Talk Thursday to Me – William Elliott Whitmore

Today we catch up with our long time friend William Elliott Whitmore to talk fatherhood, his new album I’m With You and his side project Dope Walker.

William Elliott Whitmore: Hey! How’s it going?

Postcard Editor: Hello friend, doing well. Excited to talk to you and catch up. Let’s jump right in with the biggest life change for you since last we spoke. Is the 7 month old up and running around yet? How hard is she to wrangle?

Will: No, she’s not bi-pedal yet but she can crawl around and can pull books and records off the shelves, so she’s not too hard to wrangle yet. I’m finding in my house, you start looking at it through a kids eyes and it’s like “oh the knife collection that was right there, the arrowhead collection, the glass little figurines – well all of that has to go. “The guns have to go up higher now (laughs).

PE: Well I do remember that about your place, how you used to keep all your guns scattered around on the floor. Come in, trip over a gun.

Will: And it’s my right you know? Like I always say “You can have my guns when you pry them from my cold dead toes.” No but really they’re up high, they’ve always been up high. And I won’t bore you with this stuff too much, but it’s been cool. The silver lining of the pandemic is that normally I’d be gone right now. I’d be on the road, but instead I get to spend more time with her and Chloe here at home.

PE: Is your daughter into music? Does she react when you play music around the house?

Will: She does, and I’ve been trying to foist my tastes onto her. I feel like that’s my job. I’ll sit and play her little songs on the guitar and she really does react to it. You know, you just want so much for them to be a little you. I don’t know if parents admit that or not, but it’s true. I want her to like the same stuff. We try to play all types of music. When John Prine passed away we had a day of just listening to him. The Beatles, Johnny Cash, really anything. Not kids music, although anything is kids music if you play it for a kid. They don’t know. Same thing with reading to her. I just read to her whatever I’m reading.

PE: Cormac McCarthy…

Will: (laugh)…yeah, some Colson Whitehead. They just need to hear a million words. But it’s been nice being home. The challenge of it is figuring out how to stay creative, how to get some bucks coming in somehow, you know. Just trying to figure it out.

PE: So what are some of the ways you’re staying creative?

Will: Trying to write a new record. I’m With You just came out, but it was written two years ago, you know how the cycle works. It was supposed to come out this past May, of course everything got pushed back, and then eventually I said let’s just put it out. I can’t do shows, but I just want people to hear it. 

I have a couple of other bands that I play in, trying to write songs for those. Yeah, just trying to keep the motor running. Keep the hamster wheel spinning. Sitting idly is not fun for me. A day at the beach doesn’t even sound fun to me. I know everyone’s different though. I know a lot of people who are working for the weekend and that’s their thing. Who sang that song?

PE: Was it Foreigner?

Will: No, that’s not it. I think it’s Loverboy. If working construction sites has taught me one thing it’s classic rock radio. But yeah, staying busy while home and enjoying being here. Later today my brother is coming over. Neither he nor my sister have even held my daughter yet because of all of this. They have the type of jobs where they can’t just quarantine for two weeks and not see anyone, so we’ve just been really careful. No one else has held her except Chloe’s folks. It’s crazy. It kind of breaks my heart a little, because I always pictured my family around, bouncing her on their knee. But he took the test and then took a few days off until the results came back negative so he’s coming over, which will be cool.

PE: The record that just came out, a lot of the songs have a little more full band / classic country sound than you usually have. Obviously you’ve always had a toe in that world, but the other albums have either been more sparse or even a bit darker sounding production wise. The production on this one is much more in the 50’s/60’s country vein. Was that a deliberate choice going into the writing process or something that came about later as you were recording?

Will: That’s an awesome way to think of it. I’ve always liked having a toe in this, a toe in that. Under that loose umbrella of I guess Americana. People struggle with that and ask me what I call what I do, and I like that, I like that it’s not really…it’s folk, it’s Americana, there’s no hip-hop songs or anything, it’s all sort of in that world, but it was really fun this time to get different players in and go in a new direction a bit.

When you write an album you want it to seem front to back like the songs aren’t all the same, they gotta be different from each other. One way to do it is with different instruments, so it was fun to get pedal steel and fiddle. I realized I’d never had that stuff on a record before and I couldn’t believe it. I think honestly for a long time I ran away from that stuff. That seemed too on the nose. Like, that’s what Country Joe and the Country Boys do or whatever. That’s what a lot of people were doing so I ran away from that and seeking out production from Mike Lust who did the first three records. I wanted a rock guy to record me. I was pushing against what other people were doing. It was fun to lean into it this time and I know a lot of talented players.

The guy who did pedal steel was an 85 year old dude who played with Patsy Cline a few times back in the day. When artists would get pick up band that knew the songs. This guy Dale Thomas, he played with her and he had these cool stories about all that stuff. He was great to get in on pedal steel and that’s what gives a couple of the songs a real good country feel. It just seemed fun to do. I wanted the album to seem bright. Even though these songs were written a few years ago, so the pandemic hadn’t happened yet, but it was still under a dark umbrella of the administration, it just felt like dark times politically, I wanted this to seem bright. I wrote about some heavy things kind of, but I wanted it brightly colored and one way to do that is the instruments.

As a writer you’re always trying to figure out new ways to play with the form, and so I wanted to try different ways of writing songs. Like “MK Ultra Blues” I wanted a Woody Guthrie sounding song that has that cadence that Bob Dylan famously took and ran with, and that told a story in a three act form. Or the song “Everything We Need” which has no chorus at all. Just different ways to play with the form. 

PE: That idea of it being darker themes but also sounding bright is an interesting thing to hit on because a few weeks ago we showcased the song “Save Ourselves” and it’s such a gorgeously dark, nihilistic but optimistic song. It’s like everything is bad, and there’s no help coming, it’s on us, but we’ll get through. It’s such a beautiful combination.

Will: Thanks for posting that, and for doing this. It’s so cool of you.

PE: Well the blog is mostly an excuse just to catch up with old friends. It’s 75% you, Murder by Death, Samantha Crain…

Will: Oh, good, good. You know I text with those guys every so often. I miss people. That is the downside of no road time. Those random meet ups. Like when we met up in Memphis last year. On that same tour Adam from Murder by Death came out to Nashville. And man, speaking of Samantha, her newest album is really good.

PE: Absolutely agree. It’s a great album.

Will: Samantha is someone who has always had cool arrangements on her albums. From sparse dark…just her…full band…which is what I’ve always wanted to do. Because how do you switch it up when you’re just a solo performer? Well, add a fiddle, it’s something sonically different.

“Save Ourselves” I’m glad you picked up on that. That song means a lot of different things to different people. Some think it’s about a relationship, and it could be, I don’t explain it totally in the song. But the inspiration for it was more of a political thing. When you see bad things happen, whether it’s a natural disaster or a man made disaster, you see people on the ground banding together often, helping each other out. That’s where it’s at. In my town when it’s flooding, people get together to make sandbags and I look around and think “It’s too bad the river is flooding, but look what we’re doing together.” So I expanded that out to society. There’s bad people up top, but down here where it matters lets stick together.

PE: So the new songs that you’ve been writing, has the pandemic effected that as far as what you’re writing about?

Will: Not really, strangely enough. We’re going to see a wave of that stuff in pop culture. You’re already seeing TV shows where the whole show is over zoom, it’s a conceit of the show. There’s going to be so many things about it, of course there will be, it’s such a global thing. But I think I’m going to stay away from doing that, I think. It just hasn’t come up naturally either. It’s not even a decision that I’m definitely not going to write about it, it just hasn’t happened. Mostly I have this kids album in my head.

PE: That was actually going to be my next question, or are you writing a bunch of lullabies for your daughter?

Will: It is that, it’s a lot of that. I want to have the Wake Up side, the upbeat wake up side. “Alright kid we’re waking up, we’re going outside, we’re playing and dancing.” And then the Go To Bed side where it is more of the lullabies. I’m sure that’s been done, there’s a million kids records, it’s not new. I always kind of enjoy things that are written for the adults too. It can’t be the Wiggles, it has to be for the adults as well because they’re going to have to listen to it a lot. Like Pixar movies. They make them for kids but they make them so adults can watch them too. So anyway, that’s kind of been the thing, and I bounce back and forth between “is this lame?” and “is this ok?” or does it even matter? Am I overthinking it? That inner editor. It’s good to have that sometimes, but I think there’s something there.

PE: I think it’s a great idea, even if there are a bunch of kids albums you’ll put your own spin on it.

Will: Yeah, I think that’s the goal for all the things I make. Try to put my own spin on it, even if there is a glut of content. Like if someone was going to start a podcast it would suck if they got discouraged because there’s a trillion podcasts. Fuck that, start one. It’s your voice, it’s your thing and if people like it they’ll find it.

PE: Yeah, I think that’s true of anything. Like music for example, there’s a million bands out there and at the end of the day you have to come back to the idea that the work itself is the reward. You have to enjoy the process of creating and doing and not focus on success and other aspects you can’t control much. You just have to enjoy the doing part.

Will: Yes, or not be able to help doing it. Not in every case, but that urge of “I just really gotta do this.” Painting, photography, music. That’s a cool component, that feeling of “I kind of can’t help it. I gotta say my thing.” That’s what’s cool about a guy like Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices. He puts out like four or five records a year or something, and each one has like 15 songs on them. He just can’t help it. I’m sure those records sell fine and there’s probably an audience that buys all of them, but he doesn’t care. He’s going to drink a case of Budweiser and feel fine about it. 

But yeah, you just have to make your thing and put it out into the world, and then it’s not even yours anymore. People find it and it’s kind of theirs. Conan O’Brien has said that if there’s a big orchestra playing and you feel drowned out but you’re there with your little triangle “bing…bing” and you hit it long enough eventually people start to go “wait, what’s that?” in all the cacophony “what’s that?”  Just keep making your little note, years and years. He puts it better than that, but just keep making your note and someone will find it.

PE: Let’s talk about Dope Walker, one of your other bands. You play bass in this right?

Will: It’s really fun. I play bass in a few other bands too, Middle Western and Hallways of Always and they all kind of do different things. Dope Walker came together with these couple of guys who used to be in a band called the Plastic Constellations that we used to tour with…over 20 years ago. In fact the first show I did with them was with Vida Blue in Bloomington, IN at a place called the Secret Sailor. That was 2000 or 2001. They were in high school but great band and we became friends and toured together a lot. One of them, Aaron Mader now goes by Lazerbeak and does all the Doomtree stuff up in Minneapolis in the hip-hop scene. And then or friend Joel Anderson and our friend Mike Schulte on drums. Basically an excuse to get together with friends and play music. Pre-pandemic we were like “let’s start a band, so we can hang out.” They’re just all really creative, really talented guys and I like playing bass because it’s not what I normally do. I’m not a bass player, I play it like a guitar. Hold down the bottom end, and then sing too. They’re all great guitar players.

I wanted to hang out and I wanted to make music but I wanted to record it and make a record. Let’s make it official. I don’t want this sound to go out into nothingness. It’s like comedians on a podcast “we could just talk, we don’t need to podcast” but there’s something about making it into something and putting it out into the world. So we hung out and started writing songs and they turned out to be pretty good. We recorded it up at my cousin Luke’s studio, which is really fun. And it’s different than anything else that I’ve gotten to do. Scratches a different creative itch.

PE: It’s a great record, I dig it.

Will: Thanks, I sometimes feel like it could be dad rock or old indie rockers rock.

PE: It doesn’t sound dated at all to me. It sounds like a good indie rock band, doesn’t feel like a “side project” if that makes sense. I will say the whole 90’s indie rock thing is coming back. Not even old bands from that era putting out new albums, which is happening, but through the blog we get submissions from bands all the time that are young, new bands that sound like Built to Spill or Pavement. Very 90’s alternative college radio rock.

Will: Everything is cyclical right? If you just keep doing your thing long enough it comes back around. It’s like dudes who have a mullet and you’re like “hey, nice ironic mullet” and they’re like “ironic? I never cut this from the 80’s.” This band, it’s just how it came out, our influences and to me that’s what’s so fun to play. I don’t get to play like this in my real career life or whatever. With this I want a rocking song, and you just can’t help what you sound like. If you go into it trying to sound like something it’s hard to do.

That was a fun project and it’s cool to know a bunch of people who can do a bunch of cool shit. Knowing guys who are great players and now Luke has this world class studio, so we don’t have to half ass anything. We’ve all put out records, we’ve all done that, so we know how to do that. It’s kind of cool. Once you get your box of tools, you spend years acquiring that knowledge, it’s cool to live long enough to be able to use it. 

I look at a band like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Is anyone going to say that band isn’t cool as shit? Whenever someone is rocking out and they’re in their sixties, that’s to be celebrated. Their records get better and better or more different. Them as an example, not every band is like that. They’re amazing. I applaud them. What are they supposed to just sit down and shut up? No, they have all these skills now and the ways and means.

PE: Is more Dope Walker coming in the future? Have you talked about doing another one or is everyone doing their own thing for a bit?

Will: Yeah, two of the guys live in the twin cities and two of the guys live around Iowa City and I live down here in Lee County, so even pre-pandemic it was a lot of sharing ideas over the internet. I’d never done that and now I have this little primitive studio where I can play bass, play drums and make a demo. So there’s talk of doing some more stuff but with the pandemic there won’t be any getting together for a while, but sharing ideas over the internet will continue. It’s fun so we want to keep it going. The last one we pressed 200 vinyl and so we’re just taking small bites and having fun. Because I get tired of doing the same thing over and over, so it’s fun.

PE: So going and doing this or one of these other side projects do you feel like they give you new ideas to bring back to the William Elliott Whitmore albums?

Will: Yeah, at the very least it’s a refresher. Although sometimes there are sonic ideas or techniques. Luke my cousin who records all my stuff, he’s better at that than I am, but yeah you learn new things to try and it keeps the creative juice flowing. Because writing blocks can be really hard. So if I just put that stuff aside and try something different it usually unclogs the tube and get it flowing, so it’s always good for that. I bring that back to my flagship (laugh) my cottage industry. This is where the heart and soul is. This is where I save the writing that is truly close to my heart. The home that is William Elliott Whitmore. It’s funny, I always wanted to think of a band name like Mountain Goats. John Darnielle is a genius for a lot of reasons, but he didn’t go by his name he went by Mountain Goats, and that’s brilliant. I could never think of a good one, so I just went by my full name. It’s like a grand moniker. It was a way to make it a thing. I’m Will, but that’s William Elliott Whitmore.

PE: It does work, it’s long and regal sounding.

Will: It borders on pretentious, but Elliott is from my Grandma Tweedy who you met, you were at the farm. She was the greatest and that was her maiden name, so I always proud of that. But yeah, that’s where the heart and soul is. That, but having these other projects is a lot of fun and a good excuse to see friends.

PE: I know you have things to get back to, gotta sing to your baby and more importantly give Chloe a break from the baby. Going into the winter and hopefully a brighter spring what’re you looking forward to?

Will: I’m looking forward to hopefully playing some shows again. I had some things scheduled for March. Everything keeps getting pushed back. I was supposed to be on the road now, but now it’s looking like March won’t happen. But I’m still trying to keep positive and keep moving forward. 

You can get Will’s new album via Bloodshot Records here and the Dope Walker album via Modern Radio Records here. You can also check out the advice column Will used to do for the blog during our original run oh so many years ago here.

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