At first no one knew exactly why J. Roddy Walston was trembling. Walston's parents were confused and concerned about the shakes that took hold of their young son, and yet no one seemed to have an answer.
"When it was first manifesting, my parents were like, 'Why is our kid vibrating?'" Walston says on the phone from his home in Richmond, Va. "We went to the doctor and they did all these tests for degeneration and neurological disease, and they came to the point where they said, 'We can't fix it and we don't know what it is, but it seems to be getting worse.'"
Eventually, he was diagnosed with essential tremor, a degenerative neurological disorder that causes the hands and arms to shake. "When I was four or five, they said I'd never be able to hold a pencil," Walston says. "Now I'm signing autographs every night."
Fearing that his last comment might not be taken as a joke, the singer, piano player, and guitarist for J. Roddy Walston and the Business adds, "That's not the way I think about it. I just thought it would be funny to say that."
After 11 years of touring, three EPs, and two full-length releases (including 2010's J. Roddy Walston and the Business), his band's honest and loose rock 'n' roll image is gaining serious traction. Led by Walston, the quartet sounds like a rowdy Leon Russell or a heavy Jerry Lee Lewis, and they're the type of band that cares about authenticity so much that they haul a 150-pound 1970s Yamaha CP-60 upright piano to every gig rather than use a keyboard.
And for that reason, J. Roddy Walston and the Business have been getting a lot of press, including a profile by The New York Times in 2010. Oddly enough, the writer of the story largely focused on the band's van, a white Ford Club Wagon emblazoned with the logo of the Hampton Cove Christian Academy in Huntsville, Ala. They christened the vehicle "The Diaper," and rightfully so. By the time the junkyard van broke down on the way to Florida for a gig with the Black Keys, Walston and his bandmates had gradually amassed four years worth of garbage under the seats. Not long after, Roddy and company replaced The Diaper with a high-dollar Mercedes Sprinter, which lasted about 20,000 miles, or until a mechanic told them that the vehicle was in such bad shape a piston might be thrown into the cabin and kill someone. The van is currently listed on Craigslist for $5,000.
"We're kind of in a weird pinch with our van situation," explains Walston, who says they'll be borrowing a friend's vehicle for their current tour. "I'm not the biggest fan of bands doing Kickstarters, but I think if we found some ridiculous van, like a giant 1982 Winnebago with eagles and cityscapes and American flags on it, we could mount a get-us-back-in-American-made-ridiculous-vehicles-because-our-Mercedes-failed-us campaign."
Despite the hard-living, hard-driving image the band's rowdy stage show conveys, Walston's home life is a docile affair. He moved from his hometown of Cleveland, Tenn., to Baltimore, Md., in 2004, so that his now-wife could study opera. Currently based in Richmond, Va., he says it's more likely for classical music to be playing at his home than good ole rock.
"The long and short of it is, after being in a van with dudes that are living in a van, it's nice to come home and hear something totally different from rock 'n' roll," Walston says. "On my records, there are definitely lines where I was inspired by listening to an opera and thinking, 'That was a really weird way of saying something.'"
Although it can be tough planning a time when they're both at home and not hard at work on a project, J. Roddy and his wife hope to one day put together a rock opera of their own. For now, however, Walston's energy is on the Business.
Earlier this year, they signed with ATO Records, Dave Matthews' boutique label that's also home to My Morning Jacket and Alabama Shakes. Upon striking the deal with ATO, the band immediately ventured to Valdosta, Ga., where they spent the month of March recording at producer Mark Neill's new Soil of the South Studios.
"People said, 'You should go into a nice studio and do a record that sounds big,'" Walston says. "No offense to the Foo Fighters, but we don't want to sound like them, and that's a lot of what happens when you go into these big studios. I don't want somebody trying to clean me up to make this big slick thing. That's just not my mentality toward rock 'n' roll."
Before they knew it, they were in Georgia recording drum tracks and playing them back through vintage amps to roughen up the raw-edged sound even further.
"The last album was instant energy. There wasn't much room for nuance, because it's a full-blast, nonstop record that just hits you in the face," says Walston. "This record isn't a change in direction. It's unhinged and has a lot of wildness and ferociousness to it, but where there were weak moments on the last record that were carried by the energy, I feel like the songs this time around are pretty bulletproof."
The album, due for release mid-summer, is something of a full-circle moment for Walston. The band has chosen to name it Essential Tremors after the medical condition he was diagnosed with as a boy.
"It's an appropriate title for this record. It's a weird word play of slamming two words together that don't seem to make sense, but it's also an intensely public display of, 'Here's this real problem that I have,'" says Walston. "It's about accepting your lot in life. You can accept something, or you can be better than it and keep improving."