There are so many bands out there doing so many interesting things, it's hard to know where to turn. That's why we've created Crash Course, a recurring feature offering a concise introduction to a band or artist that we think slays, covering their origins, process and vision. Our latest subject is Mil-Spec, a new hardcore-leaning outfit from Toronto that mixes youth-crew influences with post-hardcore D.C.-isms to create a wholly original hybrid that rings both familiar and new. The band's latest release is the near-infinitely playable Changes, a four-song offering that recalls everything from Turning Point to Fugazi to Jawbox. We cornered guitarist Matt LaForge to see how they worked and where inspiration comes from.
WHO ARE MIL-SPEC? GIVE US A BRIEF HISTORY ON HOW YOU GUYS MET.
MATT LAFORGE Mil-Spec is Dan on lead guitar, Jacob on drums, Codey on bass, [me] on second guitar, and Andrew on vocals. We're from all over Southern Ontario and we're headquartered in Toronto. The pre-history of the band is long and complicated. Even telling the short version takes a while. It goes back to summer 2014, when Jacob and I started jamming. I'm a lot older than him, but we knew each other a bit — his old band had played with mine — and we had recently played a couple of sets together in True, our friend Emmett's youth-crew side project. The original proto-Spec lineup was the two of us and three other friends, all of whom eventually quit. The original target sound was pretty ill-defined beyond a vague desire to be fast and youthfully energetic — an approach that's still in our DNA, I think, even if our explicit aesthetic goals have evolved. In the summer of 2015, a full year after our first practice, after some of members had departed, Jacob brought out Dan, whom he's known since childhood. That was when we started to find our way. We had been struggling to write songs, and Dan came in with a lot of ideas and technical aptitude and he whipped us into shape on that front. But, even at that point, we were still most of a year away from finding a permanent singer in Andrew — we went through about six candidates in the interim — and a bassist in Codey. They both joined several months after the music on our demo had already been written and recorded.
Also of note is that the name Mil-Spec came in a package deal with Andrew. Mil-Spec had been the name of an entirely separate studio project circa 2015 — an ill-fated Southern Ontario supergroup consisting of members of Wild Side and Demolition, Andrew's other band. That project had yielded one recorded song with Andrew on vocals — never released — and a small run of shirts, which were given out to friends at America's Hardcore 2015. The intro to that unreleased Mil-Spec v.1 song was retconned into the Mil-Spec v.2 live set, where it occasionally appears to this day.
So Mil-Spec, in its current form, is the synthesis of Andrew's studio project and Dan's/Jake's/my bumbling straight-edge project. There were long stretches of time during which we had no real reason to believe the band would ever get off the ground. But for some reason we kept getting together to rehearse, we kept plugging away. Everything that's happened since has been extra gratifying because of that in-the-wilderness period.
WHAT WERE THE BANDS THAT YOU AND YOUR BANDMATES AGREED UPON AS THE CORNERSTONES FOR CREATING THE GROUP?
When Dan showed up in 2015 and assumed the bulk of riff-writing duties, we were still aiming to be a fairly traditional straight-edge band, but because Dan was in what I'll call a bouncy frame of mind in those days, we talked a lot about Shelter, the Mantra album in particular. The demo, which we released in the summer of 2016, sounds like a band that started out wanting to be straightforwardly youth crewish, with an overlay of as many direct sonic and lyrical references to Shelter as we could internally justify.
After the demo, we turned our attention to a suite of influences we call the Two Revs: Revolution Summer and the Revelation Records Expanded Universe circa '90-'92 — e.g., Supertouch, Inside Out, Burn, Turning Point, Quicksand, the second Chain 7-inch. Without speaking too much for the other members of the band, I'll say that the probable reason for our gravitating to these bands — though you can never be sure about these things — is that they represented transitional periods. In the case of Rev Summer, the improbable transition out of violence and creative stagnation. With that Rev-and-friends era, it was the abrupt transition into the world-historic period known as the 1990s, with all the pie-in-the-sky promises that the decade held. The Nineties hit underground music like an H-bomb and changed everything. 2016-present has felt transitional, too, which is part of the reason our record is called Changes. Our friend Gil says Mil-Spec is an "intergenerational" band, both in the sense that we have older members fraternizing with younger members and in the sense that we're interested in how generations and historical currents meet and give way to one another. Sorry, if that sounds pretentious.
WHAT WAS THE EUREKA MOMENT FOR YOU, WHEN YOU DECIDED THAT THIS COULD BE SOMETHING THAT WAS MORE THAN JUST FOR FUN?
I don't know if we're there yet. "Fun" is the only form of compensation that we can rely on. "Social prestige" and "money" have proved elusive. Maybe we should be looking harder or in different places.
I'll tell you the moment when we realized that we could maybe be a good band some day: It was after last summer's release of When the Fever Broke, our cassette single on Advanced Perspective. The title track was the first song of ours that had anything resembling "it" — the ineffable quality, the je ne sais quoi that affects the deepest recesses of the listener's unconscious and makes music feel good in addition to sounding good. David Foster Wallace, paraphrasing Yeats, called it "the click." Realizing at some point after the single came out that, if we buckled down and worked hard, we were capable of producing "it" — that our band's particular mix of personalities, ideas, and talents could produce "it" — inspired us to really grind on the songs that became the Changes EP, which may or may not have any of "it" in evidence. We're still too close to the project to be able to make an objective assessment.
HOW HAVE YOU IMPROVED IN THE LIVE SETTING BETWEEN THE START AND NOW?
To be honest, we haven't played enough shows to substantially level up as a gigging entity. We haven't been able to put in the 10,000 hours' worth of onstage work. We do have some innate elements in our favor — e.g., Andrew's a good dancer, Dan was born to play guitar on a stage, Jacob hits his drums incredibly hard — but I think our best days as a live band are ahead of us. To whatever extent our live show has gotten better since we formed, it's due more than anything to our having better songs. The proof is that we've gotten to the point where we don't feel an absolute need to play covers. We'll do it when the mood strikes, but we're confident that we have enough "catalog" to deliver the goods to an audience without having to use other people's work as a crutch. That's a milestone worth marking, but we still have a lot of room to improve. No false modesty.
WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES IN REPRODUCING THE LIVE SOUND ON THE RECORD?
We haven't really thought of recording in those terms. The recording is ontologically prior to the live set, in our view — the former fuels the latter, not the other way around. It doesn't matter how cool we dress or how much we jump around or how many Coreys and Trevors we bully into moshing for us — the shows aren't shit without great songs and exciting recordings underpinning them. So our primary challenge, studio-wise, is the same for any musician who records: extracting ideas from our heads, transferring them safely into the Styrofoam cooler, and medevacing them to the lab, where the surgeons — a.k.a. our producer Emmett and our engineer Dylan — scrub in and transplant them onto tape, intact. It's amazing what can happen to our original ideas along the way. The song you step in is not the song you stand in. The longer we're together and writing material, the more subtle and precise the ideas, the more delicate the transplant process. Not that we're really walking the high steel, formally speaking — pardon the shift in metaphors. We're still in the business of writing what are essentially simple hardcore songs, and we will be for the foreseeable.
DO YOU PLAN TO TOUR EXTENSIVELY? WHO WOULD BE SOME IDEAL TOURING PARTNERS?
"Extensively" is probably out of the question. Andrew, Codey and I have full-time, grown-up gigs, and it won't be long before Jacob and Dan have them, too. We all agree that the band is worth putting time and effort into, and losing some money on, but the gig/life balance has been hard to achieve thus far, and it won't get easier. At the moment, our goal is to get out and do something at least once every season: If we manage so much as four weekend-long trips a year we're satisfied.
The touring partner that brings out the best in us is Abuse of Power. We went out with them for a few days in June and then reconnected with them at Sound & Fury. They blew us away every night — just slaughtered us — and shamed us into being better. I think that, save for Fury, AoP is the best hardcore band right now, on stage and on record. In fact, if you were to close your eyes at one of their shows, you'd swear you were listening to their record. I have an extra sentimental connection to them, too, since their influences roamed the earth in my teen years. I told them so and they said, "Cool."