It’s been a busy decade for James Ikeda, vocalist-guitarist of Boston punk band The Michael Character. Since 2010, he’s released 13 albums, earned two graduate degrees (with a third in the works) and played a show in every U.S. state, partially thanks to a Bandcamp bio that promises he’s “absolutely willing to drive very far to play for you and five of your vaguely alternative friends in your combination kitchen/laundry room.” But in spite of all that, earlier this year, he felt like he wasn’t doing enough.
“I guess if there’s a way to sum up the year, it’s been a year of political growth for me,” he says. “I’ve always had this interest in radical politics in a way that I didn’t think was really detached, but it was detached. It was really scholarly and kind of at a distance. It occurred to me at some point in 2020 that I was neglecting my own intellectual political development in terms of my own practice, and I hit a wall in terms of how much further I could go in my own life without really taking the time to think about ‘how does all the stuff I’ve been learning about apply in my own life?’”
It’s not that Ikeda’s work wasn’t informed by politics before. By day, he’s a history teacher at a Boston-area high school, and up until starting his current master’s program at Northeastern, (which he’s hoping to turn into an eventual Ph.D. in history) he was an adjunct professor at Bunker Hill Community College and Quincy College. In his downtime, he’s spent the past 10 years making politically-infused punk music with The Michael Character, aided by a lineup of bandmates that’s evolved through the years.
Now that he’s 30, the project has become a personal archive of a third of his life; according to a self-imposed rule, he releases at least one record per year. The band’s 13th album, “Oh Shoot!,” arrives today (Oct. 23). Across its nine songs, Ikeda tries to figure out a meaningful direction for his own life against a backdrop of pressing political concerns: geopolitical strong-arming, state violence, the challenges of community organizing amid deep polarization. He knows it’s not a question he can answer with a single album. The point is to keep chipping away.
It isn’t exactly the album the band had been hoping to make this year, but then again, this hasn’t been the year anybody was hoping for. COVID-19 precautions made recording with the full band lineup impossible. Instead, Ikeda worked with producer Ben Greer from Somerville’s Pink Noise Studios, while guitarist Matt O’Connor contributed to the record’s more experimental arrangements from out in Vermont.
Tension is built into The Michael Character’s sound. Ikeda is a self-taught guitarist and has always gravitated toward punk music, a genre that isn’t necessarily known for conveying nuance or complexity. But when it comes to high-stakes discussions, especially political ones, he’s frustrated by the oversimplification of complicated ideas. His solution — at least as far as songwriting goes — comes in the form of furiously strummed sub-three-minute songs jammed full of detailed lyrics that nod to his research on U.S. leftist theory and transnational solidarity against imperialism. Songs are sprinkled with historical references and words like “counterhegemonic” and “concupiscent.” Across thirteen albums, it’s enough to provoke more than a few internet rabbit holes.
The underlying predicament of “Oh Shoot!” is laid out on “New Year! Pt. 2,” which finds Ikeda starting 2020 off sick on the couch, finding out about the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani. His alarmed response sets the album’s political undercurrent, asking: “What does it look like to live against Empire?/ What are the metrics of efficacy?/ ‘Cause there are people who’ve been at it for decades/ And here we are on the threshold of war again.” He pursues other versions of that question on “The Social Wage” and “1973,” interspersed with historical context, trying to figure out what it means for his own life.
But for all its chaos and complexity, a band with an album titled “Oh Shoot!” can only be so self-serious. The academic-punk sound started out as a schtick; a few albums ago, Ikeda created what he describes as “the ultimate form of that joke” with the aptly titled “Literally My Master’s Thesis.” His songwriting balances the headiest political moments and academic language with self-deprecation and personal reflection as a means of putting himself in his place.
Some artists worry about critical reception; Ikeda gets to deal with the opinions of every incoming class of high school history students, who seem to discover the band online earlier every year. He sometimes feels vulnerable to put such explicitly political views out into the world, but he’s committed to his approach. “I try to make nuanced music, but there’s no way to stop people from encountering your music from where they are,” he says. "My operating theory for my whole career has been I don’t do things I can’t defend. So as long as people are willing to deal in good faith with me — which you can’t always assume, but you sort of have to — that’s fine."
Of course, it’s not always that simple. Earlier in the year, while working on the album, he realized that he’d been keeping himself pretty closed off for a guy who cares so much about helping communities build power through organizing. Now, he’s trying to change that.
“The first thing that sent me off years ago in this direction was the idea of, ‘it’s not my job to educate people,’” he says. “I came to a point of being able to understand, you know, there are people for whom that is 100% true… but I think that kind of attitude as a generally held belief for people who have a political project in mind is untenable.”
Sometimes, that means searching for the right way to engage with people whose political views aren’t closely aligned with his own. The band tackles that topic on “My Conspiracy Theory Neighbors,” a song that finds Ikeda questioning how to live alongside fellow renters who “have a lot of opinions about Bitcoin, guns and the government that are not coherent.” They’re kind to him and maintain an awkwardly cordial relationship, but he’s unsure of how to relate to them.
“My conspiracy theory neighbors… probably wouldn’t find my politics legible, probably wouldn’t find my news sources credible,” he sings. “But I hope that’s not forever... Problem is I kind of feel like I am better and I hope that’s not forever… ‘Cause I definitely think I’m some kind of genius, and that’s a barrier between us.”
It’s a jarring thought to end a song on — the kind of thing few people would admit. But in this case, it’s a sincere investigation of arrogance and stubborn self-certainty, the same factors that Ikeda sees fueling compulsive polarization. Lately, he’s been trying to open himself up to more difficult discussions. “The main test of efficacy for me is, am I able to build solidarity with other people? And anything that prevents that from happening, whether it’s the way that I’m posturing or the way that I’m talking… then I’m acting in the wrong.”
It’s a realization that’s helped him align his daily life more closely with the views that he sings about. He’s still figuring out how to balance everything; the album closes with a trio of more personal songs, including “30,” a year-in-review track which finds him taking stock of his ambitions and fretting about how to make it all work without compromise. But in the meantime, he’s sorted out where music fits in.
“I want people to care about each other. I want people to take each other seriously. I want people to think really hard about stuff that’s serious, and I want to draw attention to some of the violences that I feel particularly concerned about,” he says. “I’ve always been a political writer… but this really felt like a turning point for me. And I feel different now than I did a year ago. I feel much more invested in the political project of making sure people are okay.”
The Michael Character’s 13th album “Oh Shoot!” is out now.