Each year in March, the Metro Times Blowout Festival is the perfect opportunity to check out bands who've been on the "buzz radar" for a while and to see old faves, but it's also often the case that some of the best sets seen will be happy accidents — bands that you've never heard of before, perhaps playing immediately before somebody that you really did want to see. Such was the case this year, when this writer wandered into the full-to-capacity Belmont. There was an odd, almost tangible air of excitement in the venue, and when the Rogue Satellites hit the stage, the wait wasn't in vain.
See, if you boil down to the bare essentials and stripped of the rock 'n' roll barbed wire, this duo called the Rogue Satellites are a pop band. The melodies composed by singer, songwriter and guitarist Jaye Thomas are as infectious and sugary sweet as anything that the multitude of chart-botherers can dream up, whether it be hideous American Idol creations, or Miley Cyrus (er, their songwriting teams). And it's not easy — at all — to craft a smart, sing-along-ready song that's pithy and has staying power. It's not easy and that's why so few can actually do it.
"I think [pop is] an underappreciated art form," the affable front man says, smiling wryly. "Especially in this city. I feel like you have to smear shit all over it before people will accept it. That's not a new concept; I think that's what Radiohead did. They took a bunch of simple, great pop songs and put a bunch of noise on top of them to confuse people, and it worked excellently."
He has a point; for a while there, largely thanks to the aforementioned mainstream musical monstrosities, "pop" became an insulting label by high-minded musos more into the sound of chest hairs sprouting, as if the word "melody" translated into wimpy. Lately, such local bands as Lightning Love, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. and Silverghost have reclaimed the "pop" flag that, let's face it, the later Beach Boys and the Beatles, even Nirvana, waved with some pride.
Rogue Satellites (also featuring Regan Lorie of the Pewter Cub on vocals and Moog synth), formed three years ago.
"The first 6 months were just me and a sequencer," Thomas says.
There's no bass player either.
Thomas: "We don't have a permanent bass player. Most of the bass lines are programmed into a sequencer, which I like, not having to depend on as many people."
Originally, the Rogue Satellites were meant to be a side project for Thomas, who also plays solo as a singer-songwriter and with the bands Conniption and Divine Proportion. "It was almost like a performance art thing," Thomas laughs. "When I first started it, I would program these weird synth pop songs into this Korg ElecTribe synthesizer, which I still use. I'd put it on a little table next to me and get all dressed up in a suit, all fancy. I'd have a really small chair that was too small for my body. I would sit on the chair and then I wouldn't interact with the sequencer at all, I would just sing and feel like an idiot. I wouldn't be doing anything with my hands, and I'm too big for the chair, so the awkwardness became part of the show. Those were the early days. It was effective as performance art but it was a little too painful."
Thomas, who claims to be as influenced by author Henry Miller as John Lennon, describes the band's sound as synth-pop. "Our songs are like smart cheerleaders — they pretend to be dumb so they can have fun and get laid. Maybe like slutty intellectuals. There's a lot of intelligent commentary underneath the surface, but if you're not looking for that, they're just fun songs."
Seven of those fun songs have recently been released on the Fallacy Island EP, with local desk wizard Jim Diamond handling the production. "I think Jim's awesome," Thomas says. "He's the most efficient engineer I've ever worked with. I'll be stuttering away, trying to explain what I want to do, and he'll be paraphrasing it in words that make sense while he's setting up my mix and tracking someone's instrumentation. We did a lot for a little. He charges more for an hour than anyone I've ever worked with, and yet I've made the most inexpensive records with him because he's just really good."
The result is an EP that the singer is justifiably proud of. "I'm so much more excited about the new stuff, but listening to the EP on the way here, I was thinking, 'This is really great,'" Thomas says with a smile. "We recorded this stuff so long ago. It's been six or seven months and it never got its proper release. I'm glad to get those songs out. We're releasing it ourselves, which I think is the way to go. It's always good to have support, but I like doing things on my own terms — and, if I can afford to, I will."
With a full-length record due soon, this could still be a big year for the Rogue Satellites. The aforementioned Blowout certainly set things off in style, and against the odds, as it turns out. "I expected a decent crowd because the Blowout's well-attended, generally," Thomas says. "I was surprised to see it that packed, and I was really happy with the response. That show was great. It was rejuvenating. Around Halloween of last year, my marriage dissolved, and I still wanted to help my wife, and so I was paying her rent and I had to move in with my friend so I could do that. ... It's been a little rough, but at the same time all that bullshit has inspired a lot of great material. I won't say that I'm thankful for that, because I'm not the only one that got hurt, but I did make the best of it. I think other people will benefit from it."
Thomas rarely stops smiling throughout the interview, obviously coming to terms with the hellfire that he walked through last year. Music, it's often said, is a great healer. Being appreciated for your art is even better. "One of the coolest things that ever happened to me was I was at some party and a guy came up to me and said that, after breaking up with his girlfriend, he played one of my CDs and I was singing about everything that he was feeling. Hearing somebody say that to me blew my fucking mind. That's exactly what I always wanted to hear. I'm all about connecting with people. If it has a cathartic or any kind of a therapeutic value, or provides any perspective, that's awesome."
Brett Callwood is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday, Sept. 25, at the Belmont, 10215 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck; 313-871-1966; with Illy Mack and Switchblade Justice.