- Punk-rock parody: Reggie and the Full Effect can "fucking rock a Popeye's!"
Not all musical enigmas use masks, reclusive behavior, or elaborate lyrical schemes to create illusions of mystery about themselves. Consider the case of James DeWees, the Get Up Kids keyboardist and Coalesce drummer, who also helms smart-ass class clowns Reggie and the Full Effect. When asked how audiences attending this year's Vagrant Tour react to Reggie's costume-happy, synth-filled presence -- the lighthearted yin to Alkaline Trio's stormy punk and From Autumn to Ashes' brainy hardcore yang -- his reaction is less than linear.
"It's kind of nice, 'cause [audiences] like what we're doing," he says. "We're not doing the same thing everyone else is doing, so we're kind of like the comic relief of everything." He grows enthusiastic at this point, like a second-grader escaping from class to pound the bejesus out of a kickball at recess. "It's 'cause we fucking rule! Since we're the best band on the tour, it doesn't really matter. Kids like us anyway, because we're the best band ever!"
DeWees's discombobulated response is excusable -- and not entirely surprising -- since he was coughing his way through the beginnings of a cold and dealing with the complexities of parking the group's van near Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club at the time. Indeed, several minutes and another phone call later, and wheels firmly parked at the club, DeWees is apologetic about any distractedness during the first conversation. Reminded of his assertion that Reggie is the best band on the tour, he offers a markedly contrary response.
"Oh yeah, I know," he says. "But we're just jacking around saying that, nothing too serious."
DeWees's about-face represents the conundrum plaguing the elusive band itself: Is Reggie a sincere musical force -- or an elaborate tongue-in-cheek joke? Pointing to the latter is the group's biography, which deliberately makes the band's history as fuzzy as the location of Dubya's weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Legend has it that the band's master tapes burned in a 1988 fire at its White Chocolate Studios. Suspected of arson, bandleader Reggie disappeared, causing an Elvis-like rise in the band's popularity over the ensuing years, amid heavy bootlegging and an occasional sighting. In 2000, Vagrant Records discovered unmarked tapes of the band and released Promotional Copy, for which Reggie finally emerged from the shadows to tour with Finland's metal heroes Common Denominator, who are notorious for spilling blood onstage.
Just as perplexing as Reggie's genesis is an interview with DeWees. Talking with him is like trying to pin down a five-year-old for questioning; he's the verbal equivalent of a hummingbird, flitting between one-word answers and half-formed sentences, thoughtful responses and distracted chats with people in the background about getting his laundry done.
In response to the revelation that a CVS and a Popeye's Chicken are near the 9:30 Club: "I like Popeye's Chicken. I could fucking rock a Popeye's."
About the lack of attitude in Midwest-based bands: "Everything's taken with a grain of salt, 'cause it's kind of like -- initially we're all farmer's kids. Even though your dad could own, like, a car dealership, he's still a farmer, dammit. You guys still have cornbread on the table like every meal. Corn on the cob. There's just lots of corn involved."
The Effect's 2003 disc, Under The Tray, reportedly came about in a manner just as convoluted as DeWees's train of thought: Reggie allegedly flew into a rage at a lobster-eating contest in Paris and was sent to a Canadian jail, where he recorded Tray with an inmate named Paco. However, as with the group's background (DeWees writes the songs; his backing band has included members of Get Up Kids, Coalesce, and Ultimate Fakebook; he released a 1999 album on Second Nature; and Common Denominator is the Effect's encore alias), the recording of Tray was rather conventional, albeit somewhat haphazard.
"It took me 12 days total to do the whole record, but it took me a year, just 'cause I was gone all the time," DeWees says. "[The] Get Up Kids would be out on tour, so I'd have a day here, a day there. I did it like once a month."
Tray does zig and zag with the attention span of a housefly -- no doubt thanks to the sporadic approach to recording -- but its music is credible and much too complex to be dismissed as mere comedy. Moog keyboards fly in and out of the Cars-go-emo-pop stomp of "Congratulations Smack & Katy" and "Your Bleedin' Heart," which also chugs with fuzzy chords and a mid-song techno breakdown. The faux-British-accented "MOOD 4 LUV," features Fluxuation -- yet another Effect alias -- and resembles a watery, mid-1980s New-Romantic synth swoon from OMD. The energetic choruses and arrogant riffs of "Happy V-Day" could be Andrew WK doing the fandango with Thursday.
DeWees captures the eccentricities and enthusiasm of Tray during the Effect's now-infamous live shows. His stage props currently include a Power Wheels car, which complements the group's red-and-black attire; a killer cover of Slayer's "Reign in Blood"; and an encore in which the band metamorphoses into Common Denominator and Fluxuation, which KC's Pitch Weekly described as Dewees's "roller-blading British disco granny character."
Tellingly, DeWees is surprisingly lucid when asked what he hopes people take away from this over-the-top concert absurdity. It's unclear whether DeWees's sudden directness signals that his previous evasions were purposeful, or that he's simply having an off day. What matters is that, for all of Reggie's evasiveness, DeWees ultimately knows what Reggie is and what the band stands for -- a sense of personal purpose that ensures that any extraneous mystery never overwhelms the Full Effects' essence, once it hits the stage.
"You come to relax, to see a show," DeWees says of Reggie live, "not to hear us preach to you about something, listen to us bitch, or have people be angry and violent. Come down and watch everybody have smiles on their faces. [With the] horrible things going on in our world, to add one more would be the most redundant thing. And to have people focus on something negative would be worse. Let us entertain you."