Sometimes, to go forward as an artist, a musician has to switch things up. They have to bring something new to the table while keeping it all fresh and vibrant. Richmond, Virginia’s J Roddy Walston is doing this both by himself and his new band Palm Palm. He has a tour starting this week that’ll be bringing an event referred to as a Single Dose Of Strangeness to various venues where he’ll be performing as a one-man band surrounded by synths, pianos, tape machines, and sequencers.
Walston and I recently had a talk ahead of the show about wanting to hear new music, writing heavy dance songs, and bringing the experience of live music in a limited supply.
What inspired this idea for A Single Dose Of Strangeness, and do you feel like you have more artistic freedom with this current project?
I kind of been over the last year, the last couple years actually, wanting to hear something other than a typical bass, drums, guitar kind of setup. I’ve been bummed out by how everything has become nostalgia based while shooting for some particular era or music. Some band does this band’s sound perfectly from 1971 or something like that, I want to hear new stuff. I want to hear something putting music and art forward, and that’s driving what I’ve been going with this thing. As far as more freedom, it’s just me but it’s a little less freedom in how I’ve booked this tour and I’ve put the concept of it together while trying to create the vibe around it after it’s all out there.
I’ve literally been working until 3 am every night for the last month trying to get it all to work. I’m not doing anything with computers or anything like that, it’s all real old-school sequencing and stuff with 1990s technology. I get to do what I want but there’s still certain limitations in regards to time and structure.
It seems like you have so many things at your disposal.
How difficult was it at first when you started this project to put everything together? Has it been more of a seamless process now vs when you began?
The learning curve was crazy at first because I was diving into a whole world that I didn’t know or understand. The first song I really constructed this way came from both writing new stuff and trying to take older songs and either strip them down to nothing or rearrange them in their own way. I’ve been touring with so many of these songs for 15 to 20 years, so through my own entertainment I strived to find a new way to reenvision the older stuff. The first song that I put together took me around two and a half weeks, and up to this point I’ve come close to knocking out a whole song in a day. At first, figuring out how all that works with communication and wrangling different things was difficult.
Some of the songs are modern and energized, and some of them have me going down a really weird rabbit hole of some guy who is really good at this kind of stuff from 20 years ago on a message board saying if you do X, Y, and Z you’ll get this. Then if you pinch this thing then you’ll possibly get this particular keyboard to do what you’re trying to get it to do. That’s the danger and the fun of the whole thing vs using backing tracks from Ableton or whatever. This is all real hardware interacting with each other and with me. It can and it does go sideways, there’s a danger of that happening with a live band rather than plugging in an iPod and pressing play.
Do you consider yourself to be a musician who prefers to use analog equipment rather than digital stuff? Do you go to stores to find something that’s 40 years old rather than an instrument that’s brand new?
Honestly, if people are making something that’s new and exciting then I like that. I want to see that and be a part of what’s happening now. If I find something amazing from a long time ago then I also get pretty jazzed about that. Particularly, even this tour I’ve had this thing that I wanted to do, I really don’t want to ever perform with a computer on stage. There are certain things that I want to be able to do, and it took me forever to find this one piece of equipment that would allow me to do it, and it happened to be from 1995.
I’m drawn to older stuff in a way; it feels more unique and I’m always hoping that I have a piece of equipment that’s broken in a special way. Even if they make a million of them, I have the one that has that magic quirk. When something is getting to the point when it’s not working right, I’m always torn on whether or not it’s the perfect level of broken vs getting it fixed so I know it won’t fall to pieces. I don’t want it to crap the bed on stage in front of a bunch of people whereas if I get something brand-new, I’m hoping that it works perfectly and I get pretty upset if it doesn’t.
Especially with old amps, it’s interesting how it’ll have some weird trait due to how worn it is. You also have a new band called Palm Palm that’s accompanying you on this run.
There’s a sound that’s a lot more raw and intense than what you’ve done with the Business. It has this sheen of synth noise over it but it’s not too aggressive, so how would you describe this artistic direction the band is going in?
It’s a part of this whole thing, I think, where I have these multiple muses that pop up and I don’t know where they come from. I’ve been driven to the point of ruining vacations, and my wife can kind of see my eyes glaze over when it happens and it’s time to go no matter what context. Over the last 15 to 20 years I’ve tried to funnel it all into one band, and it’s kind of based on the quirks of what worked great while also on the frustration for me not even realizing that I have all of these different points of view that are trying to come out. With Palm Palm, I started writing this sort of really heavy, weird dance music. It was rhythmic and funky but it was all happening by myself at first.
My buddy Charlie Glenn, who plays guitar, we’ve both always been wanting to do something together but we’d never had the time. Finally it worked out and I played him some of the stuff, he got it and he knew a drummer named Raphael Katchinoff, and Raphael knew a bassist named Andrew Carper. We all got in a room and now we can’t keep up with how fast material is coming along. I’m ready to get past the idea of rock ’n’ roll having to be this one thing; we’re trying to create some sort of dance music but heavier. It’s an easy way to classify it.
Can we expect A Single Dose Of Strangeness to be made into an album soon?
I think so, I’m also writing a lot of stuff that’s not with Palm Palm, and I do like that I’m getting to direct my own path. It’s really fun to just do whatever I want, and there’s this vibe that a lot of these songs are coalescing around. I kind of want to present it to people first to try it out and see how it feels without it being wrapped up in a record cycle or something. I don’t really have a solid answer; maybe it’s an album in the future or maybe it’s just a tour idea for now. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a while, coming up with a set of rules with a certain amount of gear and try to put a show together.
I plan on doing it for a minute, then scrapping it and moving on to something else. It’s always there if I want to come back to it, but I think the idea of asking someone if they have this specific record is irrelevant now because it’s all on your phone. It devalues music and devalues the experience of it, but you can’t do that to live experiences, at least not yet. That’s sort of where I’m experimenting, this idea of if you want this then you gotta come see it rather than feeling like you can see an act next time around.
If you want to see it and you want to see it like this, then this is the time you have to check it out because once it’s gone, it’s gone.
I’m actually creating a limited supply of that experience. There will be some way for people to hear what I’m doing, maybe I’ll put it on the internet or something, but I just want to make art and not necessarily a bunch of products.
J RODDY WALSTON AT GREAT SCOTT, 1222 COMM AVE., ALLSTON. THU 1.24. MORE INFO AND TICKETS AT GREATSCOTTBOSTON.COM.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.