Ironic effect

It's 15 minutes past showtime and everyone — from the packs of rawboned mall rats crowding the stage to the puffy 30-something divorcees at the bar — looks half-dead. When the band, basically a one-man show led by James Dewees (a 30-year-old recent divorcé himself), gets under the lights looking like animatronic wax statues and starts in with the tongue-in-cheek synth metal, most of the bar furrows a brow deciding whether to dance, drink or ditch. It's the same decision that's faced us with Dewees' project, Reggie and the Full Effect, since the very beginning — or at least the few of us who were out of grammar school when he hit the scene back in 1999.

As the decisions are being made, Dewees continues to rocket through the ironic goth-metal. He calls this routine "Common Denominator" — essentially a Nordic death metal "side project" of Reggie and the Full Effect — which will officially take the stage after a short set by Fluxuation, Dewees' other gag band that plays histrionic new wave (Dewees even sings in a faux Brit accent). Let's drink.

The story goes like this: Sometime in the late 1990s, James Dewees, a Kansas City-based drummer for hardcore band Coalesce and sometimes keyboardist for emo tastemakers the Get Up Kids, began whiling away the hours in his home studio recording quirky, melodic pop songs that lampooned the oversensitive, hoodie-clad underground rock scene and its music — the whiney, melodramatic pop punk mostly dedicated to songs about relationships and long drives.

With such easy targets in its crosshairs, Dewees' Reggie and the Full Effect was born, producing a debut called Greatest Hits 1984-1987 that featured such titles as "Fiona Apple Can Kiss My Black Ass" and "Drunk Guy Talks Chemicals to Us at the Get Up Kids Show." It was followed by Promotional Copy a year later. The band's rapid success was steeped in a fairly bewildering irony — the very scene that Reggie and the Full Effect had set out to poke fun of was the same one that embraced the band. Kids who packed the shows were simultaneously the fans and the butt of the jokes.

When Dewees released Reggie's third album, Under the Tray, in February 2003, he was a celebrity of that scene and had started playing keyboards in Warped Tour punk outfit New Found Glory — a band that fully represents everything that Reggie set out to lampoon. Seven years down the road it's hard to separate spoof from sincerity, and the only thing Dewees seems genuine about expressing is sarcasm.

That's what makes the most recent Reggie release, last year's Songs Not to Get Married To, so confusing. Certainly it has its share of comedy with tunes like "The Fuck Stops Here" and "Laura's Australian Dance Party," but, according to Dewees, the record makes a huge leap toward something he's never done before: sincerity.

"At first the whole thing was a gimmick, but, I dunno, getting a divorce really changes the way that you think about things," Dewees says. "You meet someone and you think that everything is going to work and be forever, and it doesn't, and it ends and tears your life apart. I still have to try to have a sense of humor about the whole thing, I guess, but it sucks."

It sounds like it does suck, but coming from a guy who has built the lore of his band on sending up clichéd tales — lost bluesman, studio fires, a fictionalized tour promoter named Welvis Tarn — it's difficult not to see Dewees as the boy who cried wolf. Even though the lyrical sentiments of Songs Not to Get Married To are a little heavier than past efforts like, say, the song called "Canadians Switching the Letter P for the Letter V, Eh?," the music never really ventures into sincerity's ballpark. On "Love Reality," Dewees offers a tongue-in-cheek Depeche Mode homage, and "Deathnotronic," the requisite contribution from faux-metal band Common Denominator, ain't exactly heartfelt.

No matter what Dewees says, it's hard to feel for the guy who has made a career of getting on stage and calling himself Paco just so he can banter about tacos.

"I don't do Paco anymore," Dewees says, sounding a little wounded that that I even posed the question. "But a lot of other things have changed. It's so hard to get a rise of people, to get any reaction, that it can make you crazy coming up with a gimmick that's bigger and more elaborate than the last one. Fuck that. I just want to play music and make a living."

Dewees is a doubtlessly talented gent when it comes to making music. He's a versatile drummer, a talented keyboardist and a serviceable guitarist and bassist who plays just about everything on Reggie's recordings. He plays most of these instruments on Songs Not to Get Married To, and on the current tour, which he calls the "Reggie Show."

For the show's modest ticket price, an audience gets equal parts indie-rock happening (Long Island hardcore act From Autumn to Ashes makes up Dewees' backing band) and hokey community theater. The show is silly with tightly orchestrated plot and lighting changes and scripted dialogue. If your decision to dance, drink or ditch puts you on the dance floor, don't wear your best duds. In a nod to such goth-metal acts as Gwar, Dewees ends all shows on the 14-city tour that supports his first sincere record by spraying the audience with a few gallons of fake blood.

"Everyone loves the fake blood," Dewees says. "The kids can't ever seem to get enough of that shit. There are people who come to the show just for that. I don't really understand it."

Tonight, he hasn't brought the blood out quite yet and, despite his smug smirk and hopped-up antics, there are fleeting moments when he sings his Songs Not to Get Married To and actually sounds like he means them.

But then the wired synth pop takes a sharp turn: Dewees sarcastically apes an outlandishly stage move and hollers, "Let's rock!" with a grimace and — all of a sudden — the joke seems to be on us.


Wednesday, March 22, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700. All ages.

Nate Cavalieri is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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