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A romantic reach back reveals new way to rock

He’s a musician, has been for 20 years now — he’s just never called himself as such.

“I’ve always just said, ‘I play rock ’n’ roll,’ ” notes Clay Heximer, best known locally as drummer for stage-trashing punks The Mapes, on a recent Saturday afternoon at The Beat Coffeehouse and Records.

Across from him sits Rob Bell, singer-bassist in The Psyatics and The Unwieldies, and Rich Coffee, frontman for blues proselytizers The Swamp Gospel.

Together, along with saxophone-clarinet player Gene Howley, they’ve formed Gentlemen of Four Outs, a new band posited on old sounds. The group, whose repertoire is rooted in reinterpretations of the music of the 1920s and 1930s, has changed the way Heximer looks at himself.

“This feels like a band of musicians,” Heximer says. “Like, when I’m sitting behind the drum set, it’s funny to look out and everyone is reading music. I’ve never been in a band that even knew how to read music. It makes me giggle inside, ‘We’re playing big-boy music.’ ”

Heximer’s had the idea for the band for a couple of years now, but after surviving a cancer scare, he decided it was time to set things in motion, first recruiting Coffee.

“We weren’t quite sure what direction we were going in when we started this, but we thought, ‘Tom Waits-y,’ ” Coffee says. “That was pretty much our touchstone at the beginning and we’ve expanded from that.”

Enter Bell, a fan of vintage medicine-show recordings who shares an appreciation of the music of the early 20th century.

“It seems real, but there’s also a romance to the music,” Bell says. “When I listen to that, I can feel the people who made it. I’m invested in it when I hear it. I want to become a part of something like that.”

So far, the group’s songbook ranges from standards such as “St. James Infirmary Blues” to more contemporary fare such as numbers by Soda and his Million Piece Band.

“It’s like a soundtrack to ‘Carnivale,’ ” says Bell, referring to the HBO series about a Dust Bowl-era traveling circus. “We’re not really stuck in any genre. We don’t necessarily follow any pattern.”

Befitting these dudes’ background, they’re playing everything with an edge.

“There’s definitely a lot of energy and distortion where it doesn’t really belong in the songs, but it works with how we’re doing it,” Heximer says.

The band, which officially came together last fall, makes its live debut June 28 at the Hard Hat Lounge. Heximer would be there even if he wasn’t taking the stage that night.

“This is the band that I want to see play in Vegas,” Heximer says. “I’ve been wanting to see this band for the last five years. They haven’t showed up, so we went ahead and made it.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.

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