“It wasn’t a rap at first,” he joked. “When I wrote it, it was about twenty clicks slower, so all those words were just real smooth and easygoing, you know?” Then something special happened; Jesse Wells started singing. It’s rare that a phone interview turns into a private concert, but there they were, the opening words to “Life Like Mine” – “I caught a sermon on the mount of Fairy Hill, in a Mercury or a Lincoln, I can’t see it” – warmly, at half the tempo, resonating even on our fuzzy connection between Nashville and NYC. The demonstration came unexpectedly while Wells was explaining the story behind the lyrics; the very first thing we discussed, since the verses and stories that make up Welles’ pure-rock debut album, Red Trees and White Trashes, are so compelling and primed for dissection.
Given the intensity of Welles’ music, it’s no surprise that their eponymous (minus an e) frontman is a thoughtful and no-nonsense storyteller. Wells’ description of the song’s meaning went from funny retelling to deep self-analysis at an amazing pace. “There is actually a location in Fayetteville, Arkansas called Fairy Hill. I got into a fight with a very good friend of mine on Fairy Hill. It was about 2am and he came to pick me up from my band’s house. We had just played a show that evening, so adrenaline was still high, and we were out having fun, but I just kept thinking, ‘Man, he piled me into a Mercury, or a Lincoln, I can’t see it!’ I remember just sitting in a big bench seat and then, ‘I caught a sermon’: That’s me trying to remember everything I heard from my buddy that evening. ‘I was heaving on a handful of bitter pills’: that’s just the truth, and that’s just kind of where I was when I was 19 or 20. I was just incredibly angry, and heaving on it. I would not accept truth, and that life isn’t fair, and things like that. I still don’t. Like, I threw a huge fit at Walmart earlier today,” Wells recalled with a laugh, “‘cause it was taking too long. When things aren’t fair and when justice isn’t happening, it’s always torn me down, since I was a little kid. Sometimes, just the little lessons, I learned the hard way – the really hard way. Just wait in line, and stuff like that. Wait your turn. Bitter pills; life isn’t fair. So, I’ve been heaving on those my whole life.” Somehow, we’d skipped all the basics and gone straight into his soul, as was often the experience when speaking with Jesse Wells.
Just like when we first interviewed Welles at Governors Ball last summer – back when the band was only four weeks old – his answers were incisive and extremely down-to-earth. And while some songwriters are more reticent about the origins of their lyrics, Wells was more than comfortable quantifying how much of his music is based upon his real life. “I would say…most of it,” he said after a thoughtful pause. “Most of it is just, straight up, my experiences. If we really think about it,” he said, listing off examples. “‘Codeine’ – definitely autobiographical. ‘Life Like Mine’ – definitely autobiographical. ‘Are You Feeling Like Me’ – oh for sure. ‘Hold Me Like I’m Leaving’ too.” Even as the lyrics of Red Trees and White Trashes shed so much light on his background, there are still small misconceptions about him perpetuated by the media – some that he’s found somewhat mystifying, including the backstory of him writing music in an art commune. “Commune’s a bit of a strong word, but people have adopted that and are using it quite a lot,” Wells said bemusedly. “Honestly, it was a derelict apartment complex. If we just look at it objectively, it was just a real run-down, torn-up apartment complex that we all lived in. And that’s what I always thought of it as. I never thought of it as a freaking art compound. That’s what people assume; they love it! But me and my friends are just laughing about it. It wasn’t like some fucking warehouse or anything. We had an entire apartment building to ourselves. And there were only two rooms that had been renovated and were considered actually livable. Those were the two rooms we paid for, but we had access to the entire building. So yeah, we had some squatters. We set up art galleries and had some rock and roll shows and stuff like that. But ‘compound’ makes it sound like there’s some literature that goes with that…you know?” Wells laughed. “Like, I was a shaman who was only sexually active on Wednesdays, and I could write rock and roll tunes; that was my job,” he joked. “Yeah seriously, we all had fucking jobs, we were all broke as hell, and we were just trying to make stuff work. We were just living amongst one another and together, which is just called ‘community.’”
Having fallen in love with people like David Bowie, Marc Bolan, John Lennon, Lou Reed, and Bob Dylan at a young age, Wells acknowledged how growing up isolated from a real music scene made him study the craft more fervently. “You had to dig harder, and you appreciated what you dug up a lot more. So, maybe you only had one Velvet Underground album and it didn’t even have the tunes you knew… but you knew you really liked ‘em, you’d heard ‘em somewhere… so you rent it from the library, you take it home, and you put it on a cassette tape. And that is your Velvet Underground album. Guaranteed, no one else in the fucking school has one, you know?” He had the tone of an archaeologist describing a treasured artifact. “And the internet was kind of fresh in Ozark,” Wells laughed. “Especially for me – I didn’t grow up wealthy at all. To call it middle class might make some middle class people call themselves high class. We got the internet in like 2011.” Conversely, later on – as tactfully as possible – he also noted some music that doesn’t agree with him. “The synthetic stuff; even the production of 80s music has always kind of wound me up and ground me out,” he revealed. “I can’t listen to it. Or, I don’t like to. But there’s a lot of rap and hip-hop that I’ve found later on in my life.”
Wells’ strong affinity for unprocessed rock surely played a role in the raw studio sound he achieved on Red Trees and White Trashes – all the more impressive, given the background he shared about the record. “When we made the album, I had not met any of those fellas yet. So I hadn’t met anybody in the band at that point. All I had was the demos that were recorded up there at the mountain. And they hired studio musicians that I’d never met before. But it was just like, ‘Hey. Jesse. These guys are gonna be the best of the best, so don’t you worry,’” he remembered happily. “I really wasn’t incredibly involved in that part. And listen, when I met [producer] Dave Cobb, I went home and wrote a country album! And then I came back, and they were like ‘No no no no no, you can just do rock and roll, like you were doing,’ and I was like ‘Ohh okay.’” Wells laughed. “I’m about the music. I saw an opportunity and I was gonna seize it. Luckily, I was able to be myself. But I would have found myself, you know? I’m confident that I can find myself in whatever I gotta do,” he said. “But I went in with session musicians – you know, they only need to listen to the demo once. These are incredible players, and they have a very sharp wit. I just went in and played guitar and those guys played on my tracks.” As expected, he would have preferred it if his current lineup had played on the first album, but that’s not how the timeline worked out. “That would be ideal for most people. But I didn’t meet Davey [Nelson] or Marshall [Willard] or Jordan [Rochefort, his live band] until I went ahead and moved up to Nashville a couple months later, and started living here and hanging out,” Jesse explained, mentioning the guys we’d first met and witnessed again earlier this summer in Jersey City. “The Weeks are a band here in Nashville, and I sat on their couch for about a year, until people started talking to me. After we got on Carson Daly… yeah, after we got on the television show, people would be like ‘Hey! What’s up Jess?’” Wells recalled. “They’re the best of the best,” he said of his bandmates. “I mean, if you want the best, you come to Nashville – if you want players, you know. People who actually walk the road.”
Thanks to songs like “Seventeen” (from which the name, Red Trees and White Trashes, was derived), it’s a bit easier to picture the world of “Ar-kansas,” as Wells sings with affection, “Where there’s beer and molasses // We’ll let the times fly on past us // The whole world, kiss our asses // through red trees and white trashes.” He explained why the album’s title had been sourced from this particular line when we spoke. “If you were to walk with me through my life, it would be through the red trees that I just grew up all around, and white trash – which I feel like I belong to,” said the Ozark, Arkansas native. “I lived in a town that many people in the country would drive through and go, ‘Wow, it’s a cute little town. A lot of white trash.’ And then they’d just keep driving. There are entire states that are like that. So I’m self-aware of that perception. And I just felt like this entire album, with all the words I put in, was about all the wild shit I did back in Arkansas. If you’re going to be listening to it, you’re going to be stepping through my life…so why not name it after the place you’re stepping into? It’s a journey; you’re listening through red trees and white trashes. Because that’s me; I’m red trees and white trashes.”
Wells painted other scenes of his hometown – and even his childhood – as he answered the ol’ P&W whiskey question. “When I drink whiskey…” he said in smiling tone, “I drink Kentucky Deluxe. It is just a blended, bottom-shelf bourbon. I drink it hot and by the pint. But I haven’t done that since college; I can’t even touch that anymore. I went through a liquor store drive-thru and asked them if I could have some Kentucky Deluxe, and they told me no. And I think that’s ‘pry the last evening I had any. But that was like…senior year,” he realized, amused. “They should have called the cops on my ass.” A quick digression about the novelty of drive-thru liquor stores suddenly had Jesse laughing more and reminiscing far back. “I have memories sitting in the bucket seat next to my dad with a Pepsi between my knees, and we would go through the liquor store drive-thru, and he would order a twelver of Busch Light, and put it in the passenger seat. And he’d give me a Pepsi, ‘cause it was kind of about the same color as a Busch Light can. And we’d both crack ‘em open and drive around. I had no idea what was going on, you know? ‘Cause you wanna be just like your dad when you’re a kid,” he said nostalgically. “But yeah, it’s insane. There’s drive-thru liquor stores here [in Nashville] too. I could ride my bicycle to one right now.”
“I don’t really have any grand statements,” he said as we wrapped up our long call. “I would just beg people to keep their eyes peeled, because I’m going to be here, and I’m just crazy about this. We’re doing this for folks, you know? The people who are working like 9-5 who’ve got it all boring. We are the people that fucking said, ‘Fuck it, we’re going for it.’ The kids in rock & roll bands, that’s who we are: the kids who said ‘Fuck it.’ And everyone else wants to do that – they really do. But instead, they just buy a ticket, and they come and watch us do it, and that’s fine. That’s who we’re there for. Get your rocks off, goddamnit,” Wells laughed. “This is what the people that are fans of Welles should know,” he added decisively. “The music’s written. Albums are coming. I’m writing constantly. I’ve been writing constantly since I was 12. I’ve got suitcases and suitcases and suitcases full of notebooks and computer hard drives full of stuff I can’t even access anymore because it’s too old, you know? I’ve got tunes on floppy drives and stuff,” he laughed, having dipped into a whisper that sounded more humble than secretive. Still addressing his fans, in a genuinely caring tone, he concluded, “I’ve been doing this forever, and this is what I do, so you don’t have to worry. This is not a phase. I’m going to be around as long as I am alive.”
You can order Red Trees and White Trashes on vinyl here, and follow Welles on Instagram and Facebook for updates about their current tour. Don’t miss Welles’ upcoming Brooklyn, NY show at Music Hall of Williamsburg with Dead Sara on September 17th – tickets available here.
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley