Pulling from the cosmos
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2016 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
Dan Whitley isn’t afraid of reflecting reality in his art. The expansive roots-rock guitarist and singer-songwriter has experienced a life full of beauty and chaos. Both play significant roles on Calling All Gods, his recently-released debut album. Dan, 53, has been writing and performing original material with his own bands for 20 years, along with contributing to his late brother Chris Whitley’s celebrated recordings, including Living With the Law, Din of Ecstasy and Soft Dangerous Shores.
Chris, who died of lung cancer at age 45 in 2005, was a pivotal influence on his younger brother. The two spent a great deal of time learning about music and guitar from one another, as well as performing together. Their mother, Mikiel Whitley, was a distinguished sculptor, and her open-minded aesthetic and worldview also inspired the brothers to pursue their own artistic statements.
Ten years after Chris’ passing, Dan was inspired to record and release a solo album—one his brother asked him to do years previously. It was the weight of the passing of both Chris and his mother that propelled Dan to finally make the recording. He enlisted producer and multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Burn, who also worked with Chris, and drummer Steve Decker, to kick things into gear.
The independently-released Calling All Gods, as its title implies, deals with spirituality, the legacy of the departed, conquering personal demons including substance abuse and self-destructive tendencies, emerging on the other side with a fulfilling family life, and seeking solace from music.
In Dan’s first major interview to date, he provides a candid, unvarnished look at the events and perspectives that contributed to the album.
Describe the journey that led to the making of Calling All Gods.
I've always been an outsider artist. All these years, I wanted to do it all myself and I didn't care if it took 30 years. I didn't trust people with my stuff. Also, I didn't live in the same reality as artists who are thinking in terms of record deals or even saw success in those terms. So, I guess it has been more about the journey and finding higher ground first and foremost. After my children were born, I started realizing I need to make albums, and I began envisioning all my musical dimensions coming to life and internalizing them so they would become reality. Making this record with Malcolm Burn totally saved me in a way. It was a completely spiritual process like being baptized or something. It was very surreal.
My brother Chris and many others pushed me to seek out a record deal to help me get a good album out years before this. But I watched Chris struggle with so much bullshit and I just sort of understood the need of going on a personal journey. I wasn't ready to release a record on a level I was comfortable with. The writing, playing, live performances, and creativity were all that mattered to me, and all I was capable of for most of my life. I'm not very good at people stuff, but being on a stage playing and the creative process are the perfect balance of energies for me.
Provide some insight into your path towards becoming a professional musician.
It began as far back as me and my brother as children playing on homemade instruments, banging on paint cans and rocking out like our heroes. We were exposed to tons of recorded and live music and musicians growing up and I guess I just always related to it. The first time I played with my own band doing my songs, I got an incredible natural high from getting my own original work across. It was a huge thing—probably the biggest rush of my life.
I shared a stage with Chris a few times. I played guitar on his albums and opened for him a bunch. I did that with some other artists too, but I was mainly playing in incarnations of my own band over the years. Strangely enough, what's really helped my perspective the most has been making this record with Malcolm, along with two other forthcoming experimental albums recently with my blues-based noise art improvised project called WTD Ceremonial. That band is about creating music with simple tools on the spot with no preconceived ideas at all. We just let the stuff happen without forethought or discussion. It's pulled from the cosmos in the moment and could be construed as anti-designer music. WTD simply reflects the last names of all three of us in the band: Dan Whitley, bassist and sound designer Damon Trotta, and drummer Steve Decker. I contribute guitar, harmonica, bass, vocals, and spoken word to the album. I finally feel like I can make records honestly. It’s been a funny, long-ass process.
You’ve called this an extremely personal album of changes. Describe the changes it chronicles.
Well, the first thing to understand is the songs and subject matter span a huge amount of time as a writer. I had the luxury of choosing a body of work that is important to me. All the songs have something personal about them. “Genius of the Light" I started writing when my mom passed away in 2004, but I didn't finish it until Chris passed away a year later. There are songs dealing with powerlessness watching loved ones self-destruct—just as they watched me do the same years before. There are also songs about the loss of loved ones. Not all the songs reflect changes of my own per se, but they have that underlying theme of change.
Tell me about the creative process behind the album.
My main musical inspiration came through either a National Tricone steel-body guitar, a ‘63 Gibson Hummingbird acoustic, a Fender Jazzmaster, or an old Gibson Les Paul P90. As for subject matter, most of the songs were derived from real-life experiences of mine or other people I knew or heard about. They also have to do with spiritual searches and the need and longing for reaching higher ground. Also, lots of inspiration for lyrics, songs and structure came out of just playing and improvising with the guitars and vocals. Sometimes I’d scat. Sometimes I’d use harmonica or bass to generate directions. For example, “Take My Life” was written on bass. It was about having a gun held up to my head as I was being robbed and the robber laughing at me. The song deals with me thinking “Either kill me or fuck off.” I was a shitfaced-drunk teenager at the time of those events. They don’t call it “liquid courage” for nothing.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your creative process?
Probably overthinking. Sometimes it has to come from an abstract place first that doesn’t involve thinking at all. Just playing and improvising help my brain focus. They help you learn to read and understand your thoughts via your own metaphors. Sometimes you realize you’ve arrived at somewhere monumental within yourself and once you’re there, your brain opens up. It’s a very therapeutic process. Overcoming the overthinking part, getting into that simple zone, and keeping myself stimulated as a guitarist enable the focus, lyrics and ideas to flow pretty easily.
Explore the production approach you took for the album.
Once I started thinking along the lines of finally wanting to make a real record, the timing just worked out with Malcolm without much forethought. I had called him to ask for advice about a documentary on my brother. I wasn't even thinking of asking him to produce my record or anything until two weeks later when we were thinking of recording in Woodstock. We ended up doing it at Malcolm's studio.
I always felt comfortable working with him on my brother’s albums over the years and obviously Malcolm knew Chris’ genius musical instincts. I ended up sending him a bunch of demos and he drove all the way down to my barn in South Jersey where I played him some of the songs live and he absolutely loved them, including the energy. He really got into it all.
Malcolm allowed the album to happen and take shape as a true organic entity. He was inspired to do his thing—nothing was forced. It was totally live and vibe-based. He recorded my vocal and guitar tracks simultaneously instead of separate, overly-isolated and fussed-over too much. Drummer extraordinaire Steve Decker and I played all our parts together live. The whole thing was done in a day and a half. Malcolm captured that absolute purity and honesty all through the making of it.
We ended up with a quieter album. It’s more of a song album and less of a guitar concept album. I wanted it to be dignified, but a little jagged and bluesy. It’s all about plugged-in acoustic guitars, acoustic-electric guitars, my national steel and my ‘63 Hummingbird mainly. We didn’t use a click track, Auto-Tune or even vocal overdubbing. It’s about capturing an intimate, personal vibe.
In this day and age of limitless sonic choices in the studio and outside it, I kept things simple and focused. I don't think of it as a blues concept album. I think of it as an album that uses these forms to inspire me to make sounds in order to tell stories. I’ve built my life around using these paint brushes: old guitars, lyrics, tubes, and tones. They let me get to the soul of the matter. Sometimes things tip to jazz, rockabilly or country, but it all points back to blues and roots. It's a straightforward, selfish plight. There’s nothing faked about what we did or made overly-pretty for the masses.
What perspective are you conveying with the album’s title track?
It’s part love song and part metaphor. It’s about me worrying about the health of my mother and brother, as well as their various dysfunctions and my powerlessness to help them. It’s also about me trying to survive my own reality and stay spiritually centered. The need to call on all the gods for help reflects some sort of massive faith mechanism. It's a personal song that foretells the future, including the death of my loved ones, sadly, and beautifully, the birth of my children.
Tell me about the journey you captured on “The Killing Floor.”
The song is a metaphor for my experience in the suicide ward at St. Vincent's hospital in Manhattan where I ended up on a 30-day watch when I was 17. The song was inspired by two women, both patients at the time. One was a nun who was a super-spiritual person who smashed her acoustic guitar one day in the rec room. She was taken away and given heavy electroshock therapy treatments and came back a total vegetable. I derived the name "Killing Floor" as a direct metaphor for the floor above us they used for those treatments.
The other woman was my age who had thrown herself in front of a subway train and lost half of a leg. She was sort of like me as you'd never know either of us were suicidal young people. We were both friendly, playful and upbeat outwardly, but inside we were both trying to work out our stuff and I think we both needed more real stimulus. We sort of helped each other through this weird life chapter while it was happening.
Can you describe why you were there?
It's pretty dark. I sliced my wrists with a straight razor. My left wrist was so bad, it severed tendons and I had to re-learn the guitar. I can't do certain things which take specific dexterity between my middle finger and ring finger. It forced me to compensate and create my own ways around that and it definitely helped contribute to my playing style, vibrato and different note choices.
What inspired “Waco County Jail?”
It was about events that took place four years after the suicide attempt. It's an autobiographical song as well. It’s all true except I changed all the names of the characters. I gained sobriety and started seriously cleaning up my act in every possible way I could after the experience the song deals with. I spent my 21st birthday and 17 subsequent days in the county jail in Waco, Texas. It was after a 125 mile-per-hour high-speed chase with the police while I was drunk. My tires and windows were shot out. A bullet literally bounced off my windshield and barely missed ricocheting off my head. I stopped the car and the police pulled me out and pummeled me unconscious.
The entire event was of my own making and the police acted exactly as they should have. I could have hurt someone. I couldn’t have lived with myself if that had happened. The police did their job. Being that close to death for the last time saved me. I had a full-on life-altering spiritual experience from the whole sad ordeal in the county slammer. I spent a couple of days with a cowboy, a car thief and a preacher’s son who read Bible verses every night at bedtime. It was surreal. I don’t recommend anyone ever do this. Respect the law as you would want to be respected.
When I got out, I started worked hard on myself. I quit drinking. What ultimately allowed me to feel balanced without heavy drinking or antidepressants is the power of prayer and deep meditation as one with the earth and universe. I don't identify with any religion besides the Earth’s power and the cosmos. I keep it simple. I see the whole thing as one giant life force. So, for years I’ve focused on that.
There’s a line in “Waco County Jail” that goes “We’re all stuck in prison as far as I can tell.” Elaborate on its meaning.
The feeling of losing your freedom, even a little bit, is a horrible one. For some, it can mean being trapped in a dehumanizing job or a dehumanizing life. Many people are stuck working three dehumanizing jobs for no other reason but to survive and pay bills. Life is really hard for a lot of people. I saw poetry in the fact that a lot of folks are stuck and can't get out from under it. There’s a great need for faith mechanisms, spirituality, creative stimuli, and art. The need for art in public goes deeper into the subconscious than we can imagine. It frees your soul when you walk by it.
“Devil on Your Trail” sounds like it could have been recorded in the 1930s. Tell me what you were going for with it.
That's a cowboy song I wrote a long time ago about a gambler and murderer. It was inspired by the Wild West era with towns full of gamblers, gunfighters and pimps. We recorded it really quickly in the control room with one old mic. It's been a live staple of mine for years. Like a lot of my songs, I play it differently in different situations. Sometimes I do it in standard tuning and other times in open C. Sometimes I'll play it as a slow blues and other times I do it fast with crazy swing or even punkabilly-style.
Describe the influence your brother Chris has on your work.
It’s hard to imagine life without the creative spirit of my brother, as well as my mother, firmly woven into mine. I've never known a time it wasn't there. It's the reason I waited so long to make an album. It’s all about honesty for me. It's the reason I do whatever I want to do creatively. Their ghosts are with me always. Chris was my big brother. We grew up in a tight-knit relationship with similar experiences and musical interests, including riding motocross together.
I never wanted to copy his musical style. We both wanted to carve out our own identities no matter what. I always worked hard at creating my own thing and he did his. That’s where our values are. We always had similar tastes, values and loves, but it was really about the idea of “to thine own art be true 100% or be nothing at all.” Neither of us were good at wanting to connect the dots, paint by numbers or anything like that. Us Whitleys are very hard-headed people.
What thoughts and advice did Chris provide you about your music?
We discussed my music many times. I wish he was here so I could hand him all my new work. He often yelled at me for not being able to buy my album in a store. Sometimes he'd tell me to lay off the guitar solos and put the work into the songs, which I did. I started thinking more like a songwriter and guitar player because of his influence and that's probably his most helpful advice, although I've always cherished my improv stuff. The two worlds always developed side by side with me.
Do you have any concerns about being in your brother’s shadow?
That's sort of a natural feeling when you’re an insecure kid and it made me work twice as hard at developing my own thing 100% my own way in order to get past that. Early on, I knew I had to find my own musical identity, otherwise what's the point of doing this? Chris and my mom are my greatest inspirations. They both still give me way more strength and ability than I would have otherwise. I cherish the memories of each of them. They keep me totally real and sane.
What are your thoughts about the career trajectory Trixie Whitley—Chris’ daughter—is experiencing?
I'm so proud of my niece Trixie. She’s another huge inspiration. I'm really digging her new stuff. She's a multi-talented artist on so many levels. She’s very much a Whitley with her own individual creative thing she developed for herself. She's an absolute offshoot of Chris. He totally saw her essence and knew her potential. I so wish Chris could've seen her grow into the artist she is now. Chris would be incredibly proud of her as he was always.
What’s next for you?
I can't wait to make some more art. I'll be doing more shows supporting the Calling All Gods album and we'll be releasing the two WTD Ceremonial albums. I'm also crazy excited to be working on a couple new songs to round out my next song album. It will be heavier and more a reflection of our times. Dug Pinnick will make a guest appearance and there will be some other cool surprises as well.