By the estimations of its own members, Raleigh quintet Whatever Brains are not a band that's likely to attract a large audience. But they're not exactly courting one either. To date, the Brains have published virtually nothing about themselves except tour dates and lots of music. Their band photo—at least on that almighty avenue of self-definition and self-promotion, Facebook—is a peace frog suspended in a psychotropic fractal. In fact, as far as anyone remembers, only one official photo featuring all five members of the band exists. It was taken at a tour stop in Pittsburgh; they're not the type to pay for press stills.
"I kind of like not knowing too much about a band," says drummer Evan Williams. "It makes it a little bit more interesting to me, anyway. It makes you want to find out."
Promotion is an ugly chore that no one in this band particularly relishes. For frontman Rich Ivey, the notion of publicity for bands is puzzling at best, annoying at worst. His friends in the Virginia-based Invisible Hand hired a publicist to promote their full-length debut last year. It didn't make them famous as much as it made them the subject of a few forgotten press releases. "Those guys are best of friends," he says. "I love every single one of those dudes. But I'm like, 'I just don't quite understand this decision. I don't understand what you're hoping for.'"
After all, Whatever Brains are about to release their debut LP after a string of well-received 7-inch singles and limited-run CD-Rs and tapes. There's a two-week East Coast tour looming. But, really, these guys have no impulse to angle for wider attention.
"I'm as happy as I've ever been in my life right now," Ivey says. "Band, girlfriend, work—it's all great. I don't care about going somewhere. I don't care about going to play South by Southwest; that's not a goal."
If some one-in-a-million chance comes along, that'd be great, but it might not, and that's OK. Says guitarist William Evans of touring and professional band life, "It's more like going on tour to go on vacation. If people come out to the shows, it's great because we don't have to buy gas. It's great when people like it, but I don't think we're ever going to pay rent doing this."
That apparent lack of ambition doesn't extend to Whatever Brains' music, though: After Ivey and Williams, old friends who've played in lots of other bands, formed the Brains in the summer of 2008, they quickly recorded a messy, brilliant slab of demos released on cassette as Soft Dick City. The fuzz-splattered punk of the cassette and the buoyant, bristling Mt. Whatever 7-inch nabbed nearly instant notice—exuberant coverage from most every local media outlet, a nod on indie tastemaker Pitchfork Media and distribution from the venerable Matador Records. On subsequent 7-inch singles Saddle Up and Nesting, the band sharpened its hooks and broadened its approach. Where tape hiss once muffled capable and smart flourishes, the band began to part the fog of distortion, using frayed guitars as rams to clear space for Ivey's nasal, declarative singing voice.
As Ivey became more comfortable playing melodic parts rather than just chords on guitar, the song "Nesting" also found the band exploring knotty melodies and extending its song lengths. Last year's fourth single, Rapper's Delight, Part II, redefined the band's musical ambition once again: Woozy, lurching guitar lines move around Ivey's sardonic singing—which, as presented on the title track, was a perfect sneer capable of the bitterest sarcasm. When the choruses come, they deliver more force than earlier songs had even suggested.
The band's self-titled LP capitalizes on that momentum, with a range of styles that includes the frantic punk of "Shelves," the wiry pop of "The Stump" and the lo-fi stagger of "Holiday Weekend."
"It usually corresponds with whatever's in high rotation in [Rich's] music listening," says bassist Matt Watson. To wit, Ivey credits The Fall directly for the aggressive pop of "Goldwood."
Even in its most far-reaching guises, the content of the LP is unified by the desire to add something new to an already-open template. "Gross Urge," which debuted as an over-caffeinated guitar-led spree on the way-out-of-print CD-R Trim Jeans, resurfaces here fueled by keyboards, electronic drums and heavily processed vocals—a product of a one-off "new wave" set the band played earlier this year. The update, while immediately recognizable, is anything but redundant. "Blues Lawyer" adopts the crackling hip-hop and brittle folk of Scottish weirdos Country Teasers, brandishing the demo-stage charm of Soft Dick City without the tape-hiss safety net. "Whatever Helps You Sleep Pts. I & II" again recalls Country Teasers, nodding to that band's knack for brutal cynicism as Ivey leads the Brains into a near-theatrical refrain: "We pray your son's gay, and your daughter marries black, and your husband joins the Taliban."
"Working on a track list took a little while, but after that work I feel like it has a flow to it," Ivey admits of the toil it took to make the band's jumpy nature with songs feel less erratic on a full record. The album's variety could be a hurdle, but mostly it's a boon. "You get bored playing the same kind of song over and over."
Says Evans with a laugh, "This way, people won't expect anything in particular. It's all about lowering expectations."
Whatever Brains added keyboardist Hank Shore in 2010, and the potential for fuller, bolder sounds offered by a fifth member is well exploited here, on songs like "Gross Urge" and the eerie, agitated "Withnail," though in wildly different ways. Fundamental traits—like skewed, jutting guitar melodies, rhythmic counterpoint and Ivey's snotty vocals—are consistent throughout the album, but that's about it. While the songs all sound different, they somehow all sound like Whatever Brains.
"I've been in bands before where it's like, 'Uh, this is a cool-sounding song, but it doesn't sound like the band, so we can't use it,'" Evans says. "In this band, if we like it, we'll play it."
That's a hard trait to market, though. It doesn't fit easy categorization, except in nebulous terminology like "punk" or "garage," which have long outgrown their usefulness. "I don't think we have a wide enough appeal for a [large record label] to make sense to put out our record," Evans continues. "Maybe we'll engage some paradigm shift of what popular music sounds like."
Most likely, though, Whatever Brains will stay the course. "Having labels," Ivey begins before correcting himself, "having friends who run record labels is pretty instrumental to getting our records out." Sorry State Records, an imprint run by pal and local punk rock journeyman Daniel Lupton, will release the band's debut. Ivey concedes, though, that if nobody is willing to put out the next Whatever Brains record, the band would eventually do it themselves. But the idea of helping—and accepting help from—friends is crucial to Whatever Brains' operation. Tours are routed based on cities in which friends live. Watson compares being in the band to having a girlfriend. "You have a commitment, except it's awesome," he says. "We all get to hang out. Nobody hates spending time on it."
But it's just as important to have time away from the band—to go to work or go to school, to nurture other relationships, to be in other bands. Evans, Williams and Watson all play in the hardcore band Shards. Shore plays in the new garage rock band Nantan Lupan. Ivey plays sporadically with members of Invisible Hand in the long-running Order.
"The road's great," Ivey says. "It's a great vacation. You don't want to be on vacation all the time, though."