Ten Foot Pole – ‘Our new stuff is more fun to listen to’

Words: Miljan Milekić

You can’t really talk about the ’90s punk rock, or skate punk, without mentioning Ten Foot Pool. A string of a few strong records turned them into a staple in the scene for years. After a turbulent period, back in 2019, the band released their new album ‘Escalating Quickly,’ their first new music in 15 years, which we were happy to discuss with the band’s leader Dennis Jagard. Three years later, in October 2022, they released the brand new record ‘Winning,’ which they will be bringing to their Canadian fans this September and October. So it was a perfect time to catch up with Dennis once again. Check our new interview below.

Welcome to Canada! You announced a huge cross-country tour with more than 20 dates. How are the preparations going, and what can we expect from you on these shows?
Dennis: Thank you! It’s going great. I’m super excited ’cause we’re playing a lot of small places where we normally have trouble finding promoters who wanna put on a show and who will take the risk. We always have people saying – “Oh, you gotta come to our town!” – but it really depends on a promoter being willing to take the chance on the show and if they have confidence that there will be enough ticket sales. So we’re just grateful that we had 20 full Ten Foot Pole shows. And then, of course, I played a bunch of acoustic shows too. I still have a few left – acoustic shows, house parties, and stuff.

Yeah, that’s one of the things we only realized once we moved to Canada – how big it is, and how apart cities are, compared to Europe.
Dennis: Yeah, it’s different. The US is like that too – it takes all day to cross Texas. (laughs) Australia’s even tougher. In some parts of Australia, it takes two days to cross it. It’s just a huge amount of land and cities are mostly on the outside of the continent.

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You mentioned that you already had a chance to road-test some of the acoustic shows in both Canada and the US. How did that go, and how does it feel to be able to do it again, this time as a full band?
Dennis: It feels great ’cause I missed the guys for one thing. Part of being in the band is the camaraderie of hanging out together, going on the road, and playing shows. And it had been a few years – of course, with the pandemic, we were forced apart. But then, last year, I was working for more than six months with one artist, and it was hard to even plan anything. So it’s been great to finally get together and see the guys and start working on how we sound as a band.

And the acoustic shows and playing new songs and, that also has been great. The cool thing about acoustic shows is, since it’s just me, I have less expenses so I can play little tiny places. I’ve been playing at people’s houses and backyards, and by making it so humble, so modest, even if there are only 30 people there, it can be an amazing, fun time. It’s kind of like I’m bringing the show to you, rather than you having to go downtown and look for parking, get a babysitter, pay a lot of money for booze, or possibly be in a club that has a dirty bathroom. It’s cool to go to shows, but it’s also cool to just stay at your house. And then I show up and set up a big sound system and the show, and you just have the booze that you bought cheap at Costco or whatever, and your kids can be there.

It’s a way to do it both ways. We have the band for the big, loud, downtown shows, and we have the acoustic for the intimate experience. It’s still me singing and you hear the songs, maybe even better because there’s not a lot of noise, no drums bashing, and distorted guitars. Some people like it better, and I like change. Sometimes it’s fun to be loud, and sometimes it’s fun to be soft. So, for me, it’s been very satisfying to be able to play acoustically and have people sing along, especially when kids sing along. It’s fun to see families having fun together. The other day I just confirmed my first wedding. (laughs) Ten Foot Pole acoustic, not cover songs. (laughs) Yeah. So I’m excited about that. You know, for people who like my songs, it’s a great way to have a really intimate viewing, we have nice merch too, so it’s a chance for people to save money on shipping, and be able to buy stuff like skate decks and vinyl right there.

And since you mentioned skateboards, one of the shows on this tour will be at Cumberland Cinema Skatepark in Thunder Bay, which I wish I could be there for. Are skatepark shows any different for you than typical club shows, and do you change your approach a bit when you play places like that?
Dennis: Skate park shows can be interesting, especially while you’re setting up during the day and people are still skating around. There’s a lot of noise and the possibility of getting a skateboard suddenly flying at your head. (laughs) That’s happened before. (laughs) But, it’s also fun to be around a sport that’s so aggressive. At least in our history, skating and punk rock have gone together for a long time, so I feel comfortable.

We were on some of the early skateboarding video games and compilations. In fact, I think we’re on a German one that’s just coming out. It’s called VR Skater, and it’s a virtual reality skate game. So I’m pretty excited about that. The song ‘Boogieman’ is gonna be on there. And I think it’s a pretty big game. You know, I just get emails like – “Hey, can we use your song?” And sometimes it’s a big company, and sometimes it’s like a kid wanting to use it for a school project. I pretty much always say yes. Unless they’re like, strangling puppies or something, I’m probably gonna be okay with it. So, that makes playing at skate parks fun, too. There might be people there who didn’t know about us before, but played a video game and know us from there. At the end of the day, I write songs, and some of these are like 30 and 40 years old now. (laughs) And if people like the songs, and care about them, I’m just glad to be there.

And it must be great to have a career like that, and still be there, recording and playing music after 30 years.
Dennis: Yeah, it is a great feeling. Although career is a tricky word. (laughs) Sometimes it’s more of an investment. Or at least that’s what I’m telling my wife. (laughs) I’m investing in the band again. (laughs) The definition of a business is that there’s supposed to be an expectation of profit, and I don’t know if there’s an expectation, but we’re certainly trying to write songs and create stuff that’s good enough to make a profit. But it’s also easy to spend money, and be like – “Okay, let’s plan a trip to Europe,” and the airplane tickets are gonna cost more than the guarantees for the shows. (laughs) So it’s a challenge, but I just love doing it, and as long as it’s fun… I’m grateful that I have an audio career where I do sound for big artists, and that’s profitable enough to basically cover a lot of the losses in the Ten Foot Pole business.

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It’s been almost a year now since the release of ‘Winning.’ How happy are you with the feedback from this time distance?
Dennis: I’m really happy that our audience seems to love it. And playing acoustic shows, some people are already singing along to some songs. I’m also very proud of it ’cause it was the first rock record that I mixed and produced. I’m the singer and rhythm guitar player – some leads, but mostly rhythm. On previous albums, we paid a producer, basically to tell me “no.” (laughs) “No, don’t do that. That’s a terrible idea. You should do it like this.” (laughs) And on this album, I decided I wanted to take that responsibility myself. I’m gonna be the one who says “yes” or “no” on things.

So I made the record just how I thought it would sound the best – the sound of it, and the editing of the songs, to try to keep it interesting and exciting. Of course, encouraged everybody in the band to write and embellish the parts, but at the end of the day, I was the one who said “cool” or “not cool.” You know, “Let’s do that. Do that, but we’ll do this at the beginning of the song, and then in the bridge, we’ll change it.” So I’m really excited that people seem to like the album. It gives me confidence going forward that I don’t have to hire a producer.

Yeah, I mean, at this point you have enough experience to know what you want from a record.
Dennis: But it’s still tricky. People say that the artist is the one who doesn’t know which of their songs is the single because they’re so close to the work. Even Prince – he wanted to put out an album with 40 or 50 songs, and people weren’t into it. The Smashing Pumpkins did that. So, some people think that you need a producer outside the band, to look at it and say that no, not all 60 of those songs are amazing and that you need to take the best 12 of them and put it out. So, it’s a challenge, even if you have experience, just because of your perspective as an artist. But with ‘Winning,’ I think we got a nice collection that people have reacted really well to. I’m excited to play it live, ’cause I think it will be fun to see people responding. Hopefully, they know the new songs.

You know, there are always some people who are only interested in albums that came out when they were 14 years old, ’cause that’s when they were listening to music all the time. And I get that because when I was 14, I would wake up, and I already had music going. I would take a shower, and I had a little boombox in the bathroom. Getting ready, I was listening to music all the time. So, those songs are really important. But as an artist, I can’t change the past. I just keep making new stuff, hoping that new people, who still listen to music, get interested in it. I’m happy whether people listen to our old or new stuff, but it’s particularly fun when they still give a good listen to the new music. In my opinion, I feel like I’m getting better as a songwriter and as a singer. And to me, the new stuff is more fun to listen to.

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The new record comes three years after ‘Escalating Quickly,’ which was the first album of new music for your band in almost 15 years. And for me personally, ‘Winning’ might be an even better record than ‘Escalating Quickly.’ In my opinion, it’s more cohesive, more energetic, and offers even stronger songs than its predecessor. How different was the songwriting process for this record?
Dennis: That’s a good question. If I recall, I wrote a lot of the songs on ‘Escalating Quickly’ on acoustic guitar and then translated them into rock songs. Then I got tired of acoustic guitar, ’cause I was playing a lot. So, for ‘Winning,’ I switched over to electric guitar. And that’s just one of the differences. Songs like ‘Can We Stop Trying to Win?’ – I wrote that on an electric guitar, so maybe that affected it to have more shredding, more thrash, palm-muted metal parts. I think that that had something to do with it.

I think it has a lot of the same elements, but it’s just a little more refined. Part of it may be that the focus of ‘Escalating Quickly’ was more relaxed, and kind of a collection of things I wrote over the years. I wrote a lot of the songs on that record while I was on the road. I remember writing ‘I Hate The Night’ when I was on tour with Jimmy Eat World as a sound engineer. A lot of those songs were written alone at a hotel with my acoustic guitar while on the road. And ‘Winning’ – as soon as I finished ‘Simmer Down,’ the acoustic record, I started playing electric guitar at home, writing songs. So, it was maybe a year of focusing on that. And the other guys did it as well. Scott Hallquist wrote a few of the songs. And you can tell Scott’s songs ‘cause of these heavier, more metal-sounding guitars.  So, I think it has to do with focus and trying to really buckle down, and write a rocking album. ‘Escalating Quickly’ was experimental in some ways. Stuff like inviting guest guitarists to come in and play, and lots of little texture guitars. With ‘Winning’ we went back to the basics – mostly strong rhythm guitars. Some texture, but a lot of rhythm guitars and focus on the songs.

‘Winning’ also seems slightly more angry and aggressive than the previous record. Where did that come from? Was it a conscious decision, or just a natural process?
Dennis: I don’t know if I would say angry, but maybe there’s more frustration in modern life. ‘Escalating Quickly’ was written on the road, and I had more sad times. It’s funny, I’m thinking beyond what I normally do ’cause you’re asking this, but it wasn’t that I sat down and said – “Okay, now I’m gonna write about this.” But ‘Escalating Quickly’ was a little more about the loss, whereas ‘Winning’ was a little more angry and bitter. I guess. (laughs) I don’t really think of it as an angry record. Songs like ‘Boogeyman’ – even ‘though it’s about personal demons, it’s still very poppy and fun to me. ‘Fuck Around And Find Out’ too, for example. Even if the lyrics are pretty dark, they are still very poppy-sounding songs.

Ten Foot Pole / Photo: Gabrielle Guite

I know that your work on Ten Foot Pole is a constant juggling between working on your music, and your job as a live sound engineer which means that you are often on tours with other artists. However, the last couple of years were everything but normal for the music industry, especially live shows. As someone who was directly affected by the lockdowns, quarantines, and travel restrictions, how challenging was it to go through times of uncertainty like those?
Dennis: I’m grateful that, in some ways, I’m very privileged and very lucky that I had several factors helping me. One is that I’m an introvert, so as soon as they said that there was a pandemic, I was like – “Oh good, I get to go live in my cave and not talk to anyone. I’m just gonna be a hermit, and have no social interactions with humans, besides my family.” So part of me was looking forward to just sitting here and writing songs, and working on my projects. And of course, part of that was possible because the government gave relief funds. I was really aggressive with going out and applying for loans ’cause you know, both Ten Foot Pole and my audio business are businesses. I’m not just an employee, I have to go out and be a business and do all those business things. So luckily there was government support to keep the economy going and to keep food coming in. I’m also really grateful that my wife was working at Amazon. She was doing crippling work, and hurting her back, but she was what they called essential workers. So, even during the pandemic she was working and bringing home her paycheck.

So I made ‘Simmer Down’ the acoustic record. One of the reasons I made that was because when I was doing sound, I always was kind of curious about recording. I’m a live sound engineer, and I do or did sound for artists like Weird Al Yankovic, Jimmy Eat World, and Prince. So one time, Prince asked me if I ever made a record. I said that I’ve been an artist on a record, but I’m not a recording engineer. I’m a live sound engineer, and I was proud of myself, and my specialty was doing concerts. And he was like – “Well, you should make a record.” (laughs) So during the pandemic, I took that advice. And, you know, for my audio business, I like to invest too, sometimes into education. So I could sit around and try to learn how to use mixing boards or learn about things like networks and all modern technology. But the reality of the pandemic was that if I didn’t use it within two years, I’d forget anything that I learned.

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So, instead of just sitting around and studying for something that I would just forget, I completely switched over into artist mode and made a record as Prince recommended. So, I was using sound equipment, even ‘though not for concerts. I was still working with equalizers and compression, at an even higher level than concerts. When you’re recording you’re going for perfection, whereas at concerts, you’re doing the best with what you got. You’re trying to make it happen, and once it’s done, it’s done. With recording, if it doesn’t sound good, you start over and do whatever it takes to make it sound good. So, making ‘Simmer Down,’ which was my first record ever, and the first acoustic Ten Foot Pole record, was a cool project where I could just really focus on audio. I spent a year making that record, learned a lot, and kept my mind busy. And even though I wasn’t out doing social things or doing concert tours, with the government’s help and my wife’s help with funding, I was able to sit around, writing and recording acoustic songs.

So, I’m grateful that I had a chance to switch gears rather than just be depressed. There were depressing factors to it, but I had a goal every day, to make this project. I spent a lot of time with my family and my dogs. I’m getting older, and most of my life has been – work, work, work, work, work, little bit of family, work, work, work, family, work, work, work, family, work, work, work, work, work. And the pandemic was like – stop the work and focus on the family for a while, which was pretty cool. Of course, I worked on the acoustic record. (laughs) But that’s my nature, that’s what I’m used to. Then also, luckily, near the end of the pandemic, I had local customers who turned their venues into restaurants and still played shows. So I actually had a job during the pandemic, where I was doing sound for very small concerts, but it was still at a bar where somebody appreciated me and my skills. So, even while I was making ‘Winning,’ I was still working at a bar, four days a week.

And how much of the record was actually written or recorded during the pandemic?
It was definitely fully written during the pandemic, but I don’t remember the exact timing of the recording. The drums were recorded in Quebec. I wasn’t there when the drums were recorded. Basically, I wrote the songs, built demos, and then showed them to the drummer. He did the drums, then I and the other guitarist put the guitars down, and then the bass player did bass at his home in Portland. Then I prepared all the tracks and sang to it. It was months of work. It went past the pandemic, but it certainly started during. ‘Simmer Down’ was fully recorded and released during the pandemic, and I started playing the electric guitars and writing ‘Winning’ right after ‘Simmer Down’ was done recording.

And, with the band being located all over the place, including Boise, Portland, and Quebec, how hard is it to get together, and do band stuff, including tours?
Dennis: Well, it’s very expensive to get us all together. (laughs) In this case, I drove across the US playing acoustic shows and brought equipment for the band with me. Renting a van is super expensive, so a few years ago I bought a van. It was a crazy silly investment, but I thought that if I didn’t have a van that had beds in it, I would never tour. You know,  if you look at a tour, and the van will cost $7,000 to rent, it would just blow the tour out of the water. You just can’t do it. So I bought one with the knowledge that there’s no way I would tour if I didn’t have a van. Luckily for me, I’ve been able to work the debt of the van into the debt of my mortgage and make it manageable. So, it’s super expensive to get the band together, with the cost of the vehicle and driving across the country, but because I love doing acoustic shows, doing acoustic house parties across the US was a rather fun idea. (laughs)

Basically, I spent weeks getting to Quebec, but I’m here now, rehearsing with the band. And while we’re in Quebec, me and the bass player, are lucky enough to have a record label that’s hosting us and letting us stay at their house. People Of Punk Rock Records, who’s been an angel investor in Ten Foot Pole, and we couldn’t do this without their support. So, we rented a room and we’re rehearsing almost every day because I didn’t want to go out and play shows unless we were really good. We got in-ear monitors for the first time on this tour, and now we can hear each other better. All the guys are singing now, which is cool. It was too hard for everyone to sing before because people couldn’t hear each other. All the guys can sing, but when you’re in a club, and it’s all noisy and drums bashing, you can’t hear each other enough to sing. So I’m really excited to get out so that you guys can hear the sweet voices of our drummer and bass player who never sang before at our shows.

I know this is a hard question for you, given all the different things you do in life, but with the record out, and tours underway, what is next for Ten Foot Pole?
Dennis: I think we’ll go to Europe next. I say “I think” ’cause I didn’t buy the tickets yet. (laughs) Booking is always a challenge, and I will say I’m super grateful that we found a Canadian booking agent – Steve Rawles of Merit-Based Booking. He booked this tour, and he did an amazing job. To be able to get 20 Ten Foot Pole shows across Canada is really cool. We were hoping to do something like that in Europe, but it’s tough. You can get one show in London, but that’s not enough to pay for the ferry to France, so, you know, how do we do it? But now that we’re rehearsed and we’re ready, we could play anywhere. We’re open to offers from Japan and Australia, as well as Europe and the US.

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And then with my audio career, Man With A Mission called, and they want me in early next year for a little bit, so I’m excited to work with them. They’re the wolf-head band from Japan. Just amazing pop, metal, punk, whatever it is, just amazing music. If you haven’t seen them, I recommend you to go to one of their shows, it’s just amazing. I have a lot of different artists that I’ve worked with in the past that could call me. I don’t know if Weird Al is touring next year. You never know in that business, what’s gonna happen next. But I’m just excited that we can say that we’re ready. In the past, sometimes people would call and be like – “Hey, somebody dropped out of our festival, can you come and play?” And I couldn’t say yes because the band needed a few weeks of rehearsals to be comfortable playing. And now we’ve seen each other for the first time in four years. (laughs) And now we’re ready, and we’re clicking.

I’m not sure what’s gonna happen next year. The punk industry and music industry have shifted a lot to where it’s difficult to get people to go to clubs, but festivals are doing great. Maybe that’s why I go to their houses with the acoustic shows. (laughs) But sometimes, even people who love a band might not go to a club, but they’ll go to a festival. So we have to shift our business to be more available in festival season, which is hard for me as a sound engineer ’cause that’s also when I get the most calls. So it’s challenging, but now that Ten Foot Pole is ready, if we get enough festival offers, then I’m willing to do it. So if there’s any festival out there that wants us for next year, please don’t be shy! (laughs)

And when you say you’re ready, it holds some weight, as your definition of ready might be different than some other people’s, because of the work you do.
Dennis: I wanna be great. You know, it’s live music, so anything could happen. There could be problems. You could be sick. There are so many different things that could fail. But, at least with the things that are in our control, like how prepared we are, I want them to be great. Even the acoustic shows – it’s a way for me to work on remembering my lyrics. If I practice by myself, I might think I know all the lyrics, but then if I play in front of people, I get distracted, and I realize I don’t know them as well as I need to. Playing acoustic shows, it’s a chance for me to practice in front of people so my brain gets used to those distractions. And then, when I’m in front of thousands of people at a festival, I hope – knock on wood – that the lyrics all pop into my brain at the right time. Because we can’t afford to hire a teleprompter. (laughs)

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*Interview edited for length and clarity

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