Q&A with William Elliott Whitmore
"William Elliott Whitmore Stretches the Definition of Hardcore," a profile in the January 22 edition of Westword, only scratches the surface of an enjoyable and revealing Q&A with this deep-voiced roots-and-folk purveyor, who shares more in common with punk rockers than just his record label. (He's signed to Anti-, an affiliate of Epitaph.) Check it out after the jump.
The chat takes place as Whitmore strolls the streets of Brooklyn, which are a far cry from the Iowa farm where he makes his home when not on the road. He describes his land (and its quiet compared to New York City), and even shares some theories about crop rotation. From there, he outlines his family background and lack of traditional religious training -- a surprise given the gospel roots that are sometimes audible in the songs that make up his first Anti- release, Animals in the Dark; his early musical influences, which range from Johnny Cash to recent Westword profile and Q&A subject Ian MacKaye, of Minor Threat fame; his decision to open for hardcore bands rather than trying to be the frontman for one; the ways in which he's learned to wield his highly unusual voice; his discovery by the folks at Southern Records, and the politics of his subsequent move to Anti-; his love of concept albums; the political tenor of his new material, which inspired him to put thoughts of retirement out of his mind; and his sense that the older he gets, the more convincing his music will become.
Maybe so -- but his work's mighty strong already.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you at right now?
William Elliott Whitmore: I'm in Brooklyn. We've been doing a lot of driving in the van the last couple of days, and I desperately needed to get out and stretch my legs.
WW: Do you have a show in Brooklyn tonight?
WEW: No, actually across the bridge, over in Manhattan - a place called the Bowery Ballroom. Playing there tomorrow night, too. I'm opening for this guy who goes by City and Colour. It's good. They're nice folks. I like the band and everything.
WW: Are you playing solo? Or do you have a band with you?
WEW: I'm solo on this tour. That's kind of what I normally do, although sometimes I'll bring a band with me. I have a few cats I like to play with, but they all have day jobs, so I can't drag them out with me for months at a time anymore. I enjoy playing by myself, but it is sometimes nice to have a band. I have a few songs on my record that have full band arrangements. It's nice to be able to do those live like that.
WW: Tell me about your background. Where are you from originally?
WEW: I'm from Lee County, Iowa, right by the Mississippi River. It's the fertile crescent between the Des Moines River and the Mississippi River. The southeastern tip of Iowa. I live on a farm there - the same farm I grew up on. I love it. I live in the woods, basically.
WW: You say "Lee County." Is that because the farm is so far out that it's not really considered to be part of a town?
WEW: Yeah, exactly. There's no towns you'd recognize if I said a town name. It's all little towns. So I just say "Lee County." It's a place with that rich black dirt that grows those crops so well.
WW: How big is the farm?
WEW: About 150 acres. We used to breed horses, but after my folks passed on, I quit doing that, and I quit planting row crops. Now I rent part of my land out to some neighbors down the road who farm it. I'll always be a son of the soil, for sure. But I knew when I started playing music I wouldn't be able to be a farmer as well. (A siren wails by in the background.) I'm sorry: It's really fucking loud here. (Laughs.) I'm not used to that. Years and years and years and years ago, when I first started touring and going to big cities, that was the first thing - especially coming to New York City. The fucking loudness of it, man. I'm used to being in the woods, where all you hear is birds and animals and only the occasional car going by on the gravel road.
WW: Not a lot of screaming sirens?
WEW: No (laughs). This town is its own beast, for sure. Anyway, the farm: I still live there - and my grandma lives in a house not too far from there. We kind of help take care of each other. And my uncle lives there, too. When I'm gone on tour, he feeds the horses and feeds the chickens and kind of takes care of shit when I'm gone. But it's not a commercial farm anymore. We don't plant row crops or anything.
WW: What crops do the neighbors who rent out part of the land grow?
WEW: They rotate between corn and soybeans, which is kind of the standard. Although it's kind of sad. I hope people learn how to diversify here. I'm seeing a trend where people are kind of getting hip to the diversification of crops, as far as replenishing the soil with its vital nutrients. That's why they do soybeans and corn - because corn depletes the soil of nitrogen and supposedly soybeans, since they're legumes, they supply nitrogen to the soil. So you rotate them and try to keep the balance. But there needs to be more diversification even than that - and I hope people get hip to that. But these guys who farm this ground, they're like one step above the Amish as far as their farming practices. They have these old, archaic one-row pickers. Shit that was made in the '30s and '40s. It's not those big commercial farms. So it's cool, and they're cool neighbors - and I like to see the ground get used. But we probably won't have them do it forever. Eventually I won't plant anything. I'll just let it heal up. Every time you turn the ground upside-down, every time you till it, you're losing some of it to wind and erosion and stuff.
WW: Does their corn go to eating? Or biofuels?
WEW: These guys, they feed it to their cows.
WW: That's a different kind of biofuel...
WEW: Exactly. If you've ever seen the document King of Corn, you kind of know there's too much corn. They've encouraged these big factory farms to grow thousands and thousands and thousands of acres of corn. There's just too much of it. It goes into all these sweeteners and soda pops and shit we don't even know. There's just too much fucking corn, man. It's government subsidized, so there's endless money to just grow corn, corn, corn. It drives the prices up in corn markets, and it's just bad all around, in my opinion. But these guys, they're just smalltime farmers. They just feed it to their cattle... I guess I digress. I don't know what my point was.
WW: Digressing is a good thing. (He laughs.) Do you have any brothers and sisters?
WEW: Yeah, I've got an older brother and an older sister, and they don't live too far from me, either. A lot of the family farm is kind of split up into different parts. My brother lives on one part, and actually, my sister lives in town. They're still around. We're pretty close.
WW: What are their professions?
WEW: My brother works at a landfill - pretty glamorous (laughs). He sees firsthand the wasteful society we live in. And my sister works at a nursing home. She's a very caring individual, so it's perfect for her. We're pretty close.
WW: And your parents were both amateur musicians?
WEW: Yeah. We grew up with a lot of music in the household. Always records spinning. My dad played the guitar and my mother played the accordion and both my grandfathers played the banjo. Of course, all amateur, like you said. But I grew up with that around. I couldn't help but take to it.
WW: Were there family sings at birthdays or other gatherings?
WEW: Yeah, sometimes. My mother also played the piano, so I had the good fortune of having the beauty of music all around me when I was growing up.
WW: What were the first artists or songs that really connected with you as a kid?
WEW: The standards for country music were definitely Johnny Cash. We had a lot of Hank Williams playing, too, and Charley Pride. My folks loved Charlie Pride. I don't know if you're familiar with him, but he was the first African-American to make it big doing country music - just a beautiful voice. They loved him. That was their first date at a county fair: seeing Charley Pride. And Willie Nelson, for sure. My mom loved him. "On the Road Again" and his version of that song "City of New Orleans," the Red Headed Stranger record, which is to this day one of my favorite records. A great concept record. All the good stuff.
WW: What was your religious upbringing, if any? Did you attend a church regularly as you were growing up?
WEW: Not really. My folks were more naturalists than anything. I kind of call myself a pagan (laughs). My folks never really had any religion. My dad worshipped nature, basically. If you were going to equate it to anything, it might be kind of the Native American way of thinking. Everything has its spirit, and even if you go hunting and kill a deer, you honor the spirit of the deer by eating it and using it for good - and existing with nature rather than railing against it. But I never really believed in the traditional concept of God. Although I don't fault anyone else for it.
WW: A lot of people hear touches of gospel music or Baptist or Pentecostal preaching in your music. But if they're in there, they obviously didn't come from you sitting in a pew every week when you were six-years old...
WEW: No - but I always kind of heard gospel music. Not in my household, but I'd hear it out in the world, and I love that old soul and gospel stuff. When I use metaphors like heaven and hell, I think of them as just that: metaphors. God and the devil are great devices to use in a song, so I use a lot of that imagery. I don't believe in God and the devil, but I like the idea of good versus evil, and I always enjoyed the sound of that gospel stuff, and the passion of it, too. Even if I don't believe in what they're singing, I've got to admire someone who loves their god so much that they'll sing out in such a passionate way. I always admired that. So I thought, if I could use that style of singing to convey my own singing, then I'd have something.
WW: How old were you when you began playing an instrument yourself?
WEW: I always remember singing. My main musical instrument's always been my voice, so I definitely came out of the womb screaming and hollering. But I picked up a guitar when I was thirteen or fourteen, and started learning some chords. I had the Mel Bay instructional chord book about how to begin playing the guitar.
WW: Did you take naturally to it? Or did it take a lot of work?
WEW: It took a lot of work - but it always felt natural from right off the bat. Holding it my hand and learning the chords. It felt good right away. Maybe it's in my DNA, but it definitely was a new and wonderful focus for me. I grew up painting and drawing. I always had an artistic mind. But music became the main thing pretty quickly after I picked up the guitar, and subsequently the banjo as well. It felt right.
WW: Do you play in bands when you were in high school?
WEW: Not really. Geographically I was isolated from other people just by living out in the middle of nowhere. I did have a cousin who played guitar, too. We'd get together and do off-the-wall cover songs - Johnny Cash tunes or whatever. It was nice to have a musical partner in crime to learn from. When you're learning something, it kind of stokes you up when you learn something new - learn a new chord or whatever. It helps the process. We grew up playing together, and we got to where we were playing little gigs out and about when we were sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. We'd play anywhere, man. We played at this karate studio where they taught little kids karate. That's when I first learned about DIY before I even knew the term DIY. We'd set up little shows and light these candles. We thought we were so cool, man (laughs). But I never really had a band.
I moved to a college town near where I lived, Iowa City, when I was eighteen. I was super into punk rock. I still am, but I wanted to be in a punk-rock band that sounded like Minor Threat so bad. Fast, political, conscious punk rock. We were called Lost Cause, and again, we thought we were the coolest. It was so fun. We wanted to play as fast as possible and just have fun. But it never really left the garage. It never really went anywhere past messing around. And that's when I realized I should just stick to what I know, which is rootsy, kind of folk-bluesy rustic music. I thought, I'll stick to what I know and I'll let the pros handle the other stuff (laughs).
WW: It's funny that you mentioned Minor Threat. I recently got the opportunity to interview Ian MacKaye, and right now, he's playing acoustic music that's very unlike what he did in Minor Threat or Fugazi...
WEW: The Evens, right?
WW: Right. And he thinks that music is every bit as punk rock as anything he's ever made, if not more so, because it flies in the face of what so many other people are doing. Do you see it that way as well with your music?
WEW: Yeah, for sure. Ian MacKaye is one of my heroes. I'd love to meet that cat. He's one of the guys I'd read about. He showed us nobodies we could do something in this world. You didn't have to be on a major-record label. You didn't have to have a fancy booking agent. You could play in basements and do whatever. As long as you're doing your art, all is well. So he's one of my heroes, and I definitely agree with him. I say "punk," and that term can be thrown around a lot. But I guess I mean a politically conscious attitude. And even if it's not politics - just being aware of your surroundings and aware of the human condition. And whether you're sad or happy or put off or whatever, expressing it in simple songs that are to the point. So I kind of developed a style of playing acoustic music, but with a kind of punk edge to it.
I came up opening up playing for punk bands - the loudest, fucking craziest hardcore bands you've ever heard. Opening up for them with my little banjo. So I had to bring it forth. When I got onstage, people didn't know what to think. So I had to throw down, you know?
WW: Were there times when no matter hard you threw things down, people didn't accept it, because what you were doing was so different from the headlining band?
WEW: Luckily, those times were rare. I've had the good fortune of being able to bring people around. Something I was doing, especially back then, when no one knew who I was... Well, no one knows who I am now. Maybe a couple more people. But it was different enough that people kind of wanted to pay attention. It was like, "This guy's got balls, man," for getting up there with a banjo in this room of black, hooded sweatshirts and Misfits T-shirts. I think people were curious, if anything. Like, "Maybe I'll shut the hell up and listen" - and then I had them. I developed this style of playing pretty aggressively and singing really loudly, just to cut through in a rock club. And I'm thankful for that. It helped me develop the style that I have. I like to get on it. I like to put on a good show and play my heart out. That's how I enjoy myself. So I'm glad I was able to come up in that world rather than the alt-country or folk world, where there wasn't as much hunger. To me, the hunger was with the hardcore kids and shit: the DIY scene. That's where people were trying new things. I'm thankful to have come up in that scene.
WW: You mentioned your voice earlier. You're blessed with a very distinctive and very deep voice. At what age did that voice start coming out of you? And were you surprised by the sound of it when it did?
WEW: I was definitely surprised (laughs). It was that fucking, crazy, awkward time in everybody's life. I know it is for boys, and I could probably say it for girls as well. Age thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, when the world is simultaneously not making sense, but it's starting to make sense in a different way, and your body is going through these nutty changes and shit. Yeah, I guess it was around then that the voice kind of dropped, and like I said, I've always enjoyed singing. But all of a sudden, I had a new tool to use. A new bag of tricks. I could hit lower notes, and I really tried to hone it, even at that time.
I always enjoyed singing, so I'd try vocal tricks. I'd listen to a lot of records, old soul records like James Carr and Ray Charles. They could do these wonderful, high turnarounds and go falsetto in the middle of a line and make these really rich and strange syllables. I like to stretch a word out to a couple of bars if I can. It was then that I started really thinking, "I can do some tricks." It was crazy, and I never looked back. I thought, if I'm going to do anything in this world, it's going to be this. And then, at age nineteen or twenty, I started to actually have some things to say myself. That's when I started writing a bunch of songs and going through a bunch of hard times in my life. The only way to understand it was to write about it. And I was able to put the voice and the words together, and I haven't looked back since.
WW: How would you describe those early songs? Were they rough sketches of what you're doing now? Or have things totally changed since your early compositions?
WEW: I wouldn't say they've totally changed. I still have my ideas and templates that I return to. But definitely the first few songs I wrote were very rudimentary, of course. It is like doodling for an artist. But I also really liked a lot of blues growing up, and that was an easy kind of template to use. I started to fill in my own words to these old chord progressions, which I think a lot of people do when they're learning how to write songs. I had a few songs like that, and they were very simple and sparse. Maybe my musical prowess has improved a little bit, but honestly, the chord progressions are still really simple and sparse. I haven't really gotten to be that much better of a guitar player or a banjo player. I rely on my words to carry the story along. I just know a handful of chords (laughs). I ain't no show-off on the strings. I always thought my power was in the words.
WW: How did you come to the attention of the folks at Southern Records?
WEW: I used to tour a lot with this band called Ten Grand. They were some good friends of mine from Iowa City, and they played a kind of music that was pretty hard-edged: a really creative type of music. But it was definitely hard and heavy and amplified. It was kind of before the emo thing, but on the cusp of it. Some people call it post-hardcore. Like Fugazi and stuff. It'd be like, it's not quite punk, it's kind of evolving a little bit. They were one of my favorites, and they were good friends of mine, and they let me tour with them and open up for them. Actually, I have them to thank for everything. That's how I got the real-world experience of playing shows all over in Europe and the United States. They'd let me open up for them.
This one time, we played in Chicago, where Southern Records U.S. is based out of. Someone from the label came to scout them out and possibly sign them up. Actually, we were playing a show at a venue called the Fireside Bowl, which was an old, abandoned bowling alley. It was a cool fucking DIY venue. These people from Southern came out, and they really liked my set as well. They said, "You guys should both come by the office tomorrow." And I had tapes... Not even CDS yet. I had tapes that I'd made that I was giving away or selling for a dollar: demos that I'd literally recorded on the farm on my little four-track. I was slinging tapes, and I brought a tape in to give to Southern Records. And they dug it, man. They got a-hold of me and they signed them up and they signed me up at the same time, which I think was unprecedented for them.
WW: It was lucky for you that Southern still had a working tape player...
WEW: Right (laughs). No shit. It was really just a cool bunch of circumstances. The universe just kind of jumped up in my favor. But I have that band to thank for everything. And Southern has helped me out so much. I don't even know if I totally read the contract. I think I just signed it. I was so excited to have a recording contract... No, I read it, but I didn't have a lawyer or anything. There was no negotiation. It was like, "You guys will put out my record? Cool. I'll sign this thing." I knew they were rooted in a punk ethic, and I thought it was weird that they'd take a chance on a guy like me, when nothing else on the label sounds like that. I thought it was really cool for them to take a chance on me, and in the years since then, I've sold a lot of records on Southern - so I feel like I kind of proved myself. But they helped me out a lot. They've been like a family for me.
When it was time to sign up with this new label, they were totally cool with it. They knew it was the best thing for me, and they're still my family. It's like breaking up with a woman you have a kid with when it comes to the records I made with them. We still have this mutual thing that we love, so we're on awesome terms. We have this project that's like our baby - these three records. They're still my family, and I think they were happy for me to make the next level jump to Anti- Records.
WW: So they understand that by moving to this larger label and having a higher profile, it's going to help bring more attention to the three records you made with them?
WEW: Yeah, from a business standpoint, they couldn't argue, either, because they knew that people might seek out the old stuff. So even from a money standpoint, they were down with it. And just being my friends, they understood, too. It was a little rough. Like I said, it's like breaking up with a girl. Sometimes it's hairy. But they totally understood and we're on great terms. And Anti- has been treating me really good. They're also rooted in the punk-rock ethic, being started by Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion. So that was another thing. I was distrustful of any bigger labels, but they've treated me really great. I'm looking forward to this record coming out and getting a good relationship going with them.
WW: When you started assembling material for the new album, did you have a concept in mind? Or were you writing songs along the way and a certain point you realized, I've got enough to make an album?
WEW: No, I definitely had a concept in mind. It kind of goes back to listening to Red Headed Stranger growing up. I always kind of dug those concept records that tied together and had a thematic approach to them. And honestly, after the records on Southern were all done, and my contract with them was all done, I was in the works with this Anti- thing, but I wasn't sure if I even wanted to sign. I didn't think I'd even make another record. I kind of thought, maybe I've said all I had to say, and that's fine. Maybe I'll just go back to being a carpenter. There was a while there where I thought, I'm just going to bow out and let that be what I did. But then this theme came to me, and it was kind of this political thing, where I couldn't help but develop these ideas with what was going on in the world, and is still going on in the world, and will always be going on in the word - which is corrupt people trying to oppress the rest of us. Talk about the old devils are at it again. It's about the kings of a thousand years ago and it's about George Bush and it's about Tony Blair and it's about the kings that will be around a thousand years from now.
WW: "Mutiny," the first track, certainly puts that idea in stark relief - and one of the things that will grab listeners to that song is the language. You don't hear many folk songs that have a hook that goes to "Burn, motherfucker, burn." (He laughs.) Do you think old folk and blues artists used language like that in their performances, too - just not in many of their recordings?
WEW: Oh, yeah. Without a doubt. To me, I think words are important, I think language is important, and I think curse words are all right if they're used in context and they get your point across. That was my thought. If you're angry enough, sometimes the only word you can think of to describe somebody is "motherfucker." I was just so angry at things that were going on. The record before that was me sorting through these sad and depressing things. But I stopped being sad and started being angry.
I was reading about the Blackwater troops blasting innocent civilians in Iraq and learning about the Sean Bell shooting here in New York City, where they shot that kid in the back fifty times. In Oakland, just the other week, the cops shot a kid for no reason. And a trillion other examples. I got so mad, and then I realized, this has been going on for all-time. Since man could pick up a club, this has been going on. And it will be going on until humans aren't on the earth. There will be poor people, there will be rich people, there will be wars. That kind of helped me reconcile all this stuff and stop being angry and help me deal with it.
WW: I was going to ask you about that. When some people realize that these things are going to go on forever, they move from anger to disappointment or depression - but that's not what comes across on your album...
WEW: I tried not to have it be just a person complaining about the world, because who needs that? Everyone can complain about the government and how it's corrupt the world over. But I tried not to have it be that vibe. I tried to say, "Yeah, there is evil in the world, but we can counteract it by writing our little songs and painting our little pictures and trying to create a little beauty in the world to offset all that evil." I've decided that if I have a role in this world, that might be it: to try to offset the band with a little good. Because there's a lot of evil, but you can still dance. You can still take pictures and still have fun with your friends. That's how we win. You can do that shit, and that's how we win. So it helped me reconcile everything. Like, it's always been this way, and that's never going to change, because humans are the way we are. I tried to write it with a universal feel to it. A song like "Mutiny," you can kind of tell who it's about - but really, it applies to a lot of different people.
Going back to the theme thing, I thought, yeah, I am going to put out another record, and if Anti- wants to put it out, that'd be perfect, because they've got a lot of political artists on their label, like Michael Franti and The Coup. I thought, this would be a perfect home for this kind of stuff, and it worked out really great. I'm thankful they let me have that platform.
WW: You close the album with "A Good Day to Die," in which the main character mentions that he's gotten all his chores done. And it occurred to me that maybe that's the key to living a long, productive life - to always make sure you've got more chores to do.
WEW: That's true, you know. That's a good one. Maybe it's a Chinese proverb; at least I always thought it was. It goes, "House done, man die." We say it on the farm a lot, because I live in an old corn crib that I converted into a cabin. It has an old wood stove, and I have an outhouse instead of a bathroom. But we're always building on, building sheds. Like I said, I used to be a carpenter. I'm into that. And, well, house done, man die. You can't ever finish your house. You've always got to have the next project. So that's good. I hadn't thought of that angle on that song.
If you look at the record as kind of a theme, the character in the story, he's done all he can do and he's had a good life, and he's got his boots on. You want to die with your boots on. And it's all right. It's on to the next phase. That's all you can do. I've had some good times and I've had some bad times and I think that's what anyone can say about life. I didn't want it to end on a sad note. The song does have a little bit of a sad feel, but I wanted it to feel uplifting in the end, actually.
WW: With your music, you've got a lot left to do - a lot left to say...
WEW: Yeah. It made me happy to realize that I did. Honestly, now I don't know what else I'd do. At that time, I thought I'd go back to doing my carpentry. But now, man, I don't want to fall back on anything else. I just want to keep moving forward musically, and I hope I have something to say that's relevant to at least a couple of people (laughs). And when that ceases to be, I'll find another hobby. I was glad to get that kick in the pants and get that inspiration, to realize, "I've got more to say." And hopefully, as people get older, they should have more to say. A lot of pop music has gotten to be this young person's game. I don't know how it's turned into that. I guess young people are more attractive. But it's like, "No, we should be elevating a lot of the older folks who are making music and have lived life long enough to say something real."
WW: You're not exactly ready for retirement. You're about thirty, right?
WEW: Yeah, I'll be 31 soon. I'm right in the middle. I'm not trying to say I'm some old, seasoned veteran, but I've been playing music for a long time and I've seen a lot of things in this life. But there's plenty more to learn, plenty more to see. That's my hope - that I'll have more to say as I get older. It seems like they want to push you to the side as you get older. But luckily, this kind of music I play, you want to be older.