Home again for These United States
By David Malitz
Friday, July 6, 2012
Last fall, These United States played a local farewell show at the Black Cat. The band was saying goodbye to D.C. as it prepared to move off to . . . well, nowhere in particular.
“I don’t have a home,” says the band’s singer, guitarist and songwriter, Jesse Elliott.
That may sound like something a dramatic teenager fighting with his parents might say, but for Elliott it’s the truth. And it’s been that way for a while -- his cellphone number still starts with area code 202, but he last had a permanent D.C. mailing address four years ago. That was the last time he had any permanent address.
Elliott, 30, is a musical nomad. He’s almost always on tour, and when he’s not playing shows he’s crashing with friends in various cities across the country.
So when he sings “my heart is looking at maps” on the band’s new self-titled album, it sounds like something of an understatement. On “Vince,” he is “driving straight east on that freeway / I will hit Apache Junction / Take the largest road that I can find,” and sounds extremely comfortable -- excited, even -- to be driving off to wherever that road will take him. Bellingham, Amarillo, Denver, Phoenix, Chicago -- these cities all pop up in Elliott’s lyrics on “These United States,” the band’s fifth album in four years, one that ranges from reflective, road-weary ballads to twangy, bouncy folk-pop ditties.
These United States’ relationship with the District fits with the common stereotype that the city is home mostly to transients. “We all came from different places and met there and dispersed and still have a serious place for it in our hearts,” Elliott says. But TUS certainly got comfortable quickly and developed its own close-knit scene shortly after arriving. Elliott befriended members of such like-minded acts as Vandaveer, Revival, Brandon Butler and Kitty Hawk after seeing them perform around town, and they joined forces and dubbed themselves the Federal Reserve collective. In 2006 and 2007, most first Mondays of the month at Arlington’s Iota were Federal Reserve Night, where the various songwriters jammed and invited various musically inclined friends. Collaboration would soon become a hallmark of These United States; on the band’s first tour in 2008 it played with 33 different bands in 33 different cities. More than two dozen guest performers are featured on the new album.
“I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but I’d say it’s fun,” Elliott says of his habit of mixing things up with his musical friends. “We definitely have a very solid core [J. Tom Hnatow, Justin Craig and Robby Cosenza round out the lineup, although Cosenza isn’t touring with the band], but all of us are musically curious. Different people in different places bring different flavors to what you’re doing.”
There are those “different places” again. As These United States became one of the more popular bands in D.C., it got tougher and tougher to actually find them around town as Elliott kept taking them all over the country.
“I dragged a lot of people down a lot of mountain roads, making way too little money and risking our lives on snow-covered rocky mountains way too often,” he says, laughing. “I don’t necessarily totally romanticize all that we did. I loved it, personally, and I was fortunate to find Tom and Robby, and it just felt so natural to me to be in different places all the time.”
The restlessness also translates to the band’s music. Although often slapped with the alt-country tag, that’s a very simplistic label for a group that has encompassed chilly electronics, roadhouse rock and soul-and-R&B-flavored pop. The band’s defining element remains Elliott’s lyrics -- sometimes funny, sometimes profound, always plentiful. “If there’s one thing we get infinite s--- for, it’s about how many words I try to fit into our songs,” he says.
His constant travels -- which bring These United States back to D.C.’s Black Cat on Saturday -- give him an unlimited supply of stories, characters and settings for his songs. That’s one reason Elliott has been able to crank out albums at a rate of better than one per year. But doesn’t he ever miss the ability to just sit alone in his own living room and gather his thoughts?
“Of course,” he says. “But here’s the thing -- I get to sit in 365 different, amazing living rooms all over the country. People are always like, ‘It must suck to be homeless.’ But I feel like I have a lot of homes. Especially when we make it back to a lot of the same places, it’s starting to feel more and more like everywhere is home.”