It was a recording of the very first Santa Cruz Hemp Allstars show that brought John Whooley into my consciousness. With sax in hand he stood on top of improvised walls of sound and blew a clean hard cry that made me think of Maceo Parker and Sonny Rollins. From SCHA, I found Estradasphere, a disturbingly freewheeling combo that puts heavy metal next to Eastern European folk melodies and pop tunes. His latest project is a loop happy, voice driven exploration into vocal gymnastics, beat boxing, pastoral flute and steamy funk nuggets. Whoolilicious also happens to be a one-man endeavor (with occasional dancing and percussive efforts from John’s wife who performs shows as Deeelicious and clearly serves as one of the primary muses in all his work).
This is the first part of an hour-long conversation I had with John from his home base in Santa Cruz, California. His very unpredictability as an artist is what keeps me coming back. It might not all work but live it sure does make you think. He is a man who breathes music into every single day. His passion and genuine feeling shines through and might even prove inspirational to anyone who’s thought about making music or releasing an album of their own.
Dennis Cook: I’ve been spending time with the Nothin’ But The Whooley album this week. One of the things that jumps out at me is the way widely divergent types of music are stacked up next to one another. Tuvan throat singing gives way to Prince style funk that then turns towards a Platters style doo-wop tune (an actual sequence from the Whoolilicious cd). Where does this eclecticism come from?
Photo by Matt Earhart
John Whooley: I’ve been extremely exposed to lots of different types of music. Growing up in a traditional Irish family, I started playing clarinet at about six years old. My mom is a classically trained pianist with perfect pitch. Actually with my whole family music has been a big part of our lives. Then through school I studied jazz and through the New School I got into World Music and of course, I grew up on MTV and classic rock.
Dennis Cook: You don’t seem to have any prejudice about one type of music being weighted more highly than any other.
John Whooley: I definitely feel like all music is equal in its value. Like when you’re at a show, the performers are just as equal as audience members are just as equal to doormen and bartenders because it takes every piece to make that thing work. And with music I feel the same way. I take a really eclectic approach. I’m searching out what I’m going to focus on right now and I feel like eventually I’ll narrow down my material. In the future I’ll probably focus on one style at a time but for my first album it’s always been a dream of mine to record my own album and record all the instruments myself. For this one, this is basically the whole gamut of what I do in one CD.
DC: Were you influenced at all by other one-man-band artists like Todd Rundgren, Brian Eno or Stevie Wonder?
JW: Extremely influenced by Stevie Wonder and by some of the stories I’d heard of Prince. But Stevie Wonder is my main influence.
Especially on the funk tunes you channel that style of soul singing. Actually I’d like to hear you sing more because when you take off I can hear what a charge you’re getting from it.
In time I want to focus on individual things. There are three albums I want to put out in the next year. One is a beat-box album and that one’s going to be called Spray It, Don’t Say It. Then I’m going to come out with a meditation, lullaby CD because my wife works with maternal support and postpartum care. My sister is also an acupuncturist and I see there’s a market for stuff in the vein of the last flute piece (on Nothing But The Whooley) but an entire 70-minute album of tracks made up of either all voice or all acoustic piano or flute. I also want to come up with just a super funky album.
Photo by Matt Earhart
And on these projects would you want to be the full band all by yourself again?
Yeah because it’s such good practice as a musician to have go through this. I’m not the most solid drummer but after doing all the overdubs and practice for the album I’m getting better. I play a lot of instruments but it’s not like I’m super great at all of them. It takes practice to make the parts I want work.
There’s a lot of joy in trying something different than your main instrument. I remember this video footage I saw of Stevie Wonder playing drums during the recording of Talking Book and he looks like he’s just having the best damn time.
Totally. Playing drums is one of the most amazing experiences. I love it so much. Using your entire body and moving to the rhythm. I’ve actually played drums with this band a few times recently and it made me aware of the amazing power of the drummer. Basically the drummer is the one who decides where the music is going to go. Like a soloist could play something cool and the drummer could respond to that but the way the drummer plays shapes the music more than anything else because there’s the possibility of being real quiet and mellow or raucous and loud and people have to respond to that. This is why I’m so in love with Zach (Velmer drums, Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Santa Cruz Hemp Allstars). He’s just so powerful and he knows how to shape the energy of the music.
I just saw Sound Tribe in Chicago and was blown away by Zach and David Murphy (bass, STS9 and Hemp Allstar). Speaking to your point about the power of the drummer to direct the music, with those two guys I really get the sense of the rhythm section pumping the blood into the rest of the music.
Photo by Matt Earhart
For sure, for sure. The drum is the beat and the bass is the tonality, the root system of music.
One of the things I found out getting ready to talk with you was that Estradasphere used to play on the streets of Santa Cruz. How long ago did that stop and do you ever go back to the street for nostalgia’s sake?
I don’t think Estradasphere has played on the street in a year or two years but I’ve been out with my wife recently. She plays drums and I play horn.
What does that bring out for you, playing on the street, because that’s a very different experience to playing a club or theatre?
It’s awesome to get down to the grass roots of the community and I really want to support and live in this community my entire life. People who know me are stoked to see me out there. I used to play on the street a lot so I know a lot of the homeless people in Santa Cruz. We’re friends.
I think one of those things that have been lost is people making music as part of their daily lives before all the recorded music we enjoy now. Now to see music live it’s usually an act of commerce. Out of necessity you need to charge for tickets so musicians and clubs can make a living. It’s a treat to just walk down a sidewalk and hear music being made.
It’s kind of a shame with the disinformation of modern music. Little kids don’t often realize when they hear a CD that the music is coming from people playing it. I heard about someone taking a group of children to the symphony for a field trip and the kids didn’t even realize that the music came from human beings and not from a computer. That is almost unfathomable to me.
One of my favorite quotes about music is from Frank Zappa where he says that since music education is virtually non-existent in the United States anymore, people only hear a tiny fraction of the music being made around the world so it’s hard to say what someone might like if they are never exposed to it.
I just saw a couple of interesting films at a hip-hop film festival, one on beat boxing and one on women in hip-hop. One of the people was talking about how hip-hop is based on all these old grooves and old ‘70s beats. And this lady (in one of the films) says we’ve never been taught music. Our parent’s generation was exposed to music but we have to take what’s already been done and lay music on top of that instead of making new music.
I find myself drawn into hip-hop because when it hits you it’s deep. Maybe because of that thing you mentioned about the rhythm and the drummer driving things. Who’s really been twisting your head in the rap world lately?
I’m into Lyrics Born and G.F.E. (Granola Funk Express). Those are the two I’ve been exposed to lately opening shows for them. And Rahzel (of The Roots) and Radioactive (Spearhead) influence me in the vocal development area. I’m constantly beat boxing since I saw that movie. Rahzel was saying he’s a combination of Bobby McFerrin and what’s that guy from the Police Academy movies (trails off trying to remember the name).
Yeah! He’s a combination of those two guys and I’m a combination of those two guys and like a Jungle record.
There is a little bit of drum and bass to your solo material.
And that album is almost outdated now. The live show has become much more developed.
What role has technology played for you in making music?
I was pretty much an analog guy, with saxophone and voice, before I got a looping pedal. I just started experimenting a couple years ago. Now I use two of these pedals and a Digi-Wham octave pedal and a harmonizer. It’s really cool because the project is organic as can be because the main input is voice but it’s going straight into 2002 technology. So the source is super organic and the manipulation is super modern.
Photo by Matt Earhart
I get the sense that technology has taken a leap where someone can record a record right in their bedroom like you did. People don’t have to rely on a record label to produce a body of work anymore.
Not at all. Once the four-track recorder came out and now we have 20,000 times that. You have all the Pro Sounds in the computer. All you need is a good mic and a good pre-amp. And I didn’t even have that for my album and it sounds okay. You can do all the mastering on a computer now and then just burn a CD of it. You don’t even have to get it produced. You can just burn 50 copies of it on your own computer. With Nothing But The Whooley I went to Mister Toad’s in San Francisco and got a 1000 copies made for like a $1.50 each. It’s insane how easy it is to put this together for yourself. The album took like four months to do, I just spit it out. I’d get into one song, work on it for three or four days finish it and move on. Some songs only took me 20 minutes; some took as much as a week and a half.
And then it’s done and on a record to listen to.
It’s so exciting. It’s important for me not to judge myself too harshly with the solo material. I’m in these bands like Estradasphere with so many strong personalities and disputes about what we’re going to play. With my own projects I guess I’m not a perfectionist (laughs). I don’t care if I make some mistakes. When I’m playing horn I go for shit and I don’t mind if I fuck up because I’m just trying to go further. With recording, I do a track, make a decision and move on. Playing with others I can’t do that. Sure I could spend another hour revising a lick or re-recording a sound and it might be, what, 10% better. Whereas, I could spend that same hour making entirely new music. I’m more about getting it out, get it out, produce it and let the experience make the next thing better.
One of the challenges I’ve faced in presenting Estradasphere to others has been trying to describe what the band plays. People want to know what they’re getting into. Is it jazz, is it rock, whatever. The band’s own website lists right at the top of the page TV themes, Latin, jazz, videogames, pop, gypsy funk-metal.
I know. It’s ridiculous (laughing)
When it’s that broad it’s hard to make the initial handshake with a new listener. What do you say to people when they ask you what the band sounds like?
It’s been a developing situation for years and years. I’ve been trying for ages to find a more succinct way of putting it. I like "eccentric groove music."
My shorthand has largely been "They play music's of many stripes" and I leave it at that. But I like yours better.
It’s an amazing crew; incredible musicians and we’re all these well-trained, well-exposed musicians who also grew up on MTV, rock and roll and McDonald’s.
Where did you all meet?
Four of the five of us were UC Santa Cruz graduates. I was in Netwerk: Electric in the beginning and I made the choice to do Estradasphere. I had this project where I was the musical director of a 70-person orchestra made up of musicians from all over the world, singers from India and Africa, musicians from Cambodia, people from everywhere. So between that and an Estradasphere tour it was pretty much over for me in Netwerk: Electric. In Estradasphere we do amazing virtuosic stuff as well as really simple four-part vocal harmonies. We can do funky stuff and we can do metal stuff. It’s an interesting group because there are so many strong personalities in the band that it’s sometimes hard to have the music go in any one direction because we all want different things.
Photo by Matt Earhart
You can hear that sometimes in shows where it’ll start with a pretty straight reading of “Autumn Leaves” but then later there’s still the percussion frenzy of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” (yes, a skewed take on the Rickie Martin song). There are a lot of different voices that are trying to be heard.
It’s an amazing band just because of the sheer diversity and the options open to us. We’re not musicians of any specialized genre but we can pretty much do a good job of respecting the style of anything from Bulgarian music to rock to jazz to funk to death metal to vocal harmonies. We also have a full electric show and a full acoustic show.
I think a lot of people are afraid of that kind of freedom so when you find a group of guys who are willing to do this with you it has to be exhilarating.
We’re not taking the approach of let’s do the right things to make it. We’re taking the approach of playing the music we want to play. But then that’s difficult too because there’s four people in the band all trying to shape the music their own way. There’s a faction in the band that wants to become a bit more groovy, fit in more with the jam scene but still play complicated, aggressive, diverse music but mix it with more groovy straight ahead material to warm people up to it. There’s also a faction in the band that wants to stay progressive and experimental. We have a pretty decent audience around the country but it’s not really the jam scene. It’s more the Mr. Bungle, avant-garde kind of thing. That’s often why I have such a need to do other projects because the band is a democracy full of strong people. I do my own thing to get my funk-soul fix because I’m really into that stuff. It’s powerful stuff to get people moving. I’m here to make music so that music comes through me for people. I just want to make people happy through music and give them everything that I can. It’s not me. I’m just lucky to be the conduit for this musical energy.
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