Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley
The problem with thinking about lust is that modernity - or the sometimes despicable society that has come from modern times, one that chastises for, yet encourages snaky photographers to claim exclusive panty-less crotch shots of young celebrity Missuses for purely exploitative purposes - is that it's so easily misread. Thoughts immediately shoot straight for the perverse, as if whatever you're thinking about lusting for wouldn't want to be thought of that way if it had its druthers.
But for once - and Washington D.C. group These United States facilitates this - it would be pleasing to just think about lust and then go out and do it without it being about putting your lips or pelvis onto something. Lust can be intelligent and it can be just what it's supposed to be - that overwhelming craving that lights lamps and cranks motors, preoccupying all waking moments with a sugar high.
These United States's president, Jesse Elliott, dives into the idea of lust the same way Iggy Pop sang and sings about it. It's not about breasts and ass, but about all of life - the great people, the intoxicating ideas, the days that rattle your own personal sanctity and cause the skin to goose up all over every single inch - and it can be found anywhere you can get to. This lust is sustainable and, oh what a bottler could do with it were it solvable and touchable, it happens - you know it does - every time that starburst explodes somewhere inside and sends a flashing of red water through your body, head-to-toe as if the pinball's going berserk knocking uncontrollably off of all the electric bumpers.
Elliott was down in Austin, Texas, last week, playing at the South By Southwest music festival with his girlfriend. They rode their bicycles everywhere they went from their hotel, five miles from the downtown. He stayed out of the sun as much as he could - with his Viking skin covered as much as it could be. And he had that smile, blown up as wide as it could be, obviously embracing more than just the warmth in the air and more than just the freewheeling optimism that the week in Austin brings. Then it was on to the west, beginning a month-long tour that meant a show every night for 35-straight days.
Wednesday night, Elliott - with The Forest and the Garden, one of the most engaging records you'll hear this 2007 in his hind pocket (written with Paleo), finished and just waiting for a home - was up in the Hollywood hills and hearing about it made the location sound like it was the most majestic and obvious place he should be staked out for his stop in the city that's done more to sully the good business of lusting over life than any other. The wooded home that he's staying in is 100 yards down the mountain from the big Hollywood sign, which he thinks is probably yellower than it appears when you're up close to it.
There's nothing between the house where he's staying and one of the most famous vestiges of America. It is the last house before the signage and that sign is alluring. Here's how Elliott describes it, "So, to get to this place we're staying, we drive through the Hollywood gate, into the neighborhood, around all these hairpin turns up the side of a mountain, all of which ends at Mulholland Highway, which is not to be confused with Mulholland Drive of course. This trip falls more on the light fantastical side of mystical, and less on the Lynchian apocalyptic one, though of course them're two sides of the same coin/godhead. At the very end is this big old brown wooden A-Frame house, wherein live Cornelia the Sufi and Tom Arcuragi, the relation to this trip, a 58-year-old wildman producer-type with stories of Tokyo and Dehli and everywhere in between, living here with an ever-rotating cast of characters, it seems (I can't keep track) -- all very bohemian and it makes you feel like a fake for even using that word, cause they've been here and been doin' it so long and so well and so…Well, anyway…ringed around the back of their property, and lined all up and down the streets, are these signs that say, 'No Hiking to the Hollywood Sign,' with, get this shit, a One-Hundred-and-THREE dollar fine for those caught. Apparently, those caught, according to Tom, are done so by helicopter, with the boys in blue swooping down in on the Great White Hollywood Letters every once in a while with great big flood lights, just lookin' for trouble, terrorists who might like to take all that symbolizes this here nation of ours and blow it to pieces, one sign at a time. They swoop in with floods and tell you to put your hands on your head and lie down on the ground and no movement's allowed. It would all be very filmic, we think. So, naturally we're thinking about trying it."
That's lusting. That's what's all fucking over The Forest and the Garden -- the reciprocal of all of that lusting - the will to climb up those hills of prickly vegetation, hugging the people along the way, asking them to divulge their lives, their secrets, their loves and wanting to know their fears and desires as intimately as we know our own and then getting to the apex, standing on top and then looking out at it all, letting your lungs suck it all in. You might refuse to exhale for a minute, trapping it all in, hoping it takes to its new environment. Elliott feels that there's some Willie Nelson in all of us. He calls it the "most honest particle." And maybe that's so. It would be better if there was more Elliott in the rest of us - free to lust away at all hours and gleefully bask in the rumble of it all.
The Daytrotter interview:
*What about these United States? Which states do you least like and please give compelling reasons.*
Jesse Elliott: These united states're an ideal on the one hand, and a reality on the other. Everything beautiful and horrid about human nature, embodied in a geography that's by turns harsh and inspiring. We drove across the desert yesterday. There's no state I don't love -- been to all the lower 48, anyway -- tho Arizona takes my head and strip-mines it dry. But then makes up for it with Tucson, see, which is a pretty good summary of what all these states are about. Hotdamn the cacti, man -- you shoulda seen'em all!
*If Paleo thinks that Cartright is the only band that matters right now, how about you? Who's your pick for that distinction?*
JE: All bands are created equal. Some are more equal than others. The hardest pick is the one that wonders whether any bands matter at all. There are just so many, like dentists. But dentists matter. So I guess that's good news for bands.
*So, what's your band situation like? Do you have some homies getting your back? Who are they?*
JE: Many homies. They keep me honest. They piss me off and drive me home and make everything better and worse, one night at a time. Tom's with me now, stalwart, cowboy hat, circling the country, counter-counter-clock-wise, 35 shows in 35 cities in 35 nights. That's back-getting if I ever saw it; that shit's neither fun nor easy. But it is brilliant. Paleo, mentioned above, makes everything sound better. He knows how sound works on the inside, an old-ancient-man mechanic if ever I met one. Josh and Josh and Winston and Mark and Drew and Kate and Reuben and Robby and -- damn, man, everyone else. We're all stumbling through, sometimes open palm on fellow shoulders, sometimes knife to spine, all of us way too human and loving it.
*What was the process like between you and Paleo making the new record? Were you sending things back and forth from one place to the other or were you actually in the same city working together?*
JE: We were in many different cities working together. We sent ideas back and forth, took months on measures, a basement in Elgin here -- that's where Watches come from, originally, I mean -- a song written in Denmark -- way too much light, unnatural, what time of year it was -- a late-night phone call from Austin to DC, problem solved, song salvaged, on and on like this, criss-crossing, excruciating, exhilarating, nothing fancy, bad microphones in worse settings with air-condition buzzes on the bass tracks -- here, the 21st Century!
*I've heard that you're some kind of genius. Is there any validity to that?*
JE: My friend Chris is some kind of monster. I take my cues from him. Ask Chris what makes these things tick. He has a band named Kitty Hawk.
*How was the bicycling in Austin?*
JE: A reawakening, hurt so good, muscles I'd forgot about, and the most beautiful girl I know with me every wince of the way. We crossed Interstates, man -- no figure of speech!
*Has your fair skin been a major burden for you in the past? That Willie Nelson bandanna is a life saver, eh?*
JE: I was made in the North Country! My people're long pale Vikings of old! The sun can kill anything it wants to, and we're just all real luck-like that we're at exactly the right Distance from it! For the time being. With Willie Nelson, on the other hand, there is no Distance. He lives inside all of us, our most honest particle!
*What's your best memory of being a Hawkeye?*
JE: Wandering, all fall, thru winter, spring made. Just living in a place called Iowa. No one knows, right? How could you describe that, ever? People glaze. There was a girl who taught me all the writing in the world there, and I still haven't learned it.
*Why did you decide on D.C. again?*
JE: It's the only city that doesn't belong to a state. I have to remain neutral. See above. It's shaped like a diamond, ground down on one side from way too much history. At four in the morning, I can find my way down to the silent empty granite and stand on the tiny little square MLK Jr. did, all myself, get watered eyes for all these dreams we've deferred. D.C. makes me think about everything hard; never met another city like it, mean old lover.
*Who do you owe that bright smile of yours to? How do you stay so cheery?*
JE: I owe my mother all my smiles and my father the wrinkles round my eyes. They fit together perfect, tho I don't think either of them have ever really fully known it. My sister is the even brighter product of their interplay. She's amazing. Once peolpe meet my family, they never come back to me. Most of my best friends in the world, they stop through Elgin, old industrial river town outside Chicago, more often than through D.C. I'm a very worried man, but somehow someone put me down in the wrong nest at birth and it all worked out wondrously.
*Do you have any idols?*
JE: Everyone who's somehow still alive, and most of the people who've passed on. Be kind, Plato said, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle. That's hard advice to follow. I don't do it well enough myself, but I think from a descriptive angle it sums up the immaculate heroism of every day in every town on this planet. Keith and Barbara in El Paso, for instance. And the Furies Say may be the only band that matters right now. See above for why that's only half the truth even tho it's all true. See?
*Is Ryan from Catfish Haven the most famous person you went to high school with?*
JE: He's certainly the smilingest. You think Mark and Lucy produced some smiles, you should see bout the offsrping what sprung from Keith and Susan! Under that voluminous Muppet mop hides a smile not seen since the likes of Buddha. All of us sitting under trees. That's what I'm thinking about right now. Everybody I went to high school with is famous. We're all sitting under trees in different parts of the world, doctors, lawyers, indian chiefs, accountants, vagabonds. Right now, right as I type, Cornelia who is a Sufi and lives almost literally under the Hollywood sign, up up Mulholland, walks in the door where we're staying; it's my cue to go. Iowa soon again, friend.