There’s something to be said for the slew of Nashville bands gaining recognition nationally and abroad. If nothing else, competition breeds quality, and there’s nothing like watching your friend’s band sign a record deal to make you get your game face on. When local nerd-rockers Jetpack first saw The Features play four years ago, singer-guitarist Sean Williams thought, “Man, they’re doing this right. We cannot keep going out there with our product.”
Four years later, Jetpack have become one of the best pop acts in the city. Their new EP, The Art of Building a Moat, is a well-crafted mélange of bouncy hooks and sunny melodies—pop songwriting by the book.
“Mathematics,” the disc’s leadoff track, is a staggeringly catchy number with a loopy thrill. The track bursts open with a buoyant organ, a galloping beat and “hey-hey-heys” shouting in the background, and then cuts clean to a steady drumbeat and soft guitar fill. “I go mad sometimes / Whenever I don’t find the proper rhyme,” Williams sings. Another line, and the chorus leaps out in jagged punches: “One day, I vow / I will have figured out / The mathematics I need to do / No need to cover me / ’Cause I will cover you / Hey-hey-hey!”
It’s a song that’s drawn comparisons to The Features for its use of handclaps and an Electone organ, but it’s undeniably Jetpack, who arrived at rock by way of Elvis Costello and The Beatles. (The Features’ director Chad Denning directed the video for the song; the EP was recorded with Features producer Brian Carter.) The track is supposedly a thank-you note to a girlfriend, but it could stand as a testament to the frustrations of songwriting, of finding the right formula to make pop magic.
Yet unlike some of their counterparts, who have signed record deals and hit the road for lengthy tours, Jetpack still are a Nashville band playing Nashville shows. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are three kinds of rock bands on the local scene: those who play for fun, those who hustle and those who straddle the two, also known as weekend warriors. Weekend warriors are a curious bunch—they hold steady day jobs, work on songs at night and rock the region on the weekends. But it’s a precarious realm in which to dwell, because if you wanna rock for a living, you have to eat it, and for bands who won’t or can’t, the fizzle factor is high.
Jetpack have played some out-of-town dates and opened for notables like Sister Hazel and Superdrag. They’ve even done the label dance, courting at least three majors who passed on them because they didn’t hear a radio single.
But, questions of the dubious pursuit of commercial success aside, here, unlike so many other cases, it isn’t a question of a lack of talent. It’s just that three of the band’s members have steady gigs as graphic designers, and Jetpack have just now nailed down a solid lineup. Bassist David Dewese and drummer Brian Fuzzell replaced the previous rhythm section, one of whom got married, the other of whom moved to Spain. All the while, the mainstays, Williams and guitarist Stephen Jerkins, have been honing their sound—hooky rock with chugging guitars and a pop sensibility.
“All Hail the Clown” stomps through a relentless classic-rock riff, while “Synthesizers” is all fuzzy guitar noise and pulsing drum work on a fierce upward trajectory. These are songs with a deceptively offhanded ease, and they build and release with impeccable timing, without a trace of wheel-spinning. Every track glows with a reverberating analog warmth, in part due to Carter’s “found-sound” technique of recording bands live, and of running guitars through devices like a vintage record player with a tube hooked up to a speaker.
Jetpack even fit the geek-rock mold. They don’t look tough—Williams bears a resemblance to John Lennon, with his rimmed glasses and sensitive, angular face. They sing about mathematics and synthesizers, and, rather than take the surname of their band like The Ramones and their many imitators, members of Jetpack go by their band name first: Jetpack Sean, Jetpack Stephen and so on. It’s all there, really—the songs, the talent, the live show. The only thing missing is the hustle, and this much, the band knows.
“We want to get on the road,” Williams says, “and get our EP released nationally. We’re tired of peddling it out of our cars.”