A Silver Screen: In Conversation with The Neighbourhood’s Jesse Rutherford

The Neighbourhood's Jesse Rutherford talks Chip Chrome, the influence of David Bowie, and the art of reinventing yourself.

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Photo by Lauren Leekley, design by Sho Hanafusa
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To celebrate the release of The Neighbourhood's new album Chip Chrome & The Mono-Tones, we talked to frontman Jesse Rutherford for the interview below, and we also collaborated with the group on a limited run of merch including hoodies, sweatpants, and T-shirts. Check out and purchase the Pigeons & Planes x The Neighbourhood merch collaboration here, available exclusively in the Complex Shop until Friday, 1/22 at 12pm EST.

How many bands make it through a four-album contract and still have a bright future? It’s an impossible question to answer, but let’s be generous and say not many. Yet here stand The Neighbourhood, seven years and four albums after “Sweater Weather” was overplayed on radio stations across the country. The band’s lineup—Jesse Rutherford, Zach Abels, Jeremy Freedman, Mikey Margott, and Brandon Fried—has remained mostly unchanged, another triumph over ego rarely seen in the modern music industry. With the release of Chip Chrome & The Mono-Tones in September, the band’s initial contract with Columbia is up. What was at times a dream has become a choice: Will the band be better off going it alone?

“It's not totally over,” Jesse is quick to clarify over the phone. “In a way, it's this weird moment where it's actually going the best that it went the whole time. So of course it's like, ‘Now we're going to leave? Hmm.’"

If they’d only release a dud—it might make the decision easier. But the band keeps elaborating on their original concept. This time, frontman Jesse has been supplanted with the silvery Chip Chrome, an ambiguously alien presence with a reflective outer layer. 

The nod to Bowie aside, it’s a response to the artist’s fractured relationship with his digital persona. Jesse stopped posting for most of the past year, but at the time of our conversation, “I'm high on it again,” he says. “I got hooked...but that's part of why Chip exists at all, because I feel like I need to be there and I want to be seen so bad that I'm going to make myself into this thing, so you'll have to fucking look.”

California is having a bad air day when we get on the phone. It’s been this way for a few days—smoke and smog wafting into unmasked nostrils miles away. We’re both in Los Angeles, but it’s my first fire season. Jesse grew up in neighboring Newbury Park. He echoes something that’s become a refrain: the intensity, frequency, and extent of these fires keeps climbing.

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"All we're doing as a society now is pulling the curtain back, looking at all the gross bullshit behind it, and then staring at it and not knowing how to move forward from it."

I check out the air quality meter every day, in addition to the temperature, and if it's especially high I put on the intense mask.
It blows my mind that anybody would want to challenge the idea of global warming simply because... The globe is warmer. [Laughs] It's so actually happening that denying it is just like, "All right, well, go kill your children. Just go shoot your child in the fucking face if you don't believe this." If you don't believe the globe is getting warmer, then go shoot your kids in the face. They're not going to die, right? I'll deny that if you're going to deny this. It just doesn't make any sense.

I listened to a couple episodes of your Patients podcast, and I’m wondering if that's become something of a replacement for your stream of consciousness that you used to share on Twitter? 
When I started doing Patients, I was just like, "All right, I'm going to jump and just try." And I don't really promote [the podcast] very much. It's pretty low key, but with the attention that I already get on the internet, the people that really want to hear it, they find it and then they'll check it out. It's just a little project that I'm starting, so it seems you get the idea about it. I feel like I'm probably saying it on the podcast a lot, too.

You're a podcaster now!
I like podcasts. I find the things that I like and then try to do my own version of them. I think that's what my whole life has been. 

And Chip Chrome is no exception. I heard the story of you showing up on set of the “Middle of Somewhere” shoot in full makeup, without letting anyone know beforehand.
Yeah, it just felt right. That video is pretty much the conception of Chip Chrome, shown in real time. At the end of the video it pans back, and it's me playing guitar, or my shadow, and the guitar fades to this view of the hill. That's what I would see every day when we were up in Coldwater. And then you pop a couple mushrooms in and you're going to see a silver guy in the hills.

The narrative of the videos themselves has been interesting to watch, and I wanted to ask you about whether they were all shot one after the other, really tight together. Or how did you think about the narrative of these now four or five videos that have come out?
I didn't too much. That's the lovely part about this concept, too, is like I believe if you're working in a team that you have to bring the best, all that you have to offer to the table, and then the other people on the team are there to do their role just as much as you are to do yours. So if my idea was the Chip Chrome thing I feel like my job was to show up, do my make-up, play my guitar, help write the songs and do what I can. But then the great part about Chip is it makes other creative people's imagination spark, and then they go, "Ooh, what if we did this with it? Or what if we did that?"

Some of the video concepts were my idea—“Middle of Somewhere” was very strongly my idea. But “Devil's Advocate” was just my buddy Adam saying, "I love this song. Let's do a video." I just showed up at his little studio one night.

I love Cowboy Chip. It's a whole different life he’s leading.
Yeah, it's more of a western. I like to consider the album very western inspired, not country necessarily, but western because I feel like that's more true to who we are.

I hear the Dolly Parton, the Johnny Cash on this album. Very direct songwriting, little bit of attitude.
We did “Devil's Advocate” a while ago, that was in the can for a minute, and then we did “Lost in Translation.” We were originally going to lead with that song. Then we did the animated video for "Cherry Flavored." 

“Pretty Boy” was really last minute. I mean, it was a week before the song was going to come out. We knew the song was going to drop and realized, "Fuck, we still have to do that video. All right.” Then Ramez Silyan just nailed the treatment and it was like, "Okay, cool, let's just run it." 

All the videos are so different and special to me in their own ways and shot on certain cameras and certain people that I have personal connections with, so they were all these personal little projects that I love dearly, all of them in their own way. But “Pretty Boy” is something that's just... I don't know, it's intimidating to me because it’s so good.

Interesting that you made it last, because it feels like Chip's origin story. It’s the video where we learn the most about him.
I originally didn't want to show me in the videos, like natural me. But Ramez’s concept was just good, and I was like, all right, I love you. Fuck it. We have no time and I trust you. 

And it all came together, that question of whether Chip is a human or not, until that moment when you start wiping off the make-up.
I feel like that's just what we are all addicted to now, and we don't know what we're doing with the information. All we're doing as a society now is pulling the curtain back, looking at all the gross bullshit behind it, and then staring at it and not knowing how to move forward from it, you know what I mean? 

And that's what the video represents to me. Showing that behind the curtain like this is literally the truth. I am this dude that lives in Hollywood that's out here painting himself. Like, "What are you doing?"

It’s a reflection of your own online presence, too. And there’s humor in there—I’m thinking about when you deactivated accounts on your 27th birthday, asking people to make that comparison to actual death.
Yeah, social suicide. I hope that there's some laughter in there. That's what I wanted so much out of this, too. It's satirical. It's supposed to be. And if it's emo in its own ways that's good, but it's also supposed to be ridiculous and funny and a commentary on how ridiculous the whole thing is.

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"When the whole record came out, my sister called me and left a voicemail, and I brought her to tears. Finally, after all these years. So that was an emotional thing for me."

Having said that, you're starting to post again, sparingly. Do you have any new rules, lessons learned from the hiatus?
I think Chip has given me the ability to not feel like I'm losing something if I'm not posting every day. I still struggle with it. When you're on the internet at all and you're part of that flow and you're actively participating, it's hard to not think about it in the back of your head. I think I got to a point when I was off of it for so long that it wasn't even in the back of my head, which was really nice. 

It was hard, because I'm on it again, I'm high on it again. I got hooked. I went to rehab and then I relapsed and now I'm getting high off of it again, and it's actually working so I think as an addict I'd be able to be like, "No, no, it's cool. I can just have one drink, and then I'm fine."

But I know that that's not the truth. I know that my brain is fucked and I started it back up again, but that's part of the Chip thing and why Chip exists at all, because I feel like I need to be there and I want to be seen so bad that I'm going to make myself into this thing so you'll have to fucking look. When Tekashi69 first made it onto all of our social pages and news feeds, you couldn't help but click on it. You just couldn't help it. So that's part of the thing here.

I love that Chip is literally a shiny object. We're all just fascinated birds, pecking at it.
Yeah, like what the fuck is this? What does it do? What does it make? Okay, it's music. All right, let's see what that sounds like. That's the one part that I feel happy about with all this. I've had great things said about the music from people that I respect, so that's been really cool.

Anybody in particular?
My sister. My sister's about 10 years older than me and she is my barometer for truth. She's led a different life than me. We've had very different paths, and I've questioned that all the time, why she had to go through the things she had to go through and yet, I get to do the things that I get to do. She grew up listening to Pantera and Metallica and Black Sabbath and was a very dark  teenager. She had the fucking crystal ball in her room with the door locked, blasting the music.

I'll put it this way: my sister loves me. She's proud of me for being her brother, but I don't think she's ever been a fan of The Neighbourhood. I think some of the shit we do, she's like, "Oh, that's cool. I like that. Good job, Jess." But for the most part she's not, which I love—she's not just a fan of everything. 

I sent her the “Devil's Advocate” and “Pretty Boy” videos. When she heard “Devil's Advocate,” she goes, "Dude, yes. This is what I'm talking about. This shit, this is what you know how to do that nobody else knows how to do. This is so cool.”

Then she listens to “Pretty Boy,” and she said, "Yeah, I mean I guess it's pretty cool, but I don't really like love songs, so." And I was like, "What!? You just blew my mind then stabbed me. In one way I was like, “What do you mean you don't like my love song?” But in another way I'm like, "God, I love that she's able to do that." 

When the whole record came out in context, my sister called me and left a voicemail, and I brought her to tears. Finally, after all these years. So that was an emotional thing for me but also really full circle to be making my sister feel something like that.

And then on the other side of the spectrum it's The Weeknd like, "Yo, bro, your shit's tight," you know what I mean? So it's like, "Fuck yeah."

You just went full circle in another, very different relationship—this was the band’s last album on Columbia. I can't imagine a lot of bands successfully fulfill a four album deal and still have this kind of longevity ahead of them.
That's what I've heard. I only know my situation, but it feels good. It's not totally over, and in a way it's this weird moment where it's actually going the best that it went the whole time, so of course it's like, "Now we're going to leave? Hmm. All right."

You clearly have a love and appreciation not just for music, but for discovering and supporting new artists. You had Travis Scott opening for you super early, same with The 1975, you were early on supporting Dylan Brady and Kevin Abstract. And most recently you have this excellent song “lost cause//” with KennyHoopla. Could you just talk a little bit about the importance of keeping up with new music and working with new artists?
To be fair, I'm not the best at keeping in touch or knowing how to keep in touch with people sometimes. Taking someone on tour is great because you get to know them enough, but yet you get your own space also and you get to be doing what you want. You get to be peacocking the whole time and going up on stage and performing and getting that out of you with each other, and you get to win individually but with each other. I see a lot of those artists that we've taken on tour that I've asked to open for us on tour take flight success-wise much higher than us in certain ways.

I'm sure in certain parts of the world, The Neighbourhood is maybe selling more tickets and all that, but when you see these kids that you've taken on tour get co-signed by people way bigger than me… In the past I definitely would catch feelings over it.

But now with this publishing thing, having an option to say, "All right, if I really want to do business with you and you're a new artist and you're doing well and we're already with each other and hanging out, then what about a pub deal? You don't have one of those yet. Here's a bag and here's some good terms. Keep doing what you're doing." 

I'm not trying to be anyone's label or manager or anything like that. I don't want anything to do with it for the most part. I think everybody wants to do their own thing. 

We've also taken artists on tour that have done nothing, so it's not like every single one was just a sure shot. I'm just happy, and it's exciting to know someone before it really starts going, so to see 100 gecs happen, to see Brockhampton happen is just like, "Oh, my god." I remember Brockhampton put out their first mixtape that they did as Brockhampton. You guys at Pigeons & Planes actually posted about it. That's probably where I saw it. I remember just being like, "Oh, this is it."

All-American Trash?
Yep, that was it. But regardless, I'm okay now, so I'm not worried about getting anything that I thought I should have. I just don't believe any of that anymore. I think 2020 definitely re-aligned my prescription, my vision, and set things into perspective more and I'm just honored to be part of any of that at this point in time. It's all love for any of these artists that we've been with on the journey.

You have to be in it for the long haul. I've done it several times, where you think, "I know this person, and I know that person. This kid's definitely a star. If I just put them in the right places, I think something will happen." 

Then if it doesn't happen the way that you thought it would, you're dealing with someone's life and their emotions. They've put their trust in you. And if it doesn't happen, you're talking about a 19, 20, 21-year-old kid. You're just like, “Oh, fuck, now I'm responsible for this, and they're going to be leaning on me, thinking that I have some sort of an answer because I know more people." But the reality of it is, none of us knows what works or doesn't anymore. We just don't.

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"I'm really expecting nothing, just putting everything into this and knowing, 'All right, this might be the last thing I ever get to give to the world.' I need to at least be myself."

I wanted to get back to Chip Chrome for a little bit and ask about some of your definitive David Bowie experiences or interactions. Is there an interview or performance of his that really sticks out in your mind as a direct inspiration?
It was really like the story between "Space Oddity" and Ziggy [Stardust] where he arrives to the world, and then two albums go by. And he just didn't have the same success as "Space Oddity," and he's chasing this thing, and he took control of the narrative. I feel like I just did that with Chip, and it's crazy that it worked. And it was in my own way, too. Also both of us started from acting. He started in the theater, I started TV acting by the time I was 5.

How long were you acting as a kid?
Until I was 13, so that's the world that I come from. I've been programmed to be an actor. So when I figured out I wanted to be a rock star or a musician, I was learning that role. This was me breaking down my own psyche for this and stepping away from myself and being like, "Okay, you have this job. You get to do this. So rock star, what would you do if you were to be playing a rock star? You get to be this alternative rock guy. Just be a rock star. What do you think that would be?" And I mean, Ziggy is a huge reference for making yourself into what you want to be, into a rock star, so that's where that comes into play a lot. The acting part of it really helped me to be like, "Oh, I could build a character. I think I could do that."

What was the fan reaction to Chip? Do you remember the first show as Chip?
The whole tour felt like the first Chip show because it was the first time Chip had ever been really seen. You had a lot of people that bought tickets to see The Neighbourhood and then it's like, "What? What is this?" And it was new songs—we played “Middle of Somewhere” and then “Lost in Translation.” 

I wasn't thinking about looking at the crowd's reaction very much. I was just trying to nail the songs. When you're playing new songs, you're not on auto-pilot the way that you are after playing “Afraid” for seven years. So I noticed people's reactions were definitely like... They were looking at me funny in some ways.

I love “Lost in Translation.” It's such a great collision of sounds, and it shows the range of directions you could take as a group. Can you speak to any difference in band dynamic this time around, knowing it was the last album of this contract?
The guys in my band, I think are really great, cool, awesome people and they're also my partners. So it's like, of course they're my team. I want us to all feel good at the end of the game, and we ended it like we were able to contribute or participate in ways that made us all feel like a champion, no matter what anybody else says about it, just on an internal level.

It was a lot of time hanging out in the same house with each other, playing video games, playing cornhole—love cornhole—and also making music, but letting that take a little bit more time. 

Did I really have to wait until I went through years of depression and therapy, and then the world collapsing in front of me, and the contract coming to an end? This is really what it took for me to finally get in the driver's seat and be able to be like, "All right, let’s do this." I guess that's what it takes to make it worth something, and that's all right with me.

To be real with you, it's not even like this is blowing people out of the water and I'm world-famous now. It's just me loving and being completely involved in the process and not even thinking about what the results are going to be, expecting nothing. I mean, I'm really expecting nothing, just putting everything into this and knowing, "All right, this might be the last thing I ever get to give to the world." I need to at least be myself.

Jesse, I really appreciate you taking the time.
Yeah, nice talking to you, Graham. Don't go outside.


Check out the Pigeons & Planes x The Neighbourhood merch collaboration, available exclusively at the Complex Shop until 12/22 at 12pm EST. Get yours here.

The Neighbourhood Merch