Ten Foot Pole got its start back in the 80’s in the Oxnard hardcore (Nardcore) scene under the Scared Straight moniker with releases on the infamous Mystic Records, and cross-country touring with the likes of NOFX and Ill Repute. They then shed their name for the more fun Ten Foot Pole just in time for the 1994 underground hit album ‘Rev’ on Epitaph Records and they haven’t really slowed down since.
Until now that is.
‘Simmer Down’ is an acoustic guitar-driven album featuring both new tunes and reimagined fan favorites. The old songs often come with a drastically different vibe than the distorted original recordings while the new tunes offer a glimpse into the writing process, presenting songs in a clear, intimate setting.
We caught up with with vocalist/guitarist Dennis Jaggard to talk about the new album, which will be out this Friday on People of Punk Rock Records and Bearded Punk Records.
PRT: You have released quite a number of albums over the years. How did you go about selecting the songs you wanted to reimagine for ‘Simmer Down’?
Dennis: We wanted to include the TFP “hits” as a gift to our old fans, and also to lure them into listening to the new songs, in hopes they would love them too. But we also wanted everytying to be interesting, to fans and also to us while performing, so we tried reimagining songs, not just replacing electric with acoustic guitars, but trying different guitar figures, song arrangements, even new parts, with a goal of making a record that was interesting from start to finish, and beautiful sounding. But ultimately our favorite versions made it to the record for various reasons—for example, Don’t Be a Dick isn’t radically different, but it’s such a fun song to play with audience sing-a-longs at acoustic gigs, and it has such a vital message, that I wanted an acoustic version to be part of our catalog.
PRT: Some of the songs have a very different vibe compared to the original. How much of a challenge was it to take these songs that you have been playing a certain way for years and then rearrange them into something else?
Dennis: For the last couple of years, most of the TFP acoustic shows we did were fairly aggressive, like our rock show. But when I started recording acoustic demos, I realized that the hard/fast strumming on acoustic guitar created lots of noises, buzzes and less than musical results. So I started trying different approaches, with the goal of making a record that sounds beautiful, like trying to channel Beck. It became really fun when ideas worked out, for example I love playing Numb (an upbeat dancey sounding tune on Escalating Quickly), as a latin vibe melancholy/minor wistful tune with a bit of Hotel California style. Even just converting hardcore songs like Scars into beautiful tunes with guitar arpeggios and smooth backing vocals was very satisfying.
PRT: Are there songs that you tried your hand at but that didn’t feel right/work out?
Dennis: There were a few where fresh ideas didn’t pop up, even for songs that I really liked; but I’m not mad to have a big list of tunes available for future projects. I really wanted to use the song Getaway, but it just felt boring to play it like we did on Insider and then again on Setlist... until the moment I had the idea of an extension of the chorus played over changing guitar chords underneath. And suddenly the wistful slow Getaway was born! It became fun to play. And then to push it even further, we used cello instead of bass, and then the cellist was so good, and did a bunch of parts, that it evolved into a full orchestra of cellos pulling at our hearts. For sure, of the old songs, The Getaway is the one I’m most proud of... and would love to see the reactions from our fans hearing that for the first time.
PRT: What is something you get from playing acoustic that you don’t have when rocking out? And the other way round?
Dennis: I feel like on acoustic songs, especially live, every word is heard and the emotion is conveyed more, because of less noise filling up the space around the vocals. The rock show is more like a party, with all kinds of noise and energy competing for attention, while the acoustic is more stripped down, allowing me to focus on individual parts more. Especially live, where I often don’t have drums, I can slow the songs way down, and play and sing really quiet... so there are more dynamics availalbe to me. Or also I can stop mid song and start a monologue explaining something about the lyrics or a random thought, for better or worse :)
PRT: Am I wrong in assuming that the title ‘Simmer Down’ is not just referring to the music but also serves as a piece of advice for everyone?
Dennis: It was meant more about the music than any kind of command or social commentary. After Escalating Quickly and the thirty plus years of rocking history, including Scared Straight before we changed our name to Ten Foot Pole, we thought it was time try something mellow. Simmering is a cooking terms where something is kept under low heat for a long time, which makes the flavor more concentrated as water evaporates. I imagined the acoustic versions of songs being a condensed, stronger presentation of the core lyrics and ideas.
PRT: I read that you are working on a new album as well. Will the new songs on ‘Simmer Down’ make their way on the new album in full-fledged Ten Foot Pole songs?
Dennis: After about a year focusing on acoustic guitar, we build up a real appetite for distortion and loud drums! I’m glad to say the new songwriting is going well, but it’s too soon to say if we’ll do a rocking version of any acoustic tunes. Lots of new ideas are popping up, so I don’t know if there will be room for a redo... though I bet even if nothing makes it to the record, we’d be tempted on a rock tour to play a song or two, for fun.
PRT: You mentioned that sometimes you ‘prefer the intimacy, sound and freedom of a stripped-down acoustic presentation, without all the distortion and bashing cymbals that can hide the vocal and guitar nuances that bare the soul of a song’. Is that growing older and realizing that slowing down every now and again is okay as well?
Dennis: Part of it may be from getting old, though maybe it’s more that our audience is getting older and has been willing to embrace that option. I’ve always dabbled in genre shifts—I loved rocking music as a kid, but still even like with Kiss playing Beth, Radiohead playing Fake Plastic Trees, or Jimmy Eat World playing Hear You Me, often my favorite songs were the mellow versions. I can’t listen to a Nirvana rock album from start to finish without getting fatigued, but I can listen to their unplugged record easily.
PRT: You also produced the album, which I think was a first for you? What was that like taking on these two roles, being both the artist and the producer?
Dennis: I worked as a concert sound engineer for Prince in 2006-2007, and one time he recommended that I make records. I’m glad I finally got the chance, and had a willing artist, to try that! On other TFP albums more or less we’ve delegated responsibility to other people—basically a producer is someone that you pay to tell you “No” so you don’t screw up your album. On Escalating Quickly we delegated a lot of choices to Ryan Greene, and most of them he knocked out of the park, including he played a bunch of keyboard parts, to add new flavors to the typical TFP sound. But, as I’ve learned over the years, I thrive from changing things up, and it seemed like a good time to try being a control freak. On this record I made the decisions—which solos to use, which backing vocals to use, song arrangements, even which musicians to use (guest guitar, cello and bass player for example), how loud the vocal should be, the sound of everything, if or when to allow cymbal hits... everything! So if people hate this record, it really is my fault—but luckily, so far we’ve had lots of nice reviews.
PRT: I imagine you can keep on tinkering with a song for as long as you want, especially if you don’t have a strict deadline? Or is there always a moment when you know it’s finished?
Dennis: We didn’t have a deadline, which gave me the freedom to fail... and try again. But also I wanted to get it done and move on to a rock record, which we’re trying to have ready before we are scheduled to tour in the Spring/Summer. There was a time I thought things were done or nearly done, though I’d be open to submissions if my guys sent new ideas. And after a while of polishing, it seemed ready. I mean, it would be easy to keep tinkering, but also I was so proud I wanted to share...
PRT: Everything ground to a halt this year. There is no touring with Ten Foot Pole or as concert audio technician with other acts. What has 2020 been like for you? Obviously you have kept yourself busy with ‘Simmer Down’ and writing new songs.
Dennis: Yes, the original plan for Simmer Down was to record it ourselves then send to a mixer, but when the pandemic hit, I invested in better computer gear with the intention to try mixing it myself. The plan was to try, and learn a lot along the way, which I thought would help my live sound career in the long run... spending ten hours or so every day, listening/tweaking. So I started with that approach, knowing I had lots of time to fail and learn, and that ultimately I could still send the tracks to a “real” mixer to rescue me if my mixes sucked. But eventually it got to a point where I was proud of the mixes, and where I was doing a lot of things that would have been difficult to explain to an outside mixer, and it just made sense to go forward. And I’m glad I did, as I think it sounds pretty good, and it was a perfect chance for me to stretch and to add something I’m proud of to my list of jobs accomplished.
PRT: About those new songs... what can you already tell us about the new Ten Foot Pole album?
Dennis: It is going to be aggressive, probably a bit more raw than Escalating Quickly. So far the songwriting is a combination of my roots from 80’s punk, where Scared Straight grew up in the Nardcore (Oxnard Hardcore) scene with bands such as Aggression, Ill Repute and Stalag 13, and our 90’s skatepunk origins, mixed with some more interesting rhythms and other things we’ve wanted to try. I’m pretty excited to be working on new stuff, always hoping to write songs that blow people’s minds! Of course, to keep in the loop, we’d love if people check tenfootpole.com for news, music links, skate decks (and other merch), and info about our Patreon plan/benefits.