Where Are They Now? Jonah Jenkins of Only Living Witness
As far as metal’s unsung heroes go, Jonah Jenkins is legendary. As the sonorous voice behind Only Living Witness he was an architect of the shape of hardcore to come. Witness infused the then-lunkheaded Boston hardcore sect with melody and introspection that their peers sorely lacked. With Miltown, an aggregation that included future star producers Brian McTernan and Matt Squire, he dallied with the mainstream, signed to a major label and made a record that now sits shelved and unheard in a hermetically sealed Warner Bros tape vault. The experience left him not only frazzled and fed-up, but it pushed him the make the music he wanted to make – on his terms and his terms alone.
Now with two active bands, Milligram (the stony and heavy one) and Raw Radar War (the brutal, crusty one), Jonah has remained a name on metal’s roll call of unheralded greats. Ask fellow Massachusetts noise-bringers Converge, who had him contribute to the track “Grim Heart/Black Rose” on their 2006 album No Heroes. 36 Crazyfists also had him guest on a track on their Rest Inside the Flames album. Shadows Fall even covered the Witness track, “December.”
Noisecreep recently sat down with Jonah to catch up on his past, present and how he’s planning to fuck up your eardrums in the very near future.
What have you been up to recently?
The most recent endeavor has been the Milligram reunion. We had few different shows. We opened for Kyuss. We played at Tommy from Solace’s wedding. We also played a couple of Milligram reunion shows in Boston that went really well. The 10 year anniversary of our (2002 album) This Is Class War is coming up. We were gearing up to record some new stuff with Andrew Schneider but the flooding in Brooklyn wiped out his studio so that’s going to be delayed for all bit My latest project has been Raw Radar War. Just sort of noisy and grotesque music. We’ve been writing a new album. It’s all a bunch of friends playing together so whatever happens with it happens. A new album probably won’t be done until the spring but we press so few of them it doesn’t really matter!
Listen to Milligram’s ‘Winner Versus Loser’
You have an amazing singing voice yet Milligram and especially Raw Radar War you don’t use it.
Mainly because of all the reactions I got to various more the more commercial sounding stuff I’ve done over the years. I got really sick of being compared to bands that I hated and I got really sick of the attitudes associated with the commerciality of the music. Being compared to the Stone Temple Pilots was one of the biggest offenses I’ve received. Plus, I’ve been listening to grindcore and death metal ever since I was a teenager so it’s not like it wasn’t already part of what I love. Now that we’re older we have a chance to work on music that is music that is much more interesting for me as opposed to all the straightforward, almost mainstream rock and roll over the years. By the time the second Only Living Witness came out, people were comparing us to Faith No Mores or the Stone Temple Pilots of the world. We weren’t intending for it to be an alternative metal album. It just happened to be melodic. I was coming from a Bad Brains and Leeway standpoint in terms of melodicism.
What do you see as Only Living Witness’ legacy?
Certainly, it turned into something different than I would have said even ten years ago. A lot of the folks like Jake Bannon and those guys in Converge have told me how it really influenced them. We’ve talked about how they appreciated the difference in what Witness was doing compared to most straightforward hardcore bands were doing at the time. I’ve had similar conversations with Aaron Turner and of course there’s also the Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage guys. Shadows Fall did that cover. I guess the legacy is that Witness meant something to a lot of different people. I really appreciate that. Witness was kind of a moving target. It was difficult to pin down what was happening musically. There was a lot of heaviness but there was also a lot of melody as well.
Only Living Witness became popular in Boston when the scene there was becoming more violent. How did you guys deal with that?
In the early and mid-’90s things got out of hand. Post-Nirvana, post-Lolapallooza there were a lot of people showing up to shows that people who were purists didn’t want to be there and resorted to violence to stake their claim. Me and a lot of my friends really railed against that, trying to convince people that starting fights and starting what would become some of these infamous crews wasn’t the right way to go about things. For a while it was it was tough for a lot of bands in Boston to get a show because of the violence a lot of their fans brought. Clubs didn’t want to book them. Luckily, It didn’t negatively impact Witness because I was very adamant that that sort of behavior wasn’t allowed at our shows. I got a lot of people very upset with me because of my vocal stance but I was doing the right thing at the time.
Only Living Witness played a few reunion shows in 2008. Do you have plans to do any more?
That’s pretty much going to be it since Eric (Stevenson: OLW drummer who succumbed to cancer in 2011) passed away. If we played any more shows, they’d probably be benefits for Eric’s son, Thomas. But who knows if we’d even call it Only Living Witness? We definitely do plan on doing something: maybe writing some other songs; we’re not sure. Craig and me hung out the night and it was a blast. He’s been focusing on the hardcore stuff, touring with Blood for Blood and Slapshot but he’s pretty adept at playing whatever and he has a broad palette for music. It would probably not be something too dissimilar from Witness. It’s not inconceivable that it would happen. We have a lot of riffs that have been kicking around for decades that we still love.
Listen to Miltown’s ‘Cleverer’ Demo from 1997
Miltown was your brush with major label-dom. The band got signed to a Warners offshoot, Revolution Records. You made a record that never came out and then you broke up. What happened?
The process of making a major label album was enough to turn me off to it completely. We could have made a Miltown album that was pretty close to all of us if it wasn’t for all the external forces that wanted us to spend that money for a major label album. We could have made a record in Brian’s studio very easily that would have cost next to nothing and it would have sounded really good. It may not have sounded polished for the radio but who knew if it was going to get played on the radio anyway? There have been plenty of records on major labels throughout the years: ’70s, ’80s, ’90s that had production that sounded natural, not big and polished. I remember hearing from the label right when we finished at Longview Farm that “We don’t hear a single and you’ve got to remember Jonah, this is the era of Smashmouth.” I was like “Well, if you’re trying to compare me to Smashmouth then I guess I’m out because I’m not interested in that in the least.”
Miltown was certainly melodic but not a commercial band by any means.
No, not really. It was my first attempt to write concise songs with friends who were able to express more than just riffs. We were definitely approaching it from the standpoint of records that we loved and did covers of: The Cure, Jawbreaker. Bands that I loved like Naked Raygun, Pixies, Misfits, whatever. Anything that was melodic and catchy but you certainly don’t’ need a polished sheen to appreciate it
Why did Miltown break up? What was the final straw?
Definitely different creative visions – that was probably the biggest challenge, Matt Squire and I were very much at odds over creative focus. You can tell where his head was at and where his head was at by looking at his roster of bands he’s produced over the past ten years (Panic! at the Disco, One Direction for instance). We didn’t get along and that pretty much broke up the band. For example, at one point I played him Kyuss and he said, “I’ve heard Sepultura before”!
You started a record label a few years ago. What was it called?
Tracktor7. I started it with a friend, Mario, who plays in Raw Radar War. He and I have been friends since we were 15 or 16 years old. We just wanted to put out some records from local bands we really liked. Keep it interesting but rock, metal and punk focused. We put out a compilation called Arson, Vice, Murder and Death that was pretty all over the place but pretty good nonetheless. Some of the bands on the label were Lamont, Crash and Burn, Black Helicopter who ended up signing with Thurston Moore’s label. The Black Helicopter CD is probably our pride and joy from that whole experience because it ended up being the beautiful object thanks to the vision of the Black Helicopter guys.
After Miltown, you went back to work at Harvard University. What were you doing there?
I worked at Harvard and MIT doing technical work for a long tie. Research library work. Very fun and rewarding intellectually. I actually work for Scholastic now.
Scholastic Books? The ones you read in grade school? What do you do there?
Yes! [laughs]. They actually own Harry Potter. I do quality assurance for software for them. I basically break software for a living and then figure out with the developers how to test whatever they fix. In essence, I’m dealing with a lot of databases. I’m dealing with a lot of client-server relationships. I’m dealing with a lot of interfaces that are seen by students, teachers, and district administrators every day, basically, all the different connections between those data points and people. We basically try and help people have a better experience by improving their interfaces.
Watch Only Living Witness 2008 Reunion Footage
What sort of music do you see yourself making in ten years?
I would imagine that I’d be playing the exact sort of music that I’m playing now. I have been talking to lots of friends about collaborative ventures influenced by anywhere from Killing Joke records and Fields of the Nephilim to Godflesh: more expansive, open music – but not super lengthy. I’m always excited about the potential of melding melody and aggression with cerebral music.
So no country album for you?
No! [laughs] I’m not one of those punk and metal retirement program musicians!