WHERE THE REAL MAGIC HAPPENS These United States

A near-death experience and a
traumatic personal loss spawned one of the summer’s most compelling musical
offerings.

 

BY ANNAMARYA SCACCIA

 

2009
was a significant year for Jesse Elliot. The frontman for the Washington,
DC/Lexington,
Kentucky indie rock outfit, These United
States, faced both death and theft – first, he almost drowned while kayaking in
Lake Michigan on a crystal clear summer day and then, nearly two months later,
while on tour, his laptop was stolen in the parking
lot of the Troubadour in Los Angeles. They’re
experiences that left a deep, agonizing mark on Elliot, ones that left him
reevaluating life and music.

 

And
it’s those confrontations that also fueled the quintet’s – comprising Elliot
with J. Tom Hnatow (pedal steel/electric guitar), Robby Cosenza (drums/vocals),
Justin Craig (guitar/keyboards) and Colin Kellogg (bass/vocals) – fourth album,
What Lasts, which dropped earlier
this month on United Interests. It’s a massive record that’s both earnest and
brave, elevating their trademark Americana
folk from conjectural dynamism to de rigueur confidentiality. What Lasts is beautiful, even if a
little macabre.

 

Currently
on tour in support of their record release, we talked to Elliot about the
themes that shaped What Lasts, the
personal verses the abstract and the idea of generic creativity.

 

***

 

BLURT: What Lasts is a result of your near drowning experience in Lake Michigan last year. Is this album a way owning that and turning it into
something positive with a dark exterior?

ELLIOT: That’s exactly right. That’s a really good way to put it.
When I finally made it back to shore, I literally collapsed and was just laying
there for hours, shivering…For the next couple of days, I sat at this cottage
that my family has been going to for every summer for my entire life. I just
sat and looked out at lake, trying to make it through all that. Of course, the
only way I was able to do that was by sitting down with the guitar and laying up
some songs about it. [Losing my laptop also] formed the album…[It] had…all
the sort of rough demos I had done at the lake cottage for the album. It was
like this whole thing that has been a really intense, personal experience for
me was completely erased. I have a very bad memory, which is why I keep
everything on a computer…so then I had to reconstruct it again and the only
song that I have left is what became the title track­­­-it just made sense-the
song “What Lasts” because I had sent a really rough demo version to a friend
over e-mail, so I still had the file in my email, but everything else was gone.
It was like, “Oh, the only song that’s left is called ‘What Lasts,’ maybe I
should call the album that.’ [laughs]

 

You sent that demo to a long
lost friend, so it seems like a lot of the back story for this album, just
reading it on paper, is a sign of sorts.

Yea, it’s kind of funny. I don’t know how much of fate or destiny
or whatever you want to call it goes into any particular event but this is definitely
an album that is more influenced by some very particular and very sort of
unnerving or very uprooting [event], much more so than any album we’ve done.

 

Would you say you’re more
emotionally connected to this album as opposed to your last, Everything Touches Everything?

Personally, I’m more emotionally connected to this album than
anything else we’ve ever done, which is a significant [thing] for me on a
personal level because I actually don’t think of music as primarily an
emotional thing. Music, for me, has always been more an aesthetic thing, more
just playing around with words, ideas and sounds as kind of like abstract
entities rather than a confessional diary approach. But this time around, I’m
definitely like, “OK, this actually really means something to me.” [laughs]

 

Now that What Lasts is completed, did it change your approach to your craft?

It certainly changed my approach to music or my opinion of putting
emotional content in music, which is something I argued with many a good musical
friend about for a very long time and I’ve actually taken a lot of flak from
friends and critics. One of my favorite lyricists is Andrew Bird and he’s
pretty well-known for being a little bit more on the abstract side of things… a
lot of how he comes up with stuff is just merely the sound of words and the
pleasure the ear gets from particular combinations of syllables and that’s
always kind of how I look at it… There’s obviously still a fair amount of that
on the album but I think enough of the personal, emotional stuff happening [in
it]…I guess in a way is more conventional. It all depends on what you think is
the standard for songwriting but I guess most people think that songwriting is
a personal, emotional endeavor and I definitely came around to that way of
thinking.

 

Like a spiritual awakening?

That could be it, as well. That could be a different way of it.
I’m thinking more of a personal, artistic turning point more so than any other
larger spiritual thing, although there’s obviously a lot of that on the album
too.

 

How did you feel after it was
stolen just mere months after you almost drowned?

Totally dejected. At least with almost drowning in Lake Michigan, there was like a vital spark, like, “You
gotta save your own life right now.” There was a primordial survival mechanism
that kicked in. When my laptop was stolen, it was just like pure depression. [laughs] It was really funny because we
travel so much together, we’re essentially like brothers in that we give each
so much flak and we’re so hard on each other and joke around with each other
all the time and point out each other’s shortcomings. But there was this 48
hour grace period after it was stolen where nobody said anything that was in
any way negative or sarcastic to me because I was [going to] go over the deep
end and toss myself off a bridge or something like that.

 

You say you have a bad memory,
so when you found yourself recreating the songs that were on your laptop, did
you find yourself remembering a lot the original material?

Definitely half of it did. I think a lot of the reasons I write
songs or that I love music is because music is sort of like a memory device for
me. I think for a lot of people that’s true in general. Music is a very
memorable thing. When you hear a particular melody or a particular turn of
phrase, it gets inside your brain. Sometimes, all it takes is one or two times
and it’s in there forever, which is what I really love about music in general.
Also, I kind of look at it as like, “OK, the stuff that’s worthwhile will stick
around in my brain and the stuff that’s not will be gone forever. Who cares?”

      Actually, I had one
experience like this a long time ago with losing 258 pages of writing once back
when writing was kind of the main thing I did. I left a notebook on a plane [in
2003] and that was equally crushing. That was actually maybe more crushing but
the attitude I had was basically, “Well, you know, you just gotta keep going
and hopefully the good stuff resurfaces. If it’s good enough to be buried in
your subconscious, hopefully it comes back at some point.” I would guess that
maybe 50 or 60 percent of what was originally there came back and what didn’t
come back was replaced with new stuff that maybe was better, maybe wasn’t as
good. I guess we’ll never know but I like to tell myself that maybe it’s a
little bit better than what was there originally.

 

Maybe it’s an “everything
happens for a reason” scenario?

Sure, sure, yeah. I think that’s quite true. It’s easy to get
personally wrapped up in it but from an objective point-of-view, from a bird’s
eye point-of-view, does the universe really care that I lost my laptop? Is it
going to affect the course of human history? Probably not. [laughs] So, yeah, I’m just trying to look at it with a personal – whatever you want to call it – discovery process or something.

 

In addition to what happened
last year, what other themes are on What
Lasts
?

It’s a lot about loss and a lot about death and a lot about how
people deal with those things. I think that’s such a generic description that
I’m almost hesitant to say that. I feel like any album or any book or anything
ever that [deals with that] [laughs] it’s generic to say, “Oh, it’s about life and death and love and loss and all
the stuff that comes in between and how people deal with all that.” But for me,
it’s about my own sort of personal coming close to that point or something and
then thinking back. The other thing about losing the laptop, too, is that I
actually ended up going back and digging up other songs that popped in my head
that were about the death of a very close friend when I was younger, and the
death of a very close family member when I was really young. I had these songs
that I always considered maybe just a little too personal or just not really what
I wanted to put out there like an artistic product… I guess it sort of dredge
up other memories of other songs that I haven’t thought about or look at for
five years because they were about the deaths of close friends and family.

 

Thinking in terms of destiny,
could you say that losing your laptop and going back to those songs after five
years was a catalyst for closure?

Yea, it could be. It’s hard to say but I think it’s always good to
say, “Would this happen because of this?” because you don’t know. You don’t
have the control scenario and the variable scenario. You don’t get to say,
“Well, this is the normal way that things would have happened and this is the
variation of that.” All you have is that one particular variation, so I think
it’s really hard to say whether that in some way would have [been a] better
experience in the end. I certainly don’t regret anything. I think that
experience in Lake Michigan was a very, very intense one and shocked me back
awake in a lot of ways and losing the laptop was the same thing. It was a
serious slap in the face from the universe and I was like, “OK, I’m going to
get my shit together and get my thoughts down and figured out what it is I
really want to say because stuff goes way very easily.” I think that’s the
central theme of the whole thing-how easily everything slips
away and the futile way that you try to hang on to that but at the same time
you’re not futile. Maybe it really matters in a personal way.

 

It’s easy to agree that love,
death and loss are generic themes for artists. But do you think that what you
say isn’t as important as how you’re saying it?

Absolutely. Not just creative but just life. Just like jobs and
the way people live and the families they have. There’s only a certain amount
of experiences that we all go through and they basically boil down to birth,
growing up, falling in love and out of love, going through tragedies [and]
important experiences, losing other people and eventually taking off from earth
yourself. There’s not that many different things that human beings do.

       That’s one of the
reasons why I love [music]. In some ways, [you] have this very constrictive
form that you want to work in… You have three and half minutes to say something
that is worthwhile and I’m kinda happy working with those obstacles… within the
specific aesthetic form because that limited set of experiences you have to
deal with it or the limitations on what you can say as a rock ‘n’ roll band
really forces you to think about what you need to bring to this to put your
personal stamp on it that makes it something other people can relate to or not
relate to. I guess I don’t have any other way to say things than the way that I
do… but I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with it just on a personal level and
it’s really nice. I think it’s a nice place to be at when you’re writing songs.

 

Lyrically, how did you touch on
those themes uniquely in the new album?

It’s one of the hardest questions to answer, I think, without
either sounding completely pretentious or completely self-doubting and
self-loathing… I think any job, most people oscillate morally between moments
of extreme confidence and extreme self-doubt… But that’s a scary way to answer
that question, so I think you have to, I don’t know, it just like a job. You
just keep doing what you’re doing and you tell yourself that, “Maybe I’m not
saying anything unique or in a unique way.”

       I guess you do it for
yourself, at the end of the day, because you don’t really have another choice.
You do it for yourself and the people immediately around you, bandmates and
creative collaborators, [and] you sort of work out visions that you all have. I think
one of the reasons I like music a lot is because it forces you to smash your
visions together with the visions of four other people in a room, so that, to
me, is where the really uniqueness comes in… I think I’m kinda saying a lot of
the same things that other people said before but  maybe if I say them in my particular voice at
this particular moment with this particular combination of other sounds and
other people, [combining] that line with that sonic moment, that’s where the
real magic happens.

 

[Photo Credit: Sarah Law]

 

 

 

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