Fifty percent of my taste in music is about the music, and the other fifty percent is about an artist’s personality. And Jesse Elliott of These United States has a great personality. I’m admittedly a new fan of his music, which I discovered when I noticed his joint tour with Trampled by Turtles — another great band. Once I found his music, I played every These United States album for about two weeks straight, an obsession that was solidified immediately after listening to Crimes. And because of my insatiable desire to pick the brain of artists I like, I reached out to his team for an interview. I knew it would be good, but I couldn’t predict the extent of his openness. He’s not just a good musician, he’s an interesting guy. In fact, I might have a new crush. Enjoy the interview!
I know your band started with different members. Why the rotation?
In the beginning it was a matter of practicality. We had a lot of different sounds in our mind that we weren’t capable of making ourselves, so we had to recruit other people. I think it mostly came out of liking different kinds of music and wanting to interpret songs in different ways.
What made you stick with your current band members?
It’s still a little bit of a free flowing thing, because all the people I play with have always played in their own projects with other people. I think of it as a big extended family, and people are free to come and go as it makes sense for their own lives. That’s been good and bad but mostly good, and in the long term it keeps most of us as relatively sane creative collaborators.
Are you the primary songwriter?
I write the simple skeleton of the songs and the lyrics and maybe what people think of the core message to it, but I like recruiting other people to flesh out the instrumentation. I’ve always treated it like we have these different skeletons that we dress up in different bodies or skin with all these other people.
I always wonder what defines a “band,” because if you’re the primary songwriter then even though there is a band name, it’s really just you.
I think there’s a whole range of how that works. I don’t think that’s true for us, because the people I’ve incorporated throughout the years and especially now, there’s a real solid reason why we work together. We feel like we each have a different strength in a different part of the music.
Do they ever give you input on your music?
Definitely. They give me all kinds of sh*t. If by “input” you mean insults . . . [laughs]. Yeah — these guys are not shy. We hack these things apart all the time. I know that the stuff I’m doing is not perfect. The reason I like collaborating with these guys in particular is because everything is open for discussion.
Do you ever take their feedback personally?
Oh, I take it very personally, and I take it out on them in very subtle, passive-aggressive ways for weeks after they make a suggestion, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t acknowledge in retrospect that it was a good suggestion.
When you play music live, are you ever surprised by the audience’s reaction to certain songs?
Definitely. You can’t predict that stuff. There are songs that I am still surprised people like as much as they do, and there’s certain songs where I think, “You people are crazy. How could you not realize what a great song this is?”
Why do you release your records so quickly? You have kind of an unusual pace.
We can’t think of anything better to do with our lives [laughs]. None of us like day jobs. When your relationships fall apart and everything else goes to hell, you just write a bunch of songs and play a bunch of shows.
When you release the next record so quickly, are you starting from scratch?
Most of the time. There’s a couple of songs that survive. The one that comes to mind is on the album we’re releasing in June, and it’s called, “So Sweet to Be Back”. We tried using it on [three other albums] and it didn’t work. It’s come back with a vengeance on the newest album.
You toured a tremendous amount in the beginning. Did you do that because touring is the only source of income in today’s music industry?
I keep hearing this idea about making money touring. But I’ve never made money anywhere, including touring [laughs]. But we like it. It’s always fun to play a rock show whether it’s for ten people or a thousand.
Do you ever have moments when you’re on the road and touring this much where you think, “F*ck this sh*t. I can’t do this anymore?”
Yeah, but they’re really brief. I’ve had a really good life in the sense that I’ve tried out a lot of different things. Music was a very conscious choice. When I have those moments, I think back to the last twelve jobs I had before music and think, “It’s okay, I’ll survive.”
Are you able to sustain a romantic relationship when you tour that extensively?
I’ve tried and failed more than I’ve tried and succeeded. It’s definitely hard. You kind of choose one or the other — a real life or a life of constant movement. The hardest thing about it is how time moves in these situations. In some sense time moves slower, because it feels like you live three years in the space of a year. One of my favorite quotes is, “People change and forget to tell each other.” People at home may be changing in an incompatible direction.
I imagine you’d have to really like the people you’re touring with, too.
You’d have to really like them or have no other options [laughs]. But that’s one of the first things we think about when [we ask people to join us on tour], almost more than their musical talents. It’s a tricky, unnatural situation.
Do you ever look back on your song lyrics and discover new meanings?
That’s a really good question. I almost never know where exactly something came from. Just the nature of how I write song lyrics down is very fragmentary. It’s rare that I can tell where different parts of the song came from.
Tell me about your new album. I read that it’s a concept album. What’s the concept?
Well, we set out to make one of the ten greatest albums of all time and I think it’s probably number three of all time [laughs]. It’s just about different people and places. That’s why we called it These United States. Our last album was very personal and about a near-death experience. But I feel like I got that out of me, and now I’m thinking more outside myself about all these people and places and things we were experiencing. It’s a big, raucous, carnival celebration of life.
Whoa! What was the near-death experience?
That is what What Lasts was about. I almost drowned. It had me thinking a lot about death.
How did you almost drown?
I paddled too far in a kayak that wasn’t Lake Michigan-worthy, and it filled up with water from the waves of an iron ore tanker that was far away. I swam for over an hour in very cold water to get back to shore. It ended up being more of a life-affirming thing than a death-affirming thing. The next three days I was wrapped up and shivering. My whole family was there. My poor dear mother was probably more scared about it than me in some sense. But then I had a few days to sit and write songs [about it].
Did your parents always support your pursuit of music?
Yes. My parents were always interested in music. My dad was a drummer in college, and my mom gave me my first nylon string guitar. They would be happy with whatever I did. I feel hugely lucky. That’s not something I take for granted.
Who are you listening to right now? I like to discover artists through other artists.
We get to listen to so much music, which is kind of a blessing and curse because it all comes and goes very quickly. My bandmates recently produced a great album by Rebecca Marie Miller. She sings with a band called the Mynabirds that I’ve always really loved. Our good friend Laura Burhenn sings with them, and I’ve always really loved her music and our friend Matthew Houck from Phosphorescent joins her on a song [called “Two Gods” for our new album]. Our new album was an excuse to ask people we’ve been huge fans of for a long time to help us make music of our own. Also on our new album is Cotton Jones, Deer Tick, and Backwords. I’ve also gone back and listened to some old music from our buddy Josh Read who has a band called Revival and he sang on the album. Another person in our friend camp is Adam Arcuragi, who just put out a really great album. Is that enough?
It must be living a dream to collaborate with people that you’re also huge fans of.
Yeah, that’s the only reason you do this. You don’t do it for the health insurance or the dental benefits. You do it because there’s a lot of people in the world doing inspiring stuff, and you want to do inspiring stuff with them.