Alaska is a land of extremes — near endless hours of darkness in winter, and the midnight sun of summer. It is also a place of isolation, even in the state’s largest city. Many things just never find its way north — musical trends included.
This, however, has proved advantageous for the Anchorage-based Whipsaws. While the popular musical styles of the moment get batted around like a tennis balls across the net of the Lower 48, The Whipsaws have relied on their own intuition (and the scattered records collections and obscure radio broadcasts they happen upon) to become a hard-driving rock band, albeit, one with some stomp and twang and the ability to mesh that with solid story lines and timeless tales.
"We’re kind of sheltered from what’s going on Outside," explains lead guitarist Aaron Benolkin, who also plays steel guitar, banjo and sings. "Alaska has kind of kept us away to develop on our own, and we’re better off for it."
The Whipsaws cast off the misguided music industry notion of categorization and, in true Alaska pioneer spirit, see boundaries as something to cross, not a place to get held up. Hard and aggressive, crunchy and raw, twangy and roots-deep, subtle and heartfelt — these are all accolades that accurately reflect upon The Whipsaws, driven by attitude, belief and imagination-capturing lyrics.
"If anything we were just kind of experimenting with different sounds, lost pieces lingering in our subconscious. But it ended up being something completely ours," says guitarist and vocalist Evan Phillips of the band’s approach.
"Collectively we’ve found a liberty that doesn’t constrain us to play just one style. If it sounds cool, we’re just going with it and taking chances," Benolkin adds.
And like previous albums, The Whipsaws eponymous third album (due in early 2010) demonstrates the band’s desire for continual growth, but in a manner that means making music with enough integrity that they’d not only want to listen to it, but crank it up so the world can share.
The Whipsaws also represents the solidification of the band’s songwriting approach into a true team effort.
On the band’s first two albums, Ten Day Bender (2006) and 60 Watt Avenue (2008), Phillips came to the table with the bulk of the mostly-completed songs. Drummer James Dommek, Jr. (best known as Junior) contributed a few songs, and everyone chipped in to round out the sound. That is all in the past.
"This is a totally collaborative record," Dommek asserts. "We collaborate on all levels of songwriting, music, lyrics. We all work together to refine the songs, and Ivan comes up with great arrangements."
That would be bassist Ivan Molesky, who joined the band just prior to the recording of 60 Watt Avenue and immediately applied his indie-meets-Motown groove to the band, adding yet another dynamic to an already diverse sound.
"I think outros are my forte," Molesky jokes, "but I tend to be a groove guy. I brought some of that deep bottom end into the rock and roll thing."
The Whipsaws took 60 Watt Avenue to the Lower 48 for three lengthy tours in 2008. The spring tour culminated with appearances at the SXSW Music Festival. Their final gig was as backing Tim Easton (who performed on 60 Watt Avenue) at the Continental Club where Lucinda Williams joined them for a rendition of Bob Dylan’s classic, "Meet Me in The Morning."
Williams was straight to the point about The Whipsaws.
"This is awesome, this is true, earth, down to the roots, bottom of the soul, fucking grease, fucking blues and rock ‘n’ roll right here. ... I’m so fucking impressed. It’s hard to impress me, ya know what I’m sayin’?"
Riding that high, the band immediately made plans to record an EP of new material generated during the tour. Yet, before a solid footing for the project could be established, The Whipsaws were indefinitely put on hold. An injury sustained by Evan, a former guide on America’s highest peak, Denali (Mt. McKinley), had resurfaced, making it painful to walk, let alone perform.
"It was a really big eye opener for me and the band," Phillips says of the forced break.
He still isn’t able to lift his amp, but is "feeling excellent and recharged" right now. Phillips adds that the time off from touring and playing — seven months to be exact — may have actually been a blessing. The band members all had time to dabble in other projects, and reunited well rested, and with renewed vigor and inspiration.
"Coming together again we all kind of felt this great energy to really make something happen," Phillips adds. "We worked hard for seven years, and to just have to stop when we had this momentum… I think we harnessed the fears and anxiety into making a truly powerful record."
Besides devastating hooks, alluring melodies and thinking man’s lyrics that say it without saying it, The Whipsaws bristles with a creative sheen, intense depth and the tight musical interplay of a band excited to be back on the beat.
"It sounds like four guys who’s taken every little bit of music they’ve absorbed over their lives and are throwing it down," Dommek says. "This record is going to show that and prove that we are onto something bigger than ourselves."
~Glenn Burnsilver, September 2009