J. Roddy Walston and the Business: The Middle-Class Golden Ticket

Mike Ayers on January 20, 2018

J. Roddy Walston is having a pinch-me moment. Before playing a show packed with reps from his prestigious record label, ATO, and fans who know all the words to his songs, the 30-something singer/guitarist/pianist is sitting at the hip Brooklyn restaurant Café Colette, ordering the octopus and watermelon salad off  the menu. Sure, he’d always hoped that, after years of barnstorming clubs, his titular group J. Roddy Walston and the Business could one day pay the bills, headline a tour or even make it to a marquee stage at a major festival; but no aspiring musician ever dreams of being able to afford the octopus. 

“I know it’s cheesy,” he says. “But I always think of that Willy Wonka movie. At the end, he was like, ‘Do you know what happened to the boy who got everything he ever wanted? He lived happily ever after.’”

This may be Walston’s reality now, but it’s been a long time in the making. For years, there was a constant hustle—playing the bar circuit and slowly graduating to bigger venues in towns where they may have lapped up a few fans along the way. They spent a good portion of the last decade driving around from show to show in an old church van—a far cry from anything you’d see parked outside of a restaurant in Brooklyn serving octopus.

This night is more than a culmination of 16 years of hard work. It’s the start of a new era—two hours after getting the check, Walston and the Business take the stage at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s intimate Music Hall of Williamsburg, where they play a handful of new songs from their fourth studio album, Destroyers of the Soft Life. The 10-song collection  finds the band maintaining their upbeat nature through pounding, Southern-rock drenched numbers intermingled with some of their most personal lyrics to date.

The fans are packed in and the band instantly showcases exactly why they’ve cultivated a devoted following over the years. Walston’s a dynamic performer, going back and forth between hovering over a piano and moving out in front, commanding the crowd with just the microphone. At times, he bounces on each foot—left, right, left, right—like a boxer in the corner of a ring, readying himself for a ght. Walston has that look in his eye too—the eye of a tiger that wants to conquer the show, the crowd, the song.

“When we finished making the last record, we were still in the position of, ‘I wonder if anyone will ever really hear it,’” he says. “I felt bolder this time—more excited about making music—because I knew there would at least be a moment where some number of people, right o the bat, would hear this.”

The band actually made a proper bucket list a few years ago. It wasn’t anything extravagant or elaborate—a lot of it resembled what any band would want after a decade on the road, sleeping on beer- soaked couches and hustling to make rent money. And he always aspired for his group to pass a simple test: Would they be better off  as baristas?

“The threshold was always someone who works at Starbucks,” he says. “It was always like, being in a band requires everything and maybe not even getting paid. I remember the first time we broke even after playing in New York. We got paid a hundred bucks. We all celebrated that without thinking that it cost us $60 in gas and $40 in tolls to get here. What if we could be middle-class income people playing music?”

It’s a fair question. So is Destroyers of the Soft Life that middle-class golden ticket? 

Walston was born and raised in the small town of Cleveland, Tenn. Learning about music from his grandmother, he became drenched in gospel, soul and country at an early age, and started his first band at 15. But, unlike a lot of kids who start bands when they’re teens, he wasn’t doing it to get laid or divert his attention from schoolwork.

“I had a few serious conversations with my friends, where it’s like, ‘Are you in or are you out?’” he recalls. “And I just wanted to be that guy that has the moment where a few kids like me, or that one guy that I think is cool likes our band. And I wanted to write music with the intention that everyone should like my music.”

The Business started a few years later in 2002 when Walston was 19. The musicians relocated to Baltimore in 2004 and self-released their first album Hail Mega Boys in 2007, followed by their self- titled label debut album three years later. Zach Westphal, the band’s original bassist, had dropped out during the album’s recording, and consequently, just before their tour began, bassist Logan Davis joined Walston, guitarist Billy Gordon and drummer Steve Colmus, solidifying the current lineup.

Walston left Baltimore for Richmond, Va., near Harrisonburg, where Davis was already living, in 2010. After they wrapped up the tour cycle behind 2013’s Essential Tremors, Walston became a father and, at the same time, needed to take a break from songwriting. The momentum they felt coming o that tour— the first true one where they passed the barista test—was in jeopardy. So they started doing what any music junkies with a bit of cash might do and looked for space to build a studio.

The frontman spent weeks driving around Richmond, scouting out locations where he and Davis could get to work. They finally settled on a building that used to be a grenade factory. A “country boy” with hoarding tendencies was running the place and turned it over to them, not realizing that Walston and Davis would gut it.

It was an undertaking that ended up being useful creatively, though they didn’t know it at the time. The group spent days working with hammers and buzzsaws, listening to music in ways they hadn’t in years.

“I was sick of everything on my playlist, sick of everything on my phone, sick of my record collection,” Walston says of that time. “It was like co-workers sharing music while you’re working—normal people listening 

to music, rather than like, ‘I’m a musician and I need to go study how to get over this hump of songwriting.’”

After the studio was completed in early 2016, Walston began writing the material that would make up Destroyers of the Soft Life, and his band started the initial tracking process around that same time. In early 2017, after a large chunk of the album was done, they headed to Seattle to put the finishing touches on it with producer Phil Ek, known for his work with The Shins, Fleet Foxes and Built to Spill. 

For many of the songs, they honed the music first, often creating demos for different versions and writing fake lyrics as placeholders, so they could get the right melody, phrasing and rhythmic timing down.

When it did come time to write the lyrics, Walston says, perhaps more than ever, the subjects started to shift this time around. “I was a little less interested in word collages and more following the path on a song,” he says. “A little less abstract painting and a little more photo-realist.”

That new approach drives tracks like “You Know Me Better,” when Walston proclaims, “You know me better than I know myself/ I don’t have to think/ I think it’s just as well,” or the co- dependent anthem “Bad Habits,” when he sings, “So bring the mortgage money my dear/ We’ll have some thousand-dollar nights/ And smoke some Marlboro Lights, cause cancer ain’t no worse than fear.”

“There was never a time when I was like, ‘This song isn’t about anything, and I just like the way these words sound together,’” he says. “I don’t want to say we made a political record, but we were making a record during a very weird time. I’m in your face, and these are the words I’m saying. You can hear them and process them if you want to or not.” 

A J. Roddy Walston and the Business show often feels like a party. There isn’t really a sense of calm. Their energy flows— it’s in your face—and, if you ever run into the band off stage, it would be easy to assume that the Business like to continue that vibe all the time. They have that look—like they want to jump off  a roof into a pool, à la Almost Famous. Except that “I wanna rock-and-roll all night and party every day” period is now behind them.

“We’re grateful that people pay money to come to our shows,” says Davis. “And I would hope that we would never be that band with a headline that says, ‘They had to cancel their shows because they can’t get their shit together.’”

“People expect the absolute worst from us,” adds Walston. “So when they find out we are really nice and responsible, they are like, ‘You are a superhero! You said thank you! That’s crazy!’”

Walston has often struggled with the band’s future during the past 16 years. It’s become his coming-of-age story, in many ways. There were nights he was forced to take a good hard look at his life, his lack of success and how to string it all together—a fight-or-flight response based off  hopes and piano riffs.

“There’s been plenty of moments where I was like, ‘Is it just the band name? Do we just look like idiots? Why isn’t it working?’” he says. At this point in the interview, the octopus is long gone. He’s picking through the chilled watermelon in almost a reflexive way.

There are still a few items left on his super-short current bucket list (“Europe, Australia”), and he shifts the conversation into something more existential. “In an ideal world, music that I think is great wouldn’t mean that it’s popular. There’s a lot of bands that have music, and I don’t know what the fault is, but I don’t know if anyone’s heard it.”

He pauses to think about it for a second, before coming up with his band’s current hashtagable social-media status: “I think we made a great rock record.” 

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Relix.