On a cross-country trip to rural Washington state to record music last year, The Districts frontman Rob Grote pulled over to the side of the road and admired the beauty of his surroundings. He left the roadside stop with a powerful realization and a title for the Districts newest album.
“I went to Washington state, and went from the most chaotic version of the world to this super peaceful beautiful environment. I thought to myself about the two sides of what America is,” says Grote. “One side, there’s a picturesque, larger-than-life country that is beautiful and represents this ideal of total natural freedom. And the other side is this cold reality of society that is brutal. I was driving one day, and saw this beautiful river, and I was like, ‘This looks like a Great American painting.’”
Even though it was in Washington where the idea for The Districts upcoming album Great American Painting was forged, the experiences and inspiration for the album came from the birthplace of American democracy, Philadelphia.
In the past couple of years, Philly has been in the epicenter of issues such as police brutality, COVID, climate change, racial inequality and financial inequality. And Philly-via-Lancaster resident Grote has been in the thick of it, and it all started on March 12, 2020 at Union Transfer.
Every band likely circles the ‘hometown’ show on any given tour; hometown shows mean seeing friends and family, playing in front of a packed crowd, and sometimes sleeping in your own bed. The Districts’ hometown show on last year’s tour was at Union Transfer, a venue located on the border of Center City and North Philly. Union Transfer has great sound, you feel close to the music but you never feel claustrophobic, and it has a good beer menu. It’s kind of the closest you can get to a perfect venue, but the circumstances leading up to The Districts’ show that night weren’t perfect.
“When we started the tour before the Union Transfer show, maybe a couple shows would get canceled,” says Grote, referring to COVID. “Then everyone started using hand sanitizer ,and we hear that the West Coast shows are getting canceled. By the time we were loading in Philly, New York announced their capacity limits, and we were supposed to play New York the next day. We knew this Union Transfer show would be it.”
Like everyone during that week, The Districts were confused about what to do, and they wondered if the Philly show should be canceled. “At this point we were like, ‘Is it terrible to go through with this?’” says Grote. The previous night it was announced that Tom Hanks had gotten COVID, and that the NBA would postpone their season.
But in the end, The Districts went through with the sold-out show at Union Transfer, and it was one of Grote’s favorite shows he ever played.
“There was something weird and magical about knowing how much uncertainty was ahead of us,” says Gote.
The one thing that was certain was that the Districts would release an album the next day on March 13 called You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere.
“It was really weird to put out a record called You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere on Friday the 13th and then the pandemic happened,” says Gote.
Pandemic aside, it was a really good record and one that featured the band’s musical growth; on it, The Districts expanded their rock sound to include more ambient noises and synths.
“It should have been my pandemic record,” says Gote about You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere. “I was making recordings without a plan, and I didn’t think they would be Districts songs. Eventually when I showed it to the band, they all really liked it.”
Three months after the Union Transfer show, and the release of You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere, another impactful event happened for Grote. And it happened a mile to the south of Union Transfer on the Vine Street Expressway.
If Philly is the Birthplace of America, then the Vine Street Expressway is definitely America’s highway. The short highway connects Center City Philadelphia to Camden & the Schuylkill Expressway. The Vine Street Expressway only runs for two miles in Philly, but those two miles have made national headlines as a microcosm of America’s problems. Earlier this year, the highway flooded due to the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida that hit Philly and the Garden State hard.
In 2020, demonstrators marched on the highway to protest the murder of George Floyd, and later they would be teargassed by police. Grote was one of the people who got tear gassed by police.
“It was an entirely peaceful protest,” says Grote. “You’re like marching through the streets, and then everyone started going on the highway. Which was confusing because traffic was stopped. It wasn’t some big plan, but it worked out that everyone started heading there. Within a minute, everyone started to panic and it felt like a war zone. There’s like SWAT vehicles flying around with canisters. This old man next to me had his camera shatter and got his finger broken because of a canister.
“If that didn’t happen, the march would have continued to the next exit, and gotten back on the road and off the highway,” says Grote.
For Grote, that experience on the Vine Street Expressway, and what he saw in America, gave him inspiration for their upcoming album, Great American Painting, which will be released on Feb. 4.
“A of lot songs are about resilience and survival, and trying to make it through a chaotic world. A lot it was in response to such a crazy year,” says Grote.
The Districts released two singles so far, and District fans can check out some of the new tunes at Asbury Lanes on Nov. 27. One of the new singles is “Do It Over.”
“That song I feel is a reflection on my personal life, and the world in terms of climate change and social issues,” says Grote. “Just seeing how all of your choices amount to the present moment, and how the wisdom you get from all those choices and experiences you maybe look back, and realize you would have made different ones, but if you made different ones, you wouldn’t be where you are to know that.”
And those choices that Grote made have led him to playing in Asbury Park this Saturday, and it’s a show that he is looking forward to.
“It’ll be fun, and I always liked Asbury Park as a town,” says Grote. “I love the Silverball Museum, and I have family going to the show. I’m excited to keep playing shows.”
The Districts will be playing at Asbury Lanes on Nov. 27 with Sham. Ticket information can be found here.