Josh Rouse: Totally ’80s (For Now)
One never quite knows what to expect from Josh Rouse. The nomadic, Nebraska-born singer-songwriter’s first few albums introduced a musician whose contemplative, sometimes moody songs compared favorably to work by introspective artists like Neil Finn and Pete Yorn. By the time of 2002’s Under Cold Blue Stars, Rouse was adding subtle jazzy and modern electronic textures to his work, while 2003’s aptly-named 1972 was in places a stylistic throwback to AM radio sounds of a bygone era. Nashville  placed the focus more on acoustic sounds, all in support of Rouse’s always alluring songwriting.
Relocating to Spain, Rouse absorbed new influences and applied those to his work, going so far as singing in Spanish on parts of 2010’s El Turista. Released in 2011, Josh Rouse and the Long Vacations flirted with baroque pop and Americana, though Rouse’s music had long drawn from both styles. 2013’s The Happiness Waltz had a quiet, late-night vibe, and The Embers of Time from 2015 was an inward-looking collection with flashes of gallows humor.
For his latest album, Josh Rouse has taken a stylistic left-turn … or perhaps even a U-turn. Love in the Modern Age is crafted around a 1980s MTV-era vibe, with analog synthesizers, vocal processing and drum machines coloring the character of his reliably compelling songwriting. The North American leg of Rouse’s tour nears its end with a May 25 show at Terminal West.
What was the thinking behind the particular sonic texture that you’ve adopted for this album?
“I didn’t think about it too much. I had a couple different ideas, a bunch of songs. I think I started ‘Love in the Modern Age,’ and ‘Businessman,’ and maybe another one with my friend Daniel Tashian, and those were definitely in a kind of synthesized world. I grew up in the ’80s, so I was familiar with those sounds. And I had been listening to a lot of that [kind of] music around that time as well.
“I had a whole other [album’s worth] of things and a lot of different directions I could have gone in. But my manager and I thought, ‘This would be something kind of different from what I’ve done the last few records. It might be nice to mix it up.’ So that was it, to be honest.”
Once you had the theme in mind, did that color the character of the songs you would write, or did you just apply that ‘80s synthpop aesthetic and style to the songs you had already written?
“A bit of both. You know you’ve got a record when you’ve got four songs that are kind of your basis. And that’s the way this record worked. If it’s a good song, it can be country-ish or it can be new wave; you can do anything with it. ‘Love in the Modern Age’ and ‘Businessman’ had a mood, and that mood set the record.
“But there might have been a few where I had that sort of ‘Hey, let me try it this way.’ Because I could have done the song ‘Ordinary People, Ordinary Lives’ in a David Bowie style. I remember when I first played it for a friend of mine; he said, ‘That reminds me of ‘Rebel, Rebel.’’ So there were a few that I treated in a certain way to make them fit with the record.”
You process your backing vocals on “Salton Sea” through what sounds like a Vocoder…
“Yeah, it’s like a Vocoder, but it does harmonizing as well. It’s like Kendrick Lamar. I think it’s used in modern R&B and hip-hop a lot. And I thought it would be funny to put that on my stuff!”
Did you use vintage ’80s gear, or modern digital plugins that replicate it?
“Again, a bit of both. A friend of mine has a bunch of old keyboards that we used: Roland Junos, Kurzweils and stuff like that. But we have some plugins that sound amazing, too.”
You were a teenager in the ’80s. And even though you covered The Cure years ago, the influence of what we call “college rock” isn’t really apparent in much of your catalog. What were you listening to in high school?
“Well, that stuff. The Cure were a big band for me. So was R.E.M. and – like you said – a lot of that college rock. At 16, I really got into the UK stuff like The Smiths and The Mighty Lemon Drops. I found out about all this stuff through 120 Minutes, which was on MTV. They’d play The The and stuff like that.
“I was just living in small-town America, so I found out about those bands through that program. And you know what? Years later, February 2003, I got to be on 120 Minutes. I remember my manager asking, ‘Hey. Do you wanna be on 120 Minutes?’ And I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s a dream come true!’ That was a lot of fun. But I found out about groups like Prefab Sprout and The Blue Nile through videos that were on MTV when I was in high school, or on college radio stations.
“So it was fun to do this record, because it brought up some nice memories. I can look at where I am today and say, ‘Wow. All those dreams I had of doing that kind of came true to some extent.’ I mean, I play in the UK all the time, and I’m in the magazines over there. And it’s nice to remind yourself that you don’t always have to work so much all the time to try to get somewhere; sometimes you can just look at the things that you’ve done. So Love in the Modern Age is, in a way, a romantic record for me.”
How important is it to you to not do the same thing over and over? Is that driven by your own creative restlessness, or a kind of obligation to your fans?
“It’s weird; it’s hard to get a balance. I mean, I love to do new things; I even sang in Spanish and did bossa nova on one of my albums. So, yeah, part of it does fulfill me.
“But at the same time, there can be pressure to please people as well. Because a record company puts this stuff out, invests money in it. I’m sure if I did a hip-hop record, they might go, ‘What?!’ So, not that I … I might do it. I won’t say I’ll never do it. But you want to do something new, something that satisfies you and something you hope your fans will enjoy. Sometimes they don’t enjoy it. And sometimes you make new fans.
“I think my stamp on music is just my songwriting. It’s my storytelling, I guess, and my melodic and harmonic thumbprint on it more than it being a drum machine or an acoustic guitar or whatever. At the end of the day, I just try to make it feel good, whatever it is.”
It was somewhat evident how your time in therapy colored the character of your 2015 album, The Embers of Time. Now that it’s a few years later, what do you see as some of the enduring effects of that therapy?
“It kind of goes back to what I was saying about appreciating where you are and not pushing too hard. I think that in the role of a modern person – whether it be a man or a woman – there are a lot of expectations. I’m a father, a creator, a husband, and provider; all these things can definitely cause a lot of stress, especially if you think about them a lot. So I just kind of stop and remember, ‘Okay. Everything’s fine.’
“Something I learned from therapy is to stop a little bit and appreciate what you have and what’s going on. Because I definitely have a personality where I can kind of move through things: Make a record, then, ‘Okay. What’s next? I’ve got a tour. Album cycle. What’s next?’ Keep moving. So I try to keep that in mind.”
Do you overwrite for an album and then pare it down to a number of songs that belong on the album, or do you “write up” to have enough material for a record?
“I definitely write more [songs] than I need, and then I play DJ for a while. I take a lot of time in sequencing and making sure the flow is really good. You want it to be wallpaper in some sense, but at the same time, you want people to spend time with it, listen to the lyrics and get into it.
“So I’ve got albums worth of songs that I haven’t used! I try to find the ones that can kind of fit together.”
When you were young – and even in your adult life – you moved around a lot. Presumably you absorbed some of the influences from your surroundings and then channeled them through your own sensibility into your music. Is that process a conscious thing for you?
“It’s definitely unconscious. I can see it more later, after it’s done or after it’s been out on a record for a few years. The new songs that I’ve been performing are kind of taking on new meanings. I suppose that can vary from week to week, month to month or year to year. Whatever’s happening in your life or whatever you’re seeing around you, you can get something new out of it.
“Which is good, because playing live can be very repetitive. Especially when you’re promoting a record, you’re doing kind of the same set, some favorites that people like and then some stuff that you just feel like playing. But to get into that zone and have lyrics that kind of related to something that’s going on now or that take you back to another time, that’s always the best. That’s fun.”
On this tour, are you recasting your catalog material in the ’80s style?
“A bit. I’ve found that these new songs fit well with some of my earlier songs from Dressed Up Like Nebraska  and Home , my first couple of records. And I don’t get to play those songs too much. So I’m going back into some of those. And we always do one or two off of Nashville and 1972, which seem to be my most popular records.
“Making a set list is always difficult. I have everything from uber-fans who know everything to some people who just know a few songs. So, you want them all to feel like they had a good time and enjoy the concert. Thinking about that when trying to make a set list can be challenging.”
Photo by York Wilson.