I attended the first show Whitman ever performed in January 2005, when the former venue Redrum was still in this small upstairs facility. Musically, they played it safe as those first songs were this mellow indie rock that almost crossed over to experimental territory.
Vocalists Ram Vela and Ryan Ermis appeared timid and unsure of their voices. In the first release Anhedonia Falling (2005), both guys held back which made their voices sound strained. However, the potential that this could be a great band was evident.
Shortly after Torch Songs was released in 2008, seeing them live was like watching a brand new band. It was like the guys took the original Whitman sound and intensified it. The new Whitman was getting comfortable playing on stage, and with each other. The liveliness of the songs obviously showed they were having a great time being rockstars.
Vela conveys his vibrant personality that everyone knows and loves into the delivery of his vocals, which gives him an approachable frontman stage presence. The biggest shocker, however, was the normally quiet guy, Ermis, belting out his high notes in “For Heaven Sake” with such an excited grin on his face. Even now, he still keeps to himself off stage. But once he’s on stage, he lets his inhibitions run free.
Five tours and three album releases later, Whitman is a solid indie rock band that has come a long way since that first show. Recently, I got together with the band to chat about the last couple of years since I gave them their first interview. It was just like old times, full of laughter and silliness. Nevertheless, we did get down to business and talked about the recording of their upcoming release Culdesac, and how far these guys think they’ve really come as a band.
We’ll start with Eric. How did you come into the band?
Ryan: Where are you from?
Eric: I’m from Ohio. That’s important information actually. I skipped that. I was looking at bands on Craigslist and I eventually lost my faith in that. Then I had some close friends tell me not to give up on it so I tried it one more time. I found these three.
Ram: We posted a listing on Craigslist and we tried out about five or six drummers and was down to two really nice guys. We chose him because we knew he was a better fit for our style of music. It worked out really well. Plus your kit sounds amazing.
Eric: Aw shucks.
Kyle: He’s been an awesome addition to the band. It’s been a long time since we played. The three of us have been the core members since we started Whitman. It’s been a long time since we had a fourth member that really felt like they’re a part of the band. We’ve been going through the alternating drummer thing and we were really lucky to find Eric. We clicked on a personal level really quick.
Ram: Yeah, I’ll never forget at that first tryout he came to. I immediately wanted to go over to his house afterwards and just hang out with him and just shoot the shit with him. After all, we do the same thing as our day jobs. That was just kind of weird. He’s a teaching assistant for a special ed class and I’m as well teaching a special ed class. I just wanted to talk to him. We hit it off really well.
Eric: Now we’re friends.
This can be on or off the record, what happened to Trevor?
Kyle: Nah, it’s fine. It’s on the record/off the record. Trevor actually passed away.
Oh really? I didn’t know that. I’m sorry.
Ram: Yeah, fell off a cliff. Died.
For Torch Songs, was Eric a part of the recording process?
Kyle: No, Trevor was the drummer on Torch Songs. There’s soon to be a youtube video a fan put together for us about the making of Torch Songs. So you can see us in action in the studio. We actually haven’t been in the recording studio with Eric yet. Can’t wait.
So Eric didn’t record with the other EP you’re currently going to release?
Ram: No, that was this guy named Scott Coffman.
Kyle: And more of a hired studio drummer to help us with the EP.
Ram: He’s sort of like Max Wienberg, a drummer super hero.
So how recently was it when you joined?
Eric: Um, May-ish?
Kyle: Four months ago. That’s my guessimate.
Ram: He joined in late May.
Kyle: You’ve played five shows with us.
Eric: It was late May. I started auditioning in the middle of May somewhere.
Ram: So we drilled him for about a month to a month and a half before he actually played his first show on July 8th.
Kyle: Boot camp.
Ram: And it was a really successful show.
Kyle: And he’s held it down ever since. It was like he was born to be in this band.
Eric: It’s natural. It’s just the chemistry. Even in bands I’ve been in before, I hadn’t had the chemistry that I have now with these three guys. So far so good.
Ram: Sometimes we have sleepovers.
Eric: We pop popcorn.
Ram: We pop popcorn. We stay up all night watching movies.
Kyle: We watch old movies. Casablanca.
Ram: Gone with the Winds. You have to put this in the interview by the way. I’ll never forget. Our first tryout with him, Kyle asked this question. “So Eric, uh, how’s your situation with alcohol? You an alcoholic? You do a few pill poppin?” He’s like “Well, I’ll be honest with you. No, I don’t but if you have weed, I’ll smoke it and if you have beers, I’ll drink them.”
Kyle: We were blown away. Carried us away.
Eric: It was like a moment of silence.
Kyle: Lifted off our feet.
Ram: It was like “If you have beers, hey I have some beers. Let’s drink them.” So yeah, it’s good times.
Kyle: Obviously, we’ve had problems in the past with drummers with substance abuse.
Ram: Yeah. I don’t see that happening in the foreseeable future with this kid. Not this one. He’s not going to blow up anytime soon.
Kyle: Apple of our eye. All right. That was fun.
When did you release Torch Songs?
Kyle: It came out in February 2007 on Senora Records which was the same local label that put out our split EP Nothin to Do So I’m Doing Nothin. It came out and we toured the country three times on Torch Songs. It opened a lot of doors for us. We got to meet some really good people and some great bands. It couldn’t have been better for us. It came out at the right time. We’ve been riding it’s momentum all the way until today.
Ram: In fact, we went on five total.
Kyle: We’ve been on five tours total.
Ram: Four tours to support that record.
Kyle: That’s true. You’re right.
Ram: Two summer tours, East coast and the midwest for that record.
Ryan: Yeah, you’re right.
Kyle: I know that we’ve been a band for a long time. Obviously we’ve grown as musicians and as a band but I really feel that putting out Torch Songs and hitting the road in the way we did is what solidify what we do and how we write songs. I really don’t feel that we were Whitman until we did that.
Ram: We toured. Til we saw the Pacific. Til we saw the other ocean.
Ryan: The Atlantic.
Ram: The Atlantic.
Kyle: Baptized in asphalt.
Ram: Yeah, Canada was awesome man.
Kyle: You take that one.
Ryan: We worked really shitty jobs that weren’t too important and we could take time off.
Kyle: It’s a matter of priorities.
Ryan: Yeah, exactly.
Kyle: We did what we needed to do.
Ram: Flexibility is key.
Kyle: When you wake up in the morning, you just got to ask if you want to go to work or if you want to go on tour. At the time, for the people that were in the band, tour was the answer.
Eric: I’ve yet to do the first tour.
Kyle: You’ve been to San Marcos.
Eric: I’ve been to San Marcos. That’s true.
Ram: And about in a week and a half, he’s going to Rio Grande Valley. That’s 300 miles away.
Kyle: Get his first taste.
Ram: First taste of road.
Eric: First mini-taste. Yeah.
Kyle: He’s itching. He needs to go on tour.
Eric: I’m itching. That’s right.
Eric: It’s just eating away at me.
Ram: Yeah, we’re gonna eat some Mexican food. We’re gonna get all fucked up. Awesome.
You just recorded your EP. Who did you record with? What was the process like?
Kyle: It was recorded at Jacketweather Studio under David Dreesen, the same producer who put out Torch Songs and we actually went into the studio to record demos. The entire EP is called Culdesac. It is recorded live. The only rule we had in the recording process is if it could be done pre-1972, we could do it. Those were our rules. So we did everything analog. We did everything live all together in the same room. We did it just to have demos but we really felt that it captured a side of us that we hadn’t recorded and captured before. We were really impressed with the results so we decided under lots of fans’ demands to put it out.
Ram: It was a 72 hour session, just a weekend in the studio and we recorded it live. We’re pretty happy with it. Pretty happy with it. Ryan, you wanted to put an overdub on something, Dreesen would be like, “No, we’re not doing that.”
Ryan: It was very strict. On one little part, I wanted to add a 3rd harmony but since we wouldn’t do it like that live, it just got shot down right away. So there’s nothing more than two part harmonies but we’re really happy with the results.
Ram: We like to capture our live show, our energy that we possess live on that EP. I hope it shows.
Kyle: I think it changed our recording philosophy a lot. I mean Torch Songs was a labor of love and I think we’re all very proud of it, but I think Culdesac really showed us a different side of ourselves that we were really impressed to find and really excited about. Which is one reason why we want to put it on vinyl. Cause it’s the perfect record to be put on vinyl.
Ram: Yes, we discovered the G chord.
Kyle: So if anyone wants to help us put it out on vinyl, speak now.
Ram, I read on myspace you jammed with Weezer.
Ram: *hesitates* Yeah. I won a contest on 101X.
Kyle: (mocking Ram) Yeah.
No big deal.
Ram: Yeah. It was fun.
What song did you do?
Ram: Well, 101X had this contest. Weezer came through town and that was just an opportunity for some of their fans to just come on on stage and jam with them. All I had to do was jam “Beverly Hills” and “Island in the Sun” and yeah, I got to meet Brian Bell.
Kyle: But to win the contest you had to cover some songs.
Ram: Oh yeah, to win the contest, I had to… it was weird. I was on my way to Central Market and a girl was like “You got to prove to me you play guitar. You gotta play ‘El Scorcho’ or ‘Beverly Hills’ or ‘Island in the Sun.’” Well fuck, do you think you can wait until 9:30 because I’m gonna get some green chili sauce for the green chili enchiladas I’m going to make for my kids tomorrow so I gotta be home in a certain hour. Can you wait that long? “Yeah, just call me back before 10.” So I called back the DJ at 9:30, played a little “El Scorcho.” “You’re on the list.” I’m like fuck yeah, this is an awesome opportunity to promote Whitman. Gave Weezer a Whitman CD. So I gave Brian Bell a Whitman cd. I gave Pat Wilson a Whitman cd. I touched River Cuomo’s leg.
Kyle: There’s an awesome picture of it.
Ram: Awesome picture. The guy is creepy looking dude.
Kyle: None of us could afford to go watch Ram.
Ram: It’s on YouTube. It was really fun. I’m glad they got a copy of Torch Songs.
Anything come out from giving them cds?
They didn’t say anything?
Ram: Well, I wasn’t the one doing that. Of course, the guys that got picked had their demos. Oh fuck, it’s like being a trail donkey to one of them. I was like second on the list from some guy. “Here Brain, I want you to have this.” Fuck, I’m right behind him. So I’m like Here Brian, I want you to have this. So it’s right after another band, but then I was like he didn’t even give him a t-shirt. I had a Whitman t-shirt so I was like Have a Whitman t-shirt too. He’s like “Oh, thanks.”
Kyle: You know, what came out of it was two weeks later, when Brian Bell came back from tour, his little six year old son listened to Torch Songs and spent the next three months running around going “It’s bacon when I’m hungry. Whiskey when I’m dry.” Guarantee it. I don’t know that for a fact.
Ram: Overall, it was a fun time, man. Playing with one of the first bands I started listening to as a kid.
What else are you up to? Any new tours in the future or are you going to wait for the new EP to be released?
Kyle: We’re gonna wait for the new EP to come out. We’re writing songs and we’re kind of planning on laying low until we get enough material for another record.
Ram: Yeah, focusing on playing local shows. This is actually the probably the best time to be playing local shows. These are the best local shows we’ve ever played. We’re playing to very big crowds as of late, which is great. People are coming to the shows. It seems like our fan base more than doubled since our last tour. It’s just great to see everybody’s happy faces from the stage, you know. It’s good times.
Kyle: I think when Torch Songs came out, we all decided that Austin was a hard city to make things happen. So we intentionally left, to go out into the world and find a fan base and we did. We literally have fans all over the country. A lot of independent bands who were in our position can’t say that. I think we came back home to a really warm welcome that we didn’t expect and that’s been really awesome. I guess you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone.
Ram: Please. Oh my god. Did you just quote Cinderella?
Kyle: I did.
Ram: *starts singing* “You don’t know what you got until it’s gone.” I’ve been saying that the last couple of days. It’s so true though. Shit, man. Power balladry. Thing of brilliance and cheese.
We’ll do fun band question time. You’re all going to pick a band member, you can’t pick the same one. And you’re going to tell me what you think they bring into the band, musically or whatever. Who’s going first?
Ram: Oh shit.
Kyle: I’ll go first. I’m going to choose Ryan. Ryan is a walking musical encyclopedia. It’s the best analogy I can come up with. He’s got a natural skill for writing pop song. He’s very good at taking ideas provided by other members and helping with crafting them into what we put out as a finish product. He’s our details man and he’s good at it. Real good. You hear me Hollywood?
Ram: He’s great. I’m gonna pick Ryan too. I think he’s a good looking guy. He makes us look really good. So does Kyle. Now that Kyle’s married, it doesn’t really count. Ryan’s not married so he’s good looking. That’s pretty much it.
Eric: Uh, I guess I’ll be the original one here and I’ll pick Ryan. No, I’m going to go with Ram. Even before I met these three guys for my first audition, I listened to their music. Although I didn’t know at the time that Ram was the main songwriter of the group, he’s talented. He has such a vision.
Ram: Make me sound like David St. Hubbins from Spinal Tap right now. “He’s a visionary.”
Eric: I was getting there. I’m just blown away by the songs he brings to the table.
Kyle: I would describe Ram as a mute conductor. He has no idea how to talk to people but he knows what he wants to do.
Eric: There you go. That’s very true.
Ram: That’s a really good point and going back to Ryan. I’ll come up with some sort of idea and if it wasn’t for Ryan to help me process that idea and break it down into some sort of sense, a song would actually have some sort of structure. Give it some life and has something. Kyle, we’ve been best friends for as long as I can remember. When I look at you on stage, man…
Kyle: I feel like I’m at a funeral.
Ram: When I look at your on stage, man, my heart just warms up. We could be playing in front of a crowd of 300 people or a crowd of five and I could just be jamming out thinking about how great I feel just to be your friend, to be Ryan’s friend and to be Eric’s new buddy, dude.
Kyle: Please don’t print that. I’m just kidding.
Ryan: Let’s see. I’ll do Kyle. Kyle kind of steers this ship. Kind of keeps us on track and make sure we’re always what we’re headed for. And musically, Kyle’s the one who kind of keeps us from getting stale. Ram and I have a lot of pop ideas and Kyle has a different way of thinking about music. He’s good at making that extra element that makes it different, makes it unique but doesn’t make it sound like everything else. Even the instruments he plays. He plays a Rhodes which not everyone does. He plays it through a distortion pedal which not everyone does. He just has a very unique way of thinking about music.
Ram: Yeah, that’s why we’re very eager to get back in the studio because we could probably use some band fucking damage if we all just put our heads together.
Kyle: And I think we’ve already done a good job of describing what Eric means to us. It’s a young relationship but he’s more than filled the shoes left behind and we’re just feel really lucky to have him. I think slowly but surely he’s going to become our heartbeat and keep us in time.
Ram: And the backbone, the colon. The 4th member.
Ryan: Yeah, I think Eric’s a really good drummer. I honestly think he’s probably the best drummer we ever had. So if that’s anything, then there’s a lot to come in the future.
Ryan, I had a question for you.
Ryan: What’s that?
I remember the first time you sang at that first show , you were really timid and shy, and kind of nervous. When I heard you recently, you’re belting it out. How did it progress? Did you take lessons?
Did you just kept screaming and yelling until you got comfortable?
Ryan: I think it’s just figuring out our sound and getting more comfortable as a band. Getting more comfortable to what I need to be singing and how I need to be singing it. Same thing with Ram. He’s changed a lot too.
Ram: If you listen to Anhedonia Falling and you listen to Torch Songs, it’s like whoa, this is different. That’s because when you start out, you don’t know how… I personally didn’t know how to sing. I didn’t.
Ryan: We’re just getting more comfortable with how our voices fit in with the band, where we need to be singing and what we need to be singing. It’s just a learning process. Every instrument, not just the voices, but every instrument had to find it’s place.
Ram: And five years down the road, we found our place vocally.
Ryan: You know, you can really hear the evolution on the records too. Torch Songs is a million miles from Anhedonia Falling.
The first time I heard it, I was like “Are these the same guys?”
Kyle: You’ll have the same moment when you get the EP.
Ram: And if you come to a show, you’ll have the same moment as well.
Kyle: Life’s about changing, man.
Ryan: We’ve grown a lot as musicians together. One thing about this band, it seems to always be getting better. It hasn’t gotten stale. The song writing hasn’t gotten stale. It’s just always on the up and up. We’re fortunate.
Kyle: If it ever did, I think that we would realize it, especially between me, Ram and Ryan. It’s been a relationship that is just forever accelerating with one another musically. There’s really no idea or turn we could take in a song in music that we wouldn’t follow each other down. I think that’s become a very important part of how we work together.
Whitman will release Culdesac on December 19th exclusively on vinyl.