Jesse Leach’s Check Your Head: Roots Rhode Island Roots

Check Your Head

Jesse Leach is back, people. This time, he reflects on what has been a very busy week — after all, the debut album from his band Times of Grace hit stores on Tuesday. Get it. But first, read on.

The past week has been unreal for me. The release of the most important record of my career (in my opinion) and also preparing to leave home to board a bus and hit the road after a four-year hiatus. It is moments like this I look back at my life and think, “How did I get here again? Why do I get the chance to do this once again?” Especially after holding down a job for three-and-a-half years and almost, almost accepting I may never be able to get a shot to make a “living” off of music.

There are no guarantees that this will last, as with anything in this life, it is fleeting. So all of that being said, I am going to just pay some respects to a place, a scene, a people who were my teachers and peers. Without the influence and struggles of the Providence, Rhode Island, area “music scene,” I would not be who I am today.

I was 15 years old; I just got my first pair of “combat” boots, was just getting into Fugazi, Minor threat, Operation Ivy and various other popular punk/hardcore bands. I was so excited and eager for this music I knew little about. I would soon learn the ethos of DIY and the terms “scene,” “scenester,” “poseur,” and “show,” among many other things. It all started with a show at the rather locally famous “Club Baby Head.” The bill included various local bands but my memory fails me to name them — but the band that was most memorable to me was Smudge (who later became Kilgore Smudge and then Kilgore).

They were a great mix of the new sound I was really liking but a sound I was already aware of; bands like Faith No More, Alice in Chains, etc. The lead singer had a beard, long hair and a flat cap on. His voice was huge and his stage presence and humorous banter in between songs was all-consuming to me. I was in my first “pit” and got kicked in the head as well as lost my breath from being sucker punched by a flying fist. I could barely sleep that night — I was hooked. Little did I know this was for life.

Back then, Providence had various venues to see local and national acts: The Living Room, The Met Cafe, As220, Lupos and The Strand, among others. My new drug was “shows” or concerts, as I would call them before knowing the “lingo.” I made it my business to get out to as many shows as I could, meeting all kinds of interesting and eccentric people. I bought fanzines (underground magazines written and produced by fans), 7 inches (45 vinyl record singles). There was a hang out that everyone would go to before and after shows called “Thayer Street.” Thayer Street was the mecca of underground and counter culture back then. On any given day there were punks, psychobilly/rockabilly punks, skins, rude boys and ska kids, hardcore kids, ravers, crusty punks, peace punks, goths, alterna-teens and old school rockers. I would hang out there whenever I could and after shows, my friends and I would be there until the cops told us to go home.

There were great independent record stores that helped feed my new addiction as well; In Your Ear Records, Toms Tracks, Contrast Records and more that escape me. It was an incredible place filled with so many opportunities and people willing to share their experience and love of music. Providence, back then, was a place where for the first time in my awkward teenage years, I felt I had a place and a “scene” to call my own.

As much as I could sit here and reminisce about the glory days of my youth and for the sake of keeping this a column and not a short book, I will just bullet point bands and people that I owe a thank you and a nod of respect to for helping raise and inspire me:

Jay Berndt — Lead singer of Kilgore and currently an amazing rock country blues singer songwriter as well as an engineer/producer: here is some archive footage of the band that started it all for me and Jay present day.

Aaron Bressler — He was the front man for a local hardcore band called Lockdown. When I first saw them perform, I thought his head would explode from the sound of his voice to the intimidating stage presence.

Drop Dead — The first time I heard this band, I was in awe. I didn’t know you could write songs that were just over a minute and be so fast and heavy. More important than their sound was the bands DIY community and cruelty free ethos. When I was able to catch them live (and still do whenever I can, as they are not to be missed) the singer Bob would talk about unity, community and animal rights. He was such a nice guy in between songs and as soon as the music started he was a mad man with a voice like nothing I have ever experienced.
Gravity Engine — if you can find anything by this band, I would be amazed. They were from another planet; they mixed different styles and had a strange stage presence. The singer used an old-fashioned steel mic and would sing through a distorted harmonica mic as well. The bass was huge and distorted, the guitar was super loud with tons of sustain to it and the drummer was non-stop with tribal grooves and chaos. They were and to this day remain a big influence. 
Gruvis Malt — Their influence on me was and still is IMMENSE. Brendan Bell, the lead vocalist, was really the first person to introduce me to “alternative” music before “alternative” was a term used by the industry. Not only did he show me new music, but a whole group of new friends that really helped me step away from the pursuit of “fitting in” and being popular in junior high, and learning to just be myself and have fun…OK, back to Gruvis Malt; they blended funk, hip hop, rock, jazz, metal seamlessly. The talent in that band was beyond anything the 1990s could contain and in my eyes, they remain one of the most prolific sounding bands of the past few decades. Their live shows were always fun and their sound and DIY ethos were nothing short of inspirational. Sadly, people just couldn’t grasp what they were doing and they faded away. Thankfully their spirit lives on in various groups; Ebu Gogo, Gavin Castleton and Johnny Classic. Check out their DIY music page and perhaps support it!

Mike Cellemme (The modern day Minstrel) — We discovered “spoken word” around the same time and Mike just blossomed into a prolific poet and musician. He was one of my best friends “back in the day” and I still consider him a good friend, even though I don’t get to see him. We spent many nights staying up and creating music together and it helped me discover much about myself. Mike was made for another time and place, his talent and all around passion for life made me see things differently. Now, he is a teacher by day and a musician and poet when he is able to find time. He mixes rock surf, classical, poetry and undertones of hip hop.

The man, the myth…Sage Francis — This guy taught me so much about hip-hop and how to do things all by yourself. His poetry, rhyme styles and sense of humor were, and still are, off the charts. I had the pleasure of sharing a house with this guy right around 2001 or so. He is, to this day, one of the most heartfelt and interesting emcees ever and has remained a friend and an inspiration over the years. Big respect for Sage.

Romen Rok — This was the first guy to ever “freestyle” to me. I was back stage at Club Baby Head, getting ready to go on and I was feeling nervous. My friend Eamon showed up to say ‘Hi’ with Romen in tow. I let them know I was nervous and Romen just started freestyling to calm me down and cheer me up; I was blown away. He is still going and he is a friend and just an all-around character and beat junkie 

Other bands: Times Expired, Freak Show, Bradford Ave. The Agents, The Amazing Royal Crowns, No Where Fast, St. Jude, Get Killed, Denim Venim, Third Age, Beltaine, Shed, The Revival Preachers, Scrub Technique, Waterdog and countless others

The musicians, friends and bands: Marco Herrera, Nathan Berlinguette, Jeremy Gravell, Dave Martinka, Ben Brand, Kiernan O’Donell, George Radford and all of the DAGGERS (you guys will always be like brothers!) Mike Hamel, Tim Cabana, Kevin Levitt, Sara and Tania Rocha, Symmetry, Chrissy Linehan (made me my first punk mix tape). There are many many more and if you are reading this and I forgot you, I am sorry!
Corrin (my first “real band”) — With Joe Cantrell, Chris Casali, Chris Vicini, Derek Moniz, and Brian Hull.
So, if you are still reading…Thanks — I just felt the need after getting a good deal of press and recognition to spread it out to the countless people who inspired me and helped shape me. I chose to focus on Rhode Island because it was my home for many years. However, I am influenced by people the world over and see myself as a fan of music first and foremost. The fact that I am a performer and singer is just a byproduct of my love for music. My hope is that I am able to continue honoring music with my career and all I do. So BIG MASSIVE respect to anyone who has helped me along the way, inspired or supported me. Thanks for reading and please support local and underground music, it will ALWAYS be the most important and relevant music of our time.

Soundtrack to this column and mostly because it is an amazing song:

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