Innerviews, music without borders

Chris Whitley
Melancholic resonance
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2005 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

Chris Whitley

Conveying emotional intensity, urgent desires and gritty reality were always at the core of singer-songwriter and guitarist Chris Whitley’s edgy folk-blues output. Those elements permeated his 2004 release War Crime Blues even more deeply. That’s not surprising given the album found Whitley, who died of lung cancer in 2005, passionately responding to the military aggression that continues to play out across much of the world. It also offered his perceptions of what it’s like to be someone from America who lives in Germany, and the wartime atrocities both countries have perpetrated. Entirely comprised of his raw, seductive vocals, stunning acoustic guitar work and multi-layered lyrics, the album represented one of his most direct, poignant and powerful statements.

The anomie and sense of dislocation found in much of Whitley’s music also stemmed from his personal history. Born in Houston, Texas, Whitley lived a nomadic childhood, moving frequently across the Southeastern United States. At age 11, he relocated to Mexico with his mother after his parents divorced. They moved to Vermont in 1975, where at age 15, he began playing guitar in a local band that drew inspiration from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Bob Dylan. In 1977, after quitting high school a year before graduating, Whitley journeyed to New York City and performed as a street busker.

Looking for new musical avenues, he relocated to Belgium in 1981 and became part of that country’s synth-pop scene. Whitley performed with regionally-acclaimed Belgian acts including Kuruki, Nacht und Nebel and A Noh Rodeo. He wrote and performed music that straddled funk, rock and blues, and enjoyed modest success before returning to New York City in 1988. Renowned producer Daniel Lanois took an interest in his music shortly thereafter and helped him sign with Columbia Records.

Whitley’s solo debut, Living with the Law, was released in 1991. It was an adventurous blues-rock record full of rich colors and delicate atmospheres. Though the record was a critical and commercial success, Whitley didn’t feel it accurately mirrored his true leanings. For his 1995 follow-up, Din of Ecstasy, he chose to solely follow his muse. The eloquently dissonant record was steeped in aggressive, distorted guitar and had a darker, more brooding vibe than its predecessor.

During the late '90s, Whitley openly declared his disinterest in designing music that adheres to major label specifications. He went on to work exclusively within the independent realm where he could retain complete control of his art. Several notable efforts, including War Crime Blues, stemmed from that move. His first indie release, 1998’s Dirt Floor, was a well-received, stripped-down country blues and ballads effort. His 2001 Rocket House album incorporated electronica elements, turntable scratching and trip-hop beats into his sound. He took a cinematic approach for 2005’s Soft Dangerous Shores, a release infused with expansive soundscapes, ambient washes and charged rhythms. Reiter In, his final album, was released posthumously in 2006. The low-fi, high-energy collection brought together original material and intriguing covers of tracks by artists including Gary Numan, The Stooges and The Flaming Lips.

War Crime Blues remains one of the high water marks of Whitley’s diverse output. World leaders would do well to investigate its searing and intelligent indictment of the dangers and heartbreak of empire building.

Chris Whitley

Tell me about the messages behind War Crime Blues.

I feel like all of my records have a little conceptual value. Every record I’ve made has a landscape, atmosphere, place, or specific melancholic feeling I’m trying to relate. I always have a slant and on this one it’s the personal as political. I started War Crime Blues about a year after September 11th. I actually flew into New York City on September 13th that year. I saw a negative grace develop out of the attacks that’s mostly related to fear and ignorance because we had no previous reference point to someone hating us that physically. The record came out of me wanting to respond honestly to the situation, rather than having a big message. It all goes back to Albert Camus and his book The Rebel. There are much deeper issues at work here. War just never fucking ends. Is it something about us Americans? Well, who made America? All of those European motivations.

Living in Dresden, Germany as I do, I can tell you that war crimes are still something people don’t want to admit to. They don’t want to admit that with Nazism, civilians were involved in perpetrating these crimes. They don’t want to admit that people were machine-gunned down while running through the streets. The Germans are completely ashamed of Nazism but don’t want to remember that it was a crime. That’s just my own feeling. The U.S. is also guilty of a lot of shit we never talk about, namely the wiping out of Native Americans and the extinction of thousands of their languages. That’s genocide and it was only 200 years ago.

War Crime Blues also relates to my feelings of becoming aware of my own apathy and ignorance as an American. It’s not that Americans have things so cushy. The fact is people are working so fucking hard in America. But it’s sort of like Nazi Germany in that people let themselves be led around by whatever the fuck they’re told, just because they’re so tired. There’s a level of ignorance and naïveté that’s just so apparent. Opinions are mostly being formed by a drugged culture created by capitalism and money-driven media. How can those forces ever want to positively affect things like peace or balance in the world?

I don’t hear anyone talking about love much these days. We must be in a really frustrated culture if we’re only thinking about money and protecting ourselves. Some huge existential point is being completely missed. It’s the sort of thing presidential candidates don’t give a shit about. In our rebellious arrogance, we want to blame someone else for what’s going on, but we can’t. We’re so egocentric and ignorant. It’s all about drawing your borders, fear, separatism, and xenophobia. But the most beautiful thing about the United States are people like the Indians and Pakistanis. If you stay in a hotel in middle America, chances are Indian women own the place. It’s like that across the country. It disappoints me that people don’t take that diversity more seriously. The reason it’s not taken seriously is because it takes too much time to consider that—time that could be spent making shitloads of money.

What’s your take on the state of the blues today?

I feel like my home is in what I call folk blues, but I don’t relate to almost anyone in that genre. Maybe that’s because I try to get too much into words. I can’t stand guitar solos anymore or the formality of what the blues are today. The whole guitar slinger thing hasn’t interested me since Jimi Hendrix. It meant a lot to me as a kid to see how rebellious that was and how liberated his spirit was. Today, the iconography of the electric guitar is gone. A guitar is no more rebellious than a golf club now. It’s a formalized rebelliousness that can be bought and sold. I can’t really listen to Eric Clapton or B.B. King. I grew up on Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Bob Dylan. These guys weren’t worried about guitar technique at all. They were about symbolism, freedom and real rebellion. That’s all folk blues is to me. Erik Satie and John Coltrane also fall in that category. To me, blues can even encompass the purest forms of Flamenco, Egyptian and Moroccan music. But latter-day blues is just a way to sell something. It’s just an aesthetic dogma and it’s fine for guys who like to go bowling. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t believe that art is the same as aesthetics. Chops don’t equal heart, they equal craftsmanship.

You’ve said you like to incorporate light and dark, and beautiful and scary into your version of the blues.

That’s the key thing you find in blues that you don’t find in pop. A pop song is typically more neurotic because everything’s all dark or all light. It’s Disney. It’s pure sentimentalism. A good pop song can be beautiful because you can respond to it easily. Even if the singer is singing a dumb line, it can feel perfect. But there are very few people like Stevie Wonder who can write great pop songs that you don’t feel cynical about when you hear them. It’s difficult to write a pop song that’s nothing but pure entertainment. To me, that’s why Kurt Cobain resonated with so many people. The chords are dumb, but there’s just this real feeling in his stuff that’s close to the blues.

In terms of the light and the scary, musicians like Nick Drake have scared people with an earnestness that listeners aren’t necessarily seeking from entertainment. They want people writing about the decorations around life, especially when they’re working so hard. They need obvious expression. But to me, things aren’t black and white. They’re grey. I can’t get away from that because I don’t feel like a commodity. I feel like what I’m doing is supposed to be important. Otherwise, why am I doing it? That’s not the pop culture way at all. It’s probably a big reason for why I’m not more popular. I’ve made decisions that went against the grain. I guess I choose to be a little bit arrogant and think “They’ll get it!” It’s a trust thing with the audience. I just want to believe that somebody will get my records, pay attention to them and understand how strong the emotions are behind them. It’s not about pop craftsmanship for me. It’s simply about expression.

Chris Whitley

Tell me how you go about putting songs together.

I’ve found I have to pull things out in a musical way. It’s hard for me to just write instrumental music or put poetry down on a page without music attached. When I write with the two things happening simultaneously, I can usually encourage myself to articulate something and find inspiration without trying too hard. The important thing for me is to not pressure myself while I’m doing it. I try to trust my perceptions and feelings when I’m writing. There’s usually more going on inside me than I directly realize. I attempt to tap into my subconscious and experiential humanity. Often, I write with a Walkman. I’ll come up with a couple of chords and start mumbling into the Walkman without attaching words right away. Then I’ll listen back to it and try to feel some words within my vamping. I try to let the expression reveal itself to me. It’s like writing by ear. I can get images from the feeling in a chord or a sound, or from the tension that exists between two sounds. Sometimes I won’t know why I’m writing the song or where it was coming from exactly until a year later. The songs can end up having so many more levels that way compared to just taking a topic and deliberately writing about that.

I think anyone can learn the techniques of songwriting, but I’m not interested in songs that are created that way anymore, like those huge things Britney Spears and Aerosmith do. I’m more interested in being honest with myself. I try not to be too self-critical, but I hold myself to certain standards because sometimes we love anything we create, mostly because we’re so insecure and lack confidence. That’s a dangerous approach because you can disappear up your own ass. Also, you can be surrounded by people who convince you that you’re doing something great even when you’re not, because they see an opportunity to make a lot of money for a moment. If money is the only thing on your mind when you’re writing songs, the songs will sound like it. Unfortunately, that’s the sort of cynical culture we’re living in. I suppose it might be considered arrogant for me to try to make art in a form that’s really based in pop, but unlike a lot of people in this business, I still believe in art.

I think one of the most important things songwriters need to do is find an identity. It’s a rare thing for listeners to be able to answer questions like “Who is the person singing this?” and “Where are they coming from?” The answers are the things that make people want to listen to songwriters like Tom Waits, Neil Young, Nick Cave, and Bruce Springsteen. They’re truly articulating something of themselves in their music. They’ve attained something that’s the result of overlooking their limitations. Earlier in my career, I overlooked my technical clumsiness as a musician. When I started to accept my weirdness, it gave me more strength as a songwriter and musician. You have to trust your individuality.

How has your approach as a guitarist evolved across your career?

I learned to play guitar by writing songs. I didn’t learn to play first and then start writing songs. I kind of did it all at the same time, so my playing has evolved in the same way that my singing or writing has. I initially began by playing in the streets of New York City. I would play after work to nobody. I’d just sit there alone, though sometimes there would be people listening. It was mostly for myself. I was just practicing and writing stuff. Along the way, I got more and more technique. If you think about it though, technique is more about athletics and science. Those aren’t things I’m looking for. When music becomes ruled by technique, it’s lost. I come out of dumb-ass blues and gospel, so what I’m looking for is expression. In terms of meaningful evolution, I’m way closer to what I’m trying to express than I ever have been. I trust my confusions and values more than ever. For me, it’s been more about trying to refine what resonates with me.

Sometimes I’ve seen my guitar playing as a defense of my own insecurities. I would play a lot more notes than I needed to in order to impress somebody or prove that I can play well. But that’s not about music. The same goes for playing as loud as you can as a way of trying to hide from how vulnerable you really feel. Why not just whisper if you really feel like that? Why the spectacle of technique? Being a good guitar player doesn’t mean you’re a good musician. I’ve heard so many drummers that can show me their technique and fill the place up with sound. For me, it’s like “When the fuck are you going to stop playing drums and start playing music?” That’s a big deal for me. I’m sorry, but technique is not good enough. It’s only good enough if you want to play for other musicians who only like to justify their gig with technique. But what about people who need music that don’t play? Those people are really why I started playing.

Din of Ecstasy represented a career milestone for you, but surprised many with its dramatic sonics. How do you look back at it?

From a musical vantage point, it was me going back to my roots. I felt Living with the Law didn’t have an edge that I always felt. With Din of Ecstasy, I went back to my teenage thinking of louder, aggressive and visceral. It was a power trio album. I was trying to articulate some edginess I grew up with like Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Cream, and The Doors. Also, I was breaking up with my wife of 13 years and dealing with my own morality issues. I realized that maybe a lightning bolt wouldn’t strike me if I split up with her. I was also madly in love with someone else at the time. I was asking myself a lot of questions like “What is my dogma about relationships? Why do people stay together when they’re not happy? Why is it called love when it’s a need? Why is it called sexual fulfillment when it’s just fucking?” That’s where the content for the album came from. It was a social response to a personal, intimate thing. I was trying to articulate all of that stuff, but I think I lost some people with that album because it wasn’t just a guy screaming out loud. The sound of the record itself resonated more with people than the impetus that motivated the writing. That might have resulted from my own musical indulgences.

Chris Whitley

You were part of the Belgian synth-pop scene during the early ’80s. What attracted you to that world?

I moved to Belgium in 1981 after an era playing at clubs on Bleecker Street in New York City. I had been playing with people like Johnny Thunders and The Dead Boys. I was the long-haired guy who looked like a Southern rocker or something. At the time, I was playing dobro and slide guitar. I was finding it really boring and old-fashioned to play guitar music. Someone turned me on to Gary Numan and Peter Gabriel’s second solo album. I also had discovered David Bowie’s Heroes and it started to feel like there was something else going on that was a little more melancholic than the music I grew up with. That’s what led me into electronic stuff. The melancholic element is a very un-American thing to me in some ways. It’s almost a classical element that’s dictated by culture or geography. For example, it rains a lot in England and Germany is a place with a very different historical weight than America. We’re adolescent in America. This gets almost political because Americans just want our leisure time and casual lifestyles. But Germans are still dealing with their history and it’s uncomfortable for them. That’s why California looks so beautiful over in Europe. It looks like Californians don’t care about that “weight of the world” shit. But it’s those ideas that give European bands a certain tone that I missed in America. You still hear some of those influences in my music. It’s close to blues shit for me. The sensibility is different from my R&B-ish roots. I’m not from the 1930s. I don’t need new traditional music that sounds like old music. I’d rather hear the old records. I can’t just craftily engage in some nostalgic endeavor and actually be expressing myself honestly.

Was your solo acoustic cover of Kraftwerk’s “The Model” on Dirt Floor a way to bridge those earlier days with your current direction?

The truth is, so much synth-pop is actually based on blues-rock chords, but because of the way the songs are produced, they give you a different feeling than if they were written on guitar or piano. I also liked the song because it’s about glamour and the victimization of intimate longings by mass-mediated culture. I thought the coldness of the music was so perfectly lonely for the song. One day, it popped into my head that something like a banjo could work for the song because it’s such a lonely, primitive instrument. It was my American response to that cold melancholy that’s very beautiful and houses this human longing. On the other hand, you can say that Kraftwerk has a real emotional element in its music that’s really striking too. It’s a cold, simple, deep thing. I wasn’t trying to be ironic by doing it on a dorky instrument. It’s not like I said “Hey! I’ll do it on a banjo! Let’s see what the world thinks about that!” It was me wanting people to get into the song. I suppose it was also a little tongue-in-cheek to say “It’ll work this way too.” During an interview, Kraftwerk said they were flattered that I did “The Model” on banjo. It meant something to me to know they were into my version.

Your dad was an art director and your mom was a sculptor. Tell me how that influenced your artistic bent.

My parents were married very young in Texas and my mom had me when she was 18. They grew up on race radio, so instead of being into Elvis and the Everly Brothers, they were into Ray Charles and Muddy Waters. They were young and it seemed rebellious to listen to that stuff. Then the '60s happened and suddenly all of the bands were listening to Ray Charles and Muddy Waters while they were getting stoned. At the time, my parents were hanging out with a lot of young hippie kids who would come over and play James Taylor and John Lennon records. A lot of my parents’ values were derived from art and design. That sensibility came out of the era and its values. But I didn’t like the art galleries, looking at art books or reading the essays. But on a certain level, I think being around all of that gave me a longing for visual expression. I think it came out in me through words, imagery and atmospheres. For instance, I had a pretty clear landscape in my head when I made Living with the Law. So, I think I benefited from their experiences through those sorts of visual references and also from growing up in a vital time that asked a lot of important questions in an environment supportive of that questioning.

Does spirituality play a role in your music?

It does, but spirituality is a weird word because it can come off so superficially. I wasn’t baptized. I didn’t grow up with church. I didn’t know anything about any religions, really, but I grew up with my own guilt trips and shit that come out of my country’s culture. The desire to travel, the longing for somewhere called home, alienation, and all of those clichés are things that touch on the spiritual. They’re all part of the dichotomies of human beings. Spirituality can be about the beautiful and ugly—the concordance of opposite things. It relates to what we feel and what we have to do. I do think there’s a deep feeling in me but I don’t know how to articulate that in an obvious, formal or narrative way. There’s a kind of beauty and challenge in that. It goes back to the idea of dark and light we talked about earlier. It’s a balance between the physical and instinct and intuition. I feel like a kind of Native American Taoist or something. I do think the primitive religions like what the Ancient Chinese and Native Americans practiced are related, particularly because the Native Americans initially got into this continent from Asia.

To me, spirituality really means motivation that goes beyond your thoughts, but is something that can inform your thoughts. The degree to which we push spirituality out of our lives is the degree to which we almost create cancer for ourselves. There are a lot of modern diseases that seem to represent voids that aren’t being met by ritualistic spiritual expression. Spirituality doesn’t have to have rules or names. People who are seriously religious would call this being ambivalent, lazy and apathetic. But I think spirituality is something more serious than anything that can be classified, especially by religions defined by men. Also, spirituality and religion aren’t necessarily the same thing. Spirituality can be expressed in the way someone builds a house. In Italy, an ornate doorknob can look like something someone expressed their spirit through, because it represented a creative approach to a simple device. That’s the sort of thing spirituality is about. It’s not about a specialized thing you do once a week. It’s how you value life. It’s about keeping both feet on the ground, but your head in the sky.

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Chris Whitley