You probably won’t go as far to say that seeing J. Roddy Walston & The Business is a religious experience, but there is certainly a revival feel to their ultra-energetic shows, and when frontman Walston kicks out his piano bench, it’s a reminder of the beautiful recklessness of rock and roll.
As for the reckless part of that equation, “I definitely hit our guitar player and bass player a couple times, and they were not that happy about it,” recalls Walston. “There were various degrees of pain, and then ‘this triumphant ending does not look cool when my ankle is crumpling under me because you kicked the stool into it.’”
Walston pauses, then continues.
“It probably would have helped the band dynamics, but visually would not be that striking.”
This insistence on giving a show is why the Baltimore-based band sold out Saturday night’s show at The Bowery Ballroom in New York City, and why their latest album, Essential Tremors, could be the breakout hit this quartet has deserved. So what makes their third album so good? Simply put, it gets better with each listen, with their brand of music unique, yet familiar. It’s almost like comfort food for the rock and roll soul.
“I feel like the record we made was a great record, and the songs are us, but really catchy,” said Walston, singer, guitarist, and pianist for the band. “Anything about it that’s catchy is the catchiest it’s ever been, and anything that’s heavy or loud is the loudest and heaviest and fastest it’s ever been. But we also have the softest songs we’ve ever done and the darkest stuff we’ve ever done. Everything about us exploded out as much as possible.”
The gift of the band (Walston, Billy Gordon, Logan Davis, Steve Colmus) may be their ability to capture their live sound on record, with their previous full-length collections, 2007’s Hail Mega Boys and 2010’s J. Roddy Walston and the Business, prime examples.
“The guitar player, Billy Gordon, and myself have been recording for a long time, so we’ve kind of, to the chagrin of most of our producers, got pretty strong opinions on sounds and ideas and the way things should go,” said Walston. “I think a lot of people over complicate recording and a lot of it’s just smoke and mirrors. If you’re going into a big studio they’re setting up 2,000 mics, and maybe they’re not even plugging up some of them. If you’re setting up ten mics on the drums, there’s diminishing returns after a point, and it stops being anything you would actually hear. If you’re trying to be creative and come up with some new sound that no one’s ever heard before, that’s fine. But I don’t really care to do the whole thing where people think I’m being creative because they’re avoiding something that’s been done. It’s more the motivation of the individual being the more creative or unique part of music or art at this point – how it’s being conveyed, or the conviction it’s being done with.”
One listen to the band - live or on record – makes it clear that conviction has never been an issue for the quartet, but when it comes to putting it all together songwriting wise, they’ve never been better than on Essential Tremors. From start to finish, the band is hitting on all cylinders, keeping it eclectic while not straying away from their core sound. In a lot of ways, the album brings thoughts of prime Aerosmith due to its intriguing mix of melody, grit, lyrical wit and musicianship. But in the end, it’s all J. Roddy and the Business.
“Initially no one knew what to do with us, and I guess we’re not doing ourselves any favors in the sense that every record is something a little bit different than the record before,” said Walston. “And we take a decent amount of time between each record because we have all this input and all these different things we get into and obsess over. You can talk to my wife and she’ll tell you that I’ll have a five month freakout where anything from a certain car engine or this obscure region of Africa’s psychedelic funk freakout, and it’s like ‘this is it – this is the only thing that’s good at all.’ I have to find out everything about it, and that will influence everything I’m doing. And then I’ll write something in the middle of that and really what happens is all that stuff gets pulled back in to our band being our band. That’s all good, so how can we do this and have it be us? So it takes a pretty long time for us to write songs.”
Walston estimates that the band wrote about 20-30 songs for the new record, but he believes the real success of the album comes from the fact that they changed things around from their usual recording / touring M.O.
“Up until this record, we were touring non-stop, and the only way people were finding out about us was through touring, so we were touring on songs we hadn’t put out yet,” he said. “Then we’d record them and then we would end up touring on them more. For this record, we wanted to avoid that, so we would write some stuff, try it out on the road, change whatever needed to be changed because of how it felt to play it live, and then you kind of put it away. I feel like that was a good move because we’re all excited to not just play the last record and some of the record before that.”
But now with Essential Tremors out and the band back on the road to support it, the quest begins again to re-introduce themselves to the world. It’s not an easy task, but it helps having a built-in fan base that is loyal and selling out venues on a regular basis.
“I think anyone who is a fan of ours is a fan - I don’t want to say for life, but longer than say the average band that blew up on a blog and has a song that’s some kid’s favorite for three weeks and then they never listen to it again,” said Walston. “I would not consider us famous by any stretch, but multiple cities across country have had people come up with lyrics from our songs tattooed on them and I guess in some way that person is a fan for life.”
Well, at least they’ll remember them forever. But all kidding aside, it feels like Walston and company are on the verge of something big, and the frontman admits that he hopes these feelings are accurate.
“Yeah, you kind of hazard a hope for that sometimes,” he said. “The last record, the place we were starting from was outside of maybe 2,000 people spread out across the whole country, and no one knew who we were, so there was a lot of weight on our arms in trying to get people to even acknowledge that we exist, let alone if we’re good or bad or worthwhile. Now we’re basically starting from where we built to on the last record. I guess that’s the process everyone goes through; it’s just taken us a way longer time than a lot of people. I talk to our friends in other bands, and I think you have to have an extreme amount of confidence in yourself to keep going. You know what you’re doing is great; it’s just that everybody else hasn’t found out yet. If you think that you’re just okay or mediocre, why suffer the artistic life?”
Why? Because like Walston said, if you know you’re doing great work, you have to believe that eventually everyone else will figure that out too. Essential Tremors is a great album, the band knows it, and with that out of the way, they can move forward and keep this going until the rest of the world tunes in.
“You know the way to find your place on a map? You’ve got to have three points,” he said. “Now that there’s a third record, I think there’s a more accurate idea of what our band is. I feel like this record, even more than any of the last ones, sort of set us up to do whatever we want. If we had just made another version of our last record, which I guess would have been the safe thing to do, I think we would have been done, like ‘oh, this is the record you have to make four or five times.’ Then it’s completely over. But I think what we ought to do is write the songs that we want to hear, and we’ve always done that. I don’t know that I’d say that if there was another band out there writing exactly what I wanted to hear that I wouldn’t play music anymore, but I think that’s a little bit where we’re at, where no one actually does what we do.”