A Chat with These United States

By: Dennis Cook

These United States is currently on tour and perform several shows this week in North Carolina before moving onto to Vermont and Washington, D.C. Check out their full tour schedule here.

These United States
”Never stop falling in love/ Awake and give yourself up to the hours!”

America 2012: Divisiveness is the norm, and far too many people frame every discussion in an “us versus them” manner with the majority accepting the idea that if someone wins somebody else must lose. We’ve stopped behaving as if we’re on the same team or that our shared goals and ideals are so severed, so distant from one another that compromise is no longer possible. It’s an ugly state of affairs, and one that cries out for forces that inch us back towards unity, fraternity and common good. Thankfully, one young band, These United States, rejects these corrosive tendencies and embraces the diversity and loveliness of this country, carving out pieces of the American tapestry and placing them in songs that speak eloquently and heart-touchingly about what it means to be alive in this time and place. While many barking tongues suggest such broad-minded, inclusive thinking is naïve, pansy stuff, TUS actually lives up to the ideals of great Americans who take their citizenship and what they do with their time here seriously, striving to entertain AND enlighten just a bit here and there as they’re able. TUS is a happy reminder that rock can be more than a distraction over a mug of suds or background buzz in our busy lives.

Their latest salvo, the eponymous These United States (released June 12 on United Artists), looks at maps and wonders where we’re going and how we will get there TOGETHER. It’s an rollicking example of folks pursuing happiness AND grabbing anyone’s hand that will take theirs to make sure as many as possible make the journey intact and smiling. Oh, it’s not all blues skies and good days – far from it since these cats are clear-eyed in assessing the situation – but that’s all the better. Fluff ain’t truth, and These United States is full of questions that steer one towards capital “T” truth, sometimes with a vibe somewhat reminiscent of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Creedence Clearwater Revival at their quietly rebellious, genuinely patriotic best. It’s the kind of set that makes one want to put on a stovepipe hat and jump into a bath with another American to begin working on that more perfect union in real time, a record that does the founders proud in its questioning of norms and gusto for brotherly/sisterly congress. It also happens to be a right catchy bit o’ rock ‘n’ roll – including guest turns from members of Deer Tick, Phosphorescent, Frontier Ruckus and more – that skips lithely in the footsteps of our ancestors – political, musical and otherwise – tumbling and twirling with equal measures of grace and heedless abandon – a motion infectious and possibly balming to our wounded collective psyche.

We sat down with TUS’ lead singer-songwriter Jesse Elliott to discuss the borders and constitution of this fine band and their latest offering.

New Album
JamBase: It’s a pretty ballsy thing to name your band These United States. Was there any hesitation going into this name? It’s a bit like calling yourself the United Nations.

Jesse Elliott: I guess the way I thought of it was more geographically. The map of the United States is something I’ve spent so much time staring at over the past 30 years of my life. There’s always something new to find. One thing I just noticed was this tiny floating corner or dotted “i” on Minnesota which is basically in Canada. It’s divided from the state by a lake or something. It’s a funny reminder of what a weird, strange, beautiful place this is with all its hidden nooks and crannies.

JamBase: There’s a preconception we inherit in the 21st century, which is that America has been thoroughly explored and covered from coast-to-coast. I think that’s bunk. One knows the neighborhood one grew up in, maybe the surrounding region, but there’s so much to this country for anyone to discover.

Jesse Elliott: Absolutely! It’s either that preconception or the one that says it’s not worth exploring at this point. The first one just comes from naïve ignorance but the other one drives me even crazier.

There’s increased regionalism at work, too. There are people in Mississippi or Tennessee or even California that may spend their whole lives in-state and never experience the diversity of this land. It just seems we’re putting up a lot of walls these days.

Vintage U.S. Map
There are people who spend their whole lives in New York City or San Francisco [laughs]. I don’t mean to pick on anyone, but it’s a weird thing. So, the naming of this band was a pretty natural thing. We have caught a lot of flak for it. Some people love it and some people hate it. At the time, I was thinking I wanted to give it a name that means something. It bums me out a little. On an artistic level, it can be good to have a name that doesn’t mean anything like Purple Hippopotamus. It is a moment you’re going to have that will never reappear. It’s your opportunity to make people think about something, even if it’s only two words long. The one thing that makes me really happy is all the different interpretations people tell us at shows, just on the name alone. I’ll take it. I guess it’s working [laughs].

You don’t shy away from the implicit meanings inside the name. You weave in bits and pieces of history and the social climate of the United States as springboards for what you do.

I think that’s right on. The working title for the [new] album for awhile was Anthropology With Heroes, which is my personal joke about the kind of stuff I’m always trying to write. Social Studies was my favorite subject in high school because it was so broad and covered so much. And I always loved anthropology as a subject but the funny thing is it’s supposed to be about groups of people and not about individuals, and I thought it would be cool to combine the two [perspectives]. That’s what this album was feeling like, though it became somewhat more geographic than people based in the end.

This is the advantage of a name like These United States and the approach you guys take, which is this is such a rich canvas with so many colors to play with, so many different ways to go and never exhaust the possibilities. I love the mixture of the sacred and profane in TUS, where you’ll put on a Lincoln hat but they do something naughty.

Mr. Lincoln
That’s a good catch! The reason we named the band These United States is not to say, “This is the definition of this thing is.” The point is to say, “This is where we’re wandering around.” We’re just tiny, little specks of dirt kicking around this big, broad thing around us. The name points to everything else but us, and the songs are just our little take on this big, strange canvas.

This is a really interesting time in history to be engaging with the idea of the United States. I don’t that we’ve ever seen a time more broken and tribal without there actually being a war going on. It seems some of what you’re trying to get at – lyrically, in your attitude as performers, etc. – is WHERE can we grab hands, WHERE can we engage with each other.

One of the things I love about the current state of arts and something approaching counter-culture – though I’m not sure it’s actually that – is how interested people are in each other and this country and this weird point in history. One of our greatest joys is getting to know and just getting to see what’s out there in this big, strange world as we crisscross this country. That’s kind of the classic role of people trying to make sense of the universe, be it troubadours, explorers or scientists. We’re all just folks trying to connect the dots. It’s a lot of fun because some of the dots may never be connectable, so you’re never gonna run out of dots to connect in this place.

You’ve hit on something with the idea of being physically present in different places, actually going and seeing the human faces. This is becoming a rare thing for Americans, who increasingly adopt the accepted scripts from their chosen TV shows, news outlets, etc., most of which are echo chambers that merely reaffirm what they already want to believe. It’s much harder to cling to preconceptions if you actually go to a place, sit down for a meal and listen to real people relate their experiences.

These United States by Jake Krolick
Yeah, and it’s much easier to fall in love with a hundred different thing everywhere in this country. That’s actually what the last song on this album [“Never Stop Falling”] is about; i.e. never running out of places to see and people to meet.

It’s powerful punctuation on this album to repeat the simple refrain, “Never stop falling in love.” You present that idea as a point of pride, a point of purpose. I dig how a word like “love” still has so much oomph after the thousands of songs written around it.

In some senses, it’s THE most important word we have. For better or worse and everything in between, it’s definitely one of the most powerful ever. I’ve actually avoided using it, especially in titles but even in what songs are about. So, “Never Stop Falling” was my answer to everyone who kept asking what I thought about love. If you’re going to keep asking, well, here it is [laughs]. This [musician] lifestyle often means you don’t have a choice about where you stay or go, and you don’t ever stop falling in love with things and people. “Never Stop Falling” is about accepting who you are and what you’re up to.

It also touches on the real nature of love, which is not often something we choose. There’s the illusion of choice but the things you really fall in love with tend to seize you…

These United States by Lindsay Giles McWilliams
…if it’s real and true. And that’s the tricky thing about seeing all these things all over the place all the time and meeting all these people – the barbecue place in Louisiana or the mountains in Colorado – where you’re constantly beat over the heart with all these amazing things. You just have to give up to it at some point and say, “I’m not going to try and limit my intake of this stuff.”

You have to give into it but with a knowledge that some of the idealized, archetypal stuff we learn about love is true but most true loves in your life will be a little painful and will ask stuff of you that you’re not ready to give or give up easily.

Right…that is definitely true [laughs]. I’m not going to elaborate on that one, I’ll just agree with you.

One of the charms of These United States is how you come across as more of a gang than a band. You share a philosophy and attitude that goes deeper than being musicians making their daily bread with song; an underlying bond, if you will.

These United States by Jake Krolick
You have to do that. There’s no other way you could survive what you’re doing, making as little money as you do, and having as little as security and comfort as you do. I had this early friend and mentor in some ways, Josh Reed, when I was just starting out solo at open mics in Washington, D.C. Josh had been down several of those roads already, played in a few pretty successful bands and toured all over the country. I had traveled all over but I hadn’t toured all over, which is a very different thing. He had this sort of Josh Reed Band of Brothers philosophy. He was the son of a South African diplomat, so he’d seen his fair share of warfare and strife and awful stuff around the globe, and he had this very platoon leader attitude of, “If you’re going into music, you’re going into war. You don’t give a shit about anybody except the troops immediately around you. Those are the only people you can care about, and the second you start caring about other stuff you’ll lose that most powerful, immediate thing.” I never agreed with that, and we argued about it all the time. I was more hippy-dippy and argued that everyone is equal and we can all be friends. I still hang onto about half of that, but as we’ve gone on and grown up a little in the music industry I’ve begun to see the wisdom of the Josh Reed School of Band Leadership. It just comes down to taking care of each other and making it happen.

We still connect with many, many people. One of the main purposes of music should be making people feel less alone in the universe. There’s a quote from The Tao of Willie that came to mind recently because we’re scheduled to open for Willie Nelson. There’s this really amazing passage that means more to me now than ever which reads, “If you play music you’re my friend.” He doesn’t care if he’s never met you before, if you’ve never stood eye-to-eye, if you’re different in this way or that way. The central idea is if you’re doing this thing that’s so sacred and beloved then you’re part of his community. The way he puts it is so stark and beautiful and simple – which is the way he puts most things. For me, I’d broaden that to include anybody engaged in some sort of positive creative endeavor – and that’s not positive in it having to be all shits and giggles.

It doesn’t all have to be sunshine and lollipops. That’s not the most nutrition shit anyway.

I mean positive in the sense of creating instead of just consuming. This art community I just hung out with in Denver, with writers and painters, is so cool, and it reminds me that if you create you’re my friend. I won’t say who is NOT my friend. That’s not what I like to focus on in anything we do.

These United States Tour Dates :: These United States News

JamBase | Constitutionally Hearty
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