It’s always tough to say goodbye to a hometown band when they leave the city, but These United States has happily had multiple hometowns since the band began. The final remaining D.C. resident, guitar player J.Tom Hnatow, is headed to North Carolina to follow his girlfriend as she begins grad school. TUS is billing tonight’s Black Cat show as their farewell to D.C., but we managed to snag an exit interview with ringleader Jesse Elliott beforehand. A condensed transcript with the always quirky frontman follows.
Washington City Paper: When did this adventure begin?
Jesse Elliot: 2005, actually. Near the end of ‘05 was our first show, but you know it morphed quite a bit along the way. 2008 is when we started touring really hard and put out our first two albums.
WCP: Do you have fond memories of your earliest time as a D.C. band?
JE: It almost all has to do with meeting other people. Music is a collaborative venture. Meeting Mark Heidinger [of Vandaveer] at a show… the first time I heard Rose [Guerin] sing… meeting Laura Burhenn… I’m walking through these memories right now in my mind and I can actually picture it, which is rare for me because I have an awful memory.
WCP: I hear rumors that you might be collaborating with [former D.C. resident] Burhenn, is there any truth to that?
JE: Yeah, she’s touring with Bright Eyes right now when she doesn’t do The Mynabirds—-she does keys and vocals in Bright Eyes. She was here last week, and Justin [Craig, of These United States] comes to New York pretty often. She was in town and had played a show, and we had some things we were both excited about. If things go as planned, and they almost never do, she may have a little spot on our next album.
WCP: Are there any early shows you remember playing that were a big deal?
JE: Yeah, I think we were actually really fortunate and a lot of that had to do with The Federal Reserve [a now-defunct recurring songwriter’s showcase at Iota]. Trying to pick a memory from that would be like wandering through an old attic that had been soaked in booze and set on fire.
It sounds funny to say it, but we’ve kind of always been half a D.C. band and half not. D.C. was one of the first places we had some big shows at, like the first time we played the main stage [at the Black Cat]. That was the place I remember coming and seeing heroes of mine like Olivia Mancini, The Cassettes… it was a place that we’d seen people play before, and it’s a special moment seeing you’ve gotten to that point.
WCP: Why is this the last D.C. show?
JE: Tom was the last remaining D.C. resident, and he left just a couple weeks ago. He moved to North Carolina. We were a D.C.-Kentucky-New York band, and now we’re a North Carolina-Kentucky-New York band. Tom pulled the pin.
WCP: Why did he move?
JE: You know, it’s other things that pull you. His lady friend whom he loves got into grad school down there.
WCP: Does that spread make it hard for the band to function?
JE: Yeah, it does. In the last year, we finally realized how hard it makes it. It’s like being born with an extra eyeball on your shoulder, you just see the world that way. We’ve never all lived in the same city, and we only realized recently how much more difficult that is.
WCP: What was the most number of TUS members here in D.C. at any given time?
JE: At its height, we had three out of four members in D.C., but we always had other people from Kentucky and other places. The first LP was made in Chicago, Iowa City, and D.C. We’ve had moments of it being more pure D.C. than others, but never was it a D.C. thoroughbred racing horse. We’ve always been kind of a mutt.
WCP: Aren’t mutts often the strongest?
JE: Well, they’re the ugliest, so let’s hope they’re the strongest in the long run. We’ll see.
WCP: I think mutts are the evolutionary champions.
JE: I like that descriptor, I think I’m gonna use that when someone asks what genre of music we play. I’ll just say, ‘Oh, we’re kind of like evolutionary champions, that’s kind of our thing.’
WCP: Your band has been known to get into occasional fights—-didn’t you have a feud with another quasi-D.C. band a while back?
JE: Oh, I think you’re talking about the Jukebox The Ghost vs. These United States knife fight—the famous knife fight of ‘09, or whenever that was. I think we were playing the Black Cat and they were playing the Rock & Roll Hotel, and we happened to also be in the same city five nights earlier, so we had a knife fight on the waterfront.
WCP: Who won?
JE: I think in war everyone loses and has a good time. I also think a lot of bands are getting to be [more spread out] now that things are more portable. Any band that’s been at it for a while, the last thing you want to do when you’re off tour is see each other. So, you could go back to the same town, but what’s the point? You’re just going to live in the same neighborhood and never call each other anyway. At least for bands that tour eight months out of the year or whatever, but in general that seems like the future; musicians are a fickle bunch.
WCP: What’s the future of TUS?
JE: Well, we’ll take over North Carolina, continue annexing the less desirable parts of Brooklyn and New York, move eastward into Kentucky, and we’ll keep running in circles around the country until we die.
WCP: Is there a new record in the works?
JE: We’ve started some tracking on it this summer.
WCP: Is it a departure, or is it simply another TUS record?
JE: It’s hard for me to tell, honestly. It all sounds like TUS, but I’m too close to the material. To me it’s just another batch of songs.
WCP: With so much touring, is it hard to write?
JE: I’m not as much of a sit-down-and-writer. If I sit down and write, it’s on a bus seat or an airplane seat. I like writing while in motion.
Sometimes I like to sit down in a place for a week to really try and do a concentrated burst, but that’s usually a frustrated necessity. When it’s more casual and tossed off, that’s nice. I’ll put down something and maybe it’ll make its way into a song. But sometimes I’ll hole myself away, say I’ve got to do this and beat it out of myself. Both are really useful ways to create new stuff.
Sometimes you sit around and wait for the muse, and sometimes you try and kidnap the muse and beat it to death in a dark alley and steal all of its prized possessions.
WCP: What about D.C. will you miss the most?
JE: I think it would be different for all of us because, you know, we’re all unique individual snowflakes. I know Tom’s gonna miss Galaxy Gut, and I’m gonna miss taking people to Ben’s Chili Bowl, as cliché as that sounds. Shoot man, some of those places, you spend enough time there and every street corner I pass has some meaning… Dupont Circle, Rock Creek…
The thing I love most is just the spaces—-the public parks and museums and monuments—-places people can go and exist for free, whether they’re incredibly rich or incredibly poor or in between. Come to think of it, there’s a song on the new album that’s going to be a tribute to one of those places. Maybe this has already been working on my subconscious—-missing D.C. and missing Parks and Recreation.
These United States plays The Black Cat tonight with The Cassettes and Southeast Engine.
Photo by Sarah Law