In Music

The smoke-stained howl of William Elliott Whitmore

From the pit of his chest to the back wall of every club he plays, William Elliott Whitmore's smoke-stained howl has taken over one room at a time. Last year was a very busy one for Whitmore, releasing "Hallways of Always" with Jenny Hoyston of Erase Eratta and his third album on Southern Records, the superb "Song of the Blackbird." He was gracious enough to discuss songwriting, his collaborations and combining a punk ethos with banjo-driven music.

OnMilwaukee.com: Last year you released "Hallways of Always" with Jenny Hoyston (of Erase Eratta). How did that collaboration come about?

William Elliott Whitmore: She's an old friend of mine. The only time I lived off of the farm was when I lived in San Francisco for about eight months. I met her through some mutual friends. I lived with her and two other people in a warehouse squat where each of us built our own rooms out of scrap wood and stuff.

We were musical soul mates at the time. I was really into her band and we found out we shared a mutual love of country music. She's from Texas, and I found out she could really sing country stuff, too. We would sit on the couch, play songs and drink beer together and we hatched this idea to work on a collaboration. That was a few years ago, but because we were both always touring, it wasn't until about a year ago we recorded it.

OMC: Was the process of making Hallways altogether different from your other records?

WEW: Yeah, we recorded in my friend's livingroom. I'm used to having a little longer to record, but not much longer. We kinda knew what songs we wanted to do. Basically she flew from San Francisco to Iowa. I picked her up from the airport and said, "What are we going to record?"

So we wrote a few songs, I had a couple songs I'd already written and she had a song she had already written, so we just started to put the lyrics and music together. It was unique for me -- recording on the fly like that. It was very low key. We had all of the accoutrements for a good time... a good process.

OMC: It really sounded like a departure for both of you.

WEW: She was kind of delving into my world a little bit, and I was delving a little into hers. She's got a project called Paradise Island. She'll use drum machines and play ukulele over the top of it. It was a fun chance to add a little synthesizer or drum machine to something. We recorded the whole thing in a couple of days and I haven't seen her since. We might not get to tour together, but we'll definitely do it again. I think it will be a project that lasts forever.

OMC: Are there any other future collaborations in the works?

WEW: I've been looking to do some work with Dalek (Ipecac Records) that reminds me a little of early Public Enemy (with) really political break-you-up noises. I've been in touch with their vocalist Alap. I'm a hip hop junkie. I like all kinds of music, but for the language aspects and wordsmithery I really appreciate hip hop. Alap is one of the best at it.

OMC: Having seen Dalek a couple of times, I was really blown away by how they would run turntables through effects pedals and the songs would really build these whistling tea kettle dynamics that unsettle the listener, like sample pastiches of "It Takes a Nation of Millions"-era Public Enemy.

WEW: Yeah, they do a lot of really unorthodox stuff. I'm anxious to hash something out with them, because I don't know at all what it would sound like.

Then there's some people I'll probably never even meet that I'd love to collaborate with like (Flaming Lips') Wayne Coyne or Lupe Fiasco. I just did a show on NPR in New York and Lupe was on the week before, so I put a shout out to Lupe when the interviewer asked if there was anyone I'd like to work with. Lupe seems like the type of guy who'd listen to NPR.

OMC: When did you first start writing songs?

WEW: I grew up in a very musical family. My father played an acoustic guitar; my mother played accordion; and my grandfather played banjo, so there was always music around. I was always picking and grinning. When I first felt I really had something I needed to write about, it was soon after some people very close to me had passed away. To deal with that, I started writing songs. The songwriting process started to make sense. Events like that really spurned my writing. It was a matter of dealing with grief in a constructive way rather than killing yourself -- which is downright counter-productive.

OMC: The two of the most prevalent themes in your songwriting are probably mourning death and (to a lesser degree) that of the bond between father and son.

WEW: I lost my mom and dad within a few years and I kind of went crazy ... didn't know what to do. That's why the songs have the subject matter that they do. There are regrets about things you did that you can't do over or take back. It's a horrible feeling, but through that I was able to sort things out. I don't believe in a heaven or hell, but if they are floating out in the ether -- if I can get them a message in a song or resolve it in my own mind then I can heal.

OMC: In most of the press I've read prepping this interview, journalists constantly cast you as this alt. country anachronism. I had even read a couple of poorly written reviews that would push some desperate, reaching comparisons of your work to something like the soundtrack for "O' Brother Where Art Thou."

WEW: It's an easy and obvious reference point for people to connect with. I don't hardly listen to any country or blues these days. I grew up listening to a lot of it, and I love it. If you put on some Dolly Parton or old Loretta Lynn, I'm there, but it doesn't find its way onto my turntable as much as a lot of other stuff. If you start listening to too much of that stuff, you begin imitating it. For example, Will Oldham is awesome, but I'd rather listen to Lupe or Outkast or something that is completely different. Tom Waits is fantastic, but I can't listen to any of his records, because I don't want to be influenced by them.

OMC: Listening to "Hymns for the Hopeless," the album is book-ended by a cappella songs that really draw the focus to your voice. On your last record "Song of the Blackbird," you included your first instrumental with (gasp!) reversed audio loops. Is there a conscious move from putting your voice the center of attention.

WEW: That was really a product of having done "Hallways of Always" with Jenny. I had always dismissed using any kind of gadgets, trying to keep things as hillbilly as I can, but here ain't nobody as hillbilly as I am. I could put whatever I want on a record, so why limit myself saying I can't do this or that. I can't really play guitar or banjo, but singing is more my main thing. I would make an all a capella record if I thought anyone would put it out. I thought I could try drawing more from the instruments, so I added some piano and organ for the sake of good audio.

OMC: How has your songwriting changed over the last three records?

WEW: When you have a song that is only voice, you better have it written well. It's relying only on words ... I have probably changed my songwriting to work around an organ solo or whatever. I guess I've never really thought about it, but maybe that's the key to any creative process. You don't know what might make you begin painting differently or photographing differently; it just sort of happens. I just started writing about different things. I feel like I've sufficiently covered a lot of ground.

I'm a happy guy now. I've gotten all of that stuff off of my chest ... as much as you can, and I'm ready to write about different things ... to write more outwardly. There are a few songs on this new record that aren't about the death of my parents, for example. Without even meaning to, music became a healing thing.

I used to write a lot around the farm, but as I'm on the road more and at the farm less and less. I think that's had an effect on my songwriting, too.

OMC: Your music takes deep root in the Midwest, more specifically in a farm in Lee County, Iowa. Every song plants its feet in this place, just as Lou Reed inhabits New York, Son House writes about Hughes, Arkansas...

WEW: Nas has Queens! Definitely. I'm always interested in how your environment shapes what you do. If you're a black metal band from Norway, you're going to write a certain way and if you're a farm kid from Iowa you're probably going to write another way. And music that comes out of New York or LA -- like Sublime is California party music. That's not going to come from Washington D.C. That's where the political punk comes from. Even within punk, there are differences between East and West coast punk. It's really cool how a place can shape what you do.

The farm definitely shapes what I do. The farm is the most beautiful place in the world. The Lakota Indians have the Black Hills and I have Lee County.

OMC: Do most of the images draw directly from the surroundings there?

WEW: Yeah, that's where the songs get written. You're always learning, always getting inspiration from daily events even when you're on the road. Even if you're not writing about it, you're influenced by a restaurant in St. Paul or the fjords of Norway. Typically, I congeal it all when I get home.

I use farm themes as a means of writing in a more universal or timeless way. I'm not going to write a song that mentions television, because I want it to be more natural than that. I want the song to still be poignant even if someone were hearing it one hundred years from now. That's just my style. Everybody is going to have their own style.

OMC: In the studio, do you find more often that you try to just capture the songs as they're likely to sound live, or is there more of an urge to add arrangements and other instruments?

WEW: Mike Lust (of Chicago's Phantom Manor) has recorded all three of my records. He's an old friend and he's been in a lot of bands that I was into. So I got him to record some stuff. He's just a fun and creative guy. He's got good ideas, but he still lets me do what I want. He used an analog system, which was what I wanted, because I knew the records were being pressed on vinyl.

It was different than doing four-track recordings at home, but I couldn't get them to sound as good as I would have liked. That's why I occasionally will go back and do some of these older songs. After years of playing, you decide this what that song should be. Plus, other than you almost no one else has heard most my older songs. Now when I reintroduce it to the world...

When I first got in the studio, I didn't know much of the bells and whistles, the full extent of what the studio could do. I didn't know what was going to necessarily sound good. How you learn doing audio experiments, I was never one of those gearheads ... without those kind of guys I wouldn't be able to record. Over time you kind of learn what sounds good. So much comes from those audio experiments, like the instrumental you mentioned before. I never thought I'd be using the studio as an instrument. I don't want to be limited by anything, but it did take me a few years to come to feeling like it was a free-for-all. I'm just going to do what I feel like doing.

OMC: There is a special love affair that occurs between every home recording musician and the sound of themselves being played backwards on a tape. It's like having fallen in love with the devil.

WEW: I used to never want to do things I couldn't do live. Even things with full band on the record, I still perform stripped down live. For awhile I was even afraid to do that. These records are going to be around long after I'm dead, so I might as well do what I can to spruce them up a bit. I'm not ever going to go crazy and make a record that's full on arrangements and strings ... though that might be kinda fun.

OMC: It seems as though artists in bands inevitably want to attempt playing solo, and likewise, many solo artists want desperately to form a band. I get the impression you were probably in a punk band at one time or another.

WEW: I was! (laughs) We were called Lost Cause. We wanted to sound like Minor Threat so bad ... but 10 years after Minor Threat had already broken up. We were like "okay, let's just play as fast as we can." We played a couple shows, but I just realized that I couldn't pull it off. I love that kind of music, but it just wasn't me. It felt unnatural. I thought, I'll leave it up to the pros and just stick with my roots, the guitar and banjo.

OMC: Having toured with Murder By Death, Clutch and Ten Grand just to name a few, is there a conscious effort to tour with bands and play clubs where country or folk can be brought out of its usual?

WEW: I've done a handful of folk festival type things, but I'd rather play rock clubs with bands. I want to have the only banjo in the room. You get to stick out, and people pay attention. When it's old-timey folk hour, there's a hundred other guys trying something similar. In this scene is where the hunger is. When you go to folk jams, there's a different culture or vibe to it.

Going back to Minor Threat, when I first discovered them it was like "Wow, these guys put out their own records. They started their own label. The whole DIY concept was like, "I don't need a booking agent or label." I could book my own shows, make my own CDs and if I could do country folk stuff through a punk channel, then I could tour with bands I love. It was strange to me that it worked. It's just the kind of music I enjoy, and I don't tour with bands unless I dig them.

OMC: When asked why the Sex Pistols toured the American South, John Lydon said, "You should always go where you're not wanted. Otherwise you're just preaching to the converted."

WEW: Exactly. Thankfully it's always gone well. I've never encountered many disrespectful people. There were only a few occasions. When we were playing black metal clubs in Germany and the other bands had the makeup and they were not kidding. I was like "oh shit, there going to f*cking beat my brains. They're going to gut me and make a stew out of my brains. I read that Lords of Chaos book," but it was great and the crowd loved it. After that I felt like I could play anywhere.

I just did some shows with The Pogues. They're one of my favorite bands of all time. I played three nights with them in Boston and that was a case of playing a sort of similar kind of music. I mean it's Irish folk, but it's still rooted in a kind of folk music. [MacGowan's] style of songwriting could have been written 200 years ago. Playing those shows was a real honor. When Shane MacGowan passes you the wine bottle, you know life is glorious and you're feeling really good.

OMC: There's a tendency in punk to retain the exuberance of youth, just as blues and country strive more for the authority or world-weariness of age. How do you think your work reconciles both?

WEW: I think punk is a youth-oriented thing. You don't think the same at 18 as you do even at 28. It feels like bringing the two bookends together. Seeing the kid in the Misfits T-shirt next to the old timer who came because his son is into it. I like the mixture of crowds, making those worlds collide.

I grew up listening to an older style of writing, so it's stuck in my head. There's also a sense of dissatisfaction with aspects of your surroundings. The idea that I only know a few chords on this banjo, but that's all I need to write a song about how pissed off I am. It's not that different than country music. Two sides of the same coin. I don't know how I put them together.


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