No Traffic (Fueled By Ramen)
An interview with guitarist/vocalist Jamie Woolford
by Tim Den
At some point, the world’s gotta cut Jamie Woolford some slack. After challenging the stale skacore genre with his former band, Animal Chin, using complex time signatures and songs that blended everything from dub to hardcore-with-jazz-chords, he formed The Stereo, only to have the bad luck follow him. Understanding that Animal Chin’s obscurity resulted from the band’s over-the-top sophistication, he made sure The Stereo played sugary power pop just cliché enough to sell millions, but with enough songwriting substance to please critics. But what happens? Band members come and go, tours are canceled, and he breaks a bunch of bones in a skateboarding accident, preventing him from touring for his latest full-length, No Traffic. Without a band (again), Woolford is “that great songwriter/vocalist/band leader/multi-instrumentalist/sound engineer/visionary who got kicked around too many times.” Hopefully, the buzz which preceded No Traffic (generated by the previous releases, Three Hundred and New Tokyo is Calling) will create the awareness to ensure the record’s success. It packs more ’80s anthems than the decade itself! So turn off your lousy commercial radio station and pay attention!
What happened with your skateboarding accident?
I’d been very lucky skateboarding up until that point… I’d never had a serious injury, and I’ve been skating for 15 years. At the time, I’d been skating a lot of vert; ramps. One day, I was having a bad day. I’d been there for 25 minutes, and I was really kinda… I felt like a robot. Like I was out of control. Everything I was doing was “ugh… this is bad.” There’s this trick called “poptart air.” It’s really simple: You go up backwards, do an air, grab, come back down. This is something I land at least 85% of the time, but I kept turning in midair and pussying out on it. So after trying this for 25 minutes and going “What’s my problem?,” I say “Alright, I’m just gonna stick it.” Normally, if you are turning and coming down on a vert, it’s so steep and so big that it’s not too hard to correct (the trick). It’s a fast ramp, but you can shift out of it. I tried to correct myself and I over-corrected, so I was coming down facing the flat bottom. So I put my arms out instinctively as I’m turning and falling. When I got to the bottom, the only thing there was my left arm. It snapped my elbow in two spots; both the ball joints’ radiuses popped off. When that got out of the way – I was wearing all my pads – I hit the corner of my eye on the flat bottom and it cut open. It was really nasty. I was out for a couple of seconds.
I woke up and thought there was snot and sweat all over me, but I didn’t realize it was blood until I looked down and saw blood on my shoes. Then I looked up and saw these people looking at me. Judging by their faces, I’m like “Okay. I’m fucked up.” Little kids were like “Hoooooly shit.” Then I realized blood was pouring out of me. A lot of what happened at the accident I don’t actually remember, this is just what somebody watching told me. It took me five minutes to realize my arm was broken. It wasn’t tweaked out at a weird angle, and at the time, my head hurt more than anything. Then I thought “Ahhh, my arm feels really weird.” It was sagging a little bit, and when I tried to move it I was like ooooooowwwwwww.
How come you didn’t pursue skateboarding as a career?
I’m not good enough. I don’t necessarily think that I’m really good at one thing. I’m one of those people that can do a lot of things okay. I’m not an amazing guitar player, I’m not an amazing drummer, and I’m certainly not an amazing piano player. But I can do all of them well enough that, if you put it all together, it sounds okay. When we did the first record, people were like “I can’t believe you played all those instruments!” I’m like “I don’t really play them all that well, it’s just that I understand my limitations so I don’t go into areas outside of ’em.” For instance, I’m a very bad screamer. In the studio, you can cheat, but live I can never pull it off. So I don’t scream a lot. I think there’re a lot of people in bands – I don’t want to name any names – who are trying to do things that they’re not necessarily good at.
How long have you been playing all these instruments?
I’ve been into music all my life, but I didn’t play or perform until I joined bands in fifth or sixth grade. I got my first drumset, and that became my main thing. I have this weird thing where I don’t retain anything if you just show it to me. I have to do it myself. That’s how I taught myself graphic design. Anything I know, I taught myself. I sat down and said “I really like this Descendents song. I wonder how he played it.” I have really unorthodox methods: I remember taping up the highest three strings of the guitar because I didn’t know what they did.
How do you feel when people say power-pop like The Stereo’s is not doing anything new, that it’s irrelevant?
I’m not trying to be cocky, but I definitely think I write good songs. I don’t think I write the best songs, but obviously I think they’re good. I won’t finish or use a song if I don’t think it’s good. It doesn’t have to be about reinventing the wheel, it can be a spinning of the wheel.
From what I remember, Animal Chin had pretty complicated arrangements.
It’s hard for me to explain, justify, or describe theories of songwriting. I definitely think I’m better at songwriting now than I was back then. Both Animal Chin and The Stereo get a lot of “Oh, you guys sound like the ’80s.” My most important, formative musical experiences came from then. The first song on our new record is called “Get Set for Sound,” and it’s about listening to the radio when I was a kid. We didn’t have a TV for a long time, and even after we got one, I spent a lot of time on what I now call “the poor man’s Napster.” I’d have a blank tape ready, and I would sit and listen forever for Van Halen’s “Jump” to come on so I could tape it. And you’d get that stupid DJ talking over the beginning, and I’d be pissed about that, but nonetheless I got the song. I spent so many summers doing that.
I grew up really weird… I don’t mean my upbringing, I mean my physical body growth. My legs grew before anything else did. I was this lanky, kinda baby chubby kid, but I was super tall. I was completely out of proportion. But I was really good at hockey and I could skate fast. Besides hockey, I was a klutz and nobody liked me. I got beat up all the time. I could never fend for myself. For me, getting out and performing/joining a band was something to do that was “Hey, this is something I can do that maybe someone else can’t. Maybe for once I can get a little respect.” When you’re starting out, it’s not about (in tortured artist voice) “Oh, I have to express this!” It’s fun. Really fun. I remember being in (school) band – there were only three drummers in band – and we were cool because we’d have our drumsticks in our back pocket. Walking into class, “What’s up man?,” twirling my sticks… “Holy shit, he’s a magician!” But that’s why you get into it. Eventually, that wears off and you see that you need more out of it. You grow up and explore your existence or whatever… You realize that what makes you happy is not necessarily what happens around you, but what happens within you.
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