Monday night has long since passed into Tuesday morning, and the boys in the band room aren't done yet. Before midnight, most of the Raleigh six-piece Whatever Brains had been busy, building two songs from the new demo tapes of frontman Rich Ivey and practicing a few old cuts to prepare for an upcoming recording session.
But now, bassist Matt Watson is a few special-edition, red-white-and-blue cans of Miller High Life into the rehearsal, and everyone else keeps piling his own sweaty longnecks in and around an overflowing trashcan near the front door. Drummer Evan Williams got stuck at a work party, so guitarist William Evans (yes, those are their real names) is behind the kit. And keyboardist Hank Shore is finishing school in Chicago, so new member Josh Lawson is not only learning Shore's old parts but writing the new ones he'll soon teach Shore. So, why not let the night get weird?
After a few false starts, the ad hoc quartet lurches into a cover of "Pretty Woman," all laughter and smiles fading after about the third languid minute. The tempo steadily escalates, as if the tune were tumbling down the same hill and toward the same abyss as the night's practice. The lyrics start shifting—the pretty woman transmogrifies into a mystic pizza—and Ivey's late-night slur soon becomes a later-night shout over the band's noisy, nervy maul.
"Mystic pizza/ the kind I'd like to eat," he howls, ad infinitum, his fist becoming a blur over the guitar strings, his right foot kicking guitar pedals on and off again. Maybe 15 minutes later, the jam falls apart, and the members smile wryly and chuckle.
"I said before that this wasn't a normal Whatever Brains practice," says Ivey. "It actually might be the most normal Whatever Brains practice."
Ivey's analysis of the night scans as both sincere and sarcastic. His band isn't one for wasting time: Indeed, for the last four years, the various Brains—first a duo, then a trio, quartet, quintet and sextet—have met every Monday and Wednesday in this tiny space, which sits within a web of rehearsal rooms on Capital Boulevard, just before downtown Raleigh starts to disintegrate into a line of strip malls and subdivisions. Williams has leased the space for seven years. And though it smells like a fetid ashtray and heats up like a humidor, Ivey reckons the band has missed fewer than 20 rehearsals here since 2008. Sometimes those sessions have stretched well past closing time.
In spite of tonight's woman-to-pizza segue, Whatever Brains have used that time efficiently, too, arranging and recording more than 60 songs for a consistently captivating string of releases—a debut cassette, a string of much-loved 7-inch records, some compilation contributions. In the last two years, Whatever Brains have released two LPs that have combined the gusto of punk rock, the magnetism of power-pop and the intricacy of art rock. They have at last grown into the casual brilliance of their name.
As any member of the band readily acknowledges, Whatever Brains' music is too weird for the punk scene that birthed it, too savage and snotty for the indie rock scene that occasionally latches onto its hooks. But they're beginning to earn major attention for that sometimes ostracized mix. After the release of their first album, Dusted writer Doug Mosurock said: "Whatever Brains succeeds in creating a complex, synthetic portrait of gear-grinding anthemic rock and arrogant but utterly free worldviews. ... Whatever Brains' display of creativity and ambition in the face of conservative rhetoric and retrograde social politics is a rare, if not singular, triumph." A month later, Pitchfork Media answered, "Whatever Brains practice the sort of all-inclusive musical polytheism that's all too rare in the world of indie rock."
Just as their handle suggests, though, Whatever Brains also aren't ones to take themselves so seriously. They've never hired a publicist or begged a bigger label for a spot on their roster. In fact, Evans says, in the long run, success might simply mean that Sorry State Records, the small but thriving Chapel Hill punk imprint owned by Daniel Lupton, continues issuing Whatever Brains' records: "He does everything I want a record label to do."
This summer, they'll tour farther from North Carolina than ever before by trekking to Detroit. With members between the ages of 19 and 35, and with occupations from college student and audio engineer to court reporter and line cook, they're not another indie rock band that has structured its members' lifestyles around their abilities to leave home for months at the time.
And though they tend to "jam" only when Williams isn't behind the kit ("That doesn't feel like how this band works, for whatever reason," he says, having left more than one practice mid-silliness), Whatever Brains' rehearsals, songs and image reflect a certain appreciation of adolescence. Their first release took the name Soft Dick City and included songs named for YouTube sensations and the band itself—"Swhatever," "Mt. Whatever" and so on. There are tunes about buying a dog, hating all pollen and scorning bloated white men playing the blues on the weekend. They've never taken a proper press photo, while their graphic signature has long been a smiling frog flashing a peace sign and floating above a lysergic, hyper-color fractal. Though they take their music very seriously, the trappings and tribulations of trying to turn this band into something more than that don't interest Whatever Brains.
"It would be weird to take press photos by train tracks or a brick wall. There are other bands that works for, PR bands or whatever," says Williams, drinking an iced coffee several days later. "It's not not having confidence in what we are doing. Just the way things are with the Internet now, people can find that music if that's what they're looking for."
In 2012, the business of being in a band has perhaps never seemed so dependent upon an all-encompassing strategy of success. Sure, in an era of instant online content and ubiquitous tastemakers, pop savants writing songs in their bedrooms or young punks in Scandinavia can suddenly become the buzz of the music world, but those instances are more isolated than not. For bands trying to thrive via a more traditional model of touring, recording and releasing their music through a record label or even by themselves, the necessary responsibilities have never seemed so multifaceted. From maintaining a social media presence to considering licensing, from balancing online output and physical goods to sorting through potential monetary sponsors, the necessary austerity of the music industry at large has forced musicians to consider much more than what's between the endpoints of a song. Bands now have digital-only publicists and controlled content leaks—all in all, management plans that suggest running a tech start-up, not playing music with your buds.
But Whatever Brains don't subscribe to that. After Ivey first moved to Raleigh to attend N.C. State in 2003, he lived in a small green house off of Everett Avenue, footsteps away from Cameron Village. That house became known as the Posidome, an under-the-radar venue that welcomed metal, punk and pop bands and gave lots of locals some of their earliest shows. Watson and Williams lived there, too.
For Ivey, the Posidome was symptomatic of music being a lifestyle, not an ethos or career or marketing plan. It's just what he does.
"I don't even understand how you try and get famous. It just seems so foreign to me. If I wanted to, I wouldn't know the first step to make," says Ivey. He sits on half of the beige sectional in the condo he shares with his girlfriend, Leigh Anne, and their black schnoodle, Frankie, in Northwest Raleigh. Intricately decorated and fastidiously clean, the space is much different from his old punk house. But Ivey's ideas are much the same.
"It's coming from punk. It's all I know," he explains. "I've never dealt with a booking agent. I've never talked units or dollars. Everybody still has tons of every Whatever Brains record they didn't sell."
Whatever Brains live exactly how they were born—casually and without a master plan. In 2008, Ivey was still leading his no-frills pop-punk band, Crossed Eyes, but he knew he had some songs that didn't fit them so well. He'd played in Street Sharks, a hardcore quartet that represented the younger mirror image of veterans and revivalists Double Negative. But Ivey had grown tired of those bands' stylistic circumscriptions, so he wanted to try something different with these tunes.
He met Williams at a party where, as Ivey tells it, they were the only guys in the room who wanted to talk about heavy metal. When Ivey subsequently saw Williams drum in a straight-ahead indie rock band, he knew he'd found a kindred spirit—someone who wanted to make music, no matter the context or crowd. They started hanging out, formed and abandoned an experimental metal outfit that never played a show, and began recording Ivey's new numbers in late-night hangouts that opened with a lot of beer and ended with some of the songs that became Soft Dick City.
"Rich had some ideas, and I had some recording stuff," says the plainspoken Williams, a Raleigh native. "He wanted to make it really noisy, really blown-out. But it was digital, so it sounded really awful to me. I kept being like, 'Are you sure?'"
Ivey was, actually: The songs kept pouring out, and Ivey's patience for trying to write pieces that satisfied any one niche continued fading away. A cross-genre enthusiast and record collector, Ivey had spent years just before Whatever Brains started amassing complete discographies of the twee Scottish band Belle & Sebastian and the nasty, noisy California blunderbuss Man Is the Bastard. As a listener, he seemed interested in everything between and beyond; as a musician, he finally wanted to found a band that reflected as much.
"We both have pretty broad tastes, and he was tired of playing in hardcore and pop-punk bands. He wanted to get into something different. I'll play pretty much anything, as long as I like it," Williams says, chuckling. "I can't say it's a conscious rejection of that stuff, but it definitely has something to do with it. It's nice to be in the same spectrum of the music world but do away with having to have a verse, a chorus, a bridge, a verse, a chorus—and, like, a spiky bracelet."
Around the time Ivey and Williams had built an initial bank of recordings, Evans was looking to leave Pittsburgh after attending audio engineering school. Another Raleigh native, he wasn't sure he wanted to come home. But Ivey had been a fan of Evans' bass playing in the snarling electro act Black Castle. He told Evans he might as well come play guitar with his new band, even if he wasn't a band-seasoned guitarist.
That's generally the modus operandi for membership in Whatever Brains, anyway. Preference goes to those with the right personalities, not necessarily the greatest instrumental proficiencies. Watson, for instance, had been playing drums in Ivey's Crossed Eyes before he joined Whatever Brains as a bassist. When Shore signed on, he still attended Enloe High School, where he was not only the mascot of the Eagles but also a Whatever Brains fan. After the band wrote a song that required a keyboard, Ivey would step on the keys on stage to get the right sound. It was awkward, so they decided it made more sense to simply add another member. They opted for Shore's enthusiasm, but he couldn't really play keyboards.
"We kind of asked Hank to learn to play keyboards to be in the band," explains Watson.
And for his part, Lawson admits that he's more of a synthesizer builder than a synthesizer player, as he mostly uses just his left hand to control his stacks of keyboards. But he and Ivey are both from Lynchburg, Va., and bandmates in the eccentric, sporadic act Order. In practice, his banter with the other members makes it seem as though he's been there all along.
Ivey and Williams didn't recruit any of these players for their specific sound or style, a quality of Whatever Brains that has allowed them to sound like anything, everything and nothing. Across their catalog, they've staggered drunkenly through a country song, bopped and harmonized through a Double Negative blitz, added maniacal carousel keyboards to razor-wire guitars, flirted with math rock, suggested the heights of The Arcade Fire and turned tricks with New Wave drum machines. That's only the start.
Again in his living room, Ivey puts on Quakers, the self-titled debut from the new hip-hop project launched by Portishead's Geoff Barrow. With 41 tracks and collaborators that include political firebrands Dead Prez and preternaturally smooth soul singer and emcee Aloe Blacc, Quakers provides a fitting backdrop for a conversation about music that aims to resist ready typecasts.
"I think Whatever Brains is the first time I didn't go out with a clear purpose, saying, 'I'm going to start a band that sounds like this,'" he says. "It was anything goes and not like I was not going to pull from a certain source because it wasn't going to fit. In the end, it's going to sound like Whatever Brains."
Indeed, Ivey has pushed the band so far into whatever-works territory that he's mostly stopped using guitars to write tunes. The condo's spare bedroom includes a few instruments and amplifiers, but it's largely uncluttered, too, less like a workspace and more like a guest room. Instead, the prolific Ivey has started building new songs from samples he pulls from YouTube; he'll grab a drumbeat, loop it, and layer and sing over the top of it.
In their dimly lit, electronics-cluttered practice space, the band listens to these demos on a PA with only one speaker; they build their basic parts from Ivey's ideas, warping them throughout practice. Short and square-shouldered, Ivey suggests a slimmer, more genial Napoleon when he leans in to offer suggestions, corrections and directions.
Ivey's new method presents interesting challenges for a rock 'n' roll band, like when Lawson and Ivey worked to mirror a sample swiped from trip-hop artist Tricky. In the Brains' new batch of unrecorded songs, Evans puts his guitar down and plays drums, too, countering and reinforcing Williams' rhythms. Inspired by a drum sample from The Four Tops and air horn sounds heard on the hip-hop radio station K97.5, the Brains recently challenged themselves to write a song in the time signature of 7/8—the tricky meter used in Animal Collective's Grateful Dead-sampling "What Would I Want? Sky" and in several songs by Rush. That's been a fresh test for Williams, as has learning the nuances of a funk breakdown Ivey swiped for another number. They're even discussing the possibilities and practicalities of a Slayer cover.
"I don't feel like it's actively seeking out something we haven't done yet. It's just why don't we do a song that's not a four-count," says Williams, pounding the beat on the coffee shop table. "We don't want to write the same thing more than once or make the same record over and over and over again. Some bands do that and like it, but what's a new thing we haven't done yet?"
Tonight, Whatever Brains are focused. In a week, they will play at Kings Barcade, the downtown Raleigh club where they've performed a dozen times. But the set will be different: It will be unadvertised, private and will consist of only seven songs—all unrecorded, unreleased tunes that the band has written since the April release of its best and second self-titled LP. They'll record the songs for the sake of having live demos while Logan Sayles, a local videographer and light designer, films the band in front of his elaborate stage display. He's going to make a music video.
Tonight, everyone except Shore is at practice. They play the new songs several times in mini-sets of two or three and then take short breaks. In only two weeks, the songs Whatever Brains were rehearsing without Williams have transformed from building blocks and misfires into precise, unobstructed knockouts, with the double drums in perfect alignment and the keyboards wedged loudly and warmly between Ivey's caustic guitar and Watson's unrelenting bass. Between takes, Ivey's notes are pithy and direct—a little more volume there, a little more patience here, a little faster everywhere. Well past midnight and several hours into rehearsal, there's still no cover of "Mystic Pizza."
As it turns out, the "Mystic Pizza" ripper was the exception. That is, Whatever Brains are taking tonight's practice seriously, but not just because of the impending video shoot. After a previous experience making a video, they were reluctant to do this at all but decided to go for it because they could record songs in a room made for music, not in a cheaply rented storage facility.
"Logan wanted to do a music video, but none of us were too excited about doing a video for an old song," explains Ivey, guitar around his neck, beer can in his hand. "But I'd rather have a seven-song music video than a one-song music video."
This style of rehearsal, Evans notes, is the norm. Though they practice only twice a week, an average if not low amount for a local band this busy, Evans says Whatever Brains are as serious about the music they make as any band he's ever been around. Given how many songs Ivey writes, they have to be in order for the old material to stay sharp and the new material to remain abundant.
"We need that much time," Evans explains, "to keep up."
And for Ivey, that's the goal—to keep writing, recording and releasing, with one release always in front of the other. For him, these songs and the records they comprise are documents and chronicles of his criticisms and hopes for the world. It's his job to write them and the rest of the world's to listen if they'd like.
"It would be great if people bought more records. I'm not opposed to being on a commercial that's not for a terrible company," he explains. "I'm not against being noticed. I'm just not trying to be noticed."
For Williams, that mentality allows the band to do exactly what it wants, to push all of its boundaries as far as it likes, without fear that it will distance the Brains from the crowds it's trying to lure.
"I've never really been in a band that has had a huge base, so we've never had to worry about 'Oh, what are the fans going to think?'" Williams says, pausing as if he's now stumbled upon a credo. "We just do whatever."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Whatever works."