To the untrained eye, Jeremy Flax presents the appearance of a quiet, bookish young man—slight of form, prone to sporting a bowtie, and passionate about his studies. He spent the past few years traveling throughout Latin America as an ESL professor, but more recently finds himself back in Norfolk to pursue a Master’s in Spanish at Christopher Newport University. However, that benign academic exterior hides a raging wild man inside, one who violently appears every time he straps on his deeply-modified Fender Squier Jazzmaster, plugs into an Excelsior tube amplifier, and transforms into the rock god leader of his raucous blues-by-way-of-surf-tone extravaganza known as J.Flax & The Heart Attacks.
After graduating from the University of Mary Washington in 2011, Flax took a teaching job in Madrid. While there, he became immersed in Spain’s underground indie rock scene—a discovery so profound it encouraged him to seek out like-minded souls and form a band of his own, the first incarnation of The Heart Attacks. “I knew this girl, Christina Byler, who was teaching with me. She was a classically trained pianist who I sort of broke—I corrupted her into a boogie woogie-style organist.” Two additional Spanish musicians, Richard Ruiz Mesa and Jaime Olmedo, rounded out the ensemble. They only played two shows together, but the experience unleashed something powerful. Flax remembered, “I was little bit shocked to find that the response was huge. There was a whole thing going on in the area where they just loved American music and were hungry for it.”
Inspired by the positive reception, Flax vowed to take a shot at something larger upon returning to the States. He sought out new band members while sorting through his post-college what-am-I-doing-with-my-life malaise, a process that eventually led to keyboardist Josh Seaburg. The latter enjoyed extensive contacts in the Norfolk music scene through his association with the renowned psychedelic soul-rock group, Major And The Monbacks. Flax and Seaburg explored their mutual appreciation of style and genre, eventually deciding to build a new core for The Heart Attacks. Over the course of a few years, the two cycled through various rhythm sections—along with a stint of living in Washington, D.C.—before settling down with Guy Carmeli on bass and Mat Von Thies on drums. “To my thinking, this is a solid group of musicians and I’m really wanting to keep this line-up,” said Flax.
Musically, Flax could be envisioned as an alternate-universe Jack White wherein the hero of Detroit is hijacked by Link Wray or Dick Dale on his way to discovering Son House. His songs explore the various slings and arrows he has encountered through life. “I might start with a lyric that I just think sounds catchy, but doesn’t actually mean anything. Then I build on that with stuff that’s just matching the rhyme scheme. Along the way, I sprinkle allusions to what I might be feeling at any given time or place. References to people I’ve known. Mostly, it’s subconscious for me.”
If I’m not completely losing my shit and leaving the stage absolutely drained, why do it at all?
It’s obvious that the success of the ensemble owes to the cohesion of the players. Carmeli and Thies form a monstrous backline, serving up thick, meaty slabs of rhythm and blues, while Seaburg’s keys call back to a hallowed age of Hammond organs. But in the end, the distinctiveness of their sound rests squarely with Jeremy’s on-stage persona, a high-wire act wherein he throws every last bit of energy into guitar lines that morph blues rock with classic surf abandon. He presents a version of himself that’s a bit fiercer. Cockier. One that knows he’s absolutely going to rock it out and is fully aware of exactly how good he is. As he puts it, “I’ve been doing this long enough that I know I can play, right? But it isn’t about showing off. It’s that playing this music is the most fun I’ve ever had. And if I’m not completely losing my shit and leaving the stage absolutely drained, why do it at all?”
The story of J.Flax & The Heart Attacks is very much a study in a struggle between a love of music and a passion for academia. With a frontman given to wanderlust, their gig schedule is generally organic in nature, appreciating each event on its own without worrying about their overall trajectory. But after a recent opening set for the aforementioned Monbacks at The NorVa, Flax seems a bit more serious about rock and roll these days. “Lately, we’re really trying to see if we can make some waves. I mean, we all have day jobs that we’re not trying to quit. But at the same time, the music has been feeling really good lately.”
On the heels of this recent success, along with Leather Daddy Bubble Bath’s release of their recent EP, The Ace Tone, the group hunkered down to record a new 7-inch single, “Two-Faced Valentine” backed with “Virginia Gentlemen.” The project was funded through Kickstarter and will include an accompanying music video. “We did a short five-date tour with a stop in Brooklyn with a Columbia film school graduate named Eric Ambrosino,” Flax said. “It was shot between our Brooklyn and Manhattan shows, which were a blast.” With a full promotional effort in the works, there’s also talk of an extended East Coast tour in the coming months.
For Flax, the motivation to keep up this DIY effort really comes down to one thing: “Whether enough people care about what we’re doing. We’re doing all the behind the scene stuff that we can, pushing some promotion for the single and seeing where that takes us. It’s all really in the hands of the fans at this point as far as what comes next, which is exactly how it should be. At the end of the day, if it’s not happening organically? It’s all just bullshit. And we want this to be as real as possible.”
J.Flax & The Heart Attack’s new 7-inch single, Two-Faced Valentine, is currently available online and at select record stores. Listen to it at flaxandtheattacks.bandcamp.com.
Photography by Jeff Hewitt