Sad White Boy:
By Grant Rosenberg
Photos and Video by Laure Feton

On the night before his third album, Under Cold Blue Stars, was released in the States, Josh Rouse—jetlagged after getting off a plane only a day earlier—is about to play in a tiny club in Paris, France—the one country in Europe where his album isn’t being released the following day and won’t be for another few weeks. An odd place then to begin the tour, no doubt.

A page on his website,, is called "Josh’s Journal," and it has only one brief entry which reads in part,

Things I would like to see:

1. Sam Rockwell and John C. Reilly in a movie together.
2.Vincent Gallo and Harmony Korine in a free-fighting match.
3. My own line of t-shirts(if you have a white hanes or fruit of the loom t-shirt, bring it to the show and I will demonstrate).

At the end of the interview, I handed over a t-shirt and a black marker for him to demonstrate number three. After taking a few minutes to "conceptualize," he wrote the words, Sad White Boy, saying that this is how he had described himself earlier in the day for a Swedish journalist who asked him to do it in three words. It is an inside joke, Rouse told me. Last time they played in Europe a friend asked him, " what CDs did you bring? A bunch of sad white boy music?" "All that melancholy stuff, it’s pretty much true," Rouse said with a laugh. We spoke in the bar, an hour before the concert, while U2’s Achtung Baby played in the background. The new album never came up.

Gadfly: Tonight is the first show of your new tour, and it begins in Paris. How does your performance change when you are playing in front of audiences whose mother tongue is not English?

Rouse: It doesn’t really change musically, but I’m a little timid about talking to the audience. I just don’t know if they are understanding me. They’ll laugh or just look at you blankly and you think to yourself, 'I just shouldn’t have said anything' (laughs).

So you were born in Nebraska.

Yeah, in a town called Paxton, which is just outside of North Platte. It’s actually about three and a half hours from Lincoln, where there is the nearest airport.

And since then you’ve lived all around the U.S., and settled in Nashville.

Yeah, I’ve been there for about six years.

How much would you say moving around has affected the kind of music you make? It seems that often, among the ways musicians are pigeonholed, is to expect them to be part of a certain music scene in one city and that their music will be of that style.

Right, right. Living all over gives the music a sense that you are moving sometimes. But being in Nashville… there’s almost a friendly competition when it comes to songs and recording and things like that. Which is really good because there are some great songwriters there. I actually went to college outside of Nashville for about three years and then I moved into Nashville just because there were places to play. So when I got there I definitely got my shit together. I really didn’t have it together before that. I started focusing on writing songs, said to myself I was going to do a record, and that’s what I did. And it worked out really well.

Looking at some of your songs like "Suburban Sweetheart," "Directions" and "Little Know It All," I see its mostly D/G/A chords, very simple stuff. Is that conscious on your part, or how it comes out?

It’s just how it comes out. Pretty simple. I try to stick to that. I like simple songs. I was a big Cure fan when I was younger and I just like those simple three chord songs with really great melodies that were kind of moody at the same time. Sometimes I will think a song is too simple or too boring. And I’ll record it and go, "oh that really works." It’s just those three chords in different orders. But its just a weird… science to it. Most of my songs are just a couple chords and it's about how you play them and how long you stay on each one. It always fascinates me when I learn a song, a Velvet Underground song or something like that. I’ll just be sitting around and I’ll start playing it and I’ll say to myself, "wow, it just stays on A for a long time, then just switches to D and stays on it. It’s where they change the chords. The melody guides that. It usually just happens for people who write songs. It does for me, at least. I sit down and things just come out.

You’ve had some of your music on TV shows like Ed and Roswell and Dawson’s Creek as well as in the 2000 Ethan Hawke film of Hamlet. And now your song "Directions" is in the Cameron Crowe film Vanilla Sky. I would think that having your music chosen for a film by somebody like Crowe, with his own rock and roll credibility is like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. How has that affected things for you?

It was exciting just to even know that Cameron Crowe was a fan of mine. I was able to go to the premiere in L.A. and hang out with some stars. We didn’t really hang out with them, they were just there. It’s a thrill to be on the soundtrack with those other artists, and I’m sure it’s created more talk or whatever. More people more aware of my name or have heard one of my songs that wouldn’t have an opportunity to hear it before. And I’ll probably make some money from it, but you know… Bono hasn’t called me or anything like that.

How did it work, exactly? Did they send you the script?

Well, I saw the Spanish version, Abre Los Ojos. His music supervisor Danny Branson called my manager and left a message saying, "Hey, I’m sitting here with Cameron Crowe and we’re fans of your artist Josh Rouse, so give us a call." Chris called them and they explained that they wanted to use "Directions" in a scene in this new film. I think Chris had read something about the film in Entertainment Weekly or something… and that was about it. We were like, "Yeah man, use it." I mean that’s really the only source of income. I don’t make money selling records. So it’s good for the publishing. After this record, this next year, we’ll be getting closer to breaking even. We’ll be able to have a tour manager and a bus. When we tour at home, I have my own van.


Yeah, it’s a conversion van, I just take the backseat out. It’s like punk rock touring. Play six days a week, Sunday, we drive. I tour manage myself. It’s very do-it-yourself.

There are a lot of rock stars we read about who have that celebrity guilt-complex.

That is bullshit. I’m sure some of that has its problems, but I don’t know how they would feel about getting up early in the morning to do promotion, driving eight hours to a gig, unloading all your equipment and soundchecking it with some soundman who ran sound for Black Sabbath in 1978… I think that attitude is a load of shit. They are really rich and want something to complain about. Johnny Rotten said it best. "If you don’t want to be famous, just quit." That’s the best point. I’d love to play in front of 5,000 people a night. It would be great. I don’t have that indie-scene idea of "I’m too cool to play for more than…" People that play music want to have an audience. You can’t be selective about who likes your music.

Now that the hype of Napster and file-sharing has died down, what is your take on the place of the Internet in music? Your own site, is getting more comprehensive now, and you can even stream the whole album.

I think it is important and a great medium for people discovering your music. It’s not helping to sell a lot of records. If I were to put out an Internet-only release it would only do so much. CD burning reminds me of how people used to make tapes for you. The same thing but on a whole different level. Which is really nothing but good. I’m cool with it. I mean, if I want a record, I’ll go buy it. There are a lot of people still like that. If some 16 year-old wants to download my whole record, man, let him do it, because stuff spreads through kids a lot better than it does adults.

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