American Studies with These United States
JESSE ELLIOTT (FAR RIGHT) WITH THE REST OF THESE UNITED STATES
Jesse Elliott, the shaggy, gregarious frontman of the rock outfit These United States, is enjoying a rare moment of freedom. The singer, whose band has been known to play up to 200 shows per year and just released its fifth album in four years, is stretched out on an expanse of lawn in Central Park, and relaying, by phone, stories of life on the road. You get the sense—though he’d never admit it—that Elliott is reveling in a job well done. And for good reason.
The album is rambunctious in its first act and mellow in its second. It functions both as a travelogue of the many places the band has visited and as something of a musical-history lesson, paying respectful dues to many of the styles that have shaped this country’s sonic landscape over the past century. It’s fitting the band chose its own name to title the record: it is American to the core and replete with the frontier spirit of adventure and discovery. “My heart is looking at maps,” Elliott drawls on the album’s fifth track, and the listener can only be grateful to be along for the ride.
Interview had a wide-ranging conversation with Elliott, touching on his musical heroes, Midwestern roots, and homemade driving ranges, on the occasion of the album’s release. You can hear These United States in full below.
JEFF OLOIZIA: I heard you guys are playing with Willie Nelson soon.
JESSE ELLIOTT: We sure are! Can you fucking believe that shit?
OLOIZIA: It sounds like you’re psyched about it. Can you tell me about how that came about?
ELLIOTT: Yeah, you know, I haven’t wanted to jinx the whole thing. It feels like kind of a daydream, and I actually haven’t got the full story from our manager about how it came about. I certainly didn’t write Willie a personal note saying, “Hey, you’re one of my songwriting heroes. Can we come over and chill?” [laughs] From what I understand, we just got a note from their management that said, “We’re considering having you guys open. The only thing is, we love rock-‘n’-roll but we don’t want a rock-‘n’-roll band opening for Willie. Do you guys do an acoustic set?” And we kind of looked at each other and, like, number one, we love playing acoustically, and number two, we were like, “Fuck man, if Willie Nelson asks us to all, like, play spoons and freak-ass bebop poetry, we’d probably try to find a way to do it.
OLOIZIA: [laughs] That’s awesome. Would you consider yourselves a rock-‘n’-roll band?
ELLIOTT: Well, we’ve been reduced after five years to just calling it rock-‘n’-roll; that’s what we think of it as. And I mean that in the sense that rock-‘n’-roll as we think of it contains most of the elements of Americana and a few things outside of Americana. We really do think of ourselves as being equally influenced by R&B and country and prog rock. I think one of the tricky things has been trying to get exactly that description down. But as long as people are listening to it, we don’t care what they call it. We always just say rock-‘n’-roll, and if people press us a little more, we say it’s story-based rock-‘n’-roll or lit rock or whatever they call The Decemberists. [laughs]
OLOIZIA: It’s interesting you mention R&B.
ELLIOTT: Well, I’m thinking R&B in the most classic sense.
OLOIZIA: Right. Anything in particular?
ELLIOTT: I suppose I would have to say that Detroit is the first sort of classic R&B that I was aware of, mostly by virtue of geography, just being from the Midwest. And then from there it kind of expanded as I started to understand, you know, all the historic actions between all those other places; everything from Chicago blues to deep south southern rock, and all the stuff that comes between. I guess I use R&B almost as expansively as I would just say rock-‘n’-roll.
OLOIZIA: Sure. I don’t think you can reduce them to just a single sound.
ELLIOTT: That’s why I love it so much, because it’s just two words if you think about them separate: rhythm and blues. One is a feeling, and one is a basic component of music.
OLOIZIA: You mentioned being from the Midwest. You’re from Chicago, right?
ELLIOTT: Yeah, basically I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Fort Wayne, Indiana and Edwardsville, Illinois.
OLOIZIA: Just a little tour of the Midwest.
ELLIOTT: Basically every side of Chicago.
OLOIZIA: I’m from Milwaukee, so I kind of—
ELLIOTT: [laughs] I was going to say every side of Chicago except Milwaukee. But Milwaukee is a place I know and love. What were you gonna say?
OLOIZIA: Well, I come across people all the time that are from the Midwest in New York and it’s the first time I’ve every really thought about it having a real identity as a place and as having a kind of people that come from there. How do you think coming from Chicago and that area has influenced who you are as a musician as a songwriter?
ELLIOTT: Well it’s hugely influential for me from early on. Being in the middle of the country, I think, makes everything seem a little more possible when it comes to geography. I don’t know what you find, but I find that people who grew up in New York or California or somewhere near there are often pretty much mostly interested in New York or California. [laughs] And then whatever’s in between is skippable. And whether or not that’s a correct assessment, I won’t get into right now, but for me it always seemed like—basically, my parents took us on family vacations where we would drive just for three weeks. We would all just get in the car and this was when, you know, gas was cheaper than an airplane ticket and would just drive up to Banff National Park in Canada and back, or down to the Southwest or the Four Corners.
OLOIZIA: I think you’re describing every summer growing up with my family, as well.
ELLIOTT: Exactly. It’s nice being so central because it all seems so reachable. I think I had visited all 48 lower states by the time I was 14, just by the virtue of my parents being a teacher and an independent computer programmer. They could kind of make their own schedule for the summer, and they took us all over and that was it. That was an amazing gift, and I think that that influenced my later desire for travel and in geography, especially in the vast, strange landscape of this particular continent. All these things kind of feed into this album.
OLOIZIA: There is definitely a great sense of geography to your songs.
OLOIZIA: What specific locales throughout your traveling and touring really impacted the songwriting process for this record in particular?
ELLIOTT: I think the original spark for the album comes pretty much right off the bat in the first verse of the first song. I mean, that was kind of the doorway that opened up onto the rest of the album. I was sitting in rural southern Virginia out on tour about a year ago, and actually, it was fun because we had taken a little more time off than we normally do on a trip to just kind of let other creative ideas and outlets present themselves. And I got this really fantastic opportunity to go be a part of this tour called Hadestown that a woman named Anais Mitchell did; she asked me to come sing the part of Hermes in the Hadestown folk opera she wrote. So I was sitting on this cliffside with—I think there were fourteen people in the band, as well as singers, and we were sitting in this really weird, wonderful place that was, um, somebody’s farm. It’s kind of hard to describe. [laughs]
There’s a big yurt—you know what a yurt is? It’s like a circular house that’s kind of old, like a gazebo, and it’s basically like a studio apartment that you set down in the middle of wherever you’re feeling. So it becomes a kind of self-sustaining circular house. It was this big beautiful yurt next to this gorgeous river and then next to, like, a homemade driving range; the person who lived in the yurt was a serious golfer. And I hadn’t swung clubs for quite a while. So we were all out, you know, drinking and carrying on, swinging golf clubs and in the hot tub at the yurt. And it was just a very strange experience. I had a wonderful conversation with a guy named Louis Ledford, who is sort of the first character to appear on the album and who is actually a real person. I think it kind of opened up from there as I just started thinking about all these things that I had come across in the few preceding years. There was a lot of material to draw on because there’s a lot of amazing people and places out there.
OLOIZIA: Well you’re certainly a band who travels a lot, and I know a lot of that time is spent making music. How do you get the most out of travel when you’re playing so many gigs?
ELLIOTT: I mean, you always wish that you got to see more. I think that’s actually what kind of led me a few years ago to just giving up the idea of having a home, at least for now. I haven’t paid rent on a place in five years and about three years ago I decided I wasn’t even going to go back to the same spot, because we would go through all these amazing cities, you know? Like, as I say this I’m rounding the corner to look at the Dakota on Central Park West. We would flash by these places—New York or New Orleans or San Francisco or, you know, London or Amsterdam, and you have 24 hours and you try to do everything you can, but there’s obviously only so much you can do in that amount of time. So I was just kind of like, “I’m going to take my 10 days between tours and pick a different city every time,” and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last few years.
OLOIZIA: Do you ever wish you had a permanent place? I’d think you must get lonely.
ELLIOTT: Yeah, of course. I actually never get lonely, but that’s part of why I want someplace permanent. Because I’d like a place where I can just get lonely for a little bit. One of the wonderful things about traveling so much is you get to see all of these old friends all the time doing all these interesting things and you definitely spend a lot of time involved in other people’s lives. I think your own life kind of disappears. I like that for now, but I’d certainly like to get to a point where I can hunker down in a tiny, shitty studio and get lonely for six months and dive back into myself and figure out a part of the world. But for now I’m just kind of taking it all in. I’m like a kid in a candy shop, you know?
THESE UNITED STATES IS OUT NOW AND CAN BE STREAMED IN FULL ABOVE. THE BAND WILL PLAY THE KNITTING FACTORY TONIGHT AS PART OF THE NORTHSIDE FESTIVAL.