On Dropping Out & Moving On: An Interview with John Rossiter of Young Jesus

young jesus

Young Jesus is an anxiously catchy indie-punk outfit transplanted from Chicago to Los Angeles. I interviewed their singer/guitarist John Rossiter at night on a weekday, after postponing our originally scheduled time to finish another cellular conversation that left me with terrible anxiety and no desire to spend more time on the phone. While the interview had quite a few stumbles from my part, Rossiter’s stories of growing up in the Midwest and dropping out of college after his own nervous breakdown helped me feel calmer, and grounded. He explained that most of Young Jesus’ music had been transcribed from that same uncomfortably anxious tenor. As a remedy for when everyone’s “loosing their smoothie,” Rossiter reminds us (quoting Marcel Duchamp) that all we really need sometimes is “a breather.”

Funeral Sounds: I remember I was actually playing Young Jesus in the kitchen of where I live, and one person said—just from listening to it for a few seconds—that it sounded like an angsty Midwestern band that’s dealing with a lot of really heavy topics about growing up in that kind of space. He really liked it, but especially since I know you moved from Chicago to California I was wondering how that that transition has affected your music? Also, how do you think the atmosphere of the Midwest has bled into the kind of lyrics you write?

John Rossiter: Yeah, well, honestly up until I moved here I felt I had never left the Midwest, and I was like taking the influence of a lot of those of pop punk and emo bands, you know? Like, Cursive, and The Good Life, and American Football, and Bright Eyes. Alkaline Trio was big when I was growing up for us. And I totally kind of was smitten with that world—with this sort of self-immolating, tortured writer-frontman. I thought that was like, you know, what a thing to be. And while that has a really special place in my heart—and at the time I was drinking, and doing drugs and being, you know, just whatever, a tortured writer-frontman—I’ve come out of it thinking it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Not particularly interesting at all.

So Grow / Decompose is a record where it’s like I had just moved to Los Angeles, and I realized a lot of my perceptions and contexts I was operating in were not—while totally valid and great—it was, you know, I wanted to move on from it. So lyrically it’s a record that’s trying to reach beyond it, but musically it’s definitely indebted to a lot of those things too. But lyrically there’s definitely a lot of self-loathing and heavy shit.

FS: Yeah, in terms of the whole tortured writer-frontman persona, I feel like there’s definitely a very hyperliterary quality with your lyrics. But one thing I was wondering is to what extent is the stuff you write about yourself? Especially the Neil narrative that you develop in Grow / Decompose, which I was wondering if you could explain a little bit.

JR: Yeah, I’ve always had a lot of trouble writing songs that weren’t true to myself. And I think at least, I don’t think this is the case for everyone, but for me it’s definitely really transparent when I’m writing from a place that’s not me and my direct experiences. So, that sort of, that Neil character is really close to, you know, me and my family.

And so are the other characters—they’re pretty direct reflections of experiences. The major thing of the album is trying to examine these things that I’ve experienced and people I’ve met, and trying to find points of empathy for everyone. I can be a real dismissive person I think, or at least I’ve been ashamed of being like that sometimes. And a lot of writing for me I think is trying to look back on that and see why… I don’t know.

FS: I feel there is something very jarring and specific to your sound, and I was wondering maybe whether you could explain how that ties into… I guess what you’re writing about? I’m sorry—I’m so out of it right now. I’ve been completely all over the place today.

JR: It’s okay. I think that’s like going in the air right now. I feel like everyone I’m interacting with is just loosing their smoothie, a little bit.

FS: Normally just talking over the phone in general makes me anxious enough, so normally I do interviews over the Internet. But I think this is good in having an actual conversation.

JR: I was thinking—I’ve done a lot of email interviews, and there’s something about just playing a show or whatever that is like that for me. I only know how to operate and be creative and move forward if it’s from points of high anxiety. So phones help that, I guess.

FS: I know you said you had a nervous breakdown that made you drop out of school. And if you feel comfortable talking about it, I was wondering what triggered that, and how did being in that anxious space informs your creative process? Like, how much did it have to do with the way you wrote specifically for Young Jesus?

JR: Yeah, I think a lot of my teenage years were defined by me taking myself really, really seriously, and being pretty overdramatic. And I think I just didn’t know how to deal with pretty standard emotions. And I mean—I still don’t. It’s just like a push and pull. I feel like that with a lot of my life—deciding what feels legitimately heavy, and what am I just making up. It drives me kind of crazy, like reality can be kind of tense sometimes.

But, yeah, I went through a breakup at this school in Ohio, and I wasn’t at all prepared to deal with all that goes along with that—with losing love and moving on from it. I mean, I don’t know if anybody knows how to deal with that, but I was particularly not capable, and I’ve never been particularly capable. It’s always hurt me a lot, but at that moment it was tough. It’s weird. I immediately wrote a song last night at this show, and I don’t really talk about that time a lot since I come from a pretty Christian and relatively unemotional family? They’re really wonderful and supportive and loving, but no one ever talked about anything as a kid.

So I remember being at this Holiday Inn Breakfast in Wooster, Ohio, and watching the USA versus Spain gold medal Olympic Game or some shit. And just in front of all these people just bawling my eyes out and just not dealing—just screaming. And I’ve been looking back on it—for a long time I couldn’t look back on it since I was just ashamed and embarrassed by that level of emotion—and I think I’m at a point in my life know were I kind of miss feeling that much. So a lot of the songs right now are just wondering how to feel.

FS: I feel like definitely a lot of people that I talk to seem to have, like, certain parts of their life that are that way were they do have a sort of aversion talking about. But then again, it’s still this time where you are feeling these different emotions—I guess it’s almost (as obscene as it seems to say) ripe for writing music and finding an outlet for.

JR: I mean I think at least for me—I don’t know it projects on other people—you know, it’s like a break in the narrative of the self you have constructed. And anytime you have that sort of shattering of self-perception it’s hard to acknowledge or think about, but those moments or music or whatever have always been the most interesting—where the facade has change, or been exposed.

FS: Do you consider yourself a different person after going through that phase?

JR: I think it’s interesting because in a lot of ways, yeah, but in a lot of ways I’ve retreated back or it’s become a defining part of who I am—this need to expose my most vulnerable moments. I think as a person I’m relatively calm and easygoing and cheerful, but in performance and writing it still remains a pretty intense thing. I wonder if that’s a bad thing. Like, I’ve created these two disparate personas that are going to end up battling when I’m 45 or something.

FS: What do you think the best way to move on is? Whether it’s how you’re expressing that creatively or just how you’re going about your day-to-day life.

JR: I’m unsure, I was reading… I was really excited—we’re going to do this tape on this next tour. It’s going to be improvised ambient-based music, which is what we listen to, but never play. It’s going to accompany this zine that I made called Conceptual Beach. Which is like hard to explain, but it’s a sort of avant-garde artist-host guiding people through this ethereal beach, and it’s just a bunch of watercolors with weird vaguely funny poems throughout it.

young jesus zine

FS: That sounds wonderful.

JR: Yeah, I’m really excited about it. It’s been nice since it’s become this project that’s overtaken a lot of my life, and it has its own narrative and its own storyline that’s really exciting. But to get back to what you said, I’ve been reading a lot of Duchamp biographies and interviews to help understand the advent of, you know, conceptual art or what have you. And at the end of his life, whenever people asked him what he was, he would just say—whatever it is in French, I’m going to embarrass myself… Just “a breather,” in English.

Like, last week as a band we had a really heavy week, it was just really intense and emotionally difficult. Just a lot of stuff going on. And it just feels like to get through those moments you just realize, holy shit, it feels impossible to move forward so, you know, some days it’s just okay to have a breather or whatever, or to just maybe do that all time. Maybe that’s enough.

FS: That’s a really great way of putting it.

JR: Yeah, I found it pretty moving to read that for sure. To take some of that responsibility and anxiety, and things that potentially don’t matter, off my shoulders when I think about that.

FS: I know you did mention that you grew up in a very Christian household, and obviously the first thing people think about when they hear the name Young Jesus is that your band probably deals with a lot of the anxieties about, you know, spirituality and growing up in that kind of space. What were your early experiences growing up in that environment?

JR: I think that’s a good question. With Christianity all I remember is just not wanting to go to Church and going all the time. And you know, my parents are Episcopalian and relatively open-minded. You know, generally speaking liberal, but that sort of Midwestern suburban liberalism that can be really suffocating that I think is really a huge problem because you’re not acknowledging, you know, a lot.

But anyways, I think I can kind of sum up what my family is like in that when my Dad picked me up from school when I insisted I was dropping out—he drove all the way to Ohio to pick me up. And he was like, you know, very archetypal Dad mustache throughout my entire life, he was always wearing a collared shirt and khakis, and has a pretty low voice. And he picked me up and got in the car, and he was like “Well son, what are you going to do with your life?” And I said, “I’m going to join a band!” And I was crying and freaking out. He was like, “What’s the band called?” And I said, “Young Jesus.” And he looked at me and he said, “Oh John.”

And so this stuff is like really, it probably sucks for them. To believe these things, or at least to believe in the community that the Church provides and to have a son that’s constantly pushing the boundaries or whatever. But though all of it they’ve been really supportive and learned to kind of come around.

So I sometimes feel bad about Grow / Decompose in that it’s really chastising to that sort of conservative and liberal Christianity. And while I think there’s like really malevolent components to it, my experience upon listening back to it I think, man, I lacked so much empathy for these things, for these people who are in the end just trying to live and breathe and get by. And being part of a community like that that provides a lot of answers can definitely make that easier. And I think I forgot that when I was really angry at the time. But what are you going to do—there are so many things you get angry about all the time.

FS: I remember earlier in the interview you said something about how a lot of what you’re doing now is about trying to figure out how to feel that intensity of emotion and just kind of like revisit, um, like an earlier part of you life were you were possibly less able—I’m sorry, this interview has been a bit of a train wreck!

JR: No, I like this interview! People don’t ask often about, like, my upbringing, interestingly enough. And I think it plays a pretty massive role, and I don’t think I often get to express how mixed it feels, you know. I think it’s often like, “Tell me what your Grandpa and Brothers, or tell me this about this song.” And I’m like, no, I can’t really tell you, it’s just the collective experience of my life, there’s just no specific thing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the time it takes to release an album—like, we release one every three years or something, and we’ve never been particularly popular. And it’s just like sorting through… I forget now that I’m feeling good, that during Grow / Decompose that was a year of me being alone in Los Angeles and coming home and playing guitar and not really having any friends and just trying to figure it out. That itself was an emotional time, but maybe this sort of project gives one the tools to deal with it a bit more productively.

FS: Yeah, I mean do you think what you might be doing next will be more positive since you’re in that better headspace?

JR: I hope so! I mean, I think I, you know, I have more of an understanding I think of how my emotions affect other people, which has been the biggest realization. Think it’s every, I don’t know, feels like every six weeks I get pretty despondent and have a hard time moving around for a few days, and I’ve come to recognize those times as really difficult for the people that care about me. And it’s helped me to limit it, and to like at least put in place some things to keep that from happening.

But I think this record won’t necessarily be positive, since I don’t think happiness is necessarily, you know, an important emotion—I think it’s definitely something to feel, but it’s just not the end all be all. I like more thinking about, I think its just going to be more, I don’t know man. These new tunes are kind of like, more acknowledging myself in the first person and taking ownership… If anything it’s taking ownership of the things I’ve felt a little bit more, and getting excited about certain imagery and certain…. I don’t know. There’s a lot of things I’ve been reading that have been excited, a lot of that consciousness and whatever.

FS: So more like, if I understand you correctly, like acknowledging… Like you said about the first album how maybe you were a little too harsh on your parents’ perspective, and maybe a little more self-reflective and maybe acknowledging your own inconsistencies?

JR: Sure, and I think with this sort of record maybe it’s just sort of unearthing the potentially more honest and traumatic emotions and examining them straightforwardly. We’ll see. That’s what it’s been, a little bit. I thought for a second I was all cool with everything, but now I think it’s going to be, yeah. I’m trying to figure out if there’s any progression to any of this, you know? Am I supposed to get better at these things? It’s just that the excitement is expressing some sort of poetry through rhythm and rhyme and image and just going from there I guess. Hopefully I’ll talk less about cigarettes but we’ll see.

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Zackary Kiebach

About Zackary Kiebach

UC Berkeley English undergrad and intern at McSweeney's. Used to work at a cupcake shop, but now masterminds math-pop confections under Talk, Tired Thanatoid.

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