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“I think if you go three records back, we were an emo band,” John Rossiter says. We’ve reached the inevitable part of our interview where the 31-year-old Young Jesus frontman is asked to place his group in a particular scene, and I can sense his discomfort. My seemingly simple, straightforward question is surprisingly difficult to answer for a band whose incredible new album, Welcome To Conceptual Beach, covers enough sonic ground to encompass Sigur Ròs, Sun Ra, the Dave Matthews Band, and numerous points between and beyond those acts.
No, there’s nothing “simple” about Young Jesus. Nor should there be.
“Sometimes the genre tropes of emo and indie rock can be a bit suffocating to us, so we just never paid attention to it,” he says, in a shy, earnest voice that can’t quite conceal the justifiable pride he has in Welcome To Conceptual Beach, hands down one of 2020’s best and most exciting indie-rock records. At a time when many artists seem content to mine the same relatively narrow sonic and thematic terrains of long-established archetypes — “the punk band,” “the confessional singer-songwriter,” “the indie-pop star” — Young Jesus strikes out with an uncommonly bold sound that aspires to the overpowering emotional directness of indie’s grandest classics from the ’90s and ’00s, while also exploring experimental, even esoteric instrumental textures deriving from jazz-inspired improvisations that often push their songs past the 10-minute mark.
Which is to say, Welcome To Conceptual Beach has the gut-level drive of watersheds like The Lonesome Crowded West or In The Aeroplane Over The Sea without relying upon the familiar indie-rock tropes those records codified. In fact, one of the most profound pleasures of Young Jesus — which formed in the aughts when Rossiter was in high school, cycling through different members before solidifying with its present lineup of bassist Marcel Borbon, drummer Kern Haug, and keyboardist Eric Shervrin three years ago in Los Angeles — is how unpredictable this band can be. Songs have a way of transmogrifying. The album-opening “Faith” drifts into a visceral math-rock breakdown before shifting to a disquieting, Pink Floyd-style space-rock jam. “Meditations” similarly lurches like a surly woolly mammoth with meandering Spiderland guitars cut with a mystical flute, until the tempo suddenly shifts at the midpoint and the song becomes a furious rocker. “Pattern Doubt” is among the tracks that largely ditch guitars in favor of an acid-jazz saxophone and fluttery keyboards inspired by Alice Coltrane. Later, on the 11-minute epic “Lark,” the beauty melts away from a barrage of free-form noise before the song regains an anthemic, stately splendor.
“There are, of course, moments that are very emotional, and very indie sounding, but we’re not trying to write a song in any genre,” Rossiter says. We’re just being where the four of us go, because we each come from such different musical backgrounds. We just go wherever it’s going to go, and we really thrive in that space.”
Two years ago, I called Young Jesus “one of the most adventurous young indie rock bands.” Today, I wouldn’t qualify that statement — no other indie band right now mixes the visceral and the intellectual as well as this group. I don’t expect to feel as flat-out exhilarated by the possibilities of an indie-rock album this year as I am by Welcome To Conceptual Beach. It is truly a special album.
In a recent phone interview, Rossiter explained how Young Jesus got here.
You’ve described the “conceptual beach” idea as a kind of mental refuge for yourself that goes beyond just this album. What exactly does it mean to you?
Gosh, it’s such a big thing for me, so it’s hard to put it into words. I started it probably about six years ago now, just making a few zines, and giving those out on tour. Every day, I would wake up before work, and write as if I was this post on Conceptual Beach. So it became a kind of diary, where I could become a character — as it turns out, is really helpful for sorting out your own health and psychology and soul, to be able to separate yourself out a little bit into different figures. It would really help me sort through my feelings, anger, guilt, sadness, shame, unworthiness, creativity, joy. At that point in time, I was living really deeply in my own mind, and that’s a really isolating place to be. So it helped me dive into the heart of that. This record, I hope, is my life opening up a little bit, and leaving my mind, joining a community, and being more in my body.
That goal to be more in your body seems tied with the band’s focus on improvisation, which is really about trying to live in the moment musically.
Kern, our drummer, sent us on that path as a group. He really loves musicians like Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, The Fall, Bill Orcutt, and on and on. But he especially loves Sun Ra. He’s almost a scholar. He has a weekly radio show, where he just talks about Sun Ra. He taught a couple of college classes on him. Him bringing that element really was special, and it changed my life, because it allows you to participate in music, and if you view it from a certain angle, there are no rules. You can do anything. The only thing that you can really assess improvisation with is, are the musicians present with each other? Are they listening to each other? Are they taking risks, and embracing each other’s risks and mistakes and successes, and actively framing it together? It’s this shape that you’re constantly making as a group. And you can’t control it. When it’s at its most beautiful, you’re sort of transmitting that moment, rather than exerting control over it.
I remember the last time I talked to you, you were talking about Derek Bailey and his book, Improvisation, and about how, even when you feel like you failed, that you’re not really failing, because you’re going to a place that you wouldn’t have gone otherwise.
One thing I’ve really struggled with my whole life is the act of really learning. I think of learning as reading a book and then you know something. But learning is a really complicated, difficult process, that is mostly based on experience. And a lot of those experiences are uncomfortable, because you’ve never had them before, and you don’t have the mental capacity yet to be comfortable with it. You’re in a whole new land. If we can develop the skills to greet a moment that is new, and can shake your foundation, you can’t … or at least I can’t figure out an exact response to that will always make life okay. Which is what I’ve wanted for a long time. Like, oh, if only I can figure out a certain way to respond, I’ll be good. That never works. What has helped has been like, oh, can I monitor my feelings? Can I be present as this is happening? And can I ask other people how they’re feeling as it’s happening? Improvisation is about that. It’s all questions. All you’re doing is asking questions with your instrument.
It’s interesting we’re talking so much about community given that these times we’re in right now are very isolating. How are you dealing with that?
I’ve been making music. Eric’s been making music, Kern’s doing his radio show. Marcel’s been recording. It’s been — this is not unique to me — a super up and down experience. Each day, each moment feels really different. All my emotions feel heightened, and to be isolated can be really hard. I think I’m just getting out of the reactive phase of that, which is like, “Oh, this is all overwhelming, and so much is happening.” And moving towards like, “Oh, there are creative ways to engage with this, and there are opportunities here.”
I have to stretch and meditate every single day, or else I’ll lose my mind. And I have started dancing to far out jazz records, and Grateful Dead records, so that I can just move some of this through my body. And that really helped.
When I first heard Welcome To Conceptual Beach, I was struck by the vocals. You’ve changed up your style quite a bit — it’s more of a crooner style that reminded me of Jeff Buckley and Anohni. How did you hit upon that?
I’m so glad you picked that up. Anohni and Jeff Buckley are two major touchstones for this record. Because I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and raised Episcopalian, and very modest and humble, I learned to cut myself down a lot. On this record, I started to realize that attitude really doesn’t serve our music very well. The way Kern and Marcel and Eric are playing is very confident, and they really believe in themselves as musicians, because they’re very talented. They work on it a lot. So for me, I realized, I really could just believe in myself more, and love my voice a little bit more, and really go into it. So there’s a lot less screaming on the record, and a lot more singing. And it’s brought me a lot of joy, because just using my voice as an instrument, I think that is in parallel with me learning to love my body more. Because your voice is such an embodied thing.
Anohni and Jeff Buckley, they lean into who they are a lot, and it’s beautiful. And that’s what I think people respond to, how vulnerable they are, and how powerful that vulnerability is. I started to feel like I had that same something within me, when I really believe in myself.
Was it difficult to get to that place where you felt comfortable taking more chances, vocally?
Yes. I share this because I hope there are kids that experienced something similar: When I started playing in this band, 12 years ago, I would sing about two feet away from the mic, and no one could hear it. We were playing to about five people at bars in Chicago that would let underage kids play shows. And we would literally have to sit outside of the venue until our set, and then they’d be like, “Okay, you guys are allowed to come in to play, then you have to leave.” But I was terrified. I’ve always been a really shy performer. And for some reason, I just felt I had to keep doing it, because it would unlock something in me. I’m sure it’s the same thing with writing about music, that you start, being like, “Oh my gosh, this is so … how could I ever publish this?” And then all of a sudden, you’re not filtering it so much through your mind. You’re more just letting yourself go and do it in the great moments. But it takes a lot of time.
You’ve also really branched out sonically beyond being a guitar-bass-drums rock band. I really love the song “Pattern Doubt,” which has a beautiful saxophone part and this fantastic fluttery keyboard sound.
That song in particular is such a good reference, because it gets at some of the key ways in which we’ve matured as a band and become more comfortable. The sax player and flute player on the record, Brian Tuley, Marcel played with in a ska band in high school with, called the RidicuLites. They’re both still ska people, but Brian is also this great jazz musician. He has such an ear for melody that he just kind of stepped in the first take and laid down that opening melody for “Pattern Doubt.”
That song is the meeting point of past and future and present for the band. If I’m going to be totally honest, I’ve been afraid to reference certain things that might be are too poppy, or what I would deem embarrassing. I didn’t want to share that I would listen to certain music when I was younger. Or even now, that I still listen to it, unless it’s in an ironic or sarcastic way, so I can still appear cool. Now I feel really comfortable with the fact that the sax line in “Pattern Doubt” is directly connected to the crazy amount of Dave Matthews Band I listened to as a 10 to 14 year old. And that the keyboard line is very much influenced by Alice Coltrane I’ve been listening to in the past three years of my life, and that Eric’s been getting into. They’re both really important. One’s not inherently better than the other in my life. And they weave this really rich musical tapestry that, in some ways, I have been ignoring.
It brings me a lot of joy, because it’s not a judgmental record. It’s not asking anyone to come to it with a really developed, pretentious palate. It’s like, “Join us anywhere you’re at.” I think there are access points. That’s why it’s called Welcome To Conceptual Beach. I believe they’re a lot more inviting.
Welcome To Conceptual Beach is out Friday via Saddle Creek. Get it here.