Tristan Jemsek is not a rock star, nor does he want to be. Sure, some people know him as a member of local polka-punk band Haunted Cologne and as the bass player for raucous blues-punk rocker Ray Reeves, and Jemsek's new band, Dogbreth, is already signed to an indie label and booked for a tour (which kicks off in Phoenix this week). But this is a guy, after all, who made an album named after his grandma and thought it was funny when metalheads in Austin threw beer cans at his band.
No, Jemsek's no fame monster by any stretch of the imagination, just a humble 23-year-old barista at Jobot Coffee Shop, looking to write the best songs he can make at the moment. That's pretty much it. No obsessive game plan that goes beyond releasing Dogbreth's first full-length CD, Chookie, on Skulltura Records (a label out of San Diego), touring behind it, and hopefully repeating the cycle sooner than later.
"It would be amazing to go on tour, make music, and have it be self-sustaining, [but] I don't really mind having a day job," Jemsek says. "It'd be amazing if I didn't have to. I don't want to be on a magazine or anything. Fame isn't in the goals."
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Dogbreth, and Hello the Mind Control are scheduled to perform Friday, July 22, at The Trunk Space.
Listening to Dogbreth's acoustic pop punk (think Dead Milkmen with a touch of They Might Be Giants), one is immediately struck by the absence of artifice in Jemsek's songwriting. The oldest song on Chookie is "Love Staff," and it's filled with zinger simple-truth lines that folk artists thrice his age bust their heads to come up with to sound sage-worthy but seldom do. Like "Why are you so far away when you are so close to my heart?" and "How can your world be so dark when you're the light of mine?" and "How can your heart be so cold when you're the fire in mine?"
And like the unapologetic, unaffected dorkiness of Jonathan Richman, Jemsek can put forth a line like "Sunsets are more beautiful with all the pollution in the air" without a trace of snark. And this album has not one, but two songs about his late grandmother, whom he also named the album after.
"Yeah," Jemsek says with a nervous laugh. "Chookie is a name I gave my grandmother when I was a child. She had really bad allergies and sneezed a lot. She passed away a few years ago, and she was always one of the more youthful and encouraging people I've ever known."
The first nod to Grandma is the song "Just a Kid," in which Jemsek acknowledges her silently guiding him through periods of doubt about his songwriting. And then the album concludes with "Rockin' with Grandma," which recounts how he used to drive around with her listening to The Beach Boys on KOOL-FM radio. Given its child-like perspective, the spiritual link to Jonathan Richman seems even more tangible.
"I appreciate that. It's definitely a homage. He's a big influence on me," Jemsek says. "I guess I try to only write about what I know. I'm not real well read. I'm not the best writer, so I try to keep things straightforward and honest."
"Sometimes, I'm not the best at naming songs, so I give them silly titles," he adds. "Like 'All of My Friends are Dads.'"
Jemsek's toiled in various pop punk bands since 2004. "A lot of my bands have been reactionary, purposefully not being like career-minded bands," he says. "There've been a lot of concept bands, noise bands, bands like that. I never had a dream of playing the Warped Tour or anything like that."
He started playing acoustically as Dogbreth two years ago, eventually recruiting other musicians to tour with him. Six months ago, he enlisted his friends Taylor Broderick (guitar) and Alex Cardwell (bass) from Hello the Mind Control to back him up, along with a drummer from Flagstaff named Samson Swanick. It is with this lineup that Dogbreth and Hello the Mind Control will hit the road, playing 23 shows in 14 states until mid-August.
"I love to tour. That's definitely the main objective. I went on a cross-country tour last summer. [I've done] a couple of West Coast tours, a couple of tours in the South [and] lots of house shows . . . record shops, art galleries, a few bar clubs here and there," Jemsek says. "The house shows are usually the most fun to play."
When asked to name the worst of the shows he's seen, Jemsek takes a long time diplomatically umming and head-scratching before describing a gig at a dive bar in Austin where the band got beer cans thrown at them and lawn chairs careened dangerously close.
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"It wasn't near the cool part of Austin, so it seemed, [and] we played in the backyard stage. The show coincided with this horrible woman's birthday; I hate to sound judgmental. They were like mean, metalhead people with Slayer and Megadeth T-shirts throwing beer cans at us," Jemsek recalls. "We probably wouldn't have played, but seven of our friends showed up, so we wanted to play for them. It was rough. Some of them were throwing around folding chairs. They were very belligerent. It was interesting."
"I told them I got out of a [speeding] ticket because a cop saw a Morbid Angel CD in my car, and I lied and said I liked Slayer and he let me off because he was a Slayer fan, but the joke's on him cause I hate Slayer — and they freaked out," he says. "It was kind of funny."
Of course, it's not very diva-like to chuckle off being assailed with a barrage of aluminum cans. But Jemsek is the genuine article of youthful earnestness, devoid of any shameful careerism. "I'm the 20-something in the coffee shop that's in a band," Jemsek says. "Surprise, surprise. I'm like the guy in Singles."