Four years is a long time when you're in a band. A lot can change, both within the framework of the band itself and the fabric of an ever-fickle, capricious music industry. But for Richmond, Virginia band J. Roddy Walston and the Business, more changed than they could ever have anticipated. Formed in 2002, the four-piece—Walston on vocals, piano and guitar, Billy Gordon on lead guitar and vocals, Logan Davis on bass and vocals, and Steve Colmus behind the drum kit—was more than a decade into their career when they released third album Essential Tremors in 2013, and if not stuck in their ways, then certainly comfortable with them. But between then and the making of new record, Destroyers of the Soft Life, that comfortable constancy began to crumble, partly by choice and partly because life just has a habit of making that happen. Spurred on by a creative restlessness induced by being on the road in support of Essential Tremors, the only way for them to move forward was to start everything from scratch. As Walston explains, there was a good amount of soul-searching to be done, which comes through on the record.
Noisey: It's been four years since your last album, Essential Tremors, came out. What's changed in that time? You built your own studio, for a start, right?
J. Roddy Walston: Well, basically we went out and toured that album, and about a year into it, at the point when you're normally winding down, that was when things started to wind up for us. So I think we all had the feeling we were going to be close to done touring it and the touring started all over again. Which was great. So we ended up doing about two and a half years of touring on that record. We got home and we were all really burned out. And the way we tour, there's really not a lot of time to write or be creative on the road. So we didn't really have anything in the tanks and we weren't really ready to dig into writing. So instead of trying to write when none of us were ready to write, we had the idea to make some cool project, and the first step of that was finding this old warehouse and turning it into our studio.
So we searched around Richmond for quite a while and finally found a place that, once we'd got into it, we discovered it had been a grenade factory. So we started pulling this place apart and doing construction and wiring and all sorts of stuff that was way above our pay grade but that we were dumb enough to try. So we built ourselves a studio/home base where the only limits were the time spent and the blood spilled. And the answer was a lot of both! And then we actually had to write the record. And in the middle of building the studio, I'd also had a kid, so my whole process also changed by introducing a really hard schedule. I'd wake up early to get the kid up and then stay 'til seven or eight every night. It was like going to work every day, whereas before I'd just watch TV. But it was nice. It was very focused, and having the studio to record and produce and do the whole thing and then have time to say, "No, this is wrong," and strip it back down to nothing and start over. I did that for about 20 songs and boiled it down to ten.
It must have been a relief to get out of that touring cycle after so long and expend your energy on brand new things, baby included.
Yeah. It's tough, particularly because of our shows and the way we try to be. We get onstage and we do what we do and you're putting yourself out there every night and that can get draining. And you get lost in this weird cycle of: "This is the sixth time I've eaten at Subway in the last four days." That's pretty soul-sucking. It's easy to get caught in those patterns so it was great to do something exciting and fresh. It was great.
With that in mind, what does this album mean to you? What does it represent?
Well, we went into the studio with the idea that we're a band that has been around for a while and which has history. I don't know if I'd say that everyone had certain expectations for the kind of record we were supposed to make, but if there was that at all, it was completely disregarded. I feel like we completely busted open the gates. We have fans that have been with us for a while and I'd hope they'd expect us to evolve and not just want Essential Tremors Part II. I'd want there to be something different each time and I didn't want to put ourselves in a box. I wanted to bust the box wide open. So I feel we just tried to ignore our other records. Obviously some elements are still there, but I feel like we really hit our stride trying to do something new and different.
"I feel like we completely busted open the gates. We have fans that have been with us for a while and I'd hope they'd expect us to evolve and not just want Essential Tremors Part II. I'd want there to be something different each time and I didn't want to put ourselves in a box."
There's a great juxtaposition between the fragility of, say, "The Heart Is Free" or "I Called You" and the more raucous songs, which is what people always focus on when talking about your live sets.
Yeah, I think lyrically this record is a little less diffused. It's more concerned with allowing people in, whereas a lot of the times I write it's more like, "I'm going to share this with people but put a cap on it." I was feeling more exposed and so then I think the delivery starts to reflect that. I think it's more direct, so that hopefully people can't avoid hearing what I'm saying. I've always written songs like that, but on this record there's a lot of quiet moments that just kept making the cut. I think we all felt ready to expose this other side of the band, that we're not just these long haired guys who come out and are like buddies onstage who play loud music.
How did becoming a father affect you, as a person or as a songwriter?
Being a parent definitely changes everything. It stops being about this selfish survival thing because you've got this other thing that's knocked you out of that position. It changes your perspective so you're not as stressed out about things you'd normally be stressed out about because there are other things to care about, but while I'm a completely different person as a result, I'm also still exactly the same person. It's strange. But I don't know how much it affected writing songs, because I always just happen to be writing songs when I'm writing them, so I'm not really aware what difference it actually made! But I know that it's made me want to be a better person.
Destroyers of the Soft Life is out September 29 on ATO Records. Pre-order it here.