In Conversation: Young Jesus’ John Rossiter Pushes Past Emo

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Right before our interview, John Rossiter had a call with his therapist, so he is feeling vulnerable. That’s not an unusual feeling for him these days, though, as he has been weeding through the nastier roots of his emotions through personal reflection and with his art. His band Young Jesus has released a new album, Conceptual Beach, that reflects that deep thought and Rossiter’s possibly attainable fantasy that a better world is possible. He’s starting with himself. 

Stylistically, Young Jesus can be hard to pin down, as they touch on rock, jazz, experimental, and, as Rossiter is happy to admit, emo. While he is in no rush to shake that genre, he is eager to open the band to a wider world of people who will like them for who they are. He’d like to feel that way about himself, too. 

I discovered Young Jesus on their last album, 2018’s The Whole Thing Is Just There. It’s six songs, five of which are gut-punching mid-length indie rock songs before you get to the closer, “Gulf,” which clocks in at over 20 minutes. There’s a world of music in this song, which starts and ends with elegant sections of shimmery guitar and bluesy singing, and whose middle is an extended instrumental jam with hints of the Grateful Dead and free jazz. One riff rises and falls throughout, and you can grab onto it like an extended hand. 

Conceptual Beach builds on the power of The Whole Thing and the spaciousness of “Gulf.” It’s a funky record, a confident record. It invites people to fantasize and find their own conceptual beach, a relaxing seaside of the mind that feels especially useful when quarantined and isolated. Though he’s been at it a long time, Rossiter feels like it’s maybe the first time in his career that he really nailed it. He explained why. 

GSC: What was your childhood like?

John Rossiter: It was, in a word, Christian. That has a big influence that’s both positive and negative. It’s given me some of the structure through which a lot of the lyrics of the album come through. A lot of my first stories were sort of biblical stories. I think a lot about grace and forgiveness and god and faith. There was an intense pressure to be normal and to be perfect. That’s the crux of where I’m at now and it has a huge influence on what we do musically,

GSC: Where was the pressure coming from?

Rossiter: It was both family and community. Learning to let go a little bit is huge. One of the greatest things about this band is that we work in so much improvisation. That has come to be a structure through which I’ve found a lot of release and joy. I’ve been able to embrace something outside of trying to be perfect. Granted, that’s a huge struggle. I have such high standards by which I judge myself and others. A big part of this album is realizing those judgments, realizing some of the models that you develop from childhood, trying to break them, and trying to find really positive models in adulthood because they’re all around you.

GSC: What traits from childhood do you have that you do like? 

John: I have an impulse to fall back on the negative. Yeah, there were hard parts about childhood. Life is often quite painful. But there were beautiful things. I have an older sister and we have found a lot of solace in our difference from the rest of our family. It often feels like we stick out like a sore thumb if there’s a big reunion, but we have refuge in each other, which is really special. And, gosh, I had room to play and use my imagination in the backyard to go on the swings and pretend to be like Han Solo.

My parents are very beautiful people in that they’re able to apologize. Five years ago they were apologizing for some things that they thought they had done, and I said, All of that’s true, but it has also forced me to live in my own way and that has become really vibrant. I get so much comfort from creating crazy, multi-dimensional worlds. 

GSC: This record is literally about creating a world. For Young Jesus, an underlying structure is that you come from an emo scene, but you’ve really exploded that now. Do you consciously like playing with that foundational aspect of who the band is? 

John: It’s one of the biggest existential questions for the band. Seven or eight years ago, I could have chosen to start a new band rather than continue Young Jesus. Then three people, Eric Shevrin, Kern Haug, and Marcel Borbon joined the band, and they brought a really diverse sense of music and expression. So it can be frustrating because I don’t think we’re an emo band. But that’s what everyone wants to tell us. There are a lot of connotations that have kept people from greeting us with the kind of open heartedness and open mindedness with which we greet our music. But maybe it’s good that we get associated with emo as our music is in service to our emotions. Our improvisations are very much in service to our presence in that moment. And the things that I loved about emo as a younger man were that it so forcefully expressed heartbreak and anger and rejection. So I am thankful for all those things that it helped me express. 

GSC: Do you spend a lot of time thinking about your own maleness and as a part of the band’s identity? 

All photos were provided by the band

John:  Yes, all the time. We had a lot of trouble recording this album because we were running into a lot of problems that come from male socialization. We were having a lot of trouble communicating and it was surprising because we’re so good at communicating musically. We had done a lot of open, honest communication on tour, but we just hadn’t really maintained our relationships and hadn’t counted on how intimate recording the album would be. And so it was really challenging and we’re still repairing from that. I have no doubt that will be really good. 

There was a real idea of what a man should be growing up. And I really resented that because I was very sensitive and still am. And that didn’t fit in. Where I grew up, you were supposed to become a lawyer or a hedge fund manager or a banker. That was what being a man was, to extract as much money from a job as possible. I’m not sure exactly why I came to question that. I guess because I always failed. Growing up, I didn’t get good grades. I just wasn’t hitting the notes that everyone else was. But since I moved to LA, most of the friends I have made were women. I’ve found a lot of solace in them and have been able to lean into my femininity a lot more through these amazing women. There’s a Young Jesus album cover a few years ago where I am dressed in drag, and that’s a part of my life and a complicated part of my identity that I don’t know where it fits, but it’s there. 

In quarantine, I joined a group, called Looking at Male Privilege. It’s a group of white men that get together and talk about things like vulnerability, shame, guilt, how to transcend these things, how to show up for each other, and then how to show up for the social movements at large and for a more equitable world. I have a lot of shameful sort of associations with masculinity and I’m just now learning how to be a little bit more open to it and see the beautiful things about my identity and how to talk about and talk with other men. I think we have—or at least I have—fell asleep on those conversations for a long time. 

GSC: What are your goals for Conceptual Beach?

John: Gosh, I have no expectations for Conceptual Beach. I think we made a great record and I’m really proud of it. It’s been a long journey. This is the first record where I’m not just saying how good I want to be, or what I want the world to be, or if only people did this it would be great, or look at all these people who are fucking up, or look at how much I’ve fucked up, but it’s more this is what’s happening and there’s so much work to be done. But there’s also so much that’s being done, and a lot of it is beautiful. A lot of what’s within me and what’s within my friends and loved ones is beautiful. It’s the first time—I’m emotional right now—that I believe it. I don’t know if I really believed it before. I didn’t really listen to our music and its lyrics, and especially their delivery, until a year ago. When I listened, I was like, Oh my god, I’m screaming the whole time, I’m so angry. This is the first album where I’m emerging from that and being like, Okay, I could do better myself. I want to hear these lessons that are on the album and keep living them. I hope some people get some of that from it. I hope they see how much I love other people. 

Conceptual Beach is now available for purchase on Bandcamp and streaming on Spotify and Apple Music. Give the band a follow on their twitter and insta.

Also thanks to Matt for the interview, make sure to check out his bi-weekly Substack Deep Voices where he provides curated playlists with an hours worth of the best hidden gems he has been bumping lately.

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