Jesse Wells Says Reports of Rock's Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Welles' Jesse Wells
Welles' Jesse Wells Photo by Mafalda Millies, courtesy of No Big Deal PR

Jesse Wells, one of rock music’s promising young stars, spent the afternoon before our interview doing what apparently comes ridiculously natural to him.

“I just got done recording (a song), actually,” said the prolific front man and namesake of the band, Welles. “It’s nothing earth shattering but you just kinda journal every day, you just kinda work at it every day, tinker, keep toiling and good things come of it.”

Good things have indeed come from Wells’ work ethic and love for the music. His recent album, Red Trees and White Trashes, is deservedly drawing high acclaim from music followers everywhere. NPR says, “At only 23, Wells is already writing hooks that any of his heroes would envy.” Numerous rock blogs have sung the album’s praises. Houston can hear what the fuss is about this Sunday when Welles visits White Oak Music Hall for a stop with Dead Sara.

“You know, actually, to my knowledge I don’t believe I’ve ever played Houston before. This is going to be my first time there. Played Dallas and Austin, I’ve driven through Amarillo and stuff like that but I’ve never been to Houston,” said Wells.

It’s hard to believe, we note, since he hails from Arkansas and has lived in close proximity to Houston practically all his life (he now resides in Nashville). He’s fronted other acts — Dead Indian and Cosmic American – so he’s no stranger to touring, but he said his past regional gigs rotated around Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas. He’s come to Texas for South by Southwest, but never Houston, so he’s uncertain about his following here.

“I really haven’t got a clue; but, what I do suspect is that we’ll have a few. We’ve always got a few fans, and they always find us or we find them and it’s a good time. At this point in the game, that’s kind of where we’re at.”

We saw Welles at ACL Music Festival last year, during an unseasonably warm October afternoon. The temperature seemingly rose when the band hit the stage. The set was charged with sizzling songs from the band’s stellar EP, Codeine, including the grungy and anthemic “Life Like Mine” and the title track, which resurfaces on the new album. For first-timers, the show was a revelation. Wells also remembered it as a thrilling set.

“I feel very comfortable onstage. I don’t like crowds all that much, like being in them and that sort of thing, but being in front of one is easy and performing is exciting. The pressure that it puts on you is a good one,” he says.
“Every once and a while you have a nasty show or something like that, it happens. But still, c’mon, you’re gonna play another one the next night. It’s all good.”

We read that Wells wrote about 200 songs for the band’s debut full-length and he confirms as much. He sees the songs as “currency to push around,” and they’ve been the constant in whatever he’s done. We note it’s unusual for a young artist to switch gears at the beginning of a career as often as Wells has. Most try to make a name by sticking with a singular name. In Wells’ case, he’s gone from Dead Indian to Cosmic American to Welles. He’s used “Breck Shipley” as a moniker and has even stylized his own name differently, as “Jeh Sea Wells.”

“I think we’ve settled with this name now. I think I can probably be safely known as Welles,” he says. “When you take what I’ve done in the past five, six, seven years and you boil it down to all the name changes and stuff I can see where it can seem like I’ve rebranded a lot, but the fact is that I’ve always been Jesse Wells and I’ve always been recording, regardless of what project it was, I would just write songs for that project. The way I think of it now is I’m Jesse Wells and I write songs for this Welles project. And this Welles project is a rock and roll endeavor.”

It certainly is. You can hear his love for acts like the Beatles, Black Sabbath and Nirvana ooze from songs on the album. There’s an unmistakable rock swagger in the music, totally appropriate for tunes like “Do You Know How to Fuck” and “Seasons,” the latter of which reflects back on the formative times that shape one into a confident, self-aware being. We guess correctly that he doesn’t subscribe to the notion that rock and roll is dead, though we admit we already know his philosophy, thanks to “Rock N Roll,” a standout track from the new album.

“As far as that tune is concerned, that was just kind of paying homage to everyone before me. Rock and roll is by no means dead, it’s nowhere close. In the past five years, I’ve heard more good rock and roll than I have in my entire life, out of new bands,” he adds, citing acts like The Murlocs, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and Orb.

Of course, he’s doing his part as well. The band is on the road for the next two months, but Wells said when he returns home he plans to record an acoustic album to switch things up. He says that will be followed by more touring. Whatever it takes to remind people that rock and roll is, among other things, alive and well.

“All that people are bitching about is that it’s not in the mainstream. And, that’s just fine. I’ve never felt like I was a mainstream guy. I don’t even like collars on my shirt, you know? I was never that kid,” he says with a laugh. “So, it doesn’t matter to me that rock and roll isn’t in the mainstream, we’re still doing it. If it’s dead or not then I’ll just keep kicking the horse.”

Welles makes its first Houston visit 7 p.m. Sunday, September 9 at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 N. Main. With Dead Sara. $12-$15.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.