J. Roddy Walston had nothing.
After spending two-and-a-half years on the road with his band, J. Roddy Walston & the Business, in support of their 2013 album Essential Tremors, the singer and pianist returned to his home in Richmond, Virginia, with no rehearsal space and no new songs written. “When we got back it was just like, ‘Alright, we gotta really pump the brake here,” he says. “There was no plan. There was no direction. There was nothing. It was just like, ‘Let’s start writing a record.’ Which was really freeing, but also pretty daunting.”
The self-imposed pressure was warranted. Relentless touring behind Essential Tremors earned the quartet slots on Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, as well as an appearance on the Austin City Limits TV show alongside The Black Keys. “Heavy Bells” and “Take It As It Comes” both racked up more than 3 million Spotify streams, and new single “The Wanting” currently sits at No. 27 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. Walston & Co. had cracked the door open slightly; now they needed to blow it off its hinges.
The band wanted complete autonomy while making their new record, Destroyers of the Soft Life, which they released Friday (Sept. 29). But before they could even think about writing new material, they had to find a place to play. The group staked out an old warehouse in Richmond and spent the last several months of 2015 converting it into their personal studio, where they would spend the next year writing and recording the new album.
“There’s a weird energy when you go into the studio and there’s a limited amount of time,” Walston says. “Sometimes that energy is good, and it comes across and adds a certain passion or drive to the recording. But there are many times where afterwards, once the dust settles, you realize you’ve either talked yourself into, or someone has talked you into, believing a performance that wasn’t that great, was good enough.”
The band couldn’t afford to make Destroyers of the Soft Life on someone else’s time. They set out to create a massive record, one that would transform their raucous, Southern barroom boogie into anthemic arena rock, brimming with vocal hooks and sporting crystalline production to match. The evolution is apparent straight from album opener “You Know Me Better”: fuzzy guitars clamor over thunderous drums as Walston wails the infectious chorus, “I don’t have to think / I think it’s just as well / You know me better than I know myself.”
For a band that built its reputation on incendiary live performances, this newfound attention to studio detail proved to be a learning experience. Walson realized he would “have to completely change the way I record my vocals, which before was like, more a microphone back in the room somewhere and me shouting at it,” he says. “This is actually how my voice sounds, and I’m not gonna try to defuse it or hide it or bury it or whatever. If you want to make a big rock record, it’s pretty hard not to have vocals right up front, which I think is one of the bigger shifts on this record. There’s no getting away from my voice on this one.”
Physical hurdles aside, Destroyers of the Soft Life also marks the group’s most vulnerable, expressive album to date. Walston likens it to a revelatory moment he shared with their audience one night. “There was a while when we were touring, and for the most part we all just kind of tucked in — your hair’s over your face, you’re not looking anybody in the eye and you’re kind of just having this experience onstage, and people are observing it,” he says. “And then there was a moment when I finally looked at the crowd and sort of made eye contact, and they were singing the lyrics at me, and I was singing the lyrics at them, and we were connecting and being there together. I guess, in a way, I could see how sonically, that would be sort of the step forward we’ve made on this recording.”
Indeed, Destroyers of the Soft Life sounds like an honest album — but it also sounds like a modern album, one that fleshes out the band’s hard-rocking roots with elements of country, soul and straight-up pop. Walston says he sought to distance himself from the “classic rock” sound with which the band had been heavily associated. “There’s always just this idea of, ‘This is good and this is valid because it’s something that’s already been done,’” he says. “It’s totally acceptable to be a band that sounds exactly like some other band that’s already happened, and that’s a selling point for people. And it’s just gotten to the point where it’s too much for me.”
Rather than chase trends or try to replicate the sounds of a bygone era, J. Roddy Walston & the Business made an album that, at the end of the day, they would want to hear. “People might have had some expectation of, ‘Here’s a band that seems like they’ve been building their career this way, or had a big jump on a record, they should just follow that path or double down.’ And that’s not what we were interested in at all,” Walston says, chuckling quietly on the other end of the phone. “The most authentic part about this record is we just did whatever the hell we wanted to do.”