Gentleman Jesse isn’t Leaving Atlanta, as the title of his second album suggests—he has a house and a wife. But longtime Atlanta musician Jesse Smith did endure a pivotal spate of bad luck. In the four years since Gentleman Jesse’s debut album, Introducing Gentlemen Jesse & His Men, Smith’s had several friends die and his nose bashed in during a mugging.
“It just felt like, ‘How much bad shit can happen?’ and it just kept happening,” Smith recalls. “I was victim of violent crime, and that takes some getting over.” So, he wrote a record.
That darkness finds its way into the corners of the 13-track disc, balancing out the bounding rhythms and ringing power-pop melodies. It’s the undertow of incipient arson in the burbling “We Got to Get Out of Here” to the can’t-go-home-again sentiment of “Covered Up My Tracks.” It offers a nice balance to the perky songs about girls Smith typically favors.
Smith wanted to make something that has a little more substance, he says. “So I made a grim record you could sing along to.”
Smith apparently excised those bad vibes, because he’s in high spirits. It’s that at 32—after being in bands since he was 15—Leaving Atlanta represents a milestone.
“This is the first time I’ve had a band that is my band, where I’ve had a second record come out and [the band] didn’t break up or something,” Smith says.
Smith has led such locally feted Atlanta post-punk acts as Some Soviet Station and Paper Lions, as well as played bass in furious garage-punkers Carbonas. Sort of like the Ramones dipped in the Black Lips, their ragged, grimy, spirited presence wasn’t made for long life, but it did provide the impetus for Gentleman Jesse.
Raised on hardcore and post-punk, Smith was headed in that direction for his next project when Carbonas drummer Dave Rahn steered him another way: pop music. “It just so happened I was better at that than making noisy music,” Smith says with a laugh.
There’s been a number of lineup changes since the 2008 debut, among them Rahn, who still helped produce Leaving Atlanta. The name’s been shortened from Gentleman Jesse & His Men, which Smith thought sounded too much like a Magic Mike-style male dance troupe. And there aren’t going to be any more of the three-month-long tours that followed their first album.
“I’m going to try to keep it a little more reasonable,” Smith says. “Some of us have kids and wives and all that stuff. There’s a lot more to a bunch of young men getting in a van and trying to take over the world than there used to be.”
Like jobs. Smith lost his during the most recent tour.
“I wasn’t pregnant or anything, so that was a little too long away to keep my job,” Smith says, acknowledging the chronic ache of a musician’s life. “I don’t think people understand how much we sacrifice to play 30 minutes for them.”
Of course, Smith’s dissembling; he’s sacrificed for 17 years just for the chance to play that 30 minutes. You get the impression he’d pony up another 17 given the chance.
With Gentleman Jesse out on tour again in support of that long-elusive second album, Smith’s counting his blessings.
“I feel fortunate that I can go to the West Coast and back and people give a shit,” he says. “I’ve been doing [Gentleman Jesse] for five or six years, and I don’t necessarily go broke every time and people are very hospitable. A lot of other people aren’t so lucky. I wasn’t one of the lucky ones when I was in the Carbonas. So to have this now is pretty amazing. I feel like I’ve made it.”
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