Smile Politely

Withershins: the hardest working band in Champaign

When I sat down with Isaac outside Cafe Kopi yesterday to talk shop in advance of his show at Cowboy Monkey tonight, I didn’t really know what to expect. While the nearly 45 minute conversation touched on topics ranging from the merits of Chicago vs Champaign to Anchorman to Elsinore’s new album, his honesty, wit and insight were what stood out the most to me.

SP: So you guys have this show tomorrow…

Isaac: Yeah — I think it’s our second one at Cowboy Monkey, which is cool. I mean, I love Mike ‘N Molly’s, it’s kind of our home now, but I love that stage, it’s kinda small but it looks cool, it’s fun to be up there, it has a different dynamic than either upstairs or outside at Mike ‘N Molly’s. Our buddy Jake from Tractor Kings is doing sound, so I trust it’s gonna sound pretty good, as long as we don’t fuck up on our end.

SP: Did you guys book the show, or was it Ward’s doing?

Isaac: Well, a couple of months ago, maybe even as far back as April, I kind of set aside a list of shows that we wanted to do. First we started with a list of bands — locals and out of towners — that we wanted to play with. We were just sorta playing any show we were asked, and we were playing a lot because we never said no. But, we were also trying to hold back on shows, so at least whatever shows we were doing would be more pointed, like more of an event, a thing, a statement. To me, Withershins playing with Ussop the Liar and Crane and Badger is a sonic statement, but it’s also like — [Crane and Badger] is ex-Monster Honkey, these are our friends, we like this, come check these guys out. That’s a show we’d be glad to open for and step out of the spotlight just to get those guys together, and get our people to come out and see them, or for out of towners that won’t have necessarily a chance to come out, it’s really fun to just be the mediator, like “ok, we have this band, so we need to find the other half of our sound that does that.” It’s fun having a punk band play with a metal band play with a rock band, that’s cool, it shows you the diversity in this town. And there’s something to be said about the punk scene as it’s own thing and the metal scene as it’s own thing, they’re exclusive or cliquey or whatever — that’s how it happens. So unless you wanna give someone a smorgasbord just for the hell of it and say “this is Champaign”, as opposed to “this is rock and roll” — maybe it’s a bit self-involved, but I feel like there is a rock scene, and I’m tired of people talking about the old days or whatever. It’s inevitable, both because that’s what we had here, or what happened here, and it’s where we come from. I mean, name any of my favorite bands in this town, they’re going to be influenced by my favorite bands from this town. It’s a difficult sort of responsibility or burden to both — I don’t wanna sound ridiculously egotistical, there’s a better way to put it — but the heritage of that, we inherited this and we have to follow this up, so how do we carry what we love from that on and make it something different that’s not just homage or copying, or “oh, they sound just like Braid, I’ll just stay home and listen to Frankie Welfare Boy Age Five“. But, rock and roll is happening here and there’s a lot of good shit. I don’t know if it takes the promotion end of it getting behind it or the kids caring, but all the musicians in town, we are determined to rock no matter what is going on around us. It also presents a problem — are you being true to your heart and doing what it is that you love, or are you staring at your feet, fucking ignoring what’s happening around you and being self-indulgent, saying “Please watch me masturbate, this is what I do, this is what gets me off”. So it’s been difficult to conceptualize how we can be true to ourselves but also — I don’t wanna say cater to an audience, but not be completely ignorant about what’s happening around us. I mean, we’re not a touring band — we can’t. Our bassist is thirty, has a wife and two kids. And we have studio time at Great Western, that’s been one of the best things to happen to us this year besides getting asked to play Pygmalion, is record at Great Western, it’s a fucking dream. And we’re writing new material, so that’s also really cool.

I’m the one maybe who more than anybody else in the band thinks “What the fuck are we doing? What has happened, why did it happen, this is all dumb luck.” A year ago, two years ago, I was talking to Seth [Fein] about booking some shows, he said “I really like your band, I believe in you guys.” And I said “What do we man? what’s the trick?” and he’s like “Just play shows, just play shows.” And so we did, for like a year straight, we just played every show we could. I didn’t realize how important it was at the time. We played Exile with Ryan Groff, a bunch of DJs — that sale day [Record Store Day]…we had to play last, and then Brice’s guitar broke en route to the show, his headstock literally broke off the guitar. So my buddy Wes who was in Vvvvv rode his bike from Urbana all the way to Exile with a guitar on his back so we could play the show. We played late, we finally got on, we were all tired even though we hadn’t done shit yet, we were a little nervous even though it didn’t matter, since anybody who’d stayed was there for us. But right before we started, Jeff [Brandt, owner of Exile on Main St.] said “I’d like to introduce Withershins, the hardest working band in show business.” And I thought that was fuckin’ hilarious, but afterwards he was like “I meant to say Champaign, you guys are the hardest working band in Champaign”. I hate to feel like I need accolades to feel justified or gratified for what I’m doing, but that’s the kind of thing where you’re like “I respect this dude a lot, and if he thinks that then I’ve gotta be doing something right.” But at the same time, we know it’s mostly the same people who come to our shows over and over, so if we find something that works, we can’t just keep going with it. We gotta play a new tune every show, or find a cover, or play something differently. It’s the same difficulty we have in writing new material, how do you stay true to the former — at least perceived — notion of what the hell you are as band, while at the same time not repeating yourself.

I don’t know, what we’ve been going through is a complete split in recording and live. I think we’re willing to be as pretentious and meticulous and determined with our recordings to be the best, and then [live] to not completely alienate everybody, it’s just gotta be about the moment. It’s gotta be about those people there, not about what we think will happen whenever. It’s just five bucks, but they could go anywhere in town. I go to shows all the time — all I do anymore is sit at home and write songs for this band, book shows for this band, and go out and see my friends’ bands play with whoever. And I think “What they’re doing is awesome, this is completely opposite of what we’re doing, why is this awesome?” And not to steal, but just what is it in this moment where I was bored with your band five seconds ago, and now I love you and I want everything you’ve recorded. So, it’s been a process of de-desenitization for me. I mean, you can’t be a hater. It’s too tiresome, it doesn’t get you anywhere.

SP: Especially in a local scene, yeah.

Isaac: Well, I went to school here, but I didn’t come here for school, I just happened to go to the university. So I’m a little put off by kids from “the city”. They come down, this is like their playground. This is a really good place — I come from a town with two colleges (Evansville, IN), but no college culture. This place is ripe with things happening and wonderful people.

SP: It reminds me of Santah — most of the band graduated, but they’re sticking around here for another year to play.

Isaac: I think that’s great — I only saw them for a full set at the Dirty Feathers show.

SP: Yeah, I didn’t really see them until the Common Loon CD release.

Isaac: I wish I’d been to that show…I just got Elsinore’s new record.

SP: That’s a great album.

Isaac: It is fabulously produced, recorded and performed. There’s nothing bad to say about it — it’s not my genre of music, it used to be — I’ve been on a pretty steady regiment of Helmet, Quicksand, Failure lately — rockin’ shit. Sorta makes anything indie pop seem sterile, which is sad. But it didn’t happen with that record ’cause it’s just so undeniably good.

SP: Yeah! It’s like a punch in the face, is probably the best way I can describe it.

Isaac: That’s the best part of the record, when they have these songs, it’s like “Ok, it’s a pop song.” Then in the middle of it, they have a rock fuckin’ breakdown where you’re like “Holy shit, I’m so engaged.” It’s good songwriting. But — I’m a little prick, man. I was bitter for the past year because the first thing we ever did was record a full length and release it, with no idea how to do any of it, we just did it. I mean, the first time we played a show, we didn’t know how to play a show. So I guess anytime we’re gonna try something new, it’s gonna suck, and then we’re gonna get it and we’re gonna get better — we’re a learn as you go band, growing up a little bit at a time. Did I tell you we just did an interview with the buzz? It’s in there, let me uh…

(Isaac heads inside Kopi to pick up a copy)

Isaac: …at least they didn’t call us “the Withershins.” The girl they gave us — she seemed new. 25 minutes into the interview, she’s like “So where’re you guys from?” I think we felt like much harder rockers than we are after the interview, because she was so young and sweet and we were like “Yeah, we’re drunk all the time, we’re a stoner metal band.”

SP: You’re not heading up to that Sleep show, are you?

Isaac: Really? When is it?

SP: September ninth, at Logan Square.

Isaac: Yeah, so you can ask me some questions, stop me from rambling, please.

SP: So, new album possibly, do you guys still wanna release the first one on vinyl?

Isaac: Well, I want to — not gonna happen. Well, I shouldn’t say it’s not gonna happen, but it’s not in the foreseeable future. The plan now is, we’re writing and recording for an EP. My plan, which everyone seems to be going along with without anybody addressing the big-ass financial elephant in the room is that we’re gonna release them individually as they get done as seven inch splits, which is the closet to a marketing scheme we’ve ever concieved. It seems the most funadementally punk rock thing we could do — I mean, we can afford the vinyl because we’re splitting it with friends, and we double who the music is getting out to because their fans are gonna hear us, and our fans are gonna hear them. And we’d have the opportunity to pick what band for what tune — like “this song sounds like Take Care.” We have an eight and a half minute tune, we’re trying to get Take Care on the split 10 inch. That would be what’s natural to me. But lord knows how long it’s gonna take us to record and have the money to release all these things. We obviously don’t know how to sell ourselves very well. I mean, we’re obviously not in it for the money, but you do kinda wanna be a bit ambitious — it would be great to play the Highdive some day before we’re done. It would be great to be able to play anywhere in town and pack the house with people who care.

That’s all anybody really wants to do — we’re just all kids. We’re jumping off our practice amps in our bedrooms. Now a lot of us are really good at it and have been doing it for a really long time, but we’re still all just kids. But especially in the genre that we’re in — “post-emo” or whatever. We write songs about death, heartbreak, serious shit. But while we’re playing it — I had a revelation recently. I used to just stress the fuck out at shows. It could work, because these songs are like…that tension, the unresolved chords, the screaming and yelling — my anxiety disorder really fuels that quite well. But I realized that every moment of my fucking life basically centers around these moments I’m on stage. If I’m eating, I’m eating so I can not die so I can play this show. If anything else, I’m working on a flyer, I’m booking some other show, I’m writing a new tune, I’m practicing something, getting the band together, trying to buy gear, getting drugs — well those are kind of for me too, but it helps. It’s all for those moments, so I’ve stopped wasting that time. It is the happiest I’ll ever be. I had a nice long conversation with my parents telling me I was selling my soul to rock and roll, where I was like “I’m most myself and most happy when I’m able to perform.” My own something that I’ve created — it’s like releasing a caged bird. And they were like “You’re gonna have an empty life, that’s such instant gratification. You’re such a show-off, you just want people to look at you.” God, there’s gotta be something more than that — all entertainment is “look at this”, that’s what it is. It makes me feel better that I’m singing words that — I like rock and roll, when it’s like “yeah yeah yeah! shake your ass!” — that’s fun. People go out to have fun, that’s what they do. I tend to ignore that when I’m writing about my sorrow, or misery, or jadedness or whatever may come up. I guess it legitimizes that I’m up there masturbating if I’m…

SP: If you’re doing it really well?

Isaac: That’s helps, that’s the other thing. I toil over lyrics, and name one rock show where you caught all the lyrics? So you do wanna sound good, ’cause that’s people remember. At our best shows, people don’t come up and say “Man, your songwriting is really great.” People come up and “God, you can play guitar well” or “God, you guys sounded great.” So if we could play impressive guitars and have a good sound guy, we’re set — that’s a little bit boring. So I wanna engage the fucking audience, that’s where we’re at right now. I wanna do whatever it is that makes people pay attention that’s not just flash, and that’s tricky.

We’re a band of friends, we are. We don’t wanna be the biggest band in Champaign, we just wanna be able to play shows that people are more and more into, and that we’re constantly pushing ourselves. The success of the band never outweighs the importance of what’s happening in any of our lives. And that is always gonna necessarily gonna hold us back — right now it’s my job not to be bitter or impatient or antsy about that. I mean, I’ve been playing solo shows ’cause I wanna be on stage every weekend — not necessarily for the attention, but it’s like, I see these motherfuckers who are old as shit, and they’ve got it. And it’s ’cause after a while it just becomes so rote, you see them doing kickflips and handstands, that’s because they can play the guitar in their sleep with their dick, you know? It’d be nice to have that kind of luxury because fan banter is not the easiest thing whenever you’re hot and sweaty — “Do we sell albums? Do we even have CDs?” Right now we’re out of CDs, we have no CDs left. As a last ditch promotional effort, I’ve printed up all our download codes we got from Bandcamp and I’m going to bake them into cupcakes. I mean — really, fuck CDs anymore. I know some people listen to them, I got some in my car.

SP: Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I bought a CD when it wasn’t at a show from a band…

Isaac: I’m just gonna say this — I’m pretty sure most of our CDs are weed breakup trays right now, that’s the use they’re getting. If someone listens to it, they put it onto something digital, they listen to it on their MP3 player, on the internet. I wanna press vinyl ’cause then somebody’s like “Oh! I’m getting a record. This is something.” It’ll still have a download code of course, you’ll still have all the ways to listen to it, it’s just that you might not throw it around like you would a CD. Maybe that’s snobby because audiophiles, vinyl, hipsters…

SP: Well, there are definitely shittier trends hipsters could be driving…

Isaac: Well, you’ll know we’ve jumped the shark when we have a hot chick bassist and we’re wearing white belts. Look for that in 2011.

SP: Will do…

Isaac: I guess we have a flair for a the dramatic and the epic, I don’t know. The first song we ever did as a band is “Aeriel”, that’s our only chorus, harmony, strong voice song.

SP: I mean, That’s probably the most epic song on the album though…well, maybe it’s the most immediate song.

Isaac: Well it’s a bit ridiculous, but that record’s a concept record, the songs are all narratives surrounding this central story. With Aeriel, each verse was supposed to be some sort of progress — I don’t even wanna talk about it because it’s so ridiculous. Aeriel was a true title track, in that it was supposed to be what the record was about, and it was a real bitch move to put it at the end. I just feel like putting the single and self-titled track at the beginning of the record, it’s exactly the sort of opposite of how I feel about our record. I remember my guitar teacher when I was like sixteen, he’s like “We just put out this record, here’s the single, track one. Just get it out of the way.” And that’s one way to do it, but…

SP: It’s a great way to make me just buy the single on iTunes…

Isaac: That’s the other thing — we’re releasing these things as singles, and we’ve never really had a single or whatever. Each song is gonna be a single, that’s what we have to think about — is this good enough to stand on it’s own? That’s the benefit of doing an EP. It’s not so heavy handed and bogged down with the idea of “How is the record gonna coalesce, is it gonna come together?” We don’t have that problem, we’re not like “This is Withershins, so let’s do this.” It’s like “We gonna do this, and when it’s all done we’ll figure out what band we are. So that’s where we are right now, a transitional phase. The idea is to get me doing less and less — [the album] is a lot of my songs. It was fun, but Withershins is not my backing band. It’s not my band, it’s us, and everything that we do shows that.

SP: Going back to what you said about being “post-emo” or whatever, it almost reminds me of the Kinsellas, and how to do they deal with having been in [massively influential emo/post-hardcore band] Cap’n Jazz. I mean, I saw Cap’n Jazz in July, and Tim played french horn on like six songs, so it was like, it clearly was not gonna be just this nostalgia trip. You guys are opening for them [at Pygmalion] by the way, which is fucking awesome.

Isaac: We are, it’s fucking ridiculous. I’m especially happy to be opening for Take Care, who are then opening for Cap’n Jazz. I probably would’ve felt awkward about it if it had been somebody else, but those are our homies, those are our boys. I was talkin’ about gettin’ a little schmoozy and playin’ a cover, but it’s not the time for nostalgia. Plus — when the hell else are we gonna play a show that’s as big as that? We’re an original band, that’s what we do, we rarely ever play covers. It’s almost our thing, it’d be important if we ever played a cover. It’s us saying “If you enjoyed this, go get everything from this band because we care about them, and if you like anything that we’re doing, it’s dictated by what these guys do.” That’s how I feel about covers. It’s also cool, the comraderie that I’ve gotten from being around [the scene], like my best friends are in bands. I’m pretty honored to have such good colleagues — fireflies [Take Care members’ former band] was my favorite band when I moved to town. The day after the show on the 25th I’m going up to Midget Pistol, whenever they record, because they just wanted me and Colin there. [Take Care member] Mark Wyman’s been sitting in on us recording, he’s sort of doing a little production. I don’t know what a record producer is anymore — he’s no Philip Glass standing in there like “Ok, we’re gonna build the studio out of mud!” But he’s our guitar guy, he’s like “Tweak this, change this part.”

But it’s nice to finally be at a point where everybody’s our friend and our colleague instead of competition. We foster a feeling of community in the long run, get stronger and feel better and everything becomes more natural. And the shitty bands are gonna get weeded out — that’s just the truth. If they’re crap now, they’re either gonna break up or they’re gonna get better. And that’s what I’ve found in every scene, the DIY scene I was involved in, the fledgling indie rock scene in Evansville — people either can’t cut it or they cut their teeth. It’s about having faith, you gotta believe in rock and roll. I don’t wanna be like you’ve gotta give people their five bucks, but you gotta give that time worth — they’re spending part of your life to go out to rock shows. Let’s say they go to a couple of your rock shows and they leave this town, it’s like “What was the scene like?” “Well they were boring, all the bands were the same, none of the bills were very solid.” You want people to be like “I lived in Champaign, I got to see that shit, it was awesome. These people were passionate, they were talented, they gave a fuck and they made me give a fuck, and I’m gonna go to this scene wherever I go and bring some of that.”

SP: So, anything else you wanted to cover?

Isaac: Oh yeah! I said this on the phone in the Buzz interview, they didn’t print it and it’s important. I’m calling out a street war on Take Care — Withershins v Take Care, we’re gonna destroy them. Probably this intersection [Walnut and University], it’ll be like Anchorman. Maces, chainsaws, fisticuffs, it’s gonna be some serious shit. All out knockdown brawl — it needs to get printed so people know.

SP: You wanna set a date and time?

Isaac: Right after the show. Bringing the kibosh down!


Withershins perform tonight (August 20th) at Cowboy Monkey with Hot Cops and This is Versailles. The show begins at 10 p.m. and carries a five dollar cover at the door.

UPDATE: This is Versailles have dropped, Take Care will be taking over their slot.

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