Tough Age play honest and melodic pop songs, I would like to elaborate on the “honest” part for just a moment. Theatrics in music are great and fun, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes you want to listen to something that you can emotionally connect with. Jarrett and his band seem like they’re in the same station in life as a lot of us are. They’re not singing about sipping Dom Perignon and dancing with strippers on a private yacht. That kind of silly garbage I can’t and most importantly don’t want to relate to. What I find refreshing is a man with real song writing talents picking up a guitar, turning it up loud, and singing about what he knows best: his own life and what he feels and thinks as he stumbles through it. That is honesty, charm and charisma and it spills out onto Tough Age records and on to the interview below.
Interview by J Castro
I first want to start off by saying thank you so much for your time and now if you would please introduce yourself and state your duties in Tough Age.
Jarrett: No problem. My time takes time sometimes, as you’ve seen, but it does exist. My name is Jarrett Evan Samson, or Jarrett K., or things like that, and I sing and play and do some other stuff for Tough Age.
What is the Tough Age origin story? How did you all meet and decide to play music together?
Jarrett: It’s about the dullest origin story you could have: I had another band, Korean Gut, and we broke up sort of right as things were starting to actually happen, so I started a new band! I had known everyone in Tough Age for a long time, and everyone was sort of between things at the moment. I’ve never auditioned a band member in my life and I never would, I just picked the person I wanted to hang out with and that’s the band. That’s an important step of band formation.
At an early age, whom or what influenced you to want to learn an instrument or write music?
Jarrett: It’s weird, I was talking the other day about how I owe all my life to Internet message boards, and it’s true. When I was 11, I got America Online and I used to hang out writing interactive stories about Zelda on the Nintendo of America forums. One of my friends on there lived in Seattle, and he mailed me a tape when I was about 13 of music he liked that all just happened to be mostly female-fronted punk music. My parents were pretty lenient but I remember being scared of them hearing what I was listening to, so I put it in my Walkman. The first song on the first side was “Dig Me Out” by Sleater-Kinney, and I listened to it probably 20 times in a row, jumping around my room. That quickly turned into soliciting other tapes from people, so I ended up being 13 and listening to stuff like Pussy Galore, Tiger Trap, cub, Bratmobile and Suburban Lawns (I wouldn’t actually put together that I knew Suburban Lawns until I heard Janitor again like 5 years ago). This is my ‘cool’ answer. My other answer is ‘Matthew Sweet and R.E.M’.
The thing is, while I played in some shitty bands in high school, but I didn’t actually really start writing music myself until I was about... 26? I just played in other people’s bands until then. I liked playing, but I didn’t have any confidence in myself due to a long childhood having it beaten out of me.
Can you recall the most bizarre or unexpected person or event that inspired a song out of you?
Jarrett: For the most part I write songs about two things: being upset with people and comic books. I guess the weirdest, or the one that changed the most, was “We’re Both To Blame.” When I started writing that song, it was a really angry ‘fuck you’ song directed at a friend. As I wrote the song the lyrics just kept changing until it ended up being about how I felt responsible for what had happened between us, that we both contributed to it and that I looked forward to being friends again. It’s really weird to listen to that song with that knowledge because the delivery and music is still pretty angry but yeah, the lyrics are just this cathartic realization of not painting anyone as a villain. That person remains one of my dear friends, maybe because of the song??
One of my favorite songs on your S/T LP is the song “Open It Up.” Tell me, is there a story behind it or what inspired the lyrics to it?
Jarrett: Hah, I could tell you exactly what that song is about but be warned it might ruin it! I wrote that song during the Korean Gut days when I was at a pretty dark point of my life. The first verse is about getting over yourself, being open and making a change, but in a way that carries an ‘everyone is sick of your shit you know’ mentality with it. The second verse is about trying to get over yourself by being a shitty dude and just fucking girls, being really bad at it and realizing you need to turn yourself into a human being who treats people with respect if you want them to even consider sleeping with you. The last verse is open to interpretation: I find it usually reveals who is a pessimist and who is an optimist. You can decide personally whether it’s about talking to someone, getting help, before you kill yourself, or just killing yourself. Okay, let’s talk about the sock-hop one now!
As far as fans interpreting your songs: MTV Hive thought the song, also from your S/T LP “The Heart of Juliet Jones” was such an outlandish concept. I kind of related it to any girl one is obsessed over and completely unable to ever be with. Does it bug you if people misinterpret your song lyrics or do you have the outlook that your music should mean whatever one wants it to mean for them?
Jarrett: Hah, no, it’s totally fine! I hope people interpret them in their own ways that maybe hopefully ascribe some meaning to themselves. I believe my lyrics straddle a line between being clever and really fucking stupid so I think people can take them either way. “Heart of Juliet Jones” those lyrics are incredibly dumb. I mean there are literally three lines in the song. That’s the whole thing! It’s DUMB. I think your interpretation is closer to the meaning of what I was going for though: it’s essentially just a big chorus stylistically. It’s the one thing over and over that you can’t dislodge, like when you’re obsessing over someone in your head. The comic book angle is something that’s easy for lazy journalists to inflate and I’m to blame as well for a bit of mythmaking to give them something to say about us. When I’m asked to sell myself or give myself an image, I can’t. I’m not anybody special, being in a band doesn’t make you worth more than anyone else, but the whole industry is built on that idea and it leads to me sometimes having difficulty figuring out what to say. It’s funny, we tried to pull a quote from that write up for our bio and, as you said, they don’t actually say ANYTHING about the song, they’re so focused on the idea of “I’m in love with a comic book” like it’s that fucking A-HA video or some shit. I just really love Stan Drake’s The Heart of Juliet Jones and I liked it as the name of a song in the sort of throwback style of that one. The worst was when I found out there was that other song of the same name but luckily it sucks. I was happy that MTV posted the 2-minute MS Paint job I did of its cover for our cover though.
This is usually the part when I ask people about their hobbies outside of music but I happen to know you’re a HUGE comic book fan, as both of us are here at Audio Ammunition! Guys that used to throw garbage at me for wearing Batman T-shirts in high school are now themselves wearing them smugly. How do you feel about the mainstreaming of the so-called “geek” culture?
Jarrett: I work in a comic shop, so I see these new comic bros every day, but the interesting reaction is that comic fans are going so far the other way to compensate and becoming infinitely unbearable as well. For every dude in a Heath Ledger Joker t-shirt there’s the guy who wants to explain to me why John Pertwee is the best Doctor and I’ve never even watched that show. I try to focus on the positive of it becoming more acceptable. I saw a normal, run of the mill teenage girl on the street yesterday just casually wearing a full comic-style Hawkeye mask on her head. That is insane! We live in a world where I am so spoiled there is a S.H.I.E.L.D TV show created by Joss Whedon on the air and I don’t even watch it because I think it’s terrible! That’s almost like a gift.
I grew up reading comics as a real solitary passion, because I didn’t have friends who dug them. I still have very few friends who are into comics, actually. I just got back from San Diego, and I always go with my friend Alex who’s pretty much the only person I ever talk to about comics recreationally. Because of all this, it’s pretty easy for me to just turn off and ignore comic bros, especially given my day job. The one thing that really bums me out is that all these ‘normal’ people digging comics doesn’t help the creators. Guardians of the Galaxy is going to make a billion dollars and Bill Mantlo, who requires round the clock help, won’t see a penny. That stuff sucks the most.
I’m going to digress and pick on comic people instead-- there’s this really prevalent thing I see comic fans do, where they see something they’re excited about and kind of fake-hyperventilate over it. It’s the worst. Stop that.
Now with that being said what has been your favorite cinematic adaptation of a comic book character or storyline and who in your opinion is the most underrated character or characters in comics that deserve a shot on the silver screen?
Jarrett: I’m going to be a loser and say Captain America: The Winter Soldier, because I watched that shit twice in a week and I loved it so much. It felt like the first movie was to really occupy the universe in the right way, it had a ‘single issue’ arc at the beginning of the film before the bigger one, Arnim Zola was cool, and I loved it. As for underrated-- oh man, so many. Part of me dreads if they ever try to make a Concrete movie, but I’d love to see it. I think Fox has the rights to Namor, so my expectations are low, but fuck I want to see a Namor movie. Black Panther, for sure, and I’m excited he’s rumored for the next wave. T’Challa is the best.
Ok, so now back to the music universe. What band or musician do you feel is grossly underrated and deserves more adoration and respect?
Jarrett: Needles//Pins should be the most popular band in the world. Those guys. I’ve been pushing Toy Love, and Chris Knox in general, on people pretty hard. Toy Love is starting to get some attention with the recent reissues, but Chris Knox is just the most inspiring musician in the world to me, and Toy Love just never stops surprising me, no matter how familiar I am with the songs. Same goes for a lot of the New Zealand scene, and people should move past The Clean, Bats, Chills and Verlaines and explore the rest of what the Flying Nun scene has to offer. Also, Dad Jokes they’re new, but they’re also from New Zealand and they rule.
The Mice are another band I love that never seem to get mentioned, Dream Date has a straight Mice tribute vocal hook in it, and I love that band so much. Scat reissued all of their stuff on CD probably ten years ago, but I don’t think anything else has been reissued.
I’m also going to mention Matthew Sweet again, because he wrote so many amazing, amazing songs, and if he had recorded them onto a fucking boom box they would still be revered but he remains pretty ignored. Some of the best pop songs of all time out of that guy, and a band consisting of guys like Robert Quine, Richard Lloyd, and Ric Menck, that shit is insane. So: MATTHEW SWEET.
I was reading a post on your Facebook page where you commented about how much Jay Reatard influenced you. In his documentary Better Than Something he mentioned only having a small window in life when inspiration will come through and this being the reason he was such a prolific songwriter. Do you agree with that philosophy?
Jarrett: I think there’s a lot of truth to it, but maybe there are a few windows to push different kinds of inspiration out into the world. Like, you may not have anything more to say musically, but then you might find another venture that inspires you, and something else to create. Jodorowsky was like that-- he was done cinematically so he moved to comics and produced some amazing work there. I think for most people, it’s the routine and the complacency that kills their creativity, so by moving around, trying different things, you can find it again. But sometimes you’re just creating for the sake of it, and I think for many people that moment arrives sooner than they ever would have anticipated, and then you get a band like U2 where, like, why the fuck do you exist? Why have you even played music since 1989? Why can I go and see Black Flag on tour in 2014? It’s not because of the desire to create anything but profit. Jay was and is certainly an inspiring figure to me in both his music and his approach to making music and I feel very lucky I got to see him play a few times and see that dedication in person.
If Tough Age could be remembered throughout the ages for only one song which song would you like it to be and why?
Jarrett: I’d like other people to pick, both for whether they remember it at all and whatever it is. But I’m okay with being forgotten.
Where can people go to listen to or buy your music?
Jarrett: Our LP came out on Mint Records, and you can get a physical copy over there: mintrecs.com. We have the album up on our Bandcamp if you want to listen to it or buy it digitally here: tough-age.bandcamp.com. We also have a 7” I keep calling the “Bubblegum Subversion” coming out this year on the Mammoth Cave Recording Company and then our next LP should be out early 2015.
What else does Tough Age have going on for the rest of the year?
Jarrett: Recording more, writing more, and buckling down. We’re just finishing up some recordings with our friend Felix Fung, who played in Chains of Love and has recorded more amazing records than I could list here, at his studio Little Red Sounds. We’re recording a couple of records with Jay Arner again at the end of the month that will come out next year including a Record Store Day thing and I’m excited for those. The new record should be finished up with Felix by the end of October, and we’re already planning some big touring news around the release of the next one. Making the most of what little we have. That’s our way of life.