Who Is…Gentleman Jesse

Austin L. Ray

By Austin L. Ray

on 03.20.12 in Who Is...?s

File under: Classic-sounding rock 'n' roll with a distinctly power-pop melodic sensibility

For fans of: Elvis Costello, The Nerves, Little Richard, and Nick Lowe

From: Atlanta, Georgia

Personae: Jesse Smith (vocals/guitar), Adrian Barrera (guitar/vocals), Joseph Plunkett (bass/vocals), Milton Chapman (organ/vocals), Dave Rahn (drums)

A lot has changed for Atlanta rocker Jesse Smith in the last four years, both for good and ill. He got married, but also lost friends to cancer (ATL punk staple Bobby Ubangi) and drugs (Jay Reatard). He started planning a restaurant with some friends, but got violently mugged on Atlanta’s streets. His band’s profile rose, but he questioned if his relative success was worth the draining workload. It’s this back-and-forth conflict that fuels Leaving Atlanta, his accomplished sophomore album that finds Smith augmenting his power-pop leanings with Milton Chapman’s welcome organ, more delightful three-part harmonies, and a matured sense of songwriting. “I feel like the songs are better written,” Smith says. “I feel like there’s less filler, but whenever somebody says that about their record, they’re usually wrong and it sucks.”

eMusic’s Austin L. Ray bellied up to a bar with Smith to discuss his extracurricular activities, what the future may hold, and the drama that nearly found him actually leaving Atlanta.

On his black metal project that almost happened:

I toyed around with all kinds of things. I talked about doing a black metal band and never telling anyone it was me. I wasn’t going to do corpsepaint. I was gonna do kind of a mix between Brainbombs and…have you ever heard of them? They’re ugly. They’re from Sweden, they’ve been around since the late ’80s and all they sing about is rape and murder. All their stuff is really repetitive and creepy and believable. I really like them. Apparently, they’re teachers. How do you get away with saying shit like that when you’re a teacher? So yeah, I wanted to take that and mix it with black metal somehow and just release cassettes and never tell anybody who it was. But if there’s one thing I hate, it’s metal poseurs and indie-rock metalheads and all that bullshit. So I didn’t wanna be that. What’s so great about black metal is that you kinda believe it and you’re scared of them. I remember hearing stories about Marduk. One of my old bands was on this label that was distributed through this company that also distributed this metal label, and we were staying at the head of distribution’s house in New York, and he was like, “We’re real bummed Marduk couldn’t get into the country because they got busted for robbing graves.” Then I looked at their record and the lyrics to one of the songs was about fucking dead people. I was like, “Whoa! These guys live the life they sing about in their songs.”

On the restaurant he’s starting with three friends:

All this stuff is on the table, because we don’t have our financing together. So, rich people, get in touch. It’s called Kimball Mill, like Lt. Jon Kimball from Kindergarten Cop. It’s not named after him, though. We wanted to open up a spot, and have Belgian beer and a jukebox with punk-rock records on it. It’s not gonna be like that any more. It’s gonna be beer, cocktails, we’re doing sausages, farm-to-table. It seems like there’s a lot of that going on, and not to be cocky, but we feel like we’re better than most. Not to mention, Bryan’s made the best hot dog that’s ever been made. I don’t mind saying that because it’s the truth.

[Us: Are you worried about competing with Top Chef winner and Atlanta celebrity chef Richard Blais's new hot dog restaurant, HD1? Smith, leaning into the recorder, as if speaking directly to Blais: Yeah, good luck, buddy. (laughs)]

On why he stuck with Douchemaster despite other label interest:

People [weren't] willing to take risks on bands is one thing. Then deciding where we fit in this whole thing [is another]. There are a bunch of labels that I really love that offered to do it, and we would’ve been with those labels…Working with HoZac on that single was great. Todd really has his shit together, puts out great records and works for his bands. We were talking about that, but it kinda depended on how serious Douchemaster could take a record [amidst working on other things, like the restaurant]. It was the kind of thing where we didn’t know if Douchemaster would be able to survive that pressure. But we got an exclusive distribution deal with Revolver, so now a lot of the workload’s been taken off Bryan [Rackley], so we can continue to release records and get shit done.

On Leaving Atlanta‘s rather dire inspirations:

It’s kind of like Ramones’ Leave Home — the second record. But it was also written when it just seemed like everything was going wrong. There was so much crime going on. I got jumped; I got my nose broken. I was a victim to a violent crime. Friends getting cancer. There was so much bullshit, like a rain cloud hanging over the city. So that’s the general idea of the whole record, and then it’s sprinkled with that typical Gentleman Jesse, like, British Invasion stuff. I always say that I don’t write in the first person, really, just kind of whatever works for a song. Nothing interesting ever happens to me, for the most part, but [after all the drama], I finally had fodder. There’s still, like, the goofy love songs and whatnot, but it’s a little more serious. I don’t wanna lose a sense of humor or anything, though.

On Cops, his latest band with former Carbonas and current GG King frontman, Greg King:

I’ve never been this pop-focused in my entire musical career. It’s a yin to the yang kinda thing. I need something a little ugly. Cops is way less catchy than any punk band I’ve been in. I joke that it’s a grunge band because I use a wah-wah pedal and all the chords suck and it’s really murky. I don’t expect anyone to like it.

On doing the band vs. maintaining the day job:

I’m not going to be able to do any more three-month tours, which I’m fucking fine with. That was like, do or die, and we did it. It definitely pushed us from being that punk-rock band that’s real boutique and kitschy to semi-household name. Whether or not you like it or it’s your thing, people know who I am now to a certain extent. As much as a person who would even consider the idea of purchasing something on Douchemaster Records a reality, anyway. I don’t know. At this point, it’s like, who cares? I’m gonna keep making records and I’m gonna keep doing shows. I like to tour. I get a little fidgety. I’m ready to hop in a van right now. I just don’t want to [do] three months. Unless it’s cozy. Short drives and hotel rooms are awesome. At the same time, I hate wasting money on bullshit like that. $130 for something you use for eight hours?