By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
In the Whale has the kind of live show that can literally turn the head of a rock star. No, really — not speaking figuratively here. Ask Slash. The Guns N' Roses guitar god hand-picked the band to open for him after seeing footage of Eric Riley and Nate Valdez playing a house party.
"Maybe a year and a half ago, saw this Guitar Center ad promoting Slash's tour for his solo album," Riley recalls. "It asked for a video submission that people would vote on, and it would be ten bands on ten dates of the tour. We uploaded the video, and that was it. We did no promotion. We didn't even mention it online at all. A couple of months later, they called and said, 'Hey, you guys are going to San Diego.' Then they flew us out to San Diego."
The video in question was shot by James F. Clark at the Inca House. The no-frills, four-minute-long clip simply features the band playing in front of a house full of people. That's it. No story line, no added effects, no special camera angles. Sometimes it's best to just let the music speak for itself, as the duo soon learned. Next thing the guys knew, they were being flown out to California to play a sold-out show at the House of Blues with Slash and Foxy Shazam, and in less than 24 hours, they were back home.
"He said both he and his manager sat down and sorted through all these bands," says Valdez of Slash's selection process. "He said, 'Your name? It's a trip.'"
Although essentially a fluke, that show was totally validating for the band. "It was one of the first times [we landed a gig] based purely on merit," notes Valdez. "We knew nobody, we had no inside, we knew nothing, and they liked it. We had a quality product." More impressive, the raucous rock act began life as a solo acoustic project of Valdez's when he was still living in Greeley, after he parted ways with his old band, an outfit called Trailer 77.
"It was a three-piece grunge-rock band, but Weezer-y," Valdez says. "It was cookie-cutter. It wasn't anything special, and it's so hard to see that when you're that close to a project. I wish somebody would have just said, 'Man, this sucks.' You can't surround yourself with yes people. You have to have people just tell you, 'Man, stop wearing the cowboy hat — you look like shit!' You need those friends."
Valdez had figured it out for himself by the time he met Riley, who was playing in a pop band called What About Pluto? that Valdez had occasionally shared the stage with. "Basically," Riley remembers, "how it worked was that Nate put out a solo album that he called In the Whale, and it was just all sort of mellow, acoustic songs. Then I came on and just fucked it all up."
Once the two joined forces, it didn't take long for them to find their footing and start fashioning their own sound. After picking up a guitar rig for Valdez that included amps for both a bass and an electric guitar, they started writing material with considerably more punch. The results can be heard on the group's excellent 2012 debut, Cake, which was released around the same time Valdez and Riley made the inevitable move down to Denver. Thankfully, In the Whale didn't sound like yet another neo-classic-rock band on Cake. Instead, the act was more visceral and aggressive, sounding a bit like a hard-rocking blues band that subsisted on a daily dose of the Melvins.
"I grew up on nü-metal like Korn and Deftones and all that stuff," says Riley. "That, and metal in general, is like, 'Get the fuck up!' If we do what we do at a metal show, no one would blink an eye. Those were the shows I loved going to growing up, so that stage presence is what I want to emulate — get rowdy and all that stuff. It's not new, but I think we give a fresh take on it."
Anyone who has seen In the Whale can certainly attest to that. That sort of prowess comes from confidence — in themselves and in one another, forged by a willingness to be critical with each other and otherwise keep themselves in check. "I think for a lot of bands it's an ego thing, and you're not going to get anywhere sucking your own dick," Riley observes. "I think me and Nate have been really good at being honest with each other about that. If Nate comes with a riff and I don't like it, I have to tell him. Otherwise, I'll be playing a song I think sucks for the next year and a half. Sometimes Nate will disagree and we'll have to compromise. That's how it works; that's what being an adult is."
That process has paid off for the guys in terms of songwriting, as evidenced by their new seven-inch, Eric. The platter's followup, dubbed Nate, is due out in a few months. Recorded by Patrick Meese in the band's basement, Eric is an even more stripped-down affair than Cake was. The lean songwriting approach came out of the band's dedication to playing out of town regularly over the past year and a half.
"This city is an island," Valdez points out. "The next biggest cities are an eight-hour drive. We are so isolated when it comes to music. On the East Coast, you drive forty miles and you're at the next big city, and it's another market. We have maybe six big markets around us, but they're all eight hours away. We're looking to make this a full-time thing, so you've got to do all these jaunts and pay the piper and do all these rough drives. We've been lucky, and have been very close to breaking even."
"Because it's only two of us," adds Riley. "But, yeah, you have to drive eight hours, lose money, play to ten people and hope that they like you, and after a month and a half, drive back and see if you can get more people there. And then kick ass and see if you can impress some people and maybe get on a better show next time."
"It's so weird...I tell my family what we're doing, and they're like, 'Man, you have to have so many fans,'" says Valdez with a smile. "But they have no idea what it's really like. We've been told we're working really smartly and we're following the right steps, and the potential is there to make something for ourselves, but it's hard, and it's going to take a long time."
"I think the media likes to portray it as a fast process," declares Riley. "You see American Idol, and they depict it like they've discovered this person off the street, but you don't know that that person has been taking voice lessons for five years and has been in all these bands and has two albums out. It's a better story to say, 'Oh, my God, I found this person on a park bench,' because that's more exciting."
"I like to think that we're sort of the answer to the Denver folk stuff," concludes Riley. "I always imagine we're the band the hipster doesn't want his friends to know he likes. All his friends listen to Lumineers and Bon Iver, and he's sneaking out to go to the Hi-Dive and watch In the Whale. Nothing against those guys; it's just action, reaction."
Or Slash and burn.