Living like a blown-out sun with the Districts

Before Saturday's show at A&R Bar, Rob Grote discusses his Washington state retreat, the 2015 Paris attacks at the Bataclan and finding ways to move forward in a terrorized world

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
The Districts

Other than the times he protested in the streets of Philadelphia during the spring and summer, Rob Grote spent much of 2020 feeling trapped indoors. He found himself craving a quiet place, preferably out in nature, removed from city life, where he could regroup.

Grote, singer/guitarist in indie-rock act the Districts, found just such a place in the remote woods of Washington state near Mount Rainier, where he and his girlfriend decamped for a while amid the pandemic, their only neighbor a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran named Paul.

“One of the first nights we had a little campfire. We’re talking to him, and very quickly, he's way more fascinating than I even thought. He fought in Vietnam, but afterwards he realized how messed up it was and started protesting it, too,” said Grote, who developed a friendship with Paul, bonding over everything from politics to bands like the MC5. “He used to live in Detroit, and his friend was like, ‘Hey, I got two tickets to this festival. You wanna drive there with me?’ He's like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ not knowing anything about it. And it was Woodstock.”

Paul gave Grote the kind of long-term perspective he needed at a time when the pandemic and the state of America weighed heavily on his mind. “I felt very confused, and not entirely hopeless, but a little bit hopeless about the world. And it was cool talking to him, because in his life, he felt like it had been two steps forward, one step back. We've been progressing the whole way, and we keep moving forward nonetheless,” Grote said. “I felt like I was playing a video game, like Skyrim, where you go off the beaten path and then you're like, oh, wow, here’s this wise person that you didn't know you needed to meet, way out of the way, but they have the key to your quest.”

Grote channeled those experiences and reflections into “I Want to Feel It All,” the lead single from the Districts' forthcoming fifth album, Great American Painting (Fat Possum), which releases on Friday, March 11 — the day before the band performs locally at A&R Bar with opening acts Francis of Delirium and Vanillaroma.

“I wanna live like a blown-out sun/A meteor burning up, crushing through the heavens,” Grote sings on the post-punk anthem, channeling his newfound desire to live a full, interconnected life. “I came away from it reaffirming that we're all part of this big, weird experience together, from the city folk to Paul, who is out there living alone, being a cool hippie guy,” Grote said. “We're all on the same journey.”

The downtime in the woods also gave Grote the mental space to process some of the events of the last few years. “You didn't really have time to stop and assess things in life the way we were going before. And then, all of a sudden you stop, and it's like, ‘Holy shit, there is way more backed up in the pipeline of life-processing than I ever could have imagined,’” Grote said.

In particular, Grote found himself thinking back on the deadly 2015 terrorist attacks at the Bataclan theater in Paris. During the attacks, the Districts were playing a show at the sister venue to the Bataclan, La Cigale, and went into lockdown. The trauma from the events, though, didn’t surface until later.

“We walked away from it feeling shaken but sort of fine, and then, six months later, we'd be playing shows and starting to get super anxious and feeling really uncomfortable playing music live,” said Grote, who again channeled his anxiety into something more affirming, writing the song “No Blood” as a way to honor those who dedicate their lives to taking care of other people.

It’s an outlook not unlike that of Mr. Rogers, whose mother famously taught him to “look for the helpers” during tragic events. “Our world is so evil now that those good things, like Mr. Rogers, are the pinnacle of counterculture,” Grote said. “Growing up in a terrorized world, I feel like there's a nice freedom in having a defiant attitude towards it all, where it's a scary world, but you're trying to just embrace it. Whatever happens, not letting the fear of anything stop you.”

Whether hitting the road to tour with the Districts, chatting around a campfire in the Pacific Northwest, hunkering down during the pandemic or protesting in Philly streets, Grote has chosen to let the reality of mortality propel him forward rather than hold him back. “I was thinking a lot about life and death,” he said, “and I came away from it feeling a desire to be fully immersed in life. Live it up while you can.”