I was first introduced to Jus Post Bellum‘s music over too many cocktails with band member Hannah Jensen’s sister Kitty (who is also a musical wunderkind along with their Minneapolis music scene ICON mother Wendy Lewis). I can’t even being to quote her, but it was summer, we were drunk on the sidewalk patio of Cause, and Kitty said something like “my sister’s band is fucking awesome!!!” Which is all you really need to hear to give something a listen.
It’s so cool when you listen to music like Jus Post Bellum, especially because it’s something that transports you directly to another era with one bass note or a drum cadence. In “Stonewall Jackson” you are sent to a field, feeling the sluggish heat and bugs biting your ankles; in “Shotgun Wedding” you’re riding in the back of a truck driving down a dirt road; from the title track of their first full album release, “Devil Winter”, you can hear the existential drain of winter, yet hopeful defiance that spring is on its way. It’s the kind of music that draws you in to listen, instead of demanding your attention like the sometimes obnoxious thump of a dubstep drop.
Anyways, as for the actual people behind Jus Post Bellum, there is Geoffrey Wilson (lead vocals, guitar), Hannah Jensen (vocals), Zach Dunham (drums, percussion, vocals), and Daniel Bieber (bass, cello, vocals). Below, Geoffrey answers my 7 Questions in Heaven about the birth of Jus Post Bellum, race in America and drinking with the hottest emancipator of all time, Abe Lincoln.
1) How did the idea behind Jus Post Bellum come about? What is it about the civil war that inspired you to start a band?
One version goes that Jus Post Bellum got its start in the apartment I had while living in the New York Hudson Valley. I had just graduated from college(I studied music and American Studies) and was working full-time at a school for kids with developmental disabilities. I was also waiting tables and bar tending. I was gifted one of those 70’s era organs with foot pedals and funny analog instrument sounds from a man named Dr. Kim, a loop pedal from a friend John, an old Kay guitar from another friend John. I also had an array of woodwind and and percussion from my collection(*note I am a hoarder of instruments and other stuff) I played saxophones in a Minimalist-Afrobeat band and in my free time recorded weird multi-layered acoustic tracks on the looper. Fast-forward a couple years, I moved to Brooklyn for grad-school and and continued secretly writing and recording ambient singer song-writer inspired tunes. At a very low point, I went alone to a party and met a girl named Hannah. During our year long courtship I wrote the first official JPB song ‘Stonewall Jackson’ in homage to that complicated war hero, and realized my interest in American History and folk style music worked very well together. Duh! Hannah encouraged me to come out of my shell a bit and sing her some songs. Then we started singing together. The rest is history.
2) If you had one night to drink whiskey with any civil war era historical figure, who would it be and why?
Obviously Abe Lincoln. Though I am most interested in the lesser known subtleties of that era. It would really be foolish to skip that chance. I so admire his pragmatism and in a big way it is at the root of how I approach the characters in my songs. I often choose to write from the perspective of a white southern man, a woman, a child. I look to find the good in “villains” and tell complicated histories, and injustices borne by both sides. This all is an effort to illuminate the complexity of our American History. Jus Post Bellum means Justice After War, and one of my goals has been to explore the full scope of what is just and unjust in that period of time.
3) You just released a beautiful teaser trailer (directed and filmed by Alyssa Pagano, William Hereford and Oscar Hudson) for “Gimme That Gun”, a song off your upcoming album Oh July. Does this mean you will you be releasing more music videos for this album?
[vimeo 72355432]__________________Indeed! We have 2 full length videos set to be released over the coming weeks [one of which is shot by Drew Weigel and Bushwick Happy Hour]. We are so excited for them and so thankful for the many people that dedicate their time to help us make these works of art happen. One will be a more classic “Music Video” directed and shot by Oscar Hudson in upstate NY at a house where I used to live. It was an overnight shoot and a bunch of our friends and local folks jumped in last minute to play characters. Its a bit light hearted, and was so much fun. The second was done by a collective of artists here in Brooklyn (and fellow minnesotans!) and is a beautifully conceived and executed work of art. Both are very different from one another but serve the music really well.
4) This article by Andrea Swensson about local Minneapolis fave Caroline Smith’s new soul sound and of course Miley Cyrus’ self-described new “black sound” are hot topics concerning race and cultural appropriation in America today. Being that your sound and subject matter is inspired by the American Civil war and American history in general, are racial issues something you guys talk about on your new album? Why or why not?
This is a great question, and perhaps more than I can tackle at one time. Speaking for myself as an African American person and more broadly as an American, addressing the topic of race is a complicated task. It is fraught with many differing opinions, and one which opens you up much criticism wherever your opinion may fall. If we limit this conversation to race as it relates to art, we are inevitably going to discuss the performative aspects of art, specifically music. In my mind these are inextricable from the larger context of the performative aspects of culture. I.E Blackness, whiteness, wealth, poverty. I’m writing you as a black guy, singing a fairly white American(at least in appeal) style of Folk derived music, likely appropriated in large part from black musicians in the rural south.
Growing up I lived for 10 years in North Minneapolis on Washburn Avenue, and then moved to Golden Valley for my adolescent years. Both my folks are from the economically poor, and predominantly black and hispanic side of San Antonio, Texas. I think moving to Minnesota, and specifically to the suburbs, my parents wanted to provide us with a sense of community with a more broad range of identities and possibilities. It should come as no surprise I’m not big on overtly performative aspects of race. More than once I’ve been asked indirectly or very directly why I don’t act black. I’ve never had a great answer other than to say all I can do is be myself. Like Prince;)
You mentioned Caroline Smith. We shared a bill out here in NYC a while back, but I haven’t seen her new, more soul inspired work. My estimation is that stylistically her performance might be a larger reflection of “pop music” moving towards a more stereotypically black aesthetic. Hip Hop and Pop music becoming more and more synonymous. Much is being said about this topic so I wont go into it except to say that if as Andrea Swensson suggested in her recent article music deserving an equal audience is being ignored in the nearby North Minneapolis community in favor of something more palatable and in fact co-opting the label “black music”, we may have a problem. And no doubt this happens all over the country. But if it is as I expect, simply that audiences enjoy Caroline’s voice, music, etc, and are excited about her expanding her palate and genre as a larger reflection of enthusiasm over soul music, so be it. What right do we have to deny her talent because of her race? While I’ve turned more than a few heads, especially singing our more country tinged numbers, name dropping “Stonewall Jackson” and the “N Word!”, especially in the south, no one has told me I can’t sing “white folks music”, yet…
In regards to the record: I intentionally say the songs are inspired by the Civil War. Some of them are overtly about figures or topics directly related to the period, others simply use that time period as a sort of working point and may not mention it at all. “Abe and Johnny” is most obvious, it is an homage to their parallel tragedies. “Sonny” is a fictionalized story about a confederate army deserter and pacifist. Others like “Oh July”, “Tell Me Mama”, or “For the Brokenhearted” mention elements of war or conflict as a backdrop for a romantic, or other tragic occurrence. Race certainly plays a part in the songs, but as in the war itself, race was only one element of a larger conflict.
5) Describe your new album in 5 words.
6) What has been your favorite place to tour so far and why? Are you planning a tour to support this album?
Much of our touring has been through the south. I’d hate to offend any one of the many amazing folks who helped us along the way, that wouldn’t be very Minnesotan of me now would it? So suffice it to say, we ate a lot of delicious BBQ and stayed in many great towns. And if your town has a great BBQ joint and a thrift store, we will come, eat, play, and stay the night.
We will be touring the first couple weeks of november. We will also be doing a show or two in Minnesota over the Christmas holiday, so stay tuned. Dates below:
11/5/13: Washington DC –Hill Country, 8:30PM FREE
11/7/13: Chicago, IL – The Burlington, Doors 9PM $5 donation
11/8/13: Louisville, KY – Atlantic No5 TBD
11/12/13: Boston, MA – The Beehive, 8PM-12AM FREE
11/13/13: Cambridge, MA – The Beat Hotel, 8PM-12AM FREE
11/14/13: Philadelphia, PA – Tin Angel TBD
7) If you had to pick one pop star, dead or alive, to feature on a track, who would it be and why?
Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. Both of them made folk-art in service to their times, but not limited by that context. This is something I greatly admire. There are many other lesser known American Blues and Folk artists who contributed greatly to this cannon but for me these guys are the top. Guthrie continues to inspire me to look closely at complicated and real histories and capture them in plainspoken, simply executed ways. Dylan encourages me to be aware of my time and place, and to not be afraid to use language, metaphor, and more importantly things said, unsaid, or merely suggested lyrically to stretch the boundaries of songwriting and the tolerance of our audience. And they also happened to have great voices 😉