It wasn’t long ago that you could be a fan of a band without knowing very much about it. There were no tweets, no status updates, no endless teasing of album art, track listings and photos in anticipation of every new release. Bands could be mysterious. I believe the loss of mystery is no help to artists or their admirers. Learning more about a band that I love has never made me like it more, and has often made me like it less.
In my life I have loved many records, but I would still say that the majority of my favorite albums were released in the years 1989 to 1993, the years I went to high school. Nirvana’s Bleach (1989), Depeche Mode’s Violator (1990) and the Breeders’ Last Splash (1993) all come to mind. Music is a huge tool in discovering who we are in our teenage years — with whom we align ourselves, and against. My list of favorite records is decent in size, but since high school I’ve only added a new record every ten years or so: Weezer’s Pinkerton (1996), Jay Z’s The Black Album (2005) and, most recently, White Reaper Does It Again (2015). When I add a record to this illustrious list, I need to not just love it — I have to need it.
I had no idea who these guys were or where they came from. But that was all to change.
I first heard White Reaper Does It Again on a hot day last summer when I stepped into Jackpot Records, one of Portland’s finest vinyl merchants for almost twenty years. The album was playing in the store, and it perked up my ears right away. I was immediately reminded of a few albums I love that had soundtracked my life at the turn of the century: the Strokes’ Is This It (2001) and the Exploding Hearts’ Guitar Romantic (2003). A classic mix of ’70s and ’80s punk, the energy of the band was as high as the fidelity was low. Every instrument was totally distorted, including the singer’s voice; I couldn’t make out what he was saying then and I still barely can — but I don’t need to. From the first time I heard White Reaper Does It Again, I loved it, and it quickly became a record I needed in my life. I listened to it when I was up and when I was down, when I was drunk as fuck or sober as hell. There was no bad mood from which it couldn’t release me, and no good mood it couldn’t lift even higher. Part of what allowed me to love the band was that I had no real context; I had no idea who these guys were or where they came from. But that was all to change.
On a cold, wet morning in spring of 2016, the Thermals flew out of Portland, Oregon, on our nation’s worst airline: Frontier. Over twelve hours and two long-delayed flights later, Westin Glass (drums), Jessica Boudreaux (guitar) and I were sitting on the floor near the baggage claim at Ohio’s Port Columbus International Airport. We’d been on the floor for almost an hour as Kathy Foster (bass) patiently explained to the clerk at Frontier’s baggage counter that her bass had not arrived with the rest of our luggage. Kathy plays a left-handed bass, meaning there would be no way to borrow a bass from another band at the 4th on 4th festival in Columbus, which we were due to play in less than twenty-four hours. We were being paid decently for our appearance, but we weren’t getting rich; we were keeping the lights on in our studio. By the time we were home again Sunday night, we had traveled for close to twenty hours to perform for one hour and pick up a check. Was it worth it? Is it ever? Hard to say. The excitement I still feel about performing live is often lessened by the work and travel it requires. But as I sat exhausted on the airport floor, there was one thing that was keeping me excited about the next day’s show: White Reaper was playing.
Why wouldn’t I want to connect with artists whose music meant so much to me? Simple: I didn’t want the illusion shattered.
I’m rarely excited to see any band perform these days. Usually when a band’s performance captivates me, it’s because I am seeing the group for the first time. I’m thrilled more by discovering a band I’ve never heard of than I am gratified by seeing an old favorite play all its hits. I was excited to see White Reaper play, but I wasn’t excited to meet the members. In the year I had loved the band, I had taken great pains to learn as little as I could about it. I didn’t read the group’s bio, didn’t look at photos of it, didn’t watch any of the band’s videos or live performances. The band was mysterious to me, and I loved it. When I listened to White Reaper Does It Again, I didn’t picture faces; I had no idea what the members looked like. I didn’t think about their personal lives; I had no idea who they were or what they did outside of the band. I was able to hear and enjoy their music with no context, only mystery. The members of my band laughed at me when I told them I didn’t want to meet White Reaper. Why wouldn’t I want to connect with artists whose music meant so much to me? Simple: I didn’t want the illusion shattered.
Meeting White Reaper was, however, inevitable. It seemed like destiny when we finally met — out of eleven bands playing the festival, we coincidentally found ourselves backstage at the exact same time as them. There were four of us and four of them, and not a single other person in the green room. There was no way around it, it was finally time for me to pull back the curtain on my precious mystery and match a face (and personality) with the music.
First off, the dudes in the band were all very friendly. They were a lot younger than I had expected, all in their early twenties. They told us how they had been underage on a few of their first tours, only allowed to be inside the clubs they were playing when they were onstage. They were adorable as well — reminded me of Cheap Trick in the way there were two “goofy” guys (their guitarist and keyboardist) and two “sexy” guys (their rhythm section, twins for Chrissake). They seemed like genuinely sweet guys, a band I could see us going on the road with, if we had any tours booked. To top it all off, they killed it onstage that day, and the energy of their live show matched that of their record. As I watched them, I thought about my pre-conceived notions of the band versus what I was now seeing. I had guessed they would be cool and detached when in reality their attitude was light and unpretentious. They clearly enjoyed performing and seemed to love their songs as much as I (and their adoring audience) did.
Music still touches me strongly, but as I get older it is rare that new music gives me the same deep feelings I had when I was kid.
Music still touches me strongly, but as I get older it is rare that new music gives me the same deep feelings I had when I was kid. So when I find a new record or band that I love, I do all I can to make sure nothing tarnishes the experience. I’m now happy to say that it was awesome to meet the guys in White Reaper, and that although they are no longer a mystery to me, it hasn’t hindered my enjoyment of their music a single bit. I was afraid that after meeting them, I would love White Reaper less, but I couldn’t love it more. In the end I believe that White Reaper Does It Again means so much to me that no external forces — be they personal or political — could change my opinion of it. I don’t expect to truly fall in love a new record anytime soon — like I said, it only happens every ten years or so. When I do, I will still try to let the band retain an air of mystery, at least in my own head. But I won’t be afraid to shatter the illusion, either.
(Photo credit: Michael Powel)