Rowdy J-Roddy Wants to be Baltimore’s Good Times Pied Piper
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“I think maybe it was true for the whole country, but especially down South, everyone wanted to be Radiohead for the longest time,” says J-Roddy Walston, the garrulous frontman of recent Tennessee transplants J-Roddy Walston and the Business. “I just got tired of hearing that, and didn’t want to play it. We play the music we want to hear, and I think that makes a big difference.”
The music Walston (vocals, keys, guitar), Nick “Two Dollar” Kaisharis (lead guitar), Zack Westphal (bass, backing vocals, tambourine), and David Morton (drums) want to hear sounds like what would happen if Queen, Harry Nilsson, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Paul McCartney, Phil Spector, Scott Joplin, Supertramp, and the Blues Explosion decided to get bourbon sloppy and write gospel/ragtime/swamp boogies about baby Jesus and “losing bros to hos.” It’s an infectiously manic sound captured on the new self-released LMN EP, the self-described “greatest EP of Southern weirdo rock that’s ever come out in the last six months.”
Be warned, J-Roddy Walston and the Business are prone to spontaneous, midconversation attacks of barbershop a cappella. They also collectively believe that Mary Poppins is an incredible movie. But onstage they hammer away at their instruments so frantically, so urgently, they make James Brown look lazy. And then—the impossible—they get Baltimore’s sullen-faced scenester crowd to get off their asses and shake it down.
“We’re really scary sort of redneck types,” claims Morton, shrugging.
“We’re just really catchy people,” Kaisharis adds.
Walston started the Business five years ago in Cleveland, Tenn., after his homemade demo tapes beat out 350 contenders to win a new band showcase—sans band. Already used to collaborating, thanks to a stint writing “horrible never-ending prog music” with a friend, Walston recruited Westphal and a few other local musicians to form his first real group, and recorded his first EP, Here Come Trouble. The Business quickly became a vehicle for Walston to embrace his uniquely Southern musical background—live music as a communal, reciprocal experience, where passionate devotion to the band playing onstage outweighs the see-and-be-seen vibe of most indie-rock clubs.
“I grew up pretty much only hearing church music,” Walston says. “On my mom’s side, the whole family, they’re just huge musicians. Like, country hoedown out on the porch kind of people—which I resented for a long time but recently got back into. Really, I just enjoy creating situations where people can have fun and be accepted, and I think that our music has that common thread in it. People hear the first chorus and, by the second chorus, they’re singing along.”
Since 2000, the Business has endured countless lineup changes to gain notoriety as a party band in the Nashville/Chattanooga scene. Last summer, the group relocated to Baltimore, in the hopes that proximity to New York, Washington, and other major cities will help them reach a broader audience. So far, they’ve opened for the Legendary Shack Shakers, Copilot, and other notables, headlined a handful of shows, and got around to recording and releasing LMN EP.
“What I would say the LMN EP might do is change people’s lives,” Walston says. “I think it could be the next thing that people want to have.”
A good representation of the band’s live sound, LMN EP includes the swaggering, lounge-tinged “Grow Up Grown Up,” the goofy barbershop dirge “Death by Applause,” and fist-pumping show favorite “Get Into Me,” which includes an organ part that, Walston gleefully notes, sounds like the theme from Good Times. Anything that cracks them up gets thrown into the mix, no matter how derivative or stereotypically uncool.
“It’s always like, ‘That’s the crappiest thing I’ve ever heard,’ and that’s it, that’s what sticks,” Westphal says. “If everyone’s laughing at you, then you know that your part’s established.”
“But there’s a fine line between perfect and ridiculous,” Morton adds.
“There’s bad playing or bad writing, and then there’s what you actually want to hear,” Walston says. “Like, you don’t want to go to a porno, but it’s funny to laugh at the boobs in an art museum. You can really compare us to that. We’re like the boobs in a da Vinci painting, with a sign underneath that says, it’s ok to laugh at this.”
The Business’ slapstick composing style is a good counterpoint to Walston’s solid songwriting. He cites genre chameleons and pop aficionados Harry Nilsson and Paul McCartney as his major songwriting heroes, and it’s not surprising when Walston’s vaudevillian voice belts out lines such as “c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, and love me baby” or “I saw a heart in your shopping cart, and you said it was a bargain.”
“The thing I try to do, or wish I could do, is write a song as good as one of those guys,” Walston says. “Like, on a bad day, would this be a song that they would write? If I ran it through the filters of those guys, would they think, Yes, this is an acceptable song for other people to hear? That’s what I’m going for.”
But Baltimore audiences won’t easily get up and dance. Band members still wax nostalgic about Tennessee, with its lax open-container laws, drunken post-show parking-lot brawls, and a group of loyal friends who call themselves “the J-Rowdies.”
“Down in the Dirty South, if you will, people just get crunk a lot harder, and drop it like it’s hot,” Walston says. “They’re all about going to shows and just getting out of their mind, making it a big happening. But we’ve been having shows up here where people are really receptive, and the bands we’ve played with so far have been really fun.”
“We just need some Baltimore J-Rowdies,” Kaisharis says.
“I dare people to have a good time at our show,” Walston says, stretching his arms above his trucker cap. “That’s what I dare Baltimore. Come out to our show, and be prepared to have a good time and drink some brewdogs.”