By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun
8:09 AM EDT, September 11, 2013
Seeing J. Roddy Walston and the Business in concert always guarantees one thing: You'll leave much sweatier than you arrived.
Since arriving in Baltimore from Tennessee in 2004, the quartet's workmanlike reputation has been built on its raucous, give-everything-you-have-and-more live show, where perspiration simply comes with the territory.
But J. Roddy Walston and the Business were different from the other Baltimore-bred bands of the time. They weren't the lauded experimentalists of Animal Collective or the cloaked-in-mystery duo of Beach House. They simply showed up at gigs, played their energetic mix of classic rock, soul and funk, and piled back in their beat-up van to do it all again the next day. Over time, a fan base was built the old fashioned way — not with blog buzz or a catchy single, but through word of mouth.
"The only reason people talked about us or knew about us was because we toured. Press in general did not talk about us," frontman J. (short for Jonathan) Roddy Walston said recently. "It was: Play a show, someone sees us, they tell their friends and that was kind of everything for us."
But when it came time to write its latest album, the band realized it wanted more. The desire wasn't money or fame, but something deeper: Substance.
"I started seeing myself more as an artist than in the past," Walston, 32, said. "I'm definitely looking to do something, as far as art goes, that's challenging. Something that's worth talking about."
The result of this heightened sense of artistry is the group's third album, "Essential Tremors," which was released Tuesday. Recorded last March in Valdosta, Ga., the 11-track effort is the band's most eclectic-sounding album, most lyrically candid and, not coincidentally, the strongest of its career.
And it wasn't just Walston embracing the growth.
"Before it was like, 'Let's be rock. Let's make our big rock record,'" said guitarist Billy Gordon, 34. "The approach to this one was kind of like, 'Let's broaden. Let's expand. Let's do some weirder stuff than we normally wouldn't do.'"
Walston offers a vivid example. While working on the album-opener "Black Light," co-producer Matt Wignall told Walston the song should be sexier. He suggested Walston sing in falsetto.
"I turn around and start trying it, and all of a sudden everyone's down to their underwear and dancing in the studio," he said. "It was pretty ridiculous."
It's hard to argue with the results. "Essential Tremors" is a noticeable step forward from the group's last album, 2010's self-titled effort. There are still rollicking, foot-stomping anthems ("Marigold," "Same Days"), but they're balanced with sobering slow-burners ("Boys Can Never Tell," "Nobody Knows") that will make you wonder if it's the same band.
And as a lyricist, Walston opens up like never before, starting with the album's title, "Essential Tremors," which is a reference to the nervous-system disorder he's long suffered from that causes his hands to shake. He said his family was on his mind when he decided to write more openly.
"I definitely [thought], 'OK, I'm going to say this or I'm going to talk about this thing. How does this affect my family? How is this conversation going to go with my mom?'" he said.
The album was written and recorded without a label to release it, but it wasn't difficult to find a suitor in ATO Records, a division of RCA that's home to Alabama Shakes, Drive-By Truckers and more like-minded acts.
Walston said joining ATO's roster had been a longtime hope. He even compiled a "band bucket list" seven years ago and wrote, "release an album on ATO" at the top of it. After Tuesday's record release, he'll have accomplished everything on that list, which also included paying bills with money made from music and playing the Bonnaroo Music Festival (that was in 2011, when they also played Lollapalooza). Walston seems surprised and energized from checking off the entire list.
"I was like, 'Holy crap, I need to make another list and put things like "make a billion dollars" on there,"'" Walston said.
They're far from millionaires, let alone billionaires, but band members finally found financial stability through the band in recent years. (Only drummer Steve Colmus, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., has to have a side job — he's a high-school substitute teacher — and that's based on his location's high cost of living.)
Living off the band's earnings has shifted its goals. Before, they wanted to live on the road. Now they hope to be more selective in the tours and shows they do. Walston hopes for more free time to pursue producing gigs and things outside of music.
"I want to walk into the woods and build a cabin with my hands and an axe. I could probably do that without the record doing well, but it would be a lot easier if the record did well," he said with a laugh.
Still, J. Roddy Walston and the Business are not aiming for the top of the singles chart. Instead, Colmus would like to see the band's trajectory follow another ATO act.
"My Morning Jacket is the ideal. They didn't have that one singular moment," Colmus, 33, said. "They just built this thing and all of a sudden it was there. And now they're everywhere."
It didn't happen overnight for My Morning Jacket, and it won't for Walston and the Business either. So they're back on the road for a United States fall tour that stops at Baltimore's Rams Head Live on Sept. 20. It will be a true homecoming for the band, which identifies itself as a Baltimore act despite the fact Gordon is the only one still living here. Colmus is in New York while Walston and 25-year-old bassist Logan Davis live in Richmond, Va., where the band now gathers to practice. They may be scattered along the East Coast, but the members all say they will forever be a Baltimore band.
"Even if we all moved away from there, I think the band itself is from Baltimore at this point," Walston said. "The band grew up there."
With the record in stores, the band can return its attention to its first passion — its live show — and stop wondering about the impact "Essential Tremors" might or might not have on the band.
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter: They're still the same road warriors they were in Baltimore, but they're just a little wiser and more confident than before. Still, they know they've come this far trusting their own instincts, and now is not the time to stop.
"As a musician, I don't put on a show to maintain our reputation and I don't write songs to change or alter our reputation," Walston said. "We're just doing what we want to do."
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