The raw rock of the Jet set

Special to The Times

Lead screamer Nic Cester of the Australian rock quartet Jet is tired. During a mid-March phone call from New York City amid winter's last gasps, the 24-year-old frequently punctuates his comments with yawns -- the kind steeped in bone-deep weariness, not stemming from boredom.

Nevertheless, Cester's fatigue really isn't a surprise, considering Jet's rapid ascension to global superstardom. The Melbourne four-piece is riding a wave of success that has included a stint opening for the Rolling Stones, a hit song featured in an iPod ad and a gold-selling debut record, "Get Born."

But rather than being just another cog in rock's renaissance, the band -- which also features Nic's younger brother Chris on drums, guitarist-vocalist Cameron Muncey and bassist Mark Wilson -- prides itself on carving out its own niche within the resurgence.

"The songs were always supposed to be ... whatever sounded good to us," the elder Cester says in a hoarse voice. "Whatever we weren't hearing. Whatever we wished we were hearing on the radio. We didn't want it to be really polished and overproduced. We just wanted to be real, you know?"

Cester's refusal to hide his sleepy demeanor speaks volumes about Jet's disdain for airbrushed perfection, as does the rawness of "Get Born." Their iPod enticement, "Are You Gonna Be My Girl," shimmies with Iggy Pop-esque rolling -- and a few throat-clearing coughs at its start for good, blemished measure.

Elsewhere, the riffs of "Get Me Outta Here" smoke like the arena pomp of AC/DC, "Rollover D.J." rumbles with bluesy bar-band swagger, and "Get What You Need" dabbles in Kinksian pop. The mellow, piano-driven "Look What You've Done" even conjures up Paul McCartney, whose Wings-recorded song "Jet" the band took for its name.

But while Cester's self-professed affinity for McCartney and the Beatles -- especially for "Abbey Road" -- aligns with the influences of countless other American bands, Jet's Australian upbringing distinguishes it from its U.S. counterparts.

"[There's] the lack of pretentiousness about the country," Cester says, his accent prominent. "We always come across as a bit refreshing, even in person when we met the label for the first time and were talking to some of the people involved in the industry. It really helps that we don't have our heads up our [behinds]."

He laughs at the last statement, but there's merit in his assessment that Jet's approachable personalities contribute to much of their appeal. Vocalist-guitarist Adrian Barrera of Atlanta up-and-comers the Hiss, a similarly stinging rock band who toured with Jet in Britain last fall, agrees that the band is an "inclusive experience."

"They're not whining and crying about stuff, they're singing about having a good time," he says. "That goes a long way with people. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to understand what they're singing about. [But] it's not complete brain-dead, moronic jock rock. There are actually some nice chord changes and it's good music."

Jet's detractors might quibble with Barrera's last statement and dismiss the band as mere classic rock rehashers. Yet their stage presence is undeniably electric -- and made quite an impression on Vines drummer Hamish Rosser, a tour-mate of Jet on their current trek, which arrives in L.A. for two shows starting Wednesday.

"Nic Cester is the second coming of [AC/DC's] Bon Scott," Rosser says. "We were at the NME Awards recently. They did the song 'Cold Hard Bitch,' and they extended the intro for it. I was waiting for the song to kick in and he just goes, 'Yeahhhhhhh' and just screams it. It was the coolest thing ever."

Cester calls such comparisons to rock luminaries "flattering" but is clearly disinterested in believing this hype or letting such compliments inflate his ego. "We're typically pretty down-to-earth people, so it doesn't really compute," he says. "I don't really care when people give me compliments, let alone criticism. All that matters to us is what we're thinking. All that matters is what I think."

Still, his apathy toward external opinions doesn't signify any slacker tendencies within the band's ranks. Rather, Cester's attitude reveals the singular focus that allowed Jet to survive and thrive within the competitive Melbourne club scene after he and Muncey formed the band while still in school.

"My brother was 16, and me and Cam were 18 when we first started going and playing pubs," he recalls. "No one would take us seriously because we were so young.

"There's a lot of pubs and a lot of bands [in Melbourne], and if you're crap, you won't get anywhere. There's so much competition that you actually have to be really well-rehearsed and know what you're doing."

Jet found it challenging to navigate this scenario, at least at first. Nic Cester describes the early songs as "pretty crap" and mentions one show where the band received three beers as payment -- to be split among the four of them.

However, playing in clubs at night while working menial jobs by day -- Cester drove a forklift -- finally started to pay off. A four-song EP, "Dirty Sweet," appeared in 2002 and stirred up some serious buzz, which led to a deal with Elektra and the Australian dates with Jagger & Co., whom Cester describes as "really friendly" and "really cool."

Still, there will be no rest in the near future for Cester, who talks of new Jet songs inspired by, of all things, nursery rhymes. "There's just this weird thing about them," he says. "They're supposed to be for kids, but they're always completely scary.

"But it's more just about simple melodies, and that's the thing that interested me more [in fairy tales] than that. Melody will always remain what we do best, regardless of whether it's a country song or a rock song or whatever. For us, genre is irrelevant. A good song is a good song."

Annie Zaleski can be reached at weekend@latimes.com.

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Jet

What: Aussie Invasion Tour 2004, featuring Jet and the Vines

Where: The Wiltern LG, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: Wednesday and next Thursday, 6:30 p.m.

Price: $22.50

Info: (213) 380-5005

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