Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Digging Deep: Buying Records with Gentleman Jesse

Few people can rattle off such a staggering knowledge of rock and punk minutiae as easily as Jesse Smith. Pull any scratched-up record out of the dollar bin and he can tell you something about the producer or the drummer’s other band. For Smith, it’s more than a hobby, it’s a lifestyle choice; one that’s underscored when he explains that his record collection is filed by race, genre and soon by decade.

Weaving through traffic on I-75 North, heading to Circle Sky Records the guitarist for Atlanta punk band Carbonas, and the charismatic frontman of his own group, Gentleman Jesse & His Men fumbles to switch off his cell phone after reading an incoming text message. He laughs as he explains that he uses Metallica as the benchmark by which he compares most bands: [e.g. Fugazi’s Red Medicine is the equivalent of …And Justice for All. 13 Songs is their Kill ‘em All and In on the Kill Taker is Master of Puppets].

His opinions are sound, but never about anything too serious. A good example of this comes to light when he explains that bands should not be allowed to wear shorts on stage. "You're not in your living room and you're not up there for comfort," he says. "When you are performing for an audience, you owe them a certain amount of respect. Shorts don't convey that respect." He goes on to recall watching Pearl Jam perform on televion a decade ago and seeing Eddie Vedor wearing sweat pants. "It was a huge problem in the '90s."

A week before this record shopping excursion, Smith approached me at Criminal Records in Little 5 Points as I studied a dated and awkward album cover by Belgian punk band Hubble Bubble. “That record is essential,” he declared. “It’s noisy, and they think they’re being space-aged and it sounds like they’re playing broken guitars… It’s awesome, and Plastic Bertrand was their drummer. You know who that is?” Of course not, but I grunted a dismissive “uh huh…” while making a mental note to type him into Wikipedia that night.

Later at Wax and Facts he stuck two more LPs in my hand, Baroque Hoedown and Sixteen Tambourines by the Three O’clock. “These are their first two records, and if you don’t have them you really should. It’s great psychedelic punk…” He was right.

Over the years Smith’s shopping habits have left a mark on his own musical output. His early bands Some Soviet Station and Paper Lions bore the agonizing marks of the post-hardcore and emotionally charged climate of the late ‘90s. His recent trad. punk guitar sneer in Carbonas, and the power pop chug of Gentleman Jesse & His Men reflect the time spent making sense of the records he buys, while shaping his own sounds.

When did you graduate from high school?

It was ‘98. Because I was underage, I couldn’t see the shows I wanted see. The easiest thing was to go to house shows at places like I Defy and the Driver Dome. Back then the scene in Atlanta was straight edge and vegan. It didn’t last long because it wasn’t any fun. But that’s how I got to see music.

That scene influenced your early bands, Some Soviet Station and Paper Lions.

I was a record collector even then, so I started off buying Drive Like Jehu records, which was an obvious influence. Then I figured out the DC hardcore thing. I had a little bit of an edge over people because of record collecting, as far as influences on my band. But I remember like in ’98 I thought I should check out MC5. I like rock music and didn’t want to play beat your chest emo just to get laid, like a lot of people did.

Gentleman Jesse and Carbonas are very different from your previous bands.

There was a clear point in my life where I said ‘I am changing my ideals.’ I had spent so much time in bands saying ‘I am not going to put any boundaries on what I can do musically.’ Things have to be natural and real.

I always find you in bands that have a lot of steam, like Paper Lions and Carbonas.

Paper Lions was awful. It was democracy failing. I was really into the Birthday Party and avant-garde punk and was trying not to rip anybody off and just make music that pulled from influences. At the time there was a real shitty hipster garage rock thing going on and there were guys in the band who thought, ‘we can do that.’ Our publishing money was split four-ways. Four people writing a song are too many. We wanted to do something that was cool and Mission of Burma-influenced, but it got whittled down to something boring with every song. I could go back and fix that band if everybody would just listen to me, but that will never happen and I don’t care too much. I’m doing fine now.

Then you joined Carbonas?

They overlapped by a year. I would get made fun of by the bands we played with. People would say ‘you’re in that shitty indie rock band..?’ But the best tours I have ever been on, the ones where people are fans and are there for the music were with Carbonas. I toured for 7 months with Paper Lions and people liked us less every time we came through town.

It’s probably cathartic to play with Carbonas after Paper Lions.

At first I had this hang up: you can’t make punk rock in modern times. It just isn’t real. But I found myself going to see Carbonas every week and buying the records and thinking they were great. No one else thought so at the time, maybe the same 20 kids that I saw at every show.

But they’re pretty big now?

Not in Atlanta. They’re respected mostly because of some sort of Black Lips trickle down. The Black Lips and Carbonas used to be the tightest thing in the world. The first Black Lips tours were with Carbonas.

We finish shopping, eyeball each other over an Arthur Lee 45, and after Jesse debates whether or not to plunk down $25 for Sam Cook’s Hits of the ‘50s, he decides to pass. We make our purchases and leave.

Records bought:
Pussy Galore Live: in the Red
The Subsonics A Lot to Forget
Arthur Lee “Sad Song” b/w “You Want Change For Your Re-Run” 45.

Next stop, The Book Nook on Cleremont Rd.

You have been playing music in Atlanta for a long time, and recently a lot of bands in Atlanta have become wildly popular. Has this affected you?

Playing better music has helped. I go on tour and people like my band?

Is it based on the band’s merits or is it because you’re from Atlanta and associated with so much other stuff right now?

I would like to think that it’s because of the band’s merits. When I first joined Carbonas we couldn’t get anyone to put out our LP. So we put out the single and pressed only 200 copies. It sold out very quickly and we got on the cover of Maximum Rock & Roll. It was pretty remarkable.

But has Gentleman Jesse benefited from that?

We put on the Gentleman Jesse “I don’t Wanna Know” single “members of Carbonas doing power pop” and we sold out of 500 copies in three months.

You’re a big fan or Nick Lowe. I’ve written about Gentleman Jesse and compared you to things like Lowe, Joe Jackson, Rick Springfield…

You can take Rick Springfield off of your list. That guy ruined my life. He wrote a song, called “Jesse’s girl.” I hate that fucking guy.

As the shopping winds down we compare our scores at The Book Nook. He is cradling a copy of ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres and I am holding a pristine copy of the soundtrack to Decline of the Western Civilization Pt. 1. We both eyeball each other again, this time as if to ask, “don’t you already have that?” Truth be told, I’m not sure if I do or not, but I might as well pick it up.

How do you feel about it when people say “Gentleman Jesse wears his influences on his sleeve?”

I do! It feels good… I was asked to join Carbonas I thought wait a second. It’s not okay to play punk rock in a modern setting, and it’s not okay to sound like Gang of Four, but why? Everything has been done? What’s the alternative, start a noise band? That’s been done. The best thing you can do is put your influences together and put your touch on them. If it sounds like I’m doing a great rip off and people like it, awesome. If it seems like my influences are obvious, it’s probably not as obvious as you think, which goes back to record collecting and trying to find the most obscure bullshit in the world. The obvious ones are obvious. Nick Lowe, I love him. But there are a lot more that people would never recognize. Guided by Voices, just from the low- fi angle and a lot of ‘60s worship, and Beatlemania. Good power pop bands from the ‘70s like the Nerves were so good because they weren’t trying to be a power pop band. They were trying to be the Beatles. You need to listen to the first couple of Beatles records and try to pull that off. That’s way more important than trying to sound like some band from the ‘70s that had skinny ties, but not great hooks and memorable songs. I realize this because I have played shows around the country and heard people singing my song back at me… I’m just trying to be the Beatles.

Top Photo by Laura Hull
Words and bottom photo by Chad Radford