QRO caught up with These United States frontman Jesse Elliott. While on tour with Trampled by Turtles (QRO photos from tour), Elliott (and more) talked to QRO about the tour, the touring ramble in general for the often-on-the-road band & man of no fixed address, June release of These United States, collaborating on recording, covers, and even interviews, shifts at McDonald’s, devious labels, and much more…
QRO: How’s this tour with Trampled by Turtles going?
Jesse Elliott: It’s been amazing; it’s been really good so far.
QRO: This is your third tour together?
JE: This is only our fifth show that we’ve played together, with this line-up.
QRO: Oh no, I mean this your third tour with Trampled?
JE: Yeah, we’ve toured with them three times.
QRO: But this is your fifth show with this line-up?
JE: Yeah, with the five of us.
QRO: Your drummer recently left?
JE: We had a drummer, Robbie Cosenza, for a few years. Awesome dude, and he has a project of his own called ‘Fang Robot’ – he just finished an album for that project; he’s putting that out later this year. So we wanted to give him time to do his thing properly.
So Aaron [Latos] is playing this thing, on drums.
QRO: So where did you find Aaron?
JE: Right here in New York City. Our good friend Ray Rizzo [who was backstage at the time], he introduced me to Aaron.
QRO: How do opening larger places such as Webster Hall (QRO venue review) compare with headlining in smaller places?
JE: Well they both have their charms. [Webster Hall] sounds fuckin’ awesome [note: the sound guy was in the same room at the time...], and that’s always exciting. In smaller places where we headline, more of the people are there to see us, so that’s obviously exciting to have energy directed specifically at us, and not just be collecting random energy from all the folks.
It all has its advantages and disadvantages, but I think I prefer this right now. We’ve done more of headlining smaller places, and less of opening big shows. This feels pretty good to me right now.
QRO: How do you broach the, ‘Can you come up and play with us?’, let alone team up for a cover?
JE: I guess it comes pretty naturally, after you’ve spent enough time with people. The outside face of this, I think, to people, to the rest of the world, is different from we all –
But we still all sympathize with each other.
So when we’re hanging out, when we both get off work, when we’re hanging out and doing what we really love, just sittin’ around a room, playin’ a song, they’ll be like, "That’s a cool song." "Why don’t you come sing a verse with us?" It happens pretty naturally when you spend that much time with people.
QRO: What about getting them to play on one of your songs?
JE: [Trampled by Turtles'] Eric [Berry] asked us to play, "I really like that song. I’ve been working up a counterpoint to what Justin plays." That was really cool.
"Speed of Light" was one that we’ve always had people play on, so we just thought, ‘Eric’s up there already, who else could we bring out? Let’s ask Ryan [Young], he’s a super-nice guy.’ He’s like, "Fuck yeah, that’s great!"
QRO: What was the cover?
JE: That’s called "Steve’s Last Ramble" by Steve Earle. It’s a good song about givin’ up on music.
QRO: [laughs] Steve Earle has probably given up and picked it up more times…
JE: That’s why we love him…
As our peddle steel player, Tom Hnatow, puts it, ‘That’s a good false narrator song.’ You can’t really rely… he’s saying this thing, but he’s not acting it out. There’s a good discrepancy. "I’m thinkin’ about givin’ up this rambling around…"
QRO: It’s hard to do the false narrator…
JE: Yeah, especially on that song, it’s very simple on its face, but it’s actually brilliant.
QRO: And some songs that have the false narrator, it’s obviously a false narrator, it’s obvious this is not what he means, but for that kind of thing…
JE: Like every song Dylan ever wrote. Steve Earle has a nice right down the middle, somewhere between earnest and wily.
These United States & Trampled by Turtles covering Steve Earle’s "Steve’s Last Ramble" at Webster Hall in New York, NY on April 17th, 2012:
QRO: Is this tour your first time playing material from the self-titled record live in front of a crowd?
JE: Uh-huh, yeah, it is.
QRO: How much new material do you feel comfortable playing, considering that the crowd hasn’t heard it before, with These United States not being out until June?
JE: I think the hardest thing to remember is that when you’re an opening act, everything is new material. The hardest thing is to be honest to yourself, ‘Oh, we played this song so much!’ Who gives a fuck? These people never heard, they’ve never come out to see us before. Everything is new.
I think the hardest thing is being honest with yourself about what is the most fun to play, without worrying, ‘Is this new? Is this old?…’
QRO: Is it easier, almost, that it’s an opening for your first time playing this material that isn’t out yet, as opposed to doing a headlining tour at this same time?
JE: Oh, yeah, definitely, definitely. Yeah, it actually does make it a lot easier. Takes a little of the pressure off trying to out-think what people want to hear or don’t want to hear.
‘Cause you can’t do that anyway. So it’s nice to not even pretend like you can do it.
QRO: With so many albums, so much material, how do you make a set list?
JE: Uh… I don’t know?… That’s a good question.
Actually, this is sort of a new case study for us, because the five of us have only played so much before, so we knew going into it, ‘Look, we can’t learn fifty-seven songs.’ This fifth album will put us at like… I guess, if you count covers and shit, then it’s like seventy that we’ve played at some point.
We can’t learn all those – what are our favorites? And those of us who’ve been around the longest say, ‘This is a favorite…’ ‘Yeah, but…’ It’s just like an argument around a dinner table. ‘Yeah, I know that’s awesome, but fuck, man, we’ve overdone that.’ Or it just doesn’t have the same, it rings a little bit hollow, or let’s just give it a break – it’s awesome, but we’re relying on it too much.
So it’s just like a slow, painful evolution of the conversation. You eventually get to a point where it’s like, ‘Alright, well, these are the fifteen songs that you can’t argue with.’
QRO: So you winnow it down to the songs that you have to practice with the new line-up, and from that, you make a set list every night?
JE: Yeah, basically. So we end up with like twenty songs from the sixty or seventy we all know how to play together. Of those twenty, every night we just say, ‘Okay, let’s do these ten.’
QRO: Are there any new songs that you particularly like playing?
JE: I really like the opening song we played, "Miss Underground". It just feels fun, and easy, and natural.
Set list at Webster Hall, 4/17/12
QRO: Are there any older songs that you particularly like playing?
JE: I think whenever we can reinvent a song, it’s fun for us. "The Business", we’ve done with on this tour. That was one that we played a lot, got very tired of, scrapped for a while, and then, as we were going back for this tour and thinking like, ‘What songs do we wanna work up?’ ‘That’s actually a fun song, but we’ve gotta go back and redo the arrangement in different parts, and da-da-da…’
QRO: Are there any songs that are always on the set list, no matter what?
JE: There are songs that we always like to play.
There’s no ‘radio hits’…
QRO: There’s no "Jesse’s Girl", there’s no "Taking Care of Business"…
JE: Yeah, right. I really like a band like Wilco (QRO live review) that has some moderate level hits.
QRO: That was literally the next band I was thinking of…
JE: They’re a band that I really like, because there’s a few that you kinda sorta expect of ‘em, but you’re not like that disappointed if they don’t play ‘em. That’s not the reason you go to the show. I hope we always have very moderate success, so we can just play whatever the fuck we want.
We do always like to play "I Want You To Keep Everything". It’s a fun… I don’t know what it is… maybe it’s just a better song than the other ones, so it’s always fun, no matter what. So it’s also a good one to have people join us on.
These United States playing "I Want You To Keep Everything" at Webster Hall in New York, NY on April 17th, 2012:
QRO: You were talking about reinventing songs, like "The Business" – is that also like someone joining you on song?
JE: Definitely. We were gonna try to do that tonight; we ran out of time during the day, because we had all these other engagements, but we we’re gonna try to have these two really good New York singers of the name of Kelli Scarr…
QRO: Oh, Nate Martinez of Thieving Irons is here – I saw her open for him (QRO photos)…
JE: I saw him play The Rock Shop (QRO photos of Thieving Irons at The Rock Shop), and then he introduced me to Kelli night.
Elliot invites Thieving Irons’ Nate Martinez to join him in the interview
JE: So Dawn & I played a show together very early on, I think it was just the two of us, solo. And then I went to see her at a place called The Spiderhouse in Austin – tiny little hipster coffee shop. She was totally amazing. It was four years ago, and I was like, ‘I gotta get her to sing on one of our songs…’
I finally asked her last album, for What Lasts, and she introduced me to her whole band. Her drummer is a guy named Ray Rizzo, to go back to before – he’s the guy… So Dawn is the mutual connection.
Nate Martinez: Yeah, Dawn has a beautiful voice. One of my best friends, Josh Kaufman, has been playing with her for about three or four years. And he plays with Thieving Irons, too. He plays bass, mostly.
He introduced me to Dawn some years ago, when he first started playing with her. That’s how I think I actually- No, we crossed paths with Pela (Martinez’s old band – QRO spotlight on), originally. In D.C.
JE: At D.C. 9, which is kinda like… a… is a good night…
NM: Well, it’s an interesting place. It’s in this heavy Somali population.
QRO: I’ve heard that, that D.C. has a big Somali and Ethiopian population.
JE: D.C. has the biggest Ethiopian population outside of Ethiopia.
D.C. 9 is right between 9:30 Club and The Black Cat, on U Street, which is a whole music corridor. It’s awesome.
QRO: How do you go about recruiting special guests in general? It seems like These United States has a lot of them.
JE: So you know how we were talking about how the collaborating stuff is just relationships…
QRO: Like McDonald’s…
JE: After a while, you work enough shifts with someone. ‘What do you do in your spare time?’ And you just sort of hang out, listen to the album together, playing tunes together. To me, it seems just like a natural outgrowth of just playing music.
Maybe it was more common back in the day? I feel like now everyone focuses on it as a kind of… I don’t know what I want to say… a ‘product’, or a ‘business’… It’s a little bit less of a ‘lifestyle’.
Um, that’s not really true – forget everything I just said. I don’t know what I’m talking about. I don’t know how to answer this question.
Why do you like collaborating with people? You collaborate with people.
NM: Yeah, totally…
JE: ‘Cause it’s fun. Why else would you choose this fuckin’ job? It’s not for the health insurance…
QRO: It’s more the getting other people to collaborate with you – can it be awkward, ‘Hello, guy who is more famous than me…’
JE: That’s the nice thing about people who have been playing around a while, like Trampled or dudes like that. We all realize that fame is a pretty fleeting instance; for better or worse, it comes and it goes.
NM: All that’s left is really your instrument and what you have to offer to music, doing it collectively.
JE: It’s always hard to tell when a collaboration started. ‘I don’t know? We were drinking…’ It usually starts with that. For better or for worse. It hopefully get somewhere better…
NM: [laughs] Hopefully there’s a studio nearby, some instruments, and then it evolves.
QRO: In addition to releasing records at a strong clip, you’re on the road a lot – where do you find all the time?
JE: Well, everybody’s got the same amount of time. It’s like how you parse it out, I guess.
I guess that’s a fancy way of saying I have no idea…
QRO: Where actually do you live?
JE: Well, I don’t have a physical mailing address. I use e-mail, which is ‘very sophisticated’ – you can move around with that.
I spend a good amount of time (in New York), because I like playing with people like Nate, and there’s a lot of fuckin’ great musicians here; it’s Brooklyn, it’s awesome.
I spend a lot of time in Toronto, because it’s a slightly cooler, slightly more humble version of Brooklyn. [to Martinez] All due respect…
I spend a little bit of time in Denver, ‘cause a love interest of mine is there.
QRO: Isn’t your label, United Interests, is there?
JE: Originally, I spent time in Boulder, because our record label based there, but they – because they’re devious; you know record labels are as devious as they can get – introduced me to a beautiful woman, who’s incredibly kind and lives in Denver. I spend time there all the time, those bastards! They knew they couldn’t get me out to Boulder, so they were like, ‘Denver’s a lot cooler, and it’s got this woman right here…’
QRO: How do you fight ‘tour burnout’?
JE: By continuing to tour. The only way out is through…
NM: [laughs] A little hair of the dog…
JE: That’s why I love "Steve’s Last Ramble" so much.
You have to find a way to become addicted to it, I think is the short answer.
QRO: What cities or venues have you particularly liked playing?
JE: We played The Metro in Chicago, and man – I went to that place when I was 13, 14 years old. Ride the train into the big city, seeing a rock show. I hadn’t been there since. Totally mind-blowing!
QRO: Do you still have the flag handkerchief in your back pocket?
JE: Do I always have it? I have one handkerchief – I change it every show. Bandana’s my sweat-catching device.
QRO: You get seriously sweaty…
JE: Thank you, thank you.
QRO: I’ve seen a lot of bands – I think it’s the hair, whatever…
JE: This nurse in Toronto was like, "You have hyperhidrosis, don’t know?" "I’ve never heard that before, but based on the roots of those words, yes, I do…"
QRO: What about an Abraham Lincoln hat?
JE: I come from the Land of Lincoln, so I like Abraham Lincoln.
Oh, you’re talking about "So Sweet To Be Back" – good reference, man! No, I have one that looks almost like that. It’s more of a Walt Whitman hat – tall and black, good brim.
QRO: You’d released two T.U.S. records in 2008, then ones in 2009 & 2010 – but none in 2011. Why could you no longer keep up that hectic pace?
JE: A real bummer of a year for us…
QRO: Did you just break down, ‘I can’t do it anymore…’?
JE: No, that’s when we first started enjoying ourselves. ‘We put out a few albums – it’s time to just hang out…’
That’s when I travelled a lot. My bandmates worked with a lot of other bands, they produced stuff, they toured with bands like the Minor Birds. It was actually a fun, relaxed year.
It was kind of a ‘vacation year’, because we knew that this was going to happen this year, and we wanted to give this as much time as it needed, and give everybody else their personal space.
QRO: Was it your first vacation since starting These United States?
JE: Yeah, since 2006 or whatever.
I mean, we still played like 120 shows that year.
You should ask Nate some Thieving Irons questions…
QRO: Well, this if for both of you – why is your record coming out in June?
NM: Why June? Well, my birthday’s June 8th, so I’m trying to get it as close to that as possible, so I have a reason to celebrate…
JE: [laughs] Otherwise, another miserable year on planet Earth!
NM: [laughs] I like the month of June. It felt right. Why did you guys pick June?
JE: Never done an album in that month before.
[These United States comes out June 12th; Thieving Irons' Behold, The Dreamer comes out June 5th]
These United States playing "Everything Touches Everything" at Mercury Lounge in New York, NY on November 20th, 2009: