Sifting through email messages from Jesse Elliott
feels a little bit like hopping a high speed hot rod at midnight. Your driver? Why they’re clouded in mystery…a dark silhouette seated steady at the wheel. All that makes sense is this ride is wild and unpredictable. The kind those hairpin curves your twisting ‘round have never seen before. Oh, and one more thing. The headlights…they don’t really work. They just kind of flash on every now and then, illuminating just enough of the razor’s edge you’re free wheeling. And yet, somehow, you survive…somehow you hop off that hot rod in the end, better for having braved the journey.
It’s not a surprising metaphor Elliott’s correspondences have lead me to. These United States
’ – the DC band he both founded and fronts – recently released album A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate To The Garden Of Eden
is as articulate and compelling a listen as any that have come before it this year. Yet Elliott plays a bit of a mad man on paper. Stringing behemoth strings of line and lyric together, this gifted wordsmith appears chaotic with his pen. But seasoned strokes of neo psych folk provide a rather elegant sound scape; one that let’s listeners climb on in and pick apart the fever pitched poetics. Once there, themes of love, rebellion, and hope ultimately reveal an artist vested in an obvious, yet deep rooted, set of morals and ideals. So too do the answers that follow. - David Pitz
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Can you tell me a little bit about how These United States came to be?
Starts and fits, no clean narrative. Basically always just been an idyllic lil’ collective in my head. Doesn't always work out that easily in the real life flesh and blood world though of course. I bump into people, like clouds, really. As my dear friend Paleo is fond of saying - we combine, create some new form that's been seen in a million skies before, then break apart, drift on. So, in a sense, These United States is always becoming.
Why the name? It's certainly a call to attention…which is something every artist needs to thrive. But there has got to more, correct?
Geography. Landscapes. Wide open places. City streets. It's the playground my imagination has always run around, this great big country of ours. For better and for worse, it's us. It's really just a descriptor, in that sense. I've been asked about its’ controversial nature. Doesn't seem so controversial to me. Just a sort of matter of fact. Here I am: this is what I see around me. It's journalism. Could've named the project Planet Earth, but that seems like more than I know much about right now. These United States is, too - but it's just close enough within reach to be something to aspire to. Planet Earth would be completely overwhelming. Boston and Chicago were taken already. Here's where I am.
You are from DC, correct? I am curious how calling such a place home shapes your creative and artistic output. Historically, the city owns a really rich musical lineage…one defined by bands of a more punk/hardcore/counter cultural aesthetic. Is there a lot you find in common with your DC brethren?
Well, originally I'm from the Midwest, so I've always felt like an outsider on the East Coast - but in a good, healthy, productive, contrasting kind of a way. Middle of the country where I'm from…and the West Coast? I would just fit in too well. I need some friction. East has got it. DC especially. I love the punks. Most of the kids I hung out with in 8th grade had Fugazi stickers on their backpacks. Now I play softball with Ian MacKaye every couple months. That's weird. I mean, that's really weird. They've all grown up here. They're so community oriented, always have been, and I love that…a sense of home away from home...even if it's not actually a home I spend any time in. But the softball just says it all. Softball and hardcore - two sides of the same coin. Community. I love this place.
If so, how would you say it has translated into your music?
And your lyrical style certainly suggests a real love for line and verse in a way that goes above and beyond a lot of today's artists. What do you enjoy most about the lyric writing process?
Words. Putting words together. Strings of words. Like DNA maybe. The rush of the mad scientist. You can put anything together you want to! You can make Frankenstein, and you can make Frankenstein just almost make sense!
I know you were a Journalist. A "gonzo-journalist-turned-troubadour" is how your Bio puts it. How has that profession influenced your music? Because, personally, your songs feel like more than just casual observations…In many ways, you almost still seem like a journalist, but in more poetic terms. Would you agree?
Is that how it puts it, huh? I was wondering where someone else picked that up. That's mostly true. I've always been a writer. I worshipped the Gonzos. Well, THE gonzo, really - Hunter. What a mad hunter. That's exactly what he was. He was chasing something down - a dream, a nightmare, whatever it was, there was Vigor in his stride. He was lunging towards and understanding, same as anyone, poet, investigative journalist, mad scientist, high school physics teacher. Everybody lunges in their own way, at some point or another in their life. I guess this is my Mad Dash right here, right now.
Your album title is very curious…Personally, I read it as an obvious desire to start over. Would you agree? If so, are there any specifics it refers to? Or is it much more of a general political/cultural overhaul that you refer to?
Wow. That's more than I gave it. Which is exactly what I want - for people to give it everything they want to give it. You've given it a good one, David. I'm not going to try to expand on that thought at all - I like it just where you put it.
Also, I would like to add that, unlike a lot of disenchanted artists (if in fact you are disenchanted with the current political/cultural landscape – this is an assumption on my part based on what I hear), the underlining tone of your music is ultimately hopeful…
Yeah. Hope is Hope. What else is there? It's funny to see the backlash against it, with all the hopeful talk goin’ on in political discourse right now. But no one really means it. Everyone actually wants Hope. Poking fun at Hope is just something you do at cocktail parties. Home, by yourself, in bed, or in the middle of a great big horrible forest, what else does anyone have? I mean, lots of things. But it's a good one. Hope's a good one to cling to, so long as it's not too tightly, so long as you swing it around yr head like a lasso and just let it fly every once in a while, let it free, let it wander out through the air and connect you to something else. I'm no more disenchanted than your average human being. We're all disenchanted. We all do an impressive job getting over it, every day, night in and night out.
Tell me a little bit about how A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate To The Garden Of Eden was recorded. It looks like a monster effort!
It was. But I had a crazy talented partner-in-crime who did 83 percent of that. I'll let him talk more about it some day. He knows more. He's better. He's a genius with Sound. Not just Music, see, but Sound. Let's talk about Hope again.
One of the real highlights for me is the percussive pulse behind these songs. Who helped lend their talents to create such a diverse, rhythmic backbone for the record? Personally, I hear a sound put together by a bunch of percussive pack rats, hording every little instrument they could possibly get their hands on, and employing them at just the right moment.
Yep. But most of those packrats were Paleo. A few were I. Chad Clark brought some serious low-end into the game at the last minute. We love Pulse, all of us. You nailed it. That's what we want. People tell me all about how mellow this album is, which is nice. But there are some songs here I could dance to at the club. Maybe it's just cause I'm a Midwestern white guy, so my threshold for pulse is dangerously low or something. But I love that sound that shakes yr bones, physically. Everybody should put on headphones when they listen to this and turn it way the hell up. oonce, oonce, oonce, etc...
"Burn this Bridge" is just wonderful…just a happy and hopeful romp about getting on with something…nasty? And then never looking back. Is there a story about this one?
Wow. I'd never call it romp. Yet it makes me really happy that you just did. That's the tension with the Getting On, which is maybe what the entire album is about, more or less. Keeping on keeping on. I don't remember if there's a story behind this one. I think there's a story ahead of it, though. I think it's shooting at a story that's very far away that I don't even know yet but that I'll experience through this song some day, and it will change everything - the song, my life, all of that. Here's Hoping...
Another favorite is "Jenni Anne"…mainly because I dig your word play ("Here's the rules: there are no rules"). Reminds me of an artist like Andrew Bird in a way. Can you tell me a little bit about the song?
Ah, yes. Well - "here's the rules; there is no rules" really. Even more playful that way, no? I love Andrew Bird - sincere thanks for that. I think he's amazing. I don't think I'll ever get quite there, but there's something about what people like he and Paul Simon and Madvillain and Jack Kerouac, something about what they do with the Rhythm of Language that's just inescapably linked to some innermost node of my brain or something. Rhythm and language - that really sums up my experience of music. Even when I listen back to this album now, the only thing I would change about it (everything is perfect; even the ugliest baby's mother should see that) has to do with the cadence and delivery and phrasing in some parts. Jenni Anne, tho, yeah - I think we nailed that one on the head. Beautiful baby, that.
Which songs on the album are your personal highlights? Why?
“Sun Is Below & Above”. It's the only one me and Paleo agree on. It's our favorite child together.
You've been touring pretty heavily for the better part of the last two years. And yet, by all accounts, it looks like this is your first record?
Yes. Also Yes. Please reference sentence one for reasoning behind sentence two.
If that is the case, what has been the benefit of touring w/o an album?
I don't know. Not many people have seen one, I'll tell you that. There's definitely ideas out there about what you should and shouldn't do in music, even in the uber-independent DIY kinda world. To their credit, tho, those're the kids and people who've seen more of the Mad Logic behind the approach than anyone else in the Biz I've ever talked with about it. They just can't figure it out - just seems like a waste of time and money. Which is true. It is. But I've earned and spent and earned and spent and earned and spent time and money and time and money and time and money, and - well, you know, then there's just the Road and the Ocean and the prairie grasses, which are just impossible to argue with.
Now flip that question. You have this album. How do you expect things to be different?
Everything will change. Everything is changing. Change is the only Constant, you know?
Also, this tour sounds completely unique…33 cities, 33 different lineups. When/why did you dream that one up? How do the logistics of something like this work? Can you give any kind of preview of who will be joining you?
It mutated. It was an idea with many parents. Tom thinks he thought it up. I think that might be true. It's definitely been in the back of both our heads for a long time now. We've always loved collaborating with people. Most musicians do. They just do it here and there, one or two songs a night or a week or whatever. We're just throwing that into the particle accelerator, seeing what shoots back out at us, if we can even survive it, who let the dogs out, what the point is, whether a name by any other rose would sound as sweet, all that, maybe more!
Also, will the artists joining you be learning the music so that is sounds more like your record? Or is the spirit of this tour really just to see how creative and artistically diverse these songs can get?
Yep. The latter. Mix em up. Those're their only marching orders. I hope the people who come to see us will have as much fun with that as we will. We're really not trying to punish them. We love people. We're just gluttons for punishing ourselves. But people are A-OK by us. People are the ones who invented Hope!
These United States are currently on tour. Check out the band's MySpace
for a full list of dates.
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MP3: These United States:: “First Sight” – A Picture of the Three of Us...
These United States @ MySpace