Whiteman recently came across an interview with ’70s soul/funk artist and longtime recluse Sly Stone whose sudden fade from fame more than 20 years ago inspired speculation of drug use and mental illness—symptoms that also led to 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson’s tragic breakdown, as chronicled in the new documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me. Such strange and heartbreaking examples are troubling to anyone, much less a career musician dealing with similar passions and pressures.
So yeah, Whiteman thinks about losing his grip. Today, however, he’s more worried about replacing his lost copy of Marjorie Perloff’s Poetics of Indeterminacy. Anxious, he explains it’s very difficult to find the American critic’s work in Canadian bookstores. There’s always Amazon.com, you think, but that’s beside the point. Whiteman’s reaction to the absence of Perloff informs his fascination with the architecture of language—how beautiful yet how frustrating it can be to compose proper poetry and lyrics.
“Music is so much easier. When you’re lucky they [lyrics and music] come at the same time, but that’s rare for me,” he says, adding that he tends to nerd out on literary criticism, partly to improve his craft but also to nourish a lifeline. “I’m one of those rare people who is a simply an appreciator. I don’t write for publishing. It’s just sort of where my heart is.”
Whiteman’s love of words is evidenced through online shout-outs to poet Frank O’ Hara, through the tribute to Federico Garcia Lorca on Hustle’s sophomore album National Anthem of Nowhere (“¡Rafaga!”) and the pulsating, dance hall number inspired by a word game between Whiteman and Feist (“Haul Away”).
But while poetry and literary criticism factor heavily on Nowhere, Hustle owes more to Havana where, on a trip to visit his Cuban godmother “in the hood,” Whiteman encountered extraordinary poverty and a spirituality “unmediated by a lot of distractions.”
“Certainly, in a material sense, I’ve never been to a poorer place,” he says, adding that the environment encouraged him to abandon his comfort zone. “It’s good to leave your circumstances; to just go somewhere where you don’t have any reference points. Go to a border, a personal, financial, sexual border: What happens when you go there?”
For Whiteman, the answer arrived in the form of several unique characters whose strange tales thread their way through Nowhere, an album that unlike its predecessor, Folkloric Feel, brings language to the forefront. “The new one is definitely more cohesive, less psychedelic,” he says. “You can understand the vocals. On the first one, they are very submerged and underwater.”
Which isn’t to say Nowhere is completely grounded. Cool, but never slick, the album projects a sense of adventure partly attributed to Whiteman and Co. traveling to Montreal to record over a period of three weeks while drinking three to four bottles of wine a day. Whiteman felt “more in control and less in control at the same time,” inspiring compositions that shift from dense to light, murky to startling, contemplative to sensual. The effect is lush, layered and pulsating, evoking both a specific cultural history and the more oblique traditions that describe our world today, composed of not one but several origins and destinations. These anthems of everywhere and nowhere unfold over electronic drum beats, groovy organ and crisp percussion—handclaps, maracas, caja, conga, bongo. And while Whiteman claims to struggle with writing, his lyricism is as tough and magical as the music that flows so effortlessly:
“One day, an angel told me, ‘Your time here is fleeting’/ behind his back, a pistol, here comes a beating/ his suit, his silk flower/ but my razor is faster/ ‘Hey Carlos, you been drinkin’ Florida water,’” goes the story of “My Sword Hand’s Anger,” about a lady of perpetual squalor and her sad, sad loves.
What does it mean? You could apply a critical eye, read between the lines, slip into a daydream and pin down a different frame of mind. (You can always go back, you know.) Whiteman is always on the hunt for new experiences. Even his day job requires him to bounce between Broken Social Scene and Hustle and back again.
“Going from playing a 10-piece band to a trio—it’s taken four months or so to get used the space. What do you do with the space?” he says. “It’s very liberating.”
But couldn’t all that space and freedom become overwhelming? What causes the fire to burn out? Whiteman’s no sure, but he has a theory:
“Multiple personalities, maybe—but not multiple projects.”
APOSTLE OF HUSTLE
With Peter, Björn & John
239 S. Main Street
Thursday, Aug. 2