Monday, February 8, 2010

Whale Zombie rejuvenates Athens with lucid riffs, optimism

This article by Dani Purcell was published February 4th on Excellent coverage - ACRN's editorial staff definitely has its finger to the pulse of the Athens music scene.

Chris Lute stands in his driveway, ear pressed to his cellular phone. He paces the rubble path, politely listening, gesticulating with a Miller High Life in his hand. He received a written warning already. Lute hangs up and explains that two-thirds of Whale Zombie is under scrutiny for allowing multiple households on Brown Ave Internet access -- about twenty users, Lute estimates.

Inside the modest rental, Whale Zombie members nurse Miller High Life and shift equipment amongst the clunky bunch of amps and cables that crowd that the tiny living room. Lute places a crumpled paper on the snare.

“I think we should do what I’m doing here, at the beginning of the show, and then do ‘Jungles,’” guitarist Chris Dodd suggests, fingers treading over the fretboard. “Really slow and spacey and jump on it, like that!” He stomps on the peddle for emphasis. “And go straight in to that whole like,” and plucks a series of arpeggios.

Lute affirms the decision. “What kind of vocal effect should I use now?” he asks Dodd. “Reverb or fuzz or what?”

“Reverb might echo.” Dodd responds.

The two then disagree on how practice should be conducted.

“We were planning out really aggressive, in your face songs so that we would be playing battle rock,” Lute apologizes. “We should have our own battle of bands.”

Dodd suggests Whale Zombie also judge.

Bassist Levi Halter grins as the two deliberate, thumping his Paul McCartney-esque bass – a vintage Kingston that hangs short on the straps and falls mid abdomen.

Dodd pours into a distorted, heavy-echoing introduction. Halter follows him, improvising with ease, embracing simple bass lines that flow beneath Dodd’s more intricate melodies. His surf-rock influence and experience led him to embrace a minimalist approach to composition.

“Before I met them [Dodd and Lute] it was like as pop shit as you can get,” he says. “If you can play those [songs] over and over, it’s all I want to hear.”

Halter remains stationary, his facial expression in an almost constant grin, watching the other two. Lute throws his head into his drumming, a total wild man. He snaps the sticks to the toms and rears them to his face for a split second, tossing his head madly.

Dodd opens the next song with finger-picking that sounds like water, abrasive and suspended before dropping. Although most of Whale Zombie’s songs rely on complex guitar lines, simpler chord structures dominate what Lute designates the band’s “opus.” Lute shouts, his voice dense and echoing, grainy and distorted.

The trio composes songs by “getting in fights until we decide on something.” Lute or Dodd will introduce a section, and each member elaborates with his own inventions until a song takes shape. Whale Zombie members’ perspectives occasionally conflict, the group shrugs off its minor disagreements. “We’re together a lot and that leads to us being critical of our music.” Lute explains.

The band members’ earnest communication reflects their closeness, the catalyst for Whale Zombie’s formation. Lute and Dodd clearly recall a day during Lute’s freshman year in which they had a massive discussion about “everything.” The two decided they wanted to form “really intense experimental band that sent a message.”

Whale Zombie emerged years later, almost accidental in its inception. In 2009, Dodd embarked on a solo acoustic project and requested Lute and Halter accompany him live. The three also played in a “surf rock 60’s revivalist” project, the Eddie Munsters, which crumbled due to lack of “a good combination of people” in the band.

The threesome began playing local shows mid-2009, but remained nameless. Max Wheeler, who resides at Brown Town and books house shows there, was creating a flier for an upcoming show. Wheeler demanded a name. Hardcore bands comprised the bill. Dodd nonchalantly suggested Whale Zombie – “that sounds hardcore, right?”

“Shortly after we just theorized how it did apply to our music and at this point it seems pretty clear,” Lute says.

Whale Zombie’s inclusion of psychedelic, siren-like wails and noises and emphasis on surf-rock style bass and drums seems to justify the group’s name sufficiently. Lute introduces a second probable opus. Dodd builds steady chords up the fretboard which dissipate into recumbent chorus that screeches into dramatic, halted pauses, whining bass carrying vaguely beneath it. Lute acknowledges his appreciation of “gimmicky” instrumental sections – like the introduction of dramatic pauses – as blatant yet essential to the piece.

Despite having penned two self-proclaimed opuses, Whale Zombie is still in its infant stages. Discontent with the scene’s homogeneous atmosphere and limited audience, group is making increasingly frequent bar and house show appearances.

“I feel like we’re constantly trying to change things or try new things but, since we play in Athens all the time, it’s the same people playing,” says Lute. “It’s not a bad thing – it’s just that.”

Whale Zombie aspires to disrupt the exhausted scene, and wants to participate in unconventional or “unusual shows.” Although the trio acknowledges its “sound” is still in developmental stages, they recently decided to send recordings to Pitchfork in hopes of a review.

The threesome recorded in the RTV building with the assistance of local musicians and audio production majors Andrew Logan, Josh Landis and Tim Race. The experience yielded a four-track demo, and provided Whale Zombie with introspect toward its aspirations and improvement in technique. “Tim told me to breath in with my chest and not my abdomen, and now I can sing!” Lute says.

Yet, only a few Whale Zombie songs have lyrics – a significant differentiation between Lute’s and Dodd’s songwriting strategies.

“I have conceptions melody-wise, but lyrically, I kind of draw a blank.” Dodd says. Lute views his pieces in a more “holistic” manner, and chooses to incorporate simple choruses. He feels introduction of a singer might “bastardize” his vision. Although individuals have approached Whale Zombie asking to join them, the band wants to preserve the present line-up. Lute says the inclusion of another member may eventually allow the group to devote “one of us to be dedicated to using weird sound and sampling.”

Whale Zombie plays the Union on Friday with Terrible Twos and We March. They conquer their “home turf” – the Spacement, at 86 N. Lancaster St. – this Saturday evening with Blithe Field, Build Us Fiction and more.

[Dani Purcell via]