For J. Roddy Walston and the Business, doing things the hard way is the only way. After eight years of near-constant touring behind 2013’s Essential Tremors and their 2010 self-titled record, the Americana rockers took some time to rebuild — both literally and figuratively. On their new album Destroyers Of The Soft Life, the Americana rockers went back to the basics, starting a studio from scratch in the band’s home base of Richmond, Virginia.
“It took a long time to find the space,” Walston remembers. “I literally got in my car and drove for four hours a day, just going, ‘Well, that building looks destroyed’ and having to do property tax searches to find property owners’ names and calling them out of the blue.”
The grueling search led the quartet to eventually set up shop in an equally unglamorous former grenade factory, taking their DIY ethos to a new level.
“The whole process was madness, like getting on YouTube in the morning and looking up ‘how to wire a whole house’s electricity,’” Walston laughs. “The beginning of every video is like, ‘If you’re watching this video, you shouldn’t do this. But if you’re going to do it, here’s things to know!’”
The same non-stop energy that fuels J. Roddy Walston and the Business’s live shows got channeled into creating a totally customized space for the group. While Destroyers Of The Soft Life might sound more polished than its predecessors at first listen, its creation took a distinctly rougher path.
“It was definitely a painful and bloody process,” the singer/pianist says. “We had a gig one week after six months of no gigs, and I happened to be shooting a nail into a corner and hit a knot and it came back around and shot straight into my knuckle. I played the show with a swollen finger I couldn’t bend.”
War wounds aside, renovating the factory made for a band that’s now more self-assured and confident in its aesthetic.
“We’ve traveled out to these studios and done things in these spaces, with these sterile pieces of equipment, but we don’t react to that gear, we don’t react to those rooms,” Walston says, noting a past stint in LA that was an expensive attempt to recreate the rawer sounds on their demos. “If you could make a building and boil our band down and turn it into a three-dimensional space to inhabit, that’s what we were able to do.”
While J. Roddy Walston and the Business’s southern rock roots give their sound an instantly familiar quality, Destroyers Of The Soft Life is an unmistakably modern record. While they’d previously had a penchant for recording to tape, they set up their new studio to take a digital approach.
“Some idea that using old technology makes your music somehow better or sound better, even if you don’t realize it, puts you in the headspace of ‘old music is better,’” Walston says. “What’s the point of being in a band if the best record was made in 1971? Why is anyone still doing it? I’m so over that whole mindset.”
Being in a band in 2017 comes with a set of particularly modern challenges. On “Ways And Means,” Walston confronts the post-election environment in his small, heavily Christian hometown.
“There’s been these little carrots dangled out to poor people over and over again and they vote in a way that is really completely counter to what would be good for them because of some moral issue,” he describes. “And this time, I just don’t know how you can say you’re voting on a moral ground. You’re not voting morally and you’re not voting in a way that would lift yourself or your kids up. You’re just voting because you’re scared, or because of racism.”
Similarly, Walston recalls a political argument with a friend that grew ugly on the incongruously sunny “Blade Of Truth;” through song, he looks at how to have these hard conversations with more empathy.
“Everybody’s having that experience, basically trying to make the world and what their actions inside of it justify what they’re doing,” Walston says. “There’s a lot of trying to sort that out, whether that’s actually for myself or serves some fictional scenario I’ve conjured up inside the song.”
While Destroyers Of The Soft Life isn’t exactly a protest record, politics are closer in the foreground for everyone now. Everything feels a little heavier, on both a macro and micro level.
“I had a kid, and I was in my own headspace trying to sort out how I’m interacting with the world,” he says. “I had that moment — and I think most parents have that — where you kind of go, ‘Am I affecting the world or am I at least creating a world around me that I want my kid to exist in?’”
While Walston still has plenty of things to figure out, that’s okay. Destroyers Of The Soft Life was made in defiance of instant gratification, where personal grappling and building the ideal studio just happen to be two things that take time.
“I think everything’s too easy right now,” he concludes. “And … I’m an American, I live in a nice city, and I get to pay my bills by writing music and playing shows, a completely ridiculous way to be alive.”