Somewhere north of Apache Junction, there's a long road leading to a rock on the edge of the Salt River that Jesse Elliott still needs to see.
For a songwriter who makes the most out of near-endless traveling, that rock represents just another one of those tempting little side roads in life.
"When I find myself in Phoenix I will drive straight east on the freeway til I hit Apache Junction, take the largest road that I can find / Avoiding any obstacles, I will focus on the present, I will melt into the desert, I will sense everything around me deeply / Finding the Salt River, sitting on a rock," sings Elliott on "Vince," a track on These United States' self-titled album.
The song came to him in the form of a note. An old friend from middle school turned up out of the blue at a show These United States were playing in North Carolina. At the end of the night, he handed Elliott a note saying good-bye, but also advising that Salt River detour.
"It was more or less the start of the lyrics and I thought it was a funny premise for a song," Elliott says.
These United States' fifth album is a self-titled road map of sorts, celebrating life on the road, capturing the sense of freedom in motion and toasting those quirky places and people you can only get to know first hand.
"It certainly is the major theme of this album. It's not the only thing that inspires us, but it was funny to get to this point as a band, five years in, and realizing we hadn't put down those more autobiographical things about being a band and traveling around," Elliott says.
Road songs suit the band's sound, a freewheeling collage of rock 'n' roll that spans quiet to loud, at turns psychedelic, folk, country and bar rock. It's a sound that fits with peers like Deer Tick, Cotton Jones, Phosphorescent, The Mynabirds, Ben Sollee and Langhorne Slim, all in one way or another collaborators on These United States.
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"All of them are people we know pretty well from the last five years of touring and we know which voices fit in our own universe. I had some songs I could really picture someone's voice on and there are some others where someone fun was hanging around and we decided to record with," Elliott says. "In this case it was relatively natural, if not easy. The field research, if you will, the demoing, took place over a year and a lot of that stuff ended up making the album."
Proper recording for singer-guitarist Elliott, pedal steel and electric guitarist J. Tom Hnatow, guitarist and keyboardist Justin Craig, bassist and vocalist Anna Morsett, and drummer and percussionist Aaron Latos took place with producer Duane Lundy in Lexington, Ky., "one of the band's original hometowns," says Elliott.
Other hometowns for These United States might be Washington, D.C., Carrboro, N.C. or New York. Illustrating just how hard it is to pinpoint "home," Elliott did this phone interview from Chicago, though he spends most of his time in Denver, Brooklyn or Toronto.
"Between those three I've maybe started to carve out some kind of a home, but it'll probably be a little while still before I start paying rent," he says.
"There are just too many places that I really love," he says. "It got a little frustrating after the first few years to be just passing through these amazing cities, whether they're San Francisco or New York or Pendleton, Oregon. It got to be a bit of a bummer to go through so quickly.
We've realized we can be tired for the next 30 years and we'll be perfectly happy with it.
-- Jesse Elliott, These United States
"We were connecting with all these amazing people and the common thing every one tells you on tour is 'Next time you're through, take a couple days off and we'll show you some cool stuff.' But that just doesn't work as a band, so for the last three or four years now, I just decided it made sense to take people up on these fun offers and the best way to do that is in between tours."
For now, at least, bouncing around from place to place is exactly where Elliott wants to be.
"We've realized we can be tired for the next 30 years and we'll be perfectly happy with it. It's a tricky lifestyle and it ebbs and flows for all of us, but it's an overwhelming amount of fun and interesting people and places you come across," he says.
For Elliott, it all boils down to a simple question:
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"What is your tolerance threshold for sucking everything possible about of life?"
These United States are scheduled to perform Monday, August 27, at the Rhythm Room.