Defying the proverb about an old dog learning new tricks, a 43-year-old, blues-rooted ex-con named Reggie has become a poster boy of post-modern eclecticism since returning to the music scene with his first album of new material in nearly 15 years.
But even before he hunkered down in a Canadian prison recording studio with a fellow inmate to render Under the Tray, which nods to disparate genres from synth pop to death metal, Reggie's output was always about 20 years ahead of its time.
Only an extremely open-minded middle-aged man could harvest equally from Finnish black metallers Common Denominator — with whom Reggie reconnected after winning a chili-dog eating contest — and the inanimate sounds of Fluxuation, '80s new-wavers who unintentionally hid from fame in the shadow of the Pet Shop Boys. Besides having a great effect on Reggie, both groups appear as guests on Under the Tray, released February 18.
If a breadth of influence that also encompasses punk, emo, thrash and pop seems unbelievable, it is. Reggie doesn't actually exist. The incredible tale, which also tells of onstage fights, trashed hotel rooms and an assault with a lobster claw, is nothing more than folklore about Reggie and his band, the Full Effect. Under the Tray, however, the third release from the alter-ego of Get Up Kids keyboardist James Dewees, is just as entertaining as the legend behind it.
The idea sprung in the late 1990s while multi-instrumentalist Dewees was drumming for the hardcore band Coalesce before joining Get Up Kids.
"I would make these tapes in my basement — songs and people saying really dumb things," he said. "That's when [members of] the Get Up Kids were like, 'Dude, you should put this out.' So we did."
The Reggie myth began with the ironically titled debut Greatest Hits '84 to '87 in 1999. The 18-track LP was a pop-punk junk pile of songs and bizarre soundbites, recorded with members of both Coalesce and Get Up Kids that, though sloppy, shone brightly when Dewees used his keyboard to transcend the trite SoCal pop-punk sound.
Its follow-up, Promotional Copy (2000), exemplified Dewees' capabilities, as he honed his punk and guitar-pop chops while toying with a little hip-hop, electronica and hardcore. The experiments are just as off the wall on Under the Tray as before, but they sound more realized, like a refined next step from a guy who grew up listening to Duran Duran, Def Leppard and Loverboy, as well as the Cramps, Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys. The phantom prodigy also studied piano, wrote his first musical composition at 10 and won a school songwriting contest at 14. He's now in the process of working on the fourth album for underground "it" band the Get Up Kids.
Amidst the cheeky humor, Under the Tray is its own mixtape, a mash of styles played with varying degrees of sincerity and aptitude. The jokes never go on for too long, and the engaging hooks hang around just long enough to miss them. The self-indulgence factor is tolerable ... only because the self being mined is so full of surprises.
"The songs aren't meant to be totally stupid," Dewees said in spite of titles such as "Apocalypse WOW," "Linkin Verbz" and "Megan 2K2 (Even Though It's 2K3 Now)." "And if you don't like one, you can skip it and there might be a completely different style of music on the next track. That's kind of why the band is called the Full Effect — because I didn't want to pigeonhole it into, 'Oh, this is emo,' or 'Oh, this is death metal,' or 'This sounds like a frickin' 311 rip-off.' "
Dewees' sense of humor blends blatant guffaws with a witty, practical-joke sensibility that sometimes flies over the head of his audience. He estimated about 12,000 copies of Promotional Copy were returned by retailers fooled by the title and plain packaging. He facetiously hoped he'd top that figure by people suspecting their copy of Under the Tray was a factory defect because the CD isn't where it's supposed to be.
"The people that run the record industry really don't have a sense of humor," Dewees said. "I did the joke to play with them and the kids, as well. It wasn't that I just did it to piss everybody off. If you find the humor in it, then cool. If you don't, then I'm sorry."
Dewees, er, Reggie, is in the midst of a solo promotional tour, after which he'll continue to work on the next Get Up Kids effort in the band's Eudora, Kansas, studio. Upon that album's completion, Dewees will launch a full-scale summer tour with the Full Effect in July.