“We’re gonna rip through four old songs, and then I’m gonna go have a beer over there,” says Gentleman Jesse Smith, pointing to the bar. The band has just finished playing its latest album, Lose Everything, in its entirety, making for a true album-release show at The Earl. Refusing the traditional encore dramatics, the band remains on the stage. Jesse shakes off requests from the crowd, and the band launches into “Highland Crawler” before finishing the night with “We Got To Get Out Of Here”.
The finale’s postscript aura seems appropriate. Lose Everything is a dramatic departure from Jesse’s previous records, the self-titled debut (2008) and Leaving Atlanta (2012), each a slice of perfect power pop. I first saw Gentleman Jesse at a 2006 afternoon basement show at a residence doubling as Rob’s House Records headquarters. Jesse slashed away at his Rickenbacker, his voice rising to each chorus, the rest of the band hardly flinching, the exemplars of cool. The hooks were timeless and deep-seated as if I’d known them all along and the band was playing a set of their greatest hits. Hearing “I Don’t Want to Know” for the first time, I knew it would be a hit if a copy of the 7” fell into the right hands. That afternoon’s performance satisfied the mythic idealization of the DIY punk scene. Some memories are made beautiful by nostalgia; this is the truth.
Jesse could have coasted on that sound forever. Instead, he avoided being freeze-framed as a power pop icon. Lose Everything is a document of loss, its mood the undoing of belief, the collapse of the foundations that made Gentleman Jesse’s earlier songs a joy, even if he was singing about broken hearts. The breaks on Lose Everything are more profound. The opening track “Become Nothing” is the sound of a band reborn, its dissonant riff and the shivery vocals lightyears from the go-to Stiff Records reference points from his previous records. Yet melodies and hooks, if not straightforward, are still inevitable– “Hunger”, “Compass”, and “Dead May Rest” linger long after the record has stopped spinning.
Lose Everything is an album that’s as challenging as it is rewarding. Some listeners might call it Gentleman Jesse’s “difficult third album,” a mark of distinction for canon classics like Big Star’s Third/Sister Love, R.E.M.’s Fable of Reconstruction, The Stranglers’ Black and White, and Public Image Limited’s Flowers of Romance. So be it. In an era ravaged by short attention spans, the burden is on the listener, not the art.
Lose Everything is available now from Beach Impediment Records.
CF- Jesse, your last record came out in 2012. That’s ten years ago. Where have you been?
GJ- I basically poured myself into Leaving Atlanta. When we did that record, we recorded 21 songs, and I narrowed it down to 15 songs knowing that I could pull some stuff and make singles with it. And there’s a compilation song. But recording 21 songs in one go is a pretty big undertaking. After I had done that, I’m thinking about hook-driven rock ‘n’ roll music, and I burned myself out on that style to the point where with my musical tastes, I needed an extreme pallet cleanser from all of that. I remember when The Carbonas were touring and Gentleman Jesse was touring together, we played this power pop Festival in New York, and after playing the power pop festival, seeing these bands for three days straight, the first thing we did in the van leaving New York was put on Discharge to kill that vibe for a minute. It was the equivalent of that after I made that record.
I had two different things going on at the same time where I was making records and touring in bands. But I have some friends, and we had been working towards opening a restaurant. Leaving Atlanta came out in 2012. We did a little bit of touring on that, and then in September of 2013, I opened my first restaurant, Kimball House over in Decatur. We knew going into it that it was going to be a pretty big endeavor, so I was working easily 80 hours a week and had no time to even pick up a guitar for years. That definitely was a little bit of a setback, as far as any creative output.
But also the well had kind of run dry for a minute, and I didn’t know how I wanted to approach the music that I was creating in a way that would continue to be interesting for me. There was a period where I was driving up to Asheville when I started to have days off. I had a couple of songs written. Then I was asked to join The Parting Gifts, which is a band [with] Greg Cartwright from The Reigning Sound and Coco Hames, who had a band called The Ettes, just to help with the songwriting process and stuff like that. We were working on stuff together, and it was sounding really good. A lot of that material got used on Coco’s record that came out on Merge and four or five songs that are on the new Reigning Sound record that we hashed out during that period. Some cool stuff came of it.
I saved all of my material from that; for what reason, I don’t know yet. When I finally started writing stuff for myself for the Gentleman Jesse project, the direction kind of shifted a little bit into something that was… I’m a Rickenbacker guy– I don’t think that that will ever change– but the approach just changed a little bit. I wanted to do something that made sense, but was also a logical progression into more territory so that I wasn’t necessarily pigeon-holed into this hooky roots-rock, power pop kind of thing. That was important to me, and my musical tastes continued to evolve into things like… It’s a broad genre, like neoclassical and ambient music and things like soundscapes and ideas like that became interesting to me. I don’t think that really shows in the record, but without knowing that the Velvet Underground was really into drone music… When you know it, you understand it. Without knowing that, you hear them and think, “Oh, this sounds like a classic rock band.” But when you really start to pay attention, you hear that that influence is pretty strong.
That’s kind of how it evolved to where I felt comfortable writing songs again, and it started to make sense that there would be another album. I also gave myself some parameters, “Write what you want to write.” I kind of had a theme together, but once there’s 10 songs, close the door, and record that, and then work towards another 10 songs. That’s the goal– to start working on another 10 songs and release album after album so that there’s not such a break in between and every record has to be this big endeavor or ordeal even though this one kind of was.
Were you nervous about alienating a fan base with Lose Everything? As soon as I played the first track, I knew you were doing something different. It’s a “grower” for sure. I’m still humming the songs a week later. Did you think some folks would dismiss it outright?
Being such a nerd, I knew that there was going to be a chance of that, but the thing about alienating music fans is that if someone doesn’t have the patience to sit with it, that’s fine. They can sell it or whatever, not listen to it on streaming services again, but I knew that this would be one that would take a minute for people, but it took me a minute to figure out Big Star’s Sister Lovers, and that’s probably my favorite record by them now. I don’t mean to speak in these terms — I don’t think I’m as good as the Velvet Underground or Big Star– but on my level of playing, if someone is willing to sit with it long enough, I think that the songs are rewarding in probably more of a long-term way than the other records.
Have you outgrown the power pop genre? Matured past it?
I was not a power pop guy; that came later in life. When I was getting into broader musical styles, that was one that came later on. My first interests were less palatable. I was more into things like the Pop Group when I was a late teenager, early 20s, and the Birthday Party and Krautrock. In fact, I wasn’t introduced much to the idea of power pop until I joined The Carbonas and because of the way that they would punk up some of those songs, they would cover “Walking Out of Love” by Paul Collins– I had no idea who Paul Collins was—but I did know who The Nerves were, and I was into them, but it wasn’t my area of focus. When I decided I was going to start another musical project while playing The Carbonas, I was going to do something. that was probably a little more like the stuff I mentioned before that was a little bit more aggressive. And then Dave Carbona said, “Why don’t you start a power pop band, and I’ll play drums,” and I said, “Okay, I’ll give that a whirl.” I was interested in it, and I started writing those kind of songs.
Also, that genre, it’s interesting because most of the people who listen to power pop are older men. It’s funny… There’s these old dudes singing about like… The word teenager is really catchy, so they’re always talking about teenage stuff, and it’s like, “Dude, you’re 40!”
Yeah, the word choice begins to get a bit creepy at a certain age…
Rock ‘n’ roll music has always had a level of fantasy in it– and there should be! It gets problematic when people believe their own shit. I’ve definitely seen that over the years, these people really think that they’re living the Johnny Thunders lifestyle. Man, those records are great, but don’t take that as any sort of advice. I was always kind of like, “Yeah, I love the Heartbreakers, but I don’t believe in what they’re saying. I don’t want to live that life.”
You know, oftentimes, like as a music consumer, I’ll get into one thing and try to explore all of the boundaries of it to the fullest and then be able to kind of like step back and go, “Okay, this over here is a little filler, but these few things are really what’s important about this music,” and then kind of go on from there and usually get into something else. I don’t want to seem like I’m turning my back on power pop because there’s so many good records that came from that, records that do have a lot of substance. But there’s a lot of fat too, you know? I definitely see all those dollar bin power pop records. I was like, “I don’t need these,” but I kept a few of the important ones. I’m sure I’ll do that with other genres of music as I get into them.
One thing that was important to me– even if it’s not like beat-you-over-your-head– was to have hooks in this record that you find yourself whistling, but nothing is like highly repetitive. There’s a lot of songs where the chorus only happens twice in the song, which is not very pop, and a lot of the choruses, as opposed to being like a 2-line thing, it’s a paragraph. So that right there makes you have to hang to get where the hook is, but I find that it’s more rewarding because it’s not as repetitious and, therefore, often not as trite.
Can you talk a bit about your lyrics? The LP comes with a nice booklet devoted to the lyrics, so they obviously mean something to you.
Yeah, there’s some love in there still, but the overall theme is the idea of loss. Each song deals with that in a different way, in different meanings of the word loss, sometimes in a positive light and some mostly negative on this record. The album title came before any of the songs, as far as lyrical themes, and it’s because a tree fell on a house about 5 houses down from me, and it caught on fire and burned it to the ground. Driving by that every day on my way to work was such a… I didn’t know the people, but I know that they’ve been there for a long time, and it was such a profound thing to think about every day, that someone’s entire life was just turned to rubble. Nobody died in the fire, but everything that they had was gone. That inspired the record title, Lose Everything, and then I could go from there.
One of the first songs that I wrote down was “Million Sorrows”, which was inspired after a friend passed away. I’ve experienced a lot of death, especially in the music community and beyond, they all hurt, but that loss in particular because the person seemed so undeserving and they died at a young age. It was cancer. You don’t choose these things, but it’s such a cruel thing that you can’t explain. And it felt like it just kept happening. So that one confronts the darker elements of knowing, understanding your mortality and everyone’s mortality, and living past it.
Did politics or current events find their way into your songs this time around?
There was no way to not become more politically aware. It might not be obvious on some of the records, but there are moments of politics more subtly presented on my previous records, whether it’s “Highland Crawler” or just the idea of leaving Atlanta. There’s something just political about being upset with your hometown and your living environment and wanting something better. The past five years have been, for a lot of people, an awakening, but for me, personally, I’ve always had a belief system, and I’ve been inspired by those things since I was a teenager. There was a little bit of a bury-my-head-in-the-sand after the [George W.] Bush administration just because I hated that man so much that I just was like, “You know what? I will never be in line with this country and its politics, so I’m not going to get involved,” which in hindsight I regret because I think that one thing that we’ve learned in the past four years is that you can make a difference, you can inspire people, and having dialogues about things is important, even if you disagree. I don’t necessarily agree with all of my friend group on politics, even though on the political spectrum, we’re pretty close, but there’s still things that people have back and forth. A lot of times, it’s the way you look at it; it’s more similar than you think.
But I didn’t want to make a Trump record. That’s important to me on many levels because I didn’t want his name in my mouth. I didn’t want to be remembered as “Jesse made a Trump record.” But for fun, I made a punk song that I posted on YouTube about Trump. That was my way to nail that one on the head. It was called “Lysol”. It was the week that he made all those asinine statements about injecting yourself with bleach, and I was like, “Okay, I’m jumping on this one!” (Laughs) I went in the basement and kind of did it as a joke because I was like, “Man, there’s going to be so many good punk songs about this,” and there really wasn’t as far as I know yet, so I had to go and do it. But my big thing was to not rhyme “vain” and “insane.” So what I did is one of my favorite songwriting tricks– for all you songwriters out there– was to rhyme “vain” with “crazy,” so to purposely not rhyme.
Besides music, are there other influences at play– art, film?
That’s a loaded question because one of the things that I’ve been more inspired by is my relationship with being a Southerner. That’s pretty important to me because the South is an extremely complicated place to live, and we bear so much judgment from the rest of the country and sometimes the world even though a lot of times when you look at and when you think about American culture, it comes from the South. I mean that in terms of music– that’s a multicultural thing– and I mean that in terms of literature– once again, a multicultural thing– and visual art is really important to me, too. Exploring those things has been important to me. There’s so much.
I’ve definitely become an avid folk art collector in recent years, and that’s inspired by a friend who lives in Charleston who turned me onto a bunch of different artists. I’m definitely inspired by that, which is rural people, with very little money, making beautiful art, even though they’re “untrained” and technically “unskilled”. I find them to have a great imagination and ability to see art in mundane things.
Some of your favorites?
I really like RA Miller. He’s great and from Georgia, so that’s important. I like Mose Tolliver. I don’t own any of his pieces. This is a guy that’s still living, and you could find his stuff at the Scott Antique Market– Lorenzo Scott. He’s pretty cool. The list is pretty expansive. A lot of these guys are still alive and are finally getting their due– like Lonnie Holley is a pretty big name at this point. There’s all kinds of interesting folks out there.
Did you come to the studio with any albums as reference points? Sounds or moods you were trying to capture?
There was a lot. On my last record, I was really trying to make something that was influenced by American rock music. This one, it’s a little bit… Ryan said after we were wrapping up that it had an English vibe to it. That was not necessarily on purpose. But whether or not it was Subway Sect or the third Big Star album or The Go-Betweens… There was a lot of that, but like I mentioned before, they were definitely a focus on making a record that was Southern in a way that wasn’t on-the-nose southern. I’m always interested in stuff that’s from Atlanta, sort of unknown stuff. I love researching that. I actually did a cover of a band called The Fans– a late ’70s Atlanta band–that’ll come out as single on Third Man Records hopefully early next year, I’m thinking. The A-side will be “Compass” from the album. So, there is some stuff like that, whether or not I’m digging through old 45s and finding a band like The Wallace Brothers, which were like a teenage soul/r&b thing that’s local, to like dead bands from the ’80s that got completely glazed over.
There was a ton of good music that you can find in dollar bins around town, like the first Arms Kimbo EP I think is really great, like college rock. There was so much more happening. One of my restaurants is around the corner from Wax n Facts, so just going in there and being around Danny, who ran DB Records, and talking with him every once a while, getting a tidbit about what was going on back then because he saw it all.
How about your community of friends? I know your crew has been tight for a long time. How did y’all help each other during the pandemic?
Yeah, I never had a true quarantine experience because of the restaurant industry. We were selling to-go food for three months, so I would go to work every day, and I saw a lot of the people. There was a pretty steep learning curve with how to do that. The people who were working together, we called ourselves The Pod. “Now, we can’t let more people into The Pod. These are the people we are allowed to see. We know what we’re doing, and we know we’re not going anywhere but the grocery store or wherever.”
The tools that everybody started using to keep friendships intact became important. Greg King from The Carbonas lives around the corner from me. Once we realized that being outside was okay, that we could have bonfires and stuff like that, having him around the corner was great. We stayed good friends.
Making the record… As I said, it was going to be 10 songs, and we had plans to get the band together and rehearse and go up to Milton’s [Chapman] warehouse space in North Georgia. He bought a piece of property that has a house and a warehouse for him. He repairs Hammond organs for a living. The idea was to go up there and bang out a record in a few days off. That plan kinda got crushed by the pandemic because I wanted to get the record out there and get it made before I lost any sort of creative spark so I could move on to our next thing. It turned into a project that I had to play everything on because of time. That’s why maybe the drumming isn’t always the tightest on the record, but I got the job done.
Losing that community was a bit of a pain for me, but we all managed to stay tight. Ryan [Bell], who recorded the record, is in so many bands, and I was playing with a band called Hyena up until just before the pandemic as well as with him. So yeah, there’s a lot of overlapping projects, and you know, for the most part, everybody’s trying to keep making music. There was a period when everybody was touring and doing things like that, but now it’s just purely for self-satisfaction that we make this stuff.
As someone who is a bit older since your last record, were there some trapping you wanted to avoid that you think plagued some of your favorite bands as they aged?
Yeah, that’s an interesting question because a lot of people are like, “Oooh, so-and-so put out two good records, and then they suck.” I’ve never been that kind of guy. I’ve also really enjoyed going to see my favorite artists who aren’t “cool” anymore, but they’re still with it and still have good reference points and keep up with stuff. I feel like Wreckless Eric is definitely a testament to that. His shows are still so good. He’s not going to play all your favorite hits for you, but I also don’t think his best records were the ones on Stiff Records.
My favorite stuff that he did was this stuff with the Len Bright Combo, when he moved to Kent and started playing with Bruce [Brand] from Thee Milkshakes. It was sort of like a home recording project, an 8-track reel-to-reel machine that they recorded in the kitchen. Man, the songwriting on that stuff… Then there’s some weird stuff, like freak-out moments on it because you wouldn’t know it, but after talking to Eric, he was like, “We fancied ourselves like a jazz band,” so they would go off on tangents that were really cool, but the core songs themselves were like super interesting and, once again, not just like hit-you-over-the-head necessarily, even though there are some really good, snappy pop songs on there too. So I love that stuff!
For me, the trapping is the stuff like Metallica– they were awesome, and then they sucked very quickly. I feel the same way about Guided By Voices. They made some really incredible, interesting records, and they just kept diarrhea-ing out records…
You sorta answered this question when you brought up Wreckless Eric. What are some of your favorite records that are considered “growers” or departures and outliers from an artist’s more popular material?
I know I mentioned the Go-Betweens earlier, but Spring Hill Fair, their third album. They were not a snappy post-punk band anymore. The early, early stuff was DIY pop songs, and then they kind of evolved into a darker version of Talking Heads. Once they hit that record, it’s– to me– their stride, but it’s probably difficult for a lot of people because the choruses aren’t necessarily as hooky as some of their previous work.
I mentioned Big Star’s Third before. I think that record is incredible. They’re covering the Kinks, and they’re covering the Velvet Underground. It’s like, no one really needs to do that, but those covers work in such a way. The record is really good, and the people who know, know.
Hmmm… Oh yeah! I had the realization that there’s no bad Wire records. Every single one of them is good, like up until the most recent. They just put out good records. I think a lot of people are, “Oh, the first three are the good ones.” Yeah, those are good. Keep going. The Wire family tree is really interesting. I love the experimentation that’s on the Dome records. Colin Newman’s solo records are fantastic, a lot of times, the more pop stuff. Seeing them split up and then regroup gives you a good understanding of what that band was really about and makes those first three records make even more sense. So yeah, my whole thing to your question about the trappings is like, I think the trappings are oftentimes on the listener…
And the baggage they bring to the table…
Their metamorphosis was probably my first existential crisis: Do I continue to support the band and maintain face, or do I go with my heart and say, “This doesn’t do it for me anymore?”
Milton, my keyboard player, went to go see them a few weeks ago in Atlanta, and he said that it was just incredible. They came out and played “Whiplash” first. It’s like they had some sort of self-realization and gave people a good Metallica show, which is awesome because you think about Metallica, and you think about this band that got so far off the rails, and kind of what I was talking about before, which is believing your own shit. Metallica made some of the greatest heavy metal records of all time, but the problem with that is having no idea of modesty or humility or understanding that this relationship is fragile, that the relationship with your art is extremely fragile. If you don’t stay grounded and interested in art, and not necessarily yourself, then it will be taken away from you.