I am told the stakes have risen for Militarie Gun in the past six months, though walking through a Saturday crowd at Chain Reaction, I can’t find much evidence of it.

Even now, with a major label behind them—plus a true press agent, a new manager, and the backing of one of the best touring agencies in the U.S.—things seem to be humming along as usual. In the end, the team won’t do what the band can do for themselves.

Chain Reaction is in Anaheim, a city that people flock to for Disneyland and that’s about it. The venue opened in ’96 and functions as a way station between Los Angeles and San Diego; it’s a 250-capacity club, perfect for new, local, and touring bands. The well-worn backstage features one big trough where the bands spend their time, with little closets of personal space trickling off for individual privacy. “Egalitarian” is a pleasant way to put it—bands, no matter where they land on the bill, cluster together and intermingle like position groups within a football team.

It is not a glamorous venue; the entire place feels like there’s a coat of dust on it, like when you find a cool toy in the attic and an adult voice comes from behind you to say, “That thing still works perfectly.” (Or maybe if you find it when you’re young enough, it can destroy your life, like in Jumanji.) The snack bar recently started selling beer, which adds to the feeling of compromise and functionality. The place is packed with locals and kids; this is their perfect Saturday night. It is where bands gear up for bigger things while they’re still safe from the industry goons an hour north.

Militarie Gun are the headliners on this tour, though direct support comes from a band called Death Lens—California churns out local favorites like these, and they tend to bring their own insular crowd, so suddenly you aren’t sure who should be headlining in the face of their popularity. Ian Shelton, the maestro of Militarie Gun, embraces this phenomenon: “That’s why we asked them.” The openers are a high-energy draw as promised, but when they’re finished, nobody leaves. Believing you can build a strong bill for a tour is a risk worth taking, if your ego can handle it.

Militarie Gun live at the CREEM party in Austin, 2023
Not on the rug, man! Photo by Luke Ivanovich

Unlike many of the people at the show, Shelton is prepared for the weather, wearing a beat-up PiL shirt and a salmon-and-black North Face 700-fill jacket to combat the 45-degree chill. Even in the desert night, this is pretty fucking cold for Southern California. Shelton’s originally from Kent, Washington, the town with the Regional Justice Center bearing the name of his first touring project, where it’s colder than this year-round.

Feeling the brunt of the chill are the teens catching some air in between sets with their arms tucked into their hoodies for extra warmth. I am too decrepit and cautious to have not brought my jacket from the car. I wonder how much of a narc I look like to these kids on a scale of “random adult” to “possible cop,” and I don’t want to know the answer. There’s the comforting milieu of four kids in black sweatshirts and Dickies bumming off one pack of cigarettes in a little dirt area with benches. All the styles are familiar, but the language is contemporary. Taking in this little moment amid the set and the swirl of the venue, it’s hard not to think that everyone here is following the thread of influence and interest, or some kumbaya-type sentiment.

Many bands playing sounds of the ’90s end up catering to those who actually lived through them, creating an echo-from-the-past effect. Militarie Gun are not for the nostalgia crew. The songs on their breakout release, All Roads Lead to the Gun, contain both sing-along simplicity and flexible meanings, key components for the broad appeal that Shelton acknowledges is a goal. The band knew they might be onto something from the first live show—announced two days beforehand in Oceanside, California—in a backyard next to Camp Pendleton, an hour south of Chain Reaction. When they played “Don’t Pick Up the Phone,” kids immediately took to repeating the lyrics “I want money, I want love.” Blunt wording proved to be the winning approach from the jump.

“That’s why I try to speak so plainly,” Shelton says about the aha moment. “[The lyrics] are meant to be as stupid and as blunt as our name is. It’s all intentional in that way; I’m not trying to overarticulate or disguise anything. It’s the plainest way I can state the most emotionally vulnerable thing I can say.” In this way, Ian’s honesty and directness build trust.

That trust is on display during their set. Every Militarie Gun set has a bounce. The band is kinetic as a whole, and it isn’t just the singer. You need one insanely driven person in a band to “make it” (sometimes you need maniacal drive just to get a couple gigs and demo off, let’s be real), but you also need to be likable enough to have people agree to play music with you, and you all have to enjoy that time enough to keep building, keep working. As much as Shelton can feel like the motor of the band, a motor still needs the other parts around it to function.

I think it’s important when trying to sneak in things with emotional weight to make it fuckin’ fun

Despite Shelton’s central role, Militarie Gun feel like a cohesive and familiar unit that translates easily to their crowd, who sing and bounce along. Introducing “Don’t Pick Up” for the Chain Reaction crowd, Ian puts it plainly: “This is a love song, not something to hit someone to.” The song is poppier live; the snare sets the tone for the crowd like a metronome. Bopping ensues, but nothing crazy. It’s funny, thinking about this communal experience, to hear Ian’s thoughts, or lack thereof, about the audience later on.

“I don’t know, I don’t really think about the audience that often, and I think that’s my saving grace. What I do is, I’m so confidently bulldozing through creation, and it’s always a very quick process, it’s always intuitive. It’s never overthought; the first draft is almost always what ends up being the final production. And then the week of release I am melting down internally: ‘I should have changed this word to something else.’” He trails off for a moment. “Because I’m not considering the audience until I get to the point of actually having to face putting it into the world, and then I think, ‘Oh, I fucked up, everyone’s gonna make fun of me,’ and that’s where the people come into mind.”

On this particular Saturday night in Anaheim, no one is making fun of him, or the rest of the band, for that matter. While the songs are filled with straightforward feeling, visually, video is a key element where you’ll find the band’s sense of humor most prominently on display. Before Shelton refocused his efforts toward Militarie Gun, he was known for his extensive videography and initially moved to Los Angeles to pursue that dream. So it’s no wonder he sees music videos as another opportunity to enhance every new collection of songs, building community along the way.

Militarie Gun with Boy Howdy!
Not quite the same as the Squishmallows they have at home, but the fellows seem oddly content. Photo by Brian Lasky

While filming city council meetings in his native state of Washington, Shelton was cold-calling bands for video work: first Supercrush, who would end up opening the Chain Reaction show, and then Angel Du$t, among others. A network gradually emerged, neurons from the collective brain of hardcore firing down certain paths, where members of bands past and present also call upon Shelton’s talents. Ian still makes videos for other bands, but his skills come to the fore as he piles visual jokes on Militarie Gun songs that sometimes have somber roots.

“I think it’s important when trying to sneak in things with emotional weight to make it fuckin’ fun. I want there to be a universe surrounding [the music]. Every other genre does it besides rock.” It’s one of those blanket statements that you can poke holes in if you feel like it, but that misses the point. He’s not wrong in a general sense.

Their latest video, for the single “Do It Faster,” features an ever-rotating circle with the band all in white; energetically, it evokes later-era Beastie Boys. When I tell Shelton I thought the track was about a relationship, he explains that it isn’t. “It’s just me yelling at myself, and everyone else in the band, and it’s a circle.” The video is silly, referential, and energetic without disrespecting the song. The videos give a sense that the music can be emotional, expressive, sometimes even depressing, but that isn’t the whole point of the experience.

Competitive in a hardworking, earnest way, Shelton is quick to point out his nature as a motivator but doesn’t get defensive about it. His work ethic evokes something common for most people—the all-in approach without a financial backup plan. It’s this hunger and desire to succeed at any cost while teetering at the precipice that drive Militarie Gun to push the music they want to make to as many people as possible. Right now, that feels very possible.

Militarie Gun live
Evidence of riffs so good they’ll turn mortal men into a werewolf. Photo by Stephanie Augello

We are in a rare moment where full-on bands and acts coming from hardcore are getting more attention than they have in decades. The prospecting is on, with Turnstile’s 2021 release Glow On still steadily selling physical copies two years after the release in a way that can only reflect an organically grown fandom. Lucky for Militarie Gun, the pressure is off in at least one regard: Their album was demoed around the time of Glow On, and talks with their label, Loma Vista, were already underway. Shelton wasn’t fazed by that side of the industry then, and he isn’t now, either. “I love the business element of music, honestly. I just love the brass-tacks nature of it. At the end of the day, business puts aside ego. You can view yourself as the hottest musician, but are people buying tickets?”

The day after the show, we’re sitting in Ian’s living room in Los Angeles, putting it all together. His apartment is sparse and tidy, organized in a way that accounts for his significant other and their frequent travels. There’s some gear around but no record player.

We end up in an emotional conversation about lyrics and responsibility (entirely my fault), but he indulges this without being weird. He doesn’t shut down or overshare. He answers questions so openly and casually that an hour passes before we even touch on the record. Shelton speaks about his lyrics and process with a mix of confidence and uncertainty. He’s keen on finding nuance and balance without using too many words or metaphors. It’s easy to see why the lyrics work when he describes the broad and heavy feelings underlying them.

“Your decisions are your life,” says Shelton, “and you want to live a good life—but most people don’t, to some degree. As time goes, there’s a trail of people you’re no longer connected with, previous relationships, romantic or friendships. Viewing your decisions from a third person’s viewpoint, that’s where I hope everyone can end up. How do I zoom out the tiniest bit to allow myself some perspective?”

This sounds plausible, but I wonder if zooming in also accounts for the power of his lyrics. Gaining perspective and then pushing it aside to focus on the details in front of you is one of the hardest push-and-pulls in life. If the stakes have risen for the band, they are certainly aware of it and seem to have the common sense to put one foot in front of the other, which is charming and admirable.

Militarie Gun live
Mushroom rule. Photo by Stephanie Augello

Before we head out the door for coffee around the corner, a package arrives with the test presses for the new Militarie Gun album, Life Under the Gun. Shelton has to go to a bandmate’s spot to check the pressing. He is visibly gassed to hold something two years in the making and itching to share it with the rest of the guys. At this stage it’s all builtup anticipation before the floodgates open.

Shelton’s parting words reveal that he had been ready to work on a music video this week, but someone dragged their feet approving the concept. It turns out to be a blessing in disguise: “Instead of my week being chaos setting up a video, I have two weeks to do whatever the hell I want.”

For some reason, I don’t believe he is capable of sitting still. But I guess I’ll have to take his word for it.

Thanks for reading CREEM. This article originally appeared in our Summer 2023 issue. If you prefer to read in print, grab a copy here and subscribe to never miss another one.




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