Los Angeles-based alt-rock band Young Jesus has been through many iterations; it started as a high school band in the suburbs of Chicago, did a Red Bull-sponsored tour, went acoustic for an album, and then transformed into its current formation. A band of far-out sounds, 10-minute-plus songs that could be described as soundscapes, and live shows full of improvisation, Young Jesus resonates as both expansive and personal.
Young Jesus now features Marcel Borbon on bass, Kern Haug on drums, Eric Shevrin on keys, and John Rossiter as guitarist and lead singer. In this iteration, the band seems to have found its sweet spot. Their newly released record, Self-Titled, is the first album from this lineup, for which they are currently on tour. I sat down with Rossiter to discuss his literary influences, how the band ended up here, and how improvisation came to be such a key part of the band’s identity.
SAM JAFFE GOLDSTEIN: What is this iteration of Young Jesus about? Where do you think you are going next?
JOHN ROSSITER: Young Jesus has taken a bunch of different forms. It started off as just two people, high school friends, I wasn’t even in the band. Now it consists of people who believe in something as a group: the ethos to push each other to express things that are not common — like ideas of love and trust within friendships — through being extremely vulnerable and making mistakes.Hopefully those mistakes become framed as an important and necessary part of process. This band is about working with them. It’s not about writing pop songs that are catchy, or hitting moments that are so fucking cool, or riffs that are insane. It’s about communication between four people. Hopefully it is the sound of four very good friends who want to let other people into that space.
It took time, patience, and trust between us to get to where we are now. We played a bunch of shows where we wanted to improvise the whole time but had no idea what we were doing. So it was just really loud and just garbage noise. We came to learn a lot about each other, and be comfortable in the spaces that are both really overwhelming and really quiet, thoughtful, and contemplative.
This album feels both very serious and very playful. How did that dynamic play out?
I spent a lot of time of operating within the tradition of Chicago emo music, which is typically very serious and Midwestern. The most important things to talk about are how much you hate yourself, and how often you’re upset with your girlfriend for cheating on you. I tacitly accepted this as a mode of songwriting. With this record I realized that I had no sense of humor in my musical practice. But I like funny things, funny things are sick. My life is not that serious. I was lead to believe that it was, and I started to live like this arbiter of seriousness and intensity.
This album is influenced a lot by ancient Chinese poetry —specifically Chan Buddhist and Daoist writings, which sees everything on an even playing field, as natural rhythms of living. So, sometimes I am very angry or anxious, and I don’t know how to sort my thoughts out. To view that as just another moment, and as a valid thing to express through music, can be very powerful. It can be a microcosm of what life feels like.
So, for example, there’s a lyric on this record: “There’s a theory I got cooking…”
There’s a theory I got cooking, about the way the body moves. Geography as introspection or section of the truth.
Is Young Jesus a practice of that theory?
It is beautiful, to me, to think of moments where you can feel contradictions, harmonies, and dissonances. I love the idea of thinking of things as a massive geography that is a varied and strange thing, which is open to moments of beauty and banality. For that song we were driving through Tennessee or something, and I was looking out the window and just thinking: “man this is a cliché ass moment here, in the van on tour, with a beautiful sunset!” Then I thought, “why am I questioning the beauty of it?” That’s why it says a section of the truth. You are constantly presented with sections of truth. There is no theory that’s going to get it all. I always want there to be a theory. I’m always searching for it, and about every two months I read something and think, “This is it! I figured it out.” Then that will just disappear.
This album feels very private, in a new way for you. Was it hard to write lyrics that might be difficult to share publicly?
This is the first record where I am saying “I,” where I talk directly about my family and my emotions. The older I have gotten the more I believe that sharing those things can allow you to open yourself up. I think it’s politically significant to be honest about our mistakes. Through writing music, I have gotten better with talking to my family members and friends about how imperfect I am. How sorry I am for certain moments, oversights, and neglect. Some of those moments might have been painful, some of them also made me who I am. In a way I am not as scared as I used to be. This album is not about judgement.
There is another line: “Hurt makes sense / I guess I’m old enough to start to know.” What have you learned?
The main thing that I am constantly learning is that I know nothing. But as far as knowing, I imagine in five years I’ll have a different perspective about what these things are. And in 10 years, fuck, who knows how long I’m going to live. Probably…70, that sounds okay. The things I know are that I have been very lucky growing up in a family that was privileged. That there is a certain responsibility to understand where that comfort comes from and to fight against it as a systemic thing. That’s a difficult thing that comes with making a lot of mistakes, admitting to a lot of things you haven’t known, or have been ignorant of. So, the things I know are that I know I will be wrong constantly and I need to always be learning from that.
What other works have influenced and inspired this album?
The material that started it was this book that Kern lent me, this Anthony Braxton tour diary. His theories on touring, playing, and writing music were inspiring and far out. It opened up worlds. At the same time, I was reading the poetry of Wang An-Shih, T’ao Ch’ien, T’ao Ch’ien, and Hsieh Ling-yun. These idyllic mountain poets put me in a certain mindset that I had not known of before. I come from a Christian tradition with a certain pathway of thinking. These poets operate in a bit of a different logic. I felt like I had read something that was speaking to me, in the same way of you listen to a song and then want to listen to it 50 times. Because it’s saying something you’ve missed your whole life.
Our record can be a final product, but the life of that record and those songs will be totally different live. To be in a live space can be really exciting., if you embrace that it’s a totally unique context for that night and it will never be the same. To see that as an opportunity rather than as a constraint is great. It frees up some of the anxiety that comes with writing and recording a record. Once you see it as one small component.
The titles of your songs are single words like “Green,” “Desert,” and “Feeling.” Why did you choose those titles?
The title of the record is just Self-Titled, but the implied title is all of the song titles read in sequence. Which lays out, maybe a shitty, but an attempt at simple poem. That does not give you a lot as an image building system or as an emotion building system. But if you sit there and contemplate it, there is hopefully a world that opens up within there. I found this with the ancient Chinese poets. I would read it and think, “Oh okay, I get that there’s dew on grass, and light shining at a particular angle.” Then I would read it again and think, “Woah!” I can’t even explain the feeling but everything opens up.
Tell me about the name Young Jesus.
I really like Young Jesus as a band name. It sounds really good to me. And it has so much meaning to me outside of christianity or anything. It has defined the second half of my life so far. It is a beautiful and layered thing. I have so many memories associated with it that are extremely sad, very joyful, boring, frustrating…everything. The name doesn’t even make sense to me anymore. It’s so loaded.
You are also a poet, but the lyrics are less emphasized than the music on this album. Why is that?
To me, writing poetry is a somewhat different practice than writing lyrics. When you write a poem it’s like grabbing lightning. You are feeling this thing so intensely that you have to write, and it’s deciding your life in that moment. You also have the tacit understanding that the more you write, the more you put words on top of words, you risk losing that moment and the chance to really express how you feel.
With writing songs it feels like you have a lot of space. The lyrics are just apart of this current band. The music is not necessarily there to highlight the lyrics. They are just another component piece, they are just as important as the bass, the drums, the synth, the keyboards, or the guitar lines. They all speak equally.
Tell me about the music video that you did for “Green.” How does the video express the band visually?
That was extremely fun. I realized that to make a music video you can just keep a camera in the same place and allow to people to express themselves however they want to express themselves. I wanted everyone to know what the band is like, because they are wonderful, strange, funny, sometimes disturbing, or disconcerting.
A lot of your songs feel like letters. Are they written to someone specifically? Do you write them as letters?
They were not devised as letters. I wanted to be able to speak to multiple people and things in each song. For example, the song “Eddy” is ostensibly about a phone call with my mom, among other things. It is a communication with her. It’s about realizing that she is also a person, not just my mom.
The last song is very much a letter to my sister, and about the struggles we were having in our relationship. — of being close, and trying to be okay with the different lives we had chosen, while also thanking her for basically shaping how I learn. That song is about trying to understand, and to thank her, and to tell her that I will also be there for her. She’s been such a monumental thing in my life, and her influence on me is incomprehensible.
I was also dealing with a certain level of heartbreak at the time, which seems to be every fucking Young Jesus record. It’s like, “Oh John’s going through a breakup.” some of the songs are written dealing with that and hopefully working those emotions into a normal full life. Not thinking that’s the end-all-be-all. Whereas other ones were like, “man I’m so depressed.” This is more like, “this is a symptom of other things in life not being dealt with; of not recognizing other relationships too, of not giving them the thought and love they deserve.”
You’re neither a jam band nor a jazz band — what does improvisation mean to you, as a rock band?
The mode that we operate in is free improvisation. None of us are trained jazz musicians, but we love jazz. These are thinkers that we often find the most appealing. To fit the idea of improvisation into a rock mode we are hopefully showing a way to deal with problems on a day-to-day basis. Unexpected things, strange things, comfortable things, and uncomfortable things happen to you all the time. How do you listen to all that and remain silent, or how do you respond? It’s not required that you respond, and that’s an important thing for you to remember. Hopefully our music opens it all up a bit.
So our shows are presenting how we think of the world and how we work through it. We hope that people can listen to us and find something for themselves that helps, comforts, or even challenges them to learn something new. There’s a political imperative to making art that if you want a certain world to live in, you should create the sounds and images you want to be surrounded by in that world.
Header image from music video for “Green,” directed by Jordan Epstein.