As a teenager growing up in the 90s, my introduction to punk was a game-changer that led me down a rabbit hole of musical discovery. After being exposed to SNFU, Dead Kennedys, and The Descendents from friends, I struck out on my own to find new, exciting punk bands in a very, very 90’s way: compilations. One that sticks out was Epitaph’s Punk-O-Rama Volume 1, which featured one of my favorite songs, My Wall by Ten Foot Pole. The song instantly made me a fan and I started to collect their records, new and old, and was lucky enough to get to see them live a handful of times. Fast forward a good 25 years and Ten Foot Pole is still going strong having released their first album of new songs in 15 years Escalating Quickly in 2019 and a stripped-down acoustic album Simmer Down on October 9th, 2020. With this return to new music and new releases, I’ve been provided the opportunity to discuss the band with founding member Dennis Jagard.
Ten Foot Pole has been around in different variations and lineups since the early 80s and you’ve written and recorded a lot of songs at that time. If you had to pick just one song to showcase the band, which one would get the honor of being the most quintessential Ten Foot Pole track and why?
That’s a very tough question, as I don’t think there is one… so I like to present a few tracks if at all possible, so people get an average. But if I had to pick one, I guess I’d say Scars from the Setlist album, as it has a nice mix of fast/heavy/slow and a strong melody and story/lyric.
Now to switch things up, which song is your favorite to play and why? What is the story behind how it was written?
Today I will say Don’t Be a Dick. I love the sing-a-long vibe with the audience screaming “dick dick dick dick” and that it is such a compelling, useful message. I was on tour doing sound for Jimmy Eat World, and the thought struck me and just seemed fun yet vital. I consider it a mantra for myself to remember and sing to myself when I’m tempted to escalate conflicts. Like if someone cuts me off while driving, or any situation where my gut instinct is to end them… I try to take a deep breath, sing the song to myself, and back away from the negative consequences that surely would follow if I hurt someone physically or emotionally. I knew it would be a good song when the first night I wanted to call my friend and say “Hey I was just thinking about you and wrote this great song! You’ll love it! It’s called Don’t Be a Dick!”
Although it’s cliché to ask, I’m still going to: what bands inspired your style to form Ten Foot Pole? Are there any new bands that continue to inspire you and the evolution of your sound?
We started as teenagers in the early 80s playing backyard punk parties, so we looked up to the amazing local bands, like Stalag 13, Ill Repute, Agression, etc. And then, on the side, I had a healthy helping of classic rock like Black Sabbath, Rush, and eventually new wave bands that were constantly raising the bar with their production and interesting ideas. But I can’t nail it down to one thing, I listened to parody music like “Weird Al” as well as musicals (I have 6 sisters…), and as a sound engineer I’ve worked for Prince, Beck, Rise Against, AFI, Jimmy Eat World and many more… so I’m sure those hours of exposure have affected my writing and performing aesthetic.
Your new album Acoustic features acoustic-driven songs – who would have guessed!? Some of those songs are brand new and some are acoustic versions of older tracks. Do you ever plan to “plug in” those new acoustic songs? How did you decide which songs to revisit? Were there any that didn’t quite make the cut and why?
The acoustic was driven by my touring lifestyle as a sound engineer. I wanted to be able to sing and play by myself, but the electric guitar just didn’t work for me as a solo instrument. I realized that playing and singing every day was a great break from the stress of my audio job, and developed new songs and ways of playing old songs, as well as getting used to playing in front of people in public—random as well as shows (eventually). As far as punkifying the acoustic songs, that is pretty typical of how I wrote many songs over the years, so that is easy… IF a song is worthy. Hard to say, but I think at least a couple from Simmer Down would be fun to play on stage or on a studio rocking album.
Deciding which old songs to redo was tricky. I wanted to do the most popular ones, as a gift to our long-time supporters that would want to hear songs that already were important to them, but I also wanted to keep things fresh, changing styles throughout the record and making enough changes in the song to make them fun to play—I didn’t want to just swap acoustic for electric guitar. For example, on The Getaway I changed it from a romping skate punk anthem to a melancholy introspective “goodbye cruel world” vibe with a wall of cellos tugging at my heartstrings and an extended refrain. There were a couple of older songs that didn’t make the cut this time, but maybe they will once we figure out a fresh approach that makes them compelling for us to play.
Naturally, the world is a gong show so the future for most musicians is up in the air. But, assuming we go back to a less socially distant normal at some point, what plans do you have for Ten Foot Pole’s future?
We’re charging ahead with plans to tour with the full band in Europe next summer, if possible. And, to make that happen, which requires rehearsals probably in Quebec, I’m floating plans to tour across Canada doing little backyard house parties or other tiny venue gigs to work my way from Boise to Quebec. I don’t know if it can happen, but I figure I’ll hope and plan for the best but prepare for the worst.
Speaking of the gong show with the pandemic, professional musicians have been hit hard by losing out on touring income. In your professional life, you’re a sound engineer who often tours with acts for work. Given that no one is touring, how have you been managing these past few months? How have you been spending your time?
Nearly all event-related jobs have just stopped. It wasn’t too shabby for a while, then the disaster relief ran out. My next real job is tentatively set for Fall of 2021, so I need to get by until then, at least. My wife stepped up and started working at an Amazon warehouse, grueling work to help pay the bills, to reduce our debt building each month. And I produced and mixed Simmer Down, the first record I took that level of control on. Usually we pay a producer to tell us “No!” when we have bad ideas. But on this record, it was all up to me, so if you hate anything… it’s pretty much my fault for letting it be on the record. Once that was done, after mostly playing/hearing acoustic guitar for a year I built up quite a yearning to rock, so we’ve been writing songs for the next rocking album, which I’m guessing will be ready by Spring/Summer 2021. All that happens around the real bosses of my house, our two dogs, who demand playtime and snacks quite frequently. And I’ve been “supervising” my teenagers who are remote-schooling.
The last time I experienced a live Ten Foot Pole show was…unique. I was in line waiting to enter a Jimmy Eat World show in Calgary and there was what I believed to be a busker playing an acoustic guitar near the door. When I got closer, I realized it was you performing old Ten Foot Pole tracks. I’ve been lucky enough to see the band a handful of times, but this was the most memorable time because of how unexpected it was. Is this something you usually do when waiting for shows to begin when on tour as an engineer or was Calgary treated to a unique experience?
I tried to play out on the streets before shows unless an artist doesn’t want me to. Usually people on the sidewalk by the door have been there for hours, so they usually consent to the punishment. At first I was too shy to step up like that, but gradually I got positive reinforcement for my playing, and built up the courage to try in front of people. For the most part, if I introduce myself and I’m nice, people react well. If they think I’m just a random creepy guy, they are usually defensive.
Between your time in Ten Foot Pole and your work as a sound engineer, you’ve spent a lot of the past 30+ years on the road which is a lot of experience. What is the best piece of advice you can provide any new bands who want to tour when touring is a thing that can be done again? What’s the craziest tour story you can share with us?
My best advice is to write great songs and really work on the craft before taking the plunge and hitting the road. Because people appreciate good music, and they ignore or hate mediocre stuff. And since touring is such a huge risk/sacrifice, you don’t want to be there before the music justifies the investment. If not many people are liking the recordings and videos, going on the road isn’t going to help unless you have some amazing gimmick that draws people in… and that is pretty rare.
The real crazy tour stories shouldn’t be repeated, but I’ll tell something I thought was clever. When I was doing sound for Prince, when we went to do the Superbowl in Miami there were a few other shows. One of them was an arena, with some tricky production issues. The tour manager, a real old pro, arranged to have a giant room full of Superbowl potential wardrobe set up in a room next to the venue… so when Prince got irritated with something on stage, which was not unusual given the huge amount of stress he was under, the tour manager wisely mentioned the room full of wardrobe for Prince to select what he would wear at the Superbowl while we worked out the problem. Genius! If you want to hear the real good stories, you need to come to an acoustic show where I often respond to questions, talk about lyrics, or monologue on any old subject.
As always, we like to ask our interviewees what is still on their bucket list to accomplish, but this time we’d like to double that question:
What is on the Bucket List that you’d like to accomplish with Ten Foot Pole in the future?
My goal is to get Ten Foot Pole and Ten Foot Pole acoustic to the point where I could tour into my old age, doing either rock shows or acoustic shows (where I also tell stories) even if it’s just in backyards or tiny venues… but sustainable so I could do it when I want, without losing money. I love the idea of being a grumpy old man, telling kids to get off the lawn and telling stories and singing my little songs, with the help of the audience… even if it’s a tiny gathering, it would be fun!
What is on your Bucket List or Wish List for who to work with in your professional life as a sound engineer?
I think it would be fun to work for a respected artist that lets me open the show with my acoustic act! I love going back and forth from being a technician to being the star… so the ultimate night would be performing, then switching hats to be the sound engineer for an artist I love! Probably the best would be in 1000 to 2000 seat theaters, as less pressure is often more fun than bigger shows. And theaters are great for acoustic because the audience is usually quiet, compared to clubs/bars/festivals.
In these trying times, don’t forget to support the artists you love like Ten Foot Pole. Check out tenfootpole.com for news, contact info, music, merch (including skate decks!), and info on their Patreon club to help musicians do what they do best – write the music that entertains us!
Written and Compiled by Ted Berger
*Edited by Dominic Abate