From the moment you look at the album cover of Gentleman Jesse's eponymous release, there is a certain sense of familiarity to it. Something subtle about it that just seems right. The same phenomenon occurs seconds within the album's beginning notes. Those chords, that beat - these harmonies! It may not be perfectly polished, but that sound, that energy is so...
Can't put your finger on the exact influences or styles embodying Atlanta's Gentleman Jesse and His Men? Don't even try. That would be like pinpointing a soul sample on a DJ Shadow record without any assistance. Replace DJ Shadow's use of soul with a long lineage of punk rock dating back to early '60s proto-punk, and meet Jesse Smith - the founder, lead singer and lead guitarist of Gentleman Jesse and His Men. "I'm a huge record collector; I listen to all kinds of stuff," Smith says. "The basic idea for the band is just to have a hook. It doesn't matter what it is, if it's fast or slow or aggressive. Just as long as it has a hook."
After years playing in the punk band Carbonas, Smith finally has a new voice with which to showcase his own brand of melodic power-pop. "I usually say that it's kind of got a British Invasion vibe filtered through punk rock as if the Ramones were trying to play the Beatles," he aptly describes it. While his music draws from that wide of a range - as well as everything in between - he seamlessly samples it all into a collage of raw, rock 'n' roll excellence.
Smith is an unassuming leader who guides his fellow band members with a quiet confidence - that is until he takes the stage. Donning a vintage army button-down shirt labeled "Smith" on the front pocket, Smith nonchalantly positioned himself front-and-center as he took the helm during a recent show. His bravado irreverently stood out as he encouraged the crowd to drink and offhandedly asked the audience, "It's a Tuesday, what the fuck do you have to do tomorrow?" And on cue, he and His Men hastily jumped into "Xmas Song," where Smith wails in the song's chorus, "I'll be getting over my hangover on Christmas morn / That's the way I celebrate the day Jesus was born!"
Displays of no-frills raucousness like this, in addition to constant channeling of the past, comprise the major forces behind the band. "On an energy level, the first song ["Highland Crawler"] on our LP is a fun song to play," says Smith. "It's got that slashing Who guitar thing - it's a good 'get people pumped' song." The track would feel right at home as part of the High Fidelity soundtrack. Falling right beside the open riffs of the 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me" and Nick Lowe's "So it Goes," Smith pays homage with his powerfully brash riffs, while taking the song to a whole other level of power-pop perfection.
Even that all-too-familiar, yet not so recognizable, album cover pays homage - this time to the cover of Elvis Costello's This Year's Model. "We just brought a bunch of different background colors, and I knew I wanted it to be just a picture of me and the band with a background color, and for it not to say anything on the front," Smith says. "There was a bunch of different things I had thought of, like the Nick Lowe - Jesus of Cool record; Dave Edmunds - Repeat When Necessary; and that one [Costello's This Year's Model] all came out around the same time and all had a similar look to it - and the Wreckless Eric LP too. So we took all different pictures of me with a guitar...and that one came out the best."
Smith unveils himself gradually over time, but not in the lineage of Elvis Costello per se - or any other individual artist for that matter. Rather, his aesthetic represents the summation of artists he respects, music he adores, and records he collects. As simple as that sounds, it's no easy task - yet he has convincingly mastered it. Ultimately, Smith prevails as a musician simply making music for its own sake, celebrating his years of digging through the crates by creating timeless punk rock that both honors his countless influences and trails its own unique path.
For someone whose music is so entwined with that of the past, Smith is curiously intrigued by how his work is viewed alongside his contemporaries after gaining popularity since his new record. "I always look at people who ask us to be friends on MySpace and it used to be that [these] people liked the Oblivion and Carbonas and stuff I expected from people who sit in the same genre," he says. "Now it's like, 'We like Wilco' and stuff like that."
While most musicians would be enamored about being mentioned in the same sentence as Wilco or any other band of that caliber and notoriety, it simply doesn't concern Smith. "The press? I take it or leave it, as long as people are listening," he says.
-Written by Max Blau, Photos by Leili Kasraie, Feature Story for Performer Magazine (April 2010--Online Edition)