Interview: Billy Jeans from punk band Mean Jeans

Billy Jeans talks about Mean Jeans' origins, as well as their new record on Fat Wreck Chords.

Photo: Joe Leonard

LOS ANGELES, June 6, 2016 — Means Jeans are a punk band from Portland, Oregon. They recently released their third full length record, New Dimensions, on Fat Wreck Chords. Their first two full lengths were released via Dirtnap Records in Portland, Oregon. Recently, singer and guitar player Billy Jeans took some time to speak with Wells On Music regarding the bands formation and ultimate signing with Fat Wreck.

Interview transcribed by Becca Jean.

So you guys are from Portland, are you guys originally from Portland?

We’re not. All three Mean Jeans are from the Washington DC area and Jeans Wilder and myself, we started the band just as a two piece, he and I in the DC area, and we wrote some songs. We played one show, it was in Baltimore with Nobunny to about seven people and we determined, not because there was only seven people at that one specific show, but we determined that starting a band in DC was going to be a giant pain in the ass and since we were living in our mom’s basements, that we should probably relocate. He and I had both been to Portland recently for separate reasons and we just said “F**k it,” and drove his van for about a month out to Portland and just set up shop like nine years ago. Then Junior Jeans, the bass player, was an old buddy of ours and I called him and told him that he should come move out cuz it was a great environment for what we were trying to do at the time.

Were you in bands prior to Mean Jeans?

I was yeah. I’ve done lots of different things. The year we started Mean Jeans I was playing in a Baltimore band called Hollywood. I put out a rap album. I did all kinds of things I’ve been trying to sweep under the rug ever since.

In my first listening to Mean Jeans obviously the Ramones is the first band that pops into my head, are they one of the bands that first got you into punk or how did you get into punk?

Yeah for sure. I would assume that’s the case for most people. I know that my older sister had Ramones Mania. When I got into that in fourth grade, I don’t think that really gave me any conception of what punk is or made me want to start a punk band. Well, maybe it did make me want to start a punk band, but it just kinda seemed like rock n roll.

As far as getting into punk, I can remember that pretty vividly, actually. So I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, which is just across the river from Washington D.C. Like Minor Threat, Dischord Records, and Fugazi they’re from Arlington, Virginia. D.C. had great punk history there and I remember in sixth grade there’s a record store there called Smash Records, which was awesome. I still know one of the dudes who was a clerk there in the late 90s when I started going there, but I would credit them a lot to shifting my taste a bit. I specifically remember one of them telling me to not buy the two ska albums that I was about to buy and he got me to buy The Mummies and F.Y.P instead, just some much trashier punk and garage rock stuff and I mean he was right, and it was actually pretty bold of him to do that.

But anyhow, I remember probably six months or a year before that on the same day I bought the Minor Threat discography and the Operation Ivy discography on CD and I can vividly remember like being excited about those and going home and sitting in front of a boom box and listening to those. If I could revisit those thoughts, I was probably like, “This is what punk is, this is awesome,” but what was the reason that I thought I should get the Minor Threat record?  I don’t know, but there was some kind of culture in the DC area that influenced me to check out Minor Threat and Void and some other great DC punk bands. So, I’m grateful not that it was the 80s when those bands were playing, but I’m grateful that the culture was still there and that something motivated me to check that out because everything was different from that point forward.

How does the writing process work for you guys?

There are a few different ways in which Mean Jeans songs come to life. I write some songs and Jeans Wilder also writes songs, so that was kind of how we started the band, just playing guitar and writing some songs. I don’t know how to play the drums, but he does, so we decided to record them in his mom’s basement and he played drums. I don’t think he ever intended to be the drummer of the band it just kind of happened that way and he’s quite good at drums, so it’s kind of just the way the cookie crumbles on that one, but he also sings he does lead vocals on four of the songs on the new album. He will have a song idea and I’ll have a song idea and we bring it together and make them happen, but if you listen to it it’s all pretty simplistic stuff. It’s pretty basic verse, chorus, chord progression things, but yeah, there’s two songwriters in the band.

You guys have your third full length, but your first on Fat, out now. I read how it happened, but it’s kind of a cool story about how you guys actually got the Fat Wreck Chords deal.

Yeah, I’ve answered that question to a few people and have sort of been advised to add the, “Kids don’t try this at home,” caveat.

The story is that we were like, “We have a bunch of songs, let’s go record them. We’re gonna make a sick record,” and that was it. There was no, like, “What’s gonna happen with the record? Should we get a manager and a booking agent? blah blah blah. We just wanted to make a sick record, so we recorded and mixed that in several cities with several people, over way too long of a timeline. [We were] just, kind of, perhaps not goal oriented enough. But by the time we wrapped it up and we were proud of it, we’re like, “I wonder if a bigger label that we’ve never worked with before would be into putting this out?” We were like, “Hell yeah, man, we should send this off to some label execs or whatever.”  And then between the three of us, we could not think of a single record label that would actually be the one and I don’t know if that’s more indicative of us being complete dumbasses or of our band’s sound not having a really obvious home.

But either way, after scratching our heads for awhile we could only think of two record labels. One was Sub Pop, which I don’t think really would make any sense for us to put a record out on. I just respect them and obviously they have a big following. And we thought of Fat, which honestly I didn’t know too much about, but also kind of perceived the same thing that they have a reputation and people are paying attention to what they do, so ideally you’re working with a record label that people give a s**t about.

So step two would be contacting those record labels. But we don’t know how to do that either so we just wrote one email to [email protected] and one to [email protected] and sent them our album. The reason I say kids don’t try this at home is that you’re really not supposed to send MP3s to a record label and think that they’re gonna write you back and put out your record because they’re not, but I don’t know, it worked.

Your first two records were on Dirtnap, was that label considered for the third one at all?

Yes. Dirtnap Records we love and respect and we put our first two LPs out with them and a singles collection after that. They’re in Portland and it’s been awesome working with them, and it’s definitely cool to work with a label that’s in the town you live in. They have a record store, I can just cruise over there and talk to them and we have a great relationship.

I wouldn’t even say there’s any element of dissatisfaction with Dirtnap for us as a band. It was more like I wonder what else is out there, what else we could do. It’s really not out of frustration, more just feeling that way in our lives all together like, “What would happen if we went on tour with this weird band?” It’s all about variety and to repeat myself, I don’t really feel like there is an exact home for the Mean Jeans. We’re definitely this sound or this style or this record label. We try to make it just our own thing.

When did you guys actually record the record?

We went to a studio in LA. There was a dude named Andrew Shubert who had recorded and produced a record for a friends band, Together Pangea, and I liked that record a lot and they said that he had a Mean Jeans tattoo. So we were like “Alright I bet that guy knows what we’re going for,” and we were trying to avoid recording it in Portland. We wanted to like go somewhere, record a record and then leave, which was really fun and I’m glad we took that approach.

But yeah, we went down there and recorded a little bit overzealous. We had twenty songs, so we tried to record twenty songs in not that many days, which we did, but it’s not like we drove home from that with a finished product. So then there’s the whole mixing thing that we were trying to do over email, which I don’t recommend anyone does. I think you should be in the room when you’re trying to do these kinds of things. So we wound up working with our buddy up here to mix it, and somehow in between those two things happening, six months had passed. I don’t know why.

So it took a little bit longer, like late 2014, and then last summer we actually mixed it and sent it to a couple labels, and September of last year was when Fat said they would put it out and we had to do a bunch of other stuff. I mean, it took way too long.

So the songs that didn’t make the album, do you guys have plans on releasing those as well?

Good question. We put out a single with Fat Wreck before the album came out, and that has one album track which is called “Nite Vision.” And then it has two B-sides, which are not on the album. So that accounts for a few of them, and then yeah, we still have some other songs that we recorded. I haven’t listened to them in a long time. I figured they were kind of rejects, you know?

[When] people like to release the unreleased material of a band, it usually means that the songs suck. They weren’t on the album because they weren’t good enough. So I kind of relegated those songs to that status. But I checked them out the other day, and I actually think they’re pretty good and we ran into that guy Andrew Shubert who recorded the record at a show we played in LA recently and he was saying that his favorite song from the recording session wasn’t even on the album.

So yeah, we should release those songs. I haven’t figured out how to do that. I’ve been a little bit overwhelmed with Mean Jeans touring and getting this record out and stuff. So if you have any good ideas let me know.

Is there anything else that you would like people to know about yourself or what the band is working on? Are you touring this summer?

Yeah, we just got back from a tour with NOFX which was really fun and playing to much bigger audiences than we’re used to. Almost all the shows were sold out and that was sweet. But we are doing a European tour in July and August. [I’m] excited for all of those things. If anybody wants to release some of the remaining five Mean Jeans songs, hit us up!

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