Whitewash is about as close to true garage rock as you can get these days. Because of the nature of music distribution and recording, not to mention the stunning lack of actual garages in Manhattan, they don’t make their music next to spilled over quarts of Pennzoil and a faded Farrah Fawcett poster. But, while the band’s music definitely runs deeper than the typical three-chord blues-rock of garage, Whitewash not only embraces the timeless songwriting ethos of the genre (all killer, no filler), they also carry its DIY mentality over to their recorded output.
Their debut EP, Fraud in Lisbon, was produced entirely on a beat-up laptop in an NYU dorm room, using only ProTools and four microphones. Oh, and did I mention that Jon (bass), Sam (guitar), Evan (drums), and Aram (guitar) were still college freshmen when they came together based on their shared love of Ween, Zeppelin and just about anything else? Like true DIY pioneers their music contains shades of whatever they want, with little regard for convention, as Bossa Nova and Noise Rock can arrive within a meter of each other. If I’ve done my job at all, you’ll be chomping at the bit to see this garage psychedelia outfit tear the doors off the hinges at the ThrdCoast Showcase at Friends & Lovers, this Friday, June 20th, as they share the bill with fellow rockers No Pop.
Fresh off three-fourths of the band’s return from the wider world, and in anticipation of the ThrdCoast Showcase, I tracked these guys down for an interview. In the DIY spirit of the group (and partially due to scheduling conflicts), I did little of the actual interviewing. Instead, the band did the work themselves, as they took my ten open-ended questions and ran with them. Each member contributed their own answers and distinct personality as they riffed on where they came from, what drives their musical output, and where they’re headed.
TC: One of the great things about Rock & Roll is that anyone can make it, so one of the questions we like to ask people first is what is the band’s musical background, and how did music first arrive in your lives?
Sam: I’ve been playing classical piano since I was four years old, but my dad’s extensive knowledge of contemporary music during my childhood led to a lot of my musical interests. My dad playing music for me (like OK Computer when it came out) was definitely a catalyst.
Jon: Dad rock, I guess - but not Sam’s dad rock. My dad saw Zeppelin back in the day, so that’s always been part of my psychological soundtrack. I also got super big into black metal and power metal at age 11 when I discovered that I could download whatever music I wanted … not sure why I chose Burzum over, say, Animal Collective or Radiohead, but that’s how it went down.
Evan: My brother took me on forced drives around New Jersey and blasted his exquisite collection of mid-90s grunge at me. Bands like Live, Alice in Chains, and the obligatory Nirvana. Some thrash metal, heavy doses of AC/DC. All the good stuff.
Aram: As a young kid I just remember going through my dad’s CD collection, which at the time was mostly Hip Hop. So I guess that’s what I began listening to, because of course as a young boy I went straight for [Snoop Dog’s] Doggystyle and [Dr. Dre’s] The Chronic. But the first instruments I got into were piano and violin.
TC: Garage rock has a reputation for a DIY mentality and a focus on songwriting over musical flash. Its Rock & Roll that’s meant to be so tangible it could have been made in your neighbor’s garage. That being said, why is it you self-identify as a garage rock band, and what is it about this label that you connect to?
Unattributed: Actually, we only identify as garage rock because of a lack of resources–like you say, garage rock could be made in somebody’s house, and our music actually was made in our house (dorm). The sound will change as we grow musically and, uh, financially. (It’s hard to make an experimental synth album without thousands of dollars of equipment.)
TC: Origin stories always make for the best comics, so in that vein, how did the band get started? Was it a chance encounter or was it a project that has long been building to what it is now?
Jon: Well, freshman year, Sam lived across the hall from me, and I think his first impression of me was made for him by my OK Computer poster. He judged me. Eventually we got to talking about what instruments we played, and since I had recently picked up the bass guitar, he showed me the index of Ween tabs online. We sort of sat in my room playing covers for a few months, and then I Facebooked Evan into submission over the course of a few weeks.
Evan: Jon kept bugging me to come play with him during a time when I thought I was running with the “jazz cats,” so to speak. I ignored him for a while, and then when I figured out jazz academia was lame, I agreed to play with them. Sam was a dude from California. Aram was my roommate.
TC: What inspires your music? If you had to pin it down, why does the band sound the way it does? Do you have any major influences that inspire your work?
Evan: I like to absorb all the injustices of the world into my being, and refract them into a kaleidoscope of positivity for all the voiceless people out there, you know? One love.
Jon: I’m currently trying to make non-guitar music with guitars. We dabble with psych rock tropes and try to expand on the bits we think are groovy. If I had to name names, I’d list Kevin Parker [of Tame Impala], John Dwyer [of Thee of Sees], Noah Lennox [a.k.a. Panda Bear from Animal Collective], Bradford Cox [of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound]…
TC: Because everybody loves to look at old pictures, what was the first song that you learned to play both individually and as a band?
Evan: Individually, I think it was “Back in Black” by AC/DC. Actually maybe “Come as You Are.” As a band it was Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On.”
Jon: “Hot Cross Buns.” I think my first song on bass was “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes (quickly followed by the BADBADNOTGOOD bass line for “Orange Juice”).
Sam: Something from my middle school metal phase, so probably some Metallica song or something like that.
Aram: Once I graduated out of the little practice violin and piano books, it was probably something angsty by Blink 182 or Yellowcard (bandmates cringe). I was feeling that angst by the time I picked up a guitar.
TC: What was the first song you remember falling in love with? It could be that one odd pop hit we all loved at 10 years old (I adored “Mambo Number 5”), the song that changed your life at 14, or the song that took your breath away at 21.
Jon: Actually, “Mambo Number 5” is a distinct early memory for me as well. Also “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. My first CD was ‘N Sync’s “No Strings Attached.”
Sam: “Back to Basom” by Ween is, and will forever be, my favorite song of all time for reasons unexplainable.
Evan: “P.I.M.P.” by 50 Cent.
Aram: “X Gon’ Give it To Ya” by DMX.
TC: Was there a song, album or artist that made you realize you wanted to make music? Was there a "this-is-it" moment, or was it a gradual realization? In the same vein, was there a moment in the band’s beginnings that you knew you had found something special, something that was worth it?
Evan: Watching Steve Gadd [of Simon & Garfunkel, Chick Corea, and many more] play the drums. As far as “knowing we had something special,” I don’t think we all looked at each other and were like “THIS IS IT GUYS.” We’re music fans who are trying to re-create the magic we’ve experienced thanks to our favorite bands, but at the same time we’re trying to create something fresh, a reflection of us which no one has heard before.
Jon: I was sort of forced into it via trombone, but always had this general yearning to make the sort of recorded music I could never make with just one instrument. I knew the band would work out because finding a trained drummer who also likes Tame Impala is like finding the gold bar in a pile of cow excrement.
Aram: Yeah, it was definitely a gradual thing for me, just a culmination of enjoying sound and needing somewhere to cry, but not actually cry. I knew it was real upon seeing Sam’s beautiful face.
TC: Because everyone loves a peek at the man behind the curtain, what is the songwriting process in the band like? Is there any insight you can offer into your creative process?
Unattributed: A lot of the time, one band member will show another member a demo he’s been working on or maybe even just a chord progression that he likes. Our best songwriting happens when we bounce ideas off of each other and write spontaneously–hours spent brainstorming lyrics usually only end up in penis doodles on notepads. Or “No Sunglasses” ;-)
TC: In your approach to songwriting, are there any themes you find yourself returning to? Any ideas that seem to recur throughout your work, whether consciously or unconsciously?
Evan: I don’t think we really have a conscious message or theme we return to, it tends to be a blend of whatever we’re experiencing at the time. A lot of bands really know what they’re going for and try to follow a certain narrow path. But I think we are still kind of discovering our niche in a way, and I think that’s to our benefit. We can keep it spicy, and we don’t have to subscribe to a “unifying theme” yet. Or ever?
Jon: I agree–but I’d also add that Whitewash’s style is immediately recognizable, if not easily categorizable. It’s easy for us to say “that could be a song” or “maybe not a Whitewash song” when we’re sorting through demos. Also, I can name a motif: meaninglessness! Ha.
TC: What’s next for the band? Are you touring, working on a new album, etc.? What’s on the horizon?
Unattributed: We’re already pretty far in the writing process for a second project and are talking to studios about booking dates to record it. You can expect a single from the new release (and hopefully a music video to accompany it) before 2014 is up, and pretty much constant shows all year long. We just booked five dates in NYC for the next two months actually. Oh, and don’t forget about our new website (whitewashtheband.com), or that you can find our music on Spotify and iTunes and just about everywhere else!
TC: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that you haven’t had the chance to so far in this interview?
Unattributed: Legalize it.