Neighbors' New Album About an Old Rocker

José Díaz Rohena projects his aspirations and fears onto a composite character on 'Very Rare Expensive Jewelry.'

Seattle’s José Díaz Rohena is doing yoga nowadays. He likes it. It makes him feel like he looks good, he says: “I know that’s a terrible way of looking at it, but sometimes you just want to feel like you look good.”

During the cold December of 2014 that Rohena hid away in his apartment and wrote the bulk of his band Neighbors’ new album, he did not feel good at all. He’d just been dumped, had recently bottomed out from drinking too much, and realized he’d been using booze to treat his depression. On the nationwide tour following the band’s summery 2014 record Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, he was a self-declared mess—remembering, half-laughing, half-sighing, a moment in New Orleans when it was his turn to drive but he was so stoned that he just stared at the driving wheel, immobile. But that December he sobered up, started taking medication for his depression, and turned his social anxieties about leaving the house into one of the most intense writing periods of his life—cranking out around 30 songs in one month, almost one a day.

“I don’t know if it was the meds or the sudden clearheadedness from not being drunk all the time, but it kind of just all came out,” he says.

The whittled-down eight-song album that came out of this flurry of songwriting, Very Rare Expensive Jewelry (out this Friday on Malaka and Help Yourself Records), certainly sounds as though it was born of one singular episode—an incredibly cohesive rock record that recalls the shades-up cool and structural pomp of late-’60s/early-’70s rock greats like Big Star, Velvet Underground, and even, at moments, Thin Lizzy (there’s some great guitarmonies here). But unlike the groovy, collected demeanor of those groups’ iconic front men, Rohena yelps out neurotic poetry that’s equal parts aspirational and self-deprecating. “You don’t get what you deserve/You don’t deserve what you get,” he croons over tremolo picked guitars and ooo-ahhh harmonies on lead track “Secret.” “Tell me what I look like?/I can tell you but you really don’t want to know,” he warbles on the boisterous “Angel O.,” seemingly conversing with himself.

“The record is something between a wish-fulfillment fantasy and a cautionary tale,” Rohena says. Very Rare Expensive Jewelry is semi-secretly a concept album, written from the perspective of an aging-rocker character Rohena based partially on the old punk/label exec from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad; Lou Reed’s later-life stint as a “retired scumbag tai chi practitioner”; and, in a lot of ways, a future version of himself. Outside of Neighbors, Rohena is an incredibly prolific producer, having worked on records from Posse, Chastity Belt, Dude York, Ubu Roi, and the recent Tacocat theme song for Powerpuff Girls—but he knows his music-career plans aren’t the most stable.

“The album came from a place of wondering what’s going to happen in my life as I get older, maybe having to shift my plans to fit the reality of what’s happening,” he says. “Being a person on an exciting weird path in music, but also navigating normal life with family and people who just don’t give a shit, like your children. Not that I have children.”

Kelton Sears is Culture Editor for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter. Get more from your favorite writers with our weekly newsletters.

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