William Elliott Whitmore's gravelly voice tells typical bluesman tales of a lifetime of booze-addled mistakes and dodgy, smoke-filled backrooms. Yet the 30-year-old Iowan—who usually performs with nothing more than a banjo or acoustic guitar—was weaned on hardcore punk. His music career began while touring the country as a roadie and occasional warm-up act for spazz-punks Ten Grand. It was during one of these performances that Southern Records discovered Whitmore, providing Whitmore an avenue to release his often dark, reflective odes to his late parents. His new album, Animals In The Dark, brims with the angry political sentiment and instrumental experimentation he only hinted at in earlier material. Before leaving in his current U.S. tour, which brings him to the Varsity Theater on Friday, Whitmore spoke with Decider about his new album, opening for hardcore bands with a banjo, and the importance the simple life.
Decider: Your first three records sound so similar they could have been released as a triple album, but Animals In The Dark is brighter, more upbeat, and incorporates instruments you’ve never used before. What's behind the new approach?
William Elliott Whitmore: It was a good chance to do some new things and kind of challenge people and challenge myself. As a musician, no one wants to keep making the same old thing. There is that element of the style I have: I can’t make a techno record, but I can write three-chord simple songs. It’s a matter of how you jazz it up so it remains at least a little interesting. It’s the struggle of the boring songwriter. It was a unique chance to try a bunch of different things, like having a song with just drums and vocals.
D: But you’ve recorded songs like that before, like “Cold And Dead.” And aside from the handclaps, “Our Paths Will Cross Again” is also fundamentally a cappella.
WEW: Yeah, and I’m a huge hip-hop fan, but I know I could never rap—it’s just not in my DNA. It was that influence of just a beat and vocals; I’ve always been intrigued with that. And I know I can’t do it all the time. Fuck, if I could make a record with just singing and nothing else, I would. I can’t really play guitar that well and I can’t really play banjo that well. But they won’t let me make an album with just vocals, so I have to put other things on there.
D: It also seems like you tried to distance yourself lyrically from your past efforts.
WEW: I never even thought I would make more records after the first three. I had this story, this trilogy, in mind to represent this period in my life. The best way for me to understand things is to write about them. So to get through that dark period, I wrote it all out and was able to express it with those records. And I honestly thought I’d be done and go back to being a carpenter and live on the farm. But over the course of doing those records—politically and the way the world was shaping up and our administration and all the atrocities happening in the world—I just stopped being sad and started being angry. It was like, "Okay I feel good. I don’t feel depressed anymore. Now I’m just pissed." When I hear news about Blackwater troops shooting up civilians in Baghdad, when I hear about cops shooting Sean Bell in New York City a year or so ago because they thought his goddamn cell phone was a gun so they shot him 50 times and empty out their clips, I’m just pissed. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
D: Since the new album is more political than your previous efforts, do you worry about the reaction from your fans?
WEW: I struggled with that. "Is anyone even going to give a shit? Am I going to lose everyone? The 11 fans I have, are they not going to like me anymore?" You can’t worry about that. You just got to do what you do and hope people can dig it.
D: In the song "Mutiny," you say the captain has to go. Has your outlook change at all in light of the recent election?
WEW: That was written a year and a half ago. But I tried to write in a way that’s universal. It applies to right now, but it applies to kings of a thousand years ago. And it will apply to kings a thousand years from now. Looking around and thinking, "There’s war and strife. There are poor people and there are rich people. There are people in misery but there are people that are happy." That’s been true forever—since human beings could stand up. And it’ll be true until humans don’t exist. We think it’s the worst of times right now, but it’s been going on since the beginning of time. The old devils are at it again. It’s true right now like it was back then. Don’t depend on politicians to make shit better, look within yourself and do your little part to make the world a little better. Not to sound trite, but ain’t no politician gonna fix shit.
D: People like to buy you shots of whiskey when you’re on stage. Has that led to any interesting encounters?
WEW: [Laughs.] I feel like it has, and I feel like I can’t remember them. One time I played a show in Kentucky. It was a show I was playing on the floor. I was drunk enough where I was like, "I’m not even going to play on the stage. I’m going to play on the floor with crowd and not use mics or anything." I literally blacked out while playing.
D: How did you open for hardcore bands with just a banjo and microphone without getting heckled off the stage?
WEW: Very carefully. [Laughs.] When it was my turn to get up there, I knew I better bring the fucking noise. And then when it came time to open up for really big bands, like Converge in the U.K.—we were playing for 2,000 people. I had never done anything like that before. I came from the basement. So I was like, "Okay, now I got to really do it." But anymore, people in general are ready for anything. It’s not like it was 15 years ago, when, if you were playing in front of a hardcore audience, they might not put up with you coming up with a banjo. You might really have problems. I feel people have lightened up. The Converge fans couldn’t have been more respectful. Even people that really like hardcore music don’t want to see fucking 10 hardcore bands in a row. You need some kind of palette cleanser in there. I’m kind of a palate cleanser. [Laughs.]