Jensen Ward on Iron Lung: Band, Label, and Worldview

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Illustration from the cover of Iron Lung Mixtape I.

Iron Lung is a band, a label—and, for better or worse—a worldview. The label was founded in 2007 by Jensen Ward and Jon Kortland, the two men who also make up the band, one of the few internationally known non-revivalist and non-reunited powerviolence bands in the world.

“We started [Iron Lung Records] with band money,” Ward recalls. “We toured. We had a couple of bucks left after a trip, and we’d decided to put out a record with it. We figured we’d either be making a huge mistake, or starting something really cool. Or both. I think it landed on both.” This statement is a good reflection of their worldview: sardonic, fatalistic, with enough brash idealism to start a vinyl-centric label well before the vinyl revival. They’d issue records by harsh, confounding bands of varying stripes, based solely on their personal taste. The label doesn’t pay Ward and Kortland’s bills, but it is self-supporting. Clearly, both in stated intent and action, making money was never a concern.

Iron Lung‘s offices. Photo by Jensen Ward.

Iron Lung‘s offices. Photo by Jensen Ward.

We spoke with Ward about solitary versus social music, and he helped place some of his catalog within either category. The conversation was a fine example of what happens when music nerds converge, rich with tangents, from straight-edge music (and a shared love of Gorilla Biscuits) to the ethos of straight-edge itself (Ward: “I’ve been straight-edge my whole life. It’s not a thing I advertise. Drugs and drinking just doesn’t hold any appeal to me. I don’t have anything against them. I think people who drink…should. They probably need to and some people really need to. And that’s fine. I don’t care”), to whether Iron Lung (the band) would ever do a record with another label. Ward’s not ideologically opposed, but says, in a pithy statement that encompasses a lot, “It’s hard to imagine someone doing a better job on something we care about than we could.”

What follows is much of our conversation, slowly descending into an overview of some Iron Lung releases that have perhaps been overlooked—or ones that we were particularly interested in, and therefore pestered Ward to discuss.

It does feel like you were one of the first labels to embrace Bandcamp. What was the process there?

You know, the real draw for using Bandcamp for me was the fact that you could make printable download cards for records. We were already putting out records before that—I think we had maybe 20 or 21 releases out before we discovered Bandcamp. Then I realized you could print download cards for like three cents apiece or something like that—what the code cost to make. And that’s like, nothing. It seems crazy to me that people making records in 2015-2016 or whatever don’t make download cards, because that’s how people listen to music—digitally, almost always. Even if you buy the record, it’s become sorta like a collectable bauble to have. You get the download card and you put it in your iPod and you listen to the record. [laughs] Which is kind of backwards and crazy, but whatever—at least people are buying records. And that’s great.

For us, making records is still the main focus for our people. Well, putting out good bands is the main focus. But having such an awesome tool that’s on the internet and basically free is the main reason why we started using Bandcamp. We were looking at manufacturing records and some of the record pressing plants offered, ‘We can make a download card to put in your records and it only costs, like, three dollars apiece.’ Three dollars apiece?!  That’s insane. Bandcamp is three cents. That makes sense to me.

Iron Lung playing. Photo by Martin Sorrondeguy.

Iron Lung playing. Photo by Martin Sorrondeguy.

Iron Lung playing. Photos by Martin Sorrondeguy.

I was just reading an article about the economics of download cards, and it said only 10 to 20 percent of people who buy the records actually download it.

I guess if it’s a really popular record, then it’s about 20 percent of the codes that actually get printed actually get used. [laughs] And that seems weird to me, but that’s just the way it is. Like, 10 to 20 percent of it sinks in with people. If you post a thing on Instagram and you have 2,000 followers and 200 people like a photo you put up there—you’re feeling pretty good because you’re like, ‘Man, that’s great!  Ten percent. Pretty sweet.’ It’s usually so much less than that. Maybe the world is only paying attention to 10 percent of what’s going on, or there’s 90 percent more stuff that’s happening around them also vying for their attention.

That makes sense.

I just feel people are too distracted to follow through with anything—other than that 10 percent.

I think also a lot of people who buy the record still listen to streaming. That doesn’t work for me, because I mainly listen to music that I download and put on an iPod and then play at the bar I work.

I mean, I do that, too. Luckily enough, I have a house where I can have a room that’s full of records that’s just dedicated to listening to music. It’s a rarity, I find. Most people don’t really have a space they can dedicate to just sitting down and listening to music, or most people don’t have time to sit down and listen to music. That’s a real sad thing, because music is—I don’t know what I’d do without it. It’s really sad to me that people spend so much of their lives identifying as ‘Yes, I’m a musician,’ or ‘Yes, I love this kind of music, I go to shows all the time,’ but when it comes to sitting down and giving a record 100 percent of your attention? It almost never happens. Artists work so hard on their records to make them good and nobody pays attention  to that, and I think that’s criminal.

But there’s music for socializing, like, you know…dance music…

No, I know what you’re saying. There’s the social aspect of listening to music. But I’m more getting at how much a single person pays attention to the music they’re listening to. Most of the time, listening to music is a solitary thing. There’s styles of music that not more than one person should be listening to at one time. Groups of people should not be listening to some types of music together. Black metal is a great example of something multiple people should not listen to together. It seems like there’s music that is for ‘I’m in a certain mood and I need this sound.’ That’s what black metal is great for to me. It’s so hateful and depressing … it’s weird to me that people will just be like ‘Ehhh, let’s get together, have a few beers… and listen to this album by this guy who just wants to kill himself and burn buildings down.’ That’s so weird to me.

In terms of solitary listening? What Iron Lung (the label) releases are best for that?

Mutant Video/Life Drag. My favorite solitary listening is any of the Mutant Video records. Super, super great for that. A real atmosphere to them. And their new band, Life Drag, has the same weird ‘basement guy playing Chrome covers’ vibe. It’s not party music. It’s music you sit alone with. That’s how they are. It’s two guys, and it’s a two guy-maximum thing.

Dreamdecay. [This is] the best soundtrack for driving alone at night. It just has that vibe where you can’t get together with a bunch of people and listen to this thing. You need to experience it alone. You develop your own story with it. You develop your own movie in your head to it.

TRTRKMMR. It’s amazing. That record is so fucking powerful, and I don’t know that people really picked up on how good that record is. I have a certain take on the record, because I saw the long, arduous process of the record being made. Brad—the guy who made it—it took him four years to make that record. His intestines exploded, and he needed emergency surgery and almost died. He had his wisdom teeth taken out during that time. He ruptured something else in his body because he trains really hard to run these marathons. He goes through all this physical shit, this physical pain over these four years, and in the meantime is a crazy studious dude, and all the things he writes about, the depth he goes through—I can’t really do it justice by explaining it in an interview. But it’s amazing, the amount of detail in every song. It’s hard to hear on a record when you’re listening and you’re being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of sound coming at you. I think it’s one of the best records we’ve put out.

Power electronics is so goddamned boring to watch live. I go see it and it’s like, ‘This is loud and will be pretty short, and one thing I know, is that by the end is that I’ll be annoyed and my feet will hurt.’ Not the case with Brad. He’s incredible.

OK! And to blast in the house?  

ConditionSuper raging D-beat record, but thick. Not like noisy D-beat, but good and solid, and with great riffs. All the performances are perfect, and it sounds better when you turn it up to 11. Sometimes you gotta thrash your shit in your house.

Nudity. So overlooked, and I think it’s [seen as] a sore thumb on our label because it’s really melodic and sort of a NWOBHM/psychedelic rock band. But nobody really realizes that it’s full of punks! DIY stalwarts [from] Sex Vid, Hysterics etc., but that record gets ignored because it doesn’t sound like those bands.

Should their credentials matter?

No. I’m more getting at the approach of how they make the music, rather than the sound that comes out. There’s something about DIY musicians and punk musicians, especially. They have this energetic approach to making music that’s a draw to me. The performances on the Nudity album are exactly that. They’re so alive. It’s freeing and awesome.

Ok! What about bands that are in the middle of solitary and raging?

Rakta. There’s a genuine quality to Rakta. Their first record was cool, and everyone was like ‘They’re the new x-Mal Deutschland,’ and it’s like, ‘really? That’s all you can say, that they’re the new 4AD band from years ago?’ Give me a break. That’s a lazy comparison, because it’s got an organ and maybe Siouxsie[-esque] vocals, but the sound that Rakta do is real. It’s real to them, and the sound they were meant to make. Sometimes there’s a magical thing that happens, and I’m not just saying that because we put it out. They streamlined what they had to work with and made it an original thing. They really write atmosphere. They write a vibe. They’re excellent.

When bands veer off the template it’s when they get interesting.

Total Control. [It] was crazy [that after getting a lot of press attention, Total Control stayed with Iron Lung. When we were talking to them about doing a second album, everybody was talking to them about doing a second album. It was weird for me, because I’m a small operation. It was crazy to think there’s one label in a basement who sends out all the packages themselves, and then there’s Matador and Sub Pop, who are still indie labels, but they have money and a pretty heavy catalog to back them up, and everybody knows them and they’re popular and everybody loves them. So there’s labels like that going after Total Control, and there’s me. I went to see them in Texas and was like, ‘Hey. You know I want to put out the second record. We’ve talked about it, and everybody is waiting for you to make a decision, and I’m not trying to pressure you, but I want you to know that it’s a thing that I would do and I would love to do it.’ I like the band, and I love the people. I’ve known them for years. They have the thing that great bands have. It’s funny because I know, at that show, Sacred Bones was there. Matador was there… I was like, ‘Dude, let’s do this.’ [They were] like, ‘Yeah. Cool.’

I sort of assumed Total Control did for you what The Offspring and Green Day did for Larry Livermore.

The Total Control record has allowed us to put out other, less popular records, some of which I still have many copies at the house. And I thank them for that.

What about new stuff coming out?

Latishia’s Skull Drawing. Two new LPs coming out, which are a good pairing. One is a band with two guys from The Ukiah Drag and Salvation called Latishia’s Skull Drawing. It’s a wild hardcore-infused noise rock record with trippy parts but it’s not like … actually, I don’t know what it’s not like. It doesn’t matter what it’s not like. It’s just good. It’s loud, and abrasive, and so good. Complex arrangements that sound really simple. I love it when bands can make it sound effortless to make insane music and this nails that perfectly. Ben Greenberg recorded it and it sounds fantastic.

Private Room. My band, Private Room—our first LP, Forever and Ever, is coming out. It’s also loud and…odd. [laughs] Our previous band was Walls, and it’s kind of the next step of what Walls would have been. We lost a singer, so the three of us carried on with the same approach. We will intentionally not write the hooky part, because it doesn’t matter if people get hooked. That’s not what we’re after. It’s abrasive and angry. It’s witty music. It’s not intellectual by any means but it’s not intentionally dumb either. We work really slow, but it’s worth it.

Anything else? What about the first thing you put out?

Lords of Light. I love this 7-inch. It got the worst reviews everywhere. MRR reviewed it, and I think I saved it. It was like, ‘I don’t get this at all. I can’t believe Iron Lung released this because this sucks.’ And I was like, ‘Great. We’ve made our statement.’

Big Crux. Talk about a band that doesn’t fit. This is a friend from the old days, Felix, from Life’s Halt. He sort of disappeared. The rumor was that he retired, had kids, had a normal life. He came to me and was like, ‘Check out these demos.’ And I was like, ‘Damn.’ It’s basically Big Boys and Minutemen sung in Spanish. We talked about it all the time, and he finally got the record together. It’s such a cool and honest record. That’s Felix at his core. They never caught a break which is too bad, because they were so good.

Dead Language. My absolute favorite. [It’s] me and Jon from Iron Lung, Nick [Turner] from Walls and Private Room, Dave Bailey from Gas Chamber, Greg [Wilkinson], who recorded it, and [Andrew Beattie,] the singer from No Comment and Man Is The Bastard. We were like, ‘He’s actually going to sing! This is crazy.’ So we put our all into it. And It sold a crapload. And we never even played a show. Which is a testament to how good the record is. If you’re going to make a record it should be a record you want to listen to. And we did it.

Did it take long for people to realize that you weren’t just going to be a powerviolence label?

It happened within the first five releases. It’s easy to expect a label that’s named after a band will release music that sounds like the band. And I intentionally didn’t do that. And it’s because I don’t like powerviolence. I obviously do. I think there’s other types of music out there, music I like. We always wanted to release records we wanted to listen to and records that would inspire us to make the music that we like. That was always our approach. People say, ‘There’s no focus to this label at all,’ but there really is. It’s stuff we like and it’s stuff we feel people should listen to. Not just hear it, but actually listen to it.

 

—Zachary Lipez

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