A Chat with Josh Rouse
Josh Rouse, in addition to being a singer/songwriter who’s rightfully received no end of plaudits for his albums on Rykodisc (not to mention his latest release, Subtitulo, on Nettwerk), is a man who knows how merciless and unforgiving an international calling card can be. His attempts to chat with Bullz-Eye from Valencia, Spain, were thwarted at one point, but, by God, he persisted and called us back, giving us the opportunity to needle him about his new disc, his profile in Europe, his “borrowing” of a riff from Johnny Marr, and what it’s like to work with Brad Jones and Kurt Wagner.
Josh Rouse: Hey, is this Will…?
Bullz-Eye: It is!
JR: Hey, this is Josh. Rouse.
BE: Hey, how’s it going?
JR: Good. Good.
BE: So how much press have you been doing today?
JR: Ah, I had a couple more interviews before this one.
BE: Oh, good. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t dragging you down too much.
JR: No, no. (in a musing tone) Will Harris. Did you ever get called down to the principal’s office when you were younger?
BE: Uh…only once, when I was in third grade, when I was part of a group that accidentally broke a window in a classroom door.
JR: Oh, God, and they called you to the principal’s office?
BE: Yeah, me and all the other guys involved.
JR: Aw, man.
BE: Were you called down a lot…?
JR: Huh? Oh, no, there was this guy named Will Harris who was always getting called down to the principal’s office. I thought maybe we went to the same school. You never know.
BE: I think I’m innocent in this particular case.
BE: Well, as it stands at the moment, I’ve only been able to hear a few tracks from your new album, but what I’ve heard, I’ve loved…and I’ve got everything you’ve put out in the past, so…
JR: Oh. Well, thanks!
BE: Absolutely. The first thing I noticed, though, is that you’re on Nettwerk now. (All of Rouse’s previous albums were released on Rykodisc or one of their subsidiaries.)
JR: Well, it’s my own label, actually. They’re marketing and distributing the record.
BE: What happened with Rykodisc?
JR: My contract actually ended. I finished the contract.
BE: And you just decided to do your own thing…?
JR: Yeah, yeah. It’s better that way. I was kind of doing that, anyway, with Rykodisc. They were doing the same thing that Nettwerk’s doing…except that they got all the money from the records. (pauses) Hey, Will…? Let me call you back in two seconds.
BE: Yeah, sure.
JR: Okay, thanks.
After decidedly more than two seconds have passed…
JR: Hey, you there…?
JR: Sorry about that. My calling card was running out, and I had to switch cards.
BE: No big deal. Um…what was I getting ready to ask you?
JR: You were asking about starting my own label.
JR: Yeah, I talked to some other labels, and we talked to a few, but, y’know, I kinda wanted to do it myself and just find someone to do what Nettwerk is doing now. And they seem to be doing a good job, so, yeah, I’m happy about it.
BE: I heard you on NPR the other morning (with Scott Simon on “Weekend Edition.”)
JR: Oh, yeah! That’s cool. Man, that thing really reaches a lot of people!
BE: Yeah, it does.
JR: NPR is a powerful machine.
BE: Was that the first time you’d done an interview with them?
JR: No, I did one…about four years ago. (thinks about it) Yeah, I did one about four years ago, and, yeah, a lot of people heard that one as well. I did the same program, actually. (sneezes repeatedly)
BE: Bless you!
JR: Thanks. It’s spring here. (affects an accent) Spring in Valencia!
BE: And that answers that question: where are you today?
JR: Yep. (sneezes)
BE: You’re a man who’s not afraid to embrace the sounds of the artists who’ve influenced you. Did that ever scare Rykodisc to death when you were with them? I mean, 1972 was so blatantly ‘70s in style…
JR: Mmm-hmm. No, I don’t think anyone’s ever really said anything to me about it. I mean…
At this point, Rouse fades out. Completely. I give him several seconds grace period, in case he’s collecting his thoughts, but it becomes quickly evident that he’s completely off the line…and I have no way to get him back.
After the better part of five minutes, the phone rings again. There’s a click, and it immediately goes to a dial tone. Moments later, the phone rings again.
JR: (Exuberantly) Will Harris! Josh Rouse here.
BE: (Laughs) You know, I was talking to thin air for a few seconds back there…
JR: Man, this phone card seems to be freaking out here. It happens with international calls sometimes.
BE: No problem.
JR: Will! I’m in Istanbul! Send me some money!
BE: I might need to…at least for a new calling card!
BE: I talked to someone the other day who was having “the perfect storm of phone catastrophes,” as he called it, so I’m sympathetic.
JR: Yeah, sorry about that.
BE: But, yeah, you said that no one ever really commented on the tribute to the ‘70s, as it were…?
JR: Yeah, I mean, they have, but no one’s ever said, “Don’t do that,” or anything like that. I mean, y’know, I think everyone just kind of dug the songs and got what I was doing.
BE: With (Rouse’s 2004 album) Nashville, I have to ask: regarding the song, “Winter in the Hamptons,” has Johnny Marr called and asked for his guitar riff back? (Writer’s note: if you haven’t heard it…and you really should have…the song sounds undeniably like something from Marr’s bag of tricks circa The Queen Is Dead.)
JR: Ha, ha…! No, no, he hasn’t.
BE: I know you grew up as a big Smiths fan, as well as a Cure fan.
JR: Yeah, yeah, I liked that stuff. Recording that record, my guitar player actually started playing a guitar riff like that. We knew it sounded like the Smiths, but we decided, who gives a shit, right? It’s all cool.
BE: And that’s what I mean: you do a really good job of incorporating your influences without sounding derivative.
JR: Yeah, except that that song was completely derivative! (Laughs) We just thought, hey, it sounds good. I don’t sing, actually, a lot like Morrissey. If I sang like Morrissey, then that might’ve been more of a problem.
BE: But I know that you have covered a Smiths song in the past. Somewhere around here, I’ve still got the EP that it’s on.
JR: Oh, really?
BE: Wasn’t it “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”?
JR: Yeah. That was years ago.
BE: Probably around the first album, wasn’t it?
JR: Yeah, it was.
BE: Do you still throw out covers once in awhile?
JR: Um…I haven’t in a long time. I don’t know why. I guess ‘cause it’s too much work. I’ve got too many records now. As far as the concerts go, it’s kind of, like, if I throw a cover in there, then I have to leave one of my own songs out, and people go on my website and say... (affects grumbly voice) …”He didn’t play nothing off of that!” But what are you gonna do? You can’t make everyone happy.
BE: I know you’ve worked with producer and engineer Brad Jones. I loved his solo album (Gilt-Flake) that he put out some years ago.
JR: Oh, yeah! Cool!
BE: Was it really cool working with him?
JR: Oh, yeah, this is my third record working with him. It’s kind of like our little trilogy. We always have a great time. We spend as much time bullshitting about bottled water and, um, well, anything, really. He knows a lot about a lot of things, and it’s always fun to do a record with him because you learn new things, new information about different cultures, what different people are doing. And, musically, he’s really incredible. He plays a lot of things, and he’s really fast. He’s great at arranging songs.
BE: I get the idea that he’s a musician’s musician and producer.
JR: Yeah, exactly. He’s kind of my little George Martin, I guess! He helps out with all the orchestration and arrangement, and he knows all the theory and is really quick…and I’m no good at all of that. I just kinda come in with the songs and go, “Duhhhhhh!” Nah, I have ideas and I have directions in which I kinda want to go and things like that. But we do, we work really well together.
BE: Does it ever feel weird blending musical styles the way you do? Or do you just have a feel for how a song should be?
JR: Uh, I think I have a feel for how it should be, and, every once in awhile, we’ll go, “What would be kind of different on here? Let’s put pedal steel on here!” And we’ll all giggle and put it on there, then go, “Okay, yeah!” It’s kind of fun to play with it a little bit.
BE: And I guess you’re starting your US tour in April?
JR: Yeah, on April 1st.
BE: No foolin’…?
JR: Say that again…? Oh, April 1st. No, no fooling.
BE: And you’re playing the Birchmere, I believe.
JR: Yeah, in DC. Is that where you are?
BE: Well, it’s about three and a half hours away, so it’s as close as you’re getting to me, anyway.
JR: Oh, are you in Pennsylvania or something?
BE: No, I’m in Chesapeake, Virginia. It’s right near Virginia Beach.
JR: Ohhhhhh! Well, yeah, I’ve been to Virginia Beach before.
BE: Oh, really?
JR: Yeah, a good friend of mine used to live there. I went there, tried body-boarding and all that stuff. Yeah, it was nice. I like Virginia Beach.
BE: It’s not the burgeoning concert scene we’d like it to be, but what can you do?
JR: And that guy, Pharrell, the big producer, comes from there, right?
BE: Yeah, Pharrell Williams.
JR: N.E.R.D., right.
BE: Yes, many a N.E.R.D. article has appeared in the local paper here. Same with Missy Elliott.
JR: Is she from there, too?
BE: From Portsmouth. Right next door. Um…so, what are you doing overseas at the moment? Touring? Or advance press…?
JR: Not really. I’m getting ready to kind of a press run here – I’ll just fly around to a couple of different countries and do some interviews, and then I’m actually going to see my family in Nebraska before I go on tour, so I’ll probably head there – but, no, I’m just kinda hangin’ on in Spain, doing what everyone else does: buying groceries, washing dishes, watching movies, watching TV, on the internet for a couple of hours every day. It’s nice. It’s a nice place here. I like it.
BE: I know the Spaniards are very big on their pop music.
JR: Yeah! Yeah, they love the music here. It’s cool to see. It’s just neat because a lot of people come to concerts here. And a lot of people are coming through here in Valencia where I live, and they always come to these little places, so it’s kind of neat.
BE: I know you kind of moved around the country a lot when you were growing up. Were you part of a military family, or did you just, uh, move a lot?
JR: Well, my dad was in the Army, but I lived with my mom and stepfather until I was 14, and he was in construction, too, so that’s how I kind of ended up in the circus of moving.
BE: But you moved to Nashville, which is when you started recording?
JR: I actually ended up there…I finished high school just outside of Nashville, and I went to college for a couple of years about an hour outside of Nashville. My father was stationed at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, which was about an hour from Nashville, so I just ended up moving to Nashville.
BE: How did you end up hooking up with Kurt Wagner (from Lambchop, with whom Rouse recorded an EP, Chester, in 1999)? Did you just cross paths on the music scene?
JR: Yeah, we met at a concert…at a Pernice Brothers concert. And I had seen Lambchop play in concert in town. I liked them. I was upset because when I lived in Nashville, that was an idea I had. I wanted to put together this big ensemble of horns and be really quiet like that. But when I saw him, I said, well, I guess I’d better do something else! My first record had come out, and I guess Kurt found out who I was through the paper, and he was in Europe a lot and I was getting a lot of press in Europe. And I was at a show, and he just sort of came up and said, “Hi,” and we started talking and became friends and hung out. And he lived just a couple of blocks away from me; I didn’t know that. So that’s how that all kinda came about.
BE: Well, if you’re gonna meet someplace, a Pernice Brothers show is a good place to do it.
JR: Yeah, exactly.
BE: It seems like your sound has kind of eased into a more lush sound than the more Americana sound of your earlier material. Is that just a gradual evolution, with you getting more comfortable in your own skin…?
JR: Um, I don’t know. It just kind of happened. Maybe it was something to do with working with Brad. He’s into that whole orchestrated pop thing, and I like it, too. There are a couple of those songs on the new album, but I kind of made a conscious effort to keep it as stripped down as much as possible.
BE: What’s Bedroom Classics? I saw it on eMusic.
JR: Well, that’s the name of my record label, actually. I started it years ago. It was just the name of my little home studio. But I put out something called Bedroom Classics, Volume 1, and it was just some stuff I’d done in the bedroom. I just released, like, a thousand or so, and I sold them on the road, and people ate it up. They really liked it. So I just thought I’d do it again. I released it through iTunes, eMusic, and it’s available through my website. It was the first release from my label, just to kind of get it going. To raise a little capital.
BE: So what’s your overseas presence like? I know the album’s being released in Europe at approximately the same time it’s being released here, but…
BE: I know Mojo Magazine loves you.
JR: Actually, they don’t anymore! They have this thing with Uncut Magazine, and they’re really big fans of mine at Uncut. And they have this rivalry, so if Uncut really gets behind an album, then Mojo says, “Well, it’s just okay.” But when I first started out, yeah, Mojo liked me. But when Uncut really got ahold of it, it really pissed Mojo off. It’s funny. It’s infantile, really. But here in Europe, it’s really healthy. I play over here all the time, in Spain, Portugal, England, Ireland…and especially in Scandinavia. I do really well over there. So, yeah, I know Nashville, saleswise, did better here in Europe than it did in the States, and I think 1972 was a big record over here as well. So, yeah, I’ve got a good fanbase going! Concerts sell out, and that’s kind of nice.
BE: Do you think it’s easier to break over there because it’s not so niche-oriented as it is here in the States?
JR: No, actually, I think it’s more niche-oriented here.
JR: Yeah, there’s a big singer-songwriter thing here. I don’t know. I wouldn’t say it’s easier to break, but I think there’s just a healthier…I think people buy more records here. There are more magazines here for records, I think there’s a lot of exposure for it. I think people like American songwriters. There are people here who like what I do...and what Wilco does. They kind of lump you in with other people, but I think there’s a healthy scene for that. I don’t know why or how. It’s always been kind of a mystery to me. But I keep playing the concerts, and people keep buying the records and seem to like them. But I can’t really explain why. I guess there’s not so much competition. And you’ve got all these little countries; it’s not hard to cover them. Like, in Ireland, you tour four or five little cities, and they’re all pretty close, so word of mouth can really do you well there. Enough that you can play concerts for a couple of hundred people, or even a couple of thousand people. It’s really not that many people. But in the States, your shows are just so spread out.
BE: Do you ever find it hard to blend the happy melodies with the melancholy lyrics?
JR: Nope. That’s always just been what I’ve done. It just comes naturally, I guess.
BE: Have you picked up any new albums lately that you’d like to rave about?
JR: I bought Richard Hawley’s latest record.
BE: Oh, right, I haven’t heard it yet, but I’ve heard, well, no end of raves!
JR: Yeah, check it out. It’s called Coles Corner. And the song “Coles Corner” is just incredible. Let’s see, what else have I been listening to lately? I’ve been getting into some heavy stuff. This band called Pearls and Grass…? They’re kind of like Black Sabbath. (sighs) I get tired of the kind of thing that I do. There are so many people doing it now. You go to an indie record stop, and there’s all this folk-pop that’s kind of light. I like the Jon Brion soundtracks a lot. Those are really cool.
BE: Yes, there are many big Jon Brion fans at Bullz-Eye. My dream is to catch him at Largo someday, but I haven’t managed to accomplish that yet.
JR: Yeah, me, neither. I’ve played there a couple of times, but I always kind of miss being there on a Friday night.
BE: Wellllllll, I think that’s just about it.
JR: Yeah, cool, I have to call my next person.
BE: I appreciate you persisting and getting back on the line…
JR: Yeah, sorry about that.
BE: No, not a problem. I hope to get up to the Birchmere, but, if not, it’s still been great talking to you.
JR: Yeah, you, too, thanks!