Can great rock music be created by accident? There's nothing wrong with preconceived ideas and driven individuals carefully crafting their visions; we wouldn't have half the cultural influences of the past 200 years without that sort of motivation. What's more endearing is when circumstances align themselves just so, putting totally different people in together with no idea of what they will create. You can tell that sort of spontaneity in certain bands, though not by any single recognizable trait. Sometimes it's just obvious, as in the case of Jett Rink, for they are perhaps the strongest example of recent local bands who are truly more than the sum of their parts.
Jett Rink are mostly from Durham--one of many bands spawned in the last couple years that give Durham citizens new reason to leave their homes at night. Their sound references everything from Roxy Music to the Bee Gees to Fishbone, and their look is of five people who wouldn't normally hang out together. They're more like those five guys in detention the same day as you in high school--all from different social circles but united by mischief. There's a keyboard player who has a Devo tattoo on his shin and wears shiny suits while he's creating heinous sounds from his synthesizer; a bespectacled guitar player who hops on one foot during shows; a drummer who holds the chaos together as cool as Charlie Watts; and the singer and bass player. The latter, who extemporaneously sings the 1971 Melanie hit "Brand New Key," and can probably wing the bass line as well, describes the former as the perfect match to the type of singer they needed when they didn't have one: " ... a cross between Fred Schneider [B-52's] and Iggy Pop ... and that's what we got."
Live, the band makes local crowds finally dance again. Over the disco throb perpetrated by the rhythm section, the guitarist fires choppy riffs from his self-built guitar amp, the keyboardist adds wriggly electronic shrieks, and the singer, alternately screaming and writhing orgasmically, flails all over the stage, the band's power cables, the audience, the club, and sometimes the bar. It's like watching a fortuitously orchestrated train wreck ... stoned. How did this happen?
About a year and a half ago, Tim Ristau (guitar) and Dave Perry (bass) were playing together with a different drummer in a band called Radiator Ron. Perry, playing guitar for the band at the time, answered an ad posted by Mike Walters (keyboard), who was looking for a band to satisfy his Gary Numan fetish. The four started jamming but disputes over songwriting royalties and a couple of nasty vermouth habits caused some lineup changes. Around the same time, Tony Stiglitz (drums) had also answered Walters' ad.
"I saw Mike's ad at Go! [a club/rehearsal space in Carrboro] at a rehearsal--analog keyboards, garage rock, new wave ... " says Stiglitz, "I was like, 'Oh ... man, I want to play with this guy.' So I called him up and he's like 'Uh, nah, I already got a band.'"
A week later Stiglitz, then playing in a band called The X-Rayons, got a call around 10 p.m. from Walters--the band was at Perry's house plowing through some Schlitz and wanted Stiglitz to provide a beat for the fun. He showed up 30 minutes later.
"I walk in the door and I recognize Tim, 'cause Tim's boss ... was the guitar player in The X-Rayons," Stiglitz states.
"And I'm like, 'Oh shit, my boss's drummer,'" Ristau says, burying his face in his hands in mock anxiety.
The four found chemistry between them and began looking for a singer. "We tried out like 10 singers, man," Perry gesticulates, "And all of 'em blew ... the 'guy' who was a girl, the guy who we had to play Green Day songs with 'cause that's all he knew how to sing ... "
"[Then one day] Mike went to Radio Free Records," says Ristau ...
Radio Free Records, if you don't know, is the only good independent record store in Durham. One of the part-time employees there, whom we'll call Viva at his request, moved here with the store almost two years ago from San Jose, Calif. Tall, skinny, mysterious, darkly flamboyant, he was (hell-O!) looking for a band to sing in, having sung in a garage rock band called The Retardos back home. The rest of the band claims he dated Gwen Stefani from No Doubt, a statement he vehemently denies.
... back to the scene to the record store: "I had this song stuck in my head--that song by Cliff Richard, 'We Don't Talk Anymore,'" says Walters [At this point, shockingly, the band starts singing the chorus of the song in unison--later, when Walters adds that he was also seeking a Chuck Mangione song, they burst into that song's horn riff.] "I was going to record stores singing the song to the clerks and no one knew it. And Viva was like, 'I don't know the song that you're singing. ... Look, I don't know!'"
"I thought you were fuckin' insane, dude," Viva interjects, sending Perry into hysteric peals of laughter.
The Cliff Richard song was not found, but as Walters left the store he asked the lanky clerk if he knew anyone who wanted to sing in a garage rock/new wave band. The rest is why you're reading this now.
You know how sometimes when you ask someone how a band they played with or saw the other night was, they respond by saying, "Well, they're realllly nice guys ... " and then they sort of wince and shrug? Well, Jett Rink are all unbelievably nice and humble guys, but without the ellipsis at the end. There aren't really any other bands currently in the Triangle as simultaneously unassuming and bellicose; there are no local-hero-egos in the band, even though they've gotten a substantial amount of local press (Stiglitz is quick to give former Independent music editor Angie Carlson sincere thanks for championing their cause in numerous past issues) and have packed local clubs on numerous occasions. But up until now they haven't released any music. There's nothing quite like seeing them live, but how skilled are they at crafting memorable tunes in a studio setting?
On an upcoming (untitled) five-song EP, Jett Rink proves they're capable of delivering fabulous songs in addition to their fiery live shows. "Mittens" is as aggressive as the recording gets, the bass and guitar trading progressions over air-raid-siren keyboards. "My Demon Brother," the slowest song on the EP, oozes with Bryan Ferry-isms and ends with a tightly ferocious guitar solo. And the closer, "The Sweets," is five and a half minutes of brilliant disco tension; the vocals coax the rest of the music into the aural equivalent of a naughty, forbidden afterparty tryst. Combining the theme music from Dr. Who and the ultra-tight pop structures perfected by Elvis Costello's Attractions, the EP plants devilishly simple hooks in the brain--all in 20 minutes. Lyrically, it reeks of brazen sexuality, encrypted in lines like, "When we first met, you were standin' on the corner/I was sellin' salty things." This extremely catchy mix of styles was superbly recorded by Durham's own Zeno Gill (who sings and plays guitar in Durham's The Sames) at his Pox Studios, whom Jett Rink unanimously lavished praise and thanks upon.
A man once cornered me at a bar and told me that the "gods of rock" had sent me the (admittedly fantastic) pants I was wearing, which he seemed to harbor a strange obsession with. That analogy seems appropriate to describe this band; they were clearly presented with each other by said gods of rock. Some bands can replace personnel as needed and continue as they were, but subtracting any member of Jett Rink from the equation would end the divine marriage they have. Watching them together on stage and in person one can tell they really love being in this band together. Their story is a rare one, for it is not often that single-monikered punk enigmas and Chuck Mangione fans find their way into bands together, create original, visceral music, and put on a unified front ... with plenty of ribbing between them.
"We respect each other," adds Walters towards the end of the interview.
"Oh, fuck you, dude," interjects Viva.
Thanks be to the gods.