U.S. Christmas Defy Convention with ‘Run Thick in the Night’
Appalachia’s U.S. Christmas are a band that defy convention. They have what some consider a quirky name. They have a violin player and not one, but two drummers. They don’t play metal, but they can often be found sharing stages with metal bands such as Baroness, Weedeater and Saviours.
With their latest album, ‘Run Thick in the Night’ (out this fall via Neurot), the band has crafted a masterpiece of swampy, expansive modern Americana. Noisecreep spoke with the band’s six members to get to the bottom of what comprises the USX sound.
How did you all meet and come together to form USX? What was the initial or original ‘vision’ for the band?
Nate Hall: I had ideas for the band back in 2002, Matt [Johnson] came on almost right away. I just wanted to play guitar and write the songs I wanted to hear, so far that has worked out well. Meghan [Mulheam], Josh [Holt], Justin [Whitlow] and B.J. [Graves] came in last summer, but Matt and I had known them for a while. We knew they were good musicians and good people. We have since recorded an album, ‘Run Thick in the Night,’ and done two U.S. tours: one with Baroness and Earthless and the other with Weedeater and ASG. We are getting ready to record another album this summer. My vision for this band has always been contained in the album we are working on at any given time. It has been very satisfying, I have been able to get the words and sounds out of my head and make them real. Every album we have ever done is connected, and if you look closely you can see the lyrical and musical connections.
How do you think the band has evolved over the past decade?
Matt: Well, obviously members have came and gone — we’re certainly not the four guys that started playing together in a trailer back in 2002. I look at all the time I have spent with U.S. Christmas, there are lots of good times and great memories, I would have to say now that we are more lean sonically, we are really just now getting a good feel for each other musically.
Nate: I think we have realized our potential. Evolution is a constant, inevitable thing. Embrace it or fade away. That said, I think a lot of people have expected certain things from us, and we haven’t always been predictable. For example, Matt used a theremin on the first few recordings, and people immediately linked us to that instrument, as if it were a cornerstone of our sound. But Matt pretty much stopped playing it a few years ago and started working more with guitar and other types of synthesizers. People still won’t let go of the theremin thing. And I couldn’t care less about being a ‘space rock’ band. I have always had a minor-key dirge orgy in mind more than anything else. If you ask me, we are a Southern gothic band. Or psychedelic blues. It is strange to be in a position where people like what we do. I genuinely appreciate it when people come up to me and offer praise, but a lot of times it’s for something we did years ago. I want to keep going, I want to create new music. I think a lot of fans like to see the bands they like stay the same over time, I know I have certainly felt that way about bands I loved. But resistance to change will eventually kill any band.e.
Since signing with Neurot and playing shows with bands like Saviours, Weedeater and, of course, Neurosis, USX has been swept up into the underground heavy metal scene. Have you always considered yourselves to be part of that scene, or is this new territory for you? USX is certainly not a ‘metal’ band, at least in the traditional sense.
Nate: Well, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Looking back, the course we took was pretty surreal. The whole deal with Neurosis and Neurot was unexpected but welcome. It was the best possible thing that could have happened. Those guys basically opened up the world to us and have supported us ever since. I have had a few years to wrap my head around it, and it looks pretty cool from here. The bands you mentioned have all been very supportive and I don’t think they care too much about genre. Both Saviours and Weedeater seemed to like playing with us because we gave them a chance to zone out every night. I loved playing with them because I love metal and sludge, and I enjoyed what they did every night. Baroness went to a lot of trouble to take us out on the ‘Blue Record’ tour, and that meant a lot to us. Most bands that we play with are very open to other types of music. Most good musicians are open minded, and most of the bands we play with have a frame of reference for USX, even if they don’t play anything like us.
Josh: I’ve never considered U.S. Christmas to be a metal band at all. I suppose we get lumped into that group because of a lot of the bands that we’ve shared the stage with and that sort of thing. I just consider us a heavy blues band or psychedelic rock band that has tendencies to play at very high volumes, and we’re not afraid to be really heavy sometimes and let that metal influence shine through a bit. I would like to think that metalheads would find something to enjoy with our sound though! I think I’m definitely the big metalhead in the band.
You can put together a tour package of any four active bands in the world. Who’s on your dream tour? Why?
Matt: It would be USX, Minsk, Zoroaster and Ocoai … it’s bands that I love, filled with really great people. Really though why just four bands? I would want Hull and A Storm of Light out there too. Oh, and Neurosis and Amen Ra and … well it would be a big tour … I have thought about pitching that kind of tour to someone. Anyone?
Nate: Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ZZ Top, Willie Nelson — for obvious reasons. But the ticket price would be $25.
Josh: Wow, this is a tough one! I’m just gonna pick four that are getting heavy rotation at the moment. Let’s see…I’m gonna pick Grails, Neurosis, Swans and Woven Hand. That would be one amazing show!
Justin: Four bands … well, the first is one of my bands, ’cause I wanna go on tour. If it was USX, it would be USX, Neurosis (the kings), Black Mountain (beautifully weird and heavy) and Weedeater (cause those guys are so much fun!). I also play in a black metal band called Shadow of the Destroyer. That tour would be Shadow, Withered (one of my all time favorites and some of the nicest guys I’ve ever met), Battlemaster (so badass, thrash till death!) and Napalm Death. Otherwise: Rob Crow (my favorite), Sufjan Stevens (awesome), the Spits (yeah!) and Electric Damn (one the best Asheville [N.C.] bands ever! I miss them.)
B.J. Graves: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Swans and USX. Why? That would never happen in the real world, but I’d pay to go see that for sure.
Where does the name U.S. Christmas come from and what is its significance?
Matt: This is funny, because there are some reviews out there on blogs and other places on the Internet that bemoan our name as ‘stupid’ or whatever. F— them. It’s a good name that came from a film by ‘Bloody’ Sam Peckinpah, ‘Pat Garret and Billy the Kid.’
Nate: It was a name I pulled out of my ass, and it stuck. I prefer to just say USX. I think it would be cool if we could pull a Prince stunt and just go with some abstract symbol.
You have a new record out soon, ‘Run Thick in the Night,’ which was recorded by Sanford Parker. Tell me about working with Sanford, and tell me about how this record was written.
Matt: Sanford’s a great guy, really easy to work with. The album was mostly written before we recorded it, songs that we had had or had been working on for some time, there are a couple that kinda happened right as we went to record, ‘Fonta Floura’ came out of a jam that happened the first time we played with Josh and B.J. in the band.
Nate: It was great; we recorded in three days. Mixed in a weekend a few months later. Sanford is a total pro. We were ready to go, and he nailed it every time. He came to Tennessee and brought some gear. He is a great dude and we loved working with him, can’t wait to do it again. As for how it was written, some of the songs were around for a good while, and I spent a good part of the summer freaking out and putting it all together. Matt and I blended some ideas for songs. I had a lot of it mapped out, and Josh, B.J., Justin, Meg and Chris learned it in a pretty short time — a month or so at most. Meg learned her parts in a matter of days I believe. It was cool because everyone involved contributed cool parts and ideas. Sanford did some cool percussion stuff. Travis, our friend who runs the studio and helped with the recording, did some cool Hammond organ sounds. There is one song called ‘The Quena,’ which is a bass riff that Chris wrote, and everyone came together and wrote that. And Tony Wyioming from Minsk put some hand drum parts on a few songs. There is a lot of hidden symbolism in ‘RTITN,’ and it feels complete. It became what I wanted it to be, and I think everyone feels that way about it. That feels really good.
Josh: Most of the songs were written before we began recording with the exception of “The Quena” which was kind of improvised in the studio on the fly.
Are you guys vinyl fans? Do you think the way people consume music is important? Do you prefer that people listen to your entire album in one sitting, or are you OK with people just listening to a song here and there or listening on shuffle?
Matt: I am a huge vinyl collector. I love the large format for the cover art, the ritual of spinning it and just listening. You have to be involved when you play a record, it’s not just casual background noise. It can’t be, you have to be immersed in the music when listening to vinyl. I also have a rather large collection of CDs, lots of which I have put into my iTunes. It’s way easier to carry an iPod than it is to lug a bunch of CDs with you everywhere you go. It would be foolish to say that I (or we as a band) don’t care about the way people consume music. I would hope that anyone who buys our music would buy it to listen to the entire album, because that is what we make; we’re not a band who writes songs to be played on their own. I don’t use the shuffle button on my iPod. I don’t buy singles. I don’t get the pop hit thing. It’s more a product to be thrown away, when music is made to sell products or movies or sitcoms.
Nate: We definitely write music in album form, I think it is the best way to listen to USX. Vinyl is great, very tangible. It appeals to all the senses. It is a good way to buy music and it is easy to sell. Everyone wins. I hate digital files.
Meghan: I’m fine with people listening to things in whatever order they prefer. I’m not going to try and engineer everything about their listening experience. However, there is a reason why artists structure an album, and you can capture [that reason] when you listen to an album in its entirety. I like vinyl, but sometimes I want to listen to just a certain song as well.
Josh: I am a big fan of vinyl. I like the feel of something tangible in my hands with artwork and lyrics that I can use to make a visual connection with the sounds that I’m hearing. I hate the way the convenience of file sharing has changed the listening experience for music fans. I feel like just downloading a record off of rapidshare, megaupload or someone’s blog totally cheapens the experience. I want the real thing! I can remember getting a copy of Paranoid by Black Sabbath when I was a kid and just staring at the cover forever and it totally changed the way I perceived what I was hearing coming from my speakers. That picture man! I like to sit and let it all soak in and really revel in it. I mean, you don’t go to a movie and only watch 10-15 minutes of it at a time do you? I think of music the same way.
Justin: I am a vinyl fan. I really like it because I understand it. I don’t have an ipod. My mom gave me an mp3 player two years ago that I still have not used. However, I second-hand use all these things cause folks around me have them; i.e. I listen to shuffle and random as well as full albums. It’s kinda nice not having ‘your music’ with you, because then you get exposed all this new music. Sometimes. I don’t have any issue with the way folks wanna listen.
B.J.: I’m pretty adamant about listening to an album from start to finish without skipping around, and I think ‘Run Thick in the Night’ is an album that definitely lends itself to that approach. It has a great flow to it and has recurring themes throughout. As long as people are listening, though, I don’t mind how they go about it.
Why did you decide to incorporate two drummers into the band? What do you think it adds to the band, to the recording process and to the live show? Also, how do you approach having two drummers? Are both drumsets tuned the same or differently? Are both drummers playing the same or similar parts, or are the parts complimentary?
Matt: Purely accidental, born out of the need to not have to choose between Justin or B.J., and it’s fun to see those guys working together. Hauling all the drums is a pain in the ass, and it makes getting everyone on stage kinda interesting. Sonically and visually it’s a blast, well worth it. The look on sound guys’ faces … if only you could see it …
Meghan: It is fascinating to watch live. I will turn around and watch them sometimes, and it’s incredible to watch them looking at each other and working together. I don’t think that a lot of rock drummers have the chance to work with another drummer, and they both seem to be enjoying it immensely.
Justin: When Tim quit, USX had six shows over a few weeks already booked. I came in and learned a short set to honor those commitments. During that, Nate said, “How do you feel about having two drummers?” And I said, “Sure.” That’s how it went down for me. B.J. and Josh are in the same band, Generation of Vipers, and were friends of USX. I think they were already talking with them, too, but for whatever reason, they could not do those shows. So, me and B.J. both wanted to play in USX and they decided to use us both. For the most part, we do complimentary parts. It can sound really good. Then on some heavy parts, we come together. Sometimes one will play the beat and the other do accents and different things and vice versa. The drumsets are different makes with different sizes and probably tuned a little different. I have the lighter, smaller sounding cymbals and B.J. has the bigger, deeper ones. It is what we each had already, but it all seems to compliment each other well. We have gotten pretty good at syncing up.
B.J.: With ‘Run Thick In The Night,’ we didn’t really have much time work out many different drum parts. We had only been playing together for a couple of months, and only a handful of practices. And, at their core, USX songs are very simple rhythmically, and it’s sometimes difficult to construct elaborate, complimentary drum parts for two drum kits that won’t clutter up the song. The more we play together, the better we get at creating different drum parts. This new EP we are working on is a 40-minute song that is very drum-heavy in parts.
What do you all do when not playing music?
Matt: Work, work, work … listen to music, work, work, think about music, more work, wishing I was touring all the time …
Nate: Take care of children, mow the yard. I used to ride horses with my dad a lot, but not so much lately. Spend time with family. I have a good life.
Meghan: I’m usually playing music. I am in a number of different projects, and I play a lot of music all the time. I have a day job as a recruiter for highly-specialized technical and green jobs, and I work from home and on the road. When I’m not doing those things, I like to read and hang out with friends.
Josh: I am a graphic designer by day and own a printing business with my father which essentially pays my bills. I do some freelance design work occasionally as well. Outside of U.S. Christmas, I play with our drummer B.J. in another band called Generation of Vipers. Music is pretty much all I do when I’m not working my day job.
Justin: Work to pay my bills, visit family, hang with my fiancée, fantasize about playing drums, work toward happiness.
B.J.: I enjoy hiking as often as possible and spending time with my girlfriend.