Regional Justice Center

Monday, September 30, 9 p.m., $12

Local 506, Chapel Hill 

Last year’s World of Inconvenience introduced the scathing hardcore of Regional Justice Center, a remarkably broad audience for such an intense band. Outlets from Bandcamp to Noisey featured the outfit, which is led by multidisciplinary artist Ian Shelton. 

When Shelton’s brother Max was incarcerated, the musician gained firsthand experience of how the American criminal justice system affects not only those entrenched within it, but also those surrounding them. World of Inconvenience, which was released by Raleigh label To Live A Lie Records, in collaboration with several other imprints, was heralded by Bandcamp as both, “a personal narrative that finds Shelton grappling with his brother’s incarceration” and “a piece of prisoner advocacy, a text that rails against America’s malignant prison-industrial complex.”

For his part, Shelton isn’t as comfortable being labeled as a political messenger; he hopes people will use his story as an opportunity to reflect and reach their own conclusions. But there’s no question his band has resonated with people. The follow-up EP, August’s Institution EP builds on the nuanced lyricism and blunt-force hardcore that made World of Inconvenience one of last year’s most exciting and compelling hardcore albums.

We caught up with Shelton in the middle of an extensive cross-country tour, which arrives at Local 506 in Chapel Hill on Monday.

INDY WEEK: How has the tour been going so far?

IAN SHELTON: It’s been amazing. I booked it all a long time ago and it’s been a lot of work, and it’s really crazy how hard it’s paying off. The shows have been crazy. It blew my expectations away. Last night was Omaha, and it was insane. It was one of the craziest shows we’ve ever played.

That’s fantastic. You said at one point that this band was really the first time you’d ever been able to make something that was completely your own vision, and not have other inputs. How do you think that affected the outcome of this project?

IS: It’s just because I wasn’t able to be slowed down by anything else. When a band is a democracy, it ends up with a lot of bickering about what it should or shouldn’t be, and I think the process of art gets a little watered down, in terms of it being a true vision, or saying something really concisely when you’re trying to speak for so many people. When it’s just one person, it’s very clear what you’re trying to say and what you’re trying to do.

Do you imagine that Regional Justice Center will ever have a permanent lineup, aside from yourself?

As far as permanent lineup goes, it’s me and our guitar player, Alex [Haller]. Alex is also always there with me. He misses the occasional show, but other than that, he’s been there from the first show until now, and he’s been on every tour. Him and I are the permanent thing. And then there’s friends that will always go in and out, but I don’t foresee that we’ll have the ability, unless we’re really making money and can make sure people are getting paid enough to really miss work, that we could have a steady lineup.

And your brother Max has contributed as well, in terms of writing lyrics, but also in the phone conversations that were a part of World of Inconvenience. Do you consider him a member of the band, even if he’s not on stage with you?

Yeah. And he is on stage with us. We play his voice every night at the show. I don’t speak at all when we play live. I just sing the songs, and then he talks between. For this tour, specifically, I did a new interview with him, so when you’re seeing us live, it’s all new sound clips and it’s not the same thing that you hear on the record. It’s its own new experience.

He’s a part of it. And he hit me up the other day because his media player in prison is broken, so we’re taking band money and buying a new one. He’s getting part of the band fund any time we do anything. He’s 100 percent a part of the band.

I was struck when I read that you didn’t really consider this a political project per se, that it was more of a personal story. How do you define for yourself, the intersection of the personal and political?

It’s somewhat hard. I don’t ever try to speak for anyone besides myself. That’s kind of the goal. So for me to say it’s political means that I think I’m speaking for something larger than myself. When it comes to this thing, I think it’s just a relatable situation. It’s political in nature due to the fact that it’s governmental force, it’s societal. There are so many things that shape the experience that so many people are sharing, whether it be family members or people in the system.

It’s inherently political in that sense, but I just want it to be my personal story, my brother’s personal story, my family’s personal story. I think when you start to try to speak for things that aren’t yourself, it becomes unrelatable, even if you’re trying to broaden it. By trying to do that, you make it an unrelatable experience.

That makes sense. It’s always seemed to me that the music that leaves the deepest political impressions is often intensely personal. It’s about an issue, but mostly it’s the story of a person and that’s what connects.

When people talk politics, it’s really easy when you’re doing this branching, overarching narratives, but it’s not what people care about. You go to a movie to watch the story of one person. You’re not going to see a thing that’s all-encompassing of every human being that ever lived. Every human being relates and puts their story upon the story of one person. That’s what it is in the end. It’s just the way humans are built. They want something intensely personal because they’ll put themselves in it.

With the Institution EP, that just came out, I noticed in reading the lyrics, it goes a lot of different places, and none of it feels like you’re talking at somebody. It feels fairly confessional, as a style of songwriting.

Part of the concept of it being called Institution was I wanted to look at different concepts as institutions, and the way they’ve intersected with my life. I think a major differentiation between what happened with my brother’s life and what happened with mine was that he was put on depression medication really young. We grew up really rough, and I think my family figured that was some sort of solution for him, to put him on meds. That’s what the song “Medication” is about: showing someone early on that drugs can be a crutch, and then blaming them when they use drugs as a crutch later on.

It was the same with “Institution,” I was thinking about the way the school systems and other things deal with at-risk youth that might just be funneling them into the system, even though it’s meant to be an intervention. If you take people out of the mainstream of school, and putting them among other people that are also into drugs, also into crime, I think it’s creating a system for them to enable each other to some degree. These are things that I’ve thought about for a long time, how these preventative things are actually forcing people into the system, in a way. I don’t know the solution. I’m just observing it.

And in that, there’s also songs that have nothing to do with that. The song “Dismantled” is about how I recently dismantled my life, and that’s purely confessional, personal stuff.

It’s interesting because, like you said, it asks more questions than it answers. But from a listener’s perspective, that seems more engaging. 

I think if anyone says they know the answers, they’re full of shit. I don’t claim to have any.

Do you find yourself approaching other art in the same way? I know you’ve made some music videos and other film work, as well as other musical projects.

As far as filmmaking and writing goes, I’m still pretty early on. I do approach everything with a sense of ambiguity. I want to interpret it and feel it for myself, even if it’s the wrong interpretation according to the artist. I think that’s a very important part of the process. It’s so important to let people draw their own conclusions. So, yeah, I think everything I do is going to be morally ambiguous, it’s not going to be didactic and explain everything to you. 

I think people are too often looking for something that’s black and white, instead of looking for the nuance. That “you’re with us or against us mentality.”

Yeah, it’s easier. It’s so much easier to say, “Oh, that’s that anti-cop band,” instead of, “Oh, that’s a band that has a personal story to tell about the relationship between prisoner and family,” or whatever. The easiest thing is to say it’s an anti-cop thing. And that’s what people want in the current moment. Maybe they don’t even want something as nuanced as what we’re doing.

Do you have anything you hope people get out of it when they hear a record, or see a show?

I hope it spawns some sort of introspection. It was coming into focus last night, while we were driving at night, what I want to achieve with our next record. Ultimately, I’m trying to ask the question, “Why am I the one traveling the world while my brother is stuck in prison?” I want to unpack all of the trauma that we’ve been through in a way that is productive. I’m going to have my mother involved in the next record, and talk to her about everything, and talk to my brother about it, and have these overlapping narratives. I hope ultimately that it serves as a way to unpack everything that you go through in life that you don’t realize how it affects you.

I think all my lyrics are very selfish and introspective, and they’re not about things bigger than myself, and I hope that people take those lyrics and think about it in relation to their lives in whatever way that it applies. If it’s not at all what I mean it to, that’s cool. I just hope that it is an unpacking of the things that shape them, and the trauma that they’ve been through. That would be my ultimate goal because I’m trying to do that for myself. I’m trying to figure out why I am the way I am, and why the things that happened happened.

I would imagine that’s a pretty cathartic process, doing the work of exploring all that, and then being able to share it with an audience, to be able to put it into something and get feedback.

I’ve always been deeply influenced by my family life. I think early on, I just realized what it was. Being a boring white guy, having a really traumatic childhood is one of the only things on earth that ended up making me interesting. So that was my influence, getting into art, and sharing that with people and realizing the way people would light up and listen to me when I would share these traumatic, crazy things. I learned that’s just the way I cope with it. It’s always been a cathartic experience, and now I get to really put it on the forefront and be more articulate as an adult and actually try to better myself through it.

Would you consider Regional Justice Center an act of activism or advocacy of any sort, or is it purely a self-contained pursuit?

That’s an interesting question, because I use the platform to talk about the ways prisoners and families are exploited, which I think in itself is an act of advocacy and that is a very political thing. I’m able to talk to big news outlets and tell people about it that wouldn’t otherwise hear anything about it. So in the end, yes. But I hesitate to call it that, because we’re trying to keep our head above water financially, as a band. To say that we’re doing anything bigger than being a band is kind of inaccurate.

It’s self-serving at this moment. We’re not donating money. We’re not doing things that we could be doing, because we’re going so hard at touring and doing things that require so much money. It’s tough to say, because I really haven’t wanted to put myself out that way, because I don’t want to be inaccurate or be, like, “Well, you could be doing X, Y and Z,” because we could be doing those things, but we simply can’t currently because we’re trying to keep our head above water.

Aside from this tour, do you have any other plans in the fairly immediate future?

We’ll have ten days off, and then we go to Japan, which will be a really cool experience. It’s basically just grind all the way until we get through with that, and then we’re going to lay low for a while. Institution has been successful in itself, and I think we’ve been going for the better part of two years straight—our first tour was in September 2017—and we’ve spent a lot of time away from home. Our goal with 2020 is to not do as much, have the things we do be more important, and I want to write another LP, a proper full-length. Now that we have this EP out, I really want to release another LP in 2021, so I just want to get to writing and recording. We love the process of recording, so we’re trying to get back to that as soon as possible.