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March 2017 - Jesse Ray & the Carolina Catfish

Jet Black Hair & White Hot Rock 'n' Roll

Story by LCC Radio Reporter Sarah Spohn

Jesse Ray & the Carolina CatfishThe moment those hips shook, that lip snarled, and the world heard “Shake, Rattle and Roll” in 1956, music was forever changed. Elvis Presley became known as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and continues to serve as inspiration for many musicians. Twenty-something Grand Rapids rockers Jesse Ray & the Carolina Catfish (Jesse Ray: vocals, guitar, Dingo Hopp: drums) prove no different. What’s unique though, is that this very current band proves the old soulful sounds of rock ‘n’ roll’s heyday still has so much to say. The raucous band serves up a deep-fried plate of delicious rockabilly catfish each and every day.

Influenced by those early Sun Records artists: Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, Jesse Ray & the Carolina Catfish (JRCC) also draw from the Monsters and the Rolling Stones. Jesse spoke about those iconic Memphis rock ‘n’ soul sounds.

“It’s raw,” Jesse said. “Not raw like meat, but raw as in brash and crude. Unforgivingly, and uncompromisingly crude. When there isn’t much to work with, no computers, no fancy keyboards or turntables, hell, even before the 8-track, recording artists and songwriters needed something special that nobody else had: guts, grit, and soul. I’d best describe it as a big old plate of flap jacks with the perfect amount of butter. A normal person would eat it. Elvis, Cash, and Perkins would have tossed it on the ground and fed it to the dog. Nobody sings well when they’re not hungry.”

Despite being born and bred in Grand Rapids, the band has ties to the soulful South, especially Memphis, Tennessee.

Jesse vividly remembers the night he played music in Memphis, but even more so, recalls his tearful visit to the legendary producer Sam Phillips’ owned Sun Studios. “I cried,” he said. “If you listened hard enough you could still hear echoes of the greats before they even knew who they were. You can feel it, smell it, shake hands with it. It was more than likely one of the most cathartic experiences I’ve ever had.”

Jesse Ray & the Carolina CatfishThe pull towards rock ‘n’ roll was always there, since a young age. “I’ve been singing since I came out the womb,” Jesse said. “I’d always tap on my couch until my dad told me to knock it off because I’m not a drummer … showed him,” Dingo said.

The band started as a solo project at open mic nights in Grand Rapids bars and breweries, after Jesse returned from dropping out of college in Portland. He had acoustic rockabilly songs ready, but didn’t want to wait for a bassist, so he found a drummer; and so it began.

Both members have briefly taken some vocal, guitar and drum lessons, and each with some wacky stories. “I’ve had two drum lessons in my entire life, and both times the drum teacher showed up drunk and just told me to work on my flams,” Dingo said. Jesse, who was a music major for a sole day, said his real teacher is his great sound system in his classic 2000 Jeep Cherokee, nicknamed Jorge.

Drummer Dingo talked about his earliest memories of hearing “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin, at the age of 10. “I’ll never forget just being mesmerized by that simple beat. It wasn’t full of flashy fills, it didn’t have any special effects, just a simple beat,” he said. “But it has so much attitude and emotion in it. I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I talked my folks into letting me get a drum kit, then I just taught myself how to make the rhythm I was feeling.

Today, those feelings of making music remain the true focus, rather than ‘making it’ with a signed contract.

“To us, it isn’t about having the best social media presence, or booking the hip places, it is all about the music. All about the music. We want to be the best live band anyone has ever seen, and we make music that represents that well,” they said.

Since the group’s inception in 2013, it has shifted from a duo to a trio, but always mixing upbeat, loud genres of punk, rockabilly swing and heavy delta blues. Today, the duo stands tall, in their classic, clean white t-shirts, black leather jackets and slicked back hair.

Jesse Ray & the Carolina Catfish“We’re back to a two piece,” Jesse said. “We have much more freedom and control over our sound. The energy is higher than ever, especially given the amount of stage we now have between the two of us. We like to keep our musicianship tight with one another giving our style much needed simplicity.”

They have been able to share stages with friends like the Legal Immigrants, admire work ethics of The Concussions and Billy Strings, and love playing festivals like Harvest Gathering with folk and bluegrass bands all across the state.

Having created an ode to their home base area, with a tune called “Beer City,” the band describes Grand Rapids scene as small and unique. “There is much to learn as you watch your follow artist’s work in such a small pool. I meet people every day in bands,” Jesse said.

The rock ‘n’ roll band made their place within the Western Michigan music scene evident, having won a WYCE Jammie Award for “Best Roots/Revival Album” with its debut album “Gravedigger.” Last year, JRCC tied with The Bootstrap Boys for the same award category, for their newest album, “Angry.”

The “Angry” record was a true throwback to the bad-to-the-bone basics of recording and capturing rock ‘n’ roll in its truest, vintage form.

“We were able to save up enough money to pay for a full-length album at a professional studio, but not just any professional studio; the professional studio,” Jesse said. ‘Angry’ was recorded at Goon Lagoon studio; an all analog studio with completely vintage equipment. Hell, there isn’t even a computer monitor in the whole building, and for the longest time I didn’t even know if our producer owned a cell phone.”

Jesse Ray & the Carolina CatfishSaving up money from their jobs allowed the band to afford the “sanctuary,” without a time crunch to “let the music breathe.” The songwriting process for the band varies, but almost always starts on the guitar. Sometimes songs take 10 minutes, sometimes they go unfinished for years.

“Mainly it boils down to how I’m living, and what I’m feeling. Those are always the most satisfying. For every ten songs I write, we may only play three live, and record one,” Jesse said.

And for recording, live tracking is preferred, though time-consuming. Not overthinking songs leads to some of the most beautiful, real, raw and genuine sounds, something the band likely took a cue from the great voices of past generations.

At the end of the day, it’s all about staying humble, and hungry; ready to devour the next rock ‘n’ roll tune. Though rowdy on stage, the band admits that being grounded with success is important.

“There are so many people to thank for our success that have nothing to do with the work that we do to get to where we are today,” Jesse said.

Jesse Ray and the Carolina Catfish have plans to keep on truckin’ down the road. “There’s a lot of ground to cover, and we’re not getting any younger. Now is the best time to go for it. No kids, no wife, and almost no responsibilities. We can’t wait to travel. It’s such an adventure. We can relax when we drop dead. Nothing good ever comes out of it for us. We’ve got to keep moving and never let up,” the band said.


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