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Interview: William Elliott Whitmore

After hearing rumors that I was about to interview a man who might not have a cell phone and certainly didn’t have a way to send me an email with an iPhone, I was a bit concerned with a 30 minute no show by William Elliott Whitmore. But he made it, making sure he got in his pitch for the simple country life, the not so simple arrests, and a quick peak at his new album, Animals In the Dark, slated to hit the streets (or the gravel) in February.

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So, Animals in the Dark is your fourth album?

Yeah it’s the fourth full length, and I had an EP in there, but I guess that doesn’t count as a full length album.

It’s kind of different, it has more a band feel to it as opposed to Song of the Blackbird.

There are three or four songs on there that I added drums, bass, and some additional musicianship on, and the idea that these songs will be around after I’m dead, you know. When I’m writing certain things sometimes I’ll feel compelled to add other instruments. Usually it’s not like that, usually it’s just me and so with some of these songs it had to have drums and had to have bass and just to add the punch to it. It was a good chance to get my friends in the studio that play music too and it’ll kind of take the song in a different place, getting some additional creativity in there. It’s definitely not what I do live, when I play live it’s just me, but like I said, these records will spin long after I’m dead so I want the world to hear it kinda how I hear it in my head.

Is it something you see in the future where you might have more of a band?

Yeah. When this record comes out in February I’ll probably tour with a band.

With the people that recorded with you?

Yep. And even then I’ll do a lot of the set on my own, ’cause I really enjoy playing by myself and I enjoy that kinda freedom, but it’s also nice, like I said, to have some other minds come in and help the song go in a different direction. So yeah, when this record comes out I’ll probably tour with a band. For at least part of it.

You added steel guitar, strings, and drums. Was there one you particularly enjoyed having on the record?

Well the lap-steel I played myself and that was kind of fun. I had never really done much of that before, but a friend of my showed me a new tuning that I’d never tried before and so on that song called “Let the Rain Come In” it has a lap-steel on it. And I’m definitely not a very proficient lap-steel player, but it was enough to carry the melody. But it was really fun to have a cello player come in. I’ve always enjoyed the cello and actually doing the tour with “Murder by Death” I get a kick out of them. Sarah’s a wonderful cello player in that band. But yeah the second song on the record has a cello on it and again it was one of those things I just heard it and had to get it on there. So it was real interesting work, ’cause I basically wrote this part out for him and he just kinda played it so it was a unique thing. It’s nice to get some different instruments going on there.

The banjo, it’s your instrument, but you don’t hear the banjo until the eighth song on the album.

Yeah, the banjo is definitely my favorite instrument, but right before this record I bought a brand new acoustic Martin guitar and it’s a really nice acoustic guitar, so I’ve been playing it a lot more. And again, usually when I write a banjo or a guitar song they’re interchangeable, but sometimes it’s got to be one or the other, so I’ve just been writing more guitar songs lately. But live, I still play mostly banjo, because it’s kinda what enjoy playing more. And I wanted to do things that surprised people. I kind of wanted to break the mold a little bit and start off the record with drums and kind of have a different sound to it and kind of try and challenge people.

You’re from Iowa right?

Yep. Lee County, Iowa. I converted an old corn crib into a cabin. It’s just a rectangular, wooden drying facility for ears of corn that they don’t really use any more. But back when they picked corn and left it on the ear they would put it in these kind of buildings, these open air buildings to dry them out And so this particular one my grandfather built in 1954, and even after they didn’t use it for corn anymore we used it for a playhouse and stuff like that So like five years ago I started converting it into my cabin, with just a wood stove for heat. Very primitive. I have an outhouse. I don’t even have a bathroom. But it’s on my farm, so it’s where I grew up, but it’s very simple living for sure.

Do you have any animals then?

Yeah, I’ve got a mule, and a horse, and my chickens, and a few dogs, and a few cats. We used to breed horses. I grew up doing that, and after my folks passed away we sold most of the horses and I just have a couple that I keep basically just as pets and for riding when I can. They’re my buddies. I live alone so I like to have my animals around.

So living on a farm, what’s the difference between tour life and life at home?

It’s two different worlds. Being on tour is like being on a carnival ride with different rooms and each day is a new room. You don’t know what to expect. Sometimes it’s really scary and sometimes it’s really hard, sometimes it’s really boring, but most of the time it’s really fun, being on tour. And I love traveling. But being at home is my down time. Like being home is my vacation time just to kind of be on the farm and go swimming in the pond and hang out with my horses and do those things. So it’s two totally different worlds. And being at home is when I do most of my writing. I enjoy being home for that aspect of it. It’s hard for me to get much writing done on the road, but I do enjoy touring. And this tour so far with “Murder by Death.” And I’ve been having a pretty good time.

Now living on the farm you’re very removed from many of the current musicians. How do you connect with that?

Well, that’s another thing about traveling. Like I said, I definitely cherish my home time but it is pretty far removed from the arts and culture, well it’s just a different kind of culture. But that’s the good thing about traveling. I get to check in with humanity and see what’s current and see who’s making art and who’s making music. It’s nice to be able to check in with different cities and see what each scene is like. For that, I’m appreciative, to be able to travel around and do that, because that’s one thing that the farm sort of lacks; that window into the outside world. I can’t get the internet out there. I probably could if I could figure out how to do a wireless thing. So to be able to get that window into the outside world through travel is good. Pretty integral.

Is there anybody in the area that you like, as far as musicians, that you like even though they’re not exactly your style?

There’s some good bands coming out of Iowa City. There’s a band called The Tanks that’s really great. Just a hard-rockin’ band, and from Iowa City. There’s a guy named Dave Zollo, he actually plays organ on my record, but he’s a real good honkey-tonk, boogie-woogie piano player. He’s got some great solo stuff. Of course, there’s Greg Brown, he’s from Iowa. He’s kind of a singer-song writer type. And even though Slipknot isn’t really up my alley musically, I’m proud of them for taking their thing as far as they have. And they had a record called Iowa so I’ve gotta give them props for that. But there’s some good stuff happening.

So this new album, Animals in the Dark you’ve called autobiographical as well as politically charged.

Yeah, the record is called Animals in the Dark and that sort of is a metaphor for the people in the world, whether they be oppressive governments, or Blackwater troops, or people like Tom Delay and people like Karl Rove. People that sort of control your life, or certain aspects of your life, without you knowing it. So there’s these creatures out there in the dark that have all this say over what happens to you and you can’t even see them. These unseen things out there in the dark. So I tried to write in such a way that it could apply to anyone, like kings of a thousand years ago or a king a thousand years from now. Ever since man could oppress another man. That’s an animal in the dark. And also it refers literally to animals outside my cabin in the dark that make noises. Just at night you can hear a cacophony of frogs and raccoons fighting, and owls mating, and coyotes howling. So it’s also very literal to animals in the woods and sort of establishing a report with these animals around me, almost having conversations with them. But the political theme runs through the record. There’s a song called “Johnny Law” about crooked cops and there’s a song called “Old Devils” about the politicians of the world. A lot of it was written during George Bush’s term in office. So the first song is called “Mutiny” and it’s about thinking of the country like a ship and sort of declaring mutiny on the ship and saying we need to kick this guy out. But writing politically for me was a new challenge. I tried to do it in a poetic way and I hope it worked.

Do you feel any differently now with the election that just happened?

Well, it was definitely a historic event. November 4th was definitely historic. I wish him good luck. I wish Obama good luck. He sure inherited a hell of a mess. He’s only a human being, so I don’t think things are going to change so drastically, and he even admitted that, he ain’t going to go in and just fix things right up, but I sure hope he sticks to what he’s promised. I’m just a guy that’s just distrustful of any politician. You know, he’s real charismatic, and I’ll give him that. He’s really intelligent and I wish him the best of luck. I hope he can do something with this mess that we gave him.

So is “Johnny Law” an autobiographical story?

I’ve been arrested a lot for different reasons. It’s all been non-violent, just things you’re not supposed to have and things you’re not supposed to do. But non-violent.

How many times have you been arrested?

Oh, not that many. Probably six or seven. And I have only done jail time a couple of days here and there. No real jail time. Just a couple of days in the county. And also that song was written sort at the time of Sean Bell shooting. And you know it’s happened in every major city where cops unload 50 rounds into a kid that didn’t even have a gun. They thought his cell phone was a gun. It happened in Iowa City too, like 10 years ago. It’s not a new story. I got to thinking about thinking about these brutal cops and about how America is turning into a little bit of a police state. I know they have a hard job, but I had a friend that was arrested for simulated intoxication meaning he was sort of maybe acting drunk and wasn’t drunk! We were goofing off and they arrested him for simulated intoxication. Now, come on. Is that a trumped up charge or what? Arresting someone for horseplay basically. I just thought, “What is this coming to, man?” Come on. So it’s all of these things that went into writing this album. And again going back to the Blackwater, that whole Blackwater fiasco. These guys that operated above the law. They’re not susceptible to Iraqi law or American law, they’re just the hired gunman of the United States government, basically. How long will it be before they’re raiding our streets? It’s scary to me. Very Orwellian.

You’ve talked about making something beautiful. Something that these “animals in the dark” can’t do. You’re also an artist, right?

I do do a lot of painting and drawing. I’ve always been obsessed with the visual arts as well. I’m not claiming to be very good at it or anything, but I think the whole point of any art is just doing it and whatever comes out comes out. But yeah, I’ve always enjoyed painting and drawing and trying to create something that wasn’t there before. And by the end of the record hopefully a person can feel like, yes there are a lot of forces in the world; there are these politicians that want to put you in jail, they want to put you in Guantanamo Bay, but there’s also beauty, there’s also art, there’s beauty. You can dance and you can sing and that’s how you counteract all the ugliness in the world. Create your own little bit of beauty.

So after this album, where do you see yourself going?

You know it’s fun to have those guys playing on the record, for sure, but I could see my next record being way more stripped down and even doing a lot more banjo stuff. I’ve actually started writing so new songs for a new record. I don’t even know who’ll put it out, you know, if this record flops and Anti drops me off the label. But I’ve been writing more songs about the farm, kind of going back to the roots. I’ve always written really inward and this record was more on a global scope, or as much as I can do anyway. The next thing I want to do is kind of go back to writing about the farm, family history and things like that. So yeah, there might some full band things on there, but I could see it being a lot more stripped down.

Well, William thanks for this.

Sure, just hope you got something out of all my rambling.

by Edmond Stansberry

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