Interview: Young Jesus

by Tobias Moore

John Rossiter of Young Jesus talks on taking the alternate path and letting life in

Sometimes, regardless of our situation, we find ourselves so caught up with what’s next that we lose touch with our present. It creates a separation from reality that sees us abandon our principles, neglect those we hold near and dear, and become lost in a state of disarray – oblivious to the world. It’s a problem near all of us will have faced, and a problem those working creatively face most days. There is an expectation that this tap of creativity must be everflowing. So, as I sat down with Young Jesus’ latest album, Welcome To Conceptual Beach, and found myself in said state of numbness, in need of awakening, this album did exactly that. Bold yet understated, in your face yet deeply personal, assured yet deeply unassuming, it was full of complexities. But, at its core, simplicity remained key. 

The band have revisited the past to reimagine their future with Welcome To Conceptual Beach. In an age where nearly all sounds have been ‘done before’, it feels new, it feels refreshing – something that lead singer and guitarist John Rossiter had intentionally pushed for. ‘When we finished our previous albums, the whole thing was more mature and more confident, but, with this record, we felt it was time to move on from that; we had gotten so much from it but it got a little stale.’ And their music provides evidence of this welcome reform. Rossiter describes it as ‘a little more peaceful, a little more melodic, and a little more confident,’ and while the intricacies and experimentation of previous works are still there for us to love and hold, it was clear the album represented not only a shift in tone, but also mindset. 

Now driven by the bass and drums, rather than Rossiter’s screams, Welcome To Conceptual Beach finds the band rejuvenated, approaching the angst and obstacles they had faced earlier in life with an open heart, and crucially an open mind. Sure, there remained an appreciation of the pop punk that ran present during Rossiter’s adolescence, but it was time to turn a fresh page. Yet, it’s fair to say wanting to change and creating it are two very different things. And as the band discovered, translating this shift of perspective into music brought it’s fair share of struggle. ‘We wrote 10 songs that were trash – that weren’t working at all – and I would keep looking at my bandmates and be like, “is this okay? Are we ever gonna do something well again?” But kudos to them for their patience, optimism and skill as it resulted in this album. Yes it was really hard, but I see it as a more cohesive whole and something brave which i’m proud of.’

With this album, Young Jesus approach the struggles of suburbia that near all face, but due to their seeming normality, it’s a topic so few speak about. Pattern Doubt is a particular song where Rossiter feels this shines through. ‘It was a result of feeling lost, and disconnected from myself. All I really wanted to do was change. Change my patterns, change the foundations that you build through your ego as a child, some of those were really good for me and some really bad.’  And it’s true. So often we associate change with anxiety, and approach it with either an air of skepticism or an irrational disregard – expecting something instantaneous. There seems to be no middle ground. Yet for John, change was not like that. Whether he liked it or not, it was evidential that something had to happen to alter his ingrained perspective on love, and this something was going to be a long haul. ‘I’d just met my partner and it was the first time I thought being in love was more than this crazy rush of “wow, I’m connecting with someone.” It was a real question, a real invitation to more life and I realised I couldn’t function in a relationship without greeting life in all its difficulties and complications and imperfections. I couldn’t be in that relationship. It asked me to start finding compromise, and that’s what Pattern Doubt is. It’s about finding love and realising that the romantic notions we are taught are really nice to feel, but I wanted to hear more songs about long term real relationship, love, friendship and family. You know – the hard shit. I wanted to find some heroism in compromise and listening and real connection, rather than the greatness of a first kiss or whatever we are shown on TV.’

As this realisation developed and John’s journey progressed, he became aware that it was not with love that his growth would end. It became apparent that while music had laid down clear foundations for development and opened up conversation within his life, there remained a questioning – a desire to confront, and perhaps converse with the unknown. It is an undercurrent that looms large within the album. Listeners experience this progression and fitfulness through eccentric riffs and the unexpected merging of genres. They mirror the challenges Rossiter was facing and at points he turned back to what he knew: improvisation. `It’s the most important thing for us. It’s key to our lives and has been an important teaching tool for us on how to live. It was crucial in allowing us to see what spaces we were now naturally in.’

It was through navigating these spaces that the band were able to become aware and expand both on their horizons and also their comfort zones. ‘I think, in the past, our songs have been fragmented and that’s okay. But this is the first couple years in my life where I’ve realised that anger and sadness are almost always connected with happiness. They have a duration, they crest and swell, but you can’t truly feel one without the other. I had spent a lot of time in my life trying to coast, not feeling anything, which is something I still struggle with a lot, but recently I’ve been crying more, and as much as I hate it, I’ve been getting a lot angrier, and it’s through trying to be present for those moments that I’ve been able to live a life of more depth.’

Listening to the album, it’s a depth, that like a sonar, radiates throughout. Despite not illuminating the anger or raw hurt that provided a pillar amongst previous works, Welcome To Conceptual Beach is personal in a way unlike any other body of work by Young Jesus. With an emotional fluidity, the album offers both insight on the extremes of living, but also an acknowledgement of the quotidian subtleties in life that so often feel overlooked in the process of writing. Written with transparency and an eagerness to express and grow, in Welcome To Conceptual Beach, Rossiter and Co have developed a sense of rationality that allowed them to take a step back, and view their creativity from a more mature perspective. 

With colours running from each note, the album possesses a grabbable sense of sentimentality. At points surreal, Welcome To Conceptual Beach is a clear result of an opening up from Rossiter. The Conceptual Beach, which acted like a journal where he found solace, was something immensely personal, but it now felt right, and felt essential for him to invite others in. Perhaps crucially, it encouraged Rossiter to appreciate the talent both himself and those around him possess. ‘The thing is, Conceptual Beach was a really intellectual space, but I looked back at some of our old interviews and was like “I’m so pretentious.” So I stopped writing in it as a journal, started reading less, and my life became a little less intellectual, which I saw as a good thing. As we wrote this album, I found that I’d welcomed people into my life more, I welcomed my body, my heart, my soul, and I began doing things that I thought would have been really embarrassing and I do them with joy and optimism… some embarrassment yes, but I think I’m a little less intimidating, or at least I hope to be.’ With each word, it became increasingly apparent that Rossiter, although always aware of his flaws, was only now viewing them as potential rather than problems. They offered him a starting point.

But with every high comes a low, and just before the beginning of quarantine, Rossiter experienced the sudden loss of a close friend. Reality had come back to haunt him. Yet unlike the old Rossiter, his shield of self proclaimed emotional numbness was no longer to be seen. He was facing loss head on. ‘He was a close friend of mine, an old friend, and it was interesting because it was the first time I lost someone that I felt like I was grieving. I was really crying, but I was okay with it rather than letting it bubble up. And while it (this barrier) was still there for me sometimes, I was now feeling things, I could feel the beauty of his life and the happiness it brought to me and my friends. Even in the wake of his passing, we became closer, reconnected and as time passed it stitched us even tighter, which is something I’m truly grateful for.’

What stands out most of all, however, is that Rossiter, arguably a perfectionist in musical terms, now seems realistic when exploring his expectations. While he may still have burdened himself with unimaginable pressures to help create such a spectacle of an album, there resonated a transparency in the way he aimed to display and connect with his audience. ‘I don’t want anyone to feel I have it figured out and am writing from a place of enlightenment because while I really am working on getting there; it is a process and I hope the audience feels engaged in that process. So often art can be a sort of monolithe speaking down to you, and I’ve written records like that. But you get to a point where you can kind of believe in yourself and you cross a threshold internally when you have a supportive environment and are supportive of yourself. And with Welcome To Conceptual Beach, I feel everyday I’m getting closer to this and celebrating that is important.’

It was apparent that Rossiter no longer felt the need to be complete. He knew he could not sustain a life of being what he perceived those around him wanted him to be. It’s a point so many of us can relate to. From the age of three, we are schooled into a unanimous line of thought: that intellect is merely judged on the books we’ve read and the formulas we’ve memorised. Ingrained from an early age, these preconceptions lay the foundations of the path we view ourselves capable of pursuing. But when are we ever taught about the many other forms of intelligence? Surely there cannot be just one. While we can learn from first hand experiences, at home or with friends, when does the curriculum teach us how to show care and respect for our peers, love towards our environment, an understanding of our past so we can grow, as a collective in the future? So often these roles, ones that later in life you realise are what truly shapes our everyday, are overlooked in place of learning why X+B=200.

This conversation provided me with a bold and much welcome reminder that those you idealise and place on a pedestal for their talents are humans too. Something I’m sure all of us have forgotten once in a while. Musically, Young Jesus are magicians capable of delivering the everyday person with an experience previously unimaginable. Courageous, enthralling and honest, their ability to carve such socially relatable perspectives against a backdrop, so rich in talent, makes it hard not to place them on a pedestal. And for Rossiter, this album was a chance for him to realise he didn’t have to carry the weight of the world solely on his shoulders. From our talk came an overwhelming sense that Welcome To Conceptual Beach offered him far more than just the music. It’s what brought Young Jesus together, and it’s what kept them together, but, for John, it was the rekindling with humanity that it provided that he cherished most. Conceptual Beach had offered him a sanctuary to be at one with his thoughts. And by sharing this with those he loved, he’d taken a risk, but one that the album and our conversation implied to have truly paid off.

As our chat came to an end I was left asking myself a number of questions: how do I open up? How do I embrace those around me? Who would I welcome onto my Conceptual Beach? And while it’s a question that still perplexed me to this day, for John there were three guests that came to mind. ‘I would love to be able to play with and talk to Sun Ra. He’s created his own world and went to outer space with it. He truly believes in the transportative qualities of music and that’s had a significant influence on myself and our drummer. I think also General Iroh from Avatar, The Last Airbender. I mean, he just wants to run a tea shop and remain deeply connected with his firebending – is that too much to ask? He’s just who I wanna be when I grow up. And finally… I would love to meet the character from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Stower. Her superpower is hyper empathy and she’s just an all round amazing character.I feel sat on the beach with those three,’ he takes a deep breath, exhales and a glimmer of youthful optimism glints in his eyes, ‘that would be… yeah.’ 

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