Occasionally, you’ll ramble across a roadside vista at just the right time of day, free of fences, billboards, and telephone poles. Occasionally, you don’t hit a single red light on your way home. Occasionally, the mailman delivers postcard from a sunny island on a rainy day. And, occasionally, you’ll hear a song that reminds you of all these things. These United State’s brand of music lends a lyrical vista to a sweeping array of subjects as expansive and varied as their name may suggest; their songs conjure landscapes and times past and present like postcards arriving from far removed family or long lost friends.
Should the situation present itself, as it occasionally does, two musicians will cross paths long enough to ask the kinds of questions that get answers we could all stand to hear. Gigbot rallied together Jessie Elliot, the central figure of the band, and Tim Rynders of The Knew to discuss the musical membrane that holds These United States together.
TR -Justin told me you drove all night from Santa Fe to Denver just in time to get here before the blizzard hit. Does the band typically put itself in harm's way like this? Do you like being stranded in post-cowtowns?
Jesse - Danger is our middle names. We are, this moment, driving very slowly across Kansas, pumping Midnite Vultures very loudly out of our very bad new old van speakers, with all of our windows very down. That is, more or less, give or take, snow sleet hail or dark of night, how we roll.
Recorded in Dayton Ohio, April 8, 2009
TR -My favorite description of you (from an NPR feature): "novelistic songs packed with dense narratives and loose, ragged-edged folk, rock and Americana."
I get the sense you are unable to count the many cities you've been through or lived in, but may be qualified to teach any University level Literature course. Do you have a rebuttal for this? Are you planning on pulling a Blake Schwarzenbach at some point (and teaching writing to college kids)?
Jesse -I always liked classrooms. There's a lot of people there, thinking a lot of different things - which is like the world, except your expected to say those things out loud. In the good classrooms, anyway. I try to put myself in situations where people are expected to say things out loud to each other. Basketball, music, towns you go through. These things appeal to me. The best colleges are these things.
TR - I've read you are more drawn to "words and rhythm and sentences and cadence and phrasing and all that junk... more than emotion". Where does this inspiration come for you? Do you feel life is better captured with words than naked emotion? (subsequently... how many high level music executives, drunken balladeers, or friends ever told you words are for books and emotion is for music?)
Jesse -Emotion is good - an episode of This American Life we were listening to coming out of the mountains of Colorado yesterday made me cry, and a lot. It was about growing up, teenagers, parents, suicide, how hard the world is for everyone. There is absolutely nothing untrue about this - this is the greatest thing we could talk about.
When I put songs together, yeah, it's more aesthetically oriented most of the time (recall: Midnite Vultures; we're on "Milk & Honey" now). In the same way that the best emotion provokes a new aesthetic, the best aesthetic elicits a new emotion. Good books know this. Good music knows this. Good drunken balladeers know this. I'd imagine there's even a few good high level music executives knowing this. I've tried to get to know this.
“I've tried to make more of my life about rhythm, getting the right steps in at the right time, knowing when to lead your partner and when to be pulled along, when you electric-slide to the left, when you roller skate to the right.”
TR -Do you feel there is inherently something cheap, ineffective or trivial about some musicians relying heavily on playing the emotion card? Do you feel there is still an emotion conveyed in a perfectly constructed sentence filled with ideas and reflections of life? What is it in a certain phrasing that draws you in?
Jesse -Yes, you've said it now. Scratch what I said - you've said it all better here now. Except the cheap, ineffective, trivial part - that's only true to the extent that life, every day, is cheap, ineffective, trivial. Which of course it is, but also is not. That's phrasing, too. That's rhythm, which is every day of life, so banal and so beautiful. I've tried to make more of my life about rhythm, getting the right steps in at the right time, knowing when to lead your partner and when to be pulled along, when you electric-slide to the left, when you roller skate to the right.
They played so much Paula Abdul at Roxy Wheels, this rink we all went to when I was a kid. I was so bad at rollerskating, but I loved being there - all those people in all those circles together, over and over. Repetition. You learn something each time around, though, or you see someone new, maybe who you knew before. Endless permutation - what are the six words strung together inside the certain sound that will crack all our hearts open, giant sigh, just breathing in and out every day?
TR -During a recent discussion with the band The Fling, who just so happened to be stranded in Denver from earlier said blizzard, the topic of how being even an under-appreciated and poor touring musician seems to be a strangely familiar, precious and rewarding way for young Americans to spend their days. Has extensive travel around this country been something for you that resulted in a special appreciation for the US and its constituency? How?
Jesse - Yes. This is a beautiful country, no two ways about it. It's not the only beautiful country, it's not the most beautiful country, but it's the country I was born in, and its highways are just phenomenal, so many places to get to from so many other places - mountains, pine forests, everglades, bays, bridges.
I heard somewhere that only 6% of the land of this country has concrete or buildings or some kind of human-made development on top of it. That's hard to believe when you're inside the perfect collective expression of a city, but easy to believe once you get further and further out. I have no idea how we've all stayed together this long, but it must have something to do with the mountains and the cities and the forests and telephone lines off into the corn and soy a long long way.
TR -To touch on modern reality - How do you think young Americans are going to respond to a period of our century-old consumeristic ideal being rattled? Are we headed towards a heightened dog eat dog fate or are we going to find some collectively forgotten but deeply rooted value system able to draw us together and help us survive?
Jesse -I'm pulling for the latter. Freedom and community - not easy lives to combine. But people do hard things all the time. I hope we still have that in us here.
TR -Who are some of the most important people and ideas that have made These United States the force to be reckoned with it currently is?
Jesse -It's everyone, right? All the parents and teachers and friends and people at the store or the car shop or coming through the television we loved and hated along the way, all the things foes and foils pushed into our brains. Of course, some shake out more important than others, some get to us more directly, locally, Kitty Hawk our friends in DC making perfect sound, the person who taught me how to canoe at that camp up in Wisconsin, just the way my sister leaves a message on the answering machine that makes me want to write a song about everything at once, the RadioLab episode we just listened to about fireflies and what that brings back to mind for each of us individually that we then talk about learning new parts of each others' pasts even as we're moving into the future, the things I don't want to admit loving so much only because I've admitted to em so so many times before, which is a really dumb idea to even have in my head but the dumb things affect us, too. They do.
TR -Who is United Interests and how did the two of you fall in love?
Jesse - I sent a burned compact disc cloaked in a bright pink birthday envelope to a lot of places who make or break records. They were my favorite people who actually opened and appreciated it. They are mysterious mountain people with ever-opening minds.
TR -Can you describe some of the reasons you feel SXSW is still a necessary and important component of the music world, and specifically American music?
Jesse -Ten thousand talking and maybe actually even half or so listening, a modern day white noise info overload babble-on miracle. For better and for worse, everyone seems to crave music. Americans are not to be out-craved.
TR -Occasionally I get worried that the pressures of this world (money, notoriety) may jeopardize the camaraderie of the musicians of the world, and that music may in turn suffer for it. Have you seen this, and if so, how have you dealt/wrestled with it?
Jesse -Yes. I've even seen it in people who aren't musicians. But especially in musicians, one of which I've nearly become myself of late.
Everyone suffers for the pressures of this world, and since music comes from everyone, this makes sense. I wrestle with it by expecting nothing, welcoming it all, keeping the habits down, coffee and the like, accepting graciously that which people truly want to give, trying to give a little something back, looking in the mirror honestly to realize when my skin or eyes are crumbling, making a promise to myself, keeping as many of those as possible, staying in fighting shape, that and at least another thing or three every day that I don't want to do but know I have to, lived like a monk if it makes me better one week, surrendering to a night if it helps keep all us sane, trying to laugh a lot, eat an apple, drink a tea, pay attention to a kid, build a ladder for squash plans to grow up with someone I love, try hard not to let the small things get under skin, look at a river, forget, remember.
We all suffer, and it's lucky that we all do together.
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