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An indie-rocker who calls his band Young Jesus either has a serious love of trap music or a predilection for epic musical statements. John Rossiter leans toward the latter.
“I am very emotional and can be very sincere, so I tend to not shy away from the huge stuff,” the-29-year-old singer-songwriter says. “Maybe I should, but it’s always been hard for me once I start focusing on something not to keep expanding it out.”
On 2017’s excellent, independently released S/T — which will be reissued 2/23 by indie label Saddle Creek — Young Jesus does indeed expand Rossiter’s songs with a chaotic force that is both violently unpredictable and ravishingly cathartic. Even the album’s most tuneful numbers, such as the wistful opener “Green,” never quite land the way you expect, forsaking studio polish for unresolved rough edges that spark electric friction. As S/T progresses, the album takes on the feel of a spiritual quest, with meandering songs such as “Desert” and the record’s sprawling 13-minute climax “Storm” radiating odd, Zen-like calm even as the band descends into full-on ambient noise.
Originally formed with a different lineup when Rossiter was in high school back home in the northern suburbs of Chicago, Young Jesus has cycled through various sounds and formations as its leader matured and eventually relocated to Los Angeles. Young Jesus’ debut full-length, 2012’s Home, is a relatively straight-forward emo record, a template that is deepened but not subverted on 2015’s Grow/Decompose.
But for S/T, Rossiter corralled a new corps of musicians — bassist Marcel Borbon, drummer Kern Haug, and keyboardist Eric Shervrin — that helped him take Young Jesus in a wilder, improvisation-based direction. Guided by this adventurous spirit, Young Jesus melds Rossiter’s sturdy, middle-American folk-rock hooks with free-form jamming inspired by revolutionary avant-jazz musicians such as Albert Ayler and Don Cherry. The result is one of the most exciting bands in indie rock right now. We spoke recently by phone about the band’s move to Los Angeles, unlikely influences, and how in 2018, bands are like religion.
What originally brought you to Los Angeles? Was it personal or band-related?
I think about that a lot, and I’m still in some ways unsure. I love Chicago, and I love the midwest, but I had lived my entire life in like a 20-mile radius. I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the thought loop that I was in in Chicago, which was sort of just phases of drinking, hangovers,and continuing the college or high school experience.
Honestly, the one city I thought I would never move to [was LA]. I always said, “Oh, I’ll never fucking move to LA. What a bullshit city.” One day I was like, “Oh, I’m moving,” and then I just kind of randomly picked here for almost no reason. Like, I have one friend living here, and I moved in with him, and got a job at a bookstore and I’ve been here ever since.
Did living in LA and getting out of those “thought loops” back home influence your music?
Oh yeah. Young Jesus is a band that was pretty much done by the time I was leaving Chicago, and I had no intention of coming back to it. And then I moved here, trying to figure out what else to do with my life. Maybe I would just write, who knows? But there’s something about the way your memory is organized, and in Chicago and in the midwest, because of seasons, it feels like you can mark out certain moments and you can attach closure and make sense of these small pieces in a way. Whereas in LA, it completely changed how my memory was organized. It became like this flat expanse, where everything was kind of on a strange, equal playing field.
When I started working at the bookstore, everyone just thought I was insane. I was rambling on and on about this idea of, like, a shattering of perspective. Where you’re convinced reality is one way, and then you all of the sudden, it gets flipped on its head. I was walking around this bookstore, mumbling about the shattering of everything. It was really unsettling, but I turned to music and to poetry to sort it out.
There have been different iterations of this band over the years. Do you feel like the lineup you have now is the lineup, or do you see the band continuing to evolve?
I’m not sure. Right now, we all love playing together. And we’re very happy as a group of four friends, which is the most important thing. I think when bands start impeding on the actual necessary emotional stuff, when they can ruin friendships or take over the real foundational parts of your life, that’s when it can be important to either get out or switch it up. But right now it’s just a supplement to our friendship.
I was just wondering if you envision Young Jesus as being like Wilco, which has settled into a stable lineup in the past decade or so but before that changed personnel as Jeff Tweedy’s songs changed.
There was a thing I remember watching, is it I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, that documentary?
There’s a moment where he’s talking to Jay Bennett, and he’s like, ‘Every circle needs its center,’ implying that he’s the center. [Jay Bennett claims in the documentary that Tweedy said this, but it’s not shown on-screen-Ed.] And I was watching that and I love Wilco, but I was like, ‘You know, I don’t think that’s the right way to think about relationships, and music.’ If you have the time and the trust and the patience, then everyone can grow together.
Most of the reference points for your band — at least in terms of what has been mentioned in album reviews — seem to be indie rock from the ’90s and ’00s. Do you feel that era has been influential for you?
It’s funny that people always point out that stuff because that era of indie rock is pretty new to me. I didn’t grow up with a really sophisticated palate. I grew up in the suburbs, and I was listening to like The Beatles, and NSYNC until I was in fifth grade. And then my sister showed me Wilco when I was in seventh grade and I was like, ‘Dang, this sounds like Paul McCartney.’ Then I got really into pop-punk and emo, and the Chicago sort of zone. But eventually I grew to more identify with live performances that were really riveting and exciting, and feeling tested in a live setting. Because I had been to so many shows as a teenager where I got kind of bored by the normal sort of get-up, where you look listless and then there’s one moment of, like, being really angry.
The standard indie-rock theatrics.
When I moved out here, people were introducing me to more experimental, aggressive, jazzier spaces. And so for this formation [of Young Jesus], jazz has been a huge influence, specifically people like Albert Ayler, Milford Graves, and Don Cherry. People that play with a sense of spirituality and generosity, and excitement and innovation, and openness. It’s not just music, it’s a way to think about living, and a way to live politically in the world that’s constantly challenging and abrasive sometimes. But also beautiful.
I know improvisation is a big part of your live shows, and you can even hear that on S/T. Typically, improvisation in a rock context is associated with jam bands like the Grateful Dead. The indie world is more open to the Dead that it once was, but there’s still a stigma about “jamming” for some people.
I grew up being like, ‘The Grateful Dead and jam bands are fucking stupid,’ because I was an emo kid, so I was just responding to the scene I was in. There’s this really wonderful book called Improvisation by Derek Bailey, and he interviewed one of the people in the Grateful Dead, and they talk about their mode of operation, and how they’re totally open to having a total dud of a performance. It doesn’t mean it’s a dud, it’s just another way of expressing yourself. And if you can get your fellow musicians and the people that like listening to you to embrace the moments that people might consider like duds as something also expressive of life, and of beauty, [that’s a positive.] I have a lot of admiration for them because they did that. They have a whole fan base that literally understands their mode of operation and embraces them for it, which is crazy.
One of my real beliefs is that as we’ve sort of eroded any sort of real spirituality or religiosity in the past 50 to 100 years. Some of those possibilities are in a musical space, where you can share this moment that is totally unique and totally group-oriented, [and] latch on to something greater than yourself. That’s what our band’s all about right now.
Young Jesus’ S/T will be reissued by Saddle Creek 2/23. Pre-order it here.