They weren’t looking for gold or a spiritual revelation, but for These United States, renowned for their frenetic touring pace, the road almost serves as a bodily function- it just happens. What also happens in their loose limbed brand of rock is a whole lot of wailing, banging, screaming, rocking, stomping, aching that combines the raunchy blues of Exile in Main Street with the modern rock folk of Deer Tick.
“People think of the road as a noun, and I could see how that would be exhausting, from that angle,” says These United States band-leader and song-writer Jesse Elliot. “But it really is a verb, and once you join them, verbs have this momentum all their own, and you’re pretty much helpless to do anything about it anyway, so why not just enjoy.”
Having played 800 shows across the United States, United Kingdom, and northern Europe, that serves as quite the caravan for a band whose debut album was in 2008 (A Picture Of The Three Of Us At The Gate To The Garden Of Eden). And although they have scaled back their touring pace some, These United States recently found time to release their fifth full-length album—the eponymously titled These United States—featuring contributions from Deer Tick, Phosphorescent, Langhorne Slim, Frontier Ruckus, The Mynabirds, Cotton Jones, Revival, Ben Sollee, Backwords, and Jukebox the Ghost. Having recently completed a successful sold-out North American tour with Trampled By Turtles in April, and recently wrapped a set of dates with Heartless Bastards, the band is taking a breather, but this fifth one deserves to make many year end best of 2012 lists. We recently caught up with Elliot to get his wisdom about the new record and being on the road again and again…..
How does your recently released fifth album These United States stand out from your prior releases?
This is the one we’ve had the most time with, so I think it’s both our most loved and our most hated, a bigger gamble just in terms of all the things we had to sacrifice at the altar to bleed this one out. Time does that, and I think it’s the main difference between this and our other four albums. That and the people we got to bring along for the ride.
The album was recorded with around 20 musical collaborators – how did you decide who to work with and what collaborations in particular stand out?
A lot of it was chance – good friend X happened to be in city Y when we were first thinking up how to put together song Z. Some were very intentional, like Mike Nau of Cotton Jones – he just had the perfect voice for "Let the River In" – it’s just always what I pictured there from the start. Recording in his backyard woodshed in the West Virginia mountains, sneakin it in quietly at 7am while his brand new kid was still asleep, that one certainly stood out in terms of being the most unique recording moment. It was all shits and giggles creatively, though logistically it did take quite a dump truck to get me and John McCauley to Tanslator Audio on time that morning. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.
These United States has a large geographical theme – from the band name to the vast musical styles and your collaborations with musicians all over the U.S. Would you agree?
I think it’s just where we’re all from originally, and where we’ve all been since, which is a lot of places between us. Rural farms, suburban strips, big cities, other big cities, old river towns, rolling deciduous forest – it all crops up somewhere in there.
Being from Phoenix the song "Vince" stood out to me for many reasons – what is the background of that track?
It’s the most autobiographical of these songs, coming like it did from a note that a friend wrote down for me at a bar in Chapel Hill. I hadnt seen Vince Gonzalez in maybe ten years, he shows up outta nowhere, we have this amazing evening-long conversation about where our lives have gone, I casually mention that a few weeks later we’re gonna be touring through Phoenix, where he’d lived at one point, and before he disappears from my life again, not to be heard from since, he slips me this cocktail napkin that says "Should you find yourself in Phoenix (I’m sorry) – drive straight East…" and goes from there, just like the song says, directions laid out to the mystical spot in the middle of the desert by a river. I didnt think there was anything to be sorry about at all, once I’d got to that point myself. Which is how it’s really more about a person than a place.
How would you best describe what it is that really inspires you to either pick up a pen or pick up an instrument and write a new song?
It’s that moment where you’re finally just so overwhelmed, almost even angered sometimes, by the vast, strange beauty on every side of you. There’s just no other way for me to get it out. Or it’s something so simple it’s already done before you even get there, like Vince’s note.
You recently went on tour with Trampled by Turtles – how did that tour go and were there any particular shows on that tour that stood out for you?
Wow. Too many to count, honestly. What was even sweeter, I guess, was having one single night of reunion with them, a couple months after the April tour, on the waterfront in Louisville. They and we and The Walkmen all got to play for 12,000 people in 104 degree heat – it was just beautiful. We left mountains and rivers of our flesh and blood and sweat on that stage, ended it all in one of the only ways you can end something that good, with "The Weight." And then another four hours on the bus together after that, I guess – but exact details get sketchy at that point.
These United States are five albums in – how would you define artistic success and do you feel you’ve reached that point yet?
Yes. Artistic success is being excited to say yes more times than you have to say no.
If you could curate your own festival, who would you bring along for the ride?
Every single person we’ve ever met at every shitty dive bar and every Oregon truck stop and every Great Lake summer ever. We’re sticking with those people.
How would you best describe your sound if you were designing your own tour poster?
Willie Nelson said "If you make music, you’re my friend." I stick by that. Maybe our poster would say "Music for friends, and select enemies."