words: Michael Brooks
Following the release of The Whole Thing Is Just There, John of Young Jesus joined TGE for an interview about basketball, spirituality and more.
The Grey Estates: You’ve developed a reputation as a phenomenal live act, did you make any effort to try and capture that feeling on this new record?
Young Jesus: Definitely. And we made a similar effort on S/T. Marcel had mentioned to me awhile back the three things he wants to master as a musician: performing, recording, and improvising. I think about that a fair amount, how to devote time in practice to each of those things. Each of us plays a lot of music outside of the band, whether that be solo projects, arranging and composing tunes, or recording soundtracks. So as we've aged, we've become more comfortable with who we are as musicians and as people. That makes recording a lot easier. I still remember being terrified recording our first albums, my hands shaking trying to play a part that was beyond my skill level, my voice sort of half of what it could be, because I was afraid of being too much of myself. That people would dislike that.
You come to a point where you're not as concerned as to whether people will like it or not. We talk a lot about the process being something we are proud of rather than focusing on a specific end result. Then, if your process is thoughtful and kind, you feel pretty good about the result, and if people wanna judge it as subjectively bad or good, that's okay!
Communicating our energy and emotional honesty and improvisation on a record is tough. How do you capture the feeling of finding a song for the first time, that first moment of wonder when you play a tune? I think about that Burial interview with Mark Fisher where he talks about making a "glowing" thing. He's talking about Sam Cooke and says, "when something’s glowing, if something’s nice, it doesn’t mean that it’s not surrounded by cold things, bad things." Mark Hollis and Talk Talk did this on Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. But their budget was ... I dunno ... our budget times 100.
So, we just practice a lot so that we're ready in the studio, do a couple takes, each often different from the last, and choose the one that feels the most emotionally honest-- the most improvisationally exuberant and searching, rather than the cleanest or tightest.
Your music is a lot more improvisational than that of a typical indie rock group, what made you decide to start incorporating that into your songs?
Our drummer Kern influenced us a lot in that direction. I know I had felt stale playing a tune the same way over and over. But I was never a shredder, never great at taking solos, so it scared me to play further out. But when Kern and I played, it didn't matter. The most important thing was staying fresh, staying present, and listening. In that space, you don't need to rip a solo. You can just play for texture and allow someone else to speak melodically (or add another layer of texture). You can make mistakes and they are not mistakes because the ground ahead of you is open and strange.
Eric is a natural improviser. I used to get frustrated that he couldn't remember an exact part or tone that he used at a prior practice. And then you take a different angle and realize the thing he's doing in the moment is more beautiful, more wonderful, maybe for the simple fact that it may only happen once.
And it probably wouldn't work if we didn't have Marcel, who's knowledge of music and theory is pretty vast. So if the keys and guitar are jumping into far out places, Marcel can hear it and frame it in a kind of magical way. Or, because he's trained on guitar, he can voice his own melodies-- and then we're challenged in an exciting way to fill out the space where the bass was. Or to leave it blank and see what that feels like. It's just exploring and trusting in real time.
The musicians we admire (Alice and John Coltrane, Milford Graves, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, John Cage, Mary Lou Williams, The Grateful Dead-- to name a few) all have profound ways of improvising and interacting with, not just other musicians, but the world. That seemed a beautiful direction in life, if your music can inform how you live in a positive, thoughtful way.
A lot of your lyrics grapple with religion and things of that nature, do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person?
For sure. It's a complicated thing. I think about going back to Christianity after all these years. To maybe go to seminary, get back into the Episcopalian faith I grew up with. But the history of it is tough (as is nearly everything). To enter back into organized religion might be wrong-footed. But I often think about Don Cherry talking about Albert Ayler where he says he says he carries something like "the gift, the voice, and the reflection of God." And the way he says it, it's like he is certain. I'd like to believe there's a unifier beyond reason, thought, and humanity, a thing we fall into in our darkest and most joyful moments.
The covers to your past three releases have all been done in watercolors, what is it about that style of art that you enjoy so much?
Oh, I like the play between the semi-chaos of watercolor, how it dries in unpredictable ways, against the extreme order of a pen lined with a ruler. I think it speaks to how we play as a band. Chaos against intentionality.
There are artists who I really admire-- Annie Albers, Hilma Af Klint, Agnes Martin, Wassily Kandinsky, Will Alexander, Yukultji Napangati-- who convey these ideas in astounding ways. I owe a lot to seeing their work in different books in the bookstore I work at. Finding each has felt like a revelatory experience.
Do you have a favorite track on the new album?
No-- it really lives as a whole thing. The improvisation in For Nana jumps out for me. If only that it was a very meaningful moment in my life and I was really leaning on my friends there. To me, the free section speaks to that feeling, that moment.
If you could go back in time and give any piece of advice to your 18 year old self what would it be?
I'm stubborn now and I was much more stubborn then, so 18 year old me wouldn't listen to a thing 30 year old me could say. Life is hard and I don't know if any advice can course-correct that. Be kind? Maybe. Don't smoke cigarettes? That wouldn't work.
Maybe I'd say, "do not eat the broccolini at Joe and Nicole's wedding." Because I ate that broccolini and then flew to Chicago with the craziest diarrhea of my life the next day.
As a fellow Chicago sports fan myself, what do you think about the Bulls chances of succeeding moving forward?
The Bulls will be interesting. I like Kris Dunn a lot. Overall, I think the NBA wants us to focus on Golden State and Los Angeles. Have people obsessed with the media (LA) and tech industries (Golden State) and maybe antagonize them to keep people from imagining a better future. Keep us in the anxiety loop. Have Kawhi be miserable in Toronto so that it discourages people from looking at anything positive in Canada. Have Boston continue its success to keep New Yorkers sad.
I got a lot of conspiracy theories with the NBA. Move the Lakers to Los Angeles and don't change the name so people subliminally associate LA with lakes rather than drought. Have San Antonio win with a multi-cultural, international team led by a US Air Force vet to distract us from brutal xenophobic border/immigration policies in Texas and the US at large. Antagonize Lebron, D Wade, Bosh, and Ray Allen in Miami so that people side with owners rather than employees just wanting to play with friends in a nice place (Mark Cuban being the memorable owner from the Mavs improbably victory of the Heat). Lots to say here.