants the outcome to be," Cogan tells GRAMMY.com of Shelton. "I think he is a really good tell of people, and people being genuine, and people being honest. I'm not sure that matters to a lot of people. I think it matters a lot to Ian, which I think is the coolest thing in the world. He's just an incredibly real person."
Life Under the Gun's press cycle is Shelton's first heavy go-round in the music industry. It's been occasionally hairy, but on the main, he's happy and intact. He promises a few people are "getting destroyed" when this is all over.
It remains to be seen what will befall Shelton's adversaries — as he warned in "Will Logic," "You're standing on my neck/ For something you'll never get."
But most of Life Under the Gun deals with that disparaging voice inside — the one that underlines your unworthiness, and promises everything you love will fall apart, and soon. Each of Shelton's professional and artistic leaps and bounds seem to be in the service of proving it wrong.
"It took me a long time to shake my fear of this cool-guy sense and being jaded. And instead, being really open creatively and saying things that I might find embarrassing, and I try to stick to that," he says. "Every lyric I'm embarrassed of is the lyric people love."
All of this boils down to the grand artistic tradition of getting away with something — which is half the fun of all great rock music. "I literally walk around rubbing my hands together like a villain because it's how I feel," Shelton says.
From their stoner joke of a name to Shelton's second-to-none drunk tweeting to a Taco Bell ad to their promotional "Ooh Ooh" emoji — a play on Shelton's pet vocalization — so much of Militarie Gun's rise has been about gleefully stirring the pot.
But that's all window dressing; it'll fade, and soon, just as all press cycles do. The real impact of Militarie Gun is this: a creative, insecure, enterprising young man with a couple of screws loose took inventory of his life under the gun, opened his mouth and told the truth.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.