Santa Cruz musician Jesse Kenneth Cotu Williams might be best known for his absurd bands that push hilarious gimmicks to the next level.
Take his project the Randy Savages, a “punk rock wrestling accompaniment collective” that definitely “does not identify as a band.” Donning WWE style wrestling gear and Randy “Macho Man” Savage accents, this pop punk group sings about actual Macho Man matches from their childhood and feature an array of musicians ranging from three to nine members. Williams also plays in the Reno band Boss’ Daughter, with friend Chris Fox. But more interestingly, this group inspired the side project Not Chris Fox, a band specifically barring Fox’s involvement that has the sole intention of ruthlessly mocking him.
“It’s exclusively about him,” Williams says with a laugh. “We get information about him from family members and friends. It’s definitely a Chris Fox roast band.”
But in February, when Williams recorded his first solo EP, I Tried, he left the humor and wacky gimmicks at the door. His five-song acoustic punk solo album is a side of him that few ever get to see: deep, introspective, thoughtful and incredibly emotional.
Born and raised in Santa Cruz, Williams started singing in choir at Calvary Chapel in Aptos as a child and has been in a plethora of local acts that tend toward high energy and fun—from hip hop to metal acts like A Thousand Shall Fall and punk bands like the Backup Razor.
“If you have an upbeat song dealing with tough issues, it makes it easier,” he admits. “It’s like having cartoons on in the background when having a serious conversation with your therapist.”
The opening song and title track of his solo EP rides on a lighthearted melody of piano, guitar and hope. Then he hits the listener with the bleak opening line: “It’s like every morning/When I know I don’t know how to face the day” only to return to the earworm chorus “So I’ll keep singing.”
“I Tried” is a love song for bad times, a poem to depression. Much like the cute and heartbreaking cover artwork created by Gus Fink—a sad looking, dark figure holding an ugly-but-cute heart-shaped balloon, staring down at a black cat modeled after Williams’ own polydactyl furry friend Olive Oil. In keeping with the bizarre happenings in Williams’ musical life, Olive has her own international fan base thanks to Williams making buttons of her that he’s been passing out to fans, friends and strangers since his first tour in 2010 with Reno punk trio Vampirates.
“It was just a fun button, but we kept running out of them,” he remembers. “People even wanted to buy them, even though they were free.”
Listeners might recognize the rest of the album as he covers some diverse artists: Chuck Ragan from Hot Water Music, Manchester Orchestra, the Paris Sisters and Neutral Milk Hotel. These scattered songs have the same stark production and vulnerable emotional expression as “I Tried.” This record is a true expression of Williams, with nothing commercial in mind.
“I’m not into music that’s made purely for profit,” he explains. “Like, when you can tell something was made just to sell to the most people or clearly manufactured to a particular audience, that bums me out.”
As for the future of Williams’ solo project, he says that all depends on the pandemic lockdown, but he’s pressing forward with tentative optimism. He’d already filmed his video for “I Tried” with local photographer Weaveracious, and has new material for his second and third solo albums heading down the pipeline. For now, in the thick of uncertainty, he’s focusing his attention on the common thread that spreads throughout his various projects, including his job as bartender and role as booker at the Blue Lagoon: family and community.
“I’m just reflecting on how the community—especially the punk rock community—has treated me,” he says. “It’s about respect. If someone falls down in the pit, pick them up. That’s an analogy for life.”