Text & Interview: Andy Fenwick
Photo: Carrie Wilson
25 years ago, in the wake of Seattle, label A&R people raced to whatever American city seemed to have something in the water that created great guitarists and songwriters. Of course, the Internet has ended all that. Young bands these days are best off living where it’s cheapest, putting their music online, and getting in the van.
And yet, for the Pacific Northwest, little has changed, at least when it comes to something in the water producing superlative rock bands. More than most of those bands, Portland’s WIBG stirs almost every influential Pacific northwest band into their heady stew, part psychedelic guitar workout, part tongue-in-cheek surf-a-billy, part apocalyptic cheerleader chant. On their new release Winnie & the Nihilist, they’ve put together a nine-song ode to sunshine, Dead Moon, nihilists, and more than a few women (some on bikes).
Lead by guitarist Justin Fowler and recently rounded out by Dan Galucki (drums), Nathan Moore (bass) and Cory Gray (keyboards), WIDB stuffs each track with slightly unbalanced vocals, often backed by a shaky Greek chorus that can devolve on a dime into female screams, like on “Allison” (is that … Allison?). “Sunshine” closes with a wonderful, full-band freak-out. The best track on the album, “Turned On and Terrified,” supports its excellent title with a fuzzed-out riff and jittery rhythm. The Young Fresh Fellows-esque (Pacific Northwest again!) ditty “Somebody Else” falls as one of the best protest songs of 2017: “Somebody else / is having all the fun … somebody else/is getting all the money … somebody else /is gettin’ in touch with God.”
Yet, despite the fun, guitar-fueled worlds created by “Somebody Else,” or on the daft “Girls on Bikes,” WIBG’s cover of Dead Moon’s “Dead Moon Night” stands as the soul of Winnie & the Nihilist, a record notable, after repeated listens, for a subtle menace beneath its smart-alecky surface, something the immortal, Portland-based Dead Moon cornered well during their long career. Covering Dead Moon isn’t something any band does lightly, and WIDB pulls it off here, doubly significant and poignant considering Dead Moon’s Fred Cole passed away in mid-November 2017.
We spoke with Fowler about nihilists and girls on bikes:
I was literally writing a question about your excellent cover of “Dead Moon Night” when I learned that Fred Cole died. How large did Cole/Dead Moon/Pierced Arrows loom for Portland bands?
They are legends in Portland and some of my biggest heroes. Fred led an amazingly inspiring life.
“Girls on Bikes” takes an odd, even sinister turn – what’s going on there?
It’s probably the dumbest song I’ve ever written so I figured I’d put a little twist in there to keep things interesting.
Is that an 8-bit on “Somebody Else?
What’s the story behind the song “Winnie and the Nihilist?” Is there a Winnie?
There is a Winnie, but the song has nothing to do with her. At the time I needed a good title for a song that’s about a nihilist type of character. I met Winnie and her sister at a music festival after-party. Winnie’s sister is not actually a nihilist, but she has quite a dark sense of humor and loves cigarettes. A few days later in the tour van the title came to me.
Any new toys/amps/sounds used on this new album that you’re especially proud of? I’ve heard a smidge of keys here and there on each of your releases …
I have an ever-growing collection of shitty keyboards and a few nice ones. Our engineer Cory is also our keyboard player with lots of gear. We kind of split keyboard duties on the record. I’ve been really into putting Moog all over stuff. I need to watch myself.
On this new album and on last year’s “How’s Your Favorite Dreamer?” you recorded a few unlikely and fascinating things, like “the Discoverer.” Do you push for new styles/sounds, or are they happy accidents for other reasons?
I’m always experimenting in my studio at home when the dudes are out of town, so I have lots of demos and little instrumentals laying around waiting for homes. I made “The Discoverer” with Cory at his studio.
Talk about the new video – how was it made?
We were on tour and desperate for a video, so we asked our buddy Jared Kurzawa. I’m not sure if he’s ever made a music video before … I think maybe he got really high and made it on his phone but I’m not sure about his methods. At any rate, he did a really good job with no guidance at all. He saved our asses!
There is a Winnie, but the song has nothing to do with her.
You toured like crazy in 2016 – some dates with Built to Spill. Any road stories worth telling? Tough moments? See any wild, unsung bands along the way?
I cut the tip of my pointer finger off on tour with Built to Spill. It was on my fretting hand, so I had to apply super glue and make this cast type of thing every night. The next night after I cut it off we played at Stubbs in front of about 2000 people. I had to drink lots of tequila. We’ve seen so many great bands. We toured with Cool Ghouls, they are righteous dudes and fabulous musicians.
Any new tour plans?
Europe in March!
American bands on European labels is something I’m increasingly seeing. What’re the advantages?
EXAG’ treats us great. It definitely helps us get over to Europe for touring.
You made a good splash at CMJ in 2012, but now CMJ is kaput. C’est a vie, or lament? Is there a west coast equivalent?
I think I’ve only played that one year so I don’t have strong feelings about CMJ, but I’m thankful for the coverage we gained from it. Treefort out of Boise is one of my favorite festivals!