If you grew up in the Midwest but didn’t attach part of your identity to the ever-present crop of emo bands birthed there, congratulations! You’re in the minority. John Rossiter liked his fair share of sappy albums growing up, which explains why his band, Young Jesus, sounds like they do: a cross of the mopey Mineral, eager Christie Front Drive, and the looseness of Cap’n Jazz.
Though Young Jesus is now based in Los Angeles, the band is churning out the type of downtrodden, slacker-style emo that one could expect to find in Omaha. That may explain why they were recently signed to Saddle Creek for their newest record, The Whole Thing Is Just There. Over the years since forming, the members of Young Jesus developed a mode of playing together that’s comfortable enough to push one another to reach their goals. When those goals aren’t met, they talk about it. They continue to grow together to build stronger roots because they know life is busy throwing wrenches into the timeline. Though this record marks the first time Young Jesus didn’t struggle to get through the songwriting process, it did find its frontman juggling bigger highs and lows than expected.
“When [the signing] was happening, there was a lot happening in my life,” says Rossiter. “The deal happened right before we went on a tour we had planned and booked ourselves, the usual situation. It was pretty amazing. At the same time, my grandmother got really sick. So for the first five shows of the tour, Marcel [Borbon], Kern [Haug], and Eric [Shervrin] drove through Texas improvising for the first time while I went home to say goodbye to my grandma. That came through basically the day after she passed. I remember very vividly sitting in my parents’ front yard, hiding away from them because I was smoking and they don’t like that, just thinking about all of this. It was such a collision of joy and sadness and mourning. It was a beautiful thing because my grandma plays piano, sings at church, and has been so supportive of me playing. It’s a lineage I feel was passed down to me. So while my cousin had her new baby at the funeral, you realize these cycles are regenerative. It just keeps going.”
To show the sunnier side of Young Jesus, we interviewed John Rossiter for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask musicians questions inspired by their song titles. With The Whole Thing Is Just There as the prompt, his answers are honest and raw—traits that will appear in the band’s music when they play Great Scott this Saturday.
DIGBOSTON: If you could exile two states or regions of the US right now, which would you kick out and why?
ROSSITER: [laughs] Oh man. That’s a… woof. You’ve got me in a bind. I have some thoughts and knee-jerk reactions that I feel would be great to exile, but that would go against what I believe and what the band believes. You’re kinda stuck. You gotta work with the context that’s provided for you to exile anything out of your life. The thing is, it can reflect on your own self. You may want to exile part of yourself, but you can’t. There’s shitty and sticky things about all of us. It’s about incorporating it in ways that’s responsible and thoughtful other than trying to just never look at that part of yourself again. I’ve been in states that I never want to go back to, and in fact I recently passed through one of them, but we’re still going to go back. We’re going to give those states another chance. Because they should have opportunities to prove themselves, or to just be less racist and anti-Semitic than in the past.
2) “Saganism vs. Buddhism”
DIGBOSTON: How would you describe Saganism and Buddhism? In your opinion, which is better?
ROSSITER: Oh man. Well, when I wrote the song I thought it was Buddhism. I’ve actually never thought I was Saganism, or at least since this song was created. If I were to explain it, obviously Saganism is a play on Satanism. It connects to it obtusely, but it’s my distillation of a kind of belief in science. It started to feel like the patterns of how we talk about science and progress are really similar to how people have talked about Christianity and Judaism and Islam, the major western religions. It’s saying that we will be saved by technology or it will allow us to live forever. It distracts you from grappling with your life, the same thing Christianity does, and the reality of dying. There really are, at the end of the day, no easy solutions. Right now we have some of the worst of both in religiosity and this science God complex. To me, those arguments between Sam Harris or some fundamentalist Christians are picking the worst of both sides. You have to look at the nuanced middle, the actually interesting part. So that’s Saganism, even though Carl Sagan seems like a really wonderful person.
I just wrote [the phrase] down while having a dream and then woke up to it like, “Whoa! Saganism vs Buddhism?” But what I got into recently was Chan Buddhism. There were a series of ancient poets in China who were writing about the natural world. The simplest, smallest things given attention and subjectivity can open up the entire cosmos. It allows for everything. It’s not moral or guilt-inducing in the way Christianity has been for me. I was moved by this poetry when I started reading it. So I don’t see them as oppositions. I think the Chan Buddhist perspective is progress, and this scientific evidence right now is another thing that’s happening but you can’t let it take over what you’re thinking about. It will grow, decay, and unfurl from the great unknown void.
3) “Fourth Zone of Gaits”
DIGBOSTON: Given you’ve probably seen videos of yourself or your reflection, how would someone be able to identify you in a crowd of people based on your walk?
ROSSITER: Oh, what a great question! Man. The thing that immediately comes to mind is when I was a teenager in high school. I acted like a stoner but I wasn’t really a stoner, because I thought that would give me some cultural capital if I looked like I was tired all the time and bummed out a bit. I would walk slowly and diffidently, as if I was too cool for this place. My eyes were half open. [laughs] That was the old John. Now I walk really fast. Probably too fast, as I think I’m obsessed with getting somewhere.
I’m trying to work on walking where I’m more receptive to things as they’re happening and allowing space for things that are unexpectedly beautiful, not just the place I want to get to that I think will be good. But I don’t walk like that yet. So people would probably identify me as someone walking really fast with a red backpack that I always have on. And I don’t have my phone out while I’m walking. I try to make it a sacred space. I try to slow down by not looking at my phone because there’s a lot happening around me, which has made life a little more enjoyable and grounded. Four years ago, I had a smartphone, and I was really psyched on it. I got it because I was bummed that I wasn’t in cool group chats and couldn’t send certain emojis. But then a year ago, I realized it makes me feel like I’m trapped and I have to talk to people all the time. I really don’t like talking to people all the time. I don’t think anyone really does. We need time to sit and process, to take time to respond. So I’m trying to do that now. It’s hard with the band. Some days I don’t want to respond to emails or text, but I like calling people and talking on the phone. You get people’s tone of voice, which is super important.
DIGBOSTON: What does your morning alarm sound like?
ROSSITER: It’s one of those iPhone things. It’s a horrendous sort of melody that I don’t even know what the fuck it is. It’s just there. That’s been on tour, though. When I’m home, my partner and I decided to have our phones out of the bedroom. So we have an alarm clock that’s the classic alarm clock buzz. It’s really loud. We decided to keep our phones out [of the bedroom] starting about six months ago. It’s pretty good. I get bummed out on tour that I have it with me so much. I have a habit of checking my phone and scrolling through things for a while, and that makes me feel like I’m waking up depressed. [laughs] You know? Instead of waking up and making coffee or looking out the window for a bit. That’s so much better.
5) “For Nana”
DIGBOSTON: What’s your favorite trait of your grandmother and do you think it was passed on to you?
ROSSITER: Oh boy. Dang. My mom’s mom, who is the grandparent I’ve had around the longest until last year, was a truly loving person. She was an optimist and had a good sense of humor. She was able to put herself in—I don’t want to say the background, because in all of our family dinners and stuff she was a foregrounded figure—but I don’t think she had an emphasis on self that a lot of us have. When you realize if you dissolve your ego, then you can be more present with people, care about them, and know where and what they’re coming from. She had that not just with us, but her friends. She had a ton of friends I didn’t even know about that all came to her funeral. There was a real love of music. The selflessness thing is something I don’t know if she passed it on to me, as I’m the singer in a band, which is a pretty front-and-center thing. But I think about that often. That’s not what I want to do my whole life. It would be nice to fade away from that in a way that incorporates music while embracing community as much as possible, in an equal way where everyone gets to speak. She set the parameters for how I could learn to do that. I don’t know if it’s generic though [laughs].
DIGBOSTON: If you could be engulfed by a single emotion for the rest of this year, which would it be and why?
ROSSITER: Oh woooow! For the rest of the year! Man. Is love an emotion? Sometimes I think it’s an object, like a fourth- or fifth-dimensional thing and we’re all just floating in it. If you’re lucky, you can grab its current for a while and ride it or it passes through you like a ghost. But I think it requires meditation. If you can reflect on the concept of love, then you can live more actively within it. The tough thing about our world is that you’re presented with so many things that don’t give you time to think about it. I want to be engulfed in love, but not in the cheesy Love Actually or Notting Hill style. Still very enjoyable, still like those movies, but I’m thinking about my grandma. It’s in that song, “For Nana.” I would very much like to live the love that she lived. I want to live by her example in a love that requires diligence, self-sacrifice, and attention to that thing and the people that you love. It requires not always living the life you think you should live, but living the life you are living thoughtfully. It’s a beautiful feeling. I’m in a really loving relationship in a way I never have before. So I’m learning to be with each other actively. I hope that can roll into 2019 for the entire year, too. There’s a Martin Luther King sermon on love where he says you need to have love for everyone and reserve your hatred for the system that we’re caught within. I’m trying to live that way. It’s not easy, but I’m trying.
IAN SWEET, YOUNG JESUS, SEAN HENRY. SAT 11.3. GREAT SCOTT, 1222 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. 6PM/18+/$13. GREATSCOTTBOSTON.COM