“Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of fuel. Sentimental people call it inspiration, but what they really mean is fuel. I have always needed fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.” — Hunter S. Thompson
On those nights that the great Hunter S. Thompson believed his car could run on the radio alone, a J Roddy Walston song could have very well been blasting. J Roddy is coming to Flying Dog Brewery this weekend in the midst of touring for his successful new album, “Essential Tremors,” that has received a lot of public radio airplay across the nation. J Roddy Walston & The Business are known for their old school, Jerry Lee Lewis rock ’n’ roll energy on stage, and they share some stylistic synergy with their ATO Records label mates, including the Alabama Shakes, Drive-by Truckers, and My Morning Jacket.
On stage, it feels like a dirty competition between J Roddy on piano and his drummer to see who can beat on their instruments harder. J Roddy sways from crooning to wailing, providing motion and emotion to every song. He contorts and convulses all over his personal Rock of Gibraltar, a 1970s Yamaha CP-60 upright piano, as if filled with the Holy Spirit. In short, in the seven or more years that the band has been touring to support its three full-length albums, the energy has always been there.
On a not-so-average Monday morning, we were able to grab a little bit of J Roddy Walston’s time to talk about Flying Dog Brewery, touring and making records.
Flying Dog Brewery is one of our best venues in town, but it’s sort of a specialty venue that most bands will probably only ever play once. This will be your second time. What keeps you coming back?
Actually, Billy, our guitar player is from Frederick, so it’s kind of fun to get close to home for him and it’s just kind of a chill place. Everyone who works at the brewery seems pretty happy about the job they have. So that kind of creates a situation where everyone is having a good time, at least for the band. I always ask everyone what their favorite Flying Dog beer is, and what favorite meal they would pair it with. I know everyone in the band is digging on the Old Bay specialty brew — you know the one with the crabs and all that. I can say that I personally gave pause to drinking a beer that tasted like Old Bay or that had Old Bay in it, but it’s actually pretty banging.
It’s sort of an evil genius beer, isn’t it?
Yeah, that was a strange risk, but I think it’s paid off for them. As far as pre-show food, we don’t really eat that heavy before we play just because our show is so active that we don’t really want to fill our stomachs up before. It’s not really conducive to doing a full blast show. There’s a quote from the Queens of the Stone Age lead singer, Josh Homme, on an “Anthony Bourdain No Reservations” episode, where he says something like you can’t play rock ‘n’ roll on a full stomach — you have to be hungry to get some real emotion out. That’s about right. You know it can be an issue because you roll up starving and if there is food around, you’re like, I better not. It’s all for the rock!
What was the last big band meal that you all had?
Well, it wasn’t with the band, but we just played Lollapalooza and we were in one town for like three or four days. So we were in Chicago for three or four days which is pretty rare for us on tour and I went out with some friends and my wife and had this insane Polish meal. I ate my body weight in pierogies and then immediately passed out.
Let’s talk about your albums a little bit. You have three full-length albums and it really amazes me that each of them has this consistently palpable high energy level. How do you maintain that?
It’s all stuff that we are excited about. It’s not like we’re faking it. It’s what we do when we get out there and play, so that makes it a little bit easier. I think there are some bands that get caught up in some sort of genre or style or trends or something and a year or so later they realize they don’t like the music they are making. We definitely write the music for us, so we’re not really paying attention to trend or what anyone else is doing. I mean we’re not really influenced by the success of other people. We’re not like, “This is really working for somebody, let’s do that.” That’s not our process of creating music.
It sounds like you guys are just naturally high-energy musicians then.
We do write a lot of slow songs, but yeah. I mean, maybe if there is any part of our process that’s really with the people who are going to listen to record in mind. … It’s like, we are a band that put’s out albums and that’s a little bit of our life, but a lot of our life is touring behind it. And so I consider what songs are going to be the most fun to play for people once the record’s out there and everyone’s familiar with the stuff. The more high-energy stuff usually gets out, rather than the not-quite-as-high-energy stuff.
You were saying that sometimes you do write slow songs and that makes me think of “Boys Can Never Tell” off “Essential Tremors.” It’s also another classic J Roddy song about father and son relationships. Can you tell me a little bit about that song and the energy behind it?
I do write a lot of ballads and we kind of put together our record based on what we wanted to play (live) and sometimes it’s just like, I don’t care, I like this song so much or I think this song is important enough that I just want the world to hear it. The band definitely felt like that was a special song, so we just kind of wanted to get it out there. It’s strange, a lot of people really love that song, but when we first started touring for the new record, people basically just knew the more rocking tracks. … It’s not one of those songs that are always in the set, but once in a while we’ll be playing a show and it feels right, and the audience is there for a full range of things and not just to rage — then we will break it out. Overall the vibe of the song — sort of this generational idea that parents are like “I love you unconditionally” and anything that happens in life is never the kid’s fault or something like that. That’s kind of the whole vibe of the whole record, just kind of the strangeness of family. All these people with issues and weird internal things and these groups of people who continue to deal with you even though you have all this stuff. It’s like if they were friends, I’d never talk to them again … but with family, after some blow-out argument or some strange disagreement, you’re sitting down at dinner that night and there’s a weird power that makes you want to stick it out. I guess most people stick it out.
You tour a crazy amount and you live locally in Richmond, Virginia, but all of your family is still back in Tennessee, so do you try to stay as close as possible with them still?
Yeah, yeah. Actually, my parents are coming to visit tomorrow. All these songs are about me and my experiences, and I pretty much have the most normal, functional family out of anyone I know. I don’t know if that somehow let me be able to peer into other people’s lives.
So Richmond and Baltimore are still good home bases for the band? How does that work out?
We had a day off on this last run and to break up the travel we all dipped down to Baltimore and had a big crab feast blowout. Definitely for a band that’s going to tour at all, the East Coast is so much easier than anywhere else to live just because there are so many cities and towns with in a two- or four-hour drive. So this is definitely a great central spot. I love it.
With all the success “Essential Tremors” has had so far, do you think you’ll have to spend less time on the road touring? Allowing you to get back in the studio quicker than you were able to with the last two records?
I think so. We have this big fall run of tour shows and that’s essentially the last big set of shows that we are going to do for this record. After that, I’m hoping that we will get to buckle down and start writing for the next record, which would be way sooner since the record has only been out for maybe about a year. We weren’t even close to taking a breath a year after the last record. We pretty much toured two and half years on that one. Then took nine months to write (“Essential Tremors”). So hopefully starting around Christmas and who knows how long after that. We are definitely pretty meticulous about wanting to make sure that we have real songs that we believe in and not just say “Here’s a collection of things.” There’s a good chance the next record will be out way sooner, but it all depends on the songs existing first.