Gentleman Jesse is a Thief (But He Means Well)
“I wonder if anyone will ever be like, ‘Uh, you might need to give a little royalty to old Rich for this one,’” laughs Jesse Smith. “It might happen one day.”
Smith has never been one to take his influences lightly. The seasoned Atlanta musician has been instrumental in Atlanta’s punk and garage scene for years, from playing guitar for the beloved-but-defunct Carbonas to recent endeavors like the Gaye Blades, a side project with the Black Lips’ Jared Swilley. He also fronts COPS, a year-old addition to the city’s harder punk sector. But how intensely he interprets his idols is never as clear as it is with his main gig, Gentleman Jesse and His Men. The 2008 self-titled debut is rife with power-pop jams, and stands somewhat as a sonic shrine to Nick Lowe’s Jesus of Cool/Pure Pop for Now People.
It’s a seemingly perpetually rotating lineup – most recently, Joseph Plunket of the Weight has replaced Warren Bailey, Greg King of GG King replaced Dave Rahn and Adrian Barrera is still in – but the songwriting has always been primarily Smith’s job. So Gentleman Jesse’s sophomore LP, Leaving Atlanta, follows the mold shaped four years ago. And that includes ripping off his favorites. “Rooting for the Underdog,” a cheery tune in the same vein as any other punk-underscored pop tune Smith has shaped, is a nearly literal lift of Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy.”
“I’m not going to be heartbroken if I have to write Little Richard-slash-Jesse wrote the song,” he assures.
Sitting beside a wall of vinyl, his claim isn’t hard to accept. He adores these musicians, so for him, a rip is really an homage. Smith’s record collection is impressive; it spills from a floor-to-ceiling shelf onto the floor in stacks. Anyone who knows Smith is fully aware of how well versed he is as a collector of music. Through his various roles in Atlanta music, he encourages everyone else to be, too.
One of Smith’s closest friends is Bryan Rackley of Douchemaster Records. It’s technically Rackley’s label, but in a way, it’s a joint venture. Smith often helps recruit acts, releases much of his own music on the imprint and helps plot the Atlanta Mess-Around, the annual two-day, Douchemaster-driven punk festival. Last year, with the aid Damon Hare of Triple D’s Productions as well as Rackley, Smith snared the Testors, Oblivians and Subsonics, among other notable acts. They’ve secured New Bomb Turks, Persuaders and Zero Boys for the 2012 lineup. Along with Hare and Rackley, Smith is schooling Atlanta.
“It’s something I’ve been trying to do,” he explains. “I feel like it’s like our job, a little bit, even aside from Mess-Around. When I choose to play with a band, it’s because I think they’re cool, usually. There may have been some circumstances where there’s bands I wasn’t 100 percent behind, but that happens. For the most part, if I’m playing with an out-of-town band, it’s because I love them. And the Mess-Around is a condensed version of that.”
Pushing good is somewhat of a thankless favor. Nobody wants to admit they had to Google half the Mess-Around lineup. It’s a surprise Smith is compelled to do much to benefit the city, anyway. In September of 2008, he was mugged pretty brutally in the Little Five Points area. Nobody would have blamed him if he bolted.
After dinner with his girlfriend Karen Horn and Rackley, Smith found himself with a flat tire and a trio of teens – two guys and a girl in pajamas – asking for directions.
“We had noticed that it was a little on the flatter side when we left, so it’s not like someone systematically picked us out,” he clarifies. “But it was opportunistic – oh, here’s this couple with a flat tire.”
They provided directions, but, Smith says, “They kind of wouldn’t leave us alone.” They tried to help change the tire.
“I don’t know if they were going to follow us home or what they were going to do once we were going, but they were helping us. They were young,” Jesse says. He sounds baffled. “Our spare tire didn’t fit on; it was like a bad spare tire. So we couldn’t do anything and I called Bryan.”
“I was on the phone with Bryan,” Karen interjects. “I called Bryan. I threw my purse in the front seat and called Bryan.”
One of the guys then snatched Karen’s purse, and Smith demanded he hand it over.
“Karen’s yelling at me, ‘Just let him go.’ And then I go, ‘Give me the motherfucking purse back.’ And the guy starts doing this weird dance thing, like this,” Smith says, crossing his arms in front of his face. “Then his buddy hands him the leg of a table that you can buy at the hardware store and hits me in the face. Then I go down and pass out. That’s all I remember. I don’t even remember that, I just remember the dancing. But the guy had handed him the leg of a table. That’s why there’s a scar on my nose – where the UPC code is stapled on, that ripped. I had to get six stitches in my face and reconstructive surgery on my nose.”
Rackley arrived soon after. So did Clay Kilbourne (GG King, Carbonas) and his coworker from a nearby pizzeria.
“They all got in the car and drove away. [The pizzeria employee] said they tried to run us over on the way out,” Karen adds. “We were both on the ground; I was sitting there with [Jesse’s] head in my lap. He was still unconscious.”
Smith came to once the paramedics arrived.
“I don’t know if it was [a gang initiation] or if they wanted to go for the big prize and try to get a TV or whatever. They would have been disappointed!” he jokes. “Bunch of vintage crap, outdated records.”
Contrary to the album’s namesake, Smith never really wanted to get out of town. He owns a home with Karen, who he married last fall. For the past five years, he’s been brewing plans to open a restaurant with Rackley, Matt Christison of Brick Store Pub and Miles Macquarrie of Leon’s Full Service.
Smith describes the restaurant, dubbed Kimball Mill, simply enough: A bar that serves good food in a good atmosphere. For Smith and company, that means craft brews, and likely sausages and raw oysters, in addition to other “masculine” items. They’re still scouting locations, but the grunt work’s long been underway. The plan is to open this year, Smith says.
“Like I said, where am I going to go? I don’t want to go anywhere,” he clarifies. “I’m rooted in.”
The mugging, which kept him bedridden for about a month, did lead him to consider gun ownership, though. When he heard that an East Atlanta mugger was shot and killed in the act, he was glad.
“It was crazy – I was rooting for people to kill people,” he says. “I was in a bad place. It definitely caught up with me. I think some of the negative attitudes are on [Leaving Atlanta]. They need to be on that record. If we’re just going to sit there and go, ‘Oh, it happened again. It needs to be addressed’….The only way I have to [address it] is a stupid rock ‘n’ roll record.”
“Take the hard-hitting issues to power-pop!” jokes Joseph Plunket, who’s seated beside Smith.
Still, Leaving Atlanta is more than an outlet for Smith’s coming to grips with the city’s violent crime. The closest Smith comes to trashing Atlanta is “Eat Me Alive,” the album opener. But just after he warns the town’s trying to devour him, he sings: “But it’s as good a place any to try to survive/ So if you keep your head down/ You push on through/ You just might make it to the other side.”
It seems Smith has opted in, not out.
“Atlanta has been an underdog lately. Yeah, this town sucks. What I always say is I’ve been all over, I’ve been to 40 – how many states have I been to babe? 48?” he asks Karen. “I’ve never been to Alaska and I’ve never been to North Dakota. It’s not like I’ve spent time in every place but I’ve been to a lot of places. And I’ve never been to a place that’s better than Atlanta. But that doesn’t mean that Atlanta is good,” he laughs.
By Smith’s account, the music scene has improved, at least. In the ‘90s, he says, there wasn’t much besides the Rock*A*Teens.
“It was a painful, painful place,” he asserts. “The best bands we had were instrumental bands. We had the Rock*A*Teens – they were fucking amazing. But we lived in this world of…Black Crowes?”
“The second record rules,” Joey chimes in.
“Whatever, we had nothing. There was nothing except the Rock*A*Teens,” Smith insists.
The limited number of venues played a role, Smith believes, and the advent of Die Slaughterhaus and other house venues in the early 2000s assuaged the issue. These days, there’s not an overwhelming amount of venues in Atlanta by any means, but there are plenty of stages to go around.
Smith holds some contempt for the state of music in general, and he’s not particularly gentle when choosing his words.
“Internet sensations. Those are the only people who are going to sell tons of records ever again,” he says bitterly. “I care only on the level that I live in a world with these other people that like this fucking shit. I have to defend myself to people to explain to people that Phish sucks. Like, Phish. It’s not even relevant. I looked at the Internet today because people were talking about Sleigh Bells and Lana Del Rey. I don’t know if people like it or if it’s the same thing as watching Jersey Shore. I don’t know…if anyone is ever going to own a Gentleman Jesse record and a Lana Del Rey record at the same time, or be in the same building at the same time, I don’t know if it that’s ever going to happen. I hope to God that it doesn’t… I don’t want to pick my crowd or anything like that, but if people are that fucking stupid, then they can go get fucked. I’m sorry, it’s just gotten so bad. If that’s what people are into…Ugh, it’s just terrible.”
Admittedly, Smith has high expectations of music fans. (“Maybe more than I should,” he confesses.) But to be fair, it’s a lot easier for younger generations to better their taste in music – or, at the very least, explore sounds beyond the mainstream.
When Smith saw Predator as a kid – his favorite film, he makes clear – he became a Little Richard fan. He heard “Long Tall Sally” in a scene and sought out the 45.
“You’re into something and you do a little bit of research, it’s not fucking hard. I don’t know what’s fucking wrong with people to not figure this shit out,” he says matter-of-factly. “The kids are lucky because they have the Interwebz and are 10 years old listening to Psychocandy. I didn’t have that luxury. I had to dig through shit. So, Ian MacKaye from Fugazi was in Minor Threat, duh. And Minor Threat listened to Wire, covered Wire songs, so I bought Wire records. I did the work for it. So very quickly it was the kind of thing, like, Nation of Ulysses guys are wild because they learned all their stage antics from watching MC5 videos, so I bought MC5 records. That’s how it happens.”
It would be inaccurate to say Smith hasn’t made mistakes, not only in the music he used to like (he still stands by Rancid’s early days), but also the bands he once played in. Take Kossabone Red, for example – a pile of the band’s LP, Smith’s first, was an elephant he didn’t want to address.
Whether those blunders dwarfed or propelled Smith or not is extraneous, however, to the fact that Leaving Atlanta is his best work to date. It’s back-to-back hits; not one song qualifies as a misstep. One-liners loosely based in clichés, like “You might sing the same song as me/ We just don’t sing the same key” (“I’m Only Lonely”), are so perfectly placed in incredibly catchy songs that trite sentiments become refreshing and resonant.
It’s Smith’s masterful understanding of what works for him and what doesn’t – something that involves an uncanny understanding of his preferences – that’s cleared such a simple path to a signature sound. The album builds on the first in the most ideal way: It’s not at all the same record, but it’s not much different.
“It’s taking influences seriously as opposed to you know, sounding like those musicians who are influenced by all kinds of different stuff, then they make this really bland music,” he explains. “That’s what’s so good about [the garage and punk] scene. We’re influenced by this music and we take it very seriously and, you know, we sort through it in a way that’s like okay, here’s some cool moves that this band did, and some cool moves that this band did – when I say moves, I mean sonic things. Like, this part’s going to be kind of like this, and this one like this. You can give it a frame of reference and it’s cool. You don’t have to worry about the failures of all this music that’s already happened. Basically, we’re reassembling stuff in our own way.”
“It’s also like when you were talking about Atlanta in the ’90s,” Plunket says. “So many bands, their goal was just to reinvent the wheel so much to the point where it wasn’t recognizable as music. You’re just standing around watching people trying to get crazy sounds.”
“The wheel’s already perfect,” Jesse says. “Let’s just keep using it.”
But what if people just don’t get it? What if someone, maybe even a person with an above-average level of musical knowledge, actually prefers Lana Del Ray’s brand of pop to Gentleman Jesse and His Men?
“Well, they can listen to Ryan Adams or whatever they normally listen to and get fucked, again,” he laughs.
Photo by Tim Song.