A New Sound in the South: J Roddy Walston on 'Destroyers of the Soft Life'
At any moment the band might tear a hole through the speakers with songs bursting at the seams with stadium-sized power.
For years J Roddy Walston & the Business have been teetering on the edge of commercial success. Formed in Cleveland, Tennessee and known for their holy touring van and boisterous live shows which fall somewhere between a frenzied country romp and all out religious revival, they have come into their own as having a reputation for churning out material that is at once lively and danceable as it is thoughtful and fresh for a genre as definitive as Southern rock. Their new album, Destroyers of the Soft Life released 29 September on ATO Records, finds the band continuing its push to be demanded as one of the generations' most renowned rock bands. Front man, J Roddy discussed with PopMatters the band’s new approach to writing and the challenges that come along with it.
For Destroyers of the Soft Life, J Roddy and his band went deeper into the process of meticulously crafting songs and attaining a sparkling sonic clarity than they have for any previous project in their discography. “In the past, I’ve referenced us as being a touring band rolling into the studio,” says Walston. He mentions how the attitude had previously been focused on trying to capture the energy of the band’s electric live show and that would be a great record, but as Walston points out, “You can’t just put up a few microphones and capture what our band does”. Always looking to move his band’s sound in new directions, Walston decided to go a place they have never gone before. Speaking of the songs, he says “we focused on really dialing down on the songs and lyrics and performances and then going back in and recording that and mixing it and mixing it again and really thinking about every move and then saying ‘Here you go, now you guys can listen to it.’”
The result is an album full of songs packed with manic energy. At any moment it feels as if the band is just an instant from tearing a hole through the speakers with songs bursting at the seams with stadium-sized power. Walston said that the decision to make a different sounding record was a conscious one from the beginning. He says he didn’t want the record “to sound like a reference to the past or some other time period, but to sound like right now and be recorded on equipment from right now. Not that we don’t have influences but we were trying to move into the present to take off these limitations where we are recording through a tape machine and you can’t do this and if you do you lose what you have already done. [We wanted to] actually record on a computer and be able to do stuff to the music…We wanted to make a full, sonic, super hi-fi record”.
Walston mentions that logically speaking, if you want to make this type of record, you may look to enter into a certain type of modernized studio with an environment sufficient for the task at hand. But in typical go-your-own-way fashion, Walston and company turned to a rundown grenade factory and stripped it down to its bones, rebuilt it, and made their own studio. Utilizing their self-made recording space made it possible for the band to make their most studio savvy record. With it comes the perks of being able to insert sonic energy into the mix, control the low and high ends more than before, insert synths for added texture and, according to J Roddy, “actually deliver in that same sort of energy level as our live shows”.
This carefully executed mania did not come without its challenges, however. Walston had to essentially re-learn how to sing from a microphone. “Normally if I was recording I would be like two or three feet off the microphone sort of just shouting it out. If the vibe was right and the performance was close that was good enough. But suddenly if you’re at a point where everything is sonically perfect up to 95 percent, that five percent becomes way more obvious and sort of a problem.” A symptom of this newly acquired crispness and central vocal presence in the mix has lent a hand in exposing more clearly than ever before the words that Walston sings.
In terms of his actual writing process, Walston says that there “is no real order to every song that I write where I hear about a topic and I start writing down lyrics on that topic. It’s not that way for me it’s more song to song.” In fact, Walston frequently likes to write by starting from the rhythmic center of a song, its bass and drums. Then once the basic elements are established he likes to navigate his way through. For this record, the writing became so meticulous and the songs so tightly constructed that “there was only one way to fit the words in on whole sections of the song. Some of it was even working out the percussive rhythm of how syllables could go. Then there is this whole new challenge of still trying to write what I wanted to say that could still into those slots.”
A prominent theme that emerges, perhaps subconsciously, from this overall focus on clarity of sound is openness and reconciling with your own identity, an atypical albeit refreshing lyrical direction for a rock band with distinct Southern style. Of his own heritage, Walston says that “I would consider myself a Southerner but I think there is a version of the South that is not as easy to portray. The thoughtful, artistic and open Southerner is not as easy to present… I would argue that some of if not most of the best art that has come out of America has come out of the South. There's such a rhythm and a flow to the way people talk down there and that delivers just as much of the message as the words you’re saying. Language is not a blunt tool, it’s a fiddle that you pick up and play.”.
Language and lyricism have always been more to J Roddy than just filler to a cadenced sound. Just two lead singles into the new album are enough indication of this -- “The Wanting”, a frank and melancholy tale about a father and son and “You Know Me Better” are both songs that slice deep into emotional honesty, blunt familial realities, and the sting of unadulterated truth.
Walston and company have made another major stride forward in redefining their sound as well as the conventions of what Southern rock is supposed to sound like. A major role in this is Walston’s feeling that “everybody wants to connect to something, either to each other or feel like they are a part of something, I think our shows and music provide that space.” It's this inclusiveness and thematic progressivism that makes listening to Destroyers of the Soft Life feel akin to disclosing a difficult truth and lifting a weighty burden from your shoulders. It serves as a message to the South and to rock music in general that renovation and modernization can lead to something dynamic and beautiful.