By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
Although William Elliott Whitmore typically performs solo, with just a guitar or a banjo to keep him company, he didn't get his start playing alongside fellow acousticians. Instead, he opened shows for "the loudest, fucking craziest hardcore bands you've ever heard," he says — and he not only survived, but flourished in such settings. According to him, music of the sort that's found on his new album, Animals in the Dark, "was different enough that people kind of wanted to pay attention. It was like, 'This guy's got balls, man,' for getting up there with a banjo in this room of black, hooded sweatshirts and Misfits T-shirts. I think people were curious, if anything. Like, 'Maybe I'll shut the hell up and listen' — and then I had them."
Of course, Whitmore had another weapon in his arsenal: a deep, resonant singing style that recalls Dust Bowl-era field recordings. But while he was indeed raised on a farm — a 150-acre spread in Lee County, Iowa, where he still lives — he didn't hone his delivery by hollering across the corn rows at fellow pickers. Rather, his voice simply materialized in his early adolescence. He concedes that he was "definitely surprised" by the booming sounds that suddenly started coming out of him — but he was thrilled as well. "All of a sudden, I had a new tool to use," he recalls. "A new bag of tricks."
At one point, Whitmore dreamed of putting his distinctive rumble at the service of political punk that recalled Minor Threat, a band co-founded by one of his heroes, Ian MacKaye. But when Lost Cause, his accurately named Iowa City combo, failed to make it out of the garage, he chose instead to focus on "rootsy, kind of folk-bluesy rustic music," he notes. "I thought, I'll stick to what I know and I'll let the pros handle the other stuff."
Even so, Animals, his upcoming debut for the Anti- imprint following a trio of acclaimed releases for Chicago's Southern Records, brims with socially conscious tuneage. Take "Mutiny," the jaunty opening cut, which pairs a martial rhythm with declarations such as "It's a goddamn shame what's going down" and "Burn, motherfucker, burn." More protestations of the status quo follow, but "I tried not to have it be just a person complaining about the world, because who needs that?" Whitmore insists. "I tried to say, 'Yeah, there is evil in the world, but we can counteract it by writing our little songs and painting our little pictures and trying to create a little beauty in the world.'"
But in a totally hardcore way.
For more of our interview with William Elliott Whitmore, go to blogs.westword.com/backbeat.