Young Jesus Are Indie Rock's Great Anarcho-Impressionists

The band's new album, premiering before its release via Saddle Creek this Friday, is a part-improvised mini-masterpiece.

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Oct 9 2018, 3:21pm

Kelsey Hart

Young Jesus have been thinking about mushrooms. They've read Paul Stamets, who believes that mushrooms can save the earth. They've read The Mushroom at the End of the World, in which the author Anna Tsing forages through the mushroom industry for answers about late capitalism. They've read Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees, a book that draws parallels between fungi and social security systems and eventually posits that mushrooms are "something like the forest Internet."

They've put all of this into The Whole Thing Is Just There, premiering below before its release via Saddle Creek on October 12. It is, on the surface, an incredibly ambitious indie rock record, six songs that sprawl out over 50 minutes, oscillating between affirmations ("It’s not enough to hate the world we live within") and wry, quasi-spiritual, quarter-life angst ("I have begun seeing with my third eye / I have begun investments with my dad"). But at times it's not an indie rock record at all. Swaths of the The Whole Thing are given over to improvisation and deconstruction, and few of its tracks conform to any recognizable verse-chorus structure. It concludes with a 20-minute-long song called "Gulf," only six minutes of which were written before they got into the studio. It's strewn with anthemic moments, but they always spiral out into stretches of near-chaos.

That freedom finds its roots in those mushrooms. All four members of the band—Rossiter, keyboardist Eric Shevrin, bassist Marcel Borbon, and drummer Kern Haug—read the books about fungi, then discussed them at length. They see something exemplary in the mushroom, something that they can learn from as musicians and people. "The fungus sees the vulnerabilities of the tree, and the tree sees the vulnerabilities of the fungus," Rossiter says over the phone with the rest of the band listening in. "If you can accept those things from each other in a friendship, then you can have a co-operative relationship. Along with the idea that you eat the detritus of the world, and you make it new, and you enrich the world through that process."

"Nature metaphors," he says. "They're there for everything."

Formed in Chicago in the early 2010s, Young Jesus were, for a while, another intriguing, suburban indie rock band. Their introspective early EPs culminated in 2012's Home, a record that seemed designed for college basement shows, peppered with angst-ridden anecdotes and vivid lines about growing up awkwardly. It wasn't until Rossiter moved to Los Angeles in 2013, hoping for a quick-fix to his late-20s anguish and expecting to give up music entirely, that the band took a leap. He got a job at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, where he started reading more and falling in with people who pushed him intellectually. "I moved here, and I realized that I could not become someone different. I could not escape who I am," he says. He started writing songs that reflected that.

Grow / Decompose, released in 2015 after Shevrin had moved over to LA, still had Young Jesus as the same band, sonically—Rossiter's voice had the same naive charm for a start. But they were suddenly tapping into questions about spirituality and fluidity. Rossiter no longer had the answers.

Their next record, last year's S/T, came with a reading syllabus, which made clear that the band was hyper-literary, but thankfully suggested that they were also willing to push that to an absurd, self-mocking extreme. ("A name like Young Jesus is either deadly earnest or a total piss-take," Ian Cohen wrote in his review at Pitchfork.) It opened with an inconclusive statement: "I am a coffee cup, I am tired, I am awake / I am this thought and I am not myself / And that's okay." From there, the songs regularly wandered off into lush, ambient interludes while Rossiter picked apart family, God, and memory.

The Whole Thing Is Just There takes S/T a step further. There's no syllabus on-hand this time, but, beyond mushrooms, there's at least month's worth of stuff to dig into—books by Angela Davis, Svetlana Alexievich, Marilynne Robinson, and Adrienne Maree Brown, for a start. Above all, they've been focusing on improvisation and its effects: Derek Bailey's Improvisation, Graham Lock's Forces In Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music, and a few books by David Graeber, who dreams of "an anti-authoritarianism that, in its emphasis on creative synthesis and improvisation, sees freedom basically in terms of play."

For Young Jesus, then, improvisation is a political act. You can hear it on "Gulf," with its undulating impressionism, or "Saganism vs. Buddhism," which opens with a somber piano line, jitters through atonality, then naturally finds its way back to wide open chords.Haug says he wanted to "imagine an anarchist society as one where individuals are ready to act at any point, and are hyper-engaged with their surroundings, and are expanding the idea of what a harmonious organization can be." Borbon focuses on jazz, "the improvisational music of the United States," something which has "always been resistance music." They all point to anarcho-punk icons Crass, who came about as close as any band could to having no rules whatsoever.

"The things that we really love, or at least me personally, are the artists that are not just responding to a political moment, but are providing and imagining an alternative that usually is rooted in your core sense of morality and being," Rossiter says. "I think there's a temptation to write off improvisors as not necessarily thoughtful, or they're like wild or free. But there's a lot of intention and thought there, and there's a lot of intensity and compositional genius there. And just beauty."

All four members of Young Jesus talk about these things. A lot. Their group dynamic is less that of a touring band and more that of the protagonists in The Good Place. They're constantly workshopping ideas, trying to figure out ways to interact with each other onstage and off, thinking about how to bring an audience more fully into a show. "I definitely do have an anxious sort of mind," Rossiter says, unprompted. "This is parallel to our album artwork, which is almost obsessively drawn, pen lines against watercolor. That's sort of how I imagine the band sometimes. I can be a sort of controlling, obsessive person, but I'm trying to let go, and figure out ways to live with less intentionality. More just a general process of kindness and thoughtfulness."

On The Whole Thing Is Just There, that manifests itself in some unexpected, spontaneous, but still vividly heartfelt music. They just had to consider the mushroom.

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