SHIFT Magazine: The Nine Plus Lives of Jeffrey Liles

May 11, 2010  

By Laura Noble

Jeffrey Liles defies category. Scroll through the just more than 3,000 songs on his iTunes and you’ll find almost every genre of music imaginable. It’s all there, from heavy metal like Rigor Mortis—whom he used manage—  to jazz like the Sharpshooters—whose song “Hot Buttered Rum”  Liles has chosen to kick-off this evening’s DJ gig at Henderson Avenue’s Bar Celine. He keeps one hand on his headphones while the other rakes back his long, dirty blonde dreadlocks. “Different music speaks to me at different points in my life,” he says coolly. “Right now, jazz is just really resonating.”

While Liles, 47, grew up in North Dallas, his life, like his tastes in tunes, has hardly stayed in one place. Music, however, has been a constant. As a kid, Liles remembers how songs connected his family in a different way than most. “We used to inflict, I guess, music on each other,” he says of the battle of tastes in the home. Dad: Beatles, “Let It Be.” Jeff: Beatles, “Revolution.”

His passion for the industry itself, though, started with an introduction to the blossoming punk rock scene in Austin, Texas, during his first (and only) semester of college. Since then, he’s called both California and Texas home while metamorphosing into an ever-evolving list of careers and lifestyles: performing artist, documentary filmmaker, talent buyer, band manager, homeless man, story-teller, Grammy-nominated recording artist, music video writer, manager of LA’s the Roxy, Doc Marten’s ad muse, Dallas Observer columnist, disc jockey at Dallas’ hottest spots and now (insert breath here) Artistic Director of the newly renovated Kessler Theater.

When investor Edwin Cabaniss bought Oak Cliff’s historic Kessler Theater almost a year ago, he knew he needed an experienced partner to help rally the community and book creative talent. Through Dallas’s artistic grapevine, he heard about Liles and hired him based on what Cabnaiss calls Liles’s “integrity and competence.” Together, the two embarked on a remodel project to create a dance/guitar and voice studio by day and performance and art venue by night with a neighborhood bar/art gallery in front.

“The truth is, Jeff and I are in our forties,” Cabaniss candidly remarks about their efforts to build a mulit-generational destination. “But he still has the spirit of a young man and definitely has a lot left to give to the artistic community.”

Built in 1942 and once owned by the singing cowboy Gene Autry, the 375-capacity Kessler Theater is settled in the heart of Oak Cliff in an area known by art-scene insiders simply as “The X+” (so named by Liles and other resident artists for the two nearest intersections which form the touching characters “X” and “+”). On a sunny and 62-degree Friday, Liles pours himself a Dr. Pepper over ice — “I’m a sugar junkie now,” he jokes — and hits the pavement to check in with the other X plus-ers: Steve at Mighty Fine Arts gallery; Wendi at From the Ends of the Earth fair trade boutique; the Kessler Theater’s muralist-in-waiting, Brian Scott; and Opal and Carlos Salas at Cliff Notes poetry bookshop. “Jeff’s our biggest, most genuine advocate out here,” says Opal, who has only known Liles since her store opening in October. “We love him to death.”

Across the “X,” incense-burning-shop owner Wendi Medling sings similar praises of Liles’s candor and generosity, but admits that most on the street knew of Jeff before he introduced himself over here this year. “He’s been in the scene for a while,” says Medling. The “scene” she refers to is that of Deep Ellum’s short-lived decade of music and partying in the mid-eighties. Liles was an integral part of the founding and startup of Deep Ellum’s Theater Gallery and Prophet Bar. During that time, he also performed with his rap group, Decadent Dub Team, and contributed the song “Six Gun” (remixed by Dr. Dre) to the soundtrack of the Dennis Hopper-directed film Colors.

By then, he’d moved his own scene to the West Coast in search of creative inspiration. From his efforts, he released three spoken word albums and short films under the name Cottonmouth, Texas (population, one).  His voice is a mix of Shawn Mullins a la “Lullabye” meets Jack Nicholson as Liles narrates vignettes of both his own and his imagined past in first person. He laughs at the vocal comparison though. When Liles managed LA’s infamous nightspot, The Roxy, he occupied an office called “The Jack Nicholson Room.” In any case, Cottonmouth, Texas’ album The Anti-Social Butterfly garnered national attention with a Grammy Award nomination in 1997 (though he lost to Hillary Clinton’s book on tape.)

Soon after his cotton-mouthed success, a stint recording a GPS voiceover and some months co-writing music videos for the likes of the Dave Matthews’ Band and Marilyn Manson, Liles packed up his car and cruised back to Dallas for the comforts of his hometown. Old and new friends welcomed him back with reunion concerts, art shows and lots of re-acquainting on Facebook. A former regular of the Deep Ellum crowd, Jack Turlington, says he was happy to hear that Liles was back in town and even more so to hear about all he’s been doing. “He’s just a dedicated, humble and pretty selfless guy,” says Turlington. “Jeff really does love music and wants to do whatever to help the culture around it thrive.”

Hear Jeffrey Liles DJ at Park’s Bar Celine, 1921 Henderson Ave., every Thursday evening from 7PM-10PM. The Kessler Theater re-opens at the end of March 2010. Check out their website and Facebook page for more information on concerts, gallery openings, book signings and more.

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