Young Jesus Welcome You To Conceptual Beach
The last two records from Young Jesus were all about letting go of convention. After years of writing and releasing songs within the boundaries of emo and indie-rock, L.A.-via-Chicago musician John Rossiter was basking in the creative liberation of improvisational jazz and amorphous post-rock. Young Jesus had been his songwriting vehicle since 2010, but once he moved to L.A. and overhauled the lineup with players who taught him to abandon traditional structure and embrace spontaneity, the band took on a much different form.
On 2017's S/T, a song like "Feeling" laced a trudging indie-rock hook in the vein of early Modest Mouse with tumbling, arrhythmic drumming and long passages of woodland field recordings. 2018's The Whole Thing Is Just There was even looser and featured frequent ad-libbing that culminated in a sprawling, 20-minute finale called "Gulf." That two-year period of prolific writing and frequent touring was as much a spiritual rejuvenation as it was a musical one, and naturally the band were a bit tired when it wrapped up. Once they reassembled after some time off and began plotting the next record, the process felt less effortless than it did on the last two go-arounds.
"So we wrote a ton of songs and jammed a lot and it didn’t always feel great," Rossiter says. "It was the first time where I think we were playing and we would really question where we were going."
Whereas those previous albums were forged from capturing a feeling and not second guessing themselves, their new record Welcome To Conceptual Beach (out on Aug. 14 via Saddle Creek) was built by being more thoughtful and contemplative about the music. For Rossiter, that actually meant giving up some of his creative control.
"I think I can be pretty controlling sometimes and this record is reflective of, at least for me, grappling with that," he says. "Trying to trust more and let go a little bit on my own and be honest with myself and my shortcomings. What can I learn and where can I grow and what am I good at and what do I love? Those are questions I was asking myself and I think as a band we were asking ourselves."
The record that emerged is a lot more rhythmically focused and features more input from Rossiter’s bandmates and collaborators than ever before. Opener "Faith" is an organ-led bar ballad that verges on prog at points, "Pattern Doubt" is bolstered by gorgeous saxophone and dreamy piano sweeps, "Meditations" makes room for fluttering jazz flute, and "Lark" contains a passage in the middle where Rossiter speak-sings like a Baptist preacher over playfully campy funk music. There are moments of surging shoegaze and meandering post-rock that could’ve appeared on either of their last albums, but overall, Welcome To Conceptual Beach sounds less heady, less freewheeling, and more free-spirited than previous Young Jesus projects.
Some of that is likely a result of Rossiter making huge strides in his personal life that involved de-emphasizing intellectualization in favor of emotional tenderness. The lyrics of the record’s lead single "Root and Crown" serve as a sort of thesis for his new outlook on life through the lens of his band: "Every record needs a thesis, needs a crisis, or campaign / All my feelings need a reason, need a righteousness or blame."
"This record is about accepting the times when you’re wrong," he says. "Not necessarily having a reason but having a feeling and trusting that feeling and balancing it with reasoning. And learning that righteousness is really dangerous, to believe that there’s a right and that it’s not in flux or in negotiation with context and the people around you and the way people around you are feeling."
"That’s so important," he continues. "I wasn't noticing how people are feeling. At least in my band I was really pushing people very hard and I needed to take a minute and ask, 'Are you guys OK? Is this too hard? Am I pushing everyone too hard? Am I pushing myself too hard?' So that’s the record."
As Rossiter became more open with himself and those around him, he became more forthcoming about Conceptual Beach, which is what he describes as his "internal landscape." For years, Conceptual Beach had been both Rossiter's zine and a setting for personal journal entries, but back in 2018 he used the name for an event series in L.A. where Young Jesus were trying to deconstruct and rebuild what a concert can entail. Now, Conceptual Beach has made it into the title of this new album and Rossiter is even in the works of building an entire website around it called conceptualbeach.net.
We talked to Rossiter about what Conceptual Beach means to him, how it’s expanded over the years and how its creative spirit can be replicated in a time without live music.
The last time we talked, Conceptual Beach was an event series you were doing in L.A. where you would perform and people would do watercolor paint and it was this really multidisciplinary experience. How did the idea of Conceptual Beach expand from there?
When we had that concert and those experiences, it was really freeing. It's really freeing to see that you can have a show and not even play any songs and people will be excited about it. So it takes a lot of pressure off, I think I put a lot of pressure at least on myself, to write these epic, intense—I want the albums to be perfect. And that experience was like, "Wow this was a pretty often messy feeling thing."
I think Conceptual Beach was, for a while in many ways, me just trying to figure out how to live better on my own. And if I just write enough, if I’m just creative enough, my life will be good and happy. And it wasn't working. So I'm slowly learning to bring Conceptual Beach into the world and share it and ask other people what their inner landscape might be like and maybe I could learn something from that. And maybe the difficult, dark painful things and the joyful, lovely amazing things that I’ve seen on Conceptual Beach, I can start to share with my friends and my partner and my family.
I've never really cried in front of people before, and the past two years I quit smoking and someone asked me, how'd I do it? And I said, "Well, I cry four to five times a week and I feel really angry sometimes and I never felt that before." I put it all into a cigarette or maybe a drink, who knows. So Conceptual Beach growing has entered my life in a way that's changed me significantly, so I think it’s changed the music significantly and I think it's changed how we as a band deal with each other. How we deal with ourselves.
It's interesting how Conceptual Beach started as this very personal concept and has become more shared, whether it be in a concert setting or on a record that you collaborated so closely with your bandmates on. So as you've grown less guarded, Conceptual Beach has as well.
Yeah, so I'm in this book group that I help facilitate and it's full of these amazing people. One of the really powerful things about it and one of the things I've learned a lot through the friends I’ve made there is that they’re very embodied people. They're very connected with all sorts of transformative justice and social justice groups—it’s a current events book group so it draws those types of people towards it.
And some people suggested a few books that were really embodied and really optimistic. They offered a way out rather than pointing out what I think a lot of theory does, which is point out how shitty the world is and [present] a lens to examine its shittiness and really make an entire argument about how terrible it is. And a friend of mine who, like me, grew up really focused on our mind and our intellect, we started reading these books and we were like, "This isn’t for me. This is a bunch of wacky, new-age bullshit and it’s so accounting. It's asking the reader how they’re feeling. That's too much for me, I don't need that, I'm tough, I want people to get straight to the point."
And then we kept reading that and all of a sudden I was like, "Wait a second, this book cares about me. And it cares about the writer and how they’re feeling. And why am I upset about that?" Those are kind of beautiful things to do and to care about each other and to ask really actively how I'm feeling and how my friends are feeling. It really opened something in me. I would say I've probably read less this year than I have in a while and it doesn’t feel like a bad thing. It feels like I’m a little more connected with myself and, I think, to my friends.
I think it's kind of fascinating that you were really trying to reshape what a live show was a couple years back, and now the music community is facing an existential challenge and we need to reshape what a live musical experience is. Have you noticed anything anyone's doing that can maybe help carry on that spirit virtually for the time being?
I'm really working on it because honestly I get kind of anxious using social media so it's been hard for me to engage with it creatively. I do hope there's conversations happening and it's a conversation I'm continuing to have, is how to do these things without Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.
And I think there's a lot of potential for these extremely creative people that are in D.I.Y. or influenced by a band like ourselves or some kind of mix of the two. So many people have so much energy and creativity and ability to think of new workarounds. These are the type of people who can figure out how to get a 7" pressed just out of thin air or print a zine that you bring on tour and figure out how to give all that money to a mutual aid fund. These are people, to me, that are at the forefront of creatively engaging with the world we're in right now and I think we need to be thinking about how to protect ourselves a little bit and protect our scene, protect our data.
So I'd love to see that coming into play. I'd love to see musicians creating more and more of their own platforms, which I do see happening. That's some of the ethos of the website which is conceptualbeach.net situation. There's a lot of possibility, so much possibility. I've seen Patreons and I think that's a wonderful model and it's kind of a hard sell for people but I would like to see that pick up more. There's also so many fun things you can do with recording yourself, so to continue growing in that direction, there are ways to do it.