J. Roddy Walston: We basically got in the van and haven't gotten back out
Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson
Unless you've been living off the grid somewhere far, far away from a terrestrial radio signal, you've probably already been hooked by J. Roddy Walston & the Business' catchy update on '70s Southern-fried boogie rock. With a couple of huge singles in the form of "Take it As it Comes" and "Heavy Bells," the Baltimore-by-way-of Tennessee four-piece has rocketed up from road dogs with a cult following to playing Conan and Coachella. Their infectious sound blends just the right amount of soulful intent with touches of glam and arena rock, and makes for a potent cocktail live.
Gimme Noise spoke to Walston ahead of Thursday's show with Cage the Elephant and Foals at Myth.
Gimme Noise:Essential Tremors has really been a breakout record for you guys, especially up here in the high-north. Could you give a brief history of your group for those who haven't gotten familiar yet?
J. Roddy Walston: We've been a band for a while, about 10 or 11 years. We've been touring like crazy for about seven or nine of those...I can't remember exactly [laughs]. With this new record being on ATO, it was kind of the universe coming together or something, and a lot of people are hearing about us for the first time. We have another full-length and a couple of EPs that were out before that. I grew up in Tennessee and moved out to Baltimore and met all of the dudes in the band up there. Then we basically got in the van and haven't gotten back out!
How has partnering with ATO worked out for you guys? You're labelmates with spiritually similar groups like Alabama Shakes and Drive by Truckers now, right?
Yeah, Lucero and Drive by Truckers and My Morning Jacket. They definitely tend to pick more music that's rooted in people actually being a band. Like, sitting down together and writing songs. ATO has one of our favorite rosters. It's been fantastic man. They're totally in love with it, and believe in it, they're fully behind it any time come forward with any idea or something that we need to collaborate on. It's definitely made the difference, having something like that in your corner. I think, also with the success of bands like Alabama Shakes and My Morning Jacket and stuff like that, you kind of get a little bit of the inside track. ATO's one of those labels where people still have that old-school trust in the label.
Did that new partnership cause your songwriting process differ significantly on this album?
Yeah, as a band we have different process when it comes to writing than I think a lot of people. Generally, I'll write a song top-to-bottom or our guitar player will come up with a part, and we'll go back and forth on that. We use recording and demoing when we're in practices to write, so coming up with all the background vocals, and cutting things in and out, chopping songs down and that kind of stuff. As a band, we do that way before we get into the studio, and then take almost exactly what we want to do, and then it's more about capturing that and making it all cohesive.
The initial process was probably pretty similar to our last record, but our last record was kind of "Tour for four weeks, come home, write for two weeks then tour for another two months," sort of immediately playing the songs. Whereas this record, there came a point after three years of touring behind the last record where I finally had to say "All right, we've got to stop and start writing," because you don't really write on the road. Shows kept coming in, offers kept coming in, but it took about a year and a half on the road for people to start finding out about the self-titled record. So it was almost like starting over, when we, creatively, probably could have been done with it. For our mental health and for the sake of getting something new out there we had to stop. We weren't really touring for the first time in my adult life!
We didn't have that pressure of "If we make this new song, we can play it tomorrow and that'll be really fun," because we needed something new in the set after 3 years. With the new song, it was like, "We can just write this song, it can be crazy, it can be chill or whatever." Then it's more about "Am I satisfied with it," than "Will it be able to get the crowd going tomorrow night, even if they don't know it?"
One of the themes that I've noticed on Tremors is the sort of acceptance and tolerance of time and life events, good and bad, as passing moments. Am I correct in that?
Yeah, and I think you know, with the title, Essential Tremors is a condition I have, it's a nervous system disorder that causes my hands to shake. I've never really been ashamed of it, and it's something that I have kind of referenced in other songs, but I think with the title of this record it kind of helped put it out there as "This is something I am, I'm not changing this about me." I don't define myself by it. I am not an essential tremor or anything like that, but I think is some of that kind of theme in the record. Not that you can't change anything, or that you shouldn't change anything, but there's certain parts of yourself or your life or your friends or your family or whatever where... that thing where you're in love with someone, you're in love with their flaws as well. You gotta take the whole thing.
You guys are doing Bonnaroo, among a bunch of other big festivals this year. Is it a big deal for you to play one of the nation's largest festivals in your old home state?
Definitely, and sort of even the slot too. We're doing a lot of festivals, we just did Coachella, that was like a Sunday at noon. So basically, hangover set for everyone there. We were just hoping that people bothered to get out of bed. But the Bonnaroo set is Thursday night, really late, which is generally better for music and definitely way more our band's vibe. It's more easy to say "C'mon, let's have a party together" when it's actually an appropriate time to have a party, rather than "Why is this guy screaming in my face at 12 in the afternoon?"
Are you excited to be sharing a bill with Cage the Elephant and Foals? That's a pretty diverse lineup, but you're all currently stars on the rise.
Yeah, we've already been out for a week with Cage the Elephant, and we're hooking up for a couple of nights with Foals. By the time we get there I think we'll have done about seven shows with those two bands as a package. Cage the Elephant puts on an amazing show, that's like the wild man rock that comes and goes and is a pretty rare breed right now. I haven't seen Foals, but from everything I've heard they're completely out of control as well, so by the end of the night hopefully everyone there will be really exhausted.
Your band has serriously great rock 'n' roll hair, but I noticed that your drummer's got kind of a Frank-Beard-in-ZZ-Top thing going on by not having lucious locks. What's up with that?
[laughs] Yeah, he's kind of the antithesis of what our visual vibe is. He's kind of a normal-sized haircut and he keeps the beard real short. I dunno, I think if all four of us had it I think it would start to come across as a uniform, which it's not, it's just the place that all of us landed I guess. But I would say that there's no prerequisite that you have curly hair or a beard to play in the band, but it definitely helps!
J. Roddy Walston & the Business open for Cage the Elephant and Foals. 7:30 p.m., Thursday, May 15 at Myth. Tickets.
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