When it rains, it pours, right?” Jesse Smith delivers this rhetorical question with a shrug, as another in a veritable laundry list of his projects is introduced into our conversation. We’re sitting in the Old Fourth Ward’s cozy, Twin Peaks-themed watering hole, Bookhouse Pub, on an unseasonably warm mid-May evening in Atlanta. Tonight, Smith will play a solo gig next door at the Drunken Unicorn as Gentleman Jesse, opening for Ted Leo. But now, he’s discussing the myriad engagements that have him constantly in the weeds.
As the lynchpin of the Douchemaster Records roster (see below), an imprint he’s helped label head Bryan Rackley forge, he’s become something like Atlanta’s garage/punk ambassador. Just before the interview, he was making sure the Memphis rockers of Cheap Time, who opened for Guitar Wolf at Masquerade the night previous, were taken care of at the “band house,” Smith’s home near East Atlanta. Also under the umbrella of his Douchemaster duties—which include his and Rackley’s sussing out talent from all over for regular releases—is the organization and booking of the Atlanta Mess Around, a scrappy EAV music festival that has grown much in its three years.
Following a number of bands Smith played with in his formative years—including legendary Atlanta punks the Carbonas—he released his debut single, “I Don’t Wanna Know,” as Gentleman Jesse on Douchemaster in 2006. The ridiculously catchy power-pop anthem was an Internet sensation, piling up MySpace plays and lighting up certain corners of the ’net with giddy praise. After a couple more singles, Smith followed with his 2008 debut full-length, Introducing Gentleman Jesse and His Men, also on Douchemaster, its cover an ode to Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model and its music a descendent of hook-laden rockers like Nick Lowe, The Nerves and early Beatles. The album did well with the press, earning nice words from all over: NPR to Pitchfork, MOJO to All Music Guide. Nary a negative word was said, but it would be the last most of the music-loving world would hear from Gentleman Jesse for quite some time.
“I feel like the songs are better written,” Smith says. “I feel like there’s less filler, but whenever somebody says that, they’re usually wrong and it sucks.” He’s describing Leaving Atlanta: Feel Good Songs for Bad Times, his sophomore full-length, which will sport new member Milton Chapman’s Hammond organ and more three-part harmonies. Although it was recorded in April 2010, various obligations have held things up, including the fact that Smith’s backing band’s other band, The Barreracudas, were recording their debut full-length—due this summer on Douchemaster—in tandem with the Leaving Atlanta sessions. While he’s passionate and sometimes hyperbolic about music made by others, Smith is strikingly honest and often self-deprecating when it comes to talking about his own work. “There’s still some very trite bulls…. on there,” he says of the baker’s dozen songs that make up Leaving Atlanta. “But there are some statements. It’s basically about general life struggles—every day kinda stuff.”
The “kinda stuff” he’s referring to isn’t exactly of the “every day” variety, though, hence the negativity in the album’s title. In the years following his first LP, Smith had his nose broken in Little Five Points—his 2010 “You’ve Got the Wrong Man” single sports a picture of his face shortly after the incident—while trying to chase down a thief who took his girlfriend’s purse. Worse yet, Smith’s friend, Atlanta rocker and scene fixture Bobby Ubangi (born Benjamin Jay Womack) passed away in 2009 after struggles with cancer. Smith went from a songwriter who doesn’t write in the first person, one lacking the requisite drama from which to craft conflict-driven songs, to suddenly experiencing what felt like near-constant drama. “There was so much bullshit, like a rain cloud hanging over the city,” he remembers.
Smith hopes Leaving Atlanta will be released on Douchemaster in the fall. Before that, there will likely be another single, this one on seminal Memphis label Goner. Meanwhile, Smith recently formed Cops with former Carbonas and current GG King frontman Greg King. While it’s a project that may not appeal to every Gentleman Jesse fan, it’s precisely what Smith needs right now. “I’ve never been this pop-focused in my entire musical career,” he explains. “I need something a little ugly. 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.”
Cooking up something new
While you wouldn’t be faulted for assuming music is Smith’s sole love these days, that’s simply not the case. For one thing, he’s getting married in October. But aside from rock ’n’ roll and the lady he’s pledging his life to, Smith is deep into Atlanta’s food scene. As a server at The Brick Store Pub and JCT Kitchen, he’s accumulated skills that he’ll soon put to use at the restaurant he’s been planning for five years with Rackley and two other food-service veterans. They’re calling it Kimball Mill, which Rackley says is “an homage to [Atlanta’s now-defunct] Kimball House hotel.” The crew is eyeing Grant Park at the moment, though everything is still tentative while they get their financials in order.
“We wanted to open up a spot and have a jukebox with punk-rock records on it and Belgian beer,” Smith says. “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 can do it better than most. Not to mention, Bryan’s hot dog is the best that’s ever been made.”
If all of this sounds like a lot for a 31-year-old to handle, that’s because it is. But Smith likes it that way. From helping run a record label to working in fine dining, playing in multiple bands to helping out still other bands, it’s all a part of the grind for Gentleman Jesse, even if serving up catchy songs takes a back seat to serving up hot dogs and craft brews. “I don’t know,” Smith says. “At this point, it’s like, who cares? I’m gonna keep making records and I’m gonna keep doing shows. [Running a restaurant] is a lot easier way to make some money. I’m gettin’ old!”