By Nick Brothers
I’ll be upfront about this. I really enjoy J Roddy Walston’s music. I think it kicks ass. Seeing them at Wakarusa was my first time, and it was a great time. I went to both sets to help prepare me for my interview with them on Saturday. Both were awesome. There were moments at both shows where the thought came to me saying, “This is what new-age rock n’ roll sounds like.”
Touring in support of their newest album, “Essential Tremors,” the band specializes in a gritty piano-driven classic rock n’ roll sound. The choruses are big, and the solos hit hard. Walston is known for his ability to write music that’s loud and rough, and his lyrics real and meaningful.
Because there is the duality of Wakarusa, where seemingly half of the festival goes out during the day to enjoy the rock, Americana, and folk music while the other half prepares for the EDM shows throughout night, the band’s Thursday set was probably around 100 people only. It felt small in the bigness of the Revival Tent.
Walston addressed this. He looked out and said, “So this is it, we know how these festivals go. Let’s make it special.”
That they did. They brought the heat, and it was awesome. Their performance of “Heavy Bells” was powerful.
So you can imagine, I was pretty stoked to talk with Walston and Steve Colmus, the band’s drummer. Here’s the interview:
Q: I’m interested to know how the band has grown from its inception in 2002 to “Hail Mega Boys,” the self-titled LP and “Essential Tremors.” How’s it been?
WALSTON: Yeah, so the band has been an idea for about 12 years, and we’ve been a touring act for nine years. I’m happy where we are right now. There comes a moment when you’ve been doing it for so long, that when all of sudden there’s a jump and just a steady incline that was really slow and long for us. We’ve never gone down. It’s always been up. We’ve set goals where it’s we gotta at least do this or else it’s crazy to keep doing this. We’ve always hit those markers. This has been the first year where it’s been picking up speed. I kinda feel like all the work we’ve done has caught up, rather than we’ve come out of nowhere and spiked. I kinda wish it had been spread further back so it would have made the last eight years easier (laughs).
Q: So when you guys played Letterman, was that kind of a moment?
WALSTON: Yeah. I cried that night in my hotel bed. My best friend from high school drove up that night, and it struck me. People are really stoked for us right now. Something’s happening.
COLMUS: It was a powerfully affirming moment. Going into Christmas after that, y’know there had been eight Christmases after touring before where nobody had gotten to see what was going on. That was the first time where people got to see a tangible piece of success.
WALSTON: Those pop culture moments, those are definitely the moments where aunts and uncles —
COLMUS: They’re like “holy shit!”
WALSTON: They’ll be like “You’re in a Mark Wahlberg movie? You’re really making it!” Well, I’ve also been paying my bills with music for the last three years (laughs).
Q: Let’s talk about “Essential Tremors.” How do you balance your songwriting? Is it a group process? Is it like you write the music and then The Business is the backing band? How does that operate?
WALSTON: There’s no real standard. When we were writing “Essential Tremors,” none of us were living in the same city. I was in Richmond, Logan had a girlfriend in New York, then our guitar player was in Baltimore. It was a lot of emails, however complete it was. I’d send a rough draft or a fairly whole song, with me poorly playing drums and bass and stuff. When we do get together, it needs to count. So when we do, it’s like everybody adding their own stuff to it, that’s special and cool.
Q: So with “Sweat Shock,” did it start with the bass line? Or the drum line?
WALSTON: That was just me messing around just doing a bunch of vocal sounds. It was just like the bass line and me going “whhhhhuuuuuuuaaaaa, yeh weh ya uh!” There was no song there.
COLMUS: The first track was totally chaotic.
WALSTON: We were working on “Nobody Knows” when I asked Billy, our guitarist who’s really good at the drums, to try out this weird thing. I was on bass. We got a slightly more solidified whatever, and that was when everybody was like okay, there’s a song in this rather just like a blob that sounds cool.
Q: I’ve been thinking a lot about rock n’ roll in the present day. You guys kind of come to mind as a forefront of the genre. You’re doing it. What are your thoughts on where it’s headed, where it is, and your role in it?
COLMUS: Well, it’s definitely a niche market right now. It’s not the mainstream. It’s kinda been shoved aside in favor of EDM or dance. I don’t know why that is. Even indie rock doesn’t rock anymore. When we were growing up we had Pavement, The Pixies, Superdrag. Now it’s like The Fleet Foxes. Great songwriters, don’t get me wrong, they’re incredible singers — there’s just really nothing in indie-rock that’s super in-your-face.
There’s no denying, we’re kind of on an island. And it’s like the popular mainstream rock is fucking terrible. It’s been terrible for a long time, but basically 2001 and on it’s been awful. There’s no one leading the charge. Either it’s here’s really dumb butt rock or something devoid of any visceral testosterone.
Q: With the dawn of Spotify and music streaming services, you can’t deny that it’s changed music. How do you guys feel about that with your own music?
COLMUS: Well it definitely blows for the artist. It’s taking sales away, no question. We’re all on Spotify, that’s how we listen to music, but it’s not paying anywhere near to make up for those sales. You get like 7/10 of a penny for each play?
WALSTON: It’s good for people finding out about you. People say there’s no way to monetize Internet music except if you own Spotify, and then you’re rich. That guy is a billionaire, and I am borrowing money from my father-in-law. I’m not saying he’s rich because of me, I’m saying he’s rich because a lot of people like us plus the big guys who are also still suffering. It’s changing everything, but we’re also playing way bigger shows than we’ve ever played before.
COLMUS: It’s really just been a revenue stream that’s been taken away. Like newspapers, we’re one of the main industries that the Internet has just crippled.