Jesse Smith isn't your stereotypical punk. He dresses in blue jeans, a T-shirt and Vans shoes, and doesn't wear eyeliner makeup like My Chemical Romance. Whether he's playing shows as a bassist for the Carbonas, or the lead singer and guitarist of Gentleman Jesse and His Men, he doesn't play the kind of emo/punk/pop/whatever garbage that Fall Out Boy and their fellow MTV sweethearts make.
Instead, Smith is an advocate for classic punk rock. The Carbonas are primarily inspired by the Kill by Death series – bootleg compilations issued during the '90s that gathered anonymous hardcore bands from around the world. Smith's other band, Gentleman Jesse and His Men, pays homage to the power pop of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, the Dickies and the Buzzcocks. "Jonathan Richman is one of my favorites. I'm obsessed with that guy," Smith says while sitting on the patio at Aurora Coffee.
Quick to acknowledge his influences, Smith is turning them into something special. At a recent show at Lenny's Bar, Gentleman Jesse and His Men seemed to play short, snappy songs chock-full of hooks, prompting you to sing along if you knew the words and hum along if you didn't. He sang harmonies with guitarist/backup vocalist Craig Johnson that sounded sweet and tough, and the music was fast and powerfully melodic. The performance lasted less than a half hour, but the crowd screamed for an encore, so Smith launched into a Jonathan Richman number. It was so great no one wanted it to end, and afterward everybody in the room was singing the band's praises.
The Lenny's gig confirmed that Gentleman Jesse and His Men may be one of the most promising rock bands in Atlanta. But they don't have any records out, save a 7-inch single on local imprint Douchemaster Records that came out last December. Locally known as a live band, Smith says that around the country, "They probably know my record better. The punk circuit is pretty responsive to things. When a 7-inch came out by the Carbonas, we ran through a 500 pressing in two months.
"[The national punk scene] is a lot of people in their mid-20s to 40s. They're younger than that, too, but they all have a fascination with older and obscure punk rock. And then there are the bands replicating that," Smith continues. Although Atlanta's scene is relatively small, it contributes to a bustling national punk-rock circuit.
The Carbonas is a relatively stress-free gig. "It's nice. As a bass player, you're practically invisible," Smith says. "I can drink, smoke a cigarette and do whatever I want to do and not have to worry about my voice. I just have to play four strings."
In comparison, managing Gentleman Jesse and His Men takes some work. When he formed the group two-and-a-half years ago, he struggled to find musicians to play with him. Earlier this spring, when the band toured the country and played at major festivals such as SXSW and the Power Pop Festival, Smith juggled three different rosters like a baseball player/manager, subbing in musicians according to their availability. (The Lenny's show featured the aforementioned Johnson on guitar, bassist Dustin Nigro and drummer Dave Rahn.)
The Carbonas are slated to issue an album on Memphis, Tenn., label Goner Records in August. Gentleman Jesse and His Men are working on their debut album for Douchemaster Records. It should come out sometime next year. For the moment, Smith is happy with playing shows and making music.
"This is low-fi punk-rock music," he says. "'TRL's' not going to snatch it up. And if Pitchfork does, I'd be surprised. It's not tender music for college students to lose their virginity to."
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