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For John Chiaverina, the end of Juiceboxxx is also a new beginning

John Chiaverina’s longtime project, Juiceboxxx, was born in Milwaukee 20 years ago. Fast-forward a bit, and he’s moved on from the city and transformed into his new musical identity, Rustbelt.

But Chiaverina’s constants remain — ever-moving, always positive, carrying the same punk ethos and undeniable magnetism. Under his new moniker, he’ll release Rustbelt's debut EP this Friday and thus officially release himself from the identity he built in the Milwaukee scene.

Free of Juiceboxxx, Chiaverina still honors his ties to that moniker and the city that helped create it. We caught up with him recently to reminisce and reveal the new musical road ahead as Rustbelt.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the inspiration behind this recent transformation?

John Chiaverina: I'm no longer Juiceboxxx, which is a really absurd thing to call yourself for 20 years. The first 10 years went by really fast, but then the second 10 years, there was just a lot of questioning involved. My life was so bisected between my personal life and then my professional life. But this thing meant a lot to me. It gave me a reason to live, but I gotta change. 

You were dedicated, dedicated, dedicated to Juiceboxxx. How do you move aside from that, other than the pandemic kind of just giving you a little push in a way?

JC: Yeah, it sped up some stuff that probably would've happened organically, but it probably would've just taken a bit more time. By the end of Juiceboxxx, the thing was fairly focused. I wasn't touring a million days a year; I would go out when it made sense. I spent so many years traveling on Greyhound buses and whatever, doing anything that I could to keep playing and keep this thing going. 

This new project is a step, but it's just like everything I've done in a sense, I hope it's fairly organic-feeling. The music is just an extension of where I was headed, anyways. 

On the last Juiceboxxx record, I could connect the musical dots really easily; it didn't seem like a drastic jump to something else.

JC: Yeah. I'm excited about that. I don't know if I'm done rapping. Maybe I'll start a new rap project under a different name. 

Juiceboxxx tried to take everything I liked and put it under one umbrella, so it was really chaotic. I would go on tour, and one night I would play a dance club and then I'd play a noise show. The next night, I'd play a rap show play with punk bands. 

That was me — moving through culture in this really chaotic, unfocused way, which was cool. I was able to do a lot of amazing things because I was making those connections between these different communities. But it also made Juiceboxxx fairly unclassifiable. 

Rustbelt, to me, is a more focused project. This is about good songwriting paired with a really defined visual identity — with these, uh, absurd cups that I made. It’s more about trying to transmit a certain kind of feeling I got growing up, listening to Weezer or something, getting excited about this defined world, you know?

Juiceboxxx was a huge part of Milwaukee music, lore and memories. Are you feeling particularly nostalgic for Milwaukee lately?

JC: I think it's more complex than nostalgia because I have very complex feelings about my relationship to Juiceboxxx and to the city and to everything I've done. 

That goes back to my desire for growth. I'm trying to push past certain things. I mean, yeah, there's nostalgia, but it's more like the music just came to me. That's a songwriter cliché, I know. But it actually doesn't happen so much. Usually you have to work to get songs, but this one just kind of happened. 

So I wasn't really thinking about much when I wrote these lyrics, to be honest with you. But when I look at it now as a final product, it's kind of bittersweet. It’s been a complex, weird life, and I'm still trying to make sense of it, you know? 

When you're doing that through music, it just happens. You're not really thinking about it on a very focused, concrete level. You're just writing, and then later on you maybe figure out what it's about.

Your song “Fade The Mix” starts out with this really strong fifth-grade memory. Earlier, you mentioned Weezer. Were you really into music before your teenage years? What were you listening to when you were fifth-grade age?

JC: Fourth grade, an early CD was Beck’s Odelay. By fifth grade, I had a cousin kind of get me into ska a little bit, so I was already going down that path. And that's around the same time that I started listening to WMSE, which I listened to obsessively for many years.

By 11 or 12, music became a focus. I didn’t listen to everything, but I gravitated to a wide range of styles. And I think, in a way, what Juiceboxxx ended up being had a lot to do with that period of my life. On the radio, I would listen to the underground rap show and the punk show and the rave show, and then I would go to Atomic Records and buy the records. I was just curious. I would buy zines, all of that stuff.

I'm not trying to romanticize that era because I think there's a lot of really great stuff about how you can discover music nowadays. But the fact is, just because I was so young, I was the last generation of kids to read zines and buy records and listen to the radio and not have the internet consume my life. It was about that old-school framework, and it meant a lot to me, and I guess it still does. 

You told Milwaukee Record , “I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to grow up, trying to change my life, trying to stay positive, and Juiceboxxx was an exercise in believing in myself despite everything.” After 20 years of Juiceboxxx providing that foundation, do you feel Rustbelt will serve you in the same way?

JC: Yeah. You know, my relationship to music has changed as I've aged. Your mid-30s is an interesting time to be making music. I have a lot of friends who have stable, professional careers as musicians, touring and recording artists. And then I have a lot of friends who have sort of stopped or focused on other things, you know? 

You accrue baggage. If you've been making music for decades, it's harder and harder to put yourself out into the world because you've seen too much or something, or you've been through too much. And I understand that either you professionalize and you have a career, or you stop taking it so seriously. But I'm sort of in between that.

I think that's an interesting space to write from. When Juiceboxxx ended, it was like, “OK, I don't have my career as a musician — it’s fully on pause, or maybe it's over.” So I was just messing around with music again like I was 14. That was a real gut-check moment for me. I was like, “OK, I guess I have to do this because I'm just doing this, and I'm not putting it out into the world.”

It took a lot of time for this to come together. It still means a lot to me, but it’s changed. If it didn't change, that would be sad. I have no interest in doing the same thing that I would've done when I was 23 with music. That doesn't feel productive to me.

Along with the release of your EP, has there been anything special you’ve rolled out?

JC: I had this idea to do these record covers that photographed a classic gas-station cup with the Rustbelt logo, repeating. It’s truly insane, but instead of Photoshopping anything, I went out and actually made 2,000 cups, which was the minimum run. Cactus Club and I are doing a drink special using the cups, proceeds go to Girls and Ladies Rock MKE.

It makes me think about all the time in my life I've spent hanging outside of gas stations. That’s the visual energy of this project. Just like “America 101,” for better or worse. I'm still obsessed with it.

We’re gonna go out on a question we like to ask everyone: What is the last song that you can't stop listening to?

JC: It’s “Passions” by F.G.S. It’s a friend of mine, Flannery Silva. She was in a band called Odwalla88/1221 who were one of the more important bands in underground music over the past decade. I put out a 7-inch for them on my old label. 

Her new project isn’t experimental or noise-based. It's pop-country, essentially, with really incredible songwriting. It's completely formed and fully singular, which is rare. It's on all streaming services. It's F period G period S period, and the song's called “Passions.” It’s the song of the summer.