Band: These United States
From: Washington, D.C.
Sound: Delicately dense portraits and hyper-literate lullabies to the American soul and spirit
Similar Artists: M. Ward, Andrew Bird, Iron & Wine, Bon Iver
Listen Now: "First Sight"
You could define These United States most simply as a musical project helmed by D.C.-based wordsmith Jesse Elliott. You could then broaden this definition to include his fantastic collaboration with David Strackany (aka Paleo, the force behind last year's epic 365 songs in 365 days Song Diary project) that resulted in These United States' debut album A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden. While you're at it, you may as well also include the 30 other musicians who all got their paws on Elliott's muse and wouldn't let go during recording, until we're left with a revised understanding that goes something like this: These United States appears to be a pack of musical gypsies, a life-affirming ethos of goodwill and tall tales, proof of Johnny Appleseed's enduring legacy in 21st century America (don't worry, more on this later), and an all around kick ass band.
Don't take my word for it though. It wouldn't be fair. After all, I was the one dense enough to completely neglect that they were in town two weeks ago AND on the same bill as Plants and Animals at Union Hall*. And now that I come groveling after the fact, reeling from the spellbinding portraits Elliott spins and conjures throughout A Picture of the Three of Us... and demanding more, it's just too damn late. See, the band is off to tour Europe in a few weeks, and any chance of seeing them unfurl their tents, shake the dust off their boots, and set up camp in our neighborhood anytime soon is unlikely.
But there is a silver lining. Elliott took some time out of his Memorial Day weekend to converse with EF via the medium he so enthusiastically commands throughout his music, the written word (fancy talk for email). Check out our exclusive Q&A after the jump...
EF: I was first hoping you could describe the collaborative process between you and David Strackany. For example, were these all songs that you had previously written that he had then taken and added arrangements to or was there more give and take involved?
JE: a little more give and take than that, but that was the basic Idea. I was plunking around on acoustic and electric guitars, worried mostly about Words and Rhythm. Strackany was toying with the thought of becoming a producer - he's got a real ear for sonic landscapes. the two of us together were lookin' to get out beyond the land of folksong, wanted something richer and weirder, but still organic. just started making sounds and layering them on top of these simple tunes I'd written.
EF: I understand there were upwards of 30 musicians contributing to the album. How did you manage to kind of keep the original vision of your songs with so many "cooks in the kitchen"? Or was surrendering and letting go just another element of the songwriting process?
JE: surrendering to people who are better and smarter than me is one of the only things I'm interested in, musically. I'm not really a musician, just kind of a writer in wolf's sheepskin. it's great, cause I don't have to have TOO much vested interest in whatever the original idea behind a song was. things evolve or die. the world's wicked and lovely like that.
EF: At the risk of this sounding like a job interview, your bio states that before These Unites States you were a gonzo journalist. What were the sorts of things that interested you as a writer and what would you report about?
JE: everything. I'd mostly just rant. hence the Gonzo. a polite word for mad dumb hilarious rambles, I think. life, death, current events, game shows. I did a series of pieces on September 11, 2001 - drove out to NYC from Iowa, got there Sept 12 at 4 am in the morning, spent a week walking around the streets talking to people. people are magical. people are really the only thing I ever wrote about. god bless em. so damn strange, what they do and don't to the world.
EF: I bring up the journalism background primarily because listening to your words, it's obvious you're a gifted writer. You paint some incredibly vivid scenes and portraits through the use of some very literate lyrics. How is the songwriting and lyrical process informed or influenced by your background?
JE: thank you kindly, Mike - means a lot to me. I've got panned for using too many words in a lotta places, always nice to hear that a few people out there like words as much as I do. I think I'm going for something that's more purely aesthetic than what people like right now. there are all these amazing emotional and personal songwriters out there right now, the Bon Iver kinda model. and I love that stuff and it's beautiful and it cuts right to my heart the same as it does for so many people, obviously. but songwriting for me is more like collage, or like shooting one frame, 1/24 of a second, of 16 mm film for a week, on a road to Florida, clicking that button once every 30 seconds, say, and then going back months after that week and seeing what transpired, rapid-fire, something overwhelming and nonsensical and yet perfectly a part of its very own warp-speed narrative. I did that once, with film, I mean - and I think it stuck with me in writing. I like words and rhythm and sentences and cadence and phrasing and all that junk more than emotion. does that make me a horrible person?
EF: If forced to choose one (indulge me here), would you identify yourself as a writer, musician, or performer?
JE: I write. that's not to say that I'm the best of the three at that particular task (or even that I'm very good at any of them, really) - that's just what sets my heart racing - that sentence you can really set sail on.
EF: In terms of music, what other current artists and bands have really been clicking you with lately?
JE: we just played a few shows with Plants and Animals, and they really blew my mind. love them kids. there's a great kinda psych-folk-desert-dirge scene in DC right now, as embodied by The Federal Reserve, a collective some of us started, and also Gypsy Eyes Records, a really good local label. I think you're always influenced most by your immediate peers, so for me it's those folks and other random bands like The Great White Jenkins from Richmond or The Cotton Jones Basket Ride from up the road in Maryland.
EF: What about some of your all time favorites?
JE: Beck. Andrew Bird. too obvious to mention Dylan? again, a lot of the more Aesthetic Experimentalists, in my book. number one of all time, of course, would have to be Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. there's prolly no person in this world I've loved more or longer than I loved Jim Henson.
EF: Now, on the literary side of things, what writers or works have you been into these days and what have been some of the most influential in your own development?
JE: I've been reading this really wonderful book of poems by a guy named August Kleinzahler, called Sleeping It Off in Rapid City. I spent the last week out in the rolling Mississippi River valley of northeast Iowa, seeing old friends and family, and it just fit perfectly with the curve of every hill, and even of the whole entire earth, I think.
EF: The concept of America and the legacy of this country seems to be deeply intertwined with your musical identity. From your band's name and its honoring of American folk to where you currently live (Washington D.C.) and the fact that your ancestor was Johnny Appleseed (and as an aside, is that really true?), what do you make of this connection to the United States that runs throughout your own history at a time when it seems cooler to travel Europe with a Canadian patch on our backpacks?
JE: John Chapman, in the family bible in Fort Wayne, IN, I kid you not. I was surprised as you, but my cousin did this genealogical roots thing a few years back, and it checks out, and I guess it makes Good Solid Sense - would certainly explain (in that wonderfully mythological, this-may-have-absolutely-nothing-to-do with-real-life but-isn't-it-a-fun-way-to-explain-phenomena-in-the-world we-will-never-fully-comprehend-anyway kind of a way, y'know?) my love of land and geography and walking and humming (and apples? I guess I sort of like apples. I definitely like seeds.) and, damn it can be hard to say it sometimes, but, yes, still, America. it's the psychological and the physical geography that does it for me, all the beautiful castles of Europe and the easily defensible stances of Canada aside. there's nothing easy about America. John Chapman went crazy. I'll be damned if I'm not gonna try and get every long mile down under my feet before the whole thing explodes in a big old thrilling supernova, though.
EF: And speaking of Europe, you guys are about to head over there for a fairly extensive tour. How are you feeling about that and what's next for These United States afterwards?
JE: we love the UK. the further from Home you are, the kinder Strangers become. I can't wait to tour Indonesia some day. people are wonderful everywhere. there so much of the world encompassed just in that tiny little island strip between Brighton and Aberdeen. probably even more than we'll ever know, even further, up north, down to Plymouth, out to the westernmost of Wales. we get a wonderful warmth off those Brits. they drink like skilled fish. after the UK, back up north, hopefully finally to Canada, which we've not hit up yet somehow in the last 350 shows we've played. then out West again, touch the Pacific, breathe some of that into us, we always need that, the West. into autumn, who knows - a new album out maybe? we are the skilled fish of our own destiny!
*belated thanks to those who brought the fact that These United States had played that Union Hall show to my attention after the fact. Alas.
Listen: "First Sight"
Watch: These United States go on a quest for tequila in Tijuana during SXSW HERE
See These United States Live:
18 Jun - Washington, D.C. @ Rock and Roll Hotel
20 Jun - London, UK @ The Vortex
21 Jun - Norwich, UK @ B2
22 Jun - Newcastle, UK @ Head of Steam
23 Jun - Nottingham, UK @ Bodega Social Club
24 Jun - Cardiff, UK @ UWIC (Tommy’s Bar)
25 Jun - Bristol, UK @ The Louisiana
26 Jun - Bath, UK @ The Porter (Moles Club)
27 Jun - Glastonbury, UK @ GLASTONBURY Festival (Croissant Neuf Stage)
28 Jun - Glastonbury, UK @ GLASTONBURY Festival (Bandstand Stage)
29 Jun - Swindon, UK @ The Vic
01 Jul - Manchester, UK @ The Ruby Lounge
02 Jul - Glasgow, UK @ Oran Mor
03 Jul - Edinburgh, UK @ Cabaret Voltaire
04 Jul - Oxford, UK @ The Cellar
05 Jul - London UK @ The Troubador
Visit These United States on MySpace.
In the recent past, the following bands have been featured as EAR FARM's Band of the Week:
Plants and Animals
All the Saints
I'm From Barcelona
Tapes 'n Tapes
See the entire list of bands featured as EAR FARM's Band of the Week HERE.
28 May 2008
Band: These United States