Like many members of his generation, Jay Luke remembers a time when MTV not only played music, but consistently played good music, inspiring him to pick up a guitar.
“Obviously that’s changed very much over the years, but I remember wanting to take guitar lessons after seeing a Van Halen video. They’re trying to teach you to play ‘Happy Birthday’ and I wanted to learn ‘Hot for Teacher,’ so I quickly just gave up on the lesson thing. It took some years later, actually, to pick it up to learn on my own, but I moved to drums shortly thereafter,” Luke told the Weekender.
“It’s just something I’ve always done. I always had a real passion for music. After many years, I found likeminded people, because for a while it was just me in my room just playing all the time. It’s cool to find other people and finally get things going so I could perform.”
Those likeminded people are The MESS, a group playing “progressive metal with a punk edge” that the 35-year-old Throop resident formed in 2003 following years of developing his own style and writing songs with a four-track tape recorder. After three years of struggling to find a consistent lineup, he started talking to guitarist Janson Harris on Myspace.
“From then on, it’s been nothing but up because he’s a very, very competent musician, and he’s way more dedicated than my initial band member was. Things have gone pretty good from there,” Luke explained.
“I always thought he was a much better guitar player than I was, especially with soloing and stuff like that, but now in our current incarnation, he’s playing keyboards and I’m the sole (guitar) player, so it’s kind of changed my playing around a little bit. I was kind of more of a rhythm player, and now I’m doing solos and stuff like that,” he continued.
“As far as influences go, I’m into all of the classic guitar gods, and his biggest inspiration is video game music, so it’s quite a blend. Having to learn some of the things that he writes and some of the things that I write for him, it’s kind of a cool melting pot. I think that’s kind of what sets us apart from a lot of the other bands that are playing around.”
What also sets them apart is their varying experiences performing with national acts. The band was set to open for W.A.S.P. a few years ago before the band unexpectedly split after their sound check, leaving The MESS to headline the anticipated gig.
“Everybody else in the band said, ‘Jeez, that was the most energetic we’ve ever played,’ and I was just thinking, ‘Yeah, because I wanted to kill somebody!’ It crushed me a lot, but it really showed that you shouldn’t look up to your heroes too closely because they will let you down,” Luke acknowledged.
“There’s been a handful that haven’t, but you’ve just got to separate the music from the artist sometimes.”
One that didn’t let him down was Duff McKagan, former bassist for Guns N’ Roses and current frontman of Loaded, who the band opened for in Allentown.
“He was like, ‘Wow, The MESS – that’s a great band name.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I don’t get too star-struck, but jeez, take it!” he recalled with a laugh.
“When I was in second grade or whatever, I idolized Guns N’ Roses. I thought they were the coolest of the cool. It was definitely a triumphant moment, especially for him not to be an asshole!”
More than just a great band name, The MESS writes particularly personal songs, ringing with an honesty that Luke insists upon.
“I have to kind of feel it to emphasize it. I remember hearing somebody say, ‘You have to bleed a little when you sing or the words don’t mean a thing.’ That always just stuck with me over the years,” he remarked.
“I hate the fakes, the people that are singing about stuff that they know nothing about. It’s always been a big pet peeve of mine.”
Thankfully, he has his music to let those frustrations out.
“I’ve always kind of been envious of bands like Van Halen or a lot of these bands that could write these good time party songs. For me, whenever I’m feeling really happy, the last thing I do is go and write lyrics or music, so it tends to be when I vent or something like that,” he described.
“If something’s really kind of pissing me off, I always just grab a pen or grab my guitar and try to take it out through the music, I guess, rather than getting in trouble or going to jail.”
As an author and illustrator, Luke admits his creative mind simply won’t turn off.
“I usually end up writing or painting or working on music. You always hear people wishing that they had a button on the back of their neck to turn their brain off, and I really wish I did sometimes. I’m always doing something,” he noted.
“I am very thankful that I was able to discover all these ways to get ideas out.”
The MESS has always been particularly special to Luke, though, which is why the band was put on hold three years ago so each member could focus on their other projects at the time.
“I didn’t want it to get convoluted or tainted, and everybody was off doing side projects and stuff, so I just said, ‘Look, you guys get this all out of your system and it’ll always be here for when you come back.’ Luckily, there was a time when the door was open and they came back.”
Luke and Harris have played as a duo over the years, but this Saturday will mark the return of a full lineup and their first show with a new bass player at Lyrics Bar, Cafe, & Music Venue in Carbondale with Walter Prez and UMan ERA.
“A lot of the old songs are going to sound like they got a good facelift. It’ll be cool to just play them in front of people again rather than in our little practice space,” Luke emphasized.
“You never know how anything goes until you play it in front of people, so we’re eager to get it out. … Once you have the right chemistry with the right guys, it doesn’t feel like a job, and it should never really feel like a job.”
This may be why Luke spends almost every Wednesday hosting the Irish Wolf Pub’s award-winning open mic night in downtown Scranton, encouraging others to express themselves in the same open and honest way he always has.
“A lot of people told me that they really like the vibe of it. It’s kind of a no-pressure, encouraging atmosphere. Over the years, I’ve come to embrace it quite a lot. It’s even a great place to meet other artists, people that are looking for bands and stuff like that. Some people have gotten together just through the open mic,” he said.
“A lot of places don’t give you the opportunity to do your own thing, and I’m always just really thankful to the Irish Wolf for letting me do it the way I want to.”
It’s also allowed him to become a familiar face in the local original music scene, one that is sure to support the return of The MESS.
“The original scene is really cool. It’s so diverse around here. It’s very united, I think,” he pointed out.
“We’re all in it together. You’ve got to support each other or it’s going to go nowhere.”