Band To Watch: Young Jesus
Written by JARVIS LEROUGE on August 14, 2018
John Rossiter came of age as an emo kid in the Midwest, so it goes without saying that he’s had some formative Saddle Creek experience. But with only the slightest prompt, the Young Jesus frontman is gonna say it anyway: “Album Of The Year is one of my all-time favorite records,” he gushes, describing the post-adolescent listening sessions of the Good Life and Bright Eyes that he’d share with his former bassist Shawn Nystrand. “Back in my heavy drinking days, we would just sit in my driveway because we were both living in our parents’ houses. We would get really drunk in the basement and just sit in the car and blast that and scream the lyrics to each other.”
In particular, there’s a lyric from Bright Eyes’ “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” where Conor Oberst takes a break from checklisting the pointlessness of his existence, finding the will to live in the possibility of getting blackout drunk and making music in the basement with Tim Kasher, just like the old days. As Sidney Deane would put it, you can’t truly hear “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” unless you’re drinking your early 20s away in your parents’ house, wondering what became of your life. “I used to think ‘that is gonna be us man,’ THAT IS US,” Rossiter jokes. And here he is, an artist signed to Saddle Creek, living his dream without his old buddy Nystrand. All it took was for him to become a completely different person than he was in Chicago.
The Whole Thing Is Just There is Young Jesus’ first collection of new music to be released on the legendary Omaha imprint, which also now has an office in Rossiter’s new homebase of Los Angeles. It arrives shortly after s/t, which was released quietly in the fall of 2017 before Saddle Creek reps saw one of their thunderous live shows and essentially offered to sign this very uncommercial act on the spot. S/t was mysteriously pulled from streaming before the signing was announced; it was reissued on vinyl in February.
Rossiter feels that The Whole Thing, written and recorded in the span of three months, was the result of the band “finding a current that we could all ride together” on s/t. The process of establishing that current that was much more lengthy, painful, and transformative. “I sorta lost my mind in Chicago,” Rossiter recalls, his finals days an undifferentiated arrested development where his life revolved around “video games and drinking and watching the Bears and Blackhawks and Bulls. That was my life.” Honestly, that sounds pretty fucking awesome at times, and even Rossiter admits that he longs for outlets of mindless fun.
But at the time, Rossiter was so deep in a spiritual void that he had to take the most contrary action imaginable to his sheltered, unsocialized suburbanite self. He decided on a whim to move to Los Angeles, a city where he had barely any friends, zero family and maybe even less desire to live in five years prior. “I’ve been extremely averse to any kind of adrenaline or risk taking and I end up putting myself in positions where that’s the only thing I can do,” Rossiter explains, before diverging into one of the many philosophical tangents that have come to define both his on-record and off-record life. Shortly after our interview, he sends an addendum email where he reveals his Professor Quasar alter-ego who leads “ambient shows with philosophy discussion zones,” Angela Davis’ critiques of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, his respect for Downtown Boys, a completely disheartening bout of anti-Semitism from a stranger Young Jesus was trying to help in rural Iowa, and his internal debate about whether he can attend seminary (“a job that allows for community service, interpreting a text, and listening to people’s stories and difficulties is my dream”) or if his band name will disqualify him.
“It’s almost like your body guides you to places where your mind can’t reach,” Rossiter muses. “There were probably things in my own personal history and how I thought about myself — just from my family and perspectives of masculinity and all of these other things — that I wasn’t ready to deal with. By moving [to Los Angeles], my impulses guided me to a place where I could figure that out or be in the process of addressing those things.”
This all started to get slowly ingrained in Young Jesus’ music, and that naturally pissed off the small, cultish fan base they had acquired over the span of several albums and EPs. “Why aren’t you guys playing Midwestern party emo, why can’t it just be fun and fast?” – this was the typical criticism that Rossiter would hear from old friends who knew Young Jesus back in Chicago, when their debut Home could very well have passed for a 2012 emo revival album — songs titles include “Fallin’ For You” and “Family And Friends (Reprise).” Meanwhile, 2015’s Grow/Decompose featured Rossiter in drag on the album cover and cobbled together jagged, word-drunk story-songs into a narrative exploring sexual identity, drug addiction, and chosen family. It generated a low-level buzz amongst punk and DIY blogs, but in retrospect, it was the death wheeze of Rossiter’s hard-drinking, hard-thinking Midwestern phase. In fact, Stereogum thought it sounded kinda like the Hold Steady. Young Jesus didn’t flourish until it fully reflected Rossiter’s life in the present.
After furiously dashing off emails to a list of record and book stores in Los Angeles, Rossiter landed an interview at Skylight Books a day after he arrived in town; he’s worked there ever since. It’s the sort of place that holds regular readings from authors who have a lot of crossover into the realm of music writing and has probably served as a spot for Los Feliz Tinder dates. Rossiter has been very vocal about his love for the gig (“100% changed my life”), and though “it’s not Daniel Johnston working at the McDonald’s in Austin,” he admits to being recognized several times behind the counter. His most high-profile interview to date was published in the Los Angeles Review Of Books, where he contributed a blog post earlier in the year — the extremely FreeDarko “The Secret History Of The 2017 NBA Finals” established sociopolitical context for the fortunes of the Warriors, Cavaliers, and the 2004 Detroit Pistons, while comparing Ray Allen’s jumpshot to “mercury spilled onto a table.”
Keyboardist Eric Shevrin is the lone holdover from the Grow/Decompose lineup, and his friendship with Rossiter dates back to them being born a week apart in the same hospital (“we would put on the Space Jam soundtrack in his room, and put on this disco ball and just throw a ball at each other for hours”). Meanwhile, the rest of Young Jesus’ new iteration was discovered through Rossiter’s connections at Skylight. “Super far out” drummer Kern Haug and bassist Marcel Borbon bonded with Rossiter over gamelan shows, Bill Orcutt albums, and Adam Curtis documentaries. The new quartet disavowed contemporary indie rock music almost completely, but as the new band and new songwriting philosophy took shape, “we played so many shows that were basically noisy garbage,” Rossiter sighs. “We were trying to be this noisy free improv band and we had no idea how to improvise, and we wanted to be a noise band because that’s so cool and we didn’t really know how to be a noise band.”
The tension between Young Jesus’ hearty and heartfelt early work and Rossiter’s cosmic, literary ambitions never resolved and eventually resulted in something far more strange and unique than what they had originally intended. “An homage to being in the scene at the bookstore,” s/t came with an imposing reading syllabus and most of its songs stretched out between six and nine minutes, honoring their newfound interest in free-form improvisation, the spare post-rock of later Talk Talk, and the quasi-religious ethos of jazz. “A lot of the thematic topics in our records now are derived from some of the spirituality laid out by John Coltrane and Albert Ayler and Milford Graves, and people who see [jazz] as something beyond music — that you want to commit to a whole life of this.”
He admits that a lot of this can sound extremely pretentious, and it is, in the sense that any art made with intentionality is pretentious. But s/t channeled all of the band’s high-minded tastes through immediately satisfying, mountain-moving guitars and lyrics about calling mom and talking shit about pretty sunsets — an early press release for s/t gave it a rather implausible, dartboard-esque RIYL of American Football, Pinegrove, Broken Social Scene, and Red House Painters that somehow managed to be fairly accurate.
Young Jesus only sound like themselves now on The Whole Thing Is Just There, with six songs spreading out over 50 minutes, 20 of which are allotted to the tectonic closer “Gulf.” In between, there’s the dark comic treatise of “Saganism vs. Buddhism” and “For Nana,” recorded in a post-traumatic fog after Rossiter watched his grandmother take her last breath. The title itself honors his taste for highbrow cultural reference, pulled from a video of abstract expression painter Philip Guston. “He would say there’s a feeling when you’re creating that ‘the whole thing is just there,’” stressing “just” to mean “almost.” “You can feel it so specifically, but the second you put it down, it slips out of your fingers. And to me, that felt like all of existence.”
Opener “Deterritory” is sui generis Young Jesus, a six-minute colossus about the importance of deep listening — but get a load of Rossiter’s facial contortions during the screamo fit at the end of the video and there’s no mistaking this as anything but rawk. “It’s hard for me to tour for a long time because I don’t know how to go halfway in a performance or preserve myself,” Rossiter noted after watching the clip. “I’m not a very angry person and I think I communicate a lot of rage and anger in some of our music. It can be really intense to see that catharsis in front of me in ways that I don’t know how to communicate in my day-to-day life.”
For the most part, Rossiter doesn’t seek that sort of thing in his day-to-day music listening either. Just about the only new bands he listens to are his labelmates, specifically, Hop Along, Tomberlin, and Stef Chura: “They’re communicating things that are nuanced, exciting, very vulnerable and painful but they’re not doing it irresponsibly. And that’s a fucking hard line to tow.” But what about those times when you needed The Ugly Organ and Fevers And Mirrors to air out emotional baggage in their own beautifully cathartic, wholly irresponsible way? “My life has changed significantly, but it doesn’t take anything away,” Rossiter swears. “It was such an incredible time, and I still listen to that shit.”
Below, watch the “Deterritory” video — directed by Jordan Epstein and Rossiter — and read on for a conversation with Rossiter.
STEREOGUM: The last two Young Jesus albums have moved beyond the kind of topics that were explored on Grow/Decompose and are pretty much de rigueur in 2018 indie rock. How has your perspective shifted on these matters in the time since?
JOHN ROSSITER: I had so many opinions for Grow/Decompose and Home and everything that came before. I felt like I had a grasp on what was right and wrong and how things functioned. And that totally dissipated. The things that I was tackling on Grow/Decompose, questions of religion and sexual identity and drug addiction, I thought I had clear answers for myself. As I’ve gotten older, I just realized that, holy shit, it just stays strange. There’s never an answer given, you live in this all-encompassing impossibility. You try to come to terms with that every day and you never get there.
STEREOGUM: Were there any landmark moments in the time that you moved to Los Angeles where you started you feel that grasp on “how things functioned” starting to slip?
ROSSITER: [The first year in Los Angeles] was a year of listening and being so confused. I was so naive that I couldn’t even open my mouth. When I took the picture of what ended up being the album cover for Grow/Decompose, and we did a bunch of photos of me in drag, that really changed a lot for me. I was starting to look at things I couldn’t look at before. I made a lot of stutter steps along the way. I can’t let go of giving a shit about the Bulls, I can’t stop smoking cigarettes. But I have cut my drinking down and stopped using drugs and it felt like I was comfortable with the uncomfortability of things.
STEREOGUM: When you describe all of the heavy philosophies and books that go into the making of Young Jesus’ music, I wonder what you guys do for mindless fun now.
ROSSITER: It makes me feel insane to say that I don’t know if we have mindless fun. The main thing is that everything needs to be a conversation so that if there’s any uncomfortability or disagreement, we have to dig into it and be vulnerable together and get to the heart of an issue between us musically. That’s fucking hard, being super attentive to the life you’re living and it drives me insane sometimes, I wish I knew how to relax again. Tour is mindless fun, you’re just on the road and there’s only the show to think about.
STEREOGUM: You’ve mentioned contemporary artists like Hop Along and Tomberlin and Ian Sweet who are addressing heavy topics in a “responsible” way. Do you find that there’s currently a void of bands that can rock responsibly?
ROSSITER: It’s weird because this record we’re about to release is pretty rock-y and heavy and I don’t hear that as much. I think that’s totally OK. I think we’re in a very difficult transitional phase as a culture. And it’s gonna take sorting out to see what genres stick. It’s funny, we had a moment where, all of a sudden, everyone’s music had to be political whether it was or not. All the press releases had to be political, regardless of the content of the album — you just had to find an angle that people could grab onto in order to write about it.
At first, to me, that was a bummer because some of the stuff was not intended that way and some stuff should just be what it is and it doesn’t have to be political. But now, people are absorbing what the conditions of our world are and that your daily life is political. People are writing music now that is thoughtful and imbued with that sense. I think we’re seeing it is our full being and it is our responsibility as a culture to address this, however faulty or confused or difficult it is. Albums are not perfect, but people are trying, and that is pretty fucking cool to me. And I think there is still heavy music out there, and it’s just learning how to communicate anger and frustration in new ways. The mode of rock that has been passed down is super masculine! And that doesn’t necessarily fit in with the anger that needs to be communicated. There are different modes of heaviness, and we’ll adjust to that, and I’m super interested and excited as to where music’s going. But there is certainly a part of me that misses Cap’n Jazz or even a band like Spitalfield which was straight-up pop-punk breakup tunes.
STEREOGUM: What viewpoints of yours have been challenged or deconstructed in your current events book club?
ROSSITER: Just about everything. Through that book group, I’ve started going to this Food Not Bombs program in Los Angeles and I’ve started writing to this queer prisoner named Charles in Virginia. I learned about this prison letter exchange program called Black And Pink through this book Normal Life. The thesis of this book is that if you come from privilege and you want to be part of a better world, you gotta listen to the people who are affected by the most vectors of oppression because they have the most knowledge of the system that we’re in.
When you’re a kid, you touch something hot and you know not to touch that — and as a white man, you don’t get burned very often, you don’t know what things you can and cannot interact with. A lot of that book group is learning how to create a space to make anyone feel comfortable. There are people aged 18-75 in that book group, so there are 60, 65-year-old men that come from a different culture than the one we’re living in now that say some shit that is not acceptable. All sorts of stuff pops up constantly, and the thing I’ve found most helpful is that if you have a group of people that meet with consistency, you can learn to trust each other and care about each other. We’ll get together and have potlucks and show that we are caring of each other’s physical wellbeing and show up when a family member dies or whatever.
So you can say something shitty in those spaces and ideally, people are like, “This is why this is bad, and we can work through this together.” It’s a slow process, messy at times. I’ve had to have a lot of different meetings with people — “I want you to stick with this if you’re comfortable.” We’re really afraid of being embarrassed, and that to me is one of the most important things to experience because it’s very humbling and you’re touching on something that is making you really vulnerable. That’s the most important place to open up if you can stick with that emotion.
STEREOGUM: The Saddle Creek signing seemed to happen very suddenly. I’ve heard they basically saw a live show and that was it.
ROSSITER: It was crazy, it’s like…we played a show and they just showed up and essentially said, “Do you guys want to be on our label?” I didn’t know how to deal with it, but it was super exciting. We went through a period of maybe six months where, as a band, we talked constantly about what it means and what we’re doing and if that’s a bad thing. Because I don’t necessarily feel good with expectations. I had started to really enjoy having a fair amount of control over how things went and we had gotten into a groove. There was really no room for growth or expanding the amount of people involved.
Saddle Creek is a small label, but we have what you would call a team now, which is crazy to me. We have battles constantly where I’m always the one who’s skeptical about everything. They’ll be like, “We want a bio written for the next record.” And I’ll say, “I’ll write it then you guys can save some money.” And then I’ll write it and no one will be happy with it. And in the past, I’ve done that and it didn’t matter. Now, I’ve realized that it’s an exercise in compromise. Before we did this, I had this feeling like, probably an ego thing, where I can do everything and it’ll be fine. Now I’m realizing it takes a fucking village, and that’s really cool because we work with really kind people, which I think is very rare.
So when we signed, after I had gotten over my skepticism and terror over having new responsibilities, I had gone home right before this fall tour we did in support of the record that we then just took down. It was a crazy time because my nana fell ill and was dying, it was a really fast thing. So I had gotten on the phone with my entire family and asked if I could play her a song. I played stuff that was essentially a medley of The Whole Thing Is Just There. She was the biggest supporter of all of this for me. I figured I wouldn’t be able to make it home before she dies, but I could talk to her, so I flew home thinking I’d at least get to the funeral. But I got there and she was still holding on, so I was in the hospital with her and my extended family, we were all singing and praying because my aunt is an Episcopalian priest. We just saw her die, and we’re all crying, and I went and sat on the lawn across the street from the house I grew up in and it was just everything. I was both devastated and so proud that this thing happened, [signing with] this label that I adore and meant the world to me. And went inside and told my parents and we all hugged and were so happy. It was nice to have had that at the same time.
After that, I flew out to New Orleans to meet the band for the rest of the tour. We went into this studio run by our friends Pope, where we recorded that song “For Nana,” which hadn’t been written. We needed one more song and couldn’t figure it out. I had all these ideas and they were trash. We just stayed in the studio and at the 11th hour, played the song, and played it one more time ,and that was the cut — of the song I wrote about being in the room with her and wondering what’s gonna happen to our spirit and what happens when you die. It was an amazing thing because the Pope people had been really loving throughout the last eight years of my life, and there’s this improvisational section in there that is supposed to be the feeling of a breath leaving a room. It’s my favorite improvisation we’ve ever done. They knew I was in so much pain, they were just there and holding me musically. It was such a wild time, so intense and such a fucking gift.
STEREOGUM: So much of both this album and s/t are the result of improvisation, but they aren’t exactly these free jazz odysseys. How done does a song have to be before you take it into the studio?
ROSSITER: I actually think this last record was more “finished” than s/t. It was pretty much mapped out except for these spaces where we were going to improvise. So for “Gulf,” it’s basically a kind of jazzy structure where you have a head that you return to but the middle was totally unwritten. We had been toying with this idea of improvising lyrics and melodies, which is — that song “Fourth Zone of Gaits” is also lyrics improvised on the spot. The one on the record is just the take that felt really good. It’s the tension between having no idea what will happen and having a very specific idea, because some of the songs are very intentional. And that’s just how all of our brains work; everyone thrives in spaces where you’re being pushed and into uncomfortability. I don’t know why, and it’s a major challenge for me, but I’m the opposite. Hopefully that gets communicated, that we’re fighting in some way and we’re listening and that exchange creates something strange and interesting. But I expect like five people to get through “Gulf.” [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Even if there isn’t a lot of mindless fun in Young Jesus, I still think there’s a sense of playfulness in songs like “Saganism vs. Buddhism” — what exactly does “Saganism” entail?
ROSSITER: That was a dream I had. I woke up in the middle in the night and wrote this phrase, “Saganism vs. Buddhism” on my hand. And then I woke up the next day — “What the fuck is this?” I guess to me, Saganism — and this is a reductive view because Carl Sagan is a great person, and very interesting — was totally empirical, science for the sake of progress, sort of an Elon Musk style. And Buddhism, which is not necessarily the right response, was very appealing to me at the time. I thought of them at odds with each other, but now I feel different about it.
It was also this idea of looking to the stars for an answer when I really think — and this is an odd tangent, but there’s like so much anxiety about surveillance right now. People who are at no risk of state violence, but want to let it be known they “would fight if given the chance,” the sorta mainstream liberal zone. But to me, in reality, most people or a lot of people that are posting about this — [mockingly] “this is so fucked up” — might feel that they want a life that’s worthy of surveillance and that encourages more people to be radical, when in reality, the stuff that really changes the world is small actions, small kindnesses and cooking food and listening to your friends and having important discussions and trying to be a part of the community. Not to say that direct action isn’t important, because I truly believe it is. It’s just not my bag. They need to feed each other. So looking to the stars for this sort of grandiose, “When is everything gonna get solved!” I always feel like it’s not gonna get solved, and it’s gonna be a conversation between these two things.
STEREOGUM: Having already signed to one of the formative labels of your youth, have you allowed yourself any dreams about what Young Jesus could possibly achieve from here?
ROSSITER: I think that ties into the question I didn’t answer earlier, “How do you feel about even being in a band?” And I feel conflicted about it. It’s the way I make sense of the world, and I certainly don’t want to take up more space than is necessary. My expectations are pretty meager in that these songs have been a guide for me and my friends to explore people. We all really care about each other, and playing with them has led to a really fulfilling romantic relationship in my life, which is the most beautiful thing. And it’s led me to being able to talk to my family in a more responsible and thoughtful way, which has led to me helping with this book group and doing all this stuff, the lessons of improvisation and what have you.
There’s no answer as to whether we should be a band or not. I think there are probably people like me who want to be spoken to, and hopefully we’re speaking thoughtfully and responsibly, with care, optimism, and joy, and hopefully that connects with those people. And any time you have a culture like this, you gotta try to speak to everyone. I would really love it if we could live off our music, but I don’t see that happening any time. But when we talk as a band, “We can be like Grateful Dead for millennials,” this bizarre “bring back a kind of ethos of experimentation” within pop music, things along those lines. Or Animal Collective. We would just love to have a weekly residency gig where we could just play these sort of things, but I don’t think any jazz clubs will take us on.
02 “Saganism vs. Buddhism”
03 “Fourth Zone Of Gaits”
05 “For Nana”
10/18 – Los Angeles, CA @ Lodge Room
10/20 – San Francisco, CA @ Bottom of the Hill
10/22 – Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios
10/23 – Vancouver, BC @ Biltmore Cabaret
10/24 – Seattle, WA @ Sunset Tavern
10/25 – Boise, ID @ The Olympic
10/26 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
10/27 – Denver, CO @ Hi Dive
10/29 – Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry
10/30 – Chicago, IL @ Subterranean
11/01 – Toronto, ON @ The Drake
11/02 – Buffalo, NY @ Mohawk Place
11/03 – Boston, MA @ Sonia
11/05 – Brooklyn, NY @ Park Church Co-op
11/06 – Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda’s
11/07 – Washington, DC @ Union Stage
11/08 – Durham, NC @ The Pinhook
11/09 – Asheville, NC @ The Mothlight
11/10 – Atlanta, GA @ Drunken Unicorn
11/12 – Tallahassee, FL @ The Wilbury
11/13 – New Orleans, LA @ Gasa Gasa
11/14 – Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall
11/15 – Dallas, TX @ Three Links
11/16 – Austin, TX @ The Mohawk
11/19 – Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
11/20 – San Diego, CA @ Soda Bar
The Whole Thing Is Just There is out 10/12 on Saddle Creek. Pre-order it here.