The Districts current lineup

The Districts are an indie rock band that was formed in Lititz in 2009. From left, guitarist Pat Cassidy, singer-songwriter Rob Grote, bassist and piano player Braden Lawrence. 

Last time LNP | LancasterOnline spoke with lead singer of Lititz-native indie rock group The Districts, Rob Grote, he spoke about what it was like to accidentally release an album, “You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere” during the pandemic.

That was in May 2020.

And, as it turns out, a lot has changed for The Districts since then.

One of the founding members, bassist Connor Jacobus, quit the band (which shifted drummer Braden Lawrence to bass and piano). And they added a new touring member, Alex Held, to play the drums.

The band’s new (and intentionally released) album, “Great American Painting,” is set to release Feb. 4, 2022.

But before that, The Districts will make a stop in their home county to play at Phantom Power in Millersville tonight.

We caught up with Grote before the Phantom Power show and talked about Jacobus' departure, the new album, the upcoming tour in support of “Great American Painting,” and what it’s like being back after COVID-19 delayed performances. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

It’s been a few months since Connor has left the band; how has that changed your band’s dynamic?

Obviously we’re sad to see him go. He’s an original member. I think it’s one of those things where our relationships are all stronger for it, you know? It’s a hard thing to go through, but it’s for the best for everyone. Within the band, we kind of took it as an opportunity to really change things up even further, so our drummer Braden now plays bass and keys, and we have this guy Alex, who sort of has the same relationship to our guitarist Pat that I had with Braden, where like, Alex drummed in Pat’s high school band. It still very much feels like family. It obviously has changed things to a degree, but it’s like, everything feels right.

And this upcoming album, ‘Great American Painting,’ is that the first album that has the new band members?

Actually, it’s the other way around. It’s the last album with the old situation. So, like, Connor is on the record, and we made the record with him, and it was a great experience. Connor’s great on it. There’s a song called “Hover” on it, which is actually the first song that Connor wrote for The Districts, so that was cool.

So it’s a nice little ‘farewell, we love and appreciate you, go spread your wings’ kind of thing?

Yeah, totally. Totally.

Let’s talk a little bit about your upcoming album. What was the inspiration behind it?

It was recorded during the pandemic, and it was like, in the years preceding it and during it, there was a ton of social upheaval … a lot of personal upheaval going on. So it was definitely informed a lot by that. A lot of it was informed by the experiences of trying to survive out there, you know? Trying to make your way through the world and then kind of growing up within the context of being in a band in this country. Sort of realizing that you get to a point where you look back, and you’re like, “Oh, all my choices have led me here and there’s no turning back.” Not in a bad way, just sort of like a sense of acceptance. And, you know, a lot of reflecting off a lot of social ills of the world, with the Trump presidency and climate change. Those are all things on my mind. … I always try to distill these big feelings in something that’s just a little more immediate.

So, this is like a special, introspective kind of album?

Yeah, I’d say so.

Which song off the new album are you most proud of?

I really like “Do It Over.” … I think it’s one of those songs that sort of says a lot with little. That’s something you always like to achieve with writing anything: 'How do I get a big feeling across with the three minutes that’s allotted to you?'

Tell me a little bit more about that song: What inspired it?

That one was inspired on a social scale … the whole climate change conversation and where we’re at in the world with that. Along with a sort of parallel to my own life of what I was mentioning before… You realize that you’re just kind of flailing through life in some ways, and you get to a point where you’re like, “Oh, I’ve been making these choices the whole time, and I’m older and wiser because of them.” Just kind of reflecting on, like, oh, how would I have done it, knowing what I know now? And not in a regretful way, but more of a wistful way.

Going back for a second, “Great American Painting" ...  What was the inspiration behind calling it that name?

I had written a lot of the album. I spent a little bit of time in Washington state in a cabin and I had driven out there … after last summer and it was a very privileged opportunity to be able to just get away from everything and go out there in the woods. I had been part of the Philadelphia protests last year for Black Lives Matter, and me and a bunch of my friends got tear-gassed, and the whole George Floyd killing … And then, kind of the contrast from that to being out in this epic, magnificent wilderness, it was kind of the great American painting to me. … Just questioning, what is this country? What does this country mean to me? Is it just this brutal, heartless place where it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and brutality everywhere? Or is it this sort of romantic, epic, natural beauty that exists here? It’s all of it; it’s the truth of it. And then there’s a sort of tongue-in-cheek element of it, which is, it’s not a painting, it’s a record (Rob laughs). And I just like that sort of little play on that.

How is “Great American Painting” different than “You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere”?

“You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere” was kind of written very much as a recording project. I was recording a lot of it in my room, and we didn’t record a lot all together, but every song was built from the ground up as a recording. Whereas ("Great American Painting"), in some ways, was back to our roots of making a full band record where most of the songs were tracked live, and a lot of the songs were written with the band in mind … Like, “How can we make these songs showcase our strengths as a group?”

Will you be playing any of your new songs at Phantom Power?

Yeah! Yeah, we’ll be playing through a handful of them. Not sure exactly how many, but definitely a handful.

I wanted to ask about Phantom Power itself. You’re doing one or two shows, and then another one or two shows, and then you’re kicking off on this like, long semi-American, semi-European tour. So I was just curious of, why Phantom Power, and why right now?

Well, I mean, we grew up in Lititz, so Lancaster is home. I think we always try to play around Lancaster and Philly around the holidays, just because a lot of the people we know are around. We’re already sort of having a homecoming time around the holidays, so it’s just kind of the perfect time to play your hometown.

Tell me how you’re feeling about the tour. 

 I’m excited. We have actually toured Europe a number of times, so, to be honest, as much as I love playing shows in the US, hands-down my favorite thing is touring Europe. Everywhere is exciting. The people are so different. In the U.S., you’ll drive like four hours and be in Pittsburgh or something, but over there, you drive four hours and you just went from Germany to France. … I’m very excited.

Which show in Europe are you looking forward to playing the most? If there is one.

Yeah, that’s a good question. We once, on a day off on tour, went to Prague and I really liked it, but we never played a show there. We’re playing a show there this time. So like, that’s the one I’m definitely the most excited for, for sure.

What excites you about Prague?

The architecture’s all like, super gothic. My memory of it is just like, late at night, there’s all these tram cars and it’s all foggy and it just feels very old eastern Europe. I like that vibe a lot.

How does it feel to play live shows again, post COVID-19?

It definitely feels weird, you know. We’ve done quite a bit of touring already, starting in August, and after having a year that had so much time turning inwards, it was definitely really jarring to be in rooms full of crowded people. It kind of felt really alien to be performing again. I’m like, “I don’t know how to do this anymore.” And also, the touring lifestyle, it can be a little bit exhausting. You play late, you don’t get out of the venue till like after midnight usually, and then you gotta be up early to drive the next day. So it’s definitely a readjustment period. But, also, that being said, it felt so amazing, and like this huge piece of my identity since I was 14 years old … To have that back and get to play music with people in the room was priceless. So, it’s complicated … But it’s mostly good.

What have the crowds been like?

In the first few shows we played, I think everyone was kind of feeling what we were feeling. We were uncertain of how to be at a show. But I feel like they’re getting more and more comfortable, they seem … back in the swing of it.

Has COVID-19 changed the way that you guys tour?

At the beginning, we were really cautious … But, to be honest, the longer we were on tour, the more we just kind of slipped into our old ways, and not worrying about it too much. We’re in crowds every night, there’s only so much we can do here, and can control for factors.

Do you have a different outlook on shows now that COVID-19 has happened? 

I guess it just feels less taken for granted, and less of this feeling of certainty that it’s a thing you can always do. It used to feel like, “Oh, this is just what we do and it’s what we’re going to do forever.” But after last year, it kind of feels almost like it could be taken away at any time. Which is maybe just an anxiety, but it definitely informs how you feel about it.

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