River Whyless lugs backroads Americana, DIY savvy, and open minds cross-country
The members of River Whyless may be as nervous as they are excited about their forthcoming—and first—nationwide tour, at least according to drummer Alex McWalters. Fortunately, the quartet from Asheville, N.C. hasn’t had much time to fret. “It’s all us,” McWalters explains. “We’re doing literally everything this time around.”
McWalters and his band mates are so preoccupied with doing everything a record label and a public relations representative would do for a group—conducting interviews, booking gigs, burning CDs, making T-shirts, designing stickers, and redesigning their website—that they haven’t had much time to stress about the cross-country trek, which will make a stop at Streetlight Records and The Blue Lagoon on Wednesday, Sept. 28.
The band decided to drop its record label after the release of its first album, which was recorded under the moniker Do it to Julia. “It was a really frustrating experience all around,” says McWalters, of their former representation. So, they struck out on their own, and so far things have been going well, thanks to the division of labor.
Though most at home behind the drum kit, McWalters has been handling all press matters; Ryan O’Keef—the band’s singer and songwriter—is the band’s sound engineer, mixing their sophomore record; bassist Matt Rossino is the booking agent; and the group’s violinist, Halli Anderson, is working on their website and designing T-shirts and album covers.
The DIY attitude is particularly fitting for River Whyless—the group’s homespun folk-rock conjures visions of a hand-stitched quilt, woven with strains of hill-folk fiddle and insulated with wavering gospel organ or smooth slide guitar.
The result is a patchwork of Americana, which is at once reflective of old Appalachian traditions, the folk movement of the ’60s, contemporary alt-country groups, such as the Avett Brothers, and even gives a nod to electronic music.
On tracks like “Implosion” and “Pigeon Feathers,” the band breaks into what McWalters calls “a human drum machine”—each member plays his or her own rhythmic portion of a larger beat by clicking sticks or banging on a closet door or trash can. The product is a fragmented, yet cohesive beat, which appears to be produced by a machine, even as the individual sounds are unmistakably organic.
“Percussion is something that we all liked,” McWalters says. “We’re just trying to keep it fresh insofar as thinking of different ways to express a beat.”
The story behind River Whyless’ tour also fits into the narrative of a self-made band. After a serendipitous meeting at a bluegrass showcase in Manhattan, a promoter from San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival asked the group to play this year.
McWalters says that the entire tour sprung up from the chance encounter. Rossino started booking shows—a line of more than 30 gigs from their home near the Blue Ridge Mountains, all the way to the foggy polo grounds of Golden Gate Park, and back.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it a little bit,” McWalters says of the tour. “I don’t really know how it happened to us.”
He and his band mates are just thankful to have the opportunity. Even if they don’t see a return on their investment, McWalters says, that was never the point.
“We’re going to have a few songs to give out, meet some cool people, and play some shows,” he says. “We’re keeping our minds open, and we’re excited to see what the rest of the country looks like.”
Maybe they’ll find a new home, he muses, sounding like a rambling musician. “It’s not something we’ve talked about at length, but there’s nothing stopping us from making a move.”
River Whyless performs at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28 at Streetlight Records, 939 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. No Cover. The band also plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28 at The Blue Lagoon, 923 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $5. 423-7117.