Rockin’ The Boat With New Waves
By Ed Reynolds
At Southern clubs in the late ’70s, bands played three sets a night, four nights a week. Most were dishing out versions of The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, and The Eagles, among other dinosaur acts. Meanwhile, a Birmingham actor from Sweden named Mats (pronounced “Mots”) Roden was studying theater at New York University when he attended a show at Irving Plaza — a performance by a campy rock combo from Athens, Georgia, called The B-52s. “It was a really mind-blowing for me because I realized that you didn’t have to be from New York to play the city,” he recalls. “I had been working for the Wooster Group [an experimental theater company] in New York with Willem Dafoe and Spalding Gray, so I was really serious about the theater in those days. But I was always torn between music and acting. So I called Matt [Kimbrell] a couple of days after The B-52s show, and we talked about me coming back to Birmingham to start a band called Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits.”
Roden, Matt Kimbrell, and Leif Bondarenko had been friends since high school while attending the Alabama School of Fine Arts (where Roden was legendary for wearing his bathrobe to class). As teens, Kimbrell and Bondarenko were already working as professional drummers at various highbrow cocktail lounges in Birmingham, Alabama. By 1979, Roden had returned to Alabama to form the Leisure Suits, where they rehearsed at his parents’ house, much to the consternation of neighbors (“just keep on playing that white trash rock/you can hear us practicing for blocks,” Kimbrell sings in “White Trash Rock”). They recruited local attorney Craig Izard (rhymes with “lizard”) as second guitarist and third songwriter. Jim Bob & The Leisure Suits soon began playing the same clubs that were booking cover bands four nights a week, though they concentrated on original songs with rearrangements of tasty covers of Franki Valli & The Four Seasons’ “Walk Like a Man,” a Ramones-style version of The Eagles “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” and a scorching “Burning Love” (featuring front man Kimbrell as a sensual but vulgar Elvis Presley, shaking his hips and caressing his body as he sang).
The band’s inaugural release was a five-song EP, 1980’s First Time, which reflected the Leisure Suits original vision: fast songs with a punk rock aesthetic, each clocking in at under three minutes. Though there was no college radio station in town to promote First Time, their unpredictable, energetic live shows created enough excitement to to earn them a following in Northern Alabama. The EP’s “White Trash Rock” best defined the Leisure Suits’ frustration seeking recognition outside of the South with the classic line: “They don’t make stars out of bar bands in Birmingham….” Eventually, the club scene in Birmingham evolved when venues such at The Nick and Old Town Music Hall began to focus on presenting a different act nightly. Birmingham groups such as The Mortals, The Invaders, and The Colas as well as The Rakes from nearby Auburn, began getting jobs playing original music. “What I think Jim Bob really did was tap into this underground scene,” says Mats Roden. “There was a wanting of new, original music in the scene. We were not going to do covers; Craig and I were totally opposed to doing covers, which Matt and Leif were not. So that caused a little friction in the band. I wanted it to be totally original.” In 1981, the Leisure Suits released a 45 rpm single, featuring “Panama City Bleach” and “This World Is Killing Me”. The single did not have the rapid- fire punk-rock ammo of First Time; rather the band’s sound had evolved into something slightly more sophisticated, especially the slow, introspective “This World Is Killing Me”.
“What was cool about Jim Bob was that we had three strong singer/songwriters,” says Roden. The band decided to record a full-length album, 1982′s Jim Bob &the Leisure Suits. “The album turned out okay, but it did not reflect how crazy and good we were live. It was also out first time in a real studio.” One of the stellar tracks on the album is “Gangland Wars.” Roden recalls his naïveté about gang life at the time. “I wrote ‘Gangland Wars’ when I first heard about gangs coming to Birmingham — I’m sure they were always there — but that was my first introduction. This was like the early ’80s, and gangs started appearing all over metropolitan areas. And I kind of romanticized it. I thought it was a cool thing, like the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story.”
Like the single and First Time that preceded Jim Bob & the Leisure Suits, all three records were released on the Leisure Suits’ own label, Polyester Records.
One of Alabama’s legendary rock & roll bands when the Leisure Suits began was The Rakes out of Auburn. Rakes’ guitarist Bruce Yandle recollects playing shows on the same bill as the Leisure Suits. “I always thought Jim Bob was pretty good; I thought they were kind of better than we were”, Yandle notes. “They had that B-52s vibe to them a little bit. I remember being totally mesmerized by Leif Bondarenko’s playing. It was the first time I realized that drums are what it’s all about. I thought, ‘This guy is fantastic!’ Leif just drove that band.” Brad Quinn, a member of Birmingham’s celebrated cult favorites Carnival Season, who currently lives in Japan when not playing with pop-icon Tommy Keene, has fond memories of the Leisure Suits. “I was a little too young to get into bars in the early ‘80s, so the first time I ever saw them was at the grand opening of a Jack’s Hamburgers restaurant.” Quinn says, laughing. “They were pretty fantastic. They did Jerry Lee’s ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,’ of course, which as you might remember was Jacks’ theme song for its fried chicken.”
Izard tells of the two nights the Leisure Suits got to open for The Ramones at Brothers Music Hall. “We got there for soundcheck and they played a couple of songs and Johnny [Ramone] said into the mic, “What state are we in?’ And I’ve never smelled as much pot backstage as I did from the Ramones’ dressing room. You normally wouldn’t think of the Ramones as a bunch of potheads.” Roden’s funniest memory of a Jim Bob gig was the night they opened for Bow Wow Wow at a five-thousand-seat Birmingham auditorium. The Leisure Suits has to leave immediately after their set for a second job that night. “The guys in Bow Wow Wow were really cool, but Annabella [Bow Wow Wow lead singer] was kind of a snob, and I mean, who can blame her? She was sixteen and being managed by that fucking Malcolm McLaren [former Sex Pistols and New York Dolls manager]. Then we had to pack up our gear and go play a Bar Mitzvah at some cheesy Holiday Inn that same night.”
Craig Izard left Jim Bob & The Leisure Suits soon after the album was released. Guitarist Charles Muse was hired to take his place when the band moved to New York City for a couple of months to peddle Jim Bob & the Leisure Suits. No one showed any interest in releasing the record, and the band never put out another. The last night of a brief tour of the Midwest was the final disappointment; when they arrived at their scheduled Oklahoma City show, they learned from the club marquee that they had been replaced that evening by an unknown band called The Bangles. In 1983, The Leisure Suits called it quits. “By that time it was for all intents and purposes Matt’s band, and we weren’t collaborating anymore,” says Roden.
RODEN and Bondardenko then formed the Primitons, which, along with local power-pop sensation Carnival Season, became one of the top acts in Birmingham. “Initially, The Primitons were more focused than Jim Bob because we only had one central songwriting point of view and only one lead singer at the time. We did the demos at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In studio in North Carolina,” says Roden. “The studio is like in his mother’s den.” Arena Rock Recording Company, which recently released Misguided Promise: Carnival Season Complete (1984-1989), will soon release a Primitons compilation.
Kimbrell went on to front a pair of trios, The Ho-Ho Men and The Mambo Combo, both reflecting the tongue-in-cheek approach to performing that the Leisure Suits had pulled off so well. Drummer Leif Bondarenko came to regret having turned down an opportunity to audition for Iggy Pop in 1982. He currently plays drums in American Idol winner Taylor Hicks’ band. Craig Izard is an attorney and musician who fronts The Cosmic Snakehandlers. Despite suffering a stroke a decade ago, forcing him to play keyboard with one hand, Roden contacted the other original members about a Jim Bob & The Leisure Suits reunion that never materialized. When The Oxford American approached the Leisure Suits in October of this year about being featured in magazine’s Music Issue, the band was shocked that anyone was interested after thirty years. “Matt was so excited,” says Roden. “He felt vindicated after having put up with naysayers for three decades.” A week later, Matt Kimbrell died at age fifty-one of a heart attack, following a decade from suffering from a heart condition.
“Jim Bob set out to make a statement about being anti-status-quo-rock,” Roden notes. “We’ll always be remembered as the first punk/new wave band in Birmingham.” He wasn’t always so proud of that notoriety, however. “As far as Jim Bob, I thought, I thought of it as a negative thing for a long time. I really was kind of embarrassed by the band as a gimmick. But Blondie, The Ramones, Television, all that music changed my life. So I’m not embarrassed by Jim Bob anymore because I am proud of what we did,” he admits. “We totally changed the scene. If it hadn’t been for us, the new-wave sound would’ve hit a lot slower in Alabama.”
Originally published in the Oxford American Twelfth Annual Music Issue 2010, pgs. 62-64.