With the release of Essential Tremors on ATO Records in September, J. Roddy Walston and the Business are finally living up to their name: They’re actually something like a profitable business. Despite their long hair and dark sunglasses, they’re not rich rock stars yet, but at least they don’t have to take too many side jobs or crash with their parents when they come back home from their brutal touring schedule.
“We always kind of broke even as a, I guess, business,” says Walston, the band’s hirsute singer and piano player. “Which means we paid for the gas and didn’t eat except what people were throwing our way or at McDonald’s—something awful and terrible for you—once a day and no hotels.”
Having spent an average of 120 days on the road for each of the last six years, that’s a lot of McDonald’s. But they knew that’s what they were getting into from the get-go. It was part of the DNA they picked up from the Oranges Band, friends who were big on the Baltimore scene in the early aughts: “Get on the bus and shut up. You’re not a real band if you don’t tour.”
Walston says the image of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle doesn’t often fit the reality. “It’s tough when you have friends and they’re like, ‘I like your band. I just finished law school and bought an island.’ And you’re like, ‘Cool. I’m picking up some construction work,’” he says. “I go on tour and come home and stay with my mom and dad or have my girlfriend pay my rent. It’s way less glamorous when it’s not Guns N’ Roses having a stripper girlfriend paying the rent. It’s like, ‘Sorry, substitute teacher, can you cover our bills again? I’m in a band.’ It’s pretty embarrassing, really.”
“It’s been eight years for me in this band,” Billy Gordon, the band’s guitar player, adds. “It’s only been about two years since we were able to pay ourselves a salary.”
Walston is quick to cut off the complaining—after all, they’re one of the “lucky ones.” “We are living the dream to whatever extent,” he says. “We’ve paid bills with money we made from music.”
Spending life on the road presented the band with a number of practical problems—Walston’s wife is an opera singer, and they often have difficulty aligning their schedules; the original bass player, Zach Westphal, quit the band when he had kids, so as not to spend so much time away from home—but it also presented them with an artistic challenge.
“I didn’t want to write that record that’s like, ‘I’m on the road,’” Walston says. “Free drinks, boo-hoo. Nobody can relate to it. An entire record, ‘I’m on the bus/ I’m on the move/ I’m coming home.’ I don’t care about it. On this record, I think we were writing for the first time without saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to play a show tomorrow night, this needs to be so immediate and everything’s got to be so hard and crazy because we’ll be playing for 30 people who don’t know who we are.’ For this record, we’ll be playing for 100 or 200 people who do know who we are. I was just kind of like, ‘Ehh, I’ll write whatever I want.’ Whereas the only agenda before was we don’t want to flop onstage.”
So for the first time in nearly a decade of hard-living and hard-traveling, J. Roddy Walston and the Business took a year off the road to write and record at home.
Though where exactly home is has gotten more complicated. Walston—who moved to Baltimore from Cleveland, Tenn., when his then-girlfriend started Peabody in 2004—has moved with her to Richmond, Va., where her parents live. “Right after that guy was climbing into women’s windows and raping them in Mount Vernon, I was on the road all the time and her parents said they had this little shed behind their house in Richmond and it was free,” Walston says. “We could afford that.”
The Business’ drummer, Steve Colmus, followed a woman to Brooklyn. “We’re able to make a living, except for him,” Gordon says, pointing at Colmus, “because he lives in New York and it costs too much money, so he’s got to substitute-teach. In Baltimore, it’s fine, but up there it’s a different scene. I love this city. I’ll never leave.” Actually, Gordon is the only member of the Business still living in town, and it’s likely he’ll maintain that connection for a while: He just bought a house in Hampden.
This meant that even though they were supposed to be taking time off from the road, the Business spent a lot of time traveling to and from their new rehearsal space in Richmond, where Logan Davis, the band’s new bass player, also lives. In order for us to meet for a conversation at Patterson Bowling Center, Walston and Davis drove up from Richmond and Comus came down from New York.
For a band with such an intense live presence, it might be surprising that the distance hasn’t proven such a hurdle. “Probably most people wouldn’t believe it, but Billy and I were both into making electronic music when we were younger,” Walston confesses. “So it’s like electronic music in the way that a lot of the sequences stack parts, not just elements. Being able to visualize and build things up and break them down. And also the idea that songs are malleable. Just because I wrote it and it’s eight minutes doesn’t mean I can’t cut it all up and put it back together.”
More than ever before, you can hear that early influence on some of the tracks on Essential Tremors. “Black Light” starts with a sludgy, rolling guitar riff that Gordon sent Walston, who then sent back a simple melody. As they worked out the song, which Walston sings in falsetto, with sexualized grunts, it morphed into something part-New York Dolls and part-Krautrock (a co-worker walked by my office and asked if I was listening to Can).
But “Black Light” was a late addition to what was already a super-diverse album. “Sweat Shock” is a Zeppelin-esque rocker powered by Gordon’s rough riffs—his solo is blistering—a vaguely Native American chant, and a stadium-worthy chorus. The first single, “Heavy Bells,” is classic J. Roddy and the Business, starting out with a kind of funky, mellow Southern slow-groove that explodes into a flurry of furious rocking that drops back into the verse with a couple falsetto swoops that make the most of Walston’s vocal powers. The song lacks his signature, stridently percussive piano-playing that is half-Jerry Lee Lewis and half-Professor Longhair, but the second song, “Marigold,” a Southern-tinged rocker, starts out with some of his coolest riffs yet.
“On the last record [J. Roddy Walston and the Business], I started thinking of the piano like an acoustic guitar,” Walston says. “On this one and live on older stuff, I started to think, This really is a percussion instrument, where sometimes it’s like, Yeah, if it works, I’m going to play the same note the whole time.”
And it does work. Building on 2010’s self-titled record, Essential Tremors both captures the energy of their live gigs and shows enough diversity that the listener doesn’t start to tune out, losing the distinction between too many up-tempo rockers.
And lyrically, it is surprisingly intense. “Marigold,” for instance, is, according to Walston, “about MICA students moving to Baltimore and being like, ‘Oh, how cool, there’s poor people,’ and then splitting the moment it gets dangerous.”
“Same Days,” which seems like a cross between the Talking Heads’ “Heaven” and a workaday Dire Straits song, is probably the poppiest song on the album—and is actually about institutional child abuse.
Walston says that the band had a couple dozen songs written by the time they signed with ATO records last March. The label, founded by Dave Matthews, seems like a perfect fit for the Business, featuring heavy hitters such as the Drive-By Truckers, My Morning Jacket, and the Alabama Shakes, who share sonic territory with J. Roddy Walston and the Business and should help the band grow its fan base. And the label gave them complete artistic freedom and sent them to Valdosta, Ga., to work with Matt Wignall and Mark Neill at Soil of the South Studios, the brand-new but decidedly old school studio Neill, who produced the Black Keys and Old 97’s, built.
“You walk in and it’s this different-sounding room. Almost like Sun or Stax,” Walston says. “It’s not this modern, cavernous studio that you’re impressed by its gymnasium size.”
Band members sip Bohs now as they recall the recording process, though everyone in the band quit drinking for the duration of the recording.
“This record is all about the studio because such a huge part of the recording process was the way that things were performed,” Gordon says. “There’s two mics on the drums. Bass and drums are recorded live—we’re all playing live together but we would overdub like the guitar and stuff. It had to be loud enough for everyone to hear what was going on in the space. It was super-limited on everything. Superminimalist. No headphones or anything like that. Even doing vocals was just a playback speaker.”
“It’s like they dropped you in the middle of 1963,” Colmus says. “It’s rad you get all the benefits. [Neill] knows how to use all that analogue gear, but there are so many limitations that we weren’t used to. And we didn’t find that out until the day we got there.”
“Weird place to spend two weeks,” Gordon adds.
But, Walston notes, there was also something the band was used to: “We were staying at the commuter/construction-worker motel.”
In the process, they cut the 24 songs they had written roughly in half. “I think the record would have been broad anyways,” Walston says, but losing half the songs made for some greater thematic and sonic leaps. “Which I think is kind of cool. It gives the listener the chance to kind of guess how do they get from here to there,” he says.
Essential Tremors is a very personal record for Walston. It shares its title with a neurological condition he has suffered from since childhood and which is in some ways similar to Parkinson’s but is limited only to the tremors.
“That’s what the name means—the tremors aren’t a symptom of the thing, they are the thing itself,” he says. “It makes my hands shake, but to me, it has a lot of layers to it. I’ve ignored it a lot of my life, but recently it hit me that I was thinking about the name of the condition—something about the actual name sounded very poetic and cool, like some kind of Guided by Voices words slammed together. But I’m telling some strange stories on this record and it is important to put it out there that I have this instead of hiding it. It’s like owning your blemishes because they make you unique.”
In fact, Walston says the trembling of his his hands shake has been referenced on each of the band’s albums—as have opera lyrics he’s cribbed from his wife and references to growing up in the Pentecostal church, all of which play a more obvious role in this record. “The songs I’m stoked about aren’t particularly serious, aren’t particularly cerebral, they’re like a whole person,” Walston says. “You’re not just an animal or just a spirit or whatever. That might have come out of live shows. We had people drinking and going crazy, and I grew up in a Pentecostal church and it was like, this is like church to me.”
Though he had been seriously into religion when he was young, Walston says that when he first moved to Baltimore, he was distancing himself from his Pentacostal upbringing. “But that’s part of what this record is, is coming to terms with it,” Walston says. “It’s like not denying the animal side, but not denying the other side.”
The result of trying to embody all of these contradictions is a seriously maximalist album. “The stories are the weirdest, the songs are the catchiest,” says Roddy. “The hard ones are the hardest we’ve ever done, where the soft ones are the softest.”
And what if, as seems likely, J.Roddy and the boys make it big, something along the lines of the Alabama Shakes—whose first record, released on ATO in 2012, propelled them almost immediately to stardom?
“I honestly can’t imagine that,” Gordon says. “Because I don’t live in that realm. We did this tour with that band the Lumineers. They were playing 100- to 200-capacity venues the year before that record exploded, and now they’re playing for 10,000. They have giant freaking tractor-trailers going on tour with them, two tour buses. I mean, that’s just such a different world that I can’t imagine being there. To jump to that immediately, I just can’t comprehend.”
“I’m pretty stoked about where we are,” Walston adds. “I don’t want to go backwards, because I don’t know if we could stay together. But if we go forwards and, say, became seriously successful, I think money just kind of makes people lose touch.” Walston pauses for a sip of Boh as Colmus bowls a spare and the duckpins clamor around us, then adds, “But I have enough people in my life that wouldn’t let me get away with that.”
J. Roddy Walston and the Business play Rams Head Live on Sept. 20.