Zero Mile Presents
Murder By Death & J Roddy Walston and The Business
Thu · February 21, 2019
Doors: 7:30 pm / Show: 8:30 pm
$20.00 - $25.00
This event is 18 and overhttp://www.georgiatheatre.com/event/1780410/
Instead of the raucous bombast JRWATB manifested on their breakout hit album Essential Tremors, the band’s leader had certain rules he was determined to follow on Destroyers of the Soft Life. One was: “Speak/sing clearly, no hiding behind mumbles.” Another was, “D.I.Y. but hi-fi — record ourselves as much as possible but have it sound amazing and full.” The final, most important, rule was, “Nostalgia is a cancer — acknowledge that you are in the present.”
“We had never been a band where we pretended that it’s 1965,” Walston says. “But we ended up in situations with our records where those rules were imposed on us.”
On Essential Tremors, JRWATB inspired pangs of joy in music fans that yearn for the days of Bob Seger and early Bruce Springsteen. But when Walston returned home from touring in 2015 and began contemplating his next move, he no longer felt the same connection to that classic-rock sound.
“Loud rock and roll music has become less relevant because it’s just been on a loop,” he says. “If there was any rule on this record, it was, let’s be a part of music right now. I want to be part of living music in this moment.”
Helping the band realize a new vision for its music was veteran producer Phil Ek (Built To Spill, Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes), who came in to apply some finishing touches after JRWATB completed most of the record in Virginia.
“The thing with Phil is he is a servant of the song and that is my vibe as well,” Walston says. “Ego has no place in songwriting or the studio and we hit it off in that respect right away.”
“Is there any point to making a record that has real instruments (guitars, drums, piano etc.) right now?” he continues. “Is there anything left to be said by writing this way? Do albums matter anymore? Can I make something that I care about right now because it’s a manifestation of the fear/love/excitement/ I am feeling right now, not because is tickles some easy to reach nostalgic pleasure center.”
Lead single “The Wanting” boasts a shimmering, uplifting guitar riff and an impossibly huge chorus that belies the song’s thoughtful exploration of familial relationships and the fallacy of distilling complicated people down to archetypes. “Did you do right by us / best it could be,” Walston sings, addressing a prodigal father figure. “You’ve done no harm / but you’ve been no good to me.”
Throughout Destroyers of the Soft Life JRWATB similarly melds engaging, melodic songwriting with sharp observations about American culture that take on a new kind of power in light of the 2016 presidential election. Standout tracks such as the infectious “Ways And Means” and swaggering “Blade Of Truth” offer the uncompromised, salt-of-the-Earth perspective of a songwriter who grew up among the white working class and yet has enough perspective to see the ways in which those people have undermined themselves in the political realm. As Walston sings in “Blade of Truth,” there is now “a judgement on the herd / and your privilege will burn.”
Amid the torn-from-the-headlines commentary, Walston revisits the same question: “Is the truth a hard line, or it is a flexible line that can be messed with?”
“I got to straddle the line a bit with this record,” he says. “I hit a point in my life where I could pay my bills on time for the first time ever, and take a breath. I got to see the life you can have when you’re not living a life of desperation. But I was just outside that line of desperation.”
The band’s newfound financial security is largely the result of the band’s hard work on the road. Looking back on the tour cycle for Essential Tremors, Walston can only chuckle.
“We probably toured on it way longer than our contemporaries would,” he admits.
Of course, not many bands experience the sort of growth in prominence and audience size that Walston and his compatriots have witnessed in the past several years. Road warriors from the time they formed in 2002, JRWATB has long been an underground favorite, toiling away in clubs and bars and carving out its own niche outside of the rock mainstream. But the radio success of Essential Tremors opened new doors and fostered exciting opportunities, including invites to Lollapalooza, the Newport Folk Festival, and Bonnaroo, and a featured slot in an episode of the prestigious music TV institution, Austin City Limits. With every new experience came requests to play more shows.
“The train just kept rolling,” Walston says, until finally he hit a wall. “By the time I came off the road, I thought, ‘I’m toast. I don’t have anything in the tank.’”
Walston’s world was also rocked by a huge life-changing event — the birth of his first child. “I think having a kid made me care less of what people think of me,” he says. “I have one ultimate mission right now — keep a human alive. I don’t care if someone doesn’t like my pants or my hair or whatever. Being a parent makes you powerful in that way.”
Over the next year and a half, Walston committed to building himself and his band back up into a new kind of rock ‘n’ roll beast. But before JRWATB could get started on its fourth album, Walston decided to do some literal construction on a new space for the band where it could rehearse and record.
The only space available in the band’s hometown of Richmond, Va. hardly seemed promising — it was “a completely annihilated warehouse” that had been a grenade factory during World War II, says Walston, who decided to rent the place after the landlord offered the first two month’s rent for free. Perhaps the landlord expected JRWATB to eventually pack up and retreat. But that guy clearly knows nothing about this band’s work ethic, or affinity for lost causes. Instead of giving up, they gutted the place and spent the next seven months rehabbing the building until it was transformed into a suitable headquarters for JRWATB.
Why go to all the trouble of making your own space when there are any number of established studios where you can make your record? For JRWATB, like it is with so many things in their lives, building a personal studio was a matter of principle. When you’re renting studio time, it’s always somebody else’s time. For once, Walston wanted to make a record on his time.
“I don’t listen to our old records because I get so stressed when I think about making them,” he says, reflecting on how rushed the band was in the studio back then. “We’re taking the experience back.”
Murder By Death’s path began in the early 2000s as most Midwestern college-town groups do, by playing to small crowds at ratty venues and frenzied house parties. While many of their formative-year scene-mates failed to make it much further than campustown’s borders, Murder By Death translated their anonymous beginnings into a 10+ year career founded on a bedrock of five full-length albums, tireless D.I.Y. touring and performing ethics, and, most importantly, a dedicated, cult-like fanbase.
Since the band began in 2001, their audience has blossomed due in part to extended tours alongside similarly hardworking musical kin such as Against Me!, Gaslight Anthem, Lucero, William Elliott Whitmore, Ha Ha Tonka, and others. Through more than 1,000 performances across the United States, Canada and Europe, Murder By Death has gained word-of-mouth devotees and support from the likes of media outlets like SPIN Magazine, who said of the band, “They brawl like Johnny Cash’s cellmates or dreamily swoon like Nick [Cave], stomping saloon floorboards in 4/4 time as grand strings fade into high noon.”
What resonates most with supporters is the band’s energetic, unique, and altogether consistent sound and conceptualized vision. The personnel and ingredients of the group consist of Sarah Balliet’s throaty cello melodies, singer/guitarist Adam Turla’s booming baritone vocals and brawny guitar strumming, drummer Dagan Thogerson and bassist Matt Armstrong’s locked-down, post-punk rhythm section interplay, and Scott Brackett’s (formerly of Okkervil River and Shearwater) multi-instrumentalist bag of tricks (including piano, trumpet, accordion, mandolin, vocals, percussion). The overriding sound is an amalgamation of textures ranging from dark and desolate to upbeat and brightly melodic, all of it landing somewhere under the orchestrated indie rock umbrella.
The other mainstay signature element of Murder By Death’s identity has been built by the overriding concepts behind each individual album. Every successive effort conjures up fresh imaginative and tactile worlds – whether it’s the battle between the Devil and a small Western town (Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them?, 2003), an arid land of death and redemption (In Bocca al Lupo, 2006), or just songs inspired by a retreat into the Tennessee mountains (Good Morning, Magpie, 2010).
On September 25, the band releases their newest full-length and Bloodshot Record’s debut Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon. The album was written throughout 2011 in a basement in southern Indiana, and recorded in winter 2011 in Dallas, TX with producer-in-demand John Congleton (Explosions in the Sky, St Vincent, Black Mountain).
For the couple years prior, Jonny hobbled around the globe on a hip fractured in an ill- advised marathon run. He bounced between Malibu, New Delhi, Houston, Australia, Montana, Tokyo, Mount Hood, London then back again, looking for the right landing for the album, to no avail. He jumped from town to town and house and house, unpacking and packing up, with characteristic restlessness— until one day, the pieces all snapped together. A doctor looks up from the x-ray and wisely says “son, you need hip surgery.” Jonny finally buckles down in Los Angeles to make music and leatherwork because, as he puts it, “Nashville had gotten too LA for me.” And then with some welcome advice from Jim James, Jonny throws himself into Sweet Creep by stripping things down to the essentials. He gathered up the crew— Nashville’s Joshua Hedley and Dawes’ Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith—and literally recorded the whole album outdoors, in three days, underneath a tent purchased at Home Depot, with half the equipment “borrowed” from Guitar Center. The fresh air, freedom from studio pressures, and strong cups of tea all mix into the music, with ATVs briefly heard in the background and two senior tortoises listening at Hedley’s feet as he fiddles away. If as John Hartford tells us, “style comes from limitation,” Jonny credits Jim James for much of the pared-down and uninhibited sound of Sweet Creep. James encouraged the first takes, the simpler set-up, the outdoors, and the worry-free flow that coasts us from the first to the last of the record.
Born in Montana and raised in Esmont, Virginia, Jonny has passed weeks in nearly every city in the United States, and plenty others overseas, cramming ten lives into one, and half his possessions into the garages of friends and well-wishers. But despite the vitalism and exploits he’s gained a name for, most of his music comes from the smaller moments. He takes a weird little piece of life, unnoticed by most, then steeps it in song until it’s ready for vinyl. The overlooked sorrows of a fellow party goer. The real tedium and pains-in-the-ass of touring life, rather than the mystique. An old residential hotel, once hidden back, but whose uncurtained windows now tell human stories to the drivers-by on a newly built highway. An impromptu songwriting session with a friend’s four-year old daughter that includes the line “I burped in my pants then the party was over” and ends in a cloud of Jonny’s laughter. In contrast to the heartsick Dad Country, the songs of Sweet Creep are, if not always brimming, at least fully accepting of his fortunes. On a song like “I Love Leaving,” Jonny even learns to love his own discontent, surmising “but me I hate talking ‘bout the good old days / I never want go down memory lane / I only want to get into the passing lane, and I’ve always been that way / I guess I love leaving, leaving when I said goodbye.”
Sure enough, for all the anguish it may sometimes bring him, we have this discontent to thank for Jonny’s tremendous creative range— his It’s-a-Fritz leatherwork seen on stars and stages all over, his forays into character acting and hosting his own variety show Who’s That Singin’, his public love of vehicles, country legend, chill animals, and craft of any kind— not to mention the constant stream of deep goofing that turns even his average days into a show well worth watching. Jonny is a torchbearer in that celebrated country music tradition of giant-sized personalities overflowing into song. John Hartford, Roger Miller, Billy Joe Shaver— fans look to these country musicians for more than just music strictly speaking. They look for life, for outrageous legend— for a showmanship on and offstage that Jonny Fritz will never fail to deliver. He might not have shot anybody, or spent any considerable time in prison, but in Sweet Creep, he reminds himself and his fans, that sometimes great lives can also be pretty good ones.
215 N. Lumpkin St
Athens, GA, 30601