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Hello, My Name Is William

| January 30, 2009

Hello, My Name Is William
Q&A with William Elliott Whitmore


IE: It’s been three years since the last record. How much of that time was spent writing and recording.
William Elliott Whitmore:
What, Song Of The Blackbird came out in 2006, I guess it must have been? Honestly, after that record came out I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do anymore records. I actually struggled with, “Well, maybe I’ve said all I have to say.” And those records were kind of a trilogy representing a time in my life, and I thought, “Well, I expressed that. I feel like I’ve got it all out. I’m purged.” But then, I kinda stopped being depressed and started being angry. I started working on these songs and writing more outward than inward. I feel good, but there’s a lot of people that don’t feel good, and this world is, there’s a lot crazy things happening with this world. Coming to terms with all that, and thinking “I think I have more to say. Could I maybe write, dare I say, protest songs or political songs?” I mean, I had never done anything like that before. “Johnny Law” is an old one that I wrote a while ago and it kind of fits right in with the theme. People think this is the worst of times, but it’s really just the same as it’s always been. Since man could stand up we’ve been trying to control each other and oppress each other and take each other’s women and fight. So I look around right now and I see war, and poor people, and rich people, and that’s how it’s always been and that’s how it will always be. So with all of that said, I started thinking, “I’ve got more to say.” I immediately started working on these songs, and that’s when the whole Anti [Records] thing came through. They called me on the farm a few years ago, and I was out cutting firewood of all things, and my uncle says “Hey, there’s someone from Epitaph Records on the phone for ya.” I’m a huge Bad Religion fan, so I thought someone’s playing a joke or something. And goddamn, it was Andy Kaulkin from Anti Records, and he said, “Yeah, we’d be interested with working with ya,” and I thought, “Man, this would be perfect.” My contract with Southern was done, [but] they’re still my family. I love Southern Records. they helped me out so much. It was just one of those things where you have to do the next thing, and they understood, so we’re all good. In the meantime, I was touring a bunch, writing a lot, workin’ on my little cabin – my little corncrib cabin – my little palace. So I was kinda mixing all three of those together in between the floods, the snows, and everything else

IE: Your cabin is on land in Iowa that’s been passed from generation to generation, right?
Yeah. Yep, yep. It’s 160 acres. My uncle lives on part of it. My grandma lives on part of it. So we kind of keep an eye on each other and help each other out, but we each have our own places on different parts of the land, so we each like our solitude, too. But yeah, it’s the family ground, man. My grandpa and his grandpa fuckin’ farmed this place, so I love it. The energy is just palpable, you know?

IE: Would William Elliott Whitmore be the same musician if you lived in any other Midwestern state than Iowa?
Well, that’s a great question. It’d be interesting to see. I’ve always been really interested in how a person’s environment shapes what they do, how their art is, no matter what their art is. So that’s a great question because how would it affect you if you were born and raised somewhere totally different? If I were born and raised in Brooklyn would I sound like Mos Def [laughs]? And I love Talib Kweli and Mos Def who are all about the BK, who are all about Brooklyn, so I was like, “I’m all about Iowa! I love Iowa.” Nobody’s reppin’ Iowa, except for Slipknot. Slipknot had a record called Iowa, and I’ll give ’em props for that even though I’m not – it’s not my type of music, but hey, good on ’em for bein’ good at what they do, and they had that record.

IE: And with all their success, they haven’t left Iowa. They’re all still around the Des Moines area.
Yeah, yeah. I just think that’s awesome. So I was like, in my little way, going to rep Iowa: The farm, and where I live, and how I was raised means everything to me. I’d be a totally different person, well, I don’t know if I’d be a totally different person, but I’d be a different person for sure if I hadn’t been raised how I was and geographically and everything. It’s a little isolated, you know, being in the woods, so I kind of developed a musical style that I had to play by myself because there was no one else to play with. So I kinda came up doing that, and that’s what I’m most comfortable with, so stylistically it developed out of that isolation. And thematically as well. The subject matter . . . I look around and I see the woods; I see the birds; I see . . . fuck there’s a deer in my yard right now. Beautiful surroundings, so I kinda can’t help but pepper that in with everything I write. So this record was a different challenge because it’s not exactly about that stuff. It kind of eeks in there toward the end – there’s some references to the farm and things, but this one was writing more outwardly, more worldly, or whatever you want to call it.

IE: People outside of Iowa tend to think of it as almost foreign land, right?
: For sure. “Is that where they grow potatoes?” [laughs] Some people can’t even find it on a map. But it’s the center of my universe. It’s funny how it is almost like a foreign country to people, like maybe they passed through once on [Interstate] 80. That’s like, “Oh man, that’s not even the half of it. You’re just getting this little window into the deal on that.” That’s not even really Iowa right there, that’s just a little strip in the middle of it. So when people say “Yeah, I drove through Iowa and it was nothing but farms,” it’s like, “Yeah, you’re welcome.” [laughs] No farms, no food, man.

IE: It’s surprising how city folks like Chicagoans have identified with songs like “Black Iowa Dirt” and lyrics like “If the corn’s knee high by the Fourth Of July.”
Yeah, that’s awesome. It’s actually really interesting. It never ceases to amaze me. It’s the same even when I go overseas, people just dig it. I’m just thinking “Do you even know what I’m talking about?” “Black Iowa Dirt,” I feel like maybe people want . . . it’s something so out of their realm, maybe they just want to try and relate to and maybe it’s just a window into a world they haven’t seen, you know? I would do the same thing. I’m a huge hip-hop junkie, so going back to Mos Def for instance, so when he or Jay-Z talk about growing up in Brooklyn, it makes it sound cool. That’s so far out of my realm, I’m like “Yeah! Awesome!” I want to relate to it. So that’s the only way I can sort of make sense of it: It’s so far out of their realm, it makes it interesting. Like, “Farming? People still do that?” That’s the only thing I can think of: It’s so foreign, they just want to get a grasp on it. And these days – and I love this trend – the word “green” is a word people are kinda realizing, “O.K., maybe I could grow my own vegetables and maybe buying local and support my local farmers.” I love that this trend is kicking in, and I hope – I hope I hope I hope – it keeps going and people don’t lose it. But people are starting to wake up and realizing we need to start paying attention to what we grow and how we grow it, how it’s affecting the environment, and on and on and on. So that fits perfectly in it, you know? Here I am living on a farm, so I think people are like, “O.K., what’s that all about?”

IE: Calling Animals In The Dark a “political album” isn’t necessarily correct, but it certainly has those elements. Is it weird to you that’s it’s coming out a month after Bush leaves office?
Well, it was kinda out of my hands, man. I wanted it to come out before the election so bad, but really, it was written with George Bush in mind – that’s probably pretty obvious – but also, it kind of just applies to any leader at any time. I’m kind of allergic to all politicians. I don’t trust ’em; they’re just men. I wish [Barack] Obama good luck, and I like him more than I like George Bush, but is the corruption going to go away? Is the war going to go away? Nope. If I talked to you in a year from now, there’s still going to be rich people; there’s still going to be poor people; there’s still going to be war. So I wish him good luck, but he ain’t no superhero. We can rail against it by creating something beautiful because those corrupt leaders and crooked fucking cops, man, they don’t know what it’s like to create anything beautiful, and they never will. So that’s how we beat ’em: We paint pictures, and write stories, and write columns, and write songs. No one’s going to take to the streets, that’s not how it’s gonna to happen. But we’re gonna do it little by little through the arts and living our lives as free as we can. At least that’s my kind of thought.

IE: What’s behind the title Animals In The Dark?
The title is a reference to sort of unseen forces or the people in the world that control what you do, or sort of control your fate, without you knowing it. Or maybe you know it, but you can’t see these people. When you think about – of course George Bush – but he’s got a whole team of people who have helped screw our lives up. You think of like Paul Wolfowitz, Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, the list goes on and on. They’re kind of out there in the dark. That’s what the original intent was, but also quite literally, animals in the dark outside my cabin at night [laughs]. Like hearing owls mating at night and hearing raccoons fighting, hearing the deer screeching, and the coyotes. You hear one coyote howl one hill over, then the next one from the next hill over, kind of establishing a conversation. So it’s also quite literal as well.

IE: The trilogy of records before Animals In The Dark was very personal and dealt with a lot of death. Are you glad that’s finished?
Yeah, it was definitely good to close one chapter and open the next one. It felt really good, actually. It was so nice to be able to purge those things, those feelings, and let music do what it’s supposed to do and that’s be a healing thing. I can sing these things during the night, and during the day I can smile and laugh. That stuff will always be in [my] songs, too. No matter what I write I’ll add those elements of loss and things. I kinda can’t help it. It’s just in my songwriting DNA [laughs].

Animals In The Dark (Anti) comes out February 17th, and William Elliott Whitmore plays Reggie’s on the 20th. Q&A by Trevor Fisher.


Category: Columns, File, Monthly

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