Concert photography by Elias Carlson
Salt Lake City’s The Devil Whale returned to Seattle for a second show this Summer, bringing their rock ‘n roll swagger and indie rock sensibilities to the dusty walls of Ballard’s Tractor Tavern. Back in May, I had the pleasure of witnessing them excite The High Dive in Fremont and was utterly blown away by their tight dynamics and spirited camaraderie – hence our twitterpated post after the encounter. I urged Brinton Jones to come back our way and he promised the boys would be back soon. The band continued their tour, rocking some thirty-six states over the course of three to four months. As Brinton promised, they came back to close the tour right here in Seattle. And, as I expected, it was not the same band I’d grown to love over the Summer. The road had taken its toll. All the signs were there – a band weathered and worn by a life lived on highways, couches and stages. The stakes were real. Their songs would be heard. And we would know that they were worth the blood pulsing through their veins.
The band took the stage with a fire that had never accompanied them before. Brinton approached the mic wielding a tambourine and announced that this was their first time at the Tractor Tavern and added, with a raised eyebrow, “it’s been a long time coming.” The room roared in response. Yes it had. The set found its pulse with a chilled, tambourine-led groove and, from that moment on, Brinton Jones, Jake Fish, Cameron Runyan, Jamie Timm, and Wren Kennedy did what they do best – the boys brought their ornate orchestrations to life with radiant, contagious energy. The tension built as the room awaited the approaching storm. And we weren’t the only ones frozen in anticipation. Behind us, Bryan John Appleby. To our right, members of The Head And The Heart. It speaks volumes of a band’s character when the local music community joins the celebration – and that they did. As we hoped, halfway through the set, the men of THATH jumped on stage and joined the chorus of “Magic Numbers,” filling out the sound with smiling harmonies, bouncing claps and shimmering tambourines. There may have been some ass slaps mixed in for good measure. Good game, indeed.
The set continued with a jolt and the energy skyrocketed. The Devil Whale played with a fiery passion I hadn’t seen them reveal before. Their trembling was not of fear, but of intensity. Dripping with sweat, the guys played without restraint. With every intricate, poetic twist, Brinton delivered his verses with a daring fervor. Cameron heartened each jolting hook with a controlled, aggressive pulse. Jake, much like his finger-work, danced wildly, joining the band’s jubilant rhythm. Wren’s keys tethered the melodies, keeping them grounded with precisely placed chords and percussive accents. With anthems like “Golden” and “Barracudas,” Jamie’s solos soared. These memorable performances, as passionate as they were skillful, brought an inspired crowd to a genuine Seattle head bob – a true testament to the glory of rock ‘n roll.
It’s nearly 2am and Brinton Jones leans against the loading dock rail behind the Tractor Tavern as the boys furiously try to cram a truck-load of gear into a 14 passenger van. Various band members mingle in and out of the interview as we have an honest conversation with Brinton about their history, their craft and their crazy journey as a band this past year. I must say that these are incredibly genuine guys. Every single one of them. It was such a joy to witness true artists that, at the same time, are just a bunch of dudes painstakingly trying to get the fucking back door of a van to close.
Icarus & Occident: So what blew me away last time I saw you guys was that while you’re a fairly new band, starting around 2008, your band dynamics are incredibly tight. And then I heard you, Jake and Cameron go back further than that. Where did those friendships start?
Brinton Jones: Well, with Jake and I it starts in, like, 2003 and then met Cameron around that same time, but he didn’t start playing with us until around 2007 or 2008. Somewhere in there.
I&O: You guys were in a different band, The Palominos?
Brinton: Jake and I were, yeah, called Palomino. Yup. And then we actually had a record called Like Paraders that came out in 2008 and initially, when we recorded it, it was supposed to be a Palomino record. We just kind of, in the interim, changed the name during that, because it wasn’t until then that we had really formed a band – it had always been just Jake and me patching stuff together. So it wasn’t until we got Cameron and then some other guys and became a band – and then the other guys quit. It’s been a bit of a revolving past.
I&O: And how did Jamie and Wren come into the picture?
Brinton: Jamie played in a band with Cameron. So we knew him through that. And then he also played in a band called Band of Annuals that were really good friends of ours. Trevor, who played bass for Cumulus (the second band who played tonight), used to play bass in Band of Annuals. And he was my roommate in Salt Lake City. And then Wren plays music in Salt Lake and we needed a keyboardist. And he was willing to, you know, willing to tour. And that’s the hardest part.
I&O: After doing some reading about where your band name comes from, I discovered it was more of a visual reference. What is The Devil Whale?
Brinton: Well, like, literally? It was a title of a picture in a magazine and uh… there’s not some great overarching meaning or anything. I mean, obviously the whale is a symbol of a lot of things so there’s some of that appeal, but it’s not really a reference to a specific thing. It’s just kind of a name.
I&O: Are there other visual references you go to when it comes to writing?
Brinton: Absolutely, yeah. Lyrically, I think, I tend to be inspired a lot more by visual things. The goal a lot of times is to create visuals or to create collages with words – not necessarily to tell a story that has the proper structure of a story. That’s rarely my goal. So I think I find myself being inspired a lot by visual art – as far as lyrics go.
I&O: In listening to your lyrics I feel, like a piece of abstract art, there’s a lot of subtext there and you’re not necessarily spelling it out. You sort of put it out there and leave it for your audience. Are your lyrics based more on personal experiences or abstract ideas and emotions that you want to convey?
Brinton: Probably half and half. I mean, sometimes it’s, you know, personal things. Sometimes I’ll just think of something and like the way it sounds. I’ll start from there and then build something off of it. There’s a million different ways of doing it, you know? You just never know. You just do whatever happens to work on that given day.
I&O: So, when crafting songs individually, do you write on an acoustic and then bring it to the band and then deconstruct it together?
I&O: How do you then take it all apart so that it’s one masterpiece with five artists?
Brinton: Depending on the song, you know, I’ll have different ideas for the overall vibe to kind of point everybody in a direction. And then people try to come up with their own part, but we try – especially when we’re recording – not to be too territorial about our parts. If somebody has a good idea for a keyboard part, if somebody has a good idea for a vocal part, just like, throw it out there. Even if it’s not exactly your instrument.
I&O: How did you get into contact with Shawn Simmons and come to record your latest album, Teeth, here in Fremont?
Brinton: Shawn is from Alaska originally and we had a friend named Matt Hopper, who’s also from Alaska, and seven years ago he put us in touch with Shawn and we’ve just sort of been friends since then. It was sort of a no-brainer when it came to recording Young Wives and Teeth – we did those two records together. We just knew we were going to work with Shawn on these – partially because we knew that at Studio Litho we knew we could all be in the same room and try to feed off the energy of everyone playing together at once.
I&O: Was that how you recorded – all together rather than individually?
Brinton: That’s how it would start. The drums and bass are mostly live – those were all to tape. Some guitar is. But it was hard – we ended up redoing a lot of the guitars because the initial sounds weren’t great. So, it’s not a live record, by any stretch. I mean, that wasn’t our goal. But we wanted to at least have the drummer playing with everybody.
I&O: Changing from a trio to a quintet, were there changes, dynamically, that happened?
Brinton: For sure, yeah. Well, during the recording, we actually did three sessions for those two records – it was a different group every time. It was me, Jake and Cameron every time, but the first time was with our old guitarist. And then the second time it was just a friend that’s a genius. And then the third time was Jamie… and Josh before Wren joined. Once we’d get the basic tracks – bass, drums, guitars – especially when it was just the three of us, we’d all kind of throw out keyboard ideas or melody ideas. Once we’d get to that point, the finishing touches were very collaborative.
I&O: So this year you’ve had two tours back-to-back. The first one was something like thirty-three states, over 15,000 miles in a 14 passenger van…
Jake Fish: Something like that. I tried to add it up once. I think it was thirty-seven. But I was just subtracting states and I think I missed Hawaii. So. Thirty-six. And I might have missed a couple states. I don’t know all of them.
Wren Kennedy: It was most of them. I’ll tell you that much.
I&O: How was that together – being on the road for that long?
Brinton: It was actually awesome.
Jake: Oh, it was my favorite tour ever.
Wren: The only way I could’ve imaged it happening.
Cameron Runyan: I think we were all mentally prepared for a long tour. You know, it’s funny, because even on shorter tours since then I’ve just thought in my mind, “if we have two and a half months left – that just seems crazy.”
Jake: Well that was the thing. At about a month and a half on a three-month tour you just realize that you’re gone. You’re not going home anytime soon. And at that point it just became so much easier once you just realized that and quit looking at the date. Just do what’s on the schedule, play the shows and don’t even think about going home.
Cameron: Especially since the way it is – since every show is a new place. I mean, on that tour there were a lot of places we’d never been and, you know, we all enjoyed ourselves.
Brinton: We definitely have a good time.
I&O: Well, I sure hope so.
Wren: It’s very fortunate that they’ve helped me grow up so much. [laughter] I’m just kidding. Just kidding. It’s kind of a joke. I can be a little rowdy. I’ll just… and Brinton usually says, “Wren…”
Jake: He’s the young buck in the band.
Brinton: It’s been a good year, I mean, we’ve been really busy with all of the touring. Our goal has just kind of been to do everything we can to put it out there. So we released a record and then released another one – so two records in the last year, six/seven months of touring, we did Daytrotter, KEXP, SXSW…
I&O: Daytrotter – what was that like?
Brinton: It was awesome. It was really cool. It was kind of a blur – we were in and out in maybe an hour. It hasn’t posted yet…
Wren: You go into this like – it’s not this, like, big glorious place. It’s like a few friends who legitimately made this really amazing music blog and got all this equipment together and put these studio rooms together. And when we got there, he was like, “this is what we have and you guys can bring in what you need to bring in, but you’ve just gotta know, we’ve got a couple bands scheduled today, so…
Brinton: They’ve definitely got it down to a science. Yeah, it was awesome. So anyways, it’s been a very memorable… you know, when I’m 80 years old, 2011 will be… it will be easy to remember that one. There’s been a lot to it.
Jake: A hundred and twenty shows this year – something like that.
I&O: Do you try out new material while you’re on the road?
Brinton: No, unfortunately. And a part of it’s just been because we’ve had such unstable lineups and we also have various legs of tours where we had to have a lot of material and so we had to re-learn the old stuff ’cause it’s quicker. And so that’s kind of the goal – between now and the three weeks we’re doing with the Head and the Heart in the fall is to really start buckling down. ‘Cause we’ve got a lot – well, I’ve got a lot – that are just about ready to go. We just need to sit down and do it. But, you know, it’s hard. None of us have houses anymore or anything so…
I&O: Are there any plans for further collaboration with the Head and the Heart?
Brinton: No, not necessarily. I mean, there was never really any plans for collaboration. It just sort of happened. They were just hangin’ out. When they recorded that, around the fourth of July, their record had maybe been out for two weeks. And so we were just on the same level. We were both doing well in our local towns and we both just released records, but then…
I&O: An explosion happened.
Brinton: Actually, it was pretty funny. At the time, I remember we were in the studio and Cherity was giving us shit ’cause they had like 40 more Facebook friends. So it was like a contest. And then by November we had gone from, like, 1,100 to 1,300 and they had gone from, like, 1,100 to 13,000 and we were like, “Well… we lost…” [laughter]
I&O: With tonight being the last stop of this tour, what’s next for you guys?
Brinton: We’ll just head home and then the next week we’ll meet the Head and the Heart down in New Orleans on September 20th. And then that’ll be about it for us for the year. That’s when we’ll start working more on the new recordings.
I&O: Would you do Kickstarter again and make another independent release or would you sign?
Brinton: Well, I mean we’d always be open to it. We’ve never been a band that’s super worried about signing or not signing. You know, we don’t spend time on the computer soliciting it. But yeah, who knows. I mean, I’m hoping we can just make enough money doing what we’ve been doing to pay for it. Which… I think we will. But I don’t know that. But I think… I think. Gotta crunch the numbers still.
I&O: Would you record in Seattle again? Any studios in mind?
Brinton: No, nothing in particular. Hopefully, but we’ll see. I’d love to, but it’ll depend on money and time and schedules. But it’s been a good team with Shawn.
I&O: Yeah, he really brought a lot of great stuff out of you guys. I mean, your live show really came through on Teeth. So I can’t wait ’til your new stuff comes out.
Brinton: Yeah, me too.
I&O: Alright, so we’ll close with one final, off-the-wall question. Which is funnier: chickens or ducks? And why – because that’s the most important part of this.
Brinton: I mean, the rubber chicken is pretty funny, so… but then the rubber duck… yeah, I’d go with the rubber chicken. Rubber ducks are cute. Ducks are more cute. Chickens are pretty funny.
I&O: Thanks so much guys.