John Whooley: I feel very grateful and very blessed to have the ability to let this stuff come through me and sit in with all these people. Like the other night I got to sit in the Fareed Haque Group. That’s an incredible challenge. It’s not like sitting in with some straight-ahead funk band. It’s sitting in with with tough tempos and tough chord changes just thrown out there.

Dennis Cook: And he’s not going to make it easy on anyone who jumps on that stage.

John Whooley: He didn’t make it easy, no way but it was really, really, really fun.

Dennis Cook: I admire that about Fareed, that he wants to see your best when you play with him.

He’s a really cool guy. He mentioned doing some recording with my throat singing. I really want to play and become friends with as many people as I can in the industry and in this scene. Hopefully G.F.E. and I will do more in the future. I’d like to see Garaj Mahal and Estradasphere tour together or maybe my solo project will open for them. I want to sit in with the Living Daylights, Boomshanka, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, everyone I can because I just love playing music. I love fitting the part. We had this funny thing the other night. We were holding a video party held by Marco Walsh, he holds this thing called Groove TV, where he videotapes all these bands like the Disco Biscuits, Hemp Allstars, Estradasphere, Garaj Mahal. Then he plays these videos in a bar we always hold shows at, Moe's Alley. At this party we had the video going, and a lot of these bands I had sat in with, actually in the shows but the bands I didn’t sit in with, well, we had a sort of satellite feed with a video camera in the back room and an extra TV on stage. So, I would play along with the performances and they’d kind of project it on the screen. Some people might see this as cocky but it’s just that I want to play with EVERYBODY and I’ll do it on video if I have to!!! I love adding to music. The saxophone is like a little sugar on top, a cherry that might go good tonight. (laughs)

You were talking about the need to funk it up and that was my introduction to your playing with the Santa Cruz Hemp Allstars. How did you guys get together in the first place?

There was the Hemp Expo in Santa Cruz and Poco Marshall, my booking agent and manager, put the Hemp Allstars together. He just decided to throw an after party for the festival and he did it with only about a week to prepare. Only about 150-200 people came because it wasn’t that well publicized. It was just thrown together and we jumped up there. And there we go!

The description on the group’s website reads:

The Santa Cruz Hemp Allstars is not a band. It is a platform for improvised musical expression that is not defined and cannot be contained within any specific musical styles.

Talk about that a bit. Most people don’t want to get on a stage without some idea of what they will be doing. There’s no net, no familiar tunes you’re falling back on.

It’s pretty fun but that depends on the type of person you are. I thrive on it. I think a lot of those guys feel the same way. Now that we’ve done four or five shows we’re starting to figure out what we do, work out some methods and ways of communicating. Everyone is taking their place and figuring out where they stand. I would agree with the statement (from the site), the Hemp Allstars are not a band it is a musical expression. But there are definite styles we fall into for sure. I wouldn’t say it’s a totally uncharacterizable band. The music is all improvised but there’s drum and bass, there’s techno. We keep it on the groove.

I like the dub end of things when it gets thicker and heavier and slower. I found a lot of your best solos come out of those sections as you build towards something faster again.

I’ve noticed a lot lately, especially going to hip-hop shows, the importance of tempo. People really like slow tempos. They like fast tempos as well but there’s something about a nice (he beatboxes a slow jam shuffle) and even slower. At a Lyrics Born show it was slow, slow, slow, just so thick and groovy like you were saying.

There’s a line in a Brooklyn Funk Essentials track where they talk about “slow hip grinding movements” and I associate that line with the kind of vibe you’re describing.

I saw a special on Quincy Jones and he said everything has to have its perfect tempo. Everything has a tempo and that’s the most important thing to find. It can make or break a song based on the metronome reading you choose to use.

Could you tell me a bit about playing with the other guys in the Allstars? We already talked a little about the low-end of the group (David Murphy and Zach Velmer of STS9).

Jeffree (Lerner, percussion and effects, Sound Tribe Sector 9) is awesome. He and Zach have such a tight mix of experience that they play great together. He has such a range of sounds, electric, acoustic, and with Zach he knows how to makes the textures thick. He creates such an awesome, energetic space.

What about Jason Concepcion (guitar and effects, Netwerk: Electric)? You two used to play together in Netwerk.

I have the utmost respect for him. I love Jason and his playing. I mean his last name is Concepcion how can you beat that? He does have great concepts and great tone. He really knows how to make the sound of the band work together like with the little weaves he repeats a lot. In Netwerk:Electric he would take a lot of solos. At first he didn’t solo much with the Hemp Allstars but with the last few he started to rip it up. Then, Aaron (Magner, keyboards, Disco Biscuits) he’s so pro with the tones he gets and he’s such a great performer with the way he moves, the way he’s into it.

It’s hard not to watch Aaron when he’s behind that big bank of mad scientist keyboards.

And he’s such a sweet guy with an East Coast edge.

I think Jason is one of the secret weapons around the Bay Area. When he sits in with other people audiences are surprised that they haven’t heard more about him.

He’s a super powerful musician. He’s a really good channeller of that divine energy. He knows how to open up to it. I’ve never really played with another guitar player with that kind of soul. There might be other guitar players who are equally shreddy but Jason just has that (makes a yummy noise). He really knows how to make the guitar sound good. He knows how to get the cream de la cream de la cream de la cream out of that thing.

(laughing hard) That’s perfect! I just recently heard a show where he played lead guitar for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe while they were in Japan (Brian Jordan was unable to go due to passport issues). It was interesting to hear those same tunes with Jason because I adore Brian Jordan, he’s one of my favorite musicians out there right now, but Jason took those songs to someplace very different. Like you said, it’s that soul thing.

That’s the interesting thing about the Hemp Allstars. It’s a combination of very different perspectives on improvisation. The Sector 9 approach is kind of all in one, everyone making this one sound and fitting little parts in and building it up with textures and sonic space and stuff going on. Your Disco Biscuits are the next step over and Netwerk:Electric and Estradasphere are the next step over from that with soloing and leads. I come from a big jazz background. I studied jazz and that’s all about improvisation and taking solos. So, you’re taking this jazz approach with this trance approach. And sometimes it can work and be really powerful. Some people have gotten frustrated with the improvisation, the super soloing thing over the groove.

As if you’re not busy enough, you also have a newer band called the Phree Radicals.

There’s this bass player named Dan Robbins who plays 7-string bass. He plays bass lines and chords and he also does looping. Him and me on sax and I’m doing looping stuff, too. We played with this one drummer for a while and then we played with another drummer and now we’re playing with both drummers (his voice has the lilt of a kid on Christmas as the music grows bigger with each word). One of them also plays congas and trap drums. The other one uses a modified drum set that includes tablas, bongos, congas and an African xylophone like a marimba. We’re rough, not as shaped as other projects. There’s this incredible percussive texture with this looping and funky stuff over the top. The style is groove based jazz and electronica but it has the knowledge of jazz harmony and composition.

Turning back to your solo work, what is it like to get on stage by yourself, how does it differ from being in a group?

It’s been an amazing experience for me. When I started it was before I met my wife and I was in this really dark space. I would wear cloaks and cover my face and smoke and creep around. I’d do gnarly throat singing and sound effects. Once I got together with my wife, which was the beginning of this past year, it changed into a lighter approach. I lost all that dark stuff. Then, I got intimidated going up there because I was no longer hiding behind these cloaks. I was standing up and wearing colorful costumes and it made me embarrassed. I’m opening for bands and there’s no one on the dance floor, I can’t see anybody and I felt like it had no power. After doing a few gigs it’s got to a point where I feel like I can make this really powerful. I’m becoming more confident with the new approach. I have to build all the songs from scratch with looping and effects but it’s all basically based on voice. I’m trying to let things develop more, have actual songs. It’s still 90% improvised but I’m sticking with things and making grooves come back. Before it was so jumbled. Eventually what I want is if I was opening for a band I’d use their drum set and I’d mic it and use their bass rig and have it all going through my own system so I could loop an entire band’s worth of stuff. I can have my wife do the triggering of buttons like Keller Williams has some guy doing the triggering. Have her do the triggers while I play the drums. I could then bring in a sax ‘section’ or go into vocals. It’s an awesome project because it’s all exactly what I want to do. When I’m doing my own music and I’m not working with anybody else I have this different freedom because I don’t have any responsibility to agree with anybody. I’m just agreeing with myself, which is easy for me. With somebody else I’m sensitive to not dominate a situation. I want it to be a collective thing.

You want to be complimentary to whatever they’re doing.

With myself I just do it because I don’t care.

How’d you get into Tuvan throat singing?

I was introduced to some overtone singing in my sophomore year in college. One of my professors used it to introduce overtone theory, which is this natural set of pitches that comes out of everything in life. The planet has its tones and everything has its pitches. He did a little overtone to demonstrate it and I went to him the next day to get him to show it to me again. I got a tape from one of my friends of a group that had been playing on the streets of Fryeburg, Germany. Later, Huun Huur Tu from Tuva came to do a concert at UCSC. I learned a lot from that and then a couple years later I was doing that crazy project with musicians from all over the world and Huun Huur Tu was in my orchestra. So, I got to hang out with those guys and smoke cigarettes and party every night. I had quit cigarettes for two years and my idols Huun Huur Tu were chain smokers so I started up again for a while. You know, when in Rome or when in Tuva.

I don’t think that’s the image most folks have of Tuvan throat singers (laughs which sets off John Whooley). Partying, cigarette smoking guys!

They’re also extremely spiritual in a way that comes from the shamanic tradition.

We come from a culture that has a really hard time dealing with contradictions. Or seeming contradictions.

Yeah, seeming contradictions is a good way to put it. I was talking with this man once about how in this culture substances are used to get away from things but in other cultures it’s just a part of life and doesn’t get in the way of anything. It’s all how you approach it. A lot of shamans smoke cigarettes and drink liquor but they’ve never had the association that these are bad things.

We’re taught that there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way. And if you don’t fit into those neat categories then obviously there’s something wrong with you. Not conforming to expectations is dangerous in our society. If you’re a holy man then everything you do must be holy.

But that’s just the realm of what they think is holy not what IS actually holy.

Exactly. It’s just common definitions that are bandied about. One of the best things about the record Nothing But The Whooley is the humor tucked into spaces. What role does humor play for you in making music?

A big one. Just as death is life is humor is seriousness. It’s all the one thing. You know, a lot of the humor on that album is unintentional. It just became funny. That song “Buddy Butt Budd” is about my cat that died. Everyone thinks it’s about butt buddies but it’s about a cat that died.

I took it as a sort of nonsense phrase like something from Captain Beefheart. It becomes something that’s repeated and creates it’s own meaning separate from the words. That’s the thing for me, I enjoy language as a raw pleasure sometimes.

And then that funky song “Die High” is not about dying high on drugs. Those lyrics were written on September 11th. I had finished the entire song except for the lyrics and when I woke up and saw what happened I wrote those words. It’s about one, dying high in those buildings, and two, living your life to the fullest and not being afraid and just rocking it. So, when the end does come, which could be tomorrow or a thousand years from now, you die in a high state. You might not accomplish everything you want to but the present moment is such a space of happiness and joy that you die high. Like being at a show! A few months ago I was playing an Estradasphere gig and we were outside. All of the sudden there was this missile in the air. We were all like, “What the fuck is that!” And I just went back into it because I’m going to keep rocking it. It turned out it was some dud missile that the Air Force had shot off from some base near here. That’s what they told us anyway (we both collapse into laughter).

Who knows if there’s not a crater somewhere else people were making music (more laughter).

There’s no point in being afraid and staying home and not having a good time because we’re just humans. I heard this great quote that said we’re not human beings on a spiritual journey, we’re spiritual beings on a human journey. That’s the truth for me. We’re here for this one time around. Our existence goes to many other places and other times but right now we’re here. It doesn’t matter if we die or if the earth dies. Yes, it’s sad that the earth is being raped and shit but that will just lead to another change that will inevitably lead to good. You just gotta rock it and love everybody up and not be afraid. You might as well because if the shit really goes down and we go to war tomorrow and nuclear bombs start dropping I want to have spent my last moments, and the rest of my life, in a state of…

…as much happiness as possible.

And spreading as much love as possible. And the way I do that is through music.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | Bay Area
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[Published on: 11/30/02]

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