It all started when some musicians who knew each other went to Chapel Hill, N.C., to play as Matt Suggs' band for Merge Records' 15th anniversary party.
"From there, we all just started talking about how we should all start a band--like more of a collective band, as opposed to just playing on solo records," said Rob Pope, formerly of The Get Up Kids and now a multi-instrumentalist for White Whale.
Invoking the power of the group, the musicians--Suggs, formerly of Butterglory; Pope; and John Anderson, Zach Holland, and Dustin Kinsey of Thee Higher Burning Fire--started working on songs. Though they may not have had a clear idea of what they wanted to do, they knew what they did not want to do: sound like their former bands, or like a band from Kansas.
"No one's really playing in any other bands right now, and no one wants to rehash the past at all. That's boring," said Pope. "We'll all give each other a look if we're playing something, and we're like, um, this might be a little too derivative of something. Once that look has passed around the room, we probably don't bring that part up anymore."
Instead, their record, WWI, sounds like it comes from somewhere off the coast of Nantucket, maybe, or London. The songs center around a nautical theme and tell a story of exotic adventures and far-off locales, ultimately asking and answering the question, "What's an ocean for?"
"We knew going into it we really wanted to make a really ambitious, almost like a conceptual, record--something that told a story, where the music and lyrics all kind of fit together," said Pope. "The music and the songs could easily be worked into the next song and that sort of stuff, so there would definitely be a flow to the record. The nautical theme just kind of started working itself out. Matt came up with this character, Admiral Yummyman, really early on, and so those (songs) just started falling into place. Once we realized that that was what's happening, we kind of ran with it."
But just because their first record happens to be centered on seafaring images and characters, and their name is White Whale, that doesn't mean that they're going to keep sailing in that direction. What originally led them far offshore was the desire to create a placeless sound, and that remains the main objective.
"We hate it. We're over it," said Pope about the sailing stuff. "We might write our next record about ninjas. Or, you know, who knows? We definitely don't want to be known as, 'Oh there's that band from Kansas, of all places, that sings songs about the sea.' It was a conscious effort not to sound like anything from around here--we didn't want to sound like we were from anywhere, really."
Ethereal pianos, haphazard cellos, twanging and jangling guitars, and electronic noises make the musical map of WWI detailed and expansive. At one moment, you're in an Irish pub, drowning in drunken choruses ("The Admiral," "King's Indian"); then you wake up off the coast of China, lamenting the loss of a love ("I Love Lovely Chinese Gal"). A sniffle, and you're approaching Texas, with darker things on your mind ("O'William, O'Sarah"); a shiver, and you're in a London club, rallying the revolutionaries ("We're Just Temporary, Ma'am"). Sometimes these geographic leaps even take place within songs. The songs refuse to stay put. They sound placeless, because they have so many places to call home.
"I think it also puts some pressure on you to be creative and come up with something new," said Pope about the desire to not sound like they're from anywhere.
Through collaboration (there is no real "frontman" of the group; said Pope, "There's no one calling the shots"), the band meticulously crafts the songs through demolition and reconstruction.
"We've done a lot of deconstructing of our songs where we'll break it down to one instrument and a vocal, and then we'll try to approach it in a completely different way," explained Pope. "I think we all have decent taste, and we're fairly good judges if something's not going in the right direction, like if it's not making us all feel something, then we're not going to continue in that direction."
The end result is rock that's a little epic, a little experimental and a lot hard to pin down--although a cousin of one of the band members described them as "Roxy Sabbath" (a combination of Roxy Music and Black Sabbath). But even that has its limitations; they're not as wicked or as precious as that moniker would suggest. You just have to dive in to WWI and follow the current.