Philly-based band The Districts sadly had to cancel their hometown shows due to the rise in Covid-19 cases thanks to the omicron variant. But they’ll head off to the United Kingdom and the continent at the end of January and play a show in Philly in April.
Produced by Joe Chiccarelli (Spoon, The Strokes, Broken Social Scene) and recorded at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, Great American Painting was deeply informed by the two months that Districts vocalist/guitarist Rob Grote spent living in a cabin in Washington state at the height of the pandemic.
PW recently caught up with Grote to talk about their new album.
Fat Possum Records describes Great American Painting as “the rare album that shines a bright light on all that’s wrong in the world but somehow still channels a galvanizing sense of hope.” What gives you hope? What excites you about the future?
What gives me hope is seeing how many people throughout the past two years really prioritized the well-being of each other and society as a whole. The impactful organizing surrounding the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, those who were willing to wear masks and get vaccinated for their fellow humans, and the mutual aid that really grew in cities across the US.
The idea of finding ways to uplift each other and operate outside of the traditional structures and systems of our society really inspire me.
While writing the new album, you were inspired in Washington state by Gifford Pinchot National Forest. What was it about that place that grabbed you? What wisdom do those forests hold for us?
It’s a geologically astounding place — Mt. Rainier towers above these super old forests, with snowmelt rivers rushing through them. The ecology of such places, where the earth feels so alive and nature exists in such perfect harmony with itself, is quite beautiful. These forests seem essentially like one massive organism in how alive they are and the breadth of their interconnectedness. It is a deep reminder of how reliant we are on nature simply to breathe, and on each other and all life on earth to survive.
How have Philadelphia and Pennsylvania influenced you? Is there a certain musical aesthetic you get here on the east coast, as opposed to the west coast?
There are tons of bands from the area that have influenced us through the years — so many. Mostly from Philly! Pennsylvania as a whole, you know, I grew up in Lancaster County, in picturesque small-town America and Amish country. Amish life is like the antithesis of any city culture, and such a wild symbol of an insulated community that exists in much less ascetic ways throughout rural America.
As time goes on, I really appreciate the sort of world that exists somewhere like that in Pennsylvania. I couldn’t wait to leave and really needed to move to a big city and expand my horizons to somewhere that culturally and politically resonated with me and Philly was the perfect place for that. But I also really admire and enjoy the rural environment and the way people choose to live there as well.
Is there something in that Thoreauvian American tradition of fleeing to a cabin in the woods to reflect, to dwell, to work on art? Is it a way to clear yourself of distractions and allow you to think, or is there something more?
I’m not a Luddite and rely on technology massively, but I do think that there is something precious that has been lost. Particularly regarding presence. Going somewhere remote and unplugging is hugely eye-opening and reminds you of the challenge that is so easy to ignore in our times — of being truly present with no distractions. It’s an extremely great way to be creative.
That being said, all things in balance, right? I don’t see myself ever living off-the-grid or forsaking the excitement and goings-on of a city really.
What do you want fans to take away from Great American Painting? What feels like success to you?
Success to me is a pretty elusive concept. I don’t know if I want it as far as an “end goal.” Success, in my eyes, is simply making things that connect with people, hopefully deeply, and make them feel less alone. Ultimately, a very real success I hope for is one in which you can transform your work into something very directly impactful and beneficial to the world. Like feeding people and housing people. There’s enough entertainers, right? I hope to always be connecting with people through music though.
Listening to the lyrics for “I Want to Feel It All,” I get a sense of frustrated longing, or an unquenchable desire to experience life and the world “before it comes my turn to go,” as you sing. Do you feel a sense of urgency, or a societal need for all of us to make up for lost time, as many of us have felt since COVID-19?
I don’t know how much it’s making up for lost time as it is re-evaluating the ways in which we live so that as we go forward in the world we can make choices personally and societally that reflect greater ideals and mold our lives into something beautiful.
Because if the pandemic didn’t happen, there wouldn’t have been that time to reflect on all the things that you really wish you were doing once it’s fully deprived from you. But yeah, I suppose there is an urgency to that. There’s a climate crisis, the pandemic’s ongoing, the white nationalists are only sleeping and we only have so much allotted time to experience our lives. I don’t really believe in regret that much, though. As long as you’re listening to your deeper and higher self you’ll be on your path, ya know? Sometimes it takes some weird-ass circumstances to help you evolve. And part of that, for me, is that longing to really live fully in this world that you’re referencing in the song.
What’s the biggest shift from your last album, You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere, to your new album?
Well YKINGA was produced by us with our buddy Keith, and this one was done in a super classic nice studio with the producer Joe Chiccarelli. Both very great experiences on the creative side. This new one is a little more straight up in some ways. Very direct in the arrangements and production. Lyrically, some of it is a little less personal and more about the world at large.
In an interview with American Songwriter, you spoke of how self-critical after the band finishes an album. Did you feel the same way this time around?
Haha yeah I mean the moment a project is out of your hands and you can’t revise it, there’s a certain anxiety to that. I always have some level of that going on, but then once some time passes, I often end up liking the very things that made me self-conscious in that first wave of post-album letting go.
What are some of your favorite great American paintings? Any standout artists, past or present?
The first painter I ever saw when I was young that really connected with me was Jean-Michel Basquiat. Some of the most immediate punch-packing works of art I’ve ever seen are his.
With the album title I totally had like Christina’s World and Nighthawks in mind. I saw an amazing Ariana Papademetropoulos show in Los Angeles recently and really really love her painting. Also really love John Lurie’s paintings and am reading his memoir.
Who else have you been listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to Water From Your Eyes, Harold Budd, 22º Halo, John Fahey, Turnstile, Julian Lage, Wednesday.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Love you all and thank you.
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