Rob Grote Of The Districts Shares Thoughts On New Album, His Creative Process And The Role Of Music In Society

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This article was originally slated to be published in early March but was delayed due to the tornado that hit Middle Tennessee (the home base of American Songwriter and many of our writers). Click here to learn more about the tornado and what you can do to help those who were affected by it. 

Photo by Shervin Lainez.

In 2009 a group of four high schoolers from Lititz, Pennsylvania decided to start a band: this was the birth of The Districts.

In the eleven years since then, The Districts have become an enduring presence in the indie world, touring extensively and putting out four studio albums — including their most recent record, You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere, which dropped on March 13 via Fat Possum.

What makes the Districts stand out from their peers who emerged at the same time is their embrace of change. Each of the band’s records have different moods and tonalities, which makes the band more dynamic than the rest of the indie guitar rock scene from the early 2010s. Never, however, has this change been more palpable than on You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere

“I feel like we got super burned out,” the band’s principal songwriter, Rob Grote, told American Songwriter. “I feel that by the end of our 2017 tour we were at this point of assessing a lot. Playing over 200 live shows is a really easy way to burn out and be like ‘well, what the fuck am I doing?’ I think there was a lot of that feeling, a lot of things did need to be reassessed — plus there was a lot of outside, stressful drama going on. We’ve been playing together since we were pretty young, so it was like ‘who are we now that all this time and life has gone by?’ It definitely put us in a state of questioning.”

Grote’s initial response to this burning out was to analyze his own relationship with music and his creative process. “Ultimately, the process of writing, to me, is more about simultaneously escaping yourself and validating yourself — not in an insecure way, but in a way that validates your existence almost, like ‘I am here, this is me,’” Grote said.

As The Districts’ 2017 tour winded down, Grote began writing a new batch of songs, this time not for the band but just for himself. As time went by, Grote began to record demos of these songs, fleshing them out much further than he ever had before when writing in the context of a full band.

“Most of the time my approach to writing songs has been with a guitar or piano, just figuring out chord changes and lyrics,” Grote said. “Then I’d bring it to the band and we’d all jam on it for as long as it took until it shaped up; if anyone had ideas on how to arrange it, we’d do that. These demos, however, were more about recording right from the start. I’d just sit down, press record and take them as far as I could — it became a different thing. Instead of stopping when it’s partially done, you end up really exploring the full space that’s there. It was way more limitless — I wasn’t making it to be something in particular, it was more about trying to use the time and space you have in a song to make as many transcendent moments happen in whatever way you can. It was a lot more focused on production and arrangement.”

These songs eventually became You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere once the rest of the band heard Grote’s demos and felt that they would work for The Districts proper. 

“I think they connected to what I was trying to do with the songs and it really felt natural to try to make them bigger and better as a band,” Grote said. “We did our first record when we were young and it’s kinda all over the place. It’s got really folky songs, it’s got heavier songs, it’s got really soft songs. Then we focused on some heavier stuff after that. I feel like this record fell into a nice place; because I was confused and uncertain about a lot of things and because I approached it with no attachment to what it would become, it was one the first times that I’ve really felt totally free to be myself with it. I think that finally synthesized a lot of things that I had tried to do in music before, and it worked this time because I wasn’t trying to do them.

“I’m always really self-critical after albums are done. I’ll really be psyched the whole time we’re working on it, but then by the time we’re done I’m like ‘ah, but I did this wrong, I did that wrong,’ I really start to pick it apart. I feel that because I trusted myself a lot throughout the process and tried to approach this record with the attitude of ‘I know what this can be and I want to make it that,’ You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere feels really pure. I don’t have too many qualms with it because of the purity of it.”

And the record really does emit that feeling of purity and self-declaration. Grote has always been a master of writing songs that are both simple and grandiose thematically, and You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere is a prime example of that.

“Sometimes I write a song about an issue, but other times it can be just as powerful to express something like love,” Grote said. “The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’ is such a simple statement, but that song probably had a pretty large impact on the world despite being a simple idea. It’s not that I feel that music has to always be political post-2016, but I do think it’s important to consider the role of music to heal and change people. You can change people politically without talking to them about politics. If people can actually empathize and understand that ‘oh this person fleeing danger is literally the exact same human being as me,’ then you can understand ‘oh they just have a different life but want the same things I want.’ Music is this place where we can all connect to the fact that we’re all hoping for, chasing and needing the same things. I think that’s step one in changing the world: understanding that someone else feels the same way as me. I think it’s really important for music to offer a place where people can connect and realize that you’re not alone and you’re really just another vessel of consciousness.”

Stream The Districts’ new album You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere below:

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