These United States: A Thinking Man’s Band

By Team JamBase Apr 15, 2008 7:00 pm PDT

By: Tim Dwenger

Jesse Elliot by Shervin Lainez
“These United States” are three words full of pomp and circumstance, three words that when linked together conjure up feelings of patriotism and visions of red, white and blue, no matter what your political leanings may be. Soon, these three words will also conjure up feelings of longing and passion, not for a cause or a candidate but for an unmistakable and unique brand of music; the music of D.C.-based These United States.

Jesse Elliot, the mastermind behind the elegant, eclectic blend of psych-folk and alt-country that is These United States, dabbled in several non-musical arenas before settling on music as his life’s work.

“About two years ago I kinda ran out of other options,” Elliot said in a recent interview from his home in our nation’s capitol. “I got disenchanted with politics, journalism and international law and this other stuff that I had been thinking about doing with my life. I was like, ‘I guess there’s always music. I could try that.’ Writing songs at the end of the day had always been some kind of solace for me but it was [also] kinda my last resort.”

All of that end-of-day writing had produced a large collection of songs in various states of completion. “I was like ‘maybe I should do something with these.’ However, I didn’t actually know anything about the music business and my performing experience had been limited to performing for my dog and cat on my nylon string guitar when I was younger,” says Elliott. “Then, like everyone, I had a bad high school band with a really bad name. It was called Dr. Niceguy.”

Since the days of Dr. Niceguy, Elliot has gotten serious about music, learned as much as he could and toured “all over god’s green earth.” Apparently, all of that hard work has paid off as Elliot recently signed a contract with Boulder, CO-based United Interests. The team, as they like to call it at United Interests, will be handling management duties as well as acting as the band’s record label. It is a fledgling company with ties to What Are Records?, a Boulder company that has been going strong for 17 years since starting out with their very first band, The Samples, in 1991.

Jesse Elliot
United Interests’ philosophy is a simple one. They aim to sign a very limited number of bands that they are passionate about and then work closely with the band to develop them in major markets across the country while ensuring the artist is taken care of financially, if at all possible. This philosophy is an innovative one and that seems to appeal to guys like Elliot who are keenly aware of the changing paradigms within the music industry today.

“We encourage our artists to release albums as frequently as they can, as often as twice a year. Every nine months works as well, but we start grumbling a little bit if it is more than a year,” says Kyle Wofford of United Interests. “Our core philosophy is centered on the idea that if you have artists that you believe in and they have a high enough output of material then why not release a record every six or nine months? They’ll get another round of national press and radio and everything else that surrounds a record release to compliment all of the nonstop touring in between. It makes sense to us.”

Early in March, about the time that his debut album was released, Elliot rounded up some good friends and embarked on his first stint of touring with United Interests. The tour was a massive six-week marathon of shows in nationwide markets including several he had never visited as a musician. It was an enormous undertaking that certainly fits the grandeur of his band’s name.

To keep things interesting Elliot booked a different local band to join These United States at each of the shows. “We are actually going to play with a different band, and as a different band, in every city, after just an afternoon of practice,” said Elliot, speaking just days before the tour began. “For the benefit of the audience, if for no one else, my drummer Robby [Catholic] and multi-instrumentalist Tom [Hnatow] will be joining me for the tour to keep the wheels on. That way the members of the other band can focus on adding to the music rather than holding the song together.”

Continue reading for more on These United States…

I got disenchanted with politics, journalism and international law and this other stuff that I had been thinking about doing with my life. I was like, ‘I guess there’s always music. I could try that.’ Writing songs at the end of the day had always been some kind of solace for me but it was [also] kinda my last resort.

Jesse Elliot

Photo of These United States by Shervin Lainez

This format has been working extremely well and the added musicians have been rounding out the songs in a different way every night. This is refreshing to Elliot, who has been working with many of these songs for the past several years on stage. With over 300 performances on two continents under his belt before the release of his first record, he had time to effectively translate the beauty of the album to the stage. In this translation many of the songs morphed from lushly produced tracks dotted with electronic wizardry to live songs that owe a significant debt to bands like Traffic, Buffalo Springfield and The Band. In their loose, laidback style, the ring of Hnatow’s pedal steel coupled with Elliot’s warm, heartfelt vocals and Catholic’s rollicking backbeat could transport your mind back to the ’70s, while Elliot’s sharp, intelligent lyrics incorporate a fresh and interesting perspective on religion, the corporate rat race and, of course, love.

These United States by Shervin Lainez
In an effort to chronicle the improbable events that take place during six weeks on the road, Elliot invited writer Miguel Soria along for the ride. Also known as Monadnoc, Soria was asked to join the tour and write about the day-to-day grind of the road. Soria accepted the project and has chosen to write his second novel, thechicagoisland, at the pace of 1,000 words a day. “I write about an evening about three days after it happens,” Soria says. “That allows time for things to marinate and develop, and also for me to forget things.” Though names have been changed to protect the innocent, or not so innocent, the raw first draft of these writings, can be found here.

In addition to being a writer, Soria is also a musician and performer, and is also touring to support his recent release, Dog Mason, a spoken word album culled from a 30,000 word novel Soria wrote in 10 days. “It’s kind of a gravely voiced, Tom Waits, acoustic guitar thing,” he says. From time to time, Soria takes the stage and performs pieces from the album, but largely his role in this traveling collective of artists is to write.

Though there are no definite plans for a release of the novel, Elliot’s dream of releasing his first These United States album has finally come to fruition. Clocking in at just over 35 minutes, A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden may have a long, wordy title but the directness and simple beauty of the music more than makes up for it. The record is a layered affair that has just the right amount of pop hook to sell the listener immediately on songs like “First Sight,” “Kings and Aces” and “Business.” After repeated listens it becomes clear that there are also several songs that slowly creep their way into your subconscious. The progressively building arrangement of “So High So Low So Wide So Long” and the intricate lyrics of “Slow Crows Over” are two prime examples. “So High” begins with a simple, dampened piano chord and bassline and methodically builds to a crescendo of piano, drums, guitar and Elliot’s emotional voice. “Slow Crows Over” plays with fascinating lyrical elements like “He paints it all in yellow like a fire full of smolder.” Simply put, it’s a wonderful ride and the excellent production only enhances the subtle elements of the song’s structures.

Tom Hnatow & Jesse Elliot by Shervin Lainez
Despite the brevity of These United States’ debut record, in keeping with the core philosophies of United Interests, These United States has booked studio time in Kentucky in May. If all goes well a full album of new material may hit shelves before the end of the year. “There are about 30 different songs that we rotate between live. I am an antsy, impatient guy, and I want to get as much of this material as I can out there as soon as possible. So, we’ll see what makes the cut, but there are at least several dozen songs that we are considering at this point,” says Elliot.

Between now and then, Elliot and his band will be busy writing, practicing and touring, both domestically and abroad. With the summer festival season nearly upon us the band is currently in the process of booking several shows in the U.K. to coincide with a performance at the legendary Glastonbury Festival. The invitation came only weeks after the release of A Picture of the Three of Us and will introduce the band’s Americana sound to countless music fans from around the globe.

It is a remarkable and daunting ride that Elliot has embarked on but he seems to be moving forward with purpose and his charisma and music are attracting the right kinds of people. These United States are working hard to live up to the grandeur of their name, and Elliot has his stone rolling downhill and gathering speed. It remains to be seen where the journey will take this band but it will be interesting to watch as it unfolds.

These United States “So High”

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