Frontman Rich Ivey opens up about the challenges of grand dreams, and what it means to "make it."
Take it from someone who knows: Being a fan of Whatever Brains can be frustrating as hell. For the past five years, the Raleigh, North Carolina freak-punk six-piece have been putting out some of the most irreverent, genre-corroding music that very few outside the City of Oaks have actually heard. At a time when DIY means having a publicist, a heavy online presence and a slot on a sponsored CMJ showcase, Whatever Brains' take on making and distributing music independently is refreshingly traditional. With help from Chapel Hill boutique label Sorry State Records, Whatever Brains have quietly become not only one of the most reliable and forward-thinking bands working right now, but one to look up to. "For younger bands who think of whether they want to do things themselves or get and agent? I don't know," says frontman and chief songwriter Rich Ivey. "It depends on what they want. If they have grand dreams of making it, then they probably shouldn't be playing music anyways."
As a famous doctor once said, "Too crazy for Boys Town, too much of a boy for Crazy Town", it's safe to say that Whatever Brains don't necessarily fit in. Mutating from a primal, lo-fi racket squad on 2009's Saddle Up 7" into a band that's currently toying with power pop, noisy electronics, droning indie jangle and id-throttled thrash, sometimes all within a single song. Growing out of the short-lived Crossed Eyes, Ivey formed Whatever Brains around 2008, releasing a few 7"s, tapes, and singles on friends' labels (Bull City, Funny / Not Funny, and eventually Sorry State, who is opening a brick-and-mortar store in downtown Raleigh this weekend) until offering up their debut in 2011. The band really hit their stride last year with their second title-free album (not "untitled" or "self-titled" either, mind you), a perfect example of punk still having the capacity to be as deranged, searing, and funny as it was ever capable of being, all while subverting typical trappings thanks to Ivey's strange whine and its carnival-esque excitability. But it's with their third unnamed full-length, released last month,, that Whatever Brains have really come into their own. Described by Ivey as a record about "trying to be a good person and figure out things going on around you, and trying to make sense of them," it's as perfect an antidote to rigidity and stagnation as you could ask for in a rock record. Sadly, the band have no plans on touring the new record, thanks to keyboardist Hank Shore's current leave of absence (he's recording footwork in Chicago under the name DJ Big Hank), everyday responsibilities, and the promise of a double-sided 12" EP to be completed by year's end. On the phone from Raleigh while walking his dog, Ivey—who does a "kind of paralegal thing, kind of a court document runner thing" by day—talked with us about the Raleigh scene, DIY, and fitting in.
Noisey: Whatever Brains are a band whose sound feels both deliberate and somewhat freewheeling. How do you juggle those two aspects?
Rich Ivey: I think it's all pretty deliberate. There's not much that just pops up out of nowhere. All of the songs are pretty heavily demoed and mapped out ahead of time. There's really not much experimenting I guess? Once a song is written it's kind of written. Get one, get it done, move onto the next one.
These new songs seem more daring, more caustic, probably the least pop-friendly you guys have done. Was that at all intentional?
I feel like it's more accessible in some ways and less accessible in others. To the people that buy records on Sorry State Records, it's probably less accessible, but in the scope of modern music, I think it’s more accessible. It has more to do with the kind of music people are making now in a bigger scheme than some of the older stuff that was just a little more punk derived. We slowed it down a bit, just tried to give it more room to breathe. I went back and listened to the second [record] recently and just thought it was pretty relentless as compared to the kind of stuff we're doing now.
How would you say it fits into current realm of modern music then?
With a lot of the electronic-tinged stuff that's pretty popular right now. Most of the rock bands here now that are new rock bands just sound like old rock bands. A lot of the electronic stuff coming out sounds a lot more exciting to my ears than something that sounds like it came out in 1993, or something that sounds like it came out in 1981. So that has been an influence, trying to accept and appropriate newer sounds, and doing that through the antiquated gear that we have. We're not making music on computers, it's still all analog, aside from the sampler.
How would you describe the scene in Raleigh?
It's pretty indie rock driven. There's a good amount of punks and people that are into punk. But there aren't too many punk bands right now, we're going through a little bit of a dry spell. Double Negative, who was like the biggest impressionable band around here that everyone looked up to, broke up recently. But I know that all of them have new projects that will be coming out, hopefully soon.
How do you guys think you fit in?
I'd say we’re just kind of right there with everybody else. Everyone works at all the same restaurants. In the grand rock scheme, everyone hangs out at the same places. At least the ones I'm thinking of and the ones I know [laughs]. I don't think we're too far one way or too far another way in Raleigh, I think we're right at home here. We can play different venues to different people and we don't think twice about it. Going on tour, which we don't do too often, is a little different, for sure. Then we sort of see how things are outside of Raleigh, which can be really refreshing or really bleak.
How did you get involved with Sorry State Records?
Matt and I used to be in a band called Crossed Eyes that did a single for Sorry State. We'd known [owner] Daniel [Lupton] for a couple years before that. And then Whatever Brains started, and Bull City records—which was a record store that our friend Chaz [Martenstein] owns decided to start a record label, and he put out our first two singles. Funny / Not Funny didn't have enough money [to put out Whatever Brains' fourth single], so we asked Daniel and, unbeknownst to us, he had been wanting to do a record with us from the get-go. We had just never approached him. We assumed it was too different from what his label was doing, but he's been gung-ho ever since we first talked to him about doing a record.
You've said Sorry State's owner Daniel Lupton "does everything [you] want a record label to do." What is that exactly?
Put out our records and not complain about them. We finish a record, we send it to him and he puts it out. To me, that's what a record label does: They put out records. And he lets us do what we wanna do, and when we record a record he doesn't like, I hope he doesn't put it out. I hope he only puts out the ones he likes, and he's liked them so far, so we'll see if he keeps going.
You seem disinterested in the idea of publicists, press photos, press in general. Where does that stem from?
Being in punk bands. I still consider us a punk band. If you're OFF! or some band like that… I don't know who does press and PR and promo pictures. I can't think of any. I'm sure there are. That stuff just always seemed kind of weird and foreign to me. I don't think anybody would feel comfortable taking a promo picture or sending out a press pack. I guess that's how you get heard now, though.
Do you think there's something inherently misleading about DIY culture? The truth is, most DIY bands aren't getting national coverage.
We don't fly the flag for DIY in any way. We don't say we're a DIY band. I'm sure we've said it, I said it earlier, but we're not championing DIY, "that's the way it should be done" and all that. The lack of wanting to be involved or just how gross most of this stuff in the music world is… that's why I love doing things with Daniel.
Zach Kelly is a freelance writer. He's on Twitter — @zachwkelly