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Be specific: J Roddy Walston on the power of the piano

j roddyJ Roddy Walston and the Business are the dudes on the right, Walston on the far left. (Glynnis McDaris)

By David Malitz

These days if you hear about a rock band that features piano, it's probably not a rock band at all. Coldplay and its acolytes have turned rock-and-roll's original instrument into a sap machine. J Roddy Walston and the Business are trying to change that. Walston leads the roadhouse-rocking Baltimore quartet and he does so while sitting on a stool, pounding on a piano.

There's no microgenre descriptor for the band -- it's simply rock-and-roll. After three years on the road, the band will release its debut album on Vagrant Records later this summer, and plays at the Rock and Roll Hotel on Friday night. Click Track spoke with Walston about how he came to play his instrument of choice and some of the problems he faces while traveling with such a bulky instrument.

How did you get started playing piano? Were you a kid that started in the old fashioned way?

I kind of learned watching my grandmother play. She had a real visual style of playing where you're playing the same chord but your hands are bouncing all over the place, so it looks like you're doing a lot. That's when I was pretty young. When it came to the point of me actually writing stuff -- I guess I approach piano as more of a guitar. I have no desire to show off, do some classical piece in the middle of a rock song. The dynamic in our band is that I'm more like a rhythm guitar player. Then there's Billy [Gordon], our actual lead guitar player. I mean, the piano I have has pickups in it. To me it's just like an electric guitar. Or that's the mentally I have when I go about writing.

"Brave Man's Death" - J Roddy Walston and the Business

So when you write songs, do you do it on guitar or piano?

No, I write them on piano. The whole thing with Chuck Berry was he took his phrasing, timing, whatever, from his piano player that he was playing with. And he just stole that guy's way of playing and put it on guitar. I guess I'm doing that in reverse.

Traveling -- is that a pain? Do you always take your own stuff?

There have been some horrendous times. Just the other day we played this boat show in New York. The four of us, it looks like we're carrying a coffin. And right as we're trying to step onto the boat some sort of crazy wake came in and the boat went from being dead still to rocking three or four feet away from the dock. Our drummer just goes, "This is insane!" and leaves me standing there, seeing my piano about to fall into the East River. And I just had to jump with it. I jumped off the dock with the piano, which is lighter than some pianos but is still 150 pounds. I definitely almost rode that thing into the East River.

I know you've played at DC9 before and that place has got a steep, narrow staircase.

Basically narrow staircases are horrendous. Because it really takes four people to do that thing. But when you get in that situation you can only fit two. You get to the top and you feel like your back's gonna break. But I think it's worth it. There are different times where promoters are like, "Why don't you just use this keyboard?" And I'm like, "Well, we need a piano." And they're like, "Well, we have keyboards." And I'm like, "I don't play keyboards. I play piano." It's not like you'll tell a guitar player to play a keytar.

The piano helps bring a very old-time, rock-and-roll feel, especially to the live show. Do you find that helps people react to it better?

A lot of what we're doing -- what people are reacting to -- is that it's authentic. We're not putting on a rock-and-roll mask. It's harder to present to someone by saying, "We're not trying to trick you, we're not trying to put one over on you, we're not trying to come up with some crazy back story that's not real. This is just what it is." I think that a lot of people who actually like rock-and-roll are forced into listening to crappy bands because they don't realize there are good options out there.

By David Malitz  |  June 18, 2010; 10:40 AM ET
Categories:  Be specific  | Tags: J Roddy Walston and the Business  
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I never understood how putting down other musicians was supposed to create respect for anyone else. This seems to have been a good match of music writer and music act, however. Both seem real happy with themselves.

As for the music, after reading this, I think I'll pass.

Good job, Mr. Malitz.

Posted by: handal1 | June 19, 2010 7:08 PM | Report abuse

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