Jesse Elliott — lead singer of the band These United States — has been coming out to the same little cottage in the woods of Michigan, a handful of yards from the shore of Lake Michigan, every year since his birth, so a number of experiences there have helped give the area a special place in his life. But in the summer of 2009, a shocking event impressed itself on his memory in an unpleasant way.
“I had a pretty scary experience drifting a little too far away from the shore … and then not making it back.” he says.
Elliott professes to have a terrible memory, but this one has stuck with him.
“It’s certainly the one I’ve been thinking about most often, recently,” he says. “These two guys, John and John Jr., rowing up to me in this tiny little metal rowboat and fishing gear, fishing me out of the lake and bringing me back to dry land. That one’s come back to me in a couple of dreams, or nightmares, really.”
He says all of this with a laugh — something that occurs frequently and easily — but he knows how momentous that day was.
“It was the kind of experience that definitely shook me in a very serious, personal sort of way,” Elliot says. “And as I sat on the porch and shivered for the next 48 hours straight, trying to recover from near-drowning, pneumonia and all that fun stuff, I told myself I’d better use this for something so I don’t scare myself into never doing anything fun again.”
The harrowing experience became the starting point for creating a lot of the material that appears on the band’s fourth album, What Lasts. An album filled with folk, country, Americana and rock undertones, What Lasts is a kind of lament in search of hope, with tracks like the epic “Just This” being particularly emblematic of the album’s content.
“Most of the album is about death,” he says. “That’s about as clichéd as you can get, but I think there’s a reason for that too, you know? When you come up against something like that, once you’ve hit that wall and almost gone through it, you can’t help but focus on that. But the album’s about a slow kind of death, sort of a wearing down as you go through the journey of the day to day, and just getting to a point where you realize there is no justice, just occasional graces. So the point is you gotta live for those really small moments because that may be all you ever get.”
Elliott further describes the album as a mix of old and new.
“It’s like most creative things you do: it’s kind of a combination of everything that’s come before, and hopefully a bit of something new,” he says. “It’s our fourth album over the last couple years here, so it’s hard to get away from the past too quickly. You know, inevitably some of it’s gonna keep trailing behind you, catching up with you and overrunning you, but at the same time what we try to do is get away into some new territory.”
Thankfully the band has no interest in rehashing what has worked on previous records because, quite frankly, such a notion is a bit of a mystery to them.
“Well, we have the benefit of sort of not being clear about what’s worked before,” he says, laughing again. “We don’t feel like we have anything that’s been a 100 percent sure-fire success, but that’s a good thing in a creative sense. We’re pretty hard on ourselves. We’re always looking back on our immediate past thinking, ‘Man, how can we do that better next time?’” Creativity is part of what fuels the band, so they’re always looking to grow and allow their songs to evolve as time goes by.
“I think there’s something in a musician where, after you’ve played a song a hundred times, you can have a sort of constructive reaction to it, like ‘I can build this part up better this way’ or something similar; or it can be destructive, depending on if you’re tired of it or bored with it; and then I think a third possibility is you don’t even notice how it’s changing over time,” he says. “There are songs we play live that slowly evolve into something different, and I don’t even think we realize it. Sometimes it’s simply in reaction or addition to whatever you’ve done before.”
Despite all the gravitas on the album and the experience that inspired it, it’s nice to know that at least Elliott still has a sense of humor about his profession.
“Why do I make music? Because I don’t know what else to do with myself,” he exclaims.
On the Bill
These United States play Hi-Dive on Friday, July 23. Doors at 5 p.m. Must be 21 to enter.
7 S. Broadway, Denver, 720-570-4500.